Friday, February 13, 2015

An almost infinite jest

I have rashly committed myself to reading David Foster Wallace's well-regarded, encyclopedic, postmodern novel "Infinite Jest". I'm quite enjoying it so far, but then I am on page 28 of a book that runs to 1,079 small-typed pages (including almost a hundred pages of notes, and notes-within-notes)...
"Infinite Jest" is widely regarded as a "difficult" book, "difficult" in the same sense as Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, et al. As the foreword points out, it's not a book to read in a crowded cafe, or with a child on one's lap. Now, I've always loved Pynchon (and Joyce for that matter, although I have to admit that "Finnegan's Wake" well and truly defeated me). So, despite my slow, painstaking reading style, I thought the time had come for Wallace.
Joyce it's definitely not, although Pynchon is perhaps a good analogue. Like Pynchon, some of Wallace's allusions and metaphors can be downright obscure, and his diction is often erudite. More often, though, Wallace's sentences are just slightly mercurial or capricious. He also takes a Pynchonian delight in meandering, labyrinthine sentences (not to mention paragraphs that are often the lengrh of the page, and may be 4-5 page long) at times. A quick example of a sentence from the very first page:
The Dean at left, a lean yellowish man whose fixed smile nevertheless has the impermanent quality of something stamped into uncooperative material, is a personality-type I've come lately to appreciate, the type who delays need of any response from me by relating my side of the story for me, to me.
There is nothing intrinsically difficult about the sentence, and this particular one is not even particularly long or convoluted. It is just somehow vaguely quirky and idiosyncratic, just a litle bit unexpected, and it makes a slightly awkward, twisting progress down the page. Quirky, I like; awkward, I like.
Wallace also has a penchant for Proustian attention to detail. For example, he pursues an extended discourse on a small insect found peering out from a shelf bracket in the kind of detail most authors would not even consider for such an unimportant matter, although one realizes afterwards that the episode was actually quite useful in further establishing the mood and the obsessive nature of the main character.
And about that character... The main protagonist (at least at the start of the book: over the course of a thousand pages that could well change), one Hal Incandenza, is a young tennis prodigy, as Wallace himself apparently was in his youth, but also an intellectual wunderkind with an eidetic memory, who reads dictionaries for kicks. Not content with that, though, Wallace adds in a serious marijuana addiction and precarious mental stability.
The mood and setting of the book are equally difficult to gauge. It is set in what appears to be recognizably the Boston area of northeastern USA in the modern day, but something about it feels not quite right, as though it may be a future or parallel America. This is hinted at in little things, like the commercially-sponsored calendar year names ("revenue-enhancing subsidized time"), mentions of strange corporations and technologies, and the hints of unfamiliar political unrests and unknown geopolitical entities. This is all part of Wallace's (successful) attempt to slightly unbalance the reader, and to establish an ominous, uneasy tone.
So, just a few short chapters in on this marathon undertaking, and things are looking good. Ask me again in a couple of months.

It did in fact take me a month, almost to the day. It was worth the effort though.
"Infinite Jest" is a truly post-modern book, lurching between styles, chronologies, character, person, etc, and moving effortlessly from ultra-realism to drug-addled dream sequences to magical realist episodes and back again. There are at least four or five main story arcs and several more minor ones, most of them tenouously linked, although often in a cryptic or oblique way. If the various plotlines never quite come together or resolve, by the end of the book one doesn't really care.
By turns wilfully obscure and incandescently vivid, "Infinite Jest" is a tour-de-force, a quirky whirlwind of excruciating detail and obscure terms and allusions, and an artful mishmash of elegant prose and scuzzy street argot. All in all, it is a bold, unapologetic, sprawling and challenging book, and the oft-claimed epithet "masterpiece" may not actually be too far from the truth.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Gordie Howe victim of a marketing gimmick

Gordie Howe was a great Canadian hockey player, and a great ambassador for the game since his retirement. The hockey world was saddened to hear of his heart-attacks last year.
Since then, though, Howe has made a remarkable recovery, some would even say miraculous. Howe, now 86 years old, still suffers from dementia, and has not himself made any claims of any sort, but his family and his doctors are talking extensively about his newfound mobility and weight gain, and attributing them exclusively to the expensive stem cell treatment Howe has been receiving at a private clinic in Tijuana, Mexico. The word "miracle" is bandied about with gay abandon in their press releases.
Stem cells have been touted as a medical panacea and miracle cure since their initial discovery back in the 1960s. In fact, although their theoretical potential seems almost infinite, espcially in such areas as spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis, they have only actually been successfully used to treat certain blood diseases, most notably leukemia. Any other successes, including Gordie Howe's "miraculous" stroke recovery, remain purely anecdotal and unproven.
Mr. Howe has also been receiving the very best in speech therapy, physical therapy and occupational therapy, all of which are known to aid in the recovery of stroke victims, who regularly report abrupt and often unforeseen improvements in conditions. Stem cell therapy, on the other hand, has NEVER shown such significant and beneficial effects in properly-monitored clinical trials, however much we might like to wish.
The situation becomes slightly clearer when it is further explained that neither Howe nor his family actually sought out the stem cell treatment. Rather, the $20,000 treatment was offered gratis by an American stem cell manufacturer, and the procedure was adminstered in Mexico because such treatments remain unlicensed in both America and Canada.
So, think of it as a rather expensive, but apparently quite effective, marketing gimmick. Don't, however, think of it as a miracle, scientific or otherwise.

