Sunday, April 23, 2017

Another Perspective on the Rise in Anxiety

Anxiety is...
"not a coherent fear of a particular thing, and it tends not to focus on the problems you already have. Anxiety is the ambient apprehension that terrible things might happen. . . A mainstay of 20th-century age-of-​anxiety complaints was that our world was becoming too complex for anyone to keep track of or feel like a relevant participant in, full of strange and byzantine distances between individuals and the grand global forces affecting us. . . . You can argue with a store owner; you can’t argue with the call-center representative of the company contracted to maintain the point-of-sale machine owned by the other company contracted by the multinational conglomerate that owns the store. . . . Feelings of anxiety are closely connected to an inability to handle uncertainty. What might make human beings less anxious, it seems, is having a firmer sense of what in the world is happening and what’s likely to happen next. We seem temporarily short on both."

Monday, April 17, 2017

Living in Glass Houses

Über environmentalist Bill McKibben tells us, in The Guardian today, to "stop swooning over Justin Trudeau":
Look all you want, in fact – he sure is cute, the planet’s only sovereign leader who appears to have recently quit a boy band. And he’s mastered so beautifully the politics of inclusion: compassionate to immigrants, insistent on including women at every level of government. Give him great credit where it’s deserved: in lots of ways he’s the anti-Trump, and it’s no wonder Canadians swooned when he took over. But when it comes to the defining issue of our day, climate change, he’s a brother to the old orange guy in DC.
It was Canadian diplomats, and the country’s environment minister Catharine McKenna, who pushed at the Paris climate talks for a tougher-than-expected goal: holding the planet’s rise in temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But those words are meaningless if you keep digging up more carbon and selling it to people to burn. . . . he got a standing ovation from the oilmen for saying “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there.". . . Environment minister McKenna, confronted by Canada’s veteran environmentalist David Suzuki, said tartly “we have an incredible climate change plan that includes putting a price on carbon pollution, also investing in clean innovation. But we also know we need to get our natural resources to market and we’re doing both.” Right. But doing the second negates the first – in fact, it completely overwhelms it.
Things are worse to the south but at least we all know it.
Trump, of course, is working just as eagerly to please the fossil fuel industry – he’s instructed the Bureau of Land Management to make permitting even easier for new oil and gas projects, for instance. And frackers won’t even have to keep track of how much methane they’re spewing under his new guidelines. And why should they? If you believe, as Trump apparently does, that global warming is a delusion, a hoax, a mirage, you might as well get out of the way. Trump’s insulting the planet, in other words. But at least he’s not pretending otherwise.
It's easy to find fault with out neighbours, but, even with Harper gone, we still have a mess on our hands.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Just Another Oil War

An article Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote more than a year ago shows how oil interests created ISIS.

"The reverberations from decades of CIA shenanigans continue to echo across the Mid-East today in national capitals and from mosques to madras schools over the wrecked landscape of democracy and moderate Islam that the CIA helped obliterate....This is the bloody history that modern interventionists like George W. Bush, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio miss when they recite their narcissistic trope that Mid-East nationalists 'hate us for our freedoms.'
As we focus on the rise of ISIS and search for the source of the savagery that took so many innocent lives in Paris and San Bernardino, we might want to look beyond the convenient explanations of religion and ideology and focus on the more complex rationales of history and oil, which mostly point the finger of blame for terrorism back at the champions of militarism, imperialism and petroleum here on our own shores."

1949 - Syria "declared war on the Nazis, expelled their Vichy French colonial rulers and crafted a fragile secularist democracy based on the American model. But in March of 1949, Syria's democratically elected president hesitated to approve the Trans Arabian Pipeline" so the CIA engineered a coup and put in their own dictator who approved the pipeline. This move effectively destabilized the country.

1953 - Roosevelt and Stone orchestrated a coup in Iran because their democratically elected president, Mosaddegh, who "idealized the U.S. as a role model, . . . tried to renegotiate the terms of Iran's lopsided contracts with the old giant, BP." He uncovered the coup attempt and expelled all British diplomats but didn't expel the CIA, who were complicit. Eisenhower ousted Mosaddegh and installed Shah Reza Pahlavi, who favored U.S. oil companies, but whose two decades of CIA sponsored savagery toward his own people from the Peacock throne would finally ignite the 1979 Islamic revolution that has bedeviled our foreign policy for 35 years."

1956 - JFK infuriated many with a speech "endorsing the right of self-governance in the Arab world and an end to Americans's imperialists meddling in Arab countries."

1957 - Stone went to Damascus with money to arm Islamic militants, the Muslim Brotherhood, to overthrow al-Kuwaiti's democracy and "engineer national conspiracies and various strong arm provocations in Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan that could be blamed on the Syrian Ba'athists. . . . In response, the Syrian army invaded the American Embassy...ejected Stone...purged all politicians sympathetic to the U.S." The CIA continued to try to topple Syria's government by arming the Muslim Brotherhood "to assassinate three Syrian government officials" which pushed Syria away from U.S. and into alliance with Russia and Egypt. Eisenhower mounted a war against Arab Nationalism "when Arab self-rule threatened oil concessions." He advised, "We should do everything possible to stress the 'holy war' aspect."

1958 - Anti-American Army officers led a coup to overthrow Iraq's pro-American monarch, Nuri al-Said...exposing [him] as a highly paid CIA puppet. . . . In response to American treachery, the new Iraqi governement invited Soviet diplomats and economic advisers to Iraq and turned its back on the West."

