08/4/14

What’s in a (Popular) Name?


What's in a name?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
Juliet, in Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

A recent article in The Atlantic about how our names impact our lives got me to thinking about how and why we name our children – and what they say about us, about our parents, what our names mean to others of their generation. And why are some names popular at certain times in history. Like now.

According to babycenter.com, these are the ten most popular baby names for 2013:

Girls:

  1. Sophia
  2. Emma
  3. Olivia
  4. Isabella
  5. Mia
  6. Ava
  7. Lily
  8. Zoe
  9. Emily
  10. Chloe

Boys:

  1. Jackson
  2. Aiden
  3. Liam
  4. Lucas
  5. Noah
  6. Mason
  7. Jayden
  8. Ethan
  9. Jacob
  10. Jack

That just makes me feel like I’ve missed a genealogical bus somewhere. Of those 20 names, I doubt I’d name a child most of them. But that may be a generational thing; I was raised with a different set of names. Some of these names are also – from my perspective – old-fashioned. I suppose that’s the around-again effect we see in so many other cultural items (like the endless recycling of pop music tropes from the 60s and 70s…).

Still, I wouldn’t name a child a lot of things, from Crystal to Britney to River (or Dweezil or Moon Unit). I might give a girl the middle name of Yseult and a boy Tristam, but only because I would want to be able to explain the wonderful, romantic story behind those names… I wouldn’t want to burden them with these as first names.

My wife’s name, Susan – a name that I love to hear and still sounds like wind chimes to me after more than 30 years – doesn’t appear in the top 100, while my own shows up at a mere number 80. That surprises me somewhat, because at least when I was growing up, my name was a rarity and Susan was popular, at least in my travelled circles.

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06/13/14

When good people do bad things in groups


Mob MentalityThe headline is taken from a piece on Science Daily on a study about how groups change personal behaviour and morality. The study is reported on the MIT website. I’ve seen that change myself, many times over the years, and most recently locally. The study adds intelligence on the neurology of how such group activity changed people.

The report itself is called “Reduced self-referential neural response during intergroup competition predicts competitor harm,” which of course would have most people’s eyes glazing over. But the authors of the report start by asking a salient question:

Why do interactions become more hostile when social relations shift from “me versus you” to “us versus them”? 

Why, indeed? Why do people who seem rational and even friendly individually become angry bullies in a group?The authors themselves offer a hypothesis:

One possibility is that acting with a group can reduce spontaneous self-referential processing in the moral domain and, in turn, facilitate competitor harm. We tested this hypothesis in an fMRI experiment in which (i) participants performed a competitive task once alone and once with a group; (ii) spontaneous self-referential processing during competition was indexed unobtrusively by activation in an independently localized region of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) associated with self-reference; and (iii) we assessed participants’ willingness to harm competitors versus teammates. As predicted, participants who showed reduced mPFC activation in response to descriptions of their own moral behaviors while competing in a group were more willing to harm competitors. These results suggest that intergroup competition (above and beyond inter-personal competition) can reduce self-referential processing of moral information, enabling harmful behaviors towards members of a competitive group.

That’s fairly technical and likely not eyebrow-raising for us non-techies. Is this relevant to you and me, to our neighbours and friends and our daily lives? Yes, and very much so.

It means that our personal moral compass may not work, may be disabled when we interact in groups that identify an us-them dichotomy, or see outsiders as competitors. It explains why groups can become uncivil, nasty, aggressive, even violent although their individual members may not be.

It also suggests that to break away from group dominance, one needs to become introspective about our own values and ethics, and one must work hard to recover that moral compass.

We only need read the stories of the brave but estranged family members the late Fred Phelps, leader of the hate-filled Westboro Baptist Church, who broke away from his control. Twenty-three-year-old Zach Phelps-Roper broke from the church recently, and spoke to the Topeka Capital-Journal about his decision:

Empathy and unconditional love, he said, are the keys to solving the world’s problems — a lesson he has learned contrasting his time inside the WBC compound and the past nearly 11 weeks outside it.
“I feel like I have unconditional love for every person around the world,” Phelps-Roper said Friday. “The Westboro Baptist Church sees things differently than I do now.”
The church he grew up in was too busy pointing out problems to look for solutions, he said. He has been able to spend the past two months investigating the second part of that equation.
His conclusion: “Most problems come from a lack of understanding of how we affect other people and things around us. I feel like I have found the holy grail, the overarching solution to solving all of our society’s problems, and I want to learn more. I want to do more.”