Crossing the house should not be allowed

I still find it a bit difficult to believe that it is legal for a politician to "cross the House", as they say. It seems to happen with great regularity, at both upper levels of government, and the defection of Eve Adams from the federal Conservatives to the Liberals is just the latest in this dubious tendency.
It often occurs, it seems to me, just as a particular political party is starting to fall on hard times, or at least looks as though it may do so before the next election. These, then, are the early rats leaving possibly sinking ships. I don't get the impression that these are conscientious politicians experiencing a life-changing change of heart: rather, these are professional politicians looking to their careers and their legacies.
Setting aside the question of why Liberal leader Justin Trudeau would agree to such a thing in the first place (Ms. Adams can hardly be considered a great political prize), this particular defection does not tip the balance of power in any meaningful way, it is just a prelude to the shenanigans to come during the election campaign later this year. It looks like Ms. Adams will not even have to face her own electorate again during that election, but will be strategically placed in another riding entirely.
Perhaps I should be happy the Conservatives have one less MP, but I just think of all those people who voted for a representative from a particular political party to represent their views in Parliament, who suddenly see their representative voting in the opposite direction. It seems like the kind of loophole in the political process that should be specifically precluded by law.
Come the election, of course, Ms. Adams can stand for whichever party she likes (actually, Stephen Harper has told her in no uncertaim terms that the Conservatives don't want her anyway, especially after she called them "fearmongers and bullies"). But she will then have to face down and justify the disconnect in being an incumbent for one party and a candidate for another.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

George Eliot has no balls

Having just finished George Eliot's "Scenes of Clerical Life", I feel like I should make a blog entry about it, if only so that I don't have to make another depressing entry about depressing contemporary politics.
The book is really just a collection of three tenuously-linked stories about country clergymen and the women around them. It's not Eliot's best work - in fact, it was her earliest published work, even though she would have been about 37 years old - although the prose is crisp and even (as the carol has it), even if not deep. It is rewarding but not essential reading.
What puzzled me most about the book, though, is why she chose such subject matter in the first place. George Eliot was, that rare thing in mid-19th Century Britain, a committed atheist and humanist, who had critically studied the Bible as a young woman and concluded that it was just a rather uneven collection of folk tales and legends, and had not been shy of expounding her freethinking beliefs and openly criticizing the powerful Church of Victorian England.
Yet, here she was writing unchallenging stories about village curates. Nor is she using such conceits as a means of criticism, either open or veiled, of the Church and organized religion. Her clerical characters, as well as the other devout Christians in the stories, are not all paragons of virtue, but they are, generally speaking, represented sympathetically, and only subjected to the same light irony as everyone else. No withering satire here. Indeed, the whole tone of the story is religious, at times almost rapturous.
The main protagonist in the longest (and best, in my opinion) of the three stories, "Janet's Repentance", does have a major crisis of faith after her years of domestic abuse comes to a head, and I was fully expecting the exposition of some edifying humanist home truths. But what should happen then but her faith is renewed, and even strengthened, by the new preacher in town. Lost opportunity or what?
So, what was Eliot up to here? Unfortunately, I don't have any great insights or revelations to report. I am not a literary scholar, and I don't even know if this is a subject that has attracted reams of critical analysis. But all I can think is that she sold out, and just produced what was expected of a Victorian author - and what sold books at the time - a good old Christian morality tale that didn't rock the boat or ruffle too many feathers.
One could say the same about her treatment of the wife-battering issue. Kudos for even bringing the subject up, I guess, but I thought her resolution pretty lame. Eliot has never been considered a feminist, or even a proto-feminist - as I've a suspicion she might have been were she writing even fifty years later - and even her strongest character, Dorothea in "Middlemarch", written some fifteen years after "Scenes", signally failed to achieve, or even dream of, the kind of independence Eliot herself enjoyed in real life. But you would think she might have stuck her neck out a little further than just having her protagonist meekly return to her abusive husband, full of Christian forgiveness and humility.
Her near-contemporary, the outspoken social reformer Charles Dickens (who, incidentally, apparently wrote to this young George fellah after the publication of "Scenes of Clerical Life", praising his writing, and, with admirable perspicacity, claiming that, if he didn't know any better, he would have guessed the author was a woman), clearly had more balls than George Eliot!

