This is going to be short and sparsely sourced because it was just going through my mind and I wanted to get it off my chest. There was an article in The Atlantic Monthly about addiction treatment, “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous.” The subtitle reads, “Its faith-based 12-step program dominates treatment in the United States. But researchers have debunked central tenets of AA doctrine and found dozens of other treatments more effective.” Some people have called it a “hatchet job,” but that’s not what I saw. I’ve seen all these concerns raised about AA in the past. Now, I am quite far from having a drinking problem and have no first hand knowledge of this organization or any other, however our understanding of psychiatry and the workings of the brain have come so far since 1935 it seems almost odd to me that people are still using a method that old without any significant alterations.

I did, many years ago, have a boyfriend who had, years before I met him, had a problem with the law. Something small, like drunk and disorderly conduct. He was effectively sentenced to AA. Also, he was an atheist, which is why I’m bringing this up. As many people know, one of the ideas of AA is that you are supposed to turn your life over to a “higher power.” The better known of the two founders of AA, Bill Wilson, was active in a Christian fellowship known as the Oxford group and he credited becoming sober to a religious experience he had. The original book, Alcoholics Anonymous, had a chapter specifically addressed to agnostics. They acknowledge that agnostics and atheists might not like the ideas behind the method.

    Lack of power,that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be A Power Greater Than Ourselves. Obviously. But where and how were we to find this Power?

Well, that’s exactly what this book is about. Its main object is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself, which will solve your problem. That means we have written a book which we believe to be spiritual as well as moral. And it means, of course, that we are going to talk about God. Here difficulty arises with agnostics. Many times we talk to a new man and watch his hope rise as we discuss his alcoholic problems and explain our fellowship. But his face falls when we speak of spiritual matters, especially when we mention God, for we have re-opened a subject which our man thought he had neatly evaded or entirely ignored.

After acknowledging some of the thought that might lead one to doubt the existence of a supreme being, the book continues:

We found that as soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results, even though it was impossible for any of us to fully define or comprehend that Power, which is God.

Much to our relief, we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God. Our own conception, however inadequate, was sufficient to make the approach and to effect a contact with Him. As soon as we admitted the possible existence of a Creative Intelligence, A Spirit of the Universe underlying the totality of things, we began to be possessed of a new sense of power and direction, provided we took other simple steps. We found that God does not make hard terms with those who seek Him. To us, the Realm of Spirit is broad, roomy, all inclusive; never exclusive or forbidding. It is open, we believe, to all men.

This seems to me to be fairly obviously religious, although of a pluralistic sort. Some agnostics might find this satisfying. Defenders of AA seem to be unwilling to acknowledge the burden this puts on atheists.

I was reading the comment thread under the article and I couldn’t help noticing a recurring theme:

This useful concept is so open ended, it really shouldn’t give atheists problems if they can keep an open mind (and disregard the opinions of some of their fellow AAs). I started out as an atheist. Now I would consider myself a skeptical agnostic. I recognize there is a higher power than myself. It reveals itself to me through physical laws, like gravity or the second law of thermodynamics.

 

People are generally encouraged to find a higher power of their own understanding, and in the case of atheists or agnostics (of which there are many) they generally lean on the collective wisdom and experience of the group as their higher power. Many people return to the religion of their upbringing as well, and there are all varieties of faiths among members.

 

Trust in God, is all that’s asked. That’s not “religious”, that’s what happens when you assume enough about tomorrow , to fill out your calendar.

You have faith, if you believe tomorrow will come.

 

Yes, AA is based on many principles drawn from religion. That’s a feature, not a bug, to the vast majority of humanity not afflicted with spiritual autism.

 

AA is not faith-based program. It does not come under the aegis of any religion. Those who complain about “god” in the Steps are leaving something out: “as we understand him”. That may be the most important phrase in AA. It was inserted at the insistence of an Atheist in the first New York AA Group (see BB story “That Vicious Cycle”). God as we understand him covers a lot of territory, including Agnostics and Atheists, of whom there are many in AA.

Overall, the impression I got was that the theists just wanted the atheists to shut up an pretend to go along. Well, I’m glad I don’t have a drinking problem because I would sure hate to go to AA.

I thought I might attempt to delegate my brain work and see if anyone can help me out with a critique of a recent article by Ross Douthat that appeared in The New York Times last week.

It starts with what Douthat finds to be an interesting discussion on the website the Edge, “Death is Optional,” between Yuval Noah Harari, author of the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and Daniel Kahneman, a noted academic and psychologist. It’s an interesting conversation that covers a lot of ground speculating on what changes in technology might mean for human society. Douthat, however latches onto one thing that they say that Douthat says he found “provoking.”

In the original conversation, in trying to speculate on what might happen in the future, Harari talked about the industrial revolution and how society responded to that.

