Category: Culture

“Active Fatalism”


Wolfgang Schaeuble

A core problem with the modern world is that we have heroism all wrong. It is not just the conflation of heroes with celebrities as role models, giving rise to the endless magazine lists of ways to be more like Beyoncé. The more serious issue is how, in the rush to elevate the authors of exceptional acts, we forget the ordinary man and woman doing their often menial jobs day after day. I am less interested in the firefighter-hero and the soldier-hero (not to mention the hedge-fund honchos and other quick-killing merchants thrust into the contemporary pantheon) than I am in the myriad doers of everyday good who would shun the description heroic.

A few weeks back I was listening to remarks by the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble. The minister was the target of an assassination attempt in 1990 that left him partially paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair. He brought up Sisyphus, the Greek mythological figure whose devious attempt to defy the gods and even death itself was punished with his condemnation to the task of pushing a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down again and oblige him to renew the effort through all eternity. No task, it would appear, better captures the meaningless futility of existence. But Schäuble suggested that Sisyphus is a happy man for “he has a task and it is his own…”

The phrase was arresting because the culture of today holds repetitive actions — like working on a production line in a factory — in such contempt. Hundreds of millions may do it, and take care of their families with what they earn, but they are mere specks of dust compared to the Silicon Valley inventor of the killer app or the lean global financiers adept in making money with money. Routine equals drudgery; the worker is a demeaned figure; youths are exhorted to live their dreams rather than make a living wage. Dreams are all very well but are not known to pay the mortgage.

Schäuble was echoing the French writer and philosopher, Albert Camus, who in his book “The Myth of Sisyphus” noted that “there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn…”

In Camus’ book, “The Plague,” one of the most powerful moments comes in an exchange between the doctor at the center of the novel, Bernard Rieux, and a journalist named Raymond Rambert. Rieux has been battling the pestilence day after day, more often defeated than not. Rambert has been dreaming of, and plotting, escape from the city to be reunited with his loved one.

Rieux suddenly speaks his mind: “I have to tell you this: this whole thing is not about heroism. It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”

“What is decency?” Rambert asked, suddenly serious.

“In general, I can’t say, but in my case I know that it consists of doing my job.”

Read the whole article. There are more examples. They make the point.

I haven’t read Camus since I was 17 or 18. At the time I was drawn more by Sartre…in turn more drawn to Engels than Marx. I guess I’ve always felt that societal ennui to be important as cultural inertia as anything.

I have both The Stranger and The Plague sitting in my wish list at Amazon and will likely revisit that thoughtful, existential anti-fascist again this winter.

Thanks, Helen

A traditional hero – and a hero’s welcome

House of Commons Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers was lauded by members of Parliament Wednesday for his reported role in stopping an assailant who killed a Canadian Forces member in Ottawa.

Vickers, 58, a native of Miramichi, N.B., was reportedly in the House of Commons when a gunman entered sometime after 9:52 a.m…Two sources told The Canadian Press that Vickers shot the assailant inside the Hall of Honour, the main entrance to the Centre Block beneath the Peace Tower…

Vickers became the sergeant-at-arms in the House of Commons eight years ago after a varied career in security that included protecting foreign dignitaries and members of the Royal Family.

He spent 29 years with the RCMP and rose to the rank of chief superintendent, often serving as the face of the national police force in New Brunswick. Before his appointment as sergeant-of-arms, Vickers was director of security operations for the House of Commons.

A copper’s copper. He doesn’t need to celebrate doing his job. He just goes ahead and does it.

Unfair pay for women and people of color

unfair pay
Click on the graphic for a personal view

American women who work full time, year round are paid only 77 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts. But the wage gap is even larger for many women of color working full time, year round, as African-American women are paid only 64 cents, and Hispanic women only 54 cents, for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men.

These gaps translated into a loss of $18,650 for African-American women and $24,111 for Hispanic women in 2012. Closing the wage gap is, therefore, particularly important for African-American and Hispanic women, who are already more likely to have lower incomes and to be in poverty than virtually all other groups.4 Although enforcement of the Equal Pay Act and other civil rights laws has helped narrow the wage gap over time, addressing the significant disparity that remains is critical for women and their families.

The wage gap for African-American and Hispanic women [.pdf] working full time, year round persists even when the effect of race or sex is considered alone.

• The typical African-American woman working full time, year round is paid roughly 83 cents for every dollar paid to her white, non-Hispanic female counterpart. The gap is larger for Hispanic women working full time, year round, who are paid just 69 cents for every dollar paid to their white, non-Hispanic female counterparts.