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Physician-assisted suicide to be legal in Canada

Canada is joining the ranks of iconoclastic firebrand countries like Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Colombia (as well as the odd renegade US states like Washington and Oregon, and the Canadian province of Quebec), in making doctor-assisted suicide legal.
The Supreme Court of Canada yesterday ruled unanimously that people should be allowed legal access to assisted suicide, rather than being forced to take their own lives in a violent, dangerous or unreliable way, or continuing to suffer in the hope of an early natural death. As the articles (not, I think, the court) succinctly put it, the right to live is not a duty to live.
Yet again, the (largely Conservative-appointed) Supreme Court has given a slap in the face to Mr. Harper, which is maybe a good indication of just how far to the right Harper and his government have wandered.
The Court has given the government a year in which to implement the ruling, and establish the necessary safeguards. But it also offered a few general parameters to help with this, including the injunction that it should only be administered to a "competent adult person" who "clearly consents to the termination of life" and who has a "grievous and irremediable condition that causes enduring suffering that is intolerable to the individual", either physically or psychologically.
Of course, the Conservatives and the religionists are not happy, and, as usual with these morally ambiguous issues, there are other objections. For example, some advocates of the disabled have condemned the ruling, claiming it is too permissive in that it is not restricted to the terminally ill. But it does apparently reflect the will of the Canadian people and the current Zeitgeist: a November 2014 Ipsos Reid survey of more than 2,500 Canadians found 84% support assisted dying, provided strong safeguards were in place.
The task now is to institute a proper legal framework to make the ruling work, and to establish those safeguards. It sounds easy when you say it like that, but I've a suspicion that the hard work is just about to begin.

Fast forward to April 2016, and the new Liberal government in Canada introduces a parliamentary bill to enact the Supreme Court ruling on doctor-assisted dying. While the bill does the necessary in effectively legalizing medical assistance in dying, and lays out the general process for doing so, it has been criticised by many for being too cautious and narrow in its remit.
It is indeed narrower than the Supreme Court ruling in that it allows for doctor-assisted suicide only for mentally competent adults over the age of 18, where "natural death has become reasonably foreseeable". The latter part in particular is contentious because of its vagueness, and because it may exclude people with degenerative neurological diseases like dementia, Huntington's disease, Parkinson's disease, ALS, multiple sclerosis, etc. The bill allows for no mechanism for advance consent for people with degenerative diseases or worsening psychological conditions. It also puts the current Quebec law, which specifically requires a terminal condition, in limbo.
So, a good start, perhaps, but this is far from over. All major parties have promised a free vote on the bill, and even if passed it may still be subject to legal challenges.

The bill was finally passed on June 17th,  a week or two after the court-prescribed deadline, and after a lot of toing-and-froing and argy-bargying between the House of Commons and the Senate. Many of the Senate's recommended amendments were accepted, but in the end the Senate backed down on its most important proposal, namely to remove the "reasonably foreseeable" end-of -life requirement. Thus, patients with a disease like multiple sclerosis probably will be covered by the law, but those with non-terminal or psychiatric illnesses will not, regardless of the pain and distress being experienced. I can see those legal challenges being drawn up even now.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Measles in 2015? Go figure