1963 - The CIA succeeded in installing Ba'ath Party to power in Iraq led, in part, by Saddam Hussein (see Klein's Shock Doctrine for a lot more on that). "The CIA supplied Saddam and his cronies a 'murder list' of people who 'had to be eliminated immediately in order to ensure success.'" Reagan supplied him with billions in training, knowing he was using poisonous gas and biological weapons in his war against Iran. He was seen "as a potential friend to the U.S. oil industry."

1983 - Donald Rumsfeld, in Iraq, presented Hussein with "a pair of pearl-handled revolvers and a menu of chemical/biological and conventional weapons" while the CIA supplied Iran "with anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to fight Iraq."

1997 - The U.S. Department of Defense found "a strong correlation between US. involvement abroad and an increase in terrorist attacks against the U.S."

2000 - Then Qatar, who shares the world's richest natural gas repository with Iran, proposed constructing a pipeline through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Turkey, linking the pipeline directly to European energy markets. The U.S. and EU were on board, but Bashar al-Assad didn't support the pipeline. It would have given Saudi Arabia's Sunni Monarchy a foothold in Shia dominated Syria. And Russia, who sell gas to Europe, saw the pipeline as a threat. Assad endorsed a "Russian approved 'Islamic pipeline' running from Iran's side of the gas field through Syria and to the ports of Lebanon." to make Iran the principal supplier. Israel was "determined to derail the Islamic pipeline" because it would strengthen Iran and Syria.

2001 - After 9/11, Assad "gave thousands of invaluable files to the CIA on Jihadist radicals, who he considered a mutual enemy. Assad's regime was deliberately secular and Syria was impressively diverse."

2009 - "Soon after Bashar Assad rejected the Qatar pipeline, the CIA began funding opposition groups in Syria."

2011 - U.S., France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and England formed the "Friends of Syria Coalition" to remove Assad.

The idea of fomenting a Sunni-Shia civil war to weaken the Syrian and Iranian regimes so as to maintain control of the region's petro-chemical supplies was not a novel notion in the Pentagon's lexicon....“U.S. leaders could also choose to capitalize on the sustained Shia-Sunni conflict trajectory by taking the side of the conservative Sunni regimes against Shiite empowerment movements in the Muslim world ... possibly supporting authoritative Sunni governments against a continuingly hostile Iran." and "sell Americans the idea that the pipeline struggle was a humanitarian war."

2012 - A study by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agancy warned that the U.S. support of radical Sunny Jihadists was making ISIS the major force driving the insurgency in Syria. "Not coincidentally, the regions of Syria occupied by ISIS exactly encompass the proposed route of the Qatari pipeline."

2014 - But then ISIS horrified people. "Strategies based upon the idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend can be kind of blinding.... We made the same mistake when we trained the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. The moment the Russians left, our supposed friends started smashing antiquities, enslaving women, severing body parts and shooting at us." The U.S. blamed Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and Obama claimed ISIS was an outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq. To many Arabs, however, "the evidence of U.S. involvement is so abundant that they conclude that our role in fostering ISIS must have been deliberate."

Prior to the American invasion, there was no Al-Qaeda in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Bush destroyed Saddam's secularist government and his viceroy, Paul Bremer, in a monumental act of mismanagement, effectively created the Sunni Army, now named ISIS. Bremer elevated the Shiites to power and banned Saddam's ruling Ba'ath Party laying off some 700,000, mostly Sunni, government and party officials from ministers to school teachers. He then disbanded the 380,000 man army, which was 80 percent Sunni. Bremer's actions stripped a million of Iraq's Sunnis of rank, property, wealth and power; leaving a desperate underclass of angry, educated, capable, trained and heavily armed Sunnis with little left to lose. General Petraeus' decision to import dirty war tactics, including torture and death squads, from the CIA's El Salvador conflict in order to shock and awe the Sunni resistance, instead ignited a shockingly bloody spiral of sectarian violence that devolved quickly into escalating atrocities topped finally by the Sunni Army signature head cutting. The Sunni insurgency named itself Al-Qaeda Iraq [AQI - later ISIS].

Military-aged men are fleeing the area because it's not their war: "The super powers have left no options for an idealistic future that moderate Syrians might consider fighting for. And no one wants to die for a pipeline."

Kennedy's Proposed Solutions:
"If we are to have an effective foreign policy, we must recognize the Syrian conflict is a war over control of resources indistinguishable from the myriad clandestine and undeclared oil wars we have been fighting in the Mid-East for 65 years. And only when we see this conflict as a proxy war over a pipeline do events become comprehensible. . .  
Once we strip this conflict of its humanitarian patina and recognize the Syrian conflict as an oil war, our foreign policy strategy becomes clear. Instead, our first priority should be the one no one ever mentions—we need to kick our Mid-East oil jones, an increasingly feasible objective, as the U.S. becomes more energy independent. Next, we need to dramatically reduce our military profile in the Middle East and let the Arabs run Arabia. Other than humanitarian assistance and guaranteeing the security of Israel's borders, the U.S. has no legitimate role in this conflict. While the facts prove that we played a role in creating the crisis, history shows that we have little power to resolve it. . . . 
We need to begin this process, not by invading Syria, but by ending our ruinous addiction to oil."

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A Bigger Problem with Air Travel

It was almost four years ago that Nature, a highly reputable peer-reviewed science journal, published a paper that suggests that climate change is going to affect us sooner rather than later. We will stop our more destructive habits like air travel, mass consumerism, factory farming..., but by choice or necessity is yet to be seen.

