I missed my calling in quackery

Deepak ChopraI missed my calling. I realize that, now I am semi-retired and counting my pennies. But I could have been like Deepak Chopra: rolling in dough, had I been astute enough to see the trends. Too late, I suppose, for me, but maybe not for you.

All my life I have criticized and lampooned New Age notions as fuzzy-headed, pseudoscience codswallop. But I should have embraced them because, it seems, there’s money to be had in conning and conniving. Lots of it. Instead of debunking and deconstructing the diaphanous piffle that gets spewed from these folk, I should have been plagiarizing from them. 

I’m a writer. I could easily tossed together a word salad of New Age bafflegab liberally spiced with buzzwords, phrases and aphorisms lifted from classical and Oriental sources. Written a pretentious self-help book full of woo hoo, like Rhonda Byrne’s “The Secret” or “The Power” – bestselling pap for the hard of thinking. Both of which were the butt of a merciless critique in 2010 in The New York Times:

“The Power” and “The Secret” are larded with references to magnets, energy and quantum mechanics. This last is a dead giveaway: whenever you hear someone appeal to impenetrable physics to explain the workings of the mind, run away — we already have disciplines called “psychology” and “neuroscience” to deal with those questions. Byrne’s onslaught of pseudoscientific jargon serves mostly to establish an “illusion of knowledge,” as social scientists call our tendency to believe we understand something much better than we really do. In one clever experiment by the psychologist Rebecca Lawson, people who claimed to have a good understanding of how bicycles work (and who ride them every day) proved unable to draw the chain and pedals in the correct location.

Or I could have written a New Age book that tossed science and reason out the proverbial window and filled the pages with pseudoscience nonsense, like that supreme wingnut, Masuro Emoto’s cringeworthy book, The Secret of Water. He claims water’s feelings can be hurt by yelling at it. Stop laughing: that’s just what landed me here. Follow the path to riches instead. Embrace your inner con artist.

My book would be replete with similar deep-sounding but essentially meaningless statements and nebulous epithets that no one can quite counter because to do so makes the challenger seem shallow and dim. Like these (can you guess the sources?):

“The unexplainable unfolds through existential molecules.”*
“Your heart is the continuity of a symbolic representation of facts.”*
“The goal of meridians is to plant the seeds of karma rather than desire.**
“You and I are dreamweavers of the quantum soup.”**
“There is no fixed physical reality, no single perception of the world, just numerous ways of interpreting world views as dictated by one’s nervous system and the specific environment of our planetary existence.” ***
“No matter how closely you examine the water, glucose, and electrolyte salts in the human brain, you can’t find the point where these molecules became conscious.” ***
“Consciousness conceives, governs, constructs, and becomes the activity of the body.” ***

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Politically correct pronoun madness

gender neutral pronounsZe, zim, zer, zher, zis, mer, hus, shkle, hum, herm, hann, ey, hu, je, xe, per, thon, yo, ghaH, co, e. Know what these words are? They are artificial constructs: neologisms cobbled together for abstruse political correctness to replace traditional pronouns that expose or define a gender in the subject or object of a sentence: the traditional he, him, she, her and so on.

They’re sometimes called Spivak pronouns after an American mathematician who coined some of them, but there are many more than he coined. Gender-neutral pronouns (GNP) are today’s newspeak. Wiktionary has a long list of them. A long list.

Gender-specific pronouns are, apparently, verboten in some circles particularly our educational system – where these strange, ugly new GNP words are de rigeur. Gawds forbid anyone’s assumed gender should not be recognized because it could lead to confusion and bruised egos.

You don’t hear these words much outside academia because, I suppose, in the real world these words just seem pretentious and silly.

Not to Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto who has been taken to task for not kowtowing to the speech police. His story has become an international one, spun along the polarized lines of debate that social media encourages. As the Sun noted:

Peterson has gone on to say that he will not address his students by the pronoun of their choice, sparking a backlash from social activists and the transgendered community.
His comments have sparked a rebuke from his employer, petitions in favour and against, two tense rallies, feverish online debate and media interest in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.
The university has said that while Peterson is free to express his views, students have complained they don’t feel safe, and faculty is expected to foster a learning environment free from discrimination and harassment.

A privileged few who can afford to attend university in Canada don’t feel safe in a classroom environment because a professor refuses to call them by a word not found in any English dictionary? Scary places, our universities. Forget guns, drugs, rape, or violence: here the knife-sharp edge of a misused pronoun can cut a student to the quick.

How far should this go? What if a student might feel offended and discriminated against if the professor refuses to call him/her/zhim/zong/(pick your word) a heffalump? And another wants to be called Lucky Ducky? What if one demands to be addressed using Klingon?* One wants ze, another pe, another xem – should the professor use them all, rhyming them off in a lengthy list in order to be fully inclusive and make sure no one is excluded? Can’t have anyone’s fragile self esteem tattered.

