09/28/13

The Unknown Monk Meme


Cisterian monksThis pseudo-poem popped up on Facebook today. It’s been around the Net for a few years, without any source attributed to the quote, but it seems to be making its comeback in the way these falsely-attributed things do:

When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.
I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation.
When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town.
I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family.
Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself,
and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself,
I could have made an impact on my family.
My family and I could have made an impact on our town.
Their impact could have changed the nation and
I could indeed have changed the world.

It’s recently credited to an “unknown monk” from 1100 CE, and sometimes just to “anonymous.” Since the latter can be anyone, any time, anywhere, it’s less than helpful. Citing the source – at the very least where you found it – is helpful. Anonymous could as easily be one of those crank posters who reply to news stories with snippets about the New World Order or conjure up conspiracies about the local rec facilities.

And the monk from 1100 CE? Not likely. It reads to me like New Age piffle, something regurgitated without understanding.

So let’s look at the attribution. First 1100 CE is in the High Middle Ages. It was shortly after the Norman Conquest of 1066, so if the monk was in England it was a time of chaos, while the Normans dispossessed the English aristocracy (those few left) and took the lands for themselves.

Not as much secular literature survives from that era as religious writing, in large part because the majority of literate people were in the church. Keep in mind that everything was handwritten, mostly on sheepskin: vellum or parchment. Printing was another 450 years away.

The 12th century literature shows nothing like this “poem” anywhere.

Second, a monk would have practiced asceticism, a lifestyle…

…characterized by abstinence from various worldly pleasures, often with the aim of pursuing religious and spiritual goals.

Celibacy was one of those practices. Hence the monk would not likely have had his own family – wife and children. Parents of course, but likely left behind at an early age to be a novice initiate. How much “impact” – a word that didn’t appear in English until 1601, derived from the Latin impactus: to push against (not the same meaning as today’s usage) – a child could have had on his family is unclear, but I’m guessing little.

We of course don’t know if this alleged monk came from a wealthy or poor family. If the latter, their impact on their town – more likely a village  at that time – would likely have been minimal at best, non-existent at worst. Twelfth century village life isn’t what we think of today. There was no central governing body like a municipal council. All land was owned by the lord, and villagers rented from him. Those who were free and not bound to service:

The 12th Century society and village
What defined your status in medieval England was whether you were free or unfree, and how much land you had.
Some rough proportions: About -
15% of people were free
40% of people were Villani (villeins) – they had substantial land (c. 30 acres) but owed service
35% were cottars or bordars – unfree, less land
10% were slaves or as near as darn it
Not all villages were the nucleated village that we think of today – but it’s far and away the most common model. Each village was composed of a number of tofts (or crofts) – areas of 1/4 – 1 Acre, rented from the lord. each croft held the medieval house – typically 24 x 12 feet, 2 rooms, 5+ people and not a lot else.

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09/21/13

Chemtrails redux: the attack of the tin-foil hat brigade


Normal clouds mis-identified by wingnutsMy earlier post on the nonsensical chemtrail conspiracy has generated quite a lot of activity recently (more than 1,000 views in a few days – thanks!). So much so that I decided to look online again to see why – had this silliness abated? Were people waking up and laughing at their former craziness? Or was it spreading more among the hard-of-thinking and the anti-science crowd?

Sadly, it seems the latter is the case. And after a bit of research, I became deeply distressed that it seems to be spreading rapidly.

Or maybe the overall number of gullibles is simply growing larger. They band together into cult-like groups that reject outsiders; refuse to allow debate or questions; that turn inwardly and reinforce their own beliefs among one another. Dissonance reduction in numbers.

I found a Facebook group page with more than 11,000 chemtrail-believing members (that’s scary enough right there). Imagine 11,000 people dedicated to this silliest and most risible of all the recent conspiracy theories. But they’re hardly alone.

The conspiracy works like this: every world government, every airline, air force, every pilot, every airline and air force ground and cabin crew, millions of government employees worldwide, engineering firms, chemical manufacturers, scientists, NGOs, meteorologists, NASA, reptilians, and the darkly secretive (and entirely imaginary) “New World Order,” the Illuminati (or the Zionists, Bill Gates or President Obama, since they are implicated – not a little racism runs through these posts) have conspired and are conspiring to secretly spray toxins (or drugs or biochemicals or alien lifeforms) into the atmosphere from stratospheric heights in order to pacify/poison/control (your choice, it seems) the population and/or the weather/crops.

