Sunday, April 22, 2018

When is anxiety a mental illness (and when is it not)?

Just before a performance of Crystal Pite's wonderful dance/theatre piece Betroffenheit the other night, we attended a pre-show talk about how the arts can help mental illnesses. It sounded like an interesting topic, but I have to confess, we both walked out before the end. We felt a bit shame-faced in leaving, but we felt we couldn't stay.
I think that what we both found difficult was some of the terminology and buzz-words and -phrases that kept coming up, words like "victim" and "survivor", and hackneyed phrases like "I didn't see anyone like me when I was growing up". Maybe it's just a generational thing - young people just didn't seem to have mental health problems when we were growing up (well, I'm sure they did, but it wasn't talked about, and people were just expected to "deal with it", and did). Which might be something to with our lack of patience with young people today, even though we know intellectually that there is a lot more mental illness around than there might appear, and that we should be patient, supportive and empathetic with those who suffer from it.
The two earnest young women at the pre-show talk both talked about their anxiety issues, something that seems to have reached almost epidemic proportions recently, particularly among millennials. My daughter (as well as most of her friends at university) also has anxiety issues, so I have tried to understand it, but I'm still not quite there.
Part of the problem is getting my head around the difference between anxiety (which everyone experiences from time to time, some more than others) and an anxiety disorder. Most people get anxious before exams or interviews, and are stressed when faced with what seems like an overwhelming workload or an impractical deadline. This is not a mental illness, and people do just need to "deal with it" or "get over it", although they can be helped and supported through it to some extent. However, that is the last thing that one should say to a person who suffers from a bona fide anxiety disorder. What anxious or depressed people do apparently want to hear are things like: "It's OK not to be OK", "I'm here for you", "You're doing really well", "You have the strength to beat this", or just "I love you".
If someone has an anxiety disorder, there are a bunch of other considerations and misconceptions to take into account, including: it's not possible to just "snap out if it"; there isn't always an obvious reason or catalyst for an anxiety attack; it often comes with physical effects such as nausea, stomach ache, headache, heart palpitations, etc.; therapy and/or medications may help, but equally they may not.
Obviously, there is a big grey area between and around normal anxiety and an anxiety disorder. There are some general indications of a true anxiety disorder (e.g. the intensity and length of the anxiety; associated physical symptoms and a feeling of disconnection from reality; impairment or avoidance of everyday activities; etc). But there is also the problem of self-diagnosis (otherwise known as Google), and the possibility that some of the symptoms are actually psychosomatic and (dare I say it?) not real. It's a minefield.
I often find myself pussyfooting around my daughter, not wanting to sound callous, and keen to give her the benefit of the doubt, while inside I am probably thinking along the lines of, "Oh, come on, get over yourself, I did exams too, you know, they're stressful but you can cope with them". I do sometimes wonder whether we are not condoning and enabling a kind of victim culture. But I'm way too polite and sensitive to say so. Ooh, di I just say that out loud?

Marvel at the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Somebody has gone to an incredible amount of trouble to sketch out the whole history of the Marvel Cimematic Universe, from the Big Bang to the present (i.e. Avengers: Infinity War). It's all I can do to "marvel" at it, and to share it. Put aside some time - it's pretty long.
It is based on the 19 - and counting -  MCU films to date, rather than the original comics (now THAT would be a project!) But I am a big fan of both the films and the comics, so I must confess I find it fascinating, and it neatly sets up the new Avengers film, which no doubt will have an incredibly complex plot, and be heavily reliant on "the story so far". It does a good job of tying in the links between Wakanda and Asgard and S.H.I.E.L.D. and Stark industries, and gives the derivation of the various primorial Infinity Stones that crop up in the movies from time to time.
Anyway, sit back and enjoy it. I did.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Rogers email's new terms of service eliciting many oaths

