12/4/13

Pyramids in the Ice: Hoax


Hoax pyramidsWhat is it about pyramids that excites the imagination? Their shape? Their size? Height? Age? The complexities and difficulties in their building? Or the sheer grandeur of them?

And what is it about them that get the cranks and conspiracy theorists so fired up? What is it about these  constructions that convince some folks they’re made by – or for – aliens? Or that there’s some bizarre coverup by governments to keep people from knowing the “truth” about them?

This week I noticed some odd search terms showing up in my stats page: “antarctica”  and “pyramids” in the same line. Not something I’d expect to see in my posts. What silliness is this, I asked myself. That’s gotta be worth exploring. And whoa! I stumbled into a major conspiracy theory I must have missed!

Antarctica, the fifth largest continent, is 98% covered in ice that averages a mile thick. It’s the coldest place on the planet, with temperatures as low as -89C (-128F).  But it wasn’t always so. The continent broke away from the Gondwanaland super-continent starting about 160 million years ago. After that it drifted until it arrived where it is and started gathering ice.

It’s been covered in ice for about 15 million years, although before that it was a fairly temperate region. During the entire, short duration of human existence (historically speaking)*, it has been an inhospitable, ice-covered place. And for most of that, it has also been bereft of human habitation.

Antarctica wasn’t even discovered until the early 19th century,although many speculated that a southern continent had to exist, simply for symmetry’s sake. But the extreme conditions, the treacherous oceans that surround it, the dangers of ice, cold and wind simply made it impossible for humans to get there without a reasonably well-built ocean craft. But we did, even though many died in the process of discovery.

Today, the continent hosts a population that ranges between 1,000 and 5,000, depending on season; mostly scientists. Today, too, you can shell out a healthy piece of cash and take a cruise ship to the Antarctic and spend a day oggling penguins or walk on an ice shelf. But you couldn’t live there easily or for long without significant effort and equipment. The rather limited food sources and complete lack of any vegetation larger than tiny, hardy plants mean you have to ship or fly in most of your food, medicine, clothing, building supplies, fuel and everything else for survival.

You can’t build pyramids there. No one can. There isn’t a lot of ground to build on – although there are small places called the Dry Valleys – and there’s no evidence that anyone dug a quarry in any of them to get the stone necessary to build a pyramid. Besides, the valleys suffer from unfortunate katabatic winds: high speed cold winds that can reach 320 km/hr. Even if you could withstand the winds, dryness and cold, you’d have to dig through a deep layer of gravel to reach bedrock – tough, ancient granite, not the easier-to-cut -and-shape limestone and sandstone used by many cultures for monuments.

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11/12/13

Gluten, Sourdough, Fads and Ailments


Gluten breakdownGluten, that everyday protein found in many grains, has become the health-fad followers’ most recent evil spectre, and many (one in three, stats show) have jumped onto the anti-gluten bandwagon, generally with a simplistic message: “gluten bad.”

Like most diet fads, I expect it will likely fall off centre stage when the next Big Thing To Rise Against comes along. But meanwhile, until the next fad raises its head, gluten gets sensationalized, demonized and generally misunderstood.

Headlines like this abound (it was matched by a CBC Radio story on Ontario Morning Tuesday, Nov. 12):

Sourdough breadmaking cuts gluten content in baked goods
Celiacs and gluten avoiders have a new way to enjoy a slice of bread

That’s from a misleading and potentially dangerous CBC story about sourdough bread. It’s dangerous because there are people who suffer severe reaction from gluten intake (celiac disease or CD), and others who have non-celiac intolerance (sensitivities) to gluten (not, as some sites say, an allergy) and they might be misled to think sourdough bread is now safe.