What is interesting to me is that Zach, although he broke from the abusive church and its leader, and rediscovered his own moral compass, he also retains considerable religious faith – even a fundamentalist view I would have expected him to abandon. So one can break free of a group’s dominance yet retain shared core beliefs., just behave differently – more normally, more civilly.

That was eye-opening. It certainly isn’t the experience of all Westboro members who have freed themselves of its grip (read this piece about another family member’s struggle; Libby Phelps-Alvarez), although most have said in the interviews I’ve read they are kinder, gentler, more empathetic and humane since leaving the church. I expect most people who break free of any group’s control feel that way.

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03/4/14

Litter, litter, everywhere


LitterPop cans. Coffee cups. Candy bar wrappers. Fast food wrappers. Cigarette packages. Cigarette butts. Dog feces. Bags of dog feces. Flyers. Cellophane package wrap. Water bottles. Juice bottles. Chip bags. Beer cans and bottles. Disposable lighters and pens. Cardboard beer boxes. Discarded newspapers and junk mail. Plastic grocery bags.

I just don’t get littering. I’ve never gotten littering.

These are just some of the items I’ve seen stuck into snow banks and hedges in my neighbourhood, or dropped on the road the past few weeks. There’s always litter, it seems, always someone carelessly and thoughtlessly dropping garbage on the sidewalk, the boulevard or street. The snow has covered up the older stuff. Come spring it will come out again. The streams and creeks will thaw and deliver a new load of garbage into our harbour.

Why do people litter? Why would anyone pollute their own home? Dump their trash on streets and sidewalks they have to walk themselves? Why would anyone get a dog and let it crap on someone else’s lawn and not pick up after it? Or more confusingly, pick up then leave the bag of feces on the lawn for the homeowner to deal with. Or someone else to walk on.

What sort of animal fouls its own nest? What sort of person would foul a beautiful town like Collingwood? Surely we all want this to be the best, the prettiest, the cleanest and most livable town in Canada. Litter won’t let that happen.

Why would anyone – even a smoker – consider it acceptable to dump the contents of a car ashtray on the public street? After all, the public space is their space too: it belongs to us all. Would you do this in your living room? In your bed? yet I’ve often seen people do this downtown and in parking lots.

I’ve seen people buy oil and windshield washer fluid at Canadian Tire, fill their car in the parking lot, then drive away leaving the empty bottles on the asphalt. I’ve seen people walk into local pizza joints, buy a slice, eat it and drop the cardboard tray on the sidewalk only feet from the place they bought it.

I’m baffled. And I’m not the only one. Anneli Rufus wrote in Psychology Today:

I believe that the proliferation of discarded packaging peppering urban and suburban America — strewn over sidewalks, streets, gutters and gardens rather than being dropped into recycling bins and trash cans — tells us something. I just can’t figure out what.

Every day we each step over and around a slurry of discarded cups, cans, straws, snack wrappers, cigarette packets, and more – all dropped by others. Most of us pay no mind. Litter isn’t pretty, but it won’t bite. So over it we step, averting our eyes.

But hey: Each of these items got where it is because someone was holding it in his or her hands and then let go…

Public areas are ringed with recycling bins and other trash receptacles. Litterers are nearly always within sight of at least one receptacle when they choose, instead, to litter. And it is a choice. Something is in your hand; then it isn’t. It ceases to be in your hand. How? Reaching the nearest trash receptacle would mean only grasping the item a few seconds longer, two or three minutes at most. But somehow, for countless someones, that wait isn’t worth it.

I understand somewhat that not all children have been taught not to litter, and that a child’s sense of social responsibility is often under-developed. Some of the garbage I see is from elementary students walking to school. Candy wrappers, chocolate milk containers, that sort of thing. I’ve seen them drop it, even while parents escort them home. Sometimes the parents even stop and pick it up.

But coffee cups and cigarette butts – these are adults. I’ve seen adults at sports fields and events cheering their kids on in some game, then leaving coffee cups, discarded food wrappers and condiment bags on the ground at their feet when they leave. Usually there is a waste bin a few feet away. No wonder their kids litter; no wonder they don’t develop a healthy sense of social responsibility: they learn the lesson from mom and dad.

