Thursday, April 26, 2018

Burning hot, and crazy

I think I am going to be ill. My stomach is gurgling, starting to roll and its contents are about to take flight.

I’ve been researching what people put in their mouths, and why. What I have discovered is enough to make a cast iron stomach flip its pancakes.

For instance, earlier this year an Internet meme involving laundry pods surged in popularity and suddenly developed into the Tide Pod Challenge. Teenagers videoed themselves chewing and gagging on Tide Pods and posting the videos to You Tube where they dared others to do the same.

I’ve never snacked on Tide Pods myself so I wanted to find out why anyone would bite into a plastic packet of detergent. They contain polymers, hydrogen peroxide, ethanol and other nasty things that can burn the mouth, the esophagus and stomach.

The only answer seemed to be stupidity.

While researching I discovered the world of Internet food challenges. I guess I lead a sheltered life because I did not know there are hundreds of food challenges, ranging from eating the world’s hottest pepper to the Banana Sprite Challenge.

The latter involves quickly swallowing two bananas then chugging a litre of Sprite. The idea is to do that without vomiting, which is nearly impossible because the human stomach can hold only two cups of anything at any given moment.

There are a variety of hot pepper challenges in which participants are filmed eating the world’s hottest peppers. The preparations, including having large quantities of soothing milk at hand, are shown followed by the eating, then the reactions that can include intense sweating, pain contortions and hallucinations.

One guy who took  the hot pepper challenge landed in hospital with a burned throat and a collapsed lung.

Two years ago five middle school kids in Ohio were taken to hospital following a hot pepper challenge during lunch break.  The kids suffered skin rashes, sweating and unbearable discomfort. One boy temporarily lost his eyesight.

They had eaten Bhut Jolokia, also called the ghost pepper, which is a type of chilli pepper cultivated in India.

The ghost pepper was considered the world’s hottest pepper but apparently the Carolina Reaper now has that honour. Pepperhead, a hot pepper website found at, reports that the Reaper is 20 times hotter than a Habanero and 600 times hotter than a Jalapeno.

Imagine, 600 times hotter than a pepper that makes me sweat whenever I just drive past a grocery store that sells them!

There seems to be no end to the number of nasty food challenges. There’s the drinking Lemon Juice Challenge, the Chubby Bunny (stuffing numerous marshmallows in your mouth), the Gulping Milk Challenge and the Saltine Challenge in which participants try to stuff their mouths with crackers without spitting them out.

The list seems endless. These challenges are really stunts aimed at getting attention. Some are entertaining, even educational, but others are just plain dumb and can be dangerous.

Among the most gross and dangerous are the two Condom Challenges. These began several years back, presumably by beer drinking college students bored with studying, but have found renewed popularity this year.

One involves snorting a latex condom through the nose, into the back of the throat, then pulling it out through the mouth. Medical professionals of course warn that this is a really bad idea.

These things are rubbery and can easily get stuck in the throat, cutting off breathing and forcing a person to choke. Swallowing one can create serious medical complications.

That challenge went viral on You Tube in 2013 but You Tube later removed condom challenge videos.

The other condom challenge is the water drop. You fill a condom with water and drop it on your head. The idea is to have the condom envelope your head to leave the impression that you are immersed in the water inside the condom.

This kind of craziness is nothing new. Whacky challenges and bizarre stunts have been around for decades, if not centuries. They will continue and likely more elaborate and crazy than before.

We just hope that they come with some restraint and common sense. Because we live in a society that already offers too many ways to get hurt.


Thursday, April 19, 2018

A Tale of Two Nations

It was a lifetime ago but I still remember my father bending his tall and lanky frame, reaching down to clasp my hand and walking me across the invisible line dividing Canada and the United States.

There was no control gate, no border check, no passports. We simply walked into Minnesota and a little store where he bought me ice cream.

It was a different time. Smaller governments, fewer regulations, fewer fears. National identities or the lines dividing them didn’t matter much to us. Canada was where we lived; the U.S. was our ancestral home.

It was back then that I formed the view that Canada and the United States were little different. The latter was bigger, bolder, more advanced in many ways but we shared much and were much the same.

Last week I saw how different we really are. The Humboldt Broncos hockey bus tragedy brought the differences sharply into focus.

Canadians from coast-to-coast-to-coast set hockey sticks on stoops and porches to show their grief for the 16 killed and 13 injured, and for all those suffering from the losses. There was Jersey Day when tens of thousands of Canadians, and others around the world, wore sports jerseys to show their sorrow, their sympathy and their support.

