Monday, July 30, 2007

Only true church?

If you came here looking for a souflĂ©e, you’ll only find a pound cake. Sitting next to me in preparation are the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, two literary heavyweights. If I wanted light and fluffy I would have pulled out the Timmins Daily Press.The headlines shouted “Other churches ‘wounded’. Only true Church is Catholic.” The official uproar in the media was that Pope Benedict XVI and the wing of the Vatican he used to head, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had set ecumenism back at least half a century to before the Second Vatican Council. Protestants took it up as proof that Catholics are pompous elitists with no real love for God and His teachings. Some Protestant ministers even went so far as to falsely claim to their parishioners that the document stated that because Protestants were not part of the “true Church” they were not capable of salvation.

After being asked what I thought about this numerous times, I decided I should do what any responsible intellectual would do: go to the source. If I have learned anything in my short time here on Earth, it is that the media do a very poor job of reporting the news. It is all about snippets, quotations, and quick fixes. You cannot capture the subtle nuances of this document by reading the lay press. Do yourself a favor and, if you care about his issue at all, go read the English translation and form your own opinion.

Let us start by stating the obvious: nowhere in this document, unless it is contained in some hidden cipher box, does it state that members of churches outside of the Catholic church are incapable of salvation. That is an utterly false statement and I am perturbed that a minister of a church would make such a statement to his trusting parishioners. Talk about Ecumenical damage. Since it should be obvious to most Christians what it says about salvation in the Holy Bible (which, besides small differences in which books are included, is the same in Catholic and Protestant churches), I will quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church to clear this up, as this church’s teachings are what are being questioned. It states in the CCC that “Salvation comes from God alone.” The document does not state that God only exists in the Catholic church. As you will read later, it states quite the opposite.

Let’s see…what else did the media misrepresent? Oh, that the Pope said that all other churches besides the Catholic Church are not true churches and that they are wounded due to their shortcomings and failures. If you give due diligence to the subject, you will find this is also a false assertion. The Associated Press reported that the Vatican stated that “Christian denominations outside Roman Catholicism were either defective or not true churches”. It stated nothing of the sort. It is all about semantics and if we are so quick to fracture over semantics, than we have bigger problems.

The document states that “Christ ‘established here on earth’ only one Church and instituted it as a ‘visible and spiritual community’”, a Church that only exists in unbroken lineage from Christ’s chosen “rock”, Peter, to the current Pope in the Catholic church. The full complement of traditions and sacraments set into motion by Christ himself only exists in the Catholic church. The semantic disagreement comes in the form of the word “subsistence” which means the full “historical continuity and…permanence of all the elements instituted by Christ”. I do not think anyone would argue that notion. The Orthodox churches split from the original church first, followed by the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. The Protestant church than went on to separate into over 1000 separate denominations. But the document still states that it is “possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them.(Emphases mine.)

It goes on to state that although churches and Communities outside of the Catholic Church are suffering “from defects, [they] are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact, the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation”

Maybe the biggest thorn in the side of Protestants everywhere is the response to the question as to why the Vatican refuses to use the word Church when referring to the Christian communities arising from the Protestant Reformation. The answer is very academic and quite devoid of insult. Basically, the Vatican just has a different interpretation of the meaning of the word church. The Oxford Canadian Dictionary says church can mean a building for public, usually Christian, worship, the body of all Christians, an organized Christian group, or an institutionalized religion as a political or social force. But it is just semantics people! The document nowhere states that this inability to call other Christian communities “churches” in any way takes away from the sanctity of their worship, the truth of their message, their worship of God, or their belief in and practice of the main tenets of the Christian faith.

Finally, the biggest problem I have with all of this is that much of the nuances of the original document have been lost in translation. As far as I know, most, if not all, official Vatican documents are published in Latin. So the official message from the church should be interpreted from the official text. When translating a dead language like Latin into a living language like English, you are going to distort meaning somewhere.

C.S. Morrissey, a Latin professor at Trinity Western University in Langley, BC, wrote a wonderful article in the Globe and Mail. It draws attention to the use of the words “wound” and “defect” in the lay press with regards to this document. (Don’t think I didn’t realize that I quoted “defect” above.) Morrissey goes so far as to say that this document ADVANCES ecumenism. Here’s how.

With regards to shortcomings of some Protestant Christian communities, the original Latin document uses the word defectus. It does not directly translate as wound. It is kind of like sacre bleu. It has no proper translation in English. It comes from deficio which connotes either a lack of something or a revolt. It officially means “to do less than one might”. Morrissey purports that its usage in this text is to denote the Protestant community’s rebellion from a healthy unity. The reason he believes this is a step forward from the Communionis notio released in 1992 under Pope John Paul II is that that text (apparently the Vatican essentially self-plagiarized themselves with this latest text) used the Latin word vulnus which literally means “wound”. Sounds a little more harsh than “to do less than one might”.

So there you have it. It was a bunch of nuanced theology oversimplified by the lay press. How many journalists that reported on this do you think actually read the document? What about the ministers making inflammatory statements about Catholics? How many of them considered any of which I have just put forth?

I came into Christianity from the outside; as a born-and-raised Atheist. I found Christ as a young man, and my parents, God bless them, were open-minded enough to allow me to believe whatever felt right to me. The Catholic church appealed to me for the very reason of subsistence; that unbroken line from Christ and the traditions and symbols carried on in every Mass that bring you back to the Last Supper; sit you at the Lord’s table and offer you a chance to share in Holy Communion with Him. Antonia’s World has a great list of the successors of Peter (the Popes) all the way from Peter to Benedict. Really cool. But I did not enter into it blindly. One summer I read the entirety of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to make sure I was not going to be part of a church that taught lessons with which I would fundamentally disagree.

But I will admit there are things about Protestantism that I feel capture a more intimate, personal relationship with Christ. Before Luther, only the educated elite and the clergy had access to the Holy Bible. But when Gutenberg made his printing press, it democratized literature, for the betterment of humanity. Suddenly every Joe Schmo and Martin Luther could get their hands on a Bible. And why not? The truest expression of God’s grace and love is in his Word. So I do daily devotionals, time to sit with the Holy Bible and study scripture. This is a decidedly un-Catholic thing to do, but I think it is something Protestants have right.

But why argue the finer points of religious practice? When it comes down to it, as Christians we all worship the same God, and we all believe in the same fundamental tenets of our faith (the Apostles’ Creed). What do you think God cares about more? That you belong to a certain church, or that you love Him with all your heart and speak his Word to the world every day through your thoughts, actions, and attitude?

PS-To anyone who is interested in learning more about Catholicism, check out a cool site called The Catholic Bridge that aims to clear up some misconceptions about the Catholic Church. It is aimed at evangelical Christians.

PPS-You think your doctor has a lot of letters at the end of his name? Check out the Pope’s official title:

Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Little drummer boy

It seems my tactic to play my music for Sacha while he was in the womb has paid off. Allow me to explain.

I am a huge drumming fan. I do not own a drum kit. I have never played on one for more than twenty minutes. I have never had any education on drumming techniques. But the music I listen to attests to my love for rhythm.

I love all percussive rhythm. I particularly enjoy anything with a tribal feel to it like the drumming of Igor Cavalera. I appreciate the classics like Keith Moon and Neil Peart, but they are not my favorite. I am an avid metal drumming fan. I love the long continuous strings of double bass, the unpredictable timing shifts, the ingenious cymbal play, the tom rolls. Besides Raymond Herrera and Cavalera, my favorite drummers include Lars Ulrich of Metallica, Mike Justian of Unearth, Matt Greiner of August Burns Red, Brent Duckett of Becoming the Archetype, and Andy Herrick of Chimaira

I find absolutely nothing wrong with metal. It is not evil nor satanic as some claim. There is a great deal of talent and the musical complexity is astounding, if you can only take the time to appreciate it.

