Saturday, July 29, 2017

Arendt on Revolution and the Necessity of Eradicating Poverty

Hannah Arendt's essay, "Thoughts on Poverty, Misery, and the Great Revolutions of History," written in the 1960s, was apparently just recently published for the first time. It continues to be relevant in our increasingly weird times with a tyrant who would rather dominate than excel in case after case:
"For the will to power as such, regardless of any passion for distinction (in which power is not a means but an end), is characteristic of the tyrant and is no longer even a political vice. It is rather the quality that tends to destroy all political life, its vices no less than its virtues. It is precisely because the tyrant has no desire to excel and lacks all passion for distinction that he finds it so pleasant to dominate, thereby excluding himself from the company of others; conversely, it is the desire to excel which makes men love the company of their peers and spurs them on into the public realm." 
She explains that the goal of revolution from a tyrant isn't just that people are treated well, which any benevolent dictator would do, but that people have access to the decision-making process that determines how they will be treated:

Chest Tattoo with a Side of Lymphedema

As a means of healing and prettying up my mastectomy scars, I looked forward to a chest tattoo. I envisioned never wearing a bathing suit top again! After my mastectomy, I asked my surgeon about it. His only concern was that it wouldn't look good when I finally gave in and got reconstruction. But, if I'm absolutely sure I don't want recon work done, then I could get the tattoo as early as six weeks after surgery. That would have been done in December, but we were just about to go to Costa Rica, so I postponed it for after the trip. And then I found out I needed more surgery, so I postponed again. I asked the second surgeon if he had any concerns about a chest tattoo, and he said the same thing, just to wait six weeks post-op. He didn't even have concerns about me tattooing my arm if I were so inclined. He said women regularly get nipple tattoos after surgery, which are perfectly safe.

So I had an artist friend draw up this amazing sketch for me based on a pile of random ideas I threw at her:


Friday, July 28, 2017

On Regret

I've taken many questionable risks in my life. I lean toward leading a life that's lived fully over a safe and secure existence. Most I bounced back from easily from typical childhood falling from trees when I've climbed too high to dropping out of high school and somehow ending up with a Masters. Sometimes it's gone extraordinarily well for me. When an elderly woman next door to me died, I went deep into debt to buy and flip her crumbling house only to find it packed with cash. People thought I was crazy for my efforts to save my school from the chopping block until it all worked, and I'm still there. People were adamant that I can't possibly hold my head high as a teacher and unwed mother back a few decades when premarital sex was shameful, but I ignored them all with the most delightful results. And when my third pregnancy was fraught with complications, and doctors strongly advised me to terminate because of a high risk of Edwards syndrome, I, still single, took a chance and have another healthy daughter to show for it. I've been very very lucky over the years.


But then there are the times that didn't go as well. That time I was convinced I was overinsured and cancelled the insurance on a property, then it promptly went up in flames. That time I got scared of my debt load and hastily sold the slightly charred land - 24 acres with 2000' of waterfront, then soon realized there's nothing else like it out there in my price range. And that time I was convinced by a couple doctors, in opposition to others doctors, equally educated, to get an auxiliary lymph node dissection (ALND), and only afterwards found out about, and succumbed to, the risks of lymphedema.

Like most people, I imagine, I have an easy time ignoring my luck and a really hard time coping when my decisions don't pan out as well. Regret is a bugger.

So I wrote to Stoic advice columnist, Massimo Pigliucci, explaining my surgery situation in very general terms so it could be applied to and/or understood by more people, and I made it sound worse than it is to get a response to the worst case scenario. In general I asked "How were the Stoics so able to get on top of these types of thoughts so well?"

On Wasting Time

I had a brief Facebook conversation with Massimo Pigliucci about my decision to fritter away a morning watching the rain and petting my cat. He said, "It's up to you to determine whether your morning was wasted or not. But from a Stoic perspective the good use of time comes when one is doing something virtuous." And I started wondering further about what specifically counts as wasted time. So I turned to a thorough re-reading of Seneca's On the Shortness of Life. Here are the bits that stood out to me with chapters noted after each quotation:

Seneca points out that people complain about the cruelty of nature because life is short, even Aristotle did, but it's not short, it's just that we waste much of it (1). Then he lists many examples of what a waste of time looks like:
"soft and careless living...no worthwhile pursuit....held in the grip of voracious avarice....diligence that busies itself with pointless enterprises....sodden with wine....slack with idleness....tired out by political ambition, which always hangs on the judgment of others....desire for trading...in hope of profit....passion for soldiering....striving after other people's wealth....thrown...by a fickleness that is shifting" (2).

