COMPASSION IN A PILL? HARD TO SWALLOW.

by Geoff Olson

A pill to make you more compassionate and more willing to hand out spare change to the needy? Scientists have taken a big step in that direction, according to UC Berkeley News Centre of a study published in Current Biology.

Research subjects were asked to play a simple game of financial sharing. After taking the drug tolcapone, they divided money with strangers in a fairer, more egalitarian way than they did after taking a placebo.

Beyond the intriguing fact that there’s a caring n’ sharing substance with the word “Capone” in it, the research promises a better understanding of “the interaction between altered dopamine-brain mechanisms and mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or addiction,” states the UC Berkeley press release.

“Our study shows how studying basic scientific questions about human nature can, in fact, provide important insights into diagnosis and treatment of social dysfunctions,” said Ming Hsu, a co-principal investigator and assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

Any sentence containing the words “treatment of social dysfunction” and “school of business” immediately catches my attention. Sounds like someone’s blue-skying a lucrative scheme to turn compassion-fatigued citizens into blissed-out Boddhisattvas.

If so, this kind of thinking goes way back. “Scientists plan for peace with a pill,” declared a headline in a March 17, 1967 edition of the Observer. Dr. K.E. Moyer of Pittsburgh University insisted that human aggression could be treated by pill, and that brain scientists were “on a threshold similar to that on which the atomic physicist stood in the early 1940s.”

The same year as the story in the Observer, author Arthur Koestler enthusiastically predicted the mass manufacture of a pill to turn “Homo maniacus into Homo sapiens.”

Unfortunately, dreams of social engineering through drugs have often resulted in nightmares, from the narcotized dissidents in Soviet gulags to the ’50s-era victims of the CIA-backed psychiatrist and buzzkill Dr. Donald Ewan Cameron, who put unknowing Canadian patients into insulin-induced comas to erase their memories and “rebuild” their psyches.

The notion of mass-medicating people into institutionally acceptable behaviour has leapt from the pages of Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World into U.S. classrooms and study halls. A mind-boggling 19 per cent of high school-age boys — ages 14 to 17 — in the U.S. have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperativity Disorder, according to a 2013 report from the U.S. Centre for Disease Control. This has been a highly profitable development for the makers of Ritalin.

And now we’re hearing about oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). The psychiatric bible DSM-5 defines ODD as “a pattern of angry/irritable mood, argumentative/defiant behaviour, or vindictiveness lasting at least six months as evidenced by at least four symptoms from any of the [defined] categories and exhibited during interaction with at least one individual who is not a sibling.”

Official symptoms include, “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules,” and “often argues with adults.” Teenage rebellion, in other words.

When ODD coexists with ADHD or depression, a long-term prescription for mood-altering drugs is usually not far behind.

There is an irony to mention about the mental health treatment of adults. Clinical trials using psychoactive substances like MDMA, psilocybin and ibogaine — which reportedly can produce lasting health benefits after a small number of sessions — are on the rise, but still tightly restricted. I submit one reason researchers have found great difficulty in obtaining past federal approval and funding for such promising substances is because the preliminary findings threaten the accepted model of mental health management through long-term medication/addiction.

I rather doubt that anyone connected with the Berkeley study believes poverty and other social ills can be seriously addressed by the random charity of tolcapone-tweaked citizens. While society is dominated by the dopamine-spiking elements of money, power, and status, a solution probably isn’t forthcoming in a big pharma blister pack, particularly if the effect of empathogens runs counter to consumerism — which depends on a reliable mass supply of anxiety, alienation and discontent.

Arthur Koestler was a great one for smashing idols and ideologies. And he was wise enough to ask of his own proposal for a peace pill, “Who is to control the controls, manipulate the manipulators?” Exactly the sort of question you’d expect from someone with oppositional defiant disorder.