Well, apparently Sacha appreciates it (although my wife remains a holdout). Tonight I was cooking dinner (I made fish molee, a traditional Indian dish, with fragrant rice and broccoli). I love to listen to music while I cook, and Sarah allows me to listen to whatever I want as I am preparing dinner.

Sarah was feeding Sacha while I cooked. During a steady rhythmic segment of an August Burns Red song, Sacha started moving his hand in perfect rhythm with the cymbal hits on the song. He was even aiming his hand in the direction in which one would think the cymbal may be. It was so uncanny that all Sarah and I could do was burst out laughing!

Apparently all of my air drumming sessions during Sarah’s pregnancy were visible in Sacha’s comfy abode. He’s got rhythm baby!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Familiar misery

Due to the goings on of a colleague, I pondered yesterday why people choose to stay in unhappy relationships. I’m not talking about physically or even emotionally abusive relationships, but just plain unhappy ones. The person in question has never uttered a positive word about her boyfriend or their future (while frequently uttering numerous negative words) but yet seems completely determined to stay with him for the rest of her life.

Why? I just do not get it. Why would someone resign themselves to a life of misery, disappointment, and could-have-beens?

One reason may be the human desire for familiarity. We are an animal of routine. We thrive on the familiar, the comfortable. It seems that we are more willing to live in familiar misery than to risk loneliness while we search for happiness. Or maybe miserable relationships are the only type we know. Maybe our role models for relationships were as such. But the few relationships you know do not constitute a substantial part of the whole.

These people also seem to ignore the following: for the most part, people do not change. And if they do, the motivation comes from within, not because their partner or friend drove them to change so that they would be more tolerable to them. You cannot just pick any human off the streets and then mold them into your soulmate. On the other hand, you cannot be too picky. When it is right, it will feel right, and you will be overcome with a tide of happiness so all-consuming that the little imperfections you witness in your partner will become characteristics to cherish.

Oh, and anyone that thinks getting married or having children will magically fix their relationship is a fool. Marriage is a serious commitment not to be entered into lightly. Divorce is not some easy exit if things do not work out. And kids. Good grief. Anyone who thinks kids make relationships easier doesn’t have any. Having children will challenge the strongest of relationships, let alone those struggling to stay afloat.

I did not have a girlfriend from grade 8 until I met my current wife in my first year of university. That was a full five years without a girlfriend. Sure, I was miserably lonely at times, but I knew that when the right one came along, it would all be worth it, and it was. But all along, I knew that no matter what, I would never settle for second best. I would not resign myself to a life of misery just to be with someone, anyone.

And fear not. That person with whom you can live a life of happiness is out there. But you will never find them if you stay trapped in a hopeless relationship. Have respect for yourself. You deserve better.

The only way to find happiness is to go looking for it and to not settle for anything less until you find it. It is out there. And when you find it, all your hard work will be duly rewarded. Trust me. I know from experience.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Another nail in the coffin

If you are not yet convinced by the evidence out there supporting the notion of human-influenced climate change, this is unlikely to sway you. It is interesting nonetheless.

In an e-publication ahead of print, Zhang et al. report in Nature that greenhouse gas emissions from humans have caused considerable changes in global precipitation patterns. Although previous research has proven the link between human activity and global warming, the same has not been shown for something so important as precipitation. And once again, the Africans are getting the shaft.

The largest increases in rainfall occurred in most of the northerly portion of the Northern Hemisphere, home to the majority of the wealthy western world. The Sahara took the biggest blow when it came to declining precipitation, and it is no surprise given the perpetual drought and famine witnessed in this area of the world.

Those least responsible are paying for our greed, grandiosity, and gluttonous consumption. But this report is unlikely to change that. In a world full of fundamental Creationists, evolution naysayers, and AIDS “reappraisers”, the usual suspects are likely to crawl out of the woodworks to protest this latest release as a left-wing conspiracy to thwart economic development and the “right” to build bigger houses and amass absurd abundance.

What a waist

I am an enthusiastic subscriber to evidence-based medicine alerts. Basically, I receive content alerts for all of the top medical journals and medical journal collation services that delve through all the crap out there to find the meat and potatoes. I often skim them and delete most of them, but once in a while I come across something that changes my professional practice. I never thought I’d come across something that would change my view on my personal practices.

An article was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine this month titled “Body mass index, waist circumference, and waist-hip ratio on the risk of total and type-specific stroke.” It outlines among other things that abdominal adiposity (spare-tire) is associated with an increased risk of total and ischemic stroke in men. Also, body mass index (BMI) was a risk factor for total and ischemic strokes in both men and women.

Is this an isolated study? No. It was massive. It followed roughly 50 000 people over 20 years to determine whether morphological features would correlate with stroke occurrence. It showed quite convincingly that being fat puts one at an increased risk of having a stroke, especially if that fat is concentrated around the midsection.

I may not look it to most people, but I have struggled with weight all my life. At my apex I was 222 lbs. That was in grade 11. Later that year I hit my nadir at 155 lbs, an unsustainable weight. As the years passed, I slowly crept back into the danger zone. I am now 195 lbs.

The real kicker is that most people tell me (at least to my face) that I do not look “fat” to them. Well, strokes can’t see people. They don’t care if I look fat, just if I AM fat. And according to all accurate clinical measures, I am.

The article mentioned above uses certain ranges as reference groups, basically, the group of people they label as having a risk of 1. Anyone outside of that has risks of 1.2, 1.5, etc. based on how far away from the reference values they fall. The reference values are as follows:

BMI: 18.5-24.9

Waist circumference: <86cm

Waist-to-Hip Ratio: <0.87

To calculate your BMI, go here. Keep in mind all of this only applies to men. Access the article for more information on specific risk factors for women. Well, in the words of a basketball that just got dunked, I’m hooped.

My BMI is 29.6. Even at the high end of the reference range, that means I need to lose 30lbs. However, this does not worry me as much as the waist circumference measures. My waist circumference is 95cm. That is a full 9 cm, almost 4 inches, out of range. If you had a big rubbery meter stick you could wrap it right around my big belly and barely overlap. Sad.

Why does waist circumference concern me and not BMI? Well, because simply put, BMI is a lousy way of determining whether you are fat or not. The lower end of the range is dangerously close to eating disorder territory. Even the upper range will be very difficult for me to attain. Overall, when it comes to how your body affects your risk of dying prematurely, it is not important whether or not you are fat, but if so, where your fat likes to spend its time. If you are moderately overweight, but all your fat is in your head (as I’ve been told from time to time mine is), you should be okay. But God forbid it migrates to the equator. For if that happens, you better take action.

This is not the only article that propounds the risks of abdominal adiposity. Welborn & Dhaliwal report in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition that based on known data, waist-to-hip ratio is the best predictor of all-cause mortality. Kuk et al. report in Obesity that abdominal fat is an independent predictor of all-cause mortality.

If that is not enough to scare the abdominal fat off of you, I don’t know what is. Since it increases all-cause mortality, I am prone to drive more carefully to avoid a fat-induced car crash. And maybe drive-by shooters see those of us with large spare tires as easier targets. I’m not sure, but no matter what, I’m freakin’ out.

So in true Tony style I have produced an Excel sheet and documented my current biometrics and those for which I strive. Hopefully biking to work will help me get there. If not all the way, I’ll have to cast a lousy-cook spell on my wife. Her culinary creations only serve to expand my girth. Wish me luck. I wish you the same if your fat cells share the centrist leanings of mine.

Sleeping beauty?

It was the weekend from hell. Never before have I been so unnerved by my child’s cries that I have had to take a time out. Allow me to explain.

