Thursday, 6 August 2015

Let's talk about weed

I'm going to write about an issue I haven't written about before, partly due to a large amount of recent press about the subject, and also due to recent personal events which are relevant to the subject matter.

The issue I'm talking about is marijuana, in this instance medicinal marijuana specifically.

A lot of people will have noticed that a petition on the official government petitions website, calling for the legalisation of weed, has reached nearly 200,000 signatures, nearly twice the number needed to be considered for debate in Parliament. While I believe marijuana should be legal for all uses, including recreational (for adults), I'm going to focus on the need to legalise marijuana for medicinal purposes and explain my own story relating to this.

I am an epilepsy patient, and I was diagnosed with Temporal Lobe Epilepsy when I was 17 years old (25 now), due to a lesion on one of my hippocampi. As a result, I have never had a drivers' license, have had more trips to the hospital than I should at my age, and have been on medications with some rather severe side effects. When I was 19, I dropped out of university due to the side effects of my medication. I never had any energy, I persistently felt like the skin was slowly melting off my cheekbones, and I was persistently depressed. Getting out of bed was a struggle. I sometimes spent 14-16 hours in bed in a single day.

Eventually, I unilaterally stopped taking my medication because of the impact of the side effects on my life. Soon after that, I started smoking weed recreationally. I didn't make the link at the time because of my general ignorance about medicinal marijuana, but my seizures disappeared around the same time. For about 3 years, I was seizure free without prescription medication, until my supply of weed stopped. And again, I didn't make the link at the time, but my seizures returned shortly afterwards. I returned to my doctor and I was put on my current medication, which I've been on since. It's somewhat effective, but far short of entirely. Apart from a very subtle sapping of my energy levels, it's been, superficially at least, side-effect free (read on about this).

Now, despite my supply of weed in that time being sporadic, I've still noticed, and started connecting the dots, that my use of weed is correlated exactly with an absence of seizures. Even after forgetting to use my regular medication due to being stoned, I never had a seizure (and bear in mind that withdrawal from anti-epileptic medication can induce seizures in itself). I started doing some reading, and found some convincing papers regarding its use on temporal lobe epilepsy. I know that this works for me, but it's illegal for me to use it in this country.

Meanwhile, in recent months, I've been dragged into the doctors' surgery over and over trying to diagnose the cause of abnormal liver test results (done as a routine test because, you know, these medications can fuck your liver). Yesterday, I was diagnosed with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, as a direct result of my use of this medication. It's something that won't go away so long as I depend on this medication, and it's something I'll have to constantly look over my shoulder to avoid exacerbating to prevent the disease from progressing. In other people, this medication is known to cause nausea, fever, life threatening skin conditions, depression, anxiety, drowsiness, suicidal ideation, blurred vision, etc. etc... And this is supposed to be safer than marijuana?

I know that marijuana works in my case, and in many other peoples'. But rather than allow me to explore its potential uses as an alternative to a medicine that is literally slowly destroying my liver, I'm told that doing so is a criminal offence. Think what you will about recreational use, but as a medicine, marijuana is invaluable, and for many people, the only effective or safe lifeline to a normal functioning life.

Monday, 13 July 2015

A few thoughts on EU regulation

A lot is often said by Eurosceptics about the regulation of products and services in the UK. Everything from safety of electrical appliances down to the standard strength and durability you can expect from a condom are regulated by the EU, and are uniform across the EU's member states. Seriously, look at the big CE marking on the back of your condom wrappers.

But is this a good thing? Why do we need Brussels to make regulations for us? Can't we decide how strong condoms should be ourselves?

Well yes, in theory, we could. But this is where the power of being in a single market comes in. Manufacturers for, let's continue with the theme, condoms, will often have clients in multiple different EU states, if not selling across the whole EU. This means the condoms can be created and tested to a single standard (for example, not breaking under x amount of tension and having a specific testing regimen, such as 1 condom out of each thousand being chosen at random for testing), making the process more efficient and economical than manufacturing to 28 different standards and testing regimens. The product can then be sold anywhere in the EU.

But what if the UK left the EU and created its own condom durability and testing standards? The same manufacturers would need to set up their own production line building them to a different standard, and then, say, testing the exact thousandth condom in each line instead of a random 1 in 1,000 condoms being tested. This makes the process of manufacturing for the UK market less economical. And as a result, consumers would be able to expect the price of condoms to rise, as manufacturers have to adopt unique regimens for making condoms for our market, or perhaps declining to have to carry out this uneconomical practice of making for our market in addition to the European market, and thus reducing the competitiveness of our market. It is likely that our own regulations would have to mirror EU rules just to remain competitive. Which begs the question, why not just stay in the EU?

Saturday, 9 May 2015

The Flow Hive

For the past few months, I've been asked again and again to give my thoughts on the "Flow" Hive, a new design of hive from Australian beekeepers who claim that it allows the beekeeper to extract honey without disturbing the bees. I've decided to write this to consolidate my opinions and take on this in a single place I can refer people to instead of repeating myself every couple of weeks or so.

To someone who knows little or nothing about beekeeping, the images, videos, and explanation of the concept seem to be amazing, but I'm going to explain why, from my perspective as a beekeeper, it's all hype about nothing, and this "invention" will not change anything for beekeepers, and after a few years will either be forgotten entirely, or joked about at beekeepers' association meetings as one of those passing fads that hits beekeeping every so often.

