Travels with Epicurus

EpicurusI’m sure it’s not just me who feels this way, but these days I find increasing wisdom and solace in the words of the classical authors: Seneca, Cicero, Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius, Horace, Aristotle, Heraclitus, Epictetus, Diogenes, Plato. The writers of classical Greece and Rome mostly attract my attention right now, although I have also read many classical Chinese, Indian, Hebrew and Japanese philosophers and poets. Wisdom can be found everywhere.

It never ceases to amaze me how human emotions, perceptions and sensations have not changed over the millennia, almost in opposition to our rapidly and vastly changing technologies. Not merely in some rarefied philosophical sense, some intellectual perspective, but in everyday things: our passions, our politics, our tastes, our life and loves; the ancients knew and understood us, although Instagram and Snapchat may have baffled them.

Nor have we changed much if at all in our quest for answers to the “Big Questions” – the question of evil, of free will, how should we behave and be governed, of why anything exists, our search for meaning, for understanding, to grapple with suffering, longing and whatever future awaits us at death. Yes, some have found answers in religion and faith, but mostly these questions remain hanging. And there’e the always-dangling end-of-life question: what matters? All questions that can keep a person awake at night.

For some writers, some or even all of those questions are a philosophical dead end. A forum for word games and semantic exercises, but not solutions. Instead they focus on how we ought to live. Be here now, as Baba Ram Das famously wrote. Bring to your life a sense of belonging to the world, an earthly mindfulness to your daily life. Consider what happens today, not in the afterlife. This is what originally attracted me to Buddhism. But it also attracts me to several classical philosophers, more lately than in my past. And Epicurus is one of them.

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Stalin’s ghostly influence today

I recently finished reading the second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s magisterial biography of Josef Stalin: About 1,700 pages so far, with another 400 or so in small-type notes. Brilliant stuff, but a lot to absorb and consider. A bit of a slog if you’re not at least somewhat familiar with the history – there are many events, places and people to keep track of.

Volume one ran from Stalin’s birth to 1928, the year of the first Soviet show trials and when Stalin had fully established himself as undisputed leader. The second volume in the trilogy picks up there with the “wreckers” trial, runs through the decade of show trials, the purges, the decimation of the army leadership, the solidification of the police state, and ends on the day after the Germans invaded: June 22, 1941.

There is still more than a decade of material to cover, through the Great Patriotic War, the post-war reconstruction and the beginning of the Cold War, until Stalin’s death in 1953. I eagerly await the final volume in the trilogy. (NB: if you haven’t seen it, I recommend you watch the movie, The Death of Stalin, a dark comedy but very close to the actual historical events. Available on DVD and Netflix).

While I have previously read several biographies of Stalin and related books on Soviet history, none can match Kotkin for the sheer volume of information, the astounding depth and breadth of his narrative. It’s not simply about the man, the collapse of tsarist Russia and the rise of the Soviet Union under Communism: it’s about the world at the time, what was happening, and how other nations responded to the events and the personalities.

Kotkin’s work weaves together many strands of contemporary history and politics, and provides considerable insight into the workings of the Soviet bureaucracy and Stalin’s developing and hardening ideology. It’s brilliant stuff, and I eagerly look forward to his third and concluding volume.

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Hegseth, hand washing and social media

Fox News host Pete Hegseth has said on air that he has not washed his hands for 10 years because “germs are not a real thing”.

That’s the headline you read on dozens of media sites and shared throughout social media (this one from BBC News). Instant reactions (mine included) were “ewwww…” followed by negative comments on Fox News in general. But when you stop to think about it, could it be true? Can someone actually go a decade without washing his hands?

No. Surely he bathes or showers regularly. One can’t believe a TV show host would be so unhygienic. His co-hosts would surely comment. Maybe he’s not as observant of the niceties of personal hygiene as others, but a whole decade?

And face it, it’s difficult to believe that even a Fox News host is so stupid as to not believe in germs. Alex Jones, and maybe the other fringe wingnuts like anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers could believe such piffle, but surely not a mainstream media host with a university education. Could he? OMG!!!! the tweets erupted.