Sacha is currently in the throes of the sequences stage. It is one of the developmental stages described in Hetty Vanderijt’s and Frans Plooij’s book The Wonder Weeks: How to Turn Your Baby’s 8 Great Fussy Phases into Magical Leaps Forward. Those crazy Dutch have warped conceptions of wonder and magic.

Our strategies for helping Sacha sleep were working quite beautifully. He had been getting mostly happy faces on his mommy’s sleep-rating chart. But the world came crashing down this week.

He has decided that he will only sleep if he is being held. That’s it. He could be completely comatose but as soon as he feels a slight descent toward the crib, he kicks into panic mode and sobs relentlessly until one of us picks him up.

Sarah and I have never been fans of Ferber. I cannot speak for Sarah, but I find it impossible to hold out against the torrent of tears rushing forth from my child. Not that people who choose to use cry-it-out (CIO) are destined for eternal damnation, but it is not for me, and it is certainly not for Sacha. He inherited my stubbornness, and the few times we resorted to CIO, we were treated to a perpetual sobfest that only exacerbated the problem.

Well, this weekend we bottomed out. After many fruitless attempts to transfer Sacha to his crib, we both threw our hands in the air and decided to Ferberize. Oh. My. Goodness.

What a disaster. Half an hour into the massacre I asked Sarah if she wished to continue. Being more steadfast than I, she responded affirmatively. “Well, then I have to go for a walk.”

That’s right. I did the Park-Shirley-Joseph circuit at 12:30 am. It is a different world that late at night, but it really helped me clear my head. And when I returned to my abode of expecting Armageddon, I was greeted instead by complete silence. Thank goodness.

The rest of the weekend has been a series of frustrations and triumphs. It culminated in us having to completely reevaluate our strategy; that is to say, to return to our old ways. Anytime he has some rough nights, I tend to abandon all tried and true methods for a quick fix. Luckily, the rational hand of my wife guides me toward sanity, and the infant sleep advice of my great mentor and friend Roland rings in my mind: “You can never spoil an infant.” How true, my friend, how true.

Friday, July 20, 2007

My new bike

I bought a sweet-ass bike today! You see, one of the glorious aspects of the Shoppers Drug Mart scholarship program is the signing bonus of $20 000 you receive in 3 installments. The wonder of a signing bonus is it is more or less fun money. So with that fun money, among other more sensible things, I went out and bought a bike. I bought the Trek 7.3 FX, what is considered a hybrid bike because it has the look of a mountain bike but the geometry, speed, and wheel shape of a road bike. Its purpose is commuting, which is what I bought it for, as I plan to bike to work every day. I can’t wait to get it. Then I’ll just have to spend a bit more money on some gear (rain gear, cuff straps, gloves, saddle bag, etc.) Wish me luck on my travels!

Sunday, July 15, 2007

And Tony wept

Although I must say I prefer the ritualistic nature of Catholic masses to the loosely defined structure of evangelical Protestant services, I have always found the latter to be remarkably moving. There certainly is a significant emotional aspect to these services and I experienced it today. During Jack’s dedication, I looked up at Brad and Julie and Jack, a young, beautiful family, surrounded by those who love them. Dr. Doug Arnold, a local physician and an elder at the church presided over the dedication. A father of four himself, he was clearly moved by the moment. Let us just say his words reflected his emotions. As I listened and watched, visions of Sacha as a newborn flashed in my head, followed by a series of events like him rocking in my arms in the dead of night, him running around the lawn butt naked, him reaching out for me when I come home from work, and him taking his first steps last week.

And Tony wept.

I was a mess. I couldn’t contain it. It was like at my sister’s wedding when my brother was wanting to hide his tears so badly he was physically trying to cram them back into his tear ducts. Get back in there. That was me.

So that I wouldn’t make a scene, Sarah sent me downstairs to get Sacha from the playroom. Perfect timing. He was in an emotional heap. Apparently he had just realized his parents were not there and he was playing with perfect strangers. Well, daddy to the rescue. We cried together for a few minutes, got mommy, and then went home for a well-deserved nap.

My little player

We were at the Timmins First Baptist Church this morning to attend the dedication of little baby Jack, our friends’ first. Sacha, of course, was quite uninterested in the proceedings. He was more concerned with the open windows in the back with the fancy opening devices. As he chatted with the window a little girl, probably 2 years old, approached. She reached out toward Sacha, clearly enthralled with this little boy drunk with happiness. Sacha flippantly looked back at her and brushed her off with the flick of a hand and went about his work. Not to be discouraged, the little girl made a second attempt. This time she went for broke, leaning forward to lay a big juicy one on Sacha’s cheek. He looked back at her, decided that what she was doing must not be allowed, and pushed her away. Not to be deterred, the little girl persevered and leaned in once again. As though to appease her, Sacha presented his right cheek, she laid a big juicy kiss on it. Another push, and back to the window. The little girl was clearly very pleased and Sacha could not have cared less. What a little player.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Common sense

My former boss and good friend, Shawn Cripps, had a wonderful saying. He’d say, “You know Tony, the funny thing about common sense is it’s not all that common.” I have certainly come across my share of boneheads in my life, or those booksmart kids that don’t have a shed of common sense. But when the absence of such a fundamental attribute in an entire society reaches epidemic proportions, one can only wonder.

Recent reading material has coalesced into a common theme on which I must comment. I recently finished the brilliant Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Yesterday I came across a great article on the Freakonomics Blog. And today I read a fascinating article by Doug Saunders, the greatest columnist at the Globe and Mail, on the sky high suicide rates among Indian farmers. How do these all come together?

In the Saunders article, the reasons for increased suicides among India’s cotton farmers are laid out. And it really comes down the loss of even a thread of common sense in Western agricultural policy. How do Western agricultural policymakers make decisions that cause absurd numbers of Indian farmers to off themselves by drinking bottles of pesticide? The Green Revolution occurred between 1940-1960 leading to huge increases in agricultural production. This was particularly important in developing countries where farmers could not produce enough food for their people. The problem with the whole concept behind the revolution is only now apparent.

In assuming not only that every successive generation of humans is smarter than those who came before them but that we, through the scientific method, can sufficiently reduce all complex natural processes into simplistic ones open to external manipulation, we open ourselves up to failure.

In order to achieve massive increases in agricultural yields, simplistic, but not holistic, farming practices were introduced. Farmers began purchasing hybrid cotton from Monsanto, one of the largest companies in the world. The beauty of hybrid cash crops from the companies standpoint is that they are genetically programmed to NOT reproduce. Now if that is not profit motive getting in the way of common sense, I don’t know what is. So yes, Indian farmers increased their yields. But now instead of keeping aside a portion of their previous year’s harvest to plant the next year, they have to buy new seed from an American agricultural corporation every single year. In order to cover the cost of this added expense they need to increase their yields further which means less labor intensive farming that ignores all natural processes and leads to soil destruction.

Not only have they bled the land for 40 years to push yields higher and higher, they are now producing more cotton than the market wants. It is similar to the situation described in Pollan’s book whereby the American corn farmer is producing more corn than the world needs. So the Americans have basically found a way to put corn in almost everything we consume to use up the excess and have encouraged further excess by subsidizing the costs of growing corn. A similar absurd situation exists in cotton production. Indian farmers can only compete with the highly subsidized American cotton industry if they continue to squeeze every last ounce of productivity out of their soil.

Where has this all led? A highly productive Indian textiles industry that creates thousands of jobs? Hardly. In fact, after forty years of artificial farming, and concurrent climatic catastrophes, the bad times have returned for the Indian cotton farmer. And now they are drinking themselves to death on bottles of pesticide, likely produced by the same companies that caused the problem in the first place.

