Apr 242016
 

Like many others, I was shocked and upset by the death of Prince. While I never owned any of his records, I liked his music and recognized his exemplary talent as a guitar player and song writer. His death at 57 was doubly shocking, and early reports have speculated that he died of an overdose of Percocet. This sensational story from the Daily Mail alludes to an underlying chronic pain condition and a “phobia of doctors”:

“The dealer, often to the stars, said the musician, who he described as ‘majorly addicted’, suffered crippling stage fright and could not get on stage and perform without the drugs – but had a phobia of doctors so could not obtain a prescription legally.

Tragically, Doctor D suggests it could have been a physician that unknowingly contributed to Prince’s death – by prescribing strong pain killers to the singer for his hip condition without knowing the extent of his secret opiate addiction.”

Clearly we should be skeptical of claims of this nature, so in no way do I flatly accept this as truth. Nevertheless, it provoked in me a strong reminder of what I know to be fact, which is witnessing the same sort of behavior in my mother.

My mother developed type II diabetes in about 1970, when I was only about 8 years old. As a child, I was too young to understand the medical nature of this situation. I do recall my mother deciding, rationally, that adjustments to diet were a good idea. Unfortunately she also decided, irrationally, that diet alone could CURE type II diabetes. She began to consume brewers yeast as a suspension in water, believing that the chromium within could CURE diabetes. She remained overweight, and did not exercise. In deciding that she was cured, she stopped checking her blood sugar levels, which at that time unfortunately entailed visiting the doctor’s office.

Life went on uneventfully for a number of years. In the mid 1980’s, she developed herpes zoster, a very painful skin condition. It’s well understood how high blood sugar levels can promote bacterial infection, but I remain unclear whether high blood glucose levels can promote viral infection. That said, I remain convinced that prompt, aggressive anti-viral treatment would have had a better chance of staving off what eventually happened, as opposed to doing nothing. Though novel, acyclovir was available at that time:

“Acyclovir got FDA approval and was released commercially in 1982. It was marked under the trade name Zovirax by the Burroughs Wellcome Company. The original formulation was a topical ointment. Acyclovir became available in oral formulation (200 mg capsules) in 1985.”

My mother must have visited a doctor early on in the process, as I clearly recall learning that her blood sugar levels were abnormally high. Obviously she never “cured” her diabetes with nutritional yeast and chromium… As to whether this doctor did or did not prescribe or recommended acyclovir, and/or she declined treatment, I just don’t know.

The disease process worsened, and she began to lose mobility. She was eventually using a walker. She was in a great deal of pain. Instead of having a doctor prescribe opiates, she chose to use aspirin. I know this because she was having me buy it for her at the pharmacy. She would ask me to buy her giant bottles of the stuff, claiming that she “wanted to make sure she had plenty on hand.” I knew that was an obvious rationalization. I attempted to reason with her, advising her that aspirin simply does not have the same pharmacological power as do opiate pain killers, and simply increasing the dose of aspirin would not help. Essentially I was enabling her self-destructive behavior simply by buying all this aspirin for her. I rationalized my own behavior thusly: I had a medical therapeutics textbook from one of my pharmacy classes that documented how some arthritics would take large doses of aspirin on a long term basis. Even then, the risk of GI bleeding was significant. At one point my mother complained of tinnitus, which I again advised her was a symptom of excessive aspirin use.

The color of my mother’s skin turned greenish yellow. I feared that she had somehow experienced liver failure. Not knowing what else to do, I turned to my father, begging him to order or coerce my mother go see a doctor. At this point I knew reasoning with my mother had failed, and was desperate for another solution. He declined to intercede.

At this time I slept in the basement and my mother slept in a bedroom on the main floor. My mother would gain my attention by rapping on the floor with a wooden cane. One Saturday morning my father had taken a walk to the library. As it happened, I had planned the night before to go jogging. I had planned to really extend myself that Saturday; perhaps I could run for 10 miles. As good fortune would have it, I was lazy that morning, and blew off my giant jog. I heard the rapping of my mother’s cane on the floor. I went upstairs to check on my mother. She was in acute distress, and incoherent. She was disoriented regarding person, place, and time. I KNEW that I had to call 911, despite her protests.