According to the research paper, globally, if we do nothing, we'll be in "a state continuously outside the bounds of historical variability" by 2047. "These results are sobering indicators of the pace of climate change if one considers that the timing of climate departure will occur sooner if 'pristine' climate conditions are used to set historical climate bounds," indicating change in the year 2033 or 2051 depending on the models used. It will hit the tropics first, and over a billion people currently live in areas that climate change could render inhabitable in 35 years at the latest.  "This suggests that any progress to decrease the rate of ongoing climate change will require a bigger commitment from developed countries to decrease their emissions but will also require more extensive funding of social and conservation programmes in developing countries to minimize the impacts of climate change."

Then there's this bit from Climate Central:
It's possible that warming already in the pipeline has ensured parts of the West Antarctic ice sheet face unstoppable melt. That would raise sea levels up to 13 feet and threaten coastal communities around the world.

More recent news suggest that "Australia now faces a closing window to save the reef by taking decisive action on climate change." Bleaching events are happening too rapidly to allow for recovery time. And then this line,

"Some reef scientists are now becoming despondent. . . . We've given up. . . . we've failed."

The reef is in a "terminal stage" and measures to improve the situation were failing. But some are more forcefully optimistic: "Every moment we waste, and every dollar we waste, isn't helping the issue. We've been denying it for so long, and now we're starting to accept it. But we're spending insufficient amounts addressing the problem."

Sunday, March 19, 2017

On Beauty and the Beast

I saw the newest version of this classic, which was close to being very good. There were a few long boring bits, and the CGI of the beast was hard to watch, but I liked that they added a little subplot about LeFou. I'm not talking about how inclusive it was, how in 2017 the Disney Corporation finally allowed an explicitly gay character (as opposed to the slightly less overt previously slipped in). I'm more interested in one particular line LeFou speaks: "Meh, I've decided to switch sides," which wasn't a double entendre. He just suddenly, flippantly, realizes that he's wasted years spending all his time and energy supporting a cad, and he changes teams in the middle of the final battle. There's not a moment of guilt or shame becoming a turncoat. He flipped from 100% for him to 100% against in the bat of an eye. He made it look so easy.

And I think of Trump's closest minions, and what a delightful plot twist it would be if one of them would turn on him. The problem is that many of them are far worse. But maybe Spicer could suddenly start speaking truth to power as he stands at his podium. Maybe some kind of realization would hit Conway enough to lift her off her knees from that couch and suddenly help her see the bigger picture, brush off her allegiances, and take to the streets with the protesters. What a fairy tale that would be!

Maureen Dowd has written a beautifully caustic piece about the sycophants on the hill:
Maybe if these elites-pretending-not-to-be-elites deigned to talk to some knowledgeable elites in government once in a while, they might emerge from the distorted, belligerent, dystopian, Darwinian, cracked-mirror world that is alarming Americans and our allies. They might even stop ripping off the working-class people they claim to be helping.
Of course Belle is Angela Merkel being courted by Trump (We were both wire tapped!) who is outrageously sexist and has no respect for her education or intelligence. He has no respect for anyone's education or intelligence. But who is the Beast? Who is the good guy that has tolerated a spell making it look hideous, making it behave cowardly, but with some bit of goodness beneath, and with the strength enough to destroy Trump if it can only regain its former glory?

The fourth estate.

If Trump's henchmen don't have the wisdom to turn on him and his lies have people carrying pitchforks to ignite crosses on lawns and fight their neighbours, then the only beast that can stop him is knowledge. Once the fog lifts and the angry mob starts to see their neighbours as people again, then maybe, just maybe, Trump's reign will crumble.


Saturday, March 18, 2017

Moving Your Money

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. - Margaret Mead (maybe)

Here's a little video by comedian Sarah Silverman that suggests you can do your part to oppose Trump's gains in the DAPL mess by, in part, switching to a credit union.

But I was more fascinated by the arguments going on in the comment section that's verging on 2,000 comments. Here's a tiny random collection:
"Everything around her has to do with oil...what a hypocrite. When she lives off the grid completely and has sourced her own food, clothes, shelter, etc from nature..then she can talk. Silverman Newsflash: "People are trying to make money"..omg I had no clue, those monsters! Guess she gives all her away?"
This is a claim made against Suzuki and many other environmentalists who continue to live like the rest of us while they try to make some changes in the world. Political activists have to be perfect in deed and attitude before they should expect anyone to listen to them. This is unlikely to happen; therefore, we never have to change our own behaviour.
"I'm sick of FAKE NEWS, this pipeline shit isn't not a big deal at all and yet they have to make it look like one just to get people angry for something that isn't true at all....white people pretty much invented or mastered everything."
Lots of people have radically different ideas about the pipeline, and about the history of Indigenous relations with the earliest settlers, and about history in general. It's a struggle for people to identify what real news actually is. People are skeptical of all news outlets and textbooks to the point that I predict rampant ignorance to come. How do we begin to teach anything to anyone anymore?
"We don't need oil? You're to dumb to even understand how dumb you truly are!...It doesn't matter how you power your car. Unless you plan to do away with all hoses, wires, plastic, cushioning, oh and still need petroleum-based products to make cars."
One way or another, this too shall pass.

On Bannon's Propaganda and Why It Works

Check out Abby Martin's brief doc on Steve Bannon. It's on his love of war and his passion for making propaganda films that primarily focus on the story of society in collapse and are largely unsuccessful. Then gaming became his thing with IGE, which was run by a team of men that had each been charged with sexual assault of young boys. It morphed into Affinity Media with Bannon at the lead. He tried to glom on to Sarah Palin, but won the lottery with Trump. Breitbart, which Bannon heads, went from an audience of 8 million to 18 million with Trump. He consorts with lots of people who say openly bigoted things and is generally pretty terrifying. According to Martin, we'll likely be at war with China within five years.