Along comes Subhash Kuttall Sharma, a man who once took up the call of the Green Revolution and almost paid for it with his life. Saunders writes that Sharma nearly committed suicide during the Green Revolution after his crop yields tanked and he went bankrupt. This man was no idiot. He won awards for his superior crop production. But his practicing of overly simplistic agricultural practices eventually caught up to him.

Not to be defeated, he eschewed all this Western “knowledge” and went back to basics, back to common sense. As the owner of Polyface Farms does in Pollan’s book, Mr. Sharma now operates a labor-intensive but highly successful farm based on sustainable and sensible practices. Crop rotations; preserving monsoon rains in pits for use during droughts; animal waste as fertilizer. All traditional agricultural practices. The result: Mr. Sharma employs 45 labourers at his 20-hectare farm and made enough from this modestly sized farm that he is considered well-to-do in his town. So not only does he stimulate employment in the local economy, but he makes enough money to build a big house. That is a long way from almost offing himself.

And the secret to producing relative wealth off of only 50 acres of land (that is 20 hectares for those like me who find this a foreign unit of measurement)? “I’ve realized that sustainability and diversity are much more important than yield”. Go figure. Just like the people at the All England tennis club discovered the benefits of falconry, an ancient practice to keep pesky pigeons away, the ancient wisdom passed down by generations of farmers remains pertinent to this day.

Innovation is great, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Le Tour de Timmins

It seems a strange coincidence that the week I decided to start biking to work I turn on the TV and there is that most enigmatic of sporting events: Le Tour de France. First, let us discuss my newfound zealousness for biking to work. I got the idea awhile ago when my weight continued to creep up. Furthermore, gasoline hit $1.20 a litre. Both of these factors, environmental and personal health, conspired to encourage me to start biking to work. So I got together the necessary equipment and off I went. Turns out it takes me just as long to bike to work as it does to drive. Who would’ve thunk it. The only inconvenience is getting changed at work so that I do not smell like a neanderthal all day. But so far it is going pretty well. Now I just need a bike that is actually mine (I’m using my neighbor’s), one made for the streets, not the mountains, and some apparel that cuts my wind resistance, increases breathability, and protects me against the elements. Any tips would be welcome!

As for the Tour de France, I saw an article in the Globe last Saturday outlining the route map. The thought that someone could cover this 3500 km trail in 21 days without actually ceasing to live is astounding to someone. And the trail circulates through what is possibly the most beautiful country in the world: France. It covers the flat lands of Belgium, the beautiful countryside of Northeastern France, the crushing climbs of the Alps, the quaint locale of Mediterranean France, the Pyrenees, and then into the glorious city of Paris for the big finish on the Champs Elysees. The only thing I ever did on the Champs was walk for hours without wearing sunscreen, thus transforming myself into a crustacean whose legs go well with butter. All of this intrigued me, but I had never actually WATCHED the Tour de France. That would change this year thanks to Sacha waking up and interrupting our movie. Since it was Sarah’s turn to help him out, I flicked the channel and up came the TDF.

A former colleague of mine was an avid athlete, training for triathlons while raising twins and working full-time as a pharmacy manager. Every year in July he would avail me with stories about the Tour de France. Although I could see that it must be an interesting event, I could not get into it. It is the racing equivalent of cricket for me. I do not understand it. As a rule I find it difficult to become interested in something I do not understand. So, I employed Wikipedia to help me understand.

First of all, how do you win? Well, essentially, the less time it takes you to finish the race, the higher you finish. Pretty simple. But then there is the difference between a simple stage and an individual time trial. What about the fact that riders ride for teams? Does that mean anything? Do these guys make any money for winning and, if so, how much? What are these cars driving up next to the riders and what do they give the riders? What is this nonsense about sprinting bonuses and mountain points? And these ceremonial colored jerseys? The yellow jersey, the green jersey, the red and white jersey that looks like maple tree vomit. What do they mean? And what the HELL is a peloton?

If you want answers to these questions, check out the Wikipedia article. As for the peloton, let us clear up this ridiculous word right now. Peloton shares an etymological origin with the English word platoon, literally meaning ball, but used in reference to the group, pack, or bunch of riders that forms during a road bicycle race. While it would seem paradoxical that a bunch of guys trying to beat each other in a race would want to race in a group, there are certain advantages to it that can only be understood by reading this.

I think I may follow it this year. If nothing else it will give me encouragement in my own biking adventure. Besides, it is just astonishing to watch these guys drive at close to the Timmins municipal speed limit for hours at a time, over 21 days, through 3500 km of unforgiving terrain. It gives one greater appreciation for the miraculous nature of the human body.

Sunday, July 8, 2007


Sacha had his first of many graduations today. Well, I guess not really his first. He officially graduated from scraping his knuckles and knees to being a full-fledged upright H. sapiens. That’s right. Sacha took his first steps today! It was only 5 steps, but it was a momentous occasion. Sarah and I reacted so loudly that Sacha got scared and realized mommy was no longer holding him. He then plopped on his bum and proceeded to have a meltdown. But it was beautiful nonetheless.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Oratorial genius

It is no secret that I despise George Bush and everything he stands for and has done, but I could never voice my distaste in such an eloquent and masterful way as Keith Olbermann. Olbermann is a commentator on MSNBC’s Countdown. Thanks to Dr. Dawg I have witnessed one of the greatest speeches of my time. And I only hope that Mr. Olbermann’s call for Bush & Cheney to resign resonates throughout America so the American people can get back to being the stewards of democracy they once were. Check it out. You’ll be happy you did.

The great debate

As I sauntered into work 2 minutes late for the 1000th time yesterday, I pondered the reasons why this is such a common occurrence. Of course, being as my child barely sleeps (see my next entry), I savor every last minute of rest I can get. Therefore I frequently wake up JUST in time to get to work. This is where the debate emerges. When I sleep in, beyond the necessary minutiae of a morning routine there are two crucial tasks that must be completed: showering and eating. The crux of the question is, if you wake up so late that you have time to only do ONE of these things, which will you choose? I was decidedly outnumbered amongst my colleagues. You see, I love food, and I also consider breakfast to be an unmissable meal. Therefore, my thinking goes as such: as long as I showered the day before, I would rather eat breakfast than shower. Maybe it sounds disgusting to you, but I think a healthy, consistent diet, centered around a nutritious breakfast is worth having a bad hair day once in a while. Weigh in on the debate if you so wish!

Saturday, June 30, 2007

A pill for every ill?

In honor of the series on happiness published in the Globe and Mail Focus section last weekend, I thought I’d report on the pharmacy world’s answer to the eternal question: can money buy happiness? Well, if money can buy erections where they may not otherwise exist, certainly it must be able to buy happiness. The problem is the multifaceted nature of happiness. There is not a strict receptor in the brain for happiness. However, for those of you struggling to find more happiness in your life, I present to you a new solution: Jovialis (sapiennate hydrochloride).

In order to make this more understandable for the average layperson, I shall explain this in a format similar to that used by the USPDI Advice for the Patient, a popular reference for patient-focussed drug information.

Sapiennate hydrochloride (sah-PEE-enn-ate)

Commonly used brand names: Jovialis

Available dosage forms: The only available dosage form for Jovialis is a continuous intravenous infusion. This is due to the unpredictable fluctuations of human emotions.

Uses for this medicine: Generally, this medication is prescribed for those lacking happiness in their life. Beyond happiness, the medication can be prescribed for those lacking purpose or those hopelessly addicted to their jobs or lacking work-life balance.

Before using this medicine: Tests will be run on patients prior to beginning the medication. This ensures that the common side effects of this medication will have limited impact. Patients must be in a stable relationship, have stable living arrangements, and be prepared to be on the medication long-term. An ability to operate on minimal sleep is also an asset. Even if approved for use, there is a minimum 9-month waiting period between approval for use and starting the first infusion pump.