The Vancouver Courier, Mar. 27

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NOPE, IT’S NOT AN ONION HEADLINE

It’s from the CBC, where apparently all the digital copy editors are 15-year old boys. 
At last LuLemon addresses that burning question from men: how do I arrange my testicles in such a way they don’t get crushed by my chain mail leggings from The Society for Creative Anachronism? 
Translation: where do I find pants to make my junk look a smuggled fruit basket?

Can’t believe I’m even paying attention to this story (he said, shifting uncomfortably in his Levis).

OF NUTTY BRANDS AND BABY NAMES

NUTELLAby Geoff Olson

A French court has barred a couple from naming their daughter Nutella, according to a report in The Guardian Weekly. The court ruled that a girl named after the popular hazelnut chocolate spread would suffer from “mockery or disobliging remarks” by others. In response the parents lopped off the prefix, leaving her as Ella.

The word “brand” is of Old Norse derivation. In this medieval Viking language, “brandr” meant “to burn.” Over time, the word was used to describe the searing of cattle, convicts and slaves with red-hot irons. So it’s not wrong to say that the French legal system stepped in — or overstepped, depending on your point of view — to keep the kid from being burned.

What were the parents thinking? Who knows. The late psychologist B. F. Skinner, major domo the now-discredited school of psychology known as behaviourism, conceived of animal minds as black boxes: all you could do was record were the inputs and outputs. His assessment of human beings wasn’t much higher.

Stimulus: a sweet new baby girl. Response: naming her after an insulin-spiking spread.

Let’s not rule out the possible role of drugs. Perhaps weed played a part in the naming of Wisconsin teacher Marijuana Sawyer, and alcohol in the naming of ESPN Montana after a sports broadcasting network and football star. In comparison, 26-year old Linda Dagless seem a model of sobriety. The UK woman named her fourth daughter after the Swedish furniture maker Ikea.

Too bad Ms. Dagless didn’t look to the company’s signature scented candle  (Flärdfull) or duvet cover (Grönkulla) for baby-naming inspiration. Oh well, perhaps little Ikea will grow up to marry someone named Allen Key.

Unfortunately, such brand-crazed parents may be harbingers as much as outliers. In  Mike Judge’s 2008 black comedy Idiocracy, American citizens of the future are named after company products, among them “Frito,” “Velveeta,” and “Beef Supreme.” It doesn’t seem a stretch, considering there’s already a real-world American rap star who took the stage name Ludacris, an alteration of the synonym for ridiculous.

What’s in a name? Plenty. Big firms are very protective of their brands and logos — and south of the border, corporations have the legal status of personhood. A 2010 legal decision (The U.S. Supreme Court vs. Reason Itself) ruled that because corporations have the right to free speech under the First Amendment, there can be no restrictions on financing U.S. political campaigns. Corporations can now carpet bomb candidates of their of choice with obscene amounts of filthy lucre.

Contrast this with a U.S. federal decision in 2014, when lawyers for the Obama administration declared that people detained at Guantánamo Bay prison are not “persons” protected by the U.S. Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

So in the Bizarro World of America, corporations are persons while some people are not. Needless to say, prisoners subject to “indefinite detention” — many deemed innocent of terror activities — don’t have the opportunity to rebrand themselves into retroactive personhood for public relations purposes. (I can imagine a social media campaign to free “Ahmed Mountain Dew” and his fellow brandees, and I’m not being entirely facetious.)

Personhood in everyday life is being eroded by changing concepts of privacy. Also, there’s significant pressures on people to professionally “brand themselves” through social media sites. They are coached to think of themselves as mini-corporations complete with “mission statements” and other marketing-related bumpf.

The thesis of Joel Bakan’s 2004 film The Corporation is that if the average big corporation is a person, then its behaviour suggests a psychopathic personality. In other words, we’re not talking about ideal models for personhood, let alone baby names.

Consider the final words of the notorious mass killer Gary Gilmore — “Let’s do it ”—just before his death by a Utah firing squad in 1977. Dan Wieden, the founder of advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy, “realized that a slight tweaking of Mr. Gilmore’s last words might make a good slogan for athletic gear,” according to a 2009 report in the New York Times. Hence Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign.