But no matter how you laugh at the gullibility of these folks, no matter how their photographs and wild imagining are easily debunked by science, meteorology, rational thought and common sense, they seem to persist. And grow. (I blame TV, but that’s a digression.)*

More normal sky and cloudsThe conspiracists’ approach to science, natural phenomena, logic and fact is stunningly medieval. Of course, back in the Medieval days the motivating agents were demons, ghosts, imps, sprites and other invisible figments of their imagination. Today, it’s no less superstitious; just the imagined instigators have been given a modern facelift: big government, big pharma and secret societies. They’re still the scary things that go bump in the night, though.

Superstition is still superstition even when wrapped up in technology. The Skeptics’ Dictionary describes superstition as:

…a false belief based on ignorance (e.g., if we don’t beat the drums during an eclipse, the evil demon won’t return the sun to the sky), fear of the unknown (e.g., if we don’t chop up this chicken in just the right way and burn it according to tradition while uttering just the right incantations then the rain won’t come and our crops won’t grow and we’ll starve), trust in magic (e.g., if I put spit or dirt on my beautiful child who has been praised, the effects of the evil eye will be averted), trust in chance (if I open this book randomly and let my finger fall to any word that word will guide my future actions), or some other false conception of causation (e.g.,  homeopathy, therapeutic touch, vitalism, creationism, or that I’ll have good luck if I carry a rabbit’s foot or bad luck if a black cat crosses my path).

The conspiracist view of  government and politics goes beyond superstition, beyond the bizarre and into the pathological.

Some less-than-civil folks online call the chemtrail believers “chemtards.” Others ascribe malicious intent to them:

The Chemtrail looks like a normal contrail in reality. However, there is a conspiracy on the internet that has been passed on for some time and gaining in strength about the Chemtrail. But the truth is that the chemtrails are a hoax and rumour on the internet by people who are looking to create some kind of chaos or just trying to make an impact on others by giving false importance to the chemtrails.

Certainly some chemtrail promotes have engaged in deliberate hoaxes as this news story tells:

The Penticton RCMP is investigating a fraudulent letter that began circulating in the city on Monday.
According to Sgt. Rick Dellebuur, bogus alert notices regarding hazardous chemtrails were put on vehicles at Shoppers Drug Mart.
The letter has city letterhead, but was not issued by the city.
“There is no environmental department in the city and Penticton did not issue this,” he said.
The letter signed by someone named Susan Smith, environmental department manager, states “we are suspecting that unidentified planes are deliberately spraying chemicals over the city of Penticton.”
It further covers how to identify hazardous chemtrails and who to contact if you see them.
Dellebuur said they are investigating to see who is behind this.
“We are following up on leads,” he said. “It’s just one of those things out there in this day and age.”

I have no doubt some of these promoters are the internet versions of televangelists: they prey on the gullible, the hard-of-thinking, the susceptible and the ill-educated, conning them through sales and marketing, through aggressively encouraged “donations.”

One of the most telling indicators of these conspiracy fantasies is that they seem to be held predominantly by those of the libertarian or uber-right-wing political stripe. Blaming Obama for anything spooky, inexplicable, disagreeable or simply misunderstood seems de rigeur among the conspiracists, even if it’s blatantly stupid or illogical to draw even the vaguest of connections between events and the administration. They finally got down to blaming the government for the weather.

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08/25/13

Why Quebec’s Proposed Headgear Law is Wrong


The Province of Quebec is proposing to ban the wearing of any and all religious headgear (including hijabs, turbans and yarmulkes, as well as other religious symbols) from public facilities and public service – affecting teachers, hospital workers, daycare workers, nurses, civil servants and (we assume) politicians.

The law would also cover “ostentatious” crucifixes, which has led to darkly humorous speculation about police stopping people to measure the size of their crucifix.

What about a tattoo of a giant “Om” on someone’s back? Would the owner have to remove it? Cover it up?

What about priests’ collars or nuns’ habits, worn in every Catholic school in the province. They’re public sector, aren’t they?

Atheist AAnd what about displays of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Evolvefish? Or the red atheist “A”? Atheist symbols aren’t religious, so would they be exempt under this new law? *

It would be a bad law, as bad if not worse than the province’s repressive language laws. And it will spark innumerable challenges based on the Charter of Rights’ declaration of religious freedom.**

Not long ago, Quebec’s soccer federation tried to ban the wearing of Sikh turbans on the field. Why? Do turbans proffer a hithertofore unknown benefit to the wearers; performance-enhancing headgear like drugs? Or the opposite? The federation mumbled incoherently about safety, although there has been no turban-related injury ever recorded.

Could it be that turbans have no effect whatsoever on the player or his game and it was just racially-motivated? The general consensus was the latter, and the federation had to backtrack and rescind the ban after it became an international issue. The backlash was embarrassing and awkward, but the PQ government stood by the soccer federation.