What's interesting to me, though, is one particular line, a protection against claims of racism that's gaining some traction: "White Americans are in a position where they have to prove they're not racist."

People are sick of being politically correct, watching everything they say and do to avoid being called out for some kind of -ism. Some, like Jordan Peterson and William Deresiewicz, go as far as suggesting that people are being oppressed by the PC police. We heard a lot about the PC police in the early 80s, when some men said they were afraid to open a door for a woman for fear of the reprisal it might provoke. It took a while to figure out the door-opening situation, but we managed it. But it's very easy to see how Bannon's lament is a great one to use to rally people around the evil forces forcing us to watch what we say, and, of course, stripping away our rights to free speech.

Deresiewicz expresses concern about dogmatic thinking in universities:
"There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern....If you are a white man, you are routinely regarded as guilty until proven innocent, the worst possible construction is put upon your words, and anything you say on a sensitive issue is received with suspicion at best."
But I don't think this is a university issue, and I also don't believe it's a liberal issue nor "an invocation of Stalinism" as he suggests. This type of thinking happens in high schools and general communities and, as far as I can tell from my own observations, it always has. It hasn't always been this position that's at the centre of concern, but there's always a group who dominate, and their opinions are louder and more often repeated by the masses. It's not a liberal-driven conspiracy, but a dominant view of the world that has an arsenal of pat arguments, homilies even, that make it easy to defend by the laziest thinkers. Oppression is only felt by those fearful of expressing dissenting opinions because they might face a strong opposition. It's hard to muster the courage to go against the grain, but religious views and anti-environmental views are definitely heard regardless the perceived consensus. He wants to invoke the First Amendment in the classroom, but are students nervous to speak up because they fear litigation, or because they fear opposition? They might be opposed, but, as far as I can tell, they're neither banned nor punished. That's an important distinction to make, and we need to work on helping our charges to feel strong enough to speak up. Deresiewicz raises the concern that school administrators are aligning themselves with students against their own faculty, but that's a different issue that requires some strong union backing, and it somewhat runs counter to the rest of his argument that students are victims of the PC police.

Vlogger Jay Smooth responded to this kind of anti-PC argument ages ago here, mimicking the thought-process that leads to the lament:
"Respecting each other's humanity is such a pain in the ass! Do we really have to do this forever? Can't you all just lighten up so I don't have to respect you anymore?" 
He explains the burgeoning idea that being 'post racism' means no longer considering how our words affect each other, and he makes it clear that this is just crazy. The closer we get, the more we need to be concerned with our effect on others.

BUT, of course we also want to be respectful of the person who's made the offending remarks, whether they're intentional or accidental. Some get gregarious promoting their position and can end up being aggressive. Only by challenging claims without insults and attacks can we get to the other side of this. Like Asam Ahmad says in this article (a few years old but reanimated here),
"No matter the wrong we are naming, there are ways to call people out that do not reduce individuals to agents of social advantage. There are ways of calling people out that are compassionate and creative, and that recognize the whole individual instead of viewing them simply as representations of the systems from which they benefit."
AND, there's a different issue around what attacking looks like. Someone can feel attacked after being told, "You need to choose a different word for that because the one you used is offensive." Is it the case that those are offensive words because it's in the form of a declarative statement rather than a request? Or is it the case that some people are too easily wounded when they're told they've done something wrong? It can get really tricky, so we all need to tread gently.

But back to Bannon. The anti-PC lament is a brilliant way to gather allies who wouldn't have considered themselves racist before, but they're just getting so tired of being so darn thoughtful all the time that some of Bannon's concerns seem like they might make sense. It's not just PC exhaustion; it hurts to think badly of ourselves, and it can be easy to make a mistake and accidentally offend. This is difficult terrain to manage.

I do my best to be respectful, and I usually do a good job of it, so it was a learning experience to offend recently. I asked my kids for the name of "that black guy on that show..." and my kids were horrified. "Oh, my God, mum, you can't just say someone's black!" I've been referring to people with black skin as black for some time now, and just recently found out it's deemed racist (by the current white university student demographic at least). I tried googling the most appropriate nomenclature, but couldn't come up with anything solid. My kids inform me it's "African American," which sounds old-school to my ears, and what if we're referring to someone Canadian or British? I'm suddenly so confused. It shouldn't be this difficult to be appropriate. Like I said with the transgender identity issue, people most affected need to make it clear which words are most acceptable, but it's easiest for the rest of us if it's not in flux.

The easiest thing to do when we feel badly about something we've said or done is to lash out. It's easiest to defend our position, insist we're not wrong, and attack our accusers. Most of us recognize that it's a ridiculous tactic, but, in the moment, saving face is often so much more important to us than doing the right thing, which is to apologize for any offence we might have caused and try to change for the better.

It's an effort to continue to avoid causing offence, but it's a necessary effort. We can't let flourish the ideology that we're all wounded by the social drive to stop any truly offensive words and ideas from creeping into our vernacular. We have to acknowledge harm with care and with the level of respect we hope to be given in return, but jumping on the anti-PC bandwagon is a mindless and thoughtless response to it all.