Predictably, social media lit up like a pinball machine over this comment. So Hegseth tried to explain:

Mr Hegseth later told USA Today that his remarks were intended to be a joke.
“We live in a society where people walk around with bottles of Purell (a hand sanitiser) in their pockets, and they sanitise 19,000 times a day as if that’s going to save their life,” he said.
“I take care of myself and all that, but I don’t obsess over everything all the time.”
Of the public reaction, he said it was ridiculous how people took things so “literally and seriously” so that their “heads explode”.

He’s right. We react and often over-react. We are knee-jerk trained. Social media has made us into Pavlovian emotional hair-triggers. I am sometimes guilty of it, too, because I am as susceptible to confirmation bias as everyone else. No matter how hard I try to use reason, sometimes those eager little response hormones kick in first. Having our beliefs confirmed is comforting and reinforces them.

But Hegseth’s joke, if indeed it was one, didn’t get everyone laughing. It was a joke without a punchline. A lot of people believed it was true. And others found fault his later explanation, as noted in The Guardian:

On Twitter on Monday, Hegseth gave mixed messages. He claimed he had been joking and paraphrased the president in blaming the media for being so “self-righteous and angry”. He also said he supported drinking from hosepipes and riding bikes without a helmet…

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Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules

12 RulesFor LifeI really wanted to read this book objectively, separating it from the media hype and social media torrents of opinion and abuse that often accompany its author, Jordan Peterson. I wanted to consider it in the company of the vast number of already-published self-help or philosophical books, and the historical context in which they exist.

Sadly, I was unable to do so for one simple reason: there’s too much Jordan Peterson in it. You have to wade through far too much of him to get to the rules. He meanders quite a bit, mostly to ramble on about himself. The rules are, themselves, rather diluted by his presence.

Jordan Peterson is undoubtedly a smart, well-educated man and a reasonably good writer, but sometimes he comes across as a pompous, supercilious git. And that obfuscates the intended message, at least for me.

Peterson is, like I said, a smart man. I cannot dispute his statements on psychology or human development because he knows more about it than most of us. And he references several of his statements with citations to such awe-inspiring academic documents as “Allostasis and allostatic load implications for neuropsychopharmacology,” “Tool use induces morphological updating of the body schema” and “Dimension models of personality: The five-factor model and the DSM-5.” Who am I to argue with these sources?

For those of us on a less-lofty plane, he also references the Bible, poems of W.B. Yeats, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, Lao Tse’s Tao teh ching and the Guardian newspaper. Whew. Something I can read and maybe understand. But these references don’t cover the voluminous number of claims and statements in the book. It’s full of pithy epigrams and aphorisms.

There are only 220 noted sources and no separate bibliography. Peterson makes a lot of statements that, without being referenced to a citation, are either vague generalities or simply opinions. For example:

Eco-activists, even more idealistic in their viewpoint, envision nature as harmoniously balanced and perfect, absent the disruptions and depredations of mankind. (p13-14)

I don’t know which “eco-activists” he spoke to, but that sort of romanticized, even naive (if not downright puerile) view of eco-activism doesn’t match any viewpoints I’ve heard or read from anyone who might fit that description.  And you can read a lot of them online. David Suzuki, for example, arguably Canada’s most well-known environmental activist, doesn’t say anything of the sort. His own website neatly defines his views:

We are interconnected with nature, and with each other. What we do to the planet and its living creatures, we do to ourselves.

I’ll chalk this one up as an opinion, and a politically-biased one at that. The Catholic World Report noted in its review:

Peterson wades into a muck of assertions without argument; disconnected similes and examples that insult reason; arbitrary and happenstance judgments; and implications that are dangerous in their banality.

Here are some other statements I pulled at random, also not referenced to any source or publication:
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GWT treatment a sure cure for NAWHS syndrome

GWT in actionAfter years of research* and development, I have finally worked out the details for the treatment of the viral NAWHS (New Age Woo Hoo Susceptibility) syndrome: GWT or Gullibility Whack Therapy. And I’m going to found my own institute: The Whack-a-Wacko Institute of Common Sense Therapy. I stand to make millions.