Making a bad scene worse, two nosy neighbor females trespassed into my house during this crisis. One of them even had the audacity to lecture me and give me unbidden psychological advice. I never forgave her for that.

My mother was transported to St. Patrick hospital, where I witnessed blood being pumped from her stomach. Indeed, she had not developed jaundice; her skin was yellowish because she was losing enormous amounts of blood from a GI bleed, caused by her pathological intake of aspirin. Had I chosen to go jogging that morning, I suspect my mother may have died.

Not only would my mother have known “by description” that aspirin would not work as an effective pain killer, she would have known it by “by acquaintance” simply by its failure to kill the pain.

For years I considered this matter very simply: My mother failed to listen to reason. Last night, as I pondered how a rich and supremely successful man like Prince might have died, I considered the connection between his death and my mother’s. According so some accounts, Prince suffered from chronic hip pain, probably requiring surgery. He chose not to undergo this surgery, allegedly due to a phobia of doctors and/or belief in a taboo against blood transfusions. If this is true, it’s another example of a failure of reason: Hospitals are not torture chambers, doctors are not sadists, and blood transfusions are safe and ethical.

It began to dawn on me that IRRATIONAL FEARS DON’T APPEAR IN THE MIND SPONTANEOUSLY. My mother’s irrational fear of doctors and hospitals MUST have had an origin in her personal history.

Once when I was a child, I was riding in the family car with my mother and brother when my mother alluded to a medical procedure she had undergone some years prior. I naively asked what it was. Evidently my mother was too uptight and repressed to say the word “ovary” as she said she “the same condition as Julie Nixon Eisenhower” who recently had an operation for an ovarian cyst. Perhaps my mother experienced some sort of physical or emotional trauma during that encounter. Many people of my parent’s generation had tonsillectomies. Perhaps my mother did, and perhaps she found the experience aversive. Most disturbing for me was to speculate that perhaps my mother’s Christianity was factoring into this; perhaps she felt her suffering was “God’s will” or that suffering brought her a deeper understanding of Christ’s Passion. Sadly, these are only speculations, but again, I’m now convinced that her fears had an origin.

Would I have been able to persuade my mother to seek medical treatment if I had been able to get to the root of her fears? I simply don’t know. Obviously an appeal to reason alone was insufficient.

It’s one thing to know the truth, it’s another to behave in accordance with it. Everyone who smokes cigarettes knows this. Everyone knows smoking is bad, yet most are unable or unwilling to act on this knowledge. Is the goal of skepticism and reason to simply know what’s true, or likely true, or is it to change behavior? At this point, I’m trying to broaden my own thinking, to at least factor in WHY people have come to the beliefs they have.

For many years, I thought of “skepticism” as simply the willingness to address and investigate claims about such subjects as astrology, Bigfoot, UFOs, ESP, and other “fringe” ideas. But as time has gone on, I see reason itself as an even more fundamental process. There is no need to be skeptical as to whether megadoses of aspirin can cause GI bleeding, it’s a well established scientific fact. The deeper issue is HOW we can persuade people to act in accordance with this reasonable principle.

As it happened, my mother survived her near-death experience, but did not recover from the atypical damage from the herpes zoster infection. At one point she was misdiagnosed with terminal ovarian cancer. She spent the last 13 years of her life bedridden.

Her story largely contributes to my own dedication to reason and skepticism. Belief in things like Bigfoot, UFOs, and ESP has little real world harm, generally. But belief and subsequent behaviors based on medical misinformation can literally be deadly.

 Posted by on 04/24/2016 Opinion, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on The Death of Prince, My Mother, and the Promotion of Reason
Mar 312016
 

Recently my friend Roger Knights sent me a link to his review of a product called “cord cuffs” on the website Cool Tools. This reminded me that I had also purchased some plastic “cord cuffs” some years ago, but I never found a use for them. Instead I’d come up with my own method of securing extension cords.