Friday, March 17, 2017

If We Could Be as Smart as Frogs

I regularly tell students about our likely future. It's often met with skepticism, so I provide lots of citations from the IPCC and NASA. Then I sometimes get a lecture on being so doom and gloom. Denial is our go-to defence against reality. But for whose benefit? It's just for our own short term enjoyment at the expense of our long term survival. But we can so easily enjoy our lives without so much of the crap we've come to take as necessary to our happiness. Well, some of us better than others, I suppose. People don't want to think about the effect their choices have on the future. It feels uncomfortable to think about how bad it might be. And our culture is awash in the view that anything that causes anxiety is a bad thing. But it's so much easier to cope with knowing, to cope with some anxiety over it all today, than trying to figure out how to cope with the burgeoning ravages of climate change.

Denialists, and those who believe yet continue to hush the messengers because they're not quite ready to hear it (There will be time, There will be time...), are the frogs that refuse to budge from the boiling pot.

Rupert Read, British philosopher and politician, recently gave a grim opening address to a group of first year students but added the message that frogs in gradually warming water actually jump out! He's hopeful that we can be so smart.

He has a two-point plan to change our culture of recklessness.

1. Use the precautionary principle that state where there is a risk of serious harm, then you don't need to wait for full scientific proof to act on that harm by taking strong, precautionary action. We're wasting too much time waiting for categorical proof when we need to act now. If this becomes a guiding principle, then the world and its prognosis will begin to look very different.

2. Create a Guardians of Future Generations panel. We're stuck in short term misreasoning (and have been for 2500 years according to Plato). Politicians have even shorter time horizons; they don't think past the next news cycle. We need a change to make it necessary to think long term. Imagine if your children and their children were here with us now, and consider what they would tell us to do and not do. We need a proxy institution to create that idea - a third house of parliament with representatives of future generations with the power to strike down any idea that could recklessly damage the future. Plato would say it should be made up of the philosophers. Reed thinks it should be a random selection of the population to maintain the democratic system.

With the number of people I know who are just beginning to recycle because the new garbage restrictions have finally forced the issue, and the number who want me to stop talking about the problems with GHGs long enough for them to effectively re-sheath their lifestyle in ignorance to their own effects on the world, I'm with Plato on this one.

The Tao cautions that we should accept the trajectory of the universe because it's arrogant to think we can fix it. George Carlin says the same thing. It's a calming philosophy. Hope that we can do something makes me anxious. Hope means we have to keep fighting, keep doing our part in how we live, in how we vote, in the letters we write, and in our attempts to get others to do the same, to join the quest for a better world - a survivable world. Accepting that we can't change means accepting the end of our species. I'm not ready for that yet.

Anyway, here's the video of his talk. It's only 12 minutes.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

On the Philosophy of Mr. Money Moustache

A friend pointed me towards this podcast in which Tim Ferriss interviews Mr. Money Moustache (MMM), a man who retired from work in his 30s to live on the interest from his investments and then got a significant following as a blogger.

The podcast describes the kind of life I've tried to live (except for that early retirement bit), and MMM talks about ideas I've been writing about for ages. I'm successful in actually following some parts of this lifestyle and horribly disappointing in others. Like me, he loves to build things, and I'm going to have his explanation for why he doesn't love travelling at the ready next time I'm asked why I don't travel: he gets his joy from creating, which isn't travel-friendly. Absolutely!

He hates cars as much as I do, and cautions, "You should never get a job that requires you to drive to it." Once I started a permanent job, I moved closer to it to cut my daily travel time down to a ten minute walk. People don't do things like that anymore. He thinks walking is the best medicine in the world. Tim adds, "We've evolved to be able to walk very long distances. Humans are better humans, less neurotic, when they walk a lot."
MMM's billboard of choice.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

On Rising Anxiety Rates

A couple weeks ago, CBC ran an article about a high-school guidance counsellor, Boyd Perry, concerned with the increase in anxiety in students, and I've been dwelling on it ever since. This is crazy long as I'm just figuring all the angles here. Perry thinks we need to assess anxiety differently because these kids, some of them in kindergarten, aren't disordered but merely ill-equipped due to the bubble parenting that's become a trend, the swooping in to fix every little thing rather than letting kids feel the pain and learn to cope. According to an annual survey of counselling centres, the most common issue raised by students used to be around relationship concerns. In 1996, anxiety took over as number one spot, and it's stayed there gaining a wider lead ever since.

I agree parenting trends and misdiagnoses are an issue, but I also think it's more complicated than that.

I raised a similar concern a year ago; maybe mid-winter is the season to discuss our discontentment. My students last year were quite sure school is significantly harder than ever before regardless my claims to the contrary backed up with binders of old assignments and exams spanning the decades. I don't think they felt like it's harder just because life has been too easy for them because of overprotective parents, though. At the time I said it's also because of their parent's anxiety over the job market, the demands social media have on their time, and everyone's heightened expectations of themselves and their lives including, but not limited to, the quest for a gratifying career that allows them to work to their potential in a field they find fascinating. Today, I'd add the decrease in face-to-face interactions and feelings of community, the umbilical cord of cellphones that prolongs separation anxiety (with friends as well as parents), unceasing change that keeps us in a state of perpetual turmoil, concern with the state of the world, and even pollution. There are numerous societal, environmental, and personal factors intertwined that are pushing this trend.