It works like this: Every time a client utters a comment about the healing benefits of any flavour of New Age woo hoo including homeopathy, who avoids vaccinations, gluten and GMOs, who quotes Dr. Oz, Dr. Mercola or Gwyneth Paltrow, who confesses to using ear candling, magic crystals, reflexology, reiki, feng shui or aromatherapy, who professes a belief in astrology, guardian angels, auras, psychics or tarot cards, who prefers “alternative medicine” or ayurveda instead of real medicine, or goes to a “medical intuitive” instead of a real doctor has precisely 30 seconds to cite scientific research that validates their claims or get whacked.

I’ll come to your home, your workplace, your favourite restaurant or pub and stand behind you. Every time you utter some pseudoscience or New Age codswallop, I’ll whack the back of your head and shout “bullshit!” for everyone to hear. I’ll stand with you in the grocery store line and if you dare pick up a Goop, Dr. Oz or Oprah magazine, you’ll get a whack. If you tune into Gwyneth Paltrow’s new Netflix TV show, I’ll whack both you and the TV set. If you stop in the mall to look at the display of essential oils, I’ll whack you.

I’ll offer various levels of treatment with graduated scales from Gentle Reminder using a feather duster to Are You Off Your Freakin’ Rocker? using a dog’s latex squeaky toy — a loud one, so everyone also hears it. I’ll have rates by the hour or by the whack. Given the raging amount of woo hoo online and the susceptibility of people to the babblings of poorly-educated glitterati, I will have no shortage of potential clients.
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Local media is letting us down

Doesn't understandRule number one in The Elements of Journalism is: “journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.” Number three is “Its essence is a discipline of verification.” Keep those two in mind as you read this.

I recognize that local reporting is not always the same calibre as the investigative journalism we expect from national media, but in my view (and experience as a former reporter and editor), blindly accepting claims about health, wellness or science without questioning, let alone confirming them through a credible source, and then repeating those statements in a story is not responsible reporting. It’s just typing.

There’s a recent story on Collingwood Today titled, “Firefighters getting charged up by new wellness device” that strikes me as a good example of poor journalism. The story is about Collingwood’s Fire Department buying a mat,

…called a Seqex, and it uses Pulsed Electromagnetic Field therapy to help the firefighters detox, relax, and heal when necessary.
The device comes from Health Wellness Industries in Collingwood, where the owner and president Kim Sartor has built a business selling and offering treatments in the Seqex system.

The manufacturer is SISTEMI SRL (Italian Society of Seqex Electro Medical and Innovative Technologies), and they have numerous products all that start with Seqex, such as Seqex Fam and Seqex Radiant Mat. Which particular one this is could have been easily confirmed with a five-second internet search. Or maybe a single question. Several Seqex products were recalled in 2016, by the way, because the company didn’t have a licence to sell them in Canada until late 2017.

You already know from many, many science-based articles debunking it that detox is New Age woo hoo, not a treatment, nor a cure. It is, as Science-Based Medicine calls it, “Ritual purification masquerading as medicine and wellness.” The site also notes, “Detox Scams are Worthless and Potentially Dangerous” and calls it “a marketing strategy… designed to treat a nonexistent condition.” Any detoxification your body does is through your liver, colon and kidneys not through smoothies or electromagnetic stimulation. That too, a reporter could easily establish. And no, you can’t sweat out toxins in a sauna, either because of simple biology: “Humans sweat to cool ourselves, not to excrete waste products or clear toxic substances.”

The “Seqex is a Class 2 medical device, which means it can be used without a doctor administering it – similar to a sleep apnea machine.”

That doesn’t explain what the classification means. All medical devices need to be licensed in Canada.

Class categorization is a risk evaluation, not a determination of efficacy or wellness. In Canada, “Medical devices are classified into one of Classes I to IV by means of the classification rules set out in Schedule 1, where Class I represents the lowest risk and Class IV represents the highest risk.” A licence doesn’t mean it works as advertised; just that it meets labelling and safety standards: see Section 32.2 of the law. Licensing relies on the manufacturer’s attestation that it’s safe and meets these requirements:

-certification that device is manufactured according to international Quality Management System standard.-manufacturer’s attestation that device satisfies the safety, effectiveness in MDR (Medical Device Regulations); labelling reviewed.

Other Class II medical devices include contact lenses, epidural catheters, pregnancy kits and surgical gloves.

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