People – thinking CBC a reliable, even credible source – might consume regular sourdough bread  - or at least bread labelled as “sourdough” – believing this article deems it safe, when it may in fact cause severe and painful reactions.*

The article says:

A handful of recent studies have some good news for those trying to reduce the amount of gluten they eat — old-fashioned sourdough baking techniques significantly cut gluten content in bread…

But the reporter fails to identify those studies, so readers need to research to find out what those studies actually say (and more importantly, what they don’t say). Nor does the writer say whether all sourdough methods work, or just some (Google sourdough starter and you’ll find hundreds of recipes, some including wild yeast, others with domestic yeast). The writer then adds:

A team of Italian scientists led by Luigi Greco at the University of Naples authored a 2010 study that showed significantly lower levels of gluten in sourdough made according to old methods.

Old methods? Like leaving the started in peasant’s thatch-roof, mud-walled hut shared with the family pig?

Well, unless I completely misread it, that study of 13 people didn’t say anything of the sort about “old methods” It showed reduced gluten in “fully hydrolyzed wheat flour” that had been treated in a sterile laboratory environment with a clinical mix of cultured bacteria commonly found in sourdough, as well as adding fungal enzymes:

Fermentation with selected lactobacilli added with fungal proteases, routinely used as an improver in bakery industries, decreased the concentration of gluten to below 10 ppm. Despite the markedly reduced concentration of gluten, the resulting spray-dried flour was still adequately workable. As shown in this and other studies, the hydrolyzed flour is suitable for making sweet baked goods and also bread and pasta if supplemented with gluten-free structuring agents…

A 60-day diet of baked goods made from hydrolyzed wheat flour, manufactured with sourdough lactobacilli and fungal proteases, was not toxic to patients with CD.

Which is good news and encourages further research, but not a promise that all breads labelled “sourdough” will have that effect. Or that the baker’s sourdough starter will have the ingredients in the necessary quantities and balance of ingredients to sufficiently reduce the  gluten in the flour. Or that the length of fermentation will be sufficient to achieve those results. Or that the flours used in the bakery are the same as those used in the research (different flours have different gluten levels).

Notice that caveat for bakers: “…if supplemented with gluten-free structuring agents…” These test subjects were fed pastries, not breads or pasta.

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11/9/13

Bread, Madness and Christianity


St. Anthony's FireThe witch craze of Europe is a popular, albeit often misrepresented, part of our collective history. Everyone knows witches were hunted, tortured and often killed – burned at the stake, a particularly repulsive method of murder. While not a uniquely Christian form of killing, it was practiced widely by Christians throughout history in every European nation, perfected in ritual by the Spanish Inquisition.

Hunting witches in the period between 1480 and 1750 (the so-called “classical period” of witch hunting) resulted in between 40,000 and 60,000 executions, although some authorities guess the total to be as high as 100,000.

While it’s politically correct these days to report they were all  killed at the hands of religious zealots, it’s actually a lot more complicated than that. But that’s not the subject of this post.

What really interests me is the potential cause of this madness, not the religious response to it. Yes, I know the belief in witches has been around since biblical times, in many cultures, and people are still being killed today because of it, but Europe’s witch craze was something different; almost an industrial scale of madness and murder. Why so many?

The answer may lie in that staple of our foodstuffs: bread.

Okay, not all breads. Just breads made with rye flour, it seems (well, not 100%, but that’ comes a bit further down the post, No peeking!). Pumpernickel, a dense rye bread, may derive it’s name from the German for Devil’s Fart. Really. The stuff you learn online. Anyway, witches may be the result of food poisoning – not, as the church believed, the supernatural. Bad case of mistaken identity, that.

Dance of DeathRye grain (Secale cereale) is susceptible to ergot (Claviceps purpurea), a fungus with a whole lot of chemicals in it that, when eaten, have some nasty side effects, from burning to madness to death. I mentioned this briefly in a recent blog post on the history of bread making. It’s a fascinating chapter in the history of bread (which itself is a fascinating chapter in the history of humanity).