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Paradigm Shift in Climate Change Policy

In the news, Caroline Lucas, in The Guardian says one good policy isn't enough; we need a paradigm shift:
"Rather than simply looking for one headline-grabbing policy, the government should be embarking on a paradigm shift when it comes to how we get about in this country. ...Ultimately we need a green transport revolution, not another tinker with a transport system that’s creaking. Let’s aim for towns and cities that are easily navigable by foot and bike, a fully electric and publicly owned train system that covers the country, and local public transport that’s a joy to use – rather than the overpriced, unreliable service that’s currently on offer in so many places."
And Brad Plumer, in the NYTimes, says California is making that shift:
"The state plans to rethink every corner of its economy, from urban planning to dairy farms....If California prevails, it could provide a model for other policy makers, even as President Trump scales back the federal government’s efforts on climate change. The state may also develop new technologies that the rest of the world can use to cut emissions....The state’s emissions are nearly back to 1990 levels... and it has installed as many solar panels as the rest of the country combined....The board envisioned the number of electric cars and other zero-emissions vehicles on California’s roads rising to 4.2 million by 2030 from 250,000 today. Freight trucks would have to become more efficient or electrified, while cities would need to adopt far-reaching strategies to promote mass transit, biking and walking."
I love that they both mention cycling. I'm not convinced cap and trade will save us, as Plumer suggests, but it's all a start. We're not at that paradigm moment yet, but at least our heads are turned in the right direction:
"There may well be an art whose aim would be to effect this very thing, the conversion of the soul, in the readiest way; not to put the power of sight into the soul's eye, which already has it, but to ensure that, instead of looking in the wrong direction, it is turned the way it ought to be." - Plato's Republic, book 7
 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Climate Comedies

I caught Al Franken and David Letterman's Funny or Die series on climate change: Boiling the Frog. It's vaguely informative and not particularly funny, but fans of either guy might be willing to check it out. They focus on what their children and grandchildren will have to live with, and how they'll answer when asked what they did about it all, which I think is a fairly relatable tactic. And at about three minutes each, it's easy to watch an episode while you're waiting for the kids to get their shoes on. It's great for a populous with short attention spans, but it's hard to find a funny angle to talk about the dangers we're facing.

One episode referred to the show Years of Living Dangerously, which I hadn't heard about despite being three years old. It's a star-studded series (including Letterman in one episode) exploring climate change with lots of dramatic shots and music, but, based on the premiere only, it's not walking the walk. The very first scene has Harrison Ford excited to be flying a jet to visit with climate scientists. In one of the Boiling the Frog episodes, Franken asked Letterman, couldn't he just read about India's coal problem without travelling there? It's an important question. We have lots and lots of movies about climate change already. I'd put DiCaprio's film at the top of the list for clarity and persuasiveness. So it's been done. We need to stop flying film crews all over the world so Ford can say, ominously, "I'm going there to find out more!". I'm all about this stuff, and it got excellent reviews, but I won't be watching past the dramatic premiere.

The information is all out there in multiple genres and media already. Maybe it's got to move out of the documentary arena and into the HBO dramas for people to start paying attention. We need a risk-taking coming-out show like Ellen had when her character admitted to being gay. It's a similar risk to start talking about environmental destruction on a popular show in that sponsors might pull their ads, but, if it's done well, it could raise ratings enough that sponsors will come back. Then all other shows will scramble for a token environmentalist on their show! Right?

Somehow, of course, even despite religious protests at the time, two women kissing has a bigger draw than people choosing bikes over cars or overtly recycling or refusing to fly anywhere for ethical reasons. And it has a way bigger draw than famous people flying place to place to look at desolate and destroyed areas of the world.