Proper use of this medicine: The patient will be setup with a continuous intravenous infusion. The medication is infused 24 hours, seven days a week, 363 days a year, for 18-25 years. The only days on which the infusion pump is stopped is Mother’s/Father’s Day and the patient’s birthday. On these days the pump is cleaned and recharged by the patient’s spouse or caregiver. The pump runs on a biological feedback loop measuring the levels of mood hormones and adjusting the dose accordingly. Doses are usually much higher during the day, with the pump often powering down at night leading to significant declines in mood.

Side effects of this medicine: While the benefits of this medication are substantial, it also carries with it significant and sometimes burdensome side effects. Prior to beginning the medication a thorough discussion of risks and benefits should be undertaken between the patient and their significant other. Common side effects include fatigue, insomnia, lack of concentration, strained relationships, bursts of anger and frustration, loss of libido, decreased sexual activity, frequent night wakings, stained clothing, decreased threshold for disgust, and sudden interest in previously irritating television shows and music.

Benefits of this medicine: Benefits include happiness, fulfillment, personal satisfaction, emotional growth, work-life balance, frequent uncontrollable laughter, tears of joy, pride, improved social connections, an unexplainable, undefinable, warm fuzzy feeling, and meaning in life.

Cost: The cost is estimated at $200 000 for each infusion pump for the full 18-25 year dose. The number of infusion pumps each patient receives depends on the level of happiness they wish to achieve. However, there is a minimum 12-month waiting period between starting infusion pumps.

Now, you may be asking “Where do I get this wonder-drug?”. If you haven’t figured it out yet, you’ve either never been on it or are not currently in the 9-month waiting period.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Bogotan bliss

I read a brilliant article in last Saturday’s Globe and Mail. It discusses the brilliant urban planning recently undertaken in Bogota, Colombia. Although the thinking was highly unconventional it produced astounding results and something approaching social harmony. I really recommend reading it. Check out Bogota’s Urban Happiness Movement here.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

We agree!

Finally, something on which Richard Dawkins and I can agree. The following is a quote from an interview Mr. Dawkins did with John Allemang of the Globe and Mail. The topic was Stockwell Day, Canada’s Public Safety Minister.

“He’s clearly a complete idiot-or ignorant, anyway. Ignorance by itself is no crime, but ignorance in a cabinet minister is….I can’t help feeling that you should not trust the decision-making ability of a man whose view of the world is so wrongheaded.”

Amen to that.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Perching atop hyacinth

I once watched an enjoyable documentary known as Darwin’s Nightmare. My memories of this film came back into focus today as I read last Saturday’s Globe and Mail (as a father and full-time pharmacist I read one issue of the G&M per week, always the Saturday edition, and I am usually finished it by the following Friday). According to the excellent article Disaster Lurking in the Weeds, by Sara Minogue, Lake Victoria in Africa is in the midst of another ecological crisis caused by the water hyacinth, considered by botanists everywhere to be one of the most invasive species known to man (apart from the purple loosestrife growing in my garden). This water hyacinth basically blankets the surface of the lake, choking off sun to underlying waters, hiding ferocious reptiles (which then feast on the unsuspecting locals) and generally disturbing the fragile ecosystem that is Africa’s largest lake. Where does Darwin’s Nightmare come into the picture? The movie portrays the fatal consequences of a scientific experiment gone horribly wrong. Nile Perch were introduced in 1954 to improve commercial fish production in the lake. What happened next could only have been predicted by those to whom governments do not listen. The Nile Perch completely took over the lake, scavenging everything in its path, and inexorably altering the life cycle of the lake and its surrounding human settlements. However, since the Nile Perch thrived so well in Lake Victoria, one would assume that the communities surrounding it should have thrived also. And they would have if another invasive species had not entered the picture: the wealthy Western world. You see, Nile Perch fetches a handsome sum in Europe. And by the twisted mechanisms of globalized economics, those selling these fish are not locals, but Europeans. The ones doing all the grunt work are underpaid locals, but the ones bringing in the dough are foreigners. Furthermore, the harvesting of Nile Perch is so aggressive and the processing of their meat so thorough, that only the slimmest pickings are left behind. That is what the locals eat. So you see, in order to satiate the obese Europeans and North Americans on the succulent meat of the Nile Perch, European corporations ship it from thousands of miles away, prying it out of the hands of the impoverished locals, who, if not for the completely psychotic arrangement, would be wealthy and plump. There is a scene in the movie where images of Europeans dining on the fish in fancy restaurants are juxtaposed with images of locals picking through the fish carcasses for something resembling food. The most disturbing statistic uttered in the narrative was that the shipments leaving Lake Victoria for Europe will feed upwards of 2 million people. That is precisely the number of people along the shores of Lake Victoria currently suffering from life-threatening famine. Oh, and the planes these companies use to ship out the fish? They are Eastern European operations that bring weapons to Lake Victoria to support the local militias fighting the civil and tribal wars causing so much bloodshed. The militias get the guns and the nice pilots get the fish. And all the while, the Europeans just get fat. Of course, no obliteration of a populations livelihood would be complete without a little bit of global warming induced mayhem. You see, the resurgence of the water hyacinth referred to above is thought to be a direct consequence of global warming. The pain in the ass about global warming is that the ones who caused the problem, namely North Americans and Western Europeans, are those most able to deal with the consequences, but who are doing absolutely nothing about it. The ones suffering most, and those who will continue to suffer most, are the poor and destitute in the world who are almost blameless in the whole mess. Its like giving Africans the climatic middle finger. Some fat North American sits down at a disgusting fast food chain in Anywhere, USA and devours a burger that only resembles beef in appearance and likely originated some 3000 miles away. The tractor trailer used to ship the beef across the continent spews fuel for the global furnace. The kindling is provided by Mr. America’s Hummer and pseudo-mansion that is three times larger than his family requires. And through a complex system of global thermodynamics, the collective contributions of all these grotesquely prosperous individuals ends up blanketing the surface of Lake Victoria with water hyacinth. So because some guy in North America just can’t pass on those few extra horses to impress the girls as he cruises down Main St, some poor sucker in Tanzania gets devoured by a crocodile he couldn’t see lurking beneath a fortress of water hyacinth. Hopefully through some twist of fate this problem will come back to haunt the rich Western world (of which I am a part). Maybe the water hyacinth will start to kill off the Nile Perch and Random European will have to forgo his favorite dish at the local restaurant. Of course, giving up your favorite food and dying from hunger are two very different things.

Friday, June 22, 2007

A tear of joy

My son will be 10 months old on Monday. I cannot believe how fast he is growing up. Pardon me if I find it confusing and almost offensive when men start a family and then spend the ensuing years neglecting their children so that they can work. Or take the example of a gentleman I know. He is so obsessed with exercising, maintaining his lawn, and washing and sweeping his driveway, that his wife had to buy him an ATV so he will go camping more often because that is the only way she can get him to spend time with the family. It is not torture people. Besides, if you don’t want to put time into raising your children, keep your jeans zipped up. As for myself, I recently experienced the most gratifying experience of parenthood yet. While my wife, henceforth known as Sexy Mama, was off buying groceries I was looking after my little guy. Since he is now so mobile (a fact that has drawn attention to how out of shape I am) there are numerous head-bonking incidents. While this is a small price to pay for the victories he achieves in his explorations of his ever-expanding universe, it still breaks my heart every time. But I have never felt more powerful, more loved, more needed, and more fulfilled than when I picked him up after a particularly traumatizing bonk and wiped away the tears under his eye. To think that in an instant I can evanesce all of his sadness and pain with the comfort of my firm cuddle, the anxiolysis of my soft words, and the reassurance of my gentle wiping touch, is the greatest feeling I have ever had. And it is so wonderful to know that through his numerous adventures and explorations as he grows, I will be able to do this time and again as he inevitably experiences pain along the way. While I do not wish pain upon him, it will occur, and knowing that my devotion to my family will have me by his side when it does, is something I look forward to more than any other aspiration I have thus far entertained.