The madness comes from the alkaloids in ergot that bear a resemblance to LSD as Wikipedia tells us:

The ergot sclerotium contains high concentrations (up to 2% of dry mass) of the alkaloid ergotamine, a complex molecule consisting of a tripeptide-derived cyclol-lactam ring connected via amide linkage to a lysergic acid (ergoline) moiety, and other alkaloids of the ergoline group that are biosynthesized by the fungus. Ergot alkaloids have a wide range of biological activities including effects on circulation and neurotransmission.
Ergot alkaloids can be classified into two classes:

  1. derivatives of 6,8-dimethylergoline and
  2. lysergic acid derivatives.

Ah, Timothy Leary, where were you when you were needed back in the 15th and 16th centuries? The madness and physical side effects of eating ergot is colloquially called “St. Anthony’s Fire.” We call it ergotism today:

In large doses, ergotamine paralyzes the motor nerve endings of the sympathetic nervous system. The disease ergotism (St. Anthony’s fire) is caused by excessive intake of ergot. This can occur by the overuse of the drug or by eating baked goods made with contaminated flour, as happened in the Middle Ages. (Ergotism also can affect cattle, by their eating ergot-infected grain and grass).

Acute and chronic ergotism are characterized by mental disorientation, convulsions, muscle cramps, and dry gangrene of the extremities.

A psychoactive drug, lysergic acid diethylamide, best known as LSD, is chemically related to ergotamine.

I suspect the effect would have been frightening, confusing and disorienting – combined with the physical pains, burning, convulsions, the gangrene and other effects. No one would connect the effects with rye until the late 17th century. But for more than a millennium, stories of outbreaks of madness and St. Anthony’s Fire would fill the chronicles.**

And it would often be blamed not on the bread, but on a supernatural cause: the devil, demons or witchcraft. Christianity was not particularly kind to people accused of consorting with the devil.

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10/30/13

Burning Books, Burning Bibles


Pastor Marc Grizzard, of Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, NC is back in the news this week, but I’m not really sure if it’s because of something he did or something that was dredged up online from a few years back and has just been regurgitated.

This week, a story in The Telegraph about Grizzard resurfaced on Facebook. But it’s from 2009, not dated 2013. I’m unable to find a contemporary reference that doesn’t refer back to the 2009 story. Mayhap it’s a hoax. But it’s fun and informative to revisit, anyway.

Back then, the Telegraph reported that Grizzard intended to burn books in his North Carolina church. Religious books in particular, especially those of a Christian nature, albeit just not his particular – and peculiar – Christian nature. Bibles, too:

Marc Grizzard, of Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, North Carolina, says that the first King James translation of the Bible is the only true declaration of God’s word, and that all others are “satanic”.
Pastor Grizzard and 14 other members of the church plan to burn copies of the other “perversions” of Scripture on Halloween, 31 October.
The New Revised Version Bible, the American Standard Version Bible, and even the New King James Version are all pronounced to be works of the Devil by Pastor Grizzard and his followers.
Pastor Grizzard said: “I believe the King James version is God’s preserved, inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God… for English-speaking people.

Grizzard also wanted to throw in books by Christian authors onto the flames as well:

…the pastor and his associates will be burning books by various Christian authors, as well as music of every genre.
“[We will be burning] books by a lot of different authors who we consider heretics, such as Billy Graham, Rick Warren… the list goes on and on,” Pastor Grizzard told reporters.
Mother Teresa is also on the list of Satanic authors.

Mother Teresa? Yeah – she was Catholic. Fundamentalists believe all Catholics are going to Hell. One fundie write says its because “Catholicism is a manmade religion.” Well, I thought they all were. I mean, do we have polar-bear-made religions? Spider-monkey-made religions? Dolphin-made religions? Jack-Russell-terrier-made religions? I don’t want to digress too much from the smoldering books, but this stuff is pretty wacky.