But what does anxiety even mean? A separate issue is that 'anxiety' is a word like 'cancer.' Decades ago I saw an interview with an oncologist (and sometimes comedian and philosopher), Robert Buckman, who insisted that we should use the word 'cancer' the way we use the word 'infection'. Both are very broad terms that could mean someone needs a minor procedure or they're on death's door. You might need a benign mole removed or a blister popped, or you might have pancreatic cancer or AIDS. We don't generally gather family together to tell them "I have an infection" because that's meaningless information. We're more specific about it. We need to apply that specificity to cancer discussions always including the location, the spreading potential, and the stage. The word has become too loaded, typically cueing people to think the worst.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Resistance in the Age of Trump

Just 25 minutes:

On Becoming a Woman - Mid-Life Edition

When I was around ten to fourteen, we were all inundated with information about our bodies - all the ins and outs of the magical, wondrous things that were just around the corner for us. It happened at school, but it was also the purview of some of the After School Specials that everyone watched, intrigued, then later mocked. We only had twelve TV channels to choose from, and most of them were soaps at that time of day, so they had a captive audience. And then there were dogeared copies of Judy Blume books to help us get our heads around it all. We were well-prepped.

Now that it's far more socially acceptable to be alive in a female body, some moms have parties when their little girls become women. I can't help wondering if it's all just to spin something kind of annoying into something beautifully natural so people don't start complaining or get weirded out by it all. Nature can be pretty nasty sometimes. I didn't throw any parties because my girls just wanted to go on with their day and not think about it too much.

But at mid-life, there nothing to warn us of our changing bodies, of the miraculous transformations unfolding day by day on our special journey towards becoming... what? 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Crazy-Making Cancer Treatment

I believe my doctors mean well, I really do, but their behaviour is not dissimilar from the crazy-making type of abuse wherein the abuser keeps telling a different story until the victim starts to question their own memory and doesn't know what to believe any more. I'm really glad I write everything down (and tape record it too - but secret-like because that makes them antsy).

I saw a medical oncologist last December. She was last in a long lineup of doctors who had varying opinions about my medical condition. A panel of doctors thought I should get lymph node surgery just in case cancer spread in there, but she wasn't as convinced. She leaned towards an estrogen inhibitor instead. Just one pill a day to prevent a relapse. She left me with a package of information about the drug, Letrozole, and I wandered off to contemplate my options.

Then I came across this article, which doesn't help maintain my faith in the system:
"It is distressingly ordinary for patients to get treatments that research has shown are ineffective or even dangerous. Sometimes doctors simply haven’t kept up with the science. Other times doctors know the state of play perfectly well but continue to deliver these treatments because it’s profitable — or even because they’re popular and patients demand them. Some procedures are implemented based on studies that did not prove whether they really worked in the first place. Others were initially supported by evidence but then were contradicted by better evidence, and yet these procedures have remained the standards of care for years, or decades."
On the advice of a commenter here (and former colleague), I called CAREpath to help with all the differing opinions. They collected all the medical files generated and assessed them to come up with a comprehensive pros/cons list. Literally. They weighted heavily on the anti-surgery side, with a "risk of cure" rate of 97% without any intervention. In their opinion (a different panel of doctors and nurses that's in Toronto), surgery would only have a marginal effect and wasn't worth the general surgical risks, but the hormone inhibitors might be a good idea.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

On Silence in the Face of Alt-Facts

I think part of the reason we're swimming in crap is because we care more about being friendly than we do about spreading accurate claims. There are courses out there to learn how to detect bullshit, but maybe we also need to learn how to call something out without looking like a jerk.

The news media production of garbage is one part of the problem, but another important part is the widespread silence taken as acceptance of some claims that have no evidence to back them up. Sure there are the blindly obedient group, but my focus here is skeptical few who stand quietly by while others peddle their beliefs because it's seen as mean to question facts right to someone's face. It's seen as antithetical to forming allegiances, which has always been baffling to me. I think some of the closest friendships can be formed over a few good debates about facts and possibly differing interpretations. But people take offence when their beliefs are attacked, and all too often people are conflating their beliefs with misunderstood information.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

On Obama

I don't agree with everything he did, but I love the way he did it. Obama was (is - he's not dead) a classy guy. He's a role model for behaving under stress, a legendary orator, and a gentleman with his partner.  A recent NYTimes article described one daily practice of his - to read ten letters from average citizens. It described the process his staff goes through, sifting through hundreds of letters each day to find the ten and then choosing the best order for them. This was a priority for him at the start of his term right down to the final day.

Each time I teach civics, four times a year for the past many many years, I've started with the same assignment. Students choose an important issue, figure out what political level has jurisdiction, and then write a persuasive letter to the appropriate representative. And then I'd hand deliver the letters to make sure they got there in time for us to get replies before the end of term. But the replies stopped coming.

I used to count on about a third of the class hearing back within six weeks. I could count on a former MPP, a former principal, and a former mayor responding to every single letter. Now I've started suggesting that maybe one lucky student will get a reply! And I've been weaning them out - only actually delivering the more timely or impactful letters in hopes they could garner some interest, and adding my own letter on top, begging for a response. The letters in return really help students believe that the system works. But nothing. Not even a form letter.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

On Sugar and Socialization

An Agenda discussion on sugar use is timely for me. I typically let students eat something small and healthy in class to tide them over until lunch, but, in one class this semester, I ended up having to police their choices. A few shovelled candy into their mouths before I'd tell them to put it away on a daily basis. I'd sometimes comment on their nutritional decisions even though it's not a health class, and then I'd immediately wonder if that's crossing a line. Sometimes my mom hat slips on when I should be in teacher mode. Or is that possibly a teacher's prerogative?