Rogers email users in Canada are being subjected to a full court press aimed at getting them to hand over email addresses and other personal information of their friends and neighbours so that they can be inundated with yet more advertising.
Rogers has for years outsourced its email service to Yahoo, which after a series of take-overs and mergers is now part of a Verizon/AOL media brand called Oath. In an unprecedented move (and a badly-timed one, given all the concern at the moment about unappropriate uses of online data), Rogers/Oath is requiring its customer base to agree to a new 27-page Terms of Service document which assumes that they have "obtained the consent of your friends and contacts to provide their personal information (for example: their email address or telephone number) to Oath or a third party", so that they can "send messages on your behalf to make the services available to your friends and contacts". So, broadly speaking, Rogers is saying that, if you want to continue as a Rogers customer, you need to hand over all your friends' contact information, so that they (or "third parties") can advertise their wares to them.
Another contentious clause in the new ToS allows Oath to "analyze" users' emails, photos and attachments with a view to delivering, personalizing and developing "relevant features, content, advertising and services". Technically, users could opt out of this tracking-for-advertising-purposes, except that there does not seem to be any obvious way to do this.
Unsurprisingly, many people are up in arms about all of this - there are certainly a good many oaths being bandied around online right now - and the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has promised to look into it. An Oath spokesperson, in typical corporate Doublespeak, maintains that it is all meant to increase transparency and user control. Another way of looking at it, though, is that Rogers, and Oath, have its customers' balls in a vice.

Smelling salts use popular among hockey players

Well, who knew? Apparently a lot of professional hockey players regularly take a hit of good old-fashioned smelling salts before a game, to get them well and truly woken up and ready to go.
Smelling salts are basically ammonia, with a few other minor added ingredients, and are traditionally most often applied to someone who has fainted or been knocked out, in order to bring them round. I remember having some in our medicine cabinet when I was a kid. The sharp head-snapping feeling has, however, been used as a quick "adrenaline hit" among the already-awake as far back as Roman times. Nowadays, you can buy handy single-dose snap-to-open capsules from Amazon for $5.99.
The practice is apparently particularly popular among some of the younger NHL players, and some may take a dose before the start of each period. Even some hoary old team coaches take it before a game. And, according to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), it is both safe and non-performance-enhancing, and it does not appear on the List of Prohibired Substances and Methods for the purposes of international sports competitions.
But there's the rub: it does not enhance performance in any way, so all those hockey players are just kidding themselves that it is helping their game in some way. Still, given that it is medically harmless (or at least not yet proven medically harmful - personally, I would be very surprised if repeated use did not have some kind of deleterious effect on the body, or at least on the nose), I say: knock yourself out!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Looks like we are stuck with inter-provincial trade restrictions

New Brunswicker Gérard Comeau is something of a folk hero for many Canadians. Mr. Comeau was fined $292 some six years ago for crossing the border from Quebec with 14 cases of beer and 3 bottles of spirits. Like many of us, he thought the rules on the inter-provincial movement of alcohol were ridiculous and probably even unconstitutional. Unlike most of us, though, Mr. Comeau was willing to stick up for what he saw as his rights by taking his case to the New Brunswick Provincial Court, where he won. When the case hit the Supreme Court of Canada this week, though, that decision was overruled, and many of us still don't really understand why.
S.121 of the Canadian Constitution clearly states that goods moving from one province to another must be "admitted free", i.e. the country is effectively just one big free trade zone. That seems pretty clear and unequivocal, but the Supreme Court - probably worried about the political, economic and legal fallout from admitting that - ruled that the phrase is "ambiguous" (how, exactly?), and that it must be interpreted in light of the "principle of federalism", which allows for the reflection of regional diversity and local concerns. That would mean that the country is not a free trade zone at all, and is therefore subject to all the ridiculous restrictions on the movement of crops, livestock, cigarettes, alcohol, etc, etc, that we are currently saddled with. The way the Court gets around what is clearly the letter of the law is by saying that, although a province cannot set out to impose trade barriers, it can regulate the movement of goods for a different purpose, which may just look like a trade barrier. Calling it by its real name, this is in fact protectionism, something we are supposed to be against in this country, inter-provincial protectionism by means of what is known in trade policy circles as "disguised barriers to trade".
Some are describing the decision as a "classic Canadian compromise", and are lauding it for its function in stymying inter-provincial cigarette and medications smuggling, and preventing the transportation of other hazardous materials across provincial borders. Others see it as a victory for government monopolies at the expense of the man and woman in the street. Me, I'm more of that mind, and see it as a woolly and mealy-mouthed decision, designed to merely protect the status quo and not the interests of the Canadian citizens. I'm sure that Gérard Comeau is not pleased either.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Swaziland is now eSwatini - plus ça change

Well, this doesn't happen too often. À propos of nothing at all, King Mswati III of Swaziland has decided to change the country's name to the Kingdom of eSwatini, which means "land of the Swazis", i.e. Swaziland.
The new name - which, to me, has unfortunate resonances of e-cigarettes or iPhones - is in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Swazi independence, as well as the king's own 50th birthday. The name change doesn't actually change much of substance, though, and the tiny country is still dirt poor and failing, still beset by the world's highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection, and still basically surrounded by South Africa.
The colourful King Mswati, also known as as "Ngwenyama" (or "The Lion"), is one of the few absolute monarchs left in the world, and his profligate spending ways and 15 wives (his father, the long-reigning King Sobhuza II, was reputed to have had 125 wives) has led to many popular protests. This latest distraction from the pressing need for economic reform will not have helped his case.