Jumping to conclusions

It seems I may be guilty of the very thing I continuously rail against: jumping to conclusions. Although I do not do this often enough to warrant the use of a jumping to conclusions map (see Office Space), I am a frequent enough offender. The most recent offence relates to a previous post of mine in which I state that the name America originates from Amerigo Vespucci, a cartographer that tailed along with Columbus. Although the origin of a name such as America likely has a great deal of uncertainty attached to it, I stated it as though it were fact. Thanks to the wonderful book I received for Father’s Day, The Book of Origins by Trevor Homer, I realized that this “fact” was actually far from it. A quick note on this book. For any man who spends inordinate amounts of time on the toilet, even when you are not actually producing anything worthy of a toilet, this book is a must-buy. It is all about the origins of everything you can imagine from ancient empires to languages to communications to art forms etc.
In the chapter on origins of nations it talks about the genesis of America, including the controversy surrounding its name. Apparently there is a good deal of evidence supporting America being named after Richard Amerike, a frequent sponsor of exploratory voyages at the time. It is thought that he sponsored voyages on the condition that whatever was discovered was to be named after him (talk about a narcissist). His most famous sponsored voyage was that of Giovanni Caboto (AKA John Cabot). Upon discovering Newfoundland, he then hopped the short distance to America and claimed the land in the name of his sponsor.
The most interesting thing about this whole theory is the resemblance of Amerike’s family coat of arms to that of the current American flag. Apparently the coat of arms consists of a series of stars and stripes. Interesting.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Media frenzy

Before I ramble on about this, if you want the short version, check out this good summary by Dr. Michael Evans in the Globe and Mail.

I received a fax from my head office imploring me to call all of my patients on Avandia to discuss recent concerns raised in the lay press about this drug. I decided that before I called them all and freak the hell out of them I should look into the original article.

The article was published June 14 in the New England Journal of Medicine. The first thing that set me off was that the media coverage emerged May 22, meaning that information was released to the public before health professionals even had a chance to access the information to critically appraise it. Now that I have access to it, let us discuss the problems with this study and why you should not stop taking your Avandia.

First of all, a prelude to the study. Avandia is also known as rosiglitazone, a thiazolidinedione, a group of drugs that increase sensitivity of the body’s cells to insulin, thereby improving glucose uptake and reducing the signs and symptoms of diabetes and their ensuing consequences. When Avandia first came onto the market, it was recognized that it increased cardiovascular risk slightly, specifically in patients with congestive heart failure (CHF), a condition in which the heart can not efficiently pump blood often leading to fluid buildup and consequences of insufficient blood supply to the organs. Accordingly, Health Canada specifically states that Avandia should NOT be used in patients with severe CHF.

Furthermore, Avandia is not approved for use in combination with certain other diabetes medications, namely sulfonylureas (glyburide and gliclazide) and insulin.

So this is the first problem with the study. Since it is a meta-analysis it analyzes the results of studies already performed and so the populations used in these studies are known and tabulated in this study. In 17 of the 42 trials studied, the treatment group was receiving a rosiglitazone/other drug combination not approved for use in Canada.

Now this is where it may get boring for some of you, but as God as my witness, I love this stuff.

One of the key features of a quality meta-analysis is a comprehensive literature search. If you do not include all the possible studies on the subject, you are running the risk of your study results reflecting publication bias. This is one place in which this paper failed. They did not do literature searches of the major electronic databases, nor the Cochrane collaboration, two very important sources of quality medical literature. Furthermore, they did not scour the reference lists of the studies used to find other relevant studies that may go unnoticed in a literature search. The real problem with this study is that it relies almost entirely on studies done by the manufacturer, GlaxoSmithKline, all garnered from their website. In total, 26 of the 42 studies used were unpublished in peer-reviewed medical literature. This is a huge problem as the quality of the studies, and therefore the validity of their results, is brought into question. Only 2 large well done studies were used in the entire meta-analysis.

One huge problem I have with their selection of studies is that they provided no measure of agreement among authors as to which papers should be included and which should not. This is mathematically expressed as a kappa statistic, something conspicuously absent from this paper. They also did no test for publication bias, that is, did the studies they include miss out on a big chunk of the available literature on the subject and therefore skew the eventual conclusion.

Next one must consider the test of heterogeneity. This is a test that determines the variation in results between the different studies. Variation will always exist, but the test of heterogeneity determines whether this variation is likely due to chance or if the studies are so varied in their results that we must question whether they can be combined into a pooled result. A HUGE problem here is that trials in which the subjects had no cardiovascular events were not included in the analyses. Consider that for a minute. You are trying to determine whether the medical literature out there supports the hypothesis that a certain drug causes cardiovascular events (heart attacks, strokes, etc.) You want to see if the studies you’ve included vary so much as to prevent them from being combined. Unfortunately, you do not include any study in which patients DID not have cardiovascular events. So of course your results will show a relative level of homogeneity, because you removed all the studies that stray from your hypothesis. Hmm.

When meta-analyses combine results of their individual studies, they use either a fixed-effects model (FEM) or a random effects model (REM). The FEM assumes that if all studies were infinitely large, the effect would be identical. For this to work, the test for heterogeneity needs to show very little variation. This study showed little variation, but not little enough. The REM, however, assumes that all study results will be randomly distributed around the true value. The researchers in this case used FEM which biases away from the null hypothesis: that is it will push toward the notion that there is an effect. The REM is more appropriate in most cases, because it is most conservative and biases toward the null: there is no effect.

Finally, let us look at the results. This is where the real problem arises. The article listed at the beginning touches on the distorted reporting of these results in the media. They reported all about relative risk and nothing on absolute risk. See, we shall now.

The odds ratio reported was 1.43, ranging anywhere from 1.03-1.98 with 95% confidence. So the truth lies somewhere between those receiving rosiglitazone being just as likely to 2 times as likely to have a heart attack than those not on rosiglitazone. However, if you look at the absolute risk increase, something entirely different emerges. It is incredibly small. First of all, the rate of heart attacks in both groups (treatment and control) rounds off to 0.6%. The most understandable value I can provide from this is the numbers needed to harm: 4854. This means that 4854 people would need to be treated with rosiglitazone versus controls in order for 1 heart attack to occur.

The biggest problem I have with the above is that the study authors did not even identify the total rate of heart attacks in both groups. Of course, having done so would have made their fancy odds ratio seem very silly.

So, if your neurons are still active after all of this, take the following home with you: be careful what you read in the papers. Most health journalists are not trained in the intricacies of epidemiology. Did you understand any of what I just said? Unless you are a pharmacist, physician, or other highly-trained healthcare professional, probably not. I took a whole semester in university just on learning how to analyze medical literature. Do you think the leading health journalists took that course?

Sure, information is a good thing to have, but careful what you do with false and misleading information, and almost more importantly, incomplete information. Please, for the sake of your health, do NOT stop taking this drug without having a serious discussion of the risks and benefits with your pharmacist and your physician. The last person you should be taking medical advice from is a journalist.