Friday, July 14, 2017

On Hedges' Veganism Claims

Chris Hedges' recent article, "Eating Our Way to Disease," largely just advertises the new doc What the Health:
"Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn—whose documentary Cowspiracy, about the environmental impact of the animal agriculture industry, led me to become a vegan—recently released a new film, What the Health, which looks at how highly processed animal products are largely responsible for the increase of chronic and lethal diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer in the United States and many other countries."
Eating vegan is more ethical from an animal rights point of view. I believe it's healthier for the body to eat way more vegetables than meat and that it's much more efficient for people to eat grains than to feed grains to cattle and then eat the cows. From a moral, nutritional, and environmental perspective, I support the shift to veganism or at least vegetarianism, or, at the very least, reducetarianism. Absolutely.

BUT...

I wrote about some concerns with Hedges' praise of Cowpiracy before:
"The documentary Cowspiracy claims that 51% of GHG emissions are from agriculture (scrutinized here). Every other report on emissions has much lower numbers, including the IPCC, which puts it at 24%.... It's still up there, and it's definitely something we should act on by eating way less meat, but that 51% number seems to be seriously questionable. Documentaries need fact-checking too....But then Chris Hedges started praising the documentary and citing that number as fact. Yes, even the great Chris Hedges doesn't have time to fact-check everything he sees, and his bullshit meter must have been subdued from all the footage of suffering animals. When facts are reported inaccurately, but they help the cause, it's harder to be motivated to correct them. But it doesn't make them any less inaccurate."
Those last two lines linger.

First of all, we need to acknowledge the three-dimensional nature of all of us, neither demonizing nor glorifying anyone. I tend to think of Hedges as a bit of a hero, and he's clearly intelligent, but it appears that that doesn't stop him from being a little sloppy around some facts. Others have raised concerns around plagiarism, and his response there is perplexing. Well, it's only perplexing if we think of him as better than the rest of us fallible souls.

But secondly, if these shocking claims encourage people to eat less meat, which will have a positive effect on the environment (not quite as much as claimed, though), then should we just let it go? A Lund University study shows that eating a plant-based diet is one of the four most important activities individuals should do to affect climate change. The amount of meat we eat is definitely a problem. Should we let people think meat-eating is as bad as these films suggest? I think not. I fear it runs the risk of a Reefer Madness backlash. Once teens realize that their health teacher's tales of people jumping off a building after one toke from a marijuana cigarette are total bullshit, then they stop believing anything else from them. They need to know the real problems with smoking pot, and there are some, in order to make an informed choice. If Hedges supports claims that are a little bullshitty, then people might stop listening to any of it and continue to eat meat several times a day despite some real problems with that.

And then he boasts that the companion book to the new movie was written by his wife.

Her book's reviews on Amazon are mostly glowing, some reviewers suggesting they're using the book in their high-school classrooms (which feels more like a pitch than a review), but the criticisms there addresses specific concerns, many with solid backing:
"This is nothing but fear mongering at its best. You simply cannot say that processed meats cause as many deaths as tobacco, it's factually impossible! There are 34,000 deaths per year on average (W.H.O estimates) from processed AND red meats. There are over 8,000,000 deaths from tobacco every year. This is no way, shape, or form comparable to processed meats."
Here and elsewhere people are taking to task another claim from the book and film that beef is toxic because pollution gets in the cows when they eat grass, since it's obvious that the same pollution would get into vegetables and grains that we eat. Denise Minger does a thorough take-down of claims from Dr. Garth Davis, one of the experts from the film. And the Skeptical Cardiologist questions some claims from another expert, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, as does Minger.

I don't have any interest in seeing the film or reading the book, but I skimmed the Amazon "look inside" pages, and this bit caught my attention (page 75):
"People who ate 68 grams (about a cup) of broccoli sprouts significantly inhibited the bloodstream levels of an enzyme linked to cancerous tumor development (24), only three hours after eating the sprouts. The broccoli sprout snack was just as effective, or even more so, than the chemotherapy agent specifically concocted to lower that enzyme (25). Broccoli sprouts or chemo? Hard decision." 
Hold the phone - so broccoli can replace chemo?? I linked the studies cited to show the problem with this claim. The second study (25) found that the spouts briefly inhibited the epigenetic markers for cancer. But it makes it very clear that the study was  an attempt to prevent one specific provocation, not a therapy for cancer that exists. The three (three!) participants tested were all perfectly healthy at the time. And, as Wong says elsewhere, genetic markers cause only a small percentages of cancerous tumours anyway. The first study cited (24) explains the idea, but doesn't actually discuss the broccoli sprout study specifically as one would expect given the location of the citation in the passage. If it were a student's essay, I'd call that padding. Regardless, the original study's finding is in its initial stages and, more importantly, doesn't remotely suggest broccoli sprouts could replace chemotherapy in the least. Wong conflated concepts in a very misleading way.