First off, most people wrap their extension cords incorrectly. The proper way to gather line is NOT to simply gather it together in overlapping loops. This TWISTS the line. A quick Google search of the terms “how to coil a rope” yields a number of valid ways to coil a rope. But since an extension cord is almost certainly going to be less supple than any rope, I’ve chosen a very basic way of coiling for myself, which is seen here. Simply alternate loops with half-hitches. A loop imparts a small twist in one direction, while the half hitch imparts a similar small twist, but in the other direction, thus balancing out the twists in the line. The final bundle is roughly circular, which avoids bending or kinking the copper conductors inside. An excellent written account coupled with a video on the Lifehacker website demonstrates this method.

Overview Crop

First create a closed loop with a short length of strong line such as parachute cord. Instead of attaching the free ends with a knot, I’ve chosen to use an electrical butt connector, and to cover it with heat shrink tubing. A knot would be excessively bulbous in this situation. A butt connector is undoubtedly less strong than a knot, but in this situation the line is not supporting much weight.

Close Up One

I’ve chosen to attach the loop near the male end of the cord, but it would work just as well at the female end. Since the male end is either plugged into a receptacle, or attached to another extension cord, attachment at the male end avoids any interference with the device that the extension cord is plugged into. The loop is affixed to the extension cord with two small zip ties, which also help to offset the intrinsic weakness of the butt connector.

Close Up Two

An advantage of this method is that the final coiled extension cord can be suspended from a small peg or hook.

Suspended Cord

 Posted by on 03/31/2016 Art, Science Tagged with:  Comments Off on Extension Cord Storage
Mar 012016
 

We all have bad habits. In some cases, behaviors that others perceive as “bad” are not even noticed by the person engaging in the bad habit. We often hesitate to confront others on their bad habits for fear of offending. Sadly, this can result in the individual continuing the bad habit. The following is a short account of a man who chose to identify a bad habit of mine which led to me at least becoming aware of it, and to largely overcome it.

When I was in college at the University of Montana, a fellow lived on my dorm room floor named Jim Strain. At one point he was engaged to a woman named Joan Daly. She was serious about changing her name upon marriage to Joan Daly-Strain. Sadly, this happy state of affairs did not come to pass. I had various adventures with Jim, including crayfish fishing and watching one of the first World Cup soccer match finals broadcast on TV.

One night I walked downtown to the bars, either with the intention of meeting Jim, or simply to hang out and drink beer. I never cared for the Stockman’s Bar, as it was frequented by jocks who played poker. It had a violent vibe that always intimidated me, and made me genuinely frightened for my physical safety. I believe their motto was “Liquor up front, poker in the rear.” But for whatever reason, that night I entered “Stocks” and proceeded to chat with Jim Strain.

Jim was belly-up to the bar, chatting with an older man, whom I was introduced to. As I recall, the older man was a professor of economics at the U of M. I began to recount a story to Jim. Periodically throughout my monologue, the econ prof would interrupt me with a strange verbal interjection: “DING!”

This happened several times, and eventually I stopped my monologue. Jim began to chuckle at my confusion. Finally Jim enlightened me as to what was going on. “Matt, every time you say “you know” he’s saying “DING!”

Most people have interjections such as “you know” and “like” periodically peppered throughout their speech. These days I find myself interjecting “literally” at unnecessary points. Sadly, verbal interjections are one of those bad habits that can tend to creep back into one’s speech if one doesn’t maintain a certain verbal vigilance.

So step number one: Be aware of your own speech! It’s frightfully unlikely you will run into a freaky econ prof who will raise your consciousness in such a goofy way. Polite adults don’t usually do such things. Step two: Cut it out! Practice paying attention to what you ACTUALLY say. Articulate, thoughtful speech is a virtue, and one not commonly applauded these days. Eschew verbal “filler phrases” such as “you know” and “like” which are analogous to nervous energy discharges such as needlessly pushing eyeglasses further up one’s nose.