• The typical African-American woman working full time, year round is paid roughly 88 cents for every
dollar paid to her African-American male counterpart. The gap is the same for Hispanic women working full time, year round, who are also paid 88 cents for every dollar paid to their Hispanic male counterparts.

RTFA for example after example of death by a thousand cuts if you ain’t white and male.

Not so incidentally, if you are white and male don’t get smug. Although you may not have confronted pay cuts directly, part of the discrimination that adds to profit – is that white men also receive less than they might because “Hey, look. You’re better off than they are, eh?” And that’s good enough for plenty of guys who haven’t looked at what they might be earning if they got together and joined forces with the rest of their class.

Thanks, Mike

2014 IgNobel Prizes awarded


Some of my favorites:

NEUROSCIENCE PRIZE [CHINA, CANADA]: Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, and Kang Lee, for trying to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast.

REFERENCE: “Seeing Jesus in Toast: Neural and Behavioral Correlates of Face Pareidolia,” Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, Kang Lee, Cortex, vol. 53, April 2014, Pages 60–77. The authors are at School of Computer and Information Technology, Beijing Jiaotong University, Xidian University, the Institute of Automation Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China, and the University of Toronto, Canada…

PUBLIC HEALTH PRIZE [CZECH REPUBLIC, JAPAN, USA, INDIA]: Jaroslav Flegr, Jan Havlíček and Jitka Hanušova-Lindova, and to David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan, Lisa Seyfried, for investigating whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat…

REFERENCE: “Changes in personality profile of young women with latent toxoplasmosis,” Jaroslav Flegr and Jan Havlicek, Folia Parasitologica, vol. 46, 1999, pp. 22-28…

REFERENCE: “Describing the Relationship between Cat Bites and Human Depression Using Data from an Electronic Health Record,” David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan, Lisa Seyfried, PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 8, 2013, e70585. WHO ATTENDED THE CEREMONY: Jaroslav Flegr, David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan…

ECONOMICS PRIZE [ITALY]: ISTAT — the Italian government’s National Institute of Statistics, for proudly taking the lead in fulfilling the European Union mandate for each country to increase the official size of its national economy by including revenues from prostitution, illegal drug sales, smuggling, and all other unlawful financial transactions between willing participants.

REFERENCE: “Cambia il Sistema europeo dei conti nazionali e regionali – Sec2010″, ISTAT, 2014…

A good time was had by all…

Thanks, Mike

Malaysia investigates public dog petting

I want to touch a dog
No one was struck down by lightning

Islamic authorities in Malaysia are conducting an investigation into a controversial “dog patting” event aimed at removing the stigma regarding the animal in the multi-ethnic Muslim-majority country.

The event, titled “I want to touch a dog” and held in a park on the outskirts of the capital Kuala Lumpur on Sunday, encouraged patting dogs, widely considered to be unclean in Islam, and reportedly drew hundreds of Muslims, raising the ire of religious leaders.

Islamic authorities said they would investigate the event, while a Muslim leader, Nooh Gadut, said it was an attempt to insult clerics…

The organiser, Syed Azmi Alhabshi, who is a Muslim, had said his intention was to help people overcome their fear of dogs and promote compassion towards animals.

Many Malaysians posted positive comments about the event on social media…

Muslims who took part in the event last Sunday performed in a special washing ritual at the end of the event.

The Southeast Asian country generally practises a moderate brand of Islam, but conservative views have gained increasing traction in recent years, with minorities complaining of what they see as Islamisation.

Theocracy is bad enough – in and of itself. It allows no respect for freedom of thought. In particular, the freedom to be perfectly satisfied with material reality as the foundation for philosophy, politics, economics and social life. Education eventually restricts superstition to the ignorant.

Malaysia is joining other nations like Turkey, run by hypocrites, saying one thing about liberty for citizens while gradually imposing theocracy. No more desirable in Asia than in the United States. Fundamentalists of one flavor or another always seem to think they have a cellphone connection with whichever deity they think makes them special – and the rest of us folk should just sit back and obey.

The sillier aspects of most are as concerned with food and pets as they are about stopping equal opportunities for human beings. They deserve opposition – especially from believers who want to bring their beliefs more in line with the time we live in – rather than in the distant past.

Cripes – Republicans have a war on wedding dresses!

The GOP’s increasingly sad attempts to court the votes of American women remind me of that love-struck guy who just can’t take the hint. He wants your attention, even after you tell him you’re not interested, and you’re not interested because of just how weird he is about women. He tries everything, from arguing that his bad behavior is actually good for you to getting his girl friends (who really should know better) to talk him up. He even hires a relationship counselor.