I'm not going to fact check the many claims in the book, but one error of this type and magnitude is enough to throw into question other claims. And this passage is particularly dangerous if people take Wong, a classically trained actor, as a medical expert because the claim is published in a book about health and nutrition. I questioned the qualifications of the publisher and, lo and behold, it's a self-publishing company, Xlibris, so it's possible that nobody's fact-checked the material. Unfortunately, because it's in a paper form, it feels that much more legit. Caveat emptor and all, but this is troubling.

It's more important than ever that people understand how publishing works, what a peer-reviewed journal entails, and what is and is not peer-reviewed. But it's also important that we all understand some basics of the scientific method if we're expected to understand any of these studies. Or, at least, it would be nice if authors of nutritional books and films were able to use a basic scientific knowledge to understand their research more thoroughly. You don't have to have a medical degree to assimilate studies and form a conclusion, but you do have to read past the abstract.

ETA: Time Magazine also criticized the film.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Sooner Than You Think

Yesterday's NYTimes has a lengthy article, "The Uninhabitable Earth," subtitled, "What Climate Change Could Wreak - Sooner Than You Think."

In a nutshell:
"...the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming ... that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand....Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.... we have, trapped in Arctic permafrost, twice as much carbon as is currently wrecking the atmosphere of the planet, all of it scheduled to be released at a date that keeps getting moved up....the climate window that has allowed for human life is very narrow, even by the standards of planetary history." 

We'll have issues with death by heat, drought and flood induced food shortages, plagues of insects and bacteria that won't die off, suffocating air, constant war, economic collapse, and poisoned oceans.

Why are we so blind to all of this?
"The dilemmas and dramas of climate change are simply incompatible with the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, especially in novels, which tend to emphasize the journey of an individual conscience rather than the poisonous miasma of social fate."
At least, at the very least, this is major mainstream news now. People are starting to listen. But will it make them more closed in with fear, even more flippant and careless, or actually more motivated to change??

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

On the Year that Kicked My Ass, and That Time My Ass Kicked Back

Well, it's starting to kick back, ever so slowly.

I went on another Wild Women adventure, this time to Georgian Bay to try my hand at kayaking for a change. I was with a whole new group of women, our ages spanning three decades and from a wide variety of professions and backgrounds (and photographic skills - all the pics here are from them). It's always a treat to be on the water surrounded by the giant slabs of rock and tall trees rooted in the tiniest crevices with people concerned for the health and well being of the water, air, and land. We wash on the ground well away from the lake, compost as we go, forgo campfires, and practice no-trace camping. Meetup groups aren't always as environmentally minded. The guides on the trips are exceptional, well practiced in both tripping and diplomacy, and the food is better than anything I typically eat at home.



Wearing the exact same clothes as last time!
On the last trip, I went in order to challenge myself to solo a canoe through the portages so I could travel alone. I've been on my own for almost a decade, and I'll need at least to be able to take the lead if I hope to ever get any of my not-so-canoe-y friends on board. In order to do the things I most enjoy, all by myself became a bit of a mantra.

And then this year of surgeries happened.

Total independence is no longer my goal - can no longer be my goal. I have to work towards working with others in order to get anywhere. This trip came just when I needed it as I teetered precariously on the brink of succumbing to self-pity. My dad, who also left me this year, always saw my quest for independence as a barrier and encouraged me to "let other people shine" by asking for help and sharing the load. I tried to asked for help, and for things forgotten, and for time for a break without feeling sheepish or ashamed of my blunders and inabilities. Interdependence is a hard one for me. And, through it all, I was still pushing myself, able to feel just enough muscle strain at the end of the day.
"Purely physical fatigue, provided it is not excessive, tends if anything to be a cause of happiness; it leads to sound sleep and a good appetite, and gives zest to the pleasures that are possible on holidays." ~ Bertrand Russell