 Posted by on 03/01/2016 Growing Up In Montana, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on Ding!
Sep 112015
 

I finished reading the Quran today. I was motivated to do so by a question posed to Sam Harris regarding what five books he would recommend that everyone read, one of which was the Quran. If I recall correctly, Harris suggested that one could read the Quran in a weekend, which suggests to me he either reads quickly, or more likely, is simply willing and able to hunker down for hours with a particular text. It took me much longer than a weekend to read it, but this was because I really didn’t enjoy doing so. But I kept at it, and eventually finished it.

I’m struck by a number of characteristics of the book. First off, it’s highly aphoristic, in that the thoughts in particular verses stand alone, and don’t really lead into other verses. In this way it’s an ultimately simplistic text, in that there’s really not a lot of development of complex concepts taking place. Complex ideas require sentences that flow into each other, which build into paragraphs and create chapters.

Clearly I have a bias reading this book, as I’m an atheist. Nevertheless, I’m willing to be persuaded by argument and evidence. What arguments and/or evidence does the Quran present to the non-believer to convince one of the existence of Allah? Well, first off, it seems to largely assume that the reader simply accepts the Old Testament accounts of the patriarchs. That Moses had a relationship with the Creator of the Universe is sort of presupposed. While I don’t doubt that the patriarchs really believed in YHWH, I’m simply not willing to believe myself on their say-so.

The other sort of “proof” of Allah that the Quran seems to offer is, roughly, what we would now call an Argument from Design. We are asked to notice how the day is “given” to humans for work and the night for rest. That dates are edible is suggested to be a design feature created by Allah for the sustenance of humans. We are asked to look at a camel and wonder how else a camel could come to be other than the creation of a Supreme Being.

It should be immediately obvious to anyone with any sort of proper scientific education living in the 21st century that the author of such claims was writing from a pre-Darwinian and pre-Copernican level of understanding. No, camels and dates were not “provided” for Homo sapiens, but were the products of evolution, just like ourselves. That the nature of the cosmos was mysterious to iron age peoples should come as no shock. It’s a classic case of “we don’t know, therefore God did it.”

It should be clear that such simplistic “proofs” for Allah are not persuasive.

Above all, I was aghast at the relentless demonization of “unbelievers.” The Creator of the Universe seems absolutely obsessed with telling the reader the fate of the unbelievers in the afterlife. A great deal of imagination and creativity is given over to lurid descriptions of Hell, which is in great contrast to the paucity of descriptors for Paradise.

There are certainly moral messages which we should all applaud, such as the virtue of charity. Yet like certain strains of fundamentalist Christianity, the afterlife is where it’s REALLY at, not the life we know we have here and now. There is very little if any material that promotes human thriving, or even touches on what we might call “numinous” experience, whether achieved through meditation, psychedelic drugs, or simply exercises which promote universal love. The grievously truncated version of Paradise (gardens in which rivers flow) given in the Quran suggests to me that Muhammad probably never consumed magic mushrooms, nor meditated, nor simply had any sort of genuine spiritual experience in which the “oneness” of the human experience was perceived. I could be totally wrong about this, but the obsession with “us vs. them” seems born of the very sorts of mental states that are antithetical to what I understand true spiritual experience to be.

The Quran contains passages of utter hate, direct admonitions to engage in physical violence such the infamous 8 12 and 47 4. It gives the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy a run for their money in this regard.

How does one come to believe this stuff? Like Christianity, or most religions, indoctrination starts in childhood. Questioning the veracity of the Quran is taboo, and is genuinely dangerous depending on the setting. I have to really wonder how Western adults, exposed to at least elementary or secondary levels of education, and not raised as Muslims, could come to be persuaded by this book. I know personally two men, both white Americans like me, who converted to Islam. I suspect, but do not know, that elements besides the Quran itself constituted the draw into conversion. Again I’m generalizing, but conversion to Christianity is usually not accomplished by reading the Bible cover to cover. Potential converts are given highlights and interpretations, not the straight text.

In the same way that oceans of human energy have been devoted to Christian theology, I understand that similar devotion has been given to Islamic theology. I absolutely concede that my understanding of this text is at an ignorant beginner’s level. Nevertheless it should be clear to anyone not indoctrinated into this belief system as a child, with a reasonable level of scientific education, that the Quran is very much a product of an iron age understanding of the cosmos with a relentless moral message of “us vs. them” that we should all find morally abhorrent.