While the PQ government – Canada’s answer to the Tea Party, it seems – remains tight-lipped about the upcoming ban on religious displays, the speculation is that Quebec wants to enforce a secular state by legislation. It has announced plans to release a Quebec secular “values” document this fall.

Clearly they haven’t learned from history: Lenin and his successors tried to do that and failed. The more the state interferes with religion, the more it thrives. I suspect that this attempt by the PQ will galvanize the province’s fading Catholicism.  Nothing like a good punch-up to bring out the believers. Britain has its soccer hooligans; Quebec may have its Catholic hooligans if this passes.***

Values cannot be legislated. Instilled, taught, expressed and promoted, but – like taste and talent – not legislated. Lead by example, Marois, not by the iron fist.

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06/8/13

Creationism’s stench still lingers in American education


CreationismCreationism (and it’s dressed-up-in-drag younger brother, “intelligent” design) is the black mold of education. It’s an insidious infection of the mind, an intellectual parasite. And like real-life black mold, it creates a toxic environment – for learning and critical thinking.

This week, creationism again came up in American school board discussions. According to the HuffPost, the American Taliban* – the Tea Party – is behind the debate at a Springboro, Ohio, school board, to add the pseudoscience of creationist claptrap to the curriculum. The school board president, Kelly Kohls, is also head of the local Tea Party.

Hardly any surprises there.

It’s a sad, creepy tale. Creationism just won’t get cured. At least not by having such myopic fundamentalists in positions of authority. How do people with closed minds get on school boards in the first place?

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05/14/13

Quackery and Big Bucks Infect Health Canada


Homeopathy cartoonHealth Canada has allowed an increasing number of useless “alternative” healthcare (alternative TO healthcare in most cases) products to be sold in Canada over the last decade, despite the lack of proper (or in some cases, any) research data to prove their claims, effectiveness or safety. Most recently, however, Health Canada went further into pseudoscience and licensed homeopathic vaccines, proving that the agency has bowed to corporate pressure and given up trying to protect Canadian health.

According to the BC Medical Journal,

“…Health Canada has licensed 10 products with a homeopathic preparation called “influenzinum.”[8] According to providers, in­fluenzinum is for “preventing the flu and its related symptoms.”

Homeopathic vaccines are available for other infectious diseases as well. Health Canada licenses homeopathic preparations purported to prevent polio, measles, and pertussis.”

The author, Dr. Oppel, concludes with the reason behind this astounding act that seriously discredits both the once-respectable Canadian healthcare and the agency itself:

Natural health products are big business, and the voice of providers is never far from the ear of government. While patients are free to make health decisions, government has a duty to ensure that false or misleading claims do not interfere with consumers’ ability to make an informed choice. Nowhere is the case more clear than in the realm of unproven vaccines for serious illnesses. When it comes to homeopathic vaccines, Health Canada needs to stop diluting its standards.

Homeopathy is not medicine. It is not science. It is codswallop. It was invented by a charlatan named Samuel Hahnemann in 1796. According to Wikipedia

Hahnemann believed that the underlying cause of disease were phenomena that he termed miasms, and that homeopathic remedies addressed these. The remedies are prepared by repeatedly diluting a chosen substance in alcohol or distilled water, followed by forceful striking on an elastic body, called succussion. Each dilution followed by succussion is said to increase the remedy’s potency. Dilution usually continues well past the point where none of the original substance remains.

Get that? The dilution continues until all you have is… nothing. But “nothing” is not harmless. It can be very harmful. As in death. Wikipedia continues (emphasis added):

Homeopathic remedies have been the subject of numerous clinical trials. Taken together, these trials showed at best no effect beyond placebo, at worst that homeopathy could be actively harmful. Although some trials produced positive results, systematic reviews revealed that this was because of chance, flawed research methods, and reporting bias. The proposed mechanisms for homeopathy are precluded by the laws of physics from having any effect. Patients who choose to use homeopathy rather than evidence based medicine risk missing timely diagnosis and effective treatment of serious conditions. 

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03/29/13

The Dreamtime


Dreaming...I don’t dream very much, Susan once said to me. We were having a talk about some crazy dream I was recalling. They’re always crazy, of course. But the conversation was about whether we dream – all of us – whenever we sleep.

I argued yes, we all do. We just don’t always remember them. I remember a lot of mine, at least for a few minutes after I awake. It helps if I talk about them right away, otherwise they evaporate pretty quickly.

That’s the nature of dreaming: it’s just the random firing of neurons that activate memory, but isn’t intended to stay. Humans simply connect these unrelated memories and put them into a sequence that has some sort of narrative nature.

Dreams are, as I understand them, just the random but necessary effects of sleep in mammals. They may occur in other animals like fish, birds, etc., but I don’t really know. I suspect that old reptilian brain buried deep in our grey matter is the source. I know that my dogs and cats dream, because I’ve watched and heard them dreaming.