A GoFundMe campaign to help the affected families raised $11 million and counting.

Humboldt showed that despite vast distances, wildly different geography and many conflicting beliefs, Canadians come together when it matters. It also showed that we have not lost all our small-town values.

While Canadians drew together for Humboldt, our American neighbours continued their descent deeper into a miasma of distrust and disunity.

The storms of discord in the U.S. are so fast and furious it is hard to remember on Thursday what happened on Wednesday. Last week alone saw police raids on the president’s personal attorney, confusion over Syria policy, presidential pardon of another convicted criminal, announced resignation of House Speaker Paul Ryan and a former FBI director calling the president a mob boss and the president calling him a slime ball.

Once a global beacon of enlightenment and hope, the U.S. is a wounded and confused state stumbling along a crooked path through a cultural, political and moral swamp. It is a nation that has lost its way.

Many blame Humpty Trumpty, the most psychologically unfit person ever elected U.S. president, but he is only a historical footnote. The descent began long before him, back in the 1960s that saw the assassinations of the Kennedys and King, the civil rights wars, Viet Nam, the cultural wars between liberals and conservatives and growing class inequalities.

The United States is no longer united. The bipartisanship that saw people work together to build the American dream has evaporated, leaving a void being filled by brainless noise and moral apathy.

Having lost the will to work together Americans never will solve the problems that are destroying their society: gun violence, deep-seated racism, a drug addiction and mental health epidemic and widening chasms of inequality.

Lost also is the will to shoulder the heavy responsibilities of leader of the free world. Considering the state of the nation, that probably is a good thing.

A major difference between Canadians and Americans is how they view compromise. Canadians are seen as a people who try to resolve conflicts through conciliation and compromise. Our willingness to compromise has been criticized as showing ambiguity and weakness - an inability to take a firm stand – but it is a valuable part of our culture.

Americans see compromise as losing. When you compromise, the other side wins and that attitude is particularly evident in U.S. politics.

Without a willingness to compromise the next option is force, which often leads to violence. The world has seen the U.S. in that movie many times.

The past two weeks have allowed us to see the best qualities of Canadians while witnessing the worst of America.

We should not be smug, however. Canadians are different from Americans but they are close neighbours and it is easy to take on their ways, good and bad.

Humboldt showed us who we are and why. We need to remember that.


Thursday, April 12, 2018

A growing dangerous view

If you’ve not heard, the world is entering a new epoch unofficially named Anthropocene, the Age of Humans. With that odd moniker has come equally odd and dangerous thinking that puts human greed ahead of conserving nature.

Scientists are arguing whether we now live in Anthropocene, a time in which humans alone have created long-lasting global impacts, or Halocene, the official current epoch that goes back 11,650 calendar years to when the last major ice age ended.

The debate doesn’t much matter to most of us. Let the Einsteins talk it out while the rest of us get on with the basics of living.

What does matter is the anthropocentric thinking promoting what is being called New Conservation Science (NCS). Basically NCS says that parts of the planet already are irreversibly damaged so forget trying to restore them and concentrate on conserving areas important only to humans.

NCS is a bad idea that views everything in nature inferior to humanity. Humans are the most important species so conservation efforts should be limited to things that benefit us. If orangutans don’t benefit large numbers of humans don’t waste time and resources trying to fix whatever is making them go extinct.

And, if opening a national park to mining and strip malls helps the economy, throw open the gates. Humans want and need coal, oil, mega cities and trillions of plastic bottles and bags and human wants and needs are more important than the environment.

The ultimate goal of conservation should be better management of nature for human benefit, say the NCS advocates. That means conservationists should ally with corporations and other economic actors, which is akin to allowing drug addicts management responsibilities in drug stores.

Anthropocentric thinking is not new. It has been used in the past to justify violence against the non-human world.

The danger now is that it is gaining traction in a world governed by more and more authoritarian politicians. These governments, now including the United States, want to alter long-standing conservation thinking and roll back the protections it created.

NCS is arrogant thinking. Humans are only one of millions of species on earth, all connected to each other and all dependent on each other in some way.

Of all species we are the most dominant and most developed, which means it is up to us to find intelligent ways to save the planet.

NCS says our resources are too limited to save everything. So we should save the things that are most important to human interests.

That is wrong headed. We can save the planet and still meet human needs. We have the resources but lack the willingness to accept lifestyle changes that require sacrifices.

Our two main obstacles to saving the planet are overpopulation and rampant consumerism. Overpopulation is recognized and being dealt with to some extent. (Current warlike talk might end up being part of the overpopulation fix).