Gary Taubes provides a compelling argument for refined sugar being the primary cause of obesity not because it provides empty calories, or calories at all, but because it "creates a hormonal milieu that favours fat accumulation." This isn't entirely a new idea, except he goes a bit further with it, insisting that sugar has probably killed more people than tobacco. See the documentary Sugar Coated (currently on Netflix) for more thorough arguments.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

On Gender Pronouns and Peterson's Case

This is a difficult thing for me to figure out, and I'm not sure I'm quite firm on anything yet, but I've been completely fascinated by the discussions around Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto prof who refuses to use individually-determined gender pronouns, so I'll try to narrow down what I actually think based on some of his YouTube videos, his interview with Joe Rogan, and various articles. I wrote before about some points I disagree with, but here I'll also look at where his argument has some merit. He's got some solid ideas in the mix.

First of all, the fact that I'm wary of discussing this at all, means that Peterson is on to something. He might not be entirely right about what he's doing and how, but it's always a concern when people don't feel free to counter current views. Before I knew his name, this felt like an issue that wasn't allowed to be debated, and those are always the meatiest places to explore. Why can't we question it? What's going on there? I teach philosophy and social science courses, and I get into all sorts of discussions that push boundaries: is incest necessarily immoral, or why don't we all use performance-enhancing drugs, or what if we sterilize couples right after they have one child to decrease population? Yet people questioning their gender is untouchable as a debatable topic so far. It's to the point that teens who feel strongly that they're in the wrong body are allowed significant surgery even though women in their 30s can't get their tubes tied because they can't possibly know their own minds. That's really interesting to me.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Eco-Hypocrites: Flights of the Anti-Flyers

I was just contemplating my own hypocrisy when I came across this NYTimes Op Ed on hypocrisy. Likely I'm not the only one in this position of explaining away, or coming to terms with, behaviour very contrary to my ethics. I've written before that nobody should board an aircraft for a luxury trip, and then I took my family to Costa Rica over the break.

The Op Ed discussed a study that shows why hypocrisy is so irritating:
"We contend that the reason people dislike hypocrites is that their outspoken moralizing falsely signals their own virtue. People object, in other words, to the misleading implication.... the principal offense of a hypocrite is not that he violates his own principles, but rather that his use of moral proclamations falsely implies that he himself behaves morally."
At a recent Christmas party when people spoke of the many trips about to be travelled, I asked, "How do you justify the trip to yourself knowing the damage it has on the environment?" Now, before you look at me sideways, I meant is as a legitimate question regardless how inconsiderately I likely worded it. It's something I'm struggling with, and I really want to know what others do. Is it denial? or rationalization? or apathy? How do we all act in ways counter to our own long term survival? But, of course, it's taken as a judgment. The main reaction was "You're going on a trip, so now you can't talk!"

This is only correct in part. It's correct in terms of offering a judgment of others, which is what the authors of the Op Ed are getting at. We can't rightly say to someone, "You're a bad person for wearing shoes in the house," while we currently have our shoes on in the house. That's a problem. But I'm not claiming that people are bad, but that certain actions are a problem that have to be dramatically reduced. It's similar to the reaction (often gleeful) some people have when a grammar teacher makes a grammar error. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't promote good grammar despite our own fallibility.

My rebuttal to the comment was, "Sure I can!" because we all need to stop travelling for leisure. Including me. I feel horribly guilty for taking a trip, and I really want to know how others manage those feelings when they're making travel arrangements.

There's another view out there that people are upset by claims of moral action because it forces them to reassess their own actions comparatively, and they're angry when they think they fall short of appropriate or admirable behaviour. That's actually pretty much the same thing, but it has a difference feel to it. It puts the problem in the hands of the audience's reaction to factual statements like, "I don't own a car, or I'm vegan." They feel their conception of themselves as moral human beings threatened. The authors of this view recognize that it's often an unintended implication that's read into the statement of concern. It's not the speaker behaving falsely, as the speaker can be well aware of their own flaws, but the audience who assumes it's bragging rather than concern.

The Op Ed author suggest that admitting wrong-doing helps. I do this already when I talk about the morality of eating animals because I've personally focused on reduction rather than strict restriction. But I intend to remember to do this in all cases:
"To further test our theory, we asked people to judge “non-signaling” hypocrites: those who hypocritically condemn behaviors they engage in, but who explicitly avoid implying anything virtuous about their personal behavior — by saying, for instance, “I think it’s morally wrong to waste energy, but I sometimes do it anyway.” We found that people judged these non-signaling hypocrites much more positively than they judged traditional hypocrites. In fact, they let these non-signaling hypocrites entirely off the hook, rating them as no worse than those who engaged in the same bad behavior but did not condemn others for it."
But I'm not going to stop talking about doing everything we can possibly do to slow down climate change. As Mill said,
Human beings owe to each other help to distinguish the better from the worse, and encouragement to choose the former and avoid the latter. They should be for ever stimulating each other to increased exercise of their higher faculties, and increased direction of their feelings and aims towards wise instead of foolish objects and contemplation. 
We think we have a right to everything we want to have or see or be, and that doesn't just damage our planet, but, I'd argue, it does a number on our ability to ever be content.

How DO People Cope with the Guilt, and Why Did I Finally Break?

I fell deep into rationalizations.

I first agreed to my daughter's request for a trip because I was terrified of getting surgery, and I thought an upcoming trip would help distract me (because flying is more scary for me than being cut open!). I was right. It was a useful distraction in the weeks leading up to my operation. None of the things I worried about actually happened on the trip, but there was a volcano that grounded all planes for the two days before we were scheduled to leave. I didn't even know to worry about that.