 Posted by on 09/11/2015 Opinion, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on On Reading the Quran
Aug 272015
 

Yesterday I floated in a tank of water infused with enormous amounts of epsom salt at a place in Seattle called Float Seattle. I had long wondered what this experience was like, as somewhere along the line I’d “heard” that people might experience meditative states while floating.

We arrived shortly before the flotation session was scheduled to start, to have time to receive a short orientation. There were four tanks at this facility, each behind a sturdy wooden door with a handle that locked on the inside. I chose a physically larger tank, as I imagined a greater amount of “fresh air” above me while floating and perhaps a slightly less claustrophobic experience. Inside the room behind the door was a shower, and we were asked to shower before entering the tank. Inside my tank was a button that actuated a small blue light, which was useful for seeing what to grab and where to put one’s feet during entry and egress. Ear plugs are worn to keep the hypertonic solution out of one’s ears, which would otherwise leave a nasty residue inside.

I took all all my clothes off, showered, and entered the tank. The session was booked for an hour. The tank was fairly shallow, and one could easily sit up or touch the bottom. I was told that if I kept my hands above my head my spine would be more relaxed than if I kept my hands at my sides. At points during the float I tried keeping my hands at my sides, but I didn’t notice any change to the feeling in my spine or back. Mostly I kept my hands clasped at the top of my head.

I was hoping, and frankly expecting, to be able to enter a meditative state. Sadly, this didn’t occur for me. Because a variety of somatic sensations which would otherwise be present were not, I was essentially forced to concentrate on my breathing. One might expect this to be conducive to initiating meditation, but it never happened. I suspect this was because the heat and humidity of the air above me that I was breathing was so strong.

I must have drifted off into an early stage of sleep at about 10 or 15 minutes into the session, as I was startled awake by the dream, or vivid imagination, that I was Patterson or Gimlin, and that I had come upon “Patty” the Sasquatch at close range. Though Patty had her back turned to me, I found this frightening in that moment, and I experienced the only moments of anxiety during the session. Startled awake, I began to concentrate on my breathing again, and the mild anxiety quickly subsided. After about a half an hour I resigned myself to probably not experiencing a meditative state. Frankly I indulged in the productions of my own stream of consciousness with the explicit goal of recalling as much about the session as I could, with the goal of writing it up for this blog!

I realized that a flotation tank can be thought of as the closest one might get to experiencing the micro gravity of space. It’s the ultimate sort of mattress pad, or the ultimate pillow, in the sense that one’s body is being perfectly supported, rather than supported irregularly at multiple points. I began to realize my lower spine, the sacral area, was “dog tilted” as they say in yoga, more than it would be even with a “memory foam” mattress pad. Whether that’s a result of my own beginner-level yoga practice, or that’s a reaction that is common to many I can’t say.

I let my hands stop supporting the top of my head, and allowed my head to fully recline. It’s weirdly counter-intuitive to do this, as it’s a liquid medium after all. But there is so much epsom salt in the water that it will support one’s head without any muscular tension at all! Again, a flotation tank becomes the “ultimate pillow.” My guess is that this would be a wonderful relief for those who experience chronic back or neck pain. A drug free form of relief, albeit if only for an hour.

I’d “heard” that some people hallucinate during flotation sessions. I did not, though I saw a mind’s eye reddish afterimage blob rather vividly at one point. As with being in a bathtub for an extended time, one’s enjoyment of even fundamental somatic pleasure begins to wane. At about 45 minutes into the session I began to divert my attention, simply by moving my hands and legs into novel positions, just for something to do.

Though it might sound like I’m being dismissive of the value of this experience, I remain open minded that individuals might learn to enjoy it more profoundly through repeated use. Imagine dismissing meditation the first time you tried it simply because you didn’t achieve an altered state of consciousness. I’ll probably try it again, at least one more time.

 Posted by on 08/27/2015 Opinion, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on The Flotation Tank Experience