Toronto StarI’m sure every reader here has seen images of Canada Post superbox installations awash in the discarded junk mail people simply drop on the ground rather than take home and dispose of responsibly. A Google search will produce hundreds of such images, if not. Disgusting, I suspect you will say when you see them.*

These are adults, not children doing this. Adults are supposed to know better. We’re supposed to be the role models for children: responsible, aware, conscientious, ethical. Stewards of the environment. Not lazy litterers.

And I’m sure everyone of them who did it knows full well that littering is irresponsible and anti-social behaviour. So why do it?

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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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10/5/13

The Eyes Have It


Age-related macular degenerationThis summer my mother was diagnosed with macular degeneration. There is no cure. It is irreversible. It simply progresses. Science has some hope for future cures, and has some treatments to slow the progress, but a cure likely won’t come soon enough for her.

At 93, one expects that the body will fail, that organs and parts won’t work as well, will lose efficiency, will fail. But this is particularly tough on her. It was clear during our visit today that this diagnosis troubles her.

My parents were both voracious readers, and they passed along a love for books, reading and learning to me from an early age. Reading mattered, reading was important in our family. They shared that with me, it was part of our family DNA.

My father passed away eight years ago and my mother, in her nursing home, still reads every day. She reads for entertainment, for company, for relaxation, for amusement, and for learning. Or rather, she did, until this summer when the problem manifest itself and her reading was curtailed.

Now she struggles to read. She has to use a bright lamp over the book, and has taken to large-print books to still be able to read. But it’s a temporary solution as the AMD spreads inexorably.

She does crossword puzzles too, to keep her mind sharp. They’re harder to do now, because she can’t see the page as clearly. AMD affects the centre of the retina, spreading outwards.

She can see her TV screen if she sits up close, but the laptop screen is that small amount too distant, and besides, she can’t make out the keyboard very clearly. It was hard enough trying to peck out email messages with one hand. Now the computer sits unused.

Losing her ability to read easily is a blow to someone who has lived a tough life, suffering medical problems that have left her wheelchair-bound for the last decade. She certainly didn’t need any more complications.

Yet, despite all her trials and tribulations, her mind is still as sharp as a tack and her memory is remarkable – better than mine. She can recall details of her life, of her childhood right up to recent events, with astounding clarity. I envy that.

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07/16/13

The sum of all knowledge


Know it AllIn his 2004 book, The Know-It-All, A. J. Jacobs tells of his quest to become “the smartest person in the world” by reading the Encyclopedia Britannica from cover to cover.

Right away, you can see the fly in this intellectual ointment: knowledge doesn’t equal intelligence.

Jared Diamond, in his introduction to Guns, Germs, and Steel, credits the barely literate, ill-educated tribespeople of New Guinea as being the smartest people he ever met. Not because of their ability to discourse, as Jacobs says, on the intricacies of the Phoenician legal system, but rather because their daily life is such a struggle.

That struggle, combined with a hostile environment that lacks many of the natural resources like metals that propelled western civilizations’ technologies ahead, Diamond writes, forces them to think a lot about how to survive. They have to be creative in ways we never consider, or have long since taken for granted. They have to find solutions using limited tools and resources. That makes them very smart.

You want dinner? It’s a few steps away, a short journey between freezer and microwave. They want dinner, it has to be found in a challenging and dangerous world, caught, killed, cleaned, a fire made from raw materials, then cooked. They survive every day having to solve life-affecting problems. Our biggest challenge many days is whether to watch this channel or another one.

Modern civilization often relieves us of the necessity to think critically. Convenience is wonderful, but it also can make us stupid. Just look at the number of cute kitten photos on Facebook paired with sappy “inspirational” quotes attributed to the wrong person. Or the number of homeopathic sites. Convenience often makes us susceptible to marketing, advertising and propaganda because we accept rather than analyse.

And reading alone isn’t enough to alleviate it. People read all sorts of stuff online – volumes of the written word – but still believe in all sorts of superstitious, stupid claptrap like chemtrails and vaccination conspiracies. People read and give credence to wingnuts like Jenny McCarthy and Anne Coulter. There is no shortage of written material online about Bosnian pyramids, UFO abductions, religious intolerance, astrology, “psychics,” racism and political extremism.

So reading itself is not a path to intelligence. You need critical thinking and skepticism, too. Lots of skepticism.*

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