04 January 2006


New Year, New Hangover

According to certain academics this week is supposed to be the most depressing of the year. Then again I'm sure I remember hearing the same said about other days and weeks of last year. So just be glad that whenever you're feeling depressed there's probably an academic out there who has worked out a formula to tell you that, on your specific day of feeling like it's not worth getting out of bed, then the majority of the world's population are feeling the same (those of them that have beds of course). This is, of naturally, notwithstanding certain academics in my own circle who are frequently the cause of said depression and homicidal tendencies.

Just so as to avoid coming across as a complete misery guts, I actually had a fairly good (i.e. quiet) Xmas with my family, and a great (i.e. loud and alcoholic) New Year. Thanks to the RMT several of my London-centric friends opted to join me and others in
Brighton (we're all ex Sussex Uni students) rather than risk getting stuck in the middle of London, and the usual packed trains to the coast were all but empty so I actually had a carriage to myself on the normally-incredibly-busy Bedford to Brighton line. Good luck with the industrial action guys, and thanks for a stress-free trip and a great New Year!

Anyway, the first rant of the year concerns that group of deceased miners in the US and their 'going-to-sue-'cos-that's-all-we-can-do' families. 9/11 aside, it's funny how we on this side of the pond tend to view incidents in the US with an atitude that could be described as less than sympathetic, and I think in this case I know why.

Consider the facts. There was an explosion in a tunnel somewhere deep underground, the cause of which will probably be found to be the ignition of a pocket of methane gas (unless Bin Laden's been at it again or Karl Rove thought that the US could benefit from a bit of timely tsunami sympathy of course). Now chemistry tells me that methane reacts with oxygen roughly as follows:

2CH4 + 3O2 => 2CO + 4H2O (we can argue over a bit of CO2 being in there somewhere)

Now breathing carbon monoxide (CO) was never going to keep them alive for long, and that's assuming they survived the tunnel collapse. Even if sufficient oxygen were available, CO is absorbed more readily into the blood, leading to lethargy, loss of cognitive function, and ultimately a slow but fairly painless death. I'm not trying to make out that the rescue attempt was futile or pointless, indeed anyone prepared to risk their lives in a confined and unstable space undeground deserves a medal or two for bravery, but it was the subsequent behaviour of some of the families and their church that I find great trouble sympathising with.

Last night Radio 5 Live were reporting that the families were holding a 'vigil' at their local church. When I hear the word 'vigil' I tend to think of the standard definition involving solemnity, mutual support, consolation, and maybe a few candles and prayers for those so-inclined. This morning, following the sad but predictable news that at least 12 of the 13 miners had died, the same radio station played an interview with someone at this 'vigil', and it sounded somewhat far from quiet and solemn. Oh yes, it was the great American evangelists at it again. 'God is great! God will/has saved them! God has had mercy on their souls!' and all the usual toe-curling crap.

What, might you ask, is likely to be the effect on someone attending such a 'vigil' once they're brought back down to Earth by reality? Peace? Comfort? Understanding? Goodwill to all men? Errr, no. Furthermore, when somehow the news that 'they've been found' gets passed up the chain and somehow becomes 'they've been found alive' (as now seems to have been the case) we have a case of a group of scared and hysterical believers being lifted up to a great emotional height by a positive feedback loop of crowd behaviour and false belief (in both senses) and then suddenly dumped on their arses. Hope in the face of adversity is a great thing, but any pastor who sees fit to exhalt his followers into a state of grateful exuberance before the proof is walking out of the mine in front of them has a case to answer.

In the blame culture of the US we know this will lead to a court case or two, but who should the families sue? There may well be a justifiable claim against the owners of the mine if the accident was the result of a lack of poor health and safety procedures, or if someone in a critical position in the chain of command did not implement them correctly, but that's pure speculation right now. In previous cases in the US relatives have sued the rescuers themselves, which leads me to wonder how long it will be before members of the emergency services will refuse to offer assistance without first signing an indeminity certificate, and how many lives wil be lost as a result. However, in this case it seems that the families will turn their fire on the media, and eventually we may discover who added the word 'alive' to the little game of Chinese whispers. If it can be proven in court then that poor sod can kiss goodbye to his or her life savings, and may even spend some time locked up. But what, assuming the word was added accidentally and without any malicious intent, is the point? You can forget
Christian forgiveness the moment you have someone to blame, a lawyer after their next paycheck and a big wad of cash as an incentive.

If the accident is proven to have been just that then I suggest the families turn their attention to the church and its role in their emotional rise and fall. After all, they've got absolutely loads of cash. Or, better still, sue God - but then he was probably punishing those poor miners for having the odd gay or nonbeliever amongst their number. Anyway, they might as well give it a try and see if they can make a few dollars out of the Almighty. After all, He makes enough out of them.


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