We dream, as I understand it, because our brains need the time to clear the buffers. Just like computers. For the same reason, we reboot our cable modems every few weeks; to clear it and reset the buffers. Humans do it nightly. Without sleep and dreams, we have simply too much “stuff” in our consciousness to handle and we’d become psychotic.

Humans find meaning in pattern, and see patterns in everything. If we can find images of Jesus in the burnt bread of a grilled cheese sandwich, it’s hardly surprising we find a story in a dream. That’s just our pareidolia. It’s how we’re built.

Last night I dreamt we were in England. London, in the summer. I was walking Keppie and Pico – our Flat-coated Retriever and Long-haired Chihuahua of 20 years ago, along the sidewalk. I was at the edge of a park (Kew Gardens?), a great green space, waiting beside the road for Susan to join us. Keppie was panting and eager, and sat down. I lifted Pico onto a low brick wall along the roadside to watch the traffic while we waited for her to arrive. She was on a bus. It came down a hill, around the corner and stopped in front of me, and I got on. Inside, it was all done in white, like our kitchen, with cupboards and cabinets. I started speaking to the passengers and found we were going to Mexico City. The bus went up a hill, and into a different city, a busy, crowded place. It stopped at a junkyard, and we got out. The dogs were gone. It was dangerous, but a man got out with us and told us it was perfectly safe. We entered a store that became a house where the owner – a young mechanic in a sleeveless T-shirt who was cleaning something – told us again it was safe and he would introduce us to people who liked Canadians. I was hot, and wanted to remove my leather motorcycle jacket, so I went into another room to do it, but my arms got tangled in the sleeves and I couldn’t get it off. The room was also almost all white. Everyone was waiting for me to come back so they could continue on. I struggled with the sleeves. Then I awoke.

Meaningful? Not likely. More like a stew of random memories.  I have fond memories of Mexico, England, my (now departed) pets, and, of course, Susan. Stepen LaBerge writes:

Whether awake or asleep, the brain constructs a model of reality-consciousness from the best available sources of information. During waking, those sources are external sensory input in combination with internal contextual and motivational information. During sleep, little external information is available, so consciousness is constructed from internal sources. These include expectations derived from past experience, and motivations-wishes, such as S. Freud observed, but also fears. The resulting experiences are what we call dreams. In these terms, dreaming is perception free from external sensory constraint, while perception is dreaming constrained by sensory input-hallucinations that happen to be true.

Dreams are simply an artificial and undirected construct – a fantasy world built from random snippets of memory and associations. Any meaning we ascribe is arbitrary. Dream interpretation is, Freud be damned, mostly fraud and snake oil sold by wanna-be psychics and hucksters.

That doesn’t mean dreams don’t contain meaningful information, just that the interpretation is usually stretched or even bogus. Interpreting dreams is akin to seeing animals in clouds, or Jesus in grilled cheese. You can find a pattern if you look for it, because we’re biologically evolved to find patterns in everything, but like the “Face on Mars” we imagine more than we actually see.

As for meaningful information – there’s no magic or paranormal in any of the associations. They all have an explicable, logical source. As for my dream…

I’ve been to Mexico many times, including Mexico City and Morelia. I’ve been to England, and spent a couple of weeks in London. We recently discussed another visit there to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. My visit to England still resonates with me, every time we watch a BBC show – which we see far more often than we watch American TV.

My affection for dogs I enjoy every day. I recently scanned some photos of our previous dogs – including Keppie and Pico – from a box of photos I pulled out of the basement a few weeks back.

Leather jacket? One of my old motorcycle garments: we were discussing passing along or selling my bike wear when we clean the basement this spring, since I doubt I’ll ever be able to afford another bike.

The bus with the white interior? Our kitchen, renovated last year and part of my daily life, just transposed into a vehicle. Buses? probably from the recent budget deliberations. Or a memory of transit rides in England. Or more recently some trips in Toronto and Ottawa.

There’s nothing odd or paranormal in any of the images, or the memories; only when seen as a whole and you’re looking for narrative does it seem strange. What intrigues me is the mix of relatively old and new without any recognizable or logical connection. It shows me that the brain stores memories that the conscious may forget, but which can be brought to the surface any time. And that it doesn’t give a damn for coherency or narrative.

If you’re looking for meaning in your dreams, don’t look any further than your own memories. Those websites that offer to translate your baffling dreams into coherency for a “small” fee are just skinning your cash. The rest are just codswallop. Especially those that use the words “psychic” or “astrologer” with their descriptions. That’s just malarkey piled on more malarkey. There is some real psychology in dream interpretation, but not on those sites.