Every student should have to fill in a form at the start of every year to list the various words by which they must be addressed, and all the acceptable singular and plural pronouns by which they will permit others to be addressed or referred to. Good luck keeping them all straight (in the linear sense of the word). New York City, apparently, recognizes 31 genders. (list here). ** In The Sun, Antonella Artuso asks, “Are we supposed to have a pronoun for each of those genders? So, how the hell are we going to keep track of that? How is that going to work?”

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The meaning of dreams

Jack kerouacJack Kerouac woke up most mornings in the 1950s and scribbled into a bedside notebook what he could remember of his dreams. Characters from his novels interacted with fantasies and real life events. The result was eventually published in 1961 as his Book of Dreams; 184 pages of mostly spontaneous or stream-of-consciousness writing, as this excerpt shows:

WALKING THROUGH SLUM SUBURBS of Mexico City I’m stopped by smiling threesome of cats who’ve disengaged themselves from the general fairly crowded evening street of brown lights, coke stands, tortillas-Unmistakably going to steal my bag-I struggled a little, gave up-Begin communicating with them my distress and in fact do so well they end up just stealing parts of my stuff! We walk off leaving the bag with someone-arm in arm like a gang to the downtown lights of Letran, across a field-

I was browsing through Kerouac’s book this week, looking for common themes that overlapped his and my own dreams. After all, there are dream elements that have been reported so often they’re considered part of the human experience: falling, being chased, flying, being naked in public (the latter, I’m sure, is every politician’s dream…).

I admire Kerouac’s efforts to make sense out of what is normally an incoherent jumble of images, actions and ideas. Kerouac, though, seems to have woven his dreams into his wealth of stories, continuing them in his sleep. I can’t tell, however, if in his recording he embellished the dreams with thoughts and memories of his own stories. Some seem like drafts for a novel or those deleted scenes in the feature section of a DVD. As he wrote himself:

“In the Book of Dreams I just continue the same story but in the dreams I had of the real-life characters I always write about.”

Some people remember their dreams, others don’t. Most mornings I can recall fragments of mine, sometimes entire narratives, like Kerouac did. Some mornings they are just snippets that evaporate quickly as I go about the day. A rare few I can recall past the morning, rarer still those that stick with me over the years (and most of those are from childhood, when my brain was more elastic and open).

Sometimes I have lucid dreams, too; dreams when I know I’m dreaming. Dreams in which I’m not only the actor but the director. Sometimes in those dreams I struggle to awaken. Nightmares? Not so much; I had them when I was a child, and still recall a few rather vividly, but few trouble my sleep these days. Night terrors? None, at least none I can recall.

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Does anyone still read books?

Reading statisticsI came across an early version of this infographic on Facebook and it shook me to my core. You can see it here. The updated and corrected infographic is shown to the right. It is only marginally less distressing than the earlier one.

Unfortunately, the early one, although inaccurate and misleading, is still being shared. That early graphic is based on some disputed statistics and unfounded claims, but it’s worth examining to understand my reaction.

Reading is so central to my life that the notion that anyone would stop reading books simply gobsmacks me. I can barely go eight hours without reading one or more books, let alone years or even decades. That would be like a life sentence in solitary confinement.

Worse, think about the dangers an un-reading public presents to any democracy. How will people understand issues, how will they pick their leaders, how will they make their life choices if they don’t read. Television cannot educate them, especially not with our politicized media and its reduction of content to a few seconds of video and soundbites, set free from the mooring of context. And the internet has fragmented it even more. As Ray Bradbury said in 1993:

The problem in our country isn’t with books being banned, but with people no longer reading. Look at the magazines, the newspapers around us – it’s all junk, all trash, tidbits of news. The average TV ad has 120 images a minute. Everything just falls off your mind. … You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them. Ray Bradbury, 1993, interviewed by Misha Berson.

I have books stacked beside the bed, in our washrooms; I carry books with me in the car, in my shoulder bag, luggage, to conferences and conventions, large ones for the table, fat ones for the bed, small ones that can fit in my coat pocket…*

What a sad life non-readers live. I cannot imagine the intellectual poverty of someone who doesn’t read regularly and passionately. **

There are plenty of sites with statistics about reading online, few of which offer any uplifting news. But there are also far too many sites with dubious or unattributed figures. For example, on Statistics Brain I read that:

  • Total percent of U.S. high school graduates who will never read a book after high school: 33%
  • Total percentage of college students who will never read another book after they graduate: 42%

Scary, yes, but not true. What is the source of this data? Without a reference to the research, without the methodology, sample size, or source, this is meaningless. It becomes just more internet codswallop, tossed into the same intellectual wastebin as chemtrails and homeopathy. But this is the stuff people seem to share.
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Fulfilling a role? Who are you kidding?

Soviet propagandaThe bite of irony is in the air when a flimsy piece of blatant Block propaganda masquerading as an official media release is published by the town. It has the misleading headline, “Town fulfilling role in hospital redevelopment process,” but only delusional sycophants won’t read it as a Block screed.