3G Capital's ravenous appetite for profit is killing Tim Hortons

Yet more articles are surfacing about how Brazilian company 3G Capital's rigid cost-cutting and profit-maximizing regime is gutting businesses like Tim Hortons and Kraft Heinz, which have spent decades building up their brands only to be bought up by the Brazilian investment company, which cares little or nothing about employees, franchise loyalty or brand reputation.
Tim Hortons probably will (and probably should) become an important university economics case study. Once one of the defining brands of Canada, the popular and successful coffee-and-donuts chain was first merged with Burger King under the ownership of Restaurant Brands International (the start of its downward slide), which was then in turn gobbled up by 3G Capital. 3G's capitalism-on-steroids business model stresses short-term profit maximization through stringent and drastic cost-cutting. This is not just an exercise in trimming excess fat; this is an obsessive paring back of all the things that make a family franchise operation like Tim Hortons tick. So it's probably not a big surprise that the company's stocks (like those of Kraft Heinz) are fading fast, or that, as previously reported, the once powerful name and reputation of Tim Hortons is curently sinking without trace.
3G, however, probably doesn't care that much, and will just offload any investments that no longer meet their profit requirements. They certainly don't care about a company's loss of national icon status, nor the plight of the franchisees who have spent years or even decades building up their businesses, nor for that matter whether the company is still in existence in 50 or even 10 years time. This is the ugly face of rampant globalized capitalism.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The story of Onan: more dubious moral advice from the Bible

My bathroom calendar's word of the day today is "onanism" and, while I knew that it means masturbation and that its etymology is based on some guy in the Bible named Onan, I got to wondering what on earth the Bible was doing discussing masturbation. A little research on Wikipedia reveals that, perhaps predictably, the Bible was not actually offering useful practical advice for teenage boys, but the usual mish-mash of anachronistic mixed messages.
It turns out that Onan was the younger brother of Er, and second son of Judah (patriach of the land of Judea, one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel). When Er was summarily killed by God because "he was wicked in the sight of the Lord", as happens a lot in the Bible, father Judah called on Onan to fulfill his duty by taking his older brother's place with his wife, Tamar, and impregnating her in order to carry on the family line (this is sometimes referred to as a "levirate marriage", and yet another reason why we should not be taking the Bible seriously in the 21st Century).
It seems like Onan was nearly as outraged as we might be with this idea (and as Tamar probably was too, had anyone bothered to ask her). But, unwilling to give up the chance of a good screw, he went along with that part of the plan at least. However, for reasons that are not really clear (but may be something to do with the fact that any child of such a union would be considered his brother Er's under this kind of weird levirate marriage), he decided to withdraw before orgasm and, in that inimitable Biblical phrase, "spilled his seed on the ground".
Thereupon, God did his smiting thing again and Onan was toast, leaving somewhat vague exactly what it was Onan did that was evil: whether it was the having sex with his sister-in-law (probably not, that kind of thing happens all the time in the wonderful world of the Bible), the disobeying of his psychotic father and the contravention of the bizarre rules of levirate marriages (that was probably the lesson that ancient Jews would have taken away, although smiting still seems a little harsh), or the spilling of the seed and the criminal "wasting" of Onan's procreative juices.
This latter view was the one that the early Christian commentators decided was the best interpretation to suit their own prurient agenda. The Catholic church went on to use the story as a cautionary tale against any kind of contracepted or non-procreational sex (e.g. coitus interruptus, anal sex, whips and bondage), and the Protestants of the 16th and 17th Century later extended this to include masturbation. Well, why wouldn't they?
So, as you can see, the connection between Onan and masturbation is tenuous at best, but that is just what onanisn came to mean when it was introduced into the English language in the Protestant-dominated early 18th Century. What it really calls for, though, based on the original story, is for us to schtup our brother's wife if he doesn't get around to it himself - more invaluable moral guidance for the modern age from the good old Bible.