That’s right: Nike’s “Just Do It” tag line was inspired by the last words of a mass  murderer. Branding-wise, naming a child after a chocolate hazelnut spread seems like chump change in comparison.

The Vancouver Courier, Mar. 20

TRANSIT PLEBISCITE: HOLD YOUR NOSE AND VOTE NO

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The Vancouver Courier, Mar. 18

by Geoff Olson

The more I examine the barrage of claims and counterclaims about local transit, the less the upcoming plebiscite seems a yes/no option than a lose/lose proposition.

Eric Chris is a Australian-born chemical engineer living near UBC. In one of his heavily hyperlinked emails to local media, Chris recalled how smoothly trafficked flowed in Vancouver during the four-month long transit strike in 2001.

This runs counter to claims about expanded bus service reducing road congestion. Chris cites a 2009 paper by Gilles Duranton and Matthew A. Turner from the University of Toronto department of economics. “The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from US Cities,” concluded that “the provision of public transportation has no impact on vehicle kilometres traveled.”

The transit advantages were offset “by an increase in driving by current residents; an increase in transportation intensive production activity; and an inflow of new residents.”

In other words, automobile drivers eventually max out any newly available road space, particularly when new transit infrastructure is accompanied by increased urban residential development.

“Transit moving people who don’t drive and who really depend upon transit to go about their daily lives in their immediate community provides a valuable public service, and I truly do support it,” writes Chris.

What he and many others reject is Vision Vancouver’s template of developer-led urban growth, pegged to the shoddy performance of an unelected body tasked with megaproject-friendly transit expansion. (The cost of the farcically buggy Compass Card program has swelled from $100 million to $191 million, and we still haven’t seen the bottom of that particular sinkhole.)

When urban growth models are slanted toward the desires of wealthy offshore investors and local developers, transit form tends to follow civic function. The long-term costs to the taxpayer balloon along with property values.

According to a 2014 property tax report on new homes, 2,243 detached homes in the Vancouver west side met the wrecking ball in a three-year period. Meanwhile, local dwelling options for younger middle-class residents are literally shrinking down to laneway houses, cramped stacking units in the sky, and much-ballyhooed “tiny homes.”

Still, the worker bees have to get into and around Metro Vancouver’s buzzing urban hives somehow, no?

“There is plenty of proof over the last two decades that hub to hub transport by TransLink is merely a ploy for businesses to make money from building the concrete intensive SkyTrain lines and concrete intensive condos along the SkyTrain lines,” insists Chris.

This argument is echoed by  Charles Menzies, a UBC professor of anthropology. A passage from his blog deserves to be quoted at length:

“Fundamentally the transit referendum is about subsidizing the real estate development industry of the Lower Mainland. It is a wealth transfer from the majority to the elite minority who are raking in big dollars by revalourizing land through the development of public transit. This is not a new plan, it’s one used by developers historically and the world over: use the mechanisms of the state to take money from the majority to fund the profit making ventures of the minority.”

Menzies continues: “UBC, for example, wants a subway so that they can realize the highest rate of return off the land they have. The same goes for each of the town centres created by the regional plan and the expansion of public transit. The push for transit in Metro isn’t about ecology, sustainability, or making our communities nicer: it’s about using public means to facilitate the accumulation of profit by a minority of developers. It’s a form of social theft. So when I get my paper mail in ballot I’ll vote no to social theft, no to the developer tax.”

Voting yes won’t result in ideal light rail transit (think European-style electric trams), a civically more attractive option than additional polluting nonelectric buses, revenue-gobbling SkyTrain expansion, and bored tunnel infrastructure courtesy SNC Lavalin or some other bidding behemoth. (SNC Lavalin is reeling from criminal investigations and a 2013 World Bank decision to debar it after allegations of bribery in a Bangladesh bridge development).

Given the binary option of a tax for transit infrastructure attached to out-of-control urban development in Metro Vancouver, this plebiscite begs for public rejection. The next best thing is to hold your nose and vote no.

The Vancouver Courier, Mar. 13