Consumerism simply for the sake of economic growth is out of control. We need to stop overbuying tons of crap produced to build more profitable stock markets. We need to think sustainability instead of growth for growth’s sake.

Another part of our problem is a declining knowledge of the natural world. We have lost our previous close contact with it. Many of us have an appreciation of nature but few have a deep understanding of it.

Scientist Edward Wilson refers to this in his 2016 book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life.

“A great majority of people have little awareness of the countless species . . that still envelops our planet. . . . common knowledge of the world-dominant invertebrates, the little things that run the natural world, has dwindled to almost nothing.”

Wilson says our working vocabulary of invertebrates consists of little beyond mosquitoes, butterflies, bedbugs, earthworms and others that affect us personally.

In fact there are millions of other invertebrate species that support world life, including human life, that we simply refer to as critters or bugs.

“Within this black night of ignorance we have suffered a massive failure of education and media attention,” Wilson writes.

We need to better educate ourselves about the natural world so we don’t get bamboozled by off-track movements like New Conservation Science.


Thursday, April 5, 2018

Toodle - luma luma

The first rain showers of April, scattered, brief and chilly as they were in the past week, have brought out something more than just the promise of May flowers.

Spring showers prompt us to drag from winter storage our most mundane and underrated item: the umbrella.

The rain umbrella, as commonplace and homely as a mud puddle, is a proclaimer of winter’s end. It signals hibernation for snow shovels and the appearance of summer fun brollies unfolded on patios, beaches and stuffed into golf bags.

Mundane as it is, the common umbrella has been around since just after the Stone Age and has intriguing stories to tell.

It is believed to have been invented in China in the 11th century B.C. as a parasol to shield people of high standing from the sun. Its name comes from the Latin word umbros, meaning shade or shadow.

Umbrellas appeared in ancient Greece and Rome in the first century BC, mainly as sun shades held by the slaves of nobles. Somewhere along the way someone figured out the umbrella could be used as a shield against rain if its silk was waterproofed.

The umbrella was seen as a feminine accessory until the mid-1700s when Jonas Hanway, an English philanthropist, became the first Londoner to carry an umbrella, suffering the indignities of coachmen who hooted at him and called him a sissy.  A visit to a rainy London street now confirms Hanway as a trend setter far ahead of his time.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of modifications and patents followed and brought us the collapsible umbrella, the telescopic umbrella; even an umbrella that can withstand winds of up to 100 kilometres per hour without turning inside out.

One especially notable modification was the $17,000 Kevlar umbrella carried by the bodyguards of former French president Nicholas Sarkozy. It would not stop bullets but would reduce their impact and provide some protection from stones or other materials thrown at Sarkozy from above.

That umbrella will not afford him much protection in prison, where he is headed if convicted of corruption and influence peddling charges laid against him recently.

Security agencies often used the umbrella in their secret work. They fitted umbrella shafts with retractable blades and even modified them to fire flechettes, steel-point projectiles.

Back in 1978 the KBG assassinated Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov with a poison-tipped umbrella. Markov was standing on London’s Waterloo Bridge when a KBG agent walked by him, stabbing him in the thigh with a ricin-laced umbrella tip.

When the Bulgarian government collapsed in 1989 umbrellas modified to fire little darts were found in one government building.

Most of the world’s umbrellas now are made in China. One town, Songxia, is known as the Umbrella City because it is reported to have 1,200 umbrella manufacturers with 40,000 participating workers, some of who work in factories while others work at home.

The Songxia Umbrella Industrial Park is said to have the capacity to produce 500 million umbrellas.

Umbrellas became symbols of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement in 2014. Protesters carried them not just as a symbol but as protection against tear gas and pepper spray used by police.

There don’t appear to be any accurate or believable figures on how many umbrellas are sold worldwide each year. The number has to be in the hundreds of millions. U.S. statistics show that Americans buy 33 million umbrellas annually.

Sales flourish because so many people misplace their umbrellas. Last year 10,000 left behind umbrellas were turned in to the London, England public transit lost and found. Only a small per cent were reclaimed.

The umbrella is ubiquitous in song and movies. Who could forget Mary Poppins or Singin’ in the Rain?

The umbrella song that no one remembers, but the one I can never forget, is the famous pre-Second World War tune The Umbrella Man.

It was always high on my mother’s play list when she was in a singing mood. In fact, I am told she belted it out to a night club crowd in an impromptu performance after a few drinks. The nightclub patrons apparently went wild.

“Toodle - luma luma
Toodle - luma luma
Toodle - oh lay
Any umbrellas, any umbrellas 
To mend today?”