So you can’t be just any sort of Christian writer; Grizzard wants you to be one of his sort of Christian, which is apparently a pretty narrow field. Otherwise, anything you wrote is tossed into the flames (assuming the law lets them…). Which is, of course, merely a thin metaphor for burning someone at the stake, a favourite hobby of fundamentalists past.

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10/27/13

Anti-Intellectualism: The New Elitism


Anti-intellectualismThere’s a growing – and disturbing – trend in modern culture: anti-intellectual elitism. The dismissal of art, science, culture, philosophy, of rhetoric and debate, of literature and poetry, and their replacement by entertainment, spectacle, self-righteous self ignorance, and deliberate gullibility. These are usually followed by vituperative ridicule and angry caterwauling when anyone challenges the populist ideals or ideologies.

As if having a brain, as if having any aspirations to culture, to art, to learning – or worse, to science – was an evil, malicious thing that must be stomped upon. As if the literati were plotting world domination by quoting Shakespeare or Chaucer. Or Carl Sagan, Charles Darwin, Richard Dawkins.

“The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, oration to the Phi Beta Kappa Society Cambridge, August 31, 1837.

Anti-intellectualism isn’t new – Richard Hofstadter wrote about it in 1963 - but it has become highly visible on the internet where pseudoscience and conspiracy theories have developed unchallenged into popular anti-science and anti-rationalist countercultures, many followed and accepted by millions.

Hofstadter wrote,

Anti-intellectualism is a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it, and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.

He warned in his book that intellectualism was “on the run” in America. It still is.*

Just look at the superstitious Jenny-McCarthyites who fear vaccinations with the same religious fervour medieval peasants feared black cats crossing their paths. Or the muddle-headed practitioners and followers of homeopathy. The chemtrail conspiracists. The anti-wind turbine and the anti-fluoride crowd. Any Scientologist. Or any religious fundamentalist. The list of true believers in the anti-intellectual crowd is huge.

Online technology didn’t create these mythologies, or the gullibility of their followers, but the internet is the great equalizer and the great popularizer. It’s not making us smarter; in fact, it may be dumbing down a lot of folks. That’s because anyone, anywhere, can have his or her say and there’s no way to easily discern the intellectual wheat from the. abundant chaff without doing some hard thinking and analysis.

Technology has created the sense of entitlement that every comment, every opinion is of equal value, regardless of the context and the person making that comment. It’s the ultimate democratizer. But it’s a democracy where communication is reduced to the lowest level: the instant, the brief and the angry retort.

Facebook and Twitter don’t have categories that identify posters as more relevant or more important than others. If the prime minister posts on Facebook, he doesn’t get a gold box around his post that says he’s in charge of the country. If Stephen Hawking weighs into a Facebook debate about the nature of the space-time continuum, he doesn’t get a special icon that lets people know he owns this conversation.***

All messages we post have the same weight, the same gravity. There’s nothing to identify any post as more informed, as factually correct or even relevant. So it becomes easy to derail a discussion by spurious claims and allegations, but innuendo, lies or simply confrontational language.

We’re all equally important on the internet. One person’s belief in magic, superstition or conspiracies gets the same opportunity to be heard and seen as those about science and empirical fact. In the online land of the blind, the one-eyed man has no special significance.

Facebook image

We’re creating a world of dummies. Angry dummies who feel they have the right, the authority and the need not only to comment on everything, but to make sure their voice is heard above the rest, and to drag down any opposing views through personal attacks, loud repetition and confrontation.

When they can’t respond with an intellectual counterargument – as is often the case – the anti-intellectuals respond with the ideology of their peer group (see the religious content of the message in the image taken from Facebook on the left) or ad hominem attacks. Name calling. Belittling and demeaning the opponent.

Bill Keller, writing in the New York Times, said,

The Web culture is simultaneously elitist and anti-authoritarian…

But it’s not an elitism of wisdom, education, experience or knowledge. The new elite are the angry posters, those who can shout loudest and more often, a clique of bullies and malcontents baying together like dogs cornering a fox. Too often it’s a combined elite of the anti-intellectuals and the conspiracy followers – not those who can voice the most cogent, most coherent response.