Who knew that measles would become a hot-button issue (or any kind of an issue, frankly) in 2015?
Measles has been eradicated in North America since 2002 (2000 in the USA), but now we are seeing an outbreak of well over 100 cases in the USA (92 of them in California, centred around Disneyworld, and most recently a mini-outbreak affecting 5 babies in suburban Chicago), as well as 4 disparate and apparently unrelated cases in Canada.
The outbreak appears to be a direct result of the declining rates of vaccinations, paradoxically particularly in affluent, college-educated pockets of the population, rather than among less-educated, lower-income, working class families. Some of the lowest vaccination rates (below 50%) can be found in those small, right-on, "alternative" schools that are so popular among wealthy urban elite types. These people maybe be educated and well-read, but what they are reading is unfortunately garbage.
Much of this backlash against vaccination among segments of the privileged classes stems from a misguided but well-meant attempt to limit the "toxins" to which a child is exposed, and it feeds on myriad reports on the Interwebs linking vaccinations in general to all manner of mental disorders. In particular, may people still believe that vaccinations can cause autism, in the wake of a fraudulent and thoroughly discredited 1998 paper by British researcher Andrew Wakefield (who has since been barred from practicing medicine). A depressing recent survey in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario revealed that one-in-five people still believe this (and an additional one-in-five were not sure).
As for the inanity of "measles parties" and homeopathic nosodes, don't even get me started!
Just this week, two likely US Republican candidates, Chris Christie and Rand Paul, have expressed their ambivalence towards vaccination, and then been forced to hastily retract their views in the face of strong criticism and public opinion. The other main contender, Jeb Bush, was better advised and claimed, whatever his actual view, to support vaccination programs. On the Democratic side, both Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton both strongly support vaccinations. For many Republicans, it is an issue of individual liberties and personal choice, health risks and moral responsibility be damned.
Others, especially in in the Republican Bible Belt, object to vaccinations on religions grounds, preferring to rely on the power of prayer and the protection of a benevolent God instead (yeah, right!). This kind of sanctimonious claptrap (of which this and this are just two examples among many) is rife on the Internet, and apparently many supposedly educated and well-read people just lap this stuff up. The vast majority of US states, adopting their usual position of bending over backwards to respect religious views, however bizarre or abhorrent, allow parents to opt out of otherwise mandatory vaccinations for religious reasons, thus putting their own children (and those of others) at risk.
This, of course, is to say nothing of the even nastier attitudes common in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria, where outbreaks of otherwise-eradicated polio and measles occur regularly due to the anti-vaccination activities of the Taliban and Boko Haram. Another victory for organized religion.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Understanding jihadi groups

I finally found, courtesy of the good old Beeb, a reasonably convincing attempt at explaining the rationale behind the Islamic State (IS, aka ISIS or ISIL, depending on the day of the week) and their apparent disregard of Islam in favour of shock-and-awe tactics of extreme violence, something that has always puzzled me.
Even al-Qaeda made some attempt, albeit somewhat feeble, to justify their crimes on a theological basis. IS, the unruly and vicious offspring of al-Qaeda, has never done so and is completely unapologetic. Rather than try and justify their actions according to the precepts of Islam, their approach is just to get the job done, as effectively as possible and with no recriminations, using whatever means seem to be effective. By stressing brutality and barbarism, IS is banking on attracting recruits through intimidation, and through its image of unapologetic single-mindedness. For them death, torture, even genocide, is its own justification. And it has been remarkably successful in attracting recruits, both at home and in the Western world, particularly disaffected youth who feel they have nothing else to lose.
The "job", as IS sees it, is also much narrower than that of al-Qaeda. Although it wants ultimately to establish a Sunni Muslim caliphate across the whole world, it sees the first step towards that goal as the removal of the local Shia Muslim infidels (it looks on Shias as infidels, just as Westerners are). Only then can it concern itself with the rest of the world.
The only other movement that is even comparable to IS is Boko Haram in northern Nigeria (see the essential BBC guide to this mob). The name Boko Haram can be roughly translated as "Western education is forbidden", but this is just one of the planks of their belief. The group's official name is Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad, which means "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad", and it too is trying to establish a strict Islamic state or caliphate in the region, in place of the political entity of Nigeria, which it does not recognize.
Their approach seems to be roughly similar to that of IS (although the two groups are not officially linked in any way): use whatever means and violence is deemed necessary to get the job done, political optics and theological rationale be damned. Increasingly, in recent months, Boko Haram seems to have begun mimicking IS and their tactics and pronouncements, although the mass kidnappings of schoolgirls remains their trademark action.
Although IS seems to receive more media attention, and their inflammatory video set pieces (the beheadings, the burnings, etc) are apparently deliberately designed with that purpose in mind, the recent numbers of victims are remarkably similar. According to NBC, there were some 10,340 IS-related violent deaths in the last year (measured in this case November 2013 to November 2014), and 10,733 Boko Haram-related deaths.
A different report by the BBC compares the deaths from jihadism in a single month (November 2014), which shows significantly more activity by IS than Boko Haram in that particular month, but also serves to remind us that there are other jihadist massacres still going on in Afghanistan (courtesy of the Taliban), Somalia (al-Shabaab) and Yemen (AQAP, or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), where the deaths of hundreds of people receive little or no media coverage.
The estimable Guardian was one of the few media outlets to ask why Boko Haram's victims receive so much less attention than those of IS (and independent IS-wannabe attacks like those in Paris, Ottawa and Quebec). However, other than the lack of Western journalists on the ground in Nigeria and a generalized claim that African lives are perhaps less newsworthy than Western ones, convincing reasons seem hard to find. Certainly, the various efforts of IS, and even more so those of self-radicalized individuals, pale into insignificance against the immensity of some of Boko Haram's raids, one of which, at the beginning of January 2015, may have resulted in the deaths of 2,000 people.
So, do I understand jihadism any better now? Not really...