Disturbing the bees

I may as well start with rebutting the central idea of this design, and work outwards from there. The basic premise of the flow hive is that the beekeeper can extract the honey without disturbing the bees. In the UK and the rest of Europe, most of North America, and most other places for that matter, beekeepers have to inspect their hives once per week between late April and early August, and this involves removing the supers (the boxes that carry the extractable honey), and lifting frames out of the brood box, the central area of the hive. The weekly routine of a beekeeper is in itself more disruptive than if the beekeeper simply took the super frames away - immediately making the notion of investing significant money into this design something of a moot point.

What's more, beekeepers have already invented methods, which are now considered standard, of removing honey with minimum disruption to the bees. A board is placed between the brood and the supers to be removed, which the bees can pass downwards (towards the brood nest), but not upwards. Since the colony's pheromone gradient is towards the brood nest, they will all inevitably move downwards within 48 hours, leaving the supers empty of bees for the beekeeper to lift them away without disruption. The process described on their kickstarter page involving brushing the bees off the frames is something that can be done when in a hurry to remove the honey, but is certainly not a regular process for most beekeepers.

Honey maturation

One of the main concerns a beekeeper has about their honey is that it needs to be ripened sufficiently to be taken from the hive. Bees ripen nectar into honey by eating it, mixing it with enzymes, and then regurgitating it, while evaporating the vast majority of the moisture contained in the liquid - nectar is typically 50-80% water, while honey is only 14-18%.

Extract the honey prematurely, and it will ferment, and is not legally saleable as honey. Beekeepers have two methods of checking ripeness of honey - when the comb is capped over with wax, then the honey is certainly ripe. Honey can also be removed before it's capped if the beekeeper uses a refractometer to check for water ratio. Either way, this involves opening the hive, thus going back to the above point.

Furthermore, honey can be over-ripened, so to speak. Most people will notice that all honey, left long enough, will eventually set and crystallise. The rate at which this occurs depends on the floral source of the honey, and thus its chemical composition. Some of the major crops in Europe and the USA, primarily oilseed rape, aka canola, produce honeys which can completely set in a matter of days as opposed to months or years. If the timing of removing and extracting this honey is slightly offset, because of beekeeper illness, inclement weather, or a myriad of other reasons, the flow hive frame will be ruined, and these are expensive things. On a regular frame, the beekeeper would simply cut the comb out, crush and filter the wax and honey, and replace the frame with fresh foundation - a total material cost of the foundation, about 80p per frame, as opposed to god knows how much those complex frames will cost.

Honey extraction

Another purported benefit of the flow hive is that the honey is less time consuming and effortless to extract. I have an extractor that can process 4 frames at a time, and each frame batch takes roughly 5 minutes or so to process. At any given time, I'll spend maybe half an hour to 45 minutes cranking the extractor, and then leave the honey straining through a filter. I won't go as far as to say it's effortless, but it's no worse than standing around twiddling my thumbs while a highly viscous fluid flows out into a jar.

Economics

The kickstarter features a full flow hive as a reward for $600USD. This is likely to be around the final market price of the product. Currently, beekeepers can purchase a flatpacked wooden hive for around £160 ($230), and a poly hive for around £80-100 ($140). For a beekeeper working with more than maybe one or two hives (and without an affluent budget to start up a single hive operation, I'll add), the flow hive is simply not economically feasible. As a semi-commercial beekeeper expanding by between half a dozen and a dozen hives each year, I simply couldn't afford to expand using Flow hives.

Bee havers and beekeepers

There's a recent phenomenon, particularly since the "save the bees" hype,  of people who try to get into beekeeping, but who simply cannot make the commitment actually involved in being a beekeeper. A lot of beekeepers have started to call these people "bee havers". Beekeeping does involve a lot of hard work. Bees do need to be routinely inspected. Bees carry disease (that can spread to other beekeepers in the area), bees swarm (which can be a nuisance to neighbours), and bees can have a myriad other problems that can be rectified by a beekeepers' intervention. The bee-having movement, if one can call it that, is problematic for the image of beekeepers. Irresponsible morons getting a hive and neglecting them, allowing the bees to be a nuisance to neighbours through aggression or swarming (both of which can be corrected by the beekeeper), spread of disease, etc., and I fear that this "innovation" has given new impetus to these people and given them a new tool to encourage them into the field.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Railway station etiquette

After being delayed by a couple holding hands and walking slowly in front of me at Liverpool Central, which caused me to miss the train again, I decided to write this.

1. If you intend to stand, stand to the right on the escalator. This allows people who are in more of a hurry to pass you on the left
2. If you are walking slowly, do not walk in double file. Walkways and escalators are often narrow and people need to catch their train or get out of the building. Have your offspring stand in front of you; not to the side
3. If someone asks to get past you, they are not being rude. They just have somewhere to be. The train guard isn't going to keep the doors open while they wander slowly behind you while you hold your partner's hand
4. Allow people to get off the train before you try to ram yourself in past people
5. A disabled space is for disabled people. It is not for your luggage or a pram. Be prepared to move either if a wheelchair user boards. Don't throw a hissy fit about it. This also applies to other forms of public transport including buses
6: If you violate any of these rules and someone barges past you after a polite request to stand aside, blame yourself.