PS-On a side note, I have no connection to any pharmaceutical manufacturer that would bias my views in any way. I am heavily supported by Reason, Science, and Rational Thorough Analysis. Although these companies are publicly traded, not many people out there seem to be buying. Oh, and for the record, I will not be calling my patients to unnecessarily worry them. If they ask me about it, I will give them the short version of the above.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Walrus wins

Who would have ever thought such a lumbering beast as a Walrus could win a race? Oh wait, it wasn’t a real race, but the Walrus magazine, possibly the greatest magazine to ever emerge from Canada (Maclean’s used to be good but it now seems more like a soapbox placed firmly on the right side of the spectrum). Every year the National Magazine Awards Foundation holds the National Magazine Awards, a celebration of excellence in magazine journalism. And the Walrus kicked everyone else’s ass. It won 50 awards, including 6 golds, the most of any competitor. It beat the next best competitor, Toronto Life, by 27 awards. If you are a person interested in current events and political affairs, you have to subscribe to this magazine. It is not for the lighthearted, but man is it amazing. The writing is incredible, and they can make the most seemingly uninteresting subjects completely entrancing. Check it out.

Atheism: Is it the only truth?

So it seems society has settled on its new favorite reading material. For at least 6 weeks now, two books have shared top spots on the Globe and Mail’s bestsellers list. The books in question are God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens and The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. Both of these are essentially pugilistic diatribes against the whole concept of religion (in the case of the former) and the idea of the existence of God (in the latter case). The notion that those who believe in God or practice religion are somehow delusional is prevalent in our society. So allow me to be the first to admit that if this is so, I am one super delusional nutjob.

My problem is not with these gentlemen espousing their ideas nor with consumers buying their books. My problem is with the wholesale rejection of the opposing view by these authors and those who share their opinions. My biggest problem is with their assertion that atheism is somehow the default worldview, that it is the only one that makes sense, and that any other view should not be entertained for fear that we will only encourage the development of intellectual retards.

What these authors and many other thinkers do not accept is that their worldview is as much a leap of faith as mine. The belief that there is no God and that there is no place for religion in the world is no less based on objectivity than the alternative. One of the main arguments made by atheists such as Msrs. Hitchens and Dawkins is that believers in God and proponents of religious life are taking the easy way out and hiding behind a belief that cannot be empirically tested. Of course, this is an absurd argument because no cosmological belief as broad as this can be either proven or falsified but that does not make it any less of a valid view. Atheists cannot possibly test their view either, but somehow belief in nothing is more psychologically responsible than belief in something. So I will not sit here and commit the same faults as these thinkers by purporting that my worldview is correct, but I will say that ones mind must be open to exploring all views.

And that brings me to some alternatives. A new book was recently published by Pope Benedict XVI, AKA Joseph Ratzinger, called Jesus of Nazareth. In it he seeks to explain both the historical Jesus and the spiritual one. It is said to be surprisingly measured for a man commonly thought to be an ultraconservative polemicist. Now, while I have not read any of the above books yet, I am a believer in reading books that both challenge my worldview and confirm it, and I recommend the same for all of you out there.

I plan to read all three of these books in due time. Of course, I will most likely agree with the Holy Father, and most likely disagree with Msrs. Hitchens and Dawkins, but I find it incredibly refreshing to read the views of those who do not share mine.

For example, I once read Critiques of God, a collection of essays by many of today’s top thinkers on why the idea of a God creates dissonance with reason. While I really questioned some of the thoughts put forward, it was a very intriguing book and mind opening to read. In full fairness of disclosure, I will admit that more of the books I read on ontological philosophy are in support of my view, but I do try to intersperse them with those challenging my views, and I recommend the same for you. The next book on my list after the above two is Atheism: The Case Against God. If everyone in the world could embrace intellectual discovery, we wouldn’t have so many ridiculous squabbles over ideas.

Allow me for a moment to deal with one favorite of atheists: war and death in the world is all due to religion. While this may seem so on the surface, is it not equally likely that it is not religion itself causing the “Holy Wars” around the world, but instead the intellectual rigidity of those following these “religions”, which, equally likely the cause of these wars, are often not the true religions they have been named but distortions of the original concepts used by those leading the fight to bring followers to their side. Is it not also possible that if people were to just open up to other worldviews that the whole problem wouldn’t exist, that if the atheist mantra that there is only one true ontology and all others are to be spoken out against, that the problem would go away? Maybe it is in fact a poor grasp of the true meaning of spirituality and religious teaching that leads people to recklessly take the name of God in vain in pursuit of their twisted ideologies. Maybe Rosie O’Donnell was a bit emotional about it, but the Bush administration’s war against Islam is very much a part of the distortion of Christian belief held true by Bush and his followers, and although not overtly so, somewhat terroristic in nature. It is an extension of Manifest Destiny still held by many in the upper echelons of American political society.

Let us take a moment to reflect on a potent diatribe against the “Christian” theology of the Bush administration. This I take from John Tirman’s excellent 100 Ways America is Screwing Up the World.

The following are distortions of Christian belief taken up by Bush’s soldiers:

1. “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!…It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Mr. Tirman goes on to point out that Mr. Bush and his family are exorbitantly wealthy and most of the policies put forward by Bush Jr and Sr favored the rich and punished the poor, quite the opposite of Christian teaching.

2. “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

There is no escape clause for 9/11. Retaliatory and preemptive strikes are not the purview of Christ.

3. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall inherit the Earth”

Gandhi and his teaching of nonviolent resistance hit this one on the head, but Bush seems to have missed that sermon. “He who taketh up the sword shall perish by the sword. Think ye that evil can be overcome by evil or violence by violence? The way of peace requires courage and patience, but it will prevail.”

4. “Mortals go to war so that they can inherit dust. It is because their vision is distorted by the followers of the lie that they value that which is nothing. In destruction there is no victory but for darkness. The power of victory is not force but Love.” ‘Nuff said.

5. All the over-the-top public promotion of Christian beliefs, prayer breakfasts, etc.?

“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into they closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret.”

What a great piece.

Finally, to wrap it all up, I present to you a list of books I have read on the above topic for your perusal. Since the atheist books are quite high on the list right now, this may be welcome to believers in both views looking for some balance.

1. The Case For Faith, The Case for Christ, and The Case for a Creator, a series by Lee Strobel, a former atheist.

2. Seven Story Mountain, by Thomas Merton, a former atheist turned ascetic monk.

3. Science & Religion: From Conflict to Conversation, by John F. Haught

4. What Faith is Not, by Mitch Finley

5. Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science & the Biology of Belief, by Andrew Newberg, Eugene D’Aquili, and Vince Rause

This is a short list. I have numerous others on my Amazon wishlist that I have not read. If you would like more ideas, let me know.

I leave you with the following. While all worldviews differ in some way, I like to think that they are all intricately tied together by the big picture known as The Golden Rule: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. See comparisons of this statement in numerous world religions at this site. And remember that everytime an atheist stands on his soapbox shouting that religion is the cause of all the world’s problems remember this: do not blame Christ or Allah or God, for their teachings are not the problem; blame their followers and then seek to teach them peace, love, and understanding.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Fill up my cup with Ducks

Fill it only 86.7%, in fact. So at the beginning of the NHL postseason I sat down and attempted to reason out the somewhat unpredictable outcome of the ensuing playoffs. I am an armchair statistics buff so I used what I had, combined with some good old rational thought, and attempted to devise a method to predict the outcome of the Stanley Cup Finals. Here is how my thought process worked.