Together they ferment a rabid culture of anti-rationalism where every fact is suspect; every shadow holds a secret conspiracy. Rational thought is the enemy. Critical thinking is the devil’s tool.

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10/24/13

Words, words, words


Elements of StyleWriting before the arrival of the internet*, Bob Blackburn commented on the nature of exchange on then-prevalent BBS (Bulletin Board Systems), words that could as easily be written today about the internet:

“…the BBS medium reveals not only a widespread inability to use English as a means of communication but also a widespread ignorance of that inability, and, in consequence, a lack of interest in doing anything about it.”

Words that were prescient. As if he could foresee Facebook. Blackburn also wrote that most people thought they spoke and wrote well…

“The majority of English-speaking people I’ve come across…think they already know it. After all, it’s their native tongue, and they’ve been to school.”

Which is, for most of us, a fallacy. Language, like any skill, needs training, practice, experience and reminders. Yes, we have an innate  sense of grammar from an early age, encoded in our genes, but it is rudimentary and needs refinement.

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania has shown that children as young as 2 understand basic grammar rules when they first learn to speak and are not simply imitating adults.

Like our muscles, our ability to speak and write develops with use. But it does not develop with haphazard, unfocused usage. Just visit some of the many sites that illustrate the grammatical nightmares found on social media sites like Facebook. While these are good for a chuckle, they reflect a greater problem with education and learning.

Anyone who attempts to correct the written wrongdoings online is labelled a “grammar Nazi” (or more often, a “grammer nazi”). As if writing poorly is some protected, constitutional right. The term has been adopted by some of the practitioners themselves. I sometimes count myself among their company, although I do not belong to any of their organizations.

Still, like Lynn Truss, I bridle at the egregious mistakes in grammar, punctuation and spelling I find online (not everyone likes her, by the way, but her book is great fun to read). And yes, sometimes I am prone to comment thereon. That may be an automatic response, according to a recent study:

Your brain often works on autopilot when it comes to grammar. That theory has been around for years, but University of Oregon neuroscientists have captured elusive hard evidence that people indeed detect and process grammatical errors with no awareness of doing so.

This week, I began again what used to be an annual activity for me – back when I was working in the media or in publishing – rereading the classic work, The Elements of Style. I felt my metaphorical red pencil was in need of a sharpening.

It’s a small book – the fourth edition is just over 100 pages, including the afterword, glossary, and index. At a chapter a day, it can be easily read in less than a week, even by people who don’t read quickly. It encapsulates a mere 22 basic rules of style. Rule 19, for example, states: “Omit needless words.” It follows with this:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Who can argue with that? Ron Sudol, Professor of Rhetoric at Oakland University, comments on this:

Strunk’s attitude toward style is that English is more beautiful the more direct and spare it is. As White notes in the introduction, “for sheer pith I think it probably sets a record that is not likely to be broken.” The students at Cornell in 1919 were probably more wordy and pretentious than students today, whose writing is more often underdeveloped and oversimple. Nevertheless, the lessons — and that’s exactly the right word for the direct orders issued by Strunk and White — are eternally valuable to anyone who wants to take writing seriously. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject. Put statements in positive form. Use the active voice. Omit needless words. Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

TEOS sits, almost hidden, in a bookshelf packed with many books on grammar, style, writing, punctuation and communication. They range from the whimsical works of Richard Lederer to the dense, academic Chicago Manual of Style. Most of the rest I read sporadically and randomly. Some – like Safire and Lederer – I read more for entertainment and amusement. Others I read to keep my writing sharp, like the periodic honing of the knives in my kitchen drawers.

Strunk & White alone of all my style and grammar books I read cover to cover because, for me, it is the quintessential book, the source from which all the others derive. And its short little rules are like little jabs; pointed reminders to pay attention.

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