When did town media releases shill for a group at the table, not represent the will of council as a whole? Did the mayor approve this dreck before it went out? I suspect not. *

It’s ironic that last term’s council was criticized by some of the very people who now sit on council now for releasing factual newsletters they decried as “propaganda” because these contained information that didn’t conform to a certain Block ideology. But this – this piece is so smarmy and disingenuous it’s embarrassing.

The town isn’t fulfilling any role – it’s simply an ideological tactic. The Block actively and aggressively tried (and is still trying) to prevent the hospital’s redevelopment on a new site. I’ve written about their efforts to derail the hospital several times in the past.

The piece quotes deputy mayor Brian Saunderson. Since when was he the spokesperson for the town? Why is he quoted at all except for self-aggrandizement? Oh I know, The Block doesn’t give a fig for policy, protocol or process, but this is arrogant beyond even that.

Here’s what he says:

Council has been given a mandate by the public through the Community Based Strategic Plan to support improved access to health care within Collingwood and we intend to continue to advocate on behalf of our residents to fulfill this goal.

Let’s start with the mandate. NO: paperwork doesn’t give council a mandate. A mandate is given by the voters but not some flaccid “Community Based Strategic Plan” that was neither strategic nor a plan. And it was a committee of The Block’s friends who cobbled this dog’s breakfast together under the guidance of an outsider consultant – not the public at large. That report was not a mandate – it was a wishlist and a poorly contrived one at that.

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Tough Times for Print Media

NewspapersIt’s not like the halcyon days when I first started writing for newspapers, back in late 1969. Today, print media is struggling to survive in a world dominated by digital media and mega-corps owners (although not so hard it can’t pay its CEOs and executives several million dollars while they slash real jobs).*

Print media has long been losing its advertising share, a trend exacerbated by the internet. Newspapers now have about 11% share, compared to about 35% for the internet, according to a Globe and Mail story. A Pew Research study in 2015 showed newspaper advertising in the USA dropped 4% in 2014.

But for Postmedia the picture has been consistently bleaker: a drop of 17.6% in advertising in three months of 2015 alone – and advertising represents 57% of the company’s income. Plus it lost $3.2 million in circulation revenue (excluding the Sun papers). Even its digital revenue (excluding the Sun) dropped by $5.9 million in that quarter.

This year has been a particularly tough one for Canadian media: in January Postmedia announced 90 job cuts and the merger of several, previously competitive newsrooms. But no cuts were made to CEO Paul Godfrey’s $1.4 million salary plus bonus package, of course. No share-the-pain momentum in the upper echelons. As the CBC reported:

Postmedia’s finances have been sagging for several quarters under a large debt load, much of which was accrued when the company bought the entire Sun chain of newspapers from Quebecor in late 2014 for $316 million.
That move consolidated most of the English-language newspapers in Canada under the Postmedia banner, with the notable exception of the Toronto Star and the Globe And Mail.

And the pain wasn’t over yet. As the CBC story continued:

A big problem for the chain, Waddell noted, is that Postmedia paid for the Sun Media purchase with debt loaned by U.S. backers. Those debts must now be repaid at a time when the Canadian dollar is worth much less, which means it costs more money to repay at a time when the chain has less cash overall.
“This is an organization that is losing money and losing a lot of money,” Waddell said.

Even though I despise Postmedia’s misplaced affection for the uber-right and its kowtowing to its American hedge fund owners, it’s a sorry day for Canadian media when any paper closes, when any journalist gets laid off. And that’s been happening a lot of late.

In January, with as much fanfare as one can have at a funeral, the Guelph Mercury – a Metroland paper – closed its doors after 150 years. Or rather, had its doors closed by its parent company.

That same month, TorStar closed its printing plant in Vaughan where it had printed the paper for the past 25 years, cutting almost 300 jobs.

In June, Postmedia closed the printing presses at the London Free Press and outsourced the work to its competitor, Metroland, cutting 139 jobs in the process.

In August, TorStar announced it was cutting 50 jobs, mostly “…from its newsroom and tablet edition, amid increasing pressure from declining print advertising revenue” according to a CBC story. That was followed by an additional 26 employees. TorStar’s operating revenue has been falling for several years in a row, its annual report shows and its subsidiary, Metroland saw losses as well (revenues down $37.1 million, see p. 5 and 19, with an operating loss of more than $250 million in 2015, p. 20).

A popular Postmedia Vancouver paper, 24 Hours, laid off all its staff of eight, including its three reporters, in September. The paper was repurposed to merely regurgitate content from other Postmedia papers.

Also in September, the Globe & Mail asked that 40 of its 650 employees take voluntary severance packages, the third time in as many years that the newspaper has tried to slash its payroll. Sixty employees took the first offer in 2013, one site reported.

In September, Rogers Media stopped printing four of its magazines and moving them to digital-only platforms. The company also reduced the number of editions of others, noting that print advertising revenue had dropped 30 per cent in the past year. Number of jobs last was not reported.

And then earlier this month, PostMedia announced it was cutting its salaries by 20%, and layoffs loomed if enough employees didn’t voluntarily resign. Postmedia had 4,733 employees at the end of August, 2015, according to CTV News, but was down to around 4,000 about a year later.

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