In the playoffs, nothing matters but wins. Overtime losses don’t matter. Points don’t matter. So I wanted to find out what statistics correlate significantly with number of wins achieved during the regular season. I used the statistics from every NHL team to expand the sample size. From these calculations I found that 3 statistics significantly positively correlated with winning (goals per game, 5 on 5 goals for and against ratio, power play %) and 1 significantly negatively correlated with winning (goals against per game). However, all of them had at least some correlation, although not above 0.5. So I developed two separate scores based on a summation of the 4 stats, or a summation of all. What I did was take the correlation coefficients for each statistic and multiplied it by the actual statistic achieved by each team. I then added the products and arrived at a sum that I called the All Score, or the 4 Score. I then ranked the teams by descending all score or 4 score. I predicted the outcome of each series by comparing the scores of each competing team. By doing this, both of these scores correctly predicted the outcome of 13 of the 15 Stanley Cup playoff series, an 86.7% success rate. However, the truly amazing outcome was the prediction of the all-score. From the get go, before the playoffs even started, I used the all-score to predict the outcome of the entire tournament. It predicted an ANA v OTT final with ANA being victorious. Holy shit. The only series I predicted incorrectly were the first round DAL v VAN series, and the second round BUF v NYR series. So, we’ll will see if I am as successful next year!

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Got gas?

I read an interesting article forwarded to me by my blog-happy sister. You can read it here, which I would suggest or the following will make no sense. I find a few things interesting about this article. First of all, Americans should not complain. They are paying $4 a US gallon, which works out to $1.05/L, less than I am currently paying ($1.18/L). In fact, one of the reasons American energy & environmental policy has lagged so far behind the rest of the world is the absurdly cheap cost of energy in America. There is literally no financial incentive to be green in the United States. The subsidies handed out to the oil and gas industry keep the prices artificially low. Furthermore, they pay almost no tax. 18% of the price of gas?! HA! We’ve got you beat Uncle Sam. Taxes make up roughly 35% of the cost of Canadian petroleum. Second, Americans have only themselves to blame for the increasing cost of fuel. As supply diminishes in any commodity, the price will always rise. The production peak of oil occurred in the US in the 1970s and so ever since, demand has steadily overtaken supply. The remainder of the worlds oil is in the confines of shaky nations run by autocratic or theocratic governments. They are also conjoined through OPEC, so at the flick of a switch they could cut off supply to the rest of the world. However, they usually play nice, except when the US develops bogus foreign policy like the war on terrorism, trade embargoes against Cuba (a supplier of highly-trained physicians to Venezuela in exchange for oil; see below), and hate-filled slandering of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez (Venezuela has one of the world’s largest oil reserves). Third, numerous independently funded studies have failed to prove that oil companies collude to keep prices high. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Governments have kept prices artificially low, and have only compounded the problem, as people then use energy recklessly, thereby further diminishing supply, and therefore, further raising the price of oil. The average gasoline price in Western Europe is currently over $6 per gallon, or roughly $1.60 a litre. Why do you think they all drive around in tiny little cars and mopeds? Why do you think they have walkable cities and mass public transit? Make sense? Americans can bitch all they want about the high price of gasoline, but little do they know they have it pretty damn sweet. (Qualifier: When I say “Americans” I refer not to the American people as a whole, but to those running the country.)

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Metal gardener

Last night I was a walking paradox. Here was a man in his “Mr. Cool” T-shirt and second-hand snap pants, using cheap gardening tools and his wife’s gardening gloves, pulling weeds from his lawn and garden, while listening to death metal on his iPod. Out in the serenity of Mother Nature, all by my lonesome, plucking earthworms gently from the soil to save them from my garden spade-induced swath of destruction, while simultaneously enjoying a cornucopia of death metal. I was ripping some fairly pathetic perennials out of my garden as they were contributing nothing but living space for snails. I also trimmed back some dead leaders on my other plants as they were sapping precious nutrients from the other branches that were actually producing something useful, namely, foliage. Who wants to spend their hard-earned money on worm poop and city water just to have it used up by zombie branches? Finally, I tackled the dandelions. Dandelions really piss me off. Anyone who ever does them the honor of making a salad out of them is kicking every weed-pulling fool like myself square in the nuts. I have slaved over my little herb garden to grow actual edible plants, only to watch them die before my eyes. Yet these plants that I did not even plant thrive and spread despite my best efforts. Screw you dandelion. See, that is where the metal comes in. I need the incessant thrashing of DevilDriver, Killswitch Engage, Unearth, Trivium, Becoming the Archetype, August Burns Red, Chimaira, et al. to muster the aggression and strength I need to eradicate the herbaceous scourge of Taraxacum officinale, the common dandelion. I worked up more of a sweat in those 3 hours I spent in my yard pulling weeds and mowing then I have in numerous manufactured workouts. No wonder our society is so fat. We don’t get on our knees and get dirty often enough. We just pay the Weed Man to take care of it. Man did it feel good. Rhythmic death metal. Destroying and creating life at the same time. Learning about the organism that is my yard. Awesome. If you want a killer website about gardening techniques more in line with nature, check out EarthEasy. Everything from how to attract beneficial insects to your yard to kill unwanted pests (who would have ever thought a species known as parasitic wasps could at the same time be considered beneficial?) to how to use corn gluten to kill weeds while rejuvenating your lawn. Who would have thunk it? Speaking of corn, if you find yourself in a bookstore, pick up Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. If you don’t want to buy it (although I am not endorsing this), just read the first 25 pages. Apparently, North Americans are very corny. Literally. We are full of corn. Everything we consume apparently contains corn in one form or another. No joke. But I digress (I do that a lot, don’t I?) Conclusion: There is no better way to unwind, get your aggression out, enjoy nature, and get a great workout, all at the same time, than gardening while pumping some thrash metal. Try it out!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Assault on reason

I just read a fantastic excerpt from Al Gore’s new book, Assault on Reason. It was published in the Globe and Mail. First of all, I must admit I was a tad dumbfounded by his opening statement in which he seemingly states that Christopher Columbus was American. I don’t think you can be considered the discoverer of a nation in which you were born, making this statement itself an Assault on Reason. For the record, although his exact place of birth is debatable, Christopher Columbus was Italian, AKA Cristoforo Colombo. While we are on the topic, John Cabot is not Canadian, nor he is Jean Cabot, a Frenchman. He is Giovanni Caboto, an Italian. And since we are discussing men whose reputations have been sullied by times passing, let us not forget the namesake of the American continent. Ever wonder why North, South, and Central America were not called Columbia, or Columbus? Mostly because when they were named, Columbus was already dead. Not only can dead men tell no tales, they cannot protest indignation neither. No, the name America comes from the Latin form of the name Amerigo, the first name of explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci, a man instrumental in exploring this great continent. Caveat: much of the above is only accepted theory, not proven fact. But I digress.

Anywho, what I meant to say was how impressed I was by the intellectual clarity and cognitive maturity demonstrated by Gore’s writing. My gosh, if this man had been president in 2001, we would not be in the undesirable situation in which we currently find ourselves. Let us compare quotes from the 2 candidates in the 2000 presidential election.

Gore (from his book): If you look at…almost every conflict zone in the world-you will find an element of amygdala politics based on vicarious traumatization, feeding off memories of past tragedies.

Bush: “Because of your work, children who once wanted to die are now preparing to live.”—speaking at the White House summit on malaria, Dec. 14, 2006. (Source)

Gore: (From his book) Terrorism relies on the stimulation of fear for political ends. Indeed, its specific goal is to distort the political reality of a nation by creating fear in the general population that is hugely disproportionate to the actual danger that the terrorists are capable of posing.

Bush: Rarely is the questioned asked:Is our children learning? [sic] (Source)

Most importantly, I now have another book to add to my ever-expanding Amazon wishlist. If you need a suggestion for yours, check out What Might Have Been, a counterfactual telling of 12 historical what-ifs. My favorite chapter is the one in which Al Gore wins the 2000 election, which he would have if the American presidential electoral system made any sense. Mr. Gore is taking a very reasoned and calm approach to the attacks of 9/11, an approach that results in none of the ensuing chaos characterized by the Bush era. The best part though is when Mr. Gore and his advisers are sitting around after a meeting, thinking to themselves, “Can you imagine if that idiot Bush would have won? He would have made a complete mess of this.” How true.