But once that came and went, then it became a promise to my children (which shows a lack of the skill of measurement, going for a short term gain that provokes a long term loss). Somehow it seemed better that it was for them and that I wouldn't actually enjoy it. I hate travelling and hot climates. I don't really understand standing in line after line in a crowded airport in order to go to a place with the temperature of a Canadian heat wave, something I typically barely tolerate, in order to have fun or relax constantly surrounded by people without the hope of time alone for eight solid days. I'm really good at having fun and relaxing in my own home all by myself!

And I convinced myself it's okay because I do it so much less than many (but way more than far more others, so that falls apart too). It's the same way I rationalize eating turkey at Christmas. It does help to do it less, to consider it a rare treat, but it helps more not to do it at all.

And I figured it might be okay because we booked an eco-lodge. The place was lovely, and I asked a ton of questions about how they operate it. They considered going off-grid, but decided it wouldn't make sense to since Costa Rica runs on 100% renewable energy. They catch rain water and dry laundry (they did all our laundry) with the sun in a greenhouse-type set-up, collect sewage in a biodigester, and compost all food waste. All the food was local, the water was solar heated, and they cooled the room with fans and thick curtains rather than A/C.


BUT, it was all-inclusive with meals already prepared for us as we arrived at each meal. I told them ahead of the trip that we had no allergies or aversions and didn't claim vegetarian status because I wanted to eat how they eat, but, really, they fed us how typical tourists might want to eat. It was a ton of food and lots and lots of meat. After a couple days, my kids ignored desert and asked instead for a plate of raw vegetables. The owners of the resort laughed at our unusual request - and at how excited we all got at some broccoli at the side of our plates one night. I hate seeing food go to waste, so I finished my plate and then went to work on the kids' leftovers. Despite hiking through the jungle every day, I managed to gain weight. It was delicious, but we could have managed on portions half the size. Resorts are all about luxury and an expectation of gluttony seems to go along with that.

My modified swim wear.
And the trip became a trial run for wearing tank tops and a bikini on the beach surrounded by total strangers a mere six weeks after a double mastectomy. It was far too hot to be discrete and cover up any more than the bare minimum. As soon as we got to our room, we'd all strip down to our skivvies. The heat forced me to come to terms with my new body shape, and swimming in the ocean helped my arm mobility.

Most striking to me, was the social rewards mounted on people who travel. I was congratulated for planning a trip and taking it. People wanted to hear all about the plans and the results. It's hard to avoid such a normalized behaviour or consider it a luxury when, in some circles, it's presented as a necessity.

But none of this erases the fact that jet fuel creates as many GHGs in two hours per person on the flight as a typical person creates in a year.

A Better Way to Relieve Guilt

The best way to ease guilt is to do something about it: in this case to buy carbon offsets. The David Suzuki organization has a step-by-step guide explaining the rationale behind purchasing the highest quality offsets, but it still takes significant effort to find a good company for investment. Many airlines have offset calculators with preselected companies (which might use a closer look) or suggested companies. Those two calculators gave very different amounts for the identical destinations: $60 for Air Canada and $20 for Delta. But really, that's a drop in the bucket for the cost of the trip. And it doesn't entirely alleviate my guilt. It's still morally wrong to take more that you need in a way that deprives others in future.

Instead of using the calculators to try to find some kind of accurate amount, I went old school - back to my churchly days of tithing. Sending ten percent of the price of the flight to an environmental organization that preserves forests or created renewable energy or opposes fossil fuel pipelines might be a good practice to begin implementing: a personally imposed carbon tax on harmful practices. It's a small price to pay for some semblance of peace of mind for those who can afford the luxury of a destination vacation.

ETA - And here's a video my son made of the trip:

Sunday, January 8, 2017

On Boyden's Questionable Ancestory

It's hard when we find our heroes as fallible as the rest of us. Boyden, the prize winning indigenous writer found to be not so indigenous, is taking a hit now. Some, like Aaron Paquette, think Boyden can't claim status without having endured the hardship that went with being raised by generations decimated by legislated policy. It's cheating to take the perks without the privations. Others, like Wab Kinew, think Boyden should make amends, but then could be part of the wider circle. (Both of those pieces are beautifully written and deserve a look.) I'm more interested in the drive to assimilate with the victimized. When Rachel Dolezal did something similar, she was duly trashed. I tried to understand her position as well. Yet, through reading Boyden's books, I've attributed greater depth, thoughtfulness, and generosity of spirit to him. People don't want to casually toss him aside as a wannabe.

My ancestors were the invaders and some were likely the invaded who assimilated and survived: the Gauls and Normans and Vikings and Saxons. Later on, those Norwegians, French, German, Scottish, and Irish who wanted more for themselves or who wanted to escape persecution loaded on boats for the New World. New to them that is. They came centuries after the the French made allegiances with the Hurons, about the time the British decided to deal with the "Indian problem" by creating the Indian Act, a document of invasive regulations that enabled the residential school system to open and flourish. Just like their forefathers, they invaded and forced assimilation on the people because they had bought into the need for the purity of a single group. It's what we do.

I'm a mix of all those cultures, but I don't hold allegiance to any, not even to the line of Alsatian Mennonites that gave me my surname. It's so far back, I feel divorced from those cultures, orphaned and adopted as Canadian, whatever that is. I'm sometimes jealous of newer immigrants with clear ties to a people. And of the Indigenous Canadians. We were unsuccessful at taking their culture from them, try as we did; their culture is strong and formidable. But, as much as John Ralston Saul would like to suggest, it's not our culture.