So it’s hard not to see the Republican party’s latest round of midterm campaign ads – part of a $1m dollar effort to reach young voters with “culturally relevant” messages – as the last-ditch, desperate effort of a long-ago-dumped delusional loser. Playing off the TLC reality show about wedding gowns, Say Yes to the Dress, the College Republican National Committee (CRNC) put out videos on Wednesday comparing the way a woman votes to how she picks a wedding dress. Because ladies like clothes, right? Wedding clothes especially.

The CRNC released six videos for six different candidates; the one about Florida governor Rick Scott, who is obsessed with not letting women have abortions, has been getting most of the attention. They all feature the same young woman shopping for a wedding dress with her mother and some friends. The savvy young woman wants to vote for the Republican dress, but her out-of-touch mom wants her to go with the Democrat dress, Charlie Crist. It’s incredibly offensive, to be sure – as if women can only understand politics, or voting, if you dress them up in reality TV – but it’s sort of difficult to be outraged while you’re busy laughing at how pathetic these Republican get-out-the-vote ads have become…

If Republicans want their “woman problem” to go away, they need to stop being such a problem for women. Stop the ongoing attacks on our bodies and health. Stop the stupid comments about rape. Stop questioning our ability to cast a vote. Actually … just stop.

Jessica Valenti’s column is straight to the point. And we can’t lay the blame exclusively at the feet of ancient old farts whose knowledge of sex and life were learned watching “Father Knows Best” on black-and-white TV. Though you’d think so.

Republican ideology, reticence to look outside the pews of old-fashioned white guys dead and gone for decades, fear of learning, fear of accepting new folks into the fold of royalist thought – limits any message of change they might bring to voters. An attitude apparently shared by every collegiate male voice in that party. Even if the change they want marches backwards instead of facing the future, they haven’t the courage or even cunning to lose the suits they’ve been wearing since the days of Herbert Hoover..

Sugary soft drinks linked to accelerated aging

Consumption of sugary soda drinks such as cola and lemonade may be linked to accelerated DNA ageing, say researchers who have studied the impact of the drinks in more than 5,000 people.

High-sugar fizzy drinks have been under fire from campaigners for contributing to obesity and type-2 diabetes, but this is the first study to suggest a link with ageing. The researchers found that people who reported drinking a 350ml bottle of fizzy drink per day had DNA changes typical of cells 4.6 years older.

Yes, this sort of sugar consumption shortens your life much as smoking.

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, asked 5,309 healthy adults aged between 20 and 65 about their consumption of fizzy drinks and examined the DNA from each participant’s white blood cells.

The team found that telomeres – protective DNA caps on the end of chromosomes – were shorter in people who reported habitually drinking more fizzy drinks.

Telomeres are repetitive sections at the end of chromosomes that get shorter each time cells divide. They act as a kind of genetic ticking clock and in the past have been associated with human lifespan as well as the development of some forms of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Other studies have suggested a link between telomere length and lifestyle factors such as smoking and psychological stress.

Prof Elissa Epel, of UCSF, stressed that the study only showed an association and did not prove that sugary drink consumption caused cell ageing. If high soda consumption was to blame, it may be due to the huge rush of sugars into the blood after a drink, leading to oxidative stress and inflammation – “the perfect storm for degrading telomeres,” said Epel.

Next in line for study – a tighter focus on sugar. Overdue as far as I’m concerned.

Thanks, Mike

More physical activity improved school performance

The scientists…at the Centre for Brain Repair and Rehabilitation at the Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, have tested the hypothesis that increased physical activity stimulates learning and improves school performance.

In the study, published in the scientific periodical “Journal of School Health,” 408 twelve-year-olds in the Gothenburg region were given two hours of extra play and motion activities per week, in collaboration with a local sports club. This was approximately twice the normal amount of curricular physical activity.

The effect of the intervention was evaluated by comparing the achievement of national learning goals by the children four years before and five years after its implementation. The results were compared to control groups in three schools that did not receive extra physical activity.

The results are clear, according to the scientists: A larger proportion on students in the intervention school did achieve the national learning goals in all subjects examined — Swedish, English and mathematics compared to the control groups.

“You can express it that two hours of extra physical education each week doubled the odds that a pupil achieves the national learning goals. We did not see a corresponding improvement in the control schools, where the pupils did not receive extra physical activity — rather the contrary, a deterioration,” says scientist and neurologist Thomas Linden at the Sahlgrenska Academy.

“Our hope is that planners and policy-makers will take our results into consideration,” says Lina Bunketorp Käll the researcher and project leader of the study.

Guess what? In Sweden that might actually happen.

In a parallel effort, a planned 5-story elementary school was changed to a 4-story school as built. Instead the building was constructed around an atrium for exercise and dance with running tracks on the rooftop. In China.