What I can say is that maybe we are again in analogous position to the world in 1800. When the Industrial Revolution begins, you see the emergence of new classes of people. You see the emergence of a new class of the urban proletariat, which is a new social and political phenomenon. Nobody knows what to do with it. There are immense problems. And it took a century and more of revolutions and wars for people to even start coming up with ideas what to do with the new classes of people.

What is certain is that the old answers were irrelevant. Today, everybody is talking about ISIS, and the Islamic fundamentalism, and the Christian revival, and things like that. There are new problems, and people go back to the ancient texts, and think that there is an answer in the Sharia, in the Qur’an, in the Bible. We also had the same thing in the 19th century. You had the Industrial Revolution. You had huge sociopolitical problems all over the world, as a result of industrialization, of modernization. You got lots of people thinking that the answer is in the Bible or in the Qur’an. You had religious movements all over the world.

In the Sudan, for example, you have the Mahdi establishing Muslim theocracy according to the Sharia. An Anglo-Egyptian army comes to suppress the rebellion, and they are defeated. They behead General Charles Gordon. Basically, this is the same thing that you’re now seeing with ISIS. Nobody remembers the Mahdi today because the answers that he found in the Qur’an and the Sharia to the problem of industrialization didn’t work.

This was the part that provoked Douthat. In response, Douthat writes:

New ideas, rooted in scientific understanding, did help bring societies through the turbulence of industrialization. But the reformers who made the biggest differences — the ones who worked in the slums and with the displaced, attacked cruelties and pushed for social reforms, rebuilt community after it melted into air — often blended innovations with very old moral and religious commitments.

When technological progress helped entrench slavery, the religious radicalism of abolitionists helped destroy it. When industrial development rent the fabric of everyday life, religious awakenings helped reknit it. When history’s arc bent toward eugenics, religious humanists helped keep the idea of equality alive.

I don’t have the necessary depth of historical knowledge to refute this completely, but I do have to wonder how accurate his version is. It seems to me, writing off the top of my head, that well over a millenium and a half of Christianity did nothing to wear away the institution of slavery and it was only with the arrival of the Enlightenment that individual became more valuable than the community and institutions like slavery could be drawn into question. Slavery in France was ended with the Revolution. Many of the prominent freethinkers in the U.S. in the decades before the Civil War, like Robert Ingersoll, Ernestine Rose, Elizur Wright, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, were abolitionists, as well as being active in other social movements like feminism.

The reformers who worked in the slums have a somewhat checkered record and many of them supported eugenics themselves. I don’t know much about the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century reform movements, although I see monuments to that period about the city. A quick look turned up a book titled Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement. From the synopsis of the book:

Many religious leaders embraced eugenics, often arriving at their support through their involvement with other social reform movements, including campaigns to sterilize the “feebleminded” in the states; new efforts by the state to regulate marriage; the birth control movement; efforts to combat “social evils” such as venereal disease; and the movement to restrict immigration.

Although much of the left in the United States traces its heritage to the Progressive Movement, I know embarrassingly little about the period. However, one of the major educational reformers of period was John Dewey, an atheist and humanist.

I don’t want to go to the other extreme and deny the work of religious people during this period, but I’m not willing to accept the statement that the “reformers who made the biggest difference” were those who were religious and the agnostics, freethinkers, Humanists, and atheists were irrelevant.

So, I would love a little help from my friends here. I should add that I’ve been fixating on the U.S., but that is only because I know the history better. Harari was most certainly talking about historical trends that will affect the entire world. Douthat writes:

As the developing world has converged in prosperity with Europe and America, old religious ideas that have been given new life — Christianity in China, Hinduism in India, Pentecostalism in Latin America and Africa — are playing as important a social role as any secular or scientific perspective.

Take a look at Douthat’s column and let me know what you think.

Since I absolutely loved District 9 by the director Neill Blomkamp, I really wanted to see Chappie despite having some misgivings due to the cutesyness of the title. The grittiness of the setting combined with the childlike innocence of the title character almost worked, which is how the entire movie is. It’s about half a dozen poor choices away from being a great movie. In fact, the parts of it that worked are so good that I wish I could give the director a do-over. It could have been a memorable movie. Instead, the poor choices are so bad that, despite some fun moments, the movie overall is just okay. It is entertaining and I wasn’t for a moment bored. Since I hate being bored at the movies, the director does get a thumbs up for that much.

Dev Patel plays Deon Wilson, an engineer who works for a manufacturer of police robots. The robots are equipped with artificial intelligence and can operate on their own. Deon, however, dreams of creating “real AI,” in other words a robot that possesses consciousness. When one of the police robots breaks, Deon takes the opportunity to load his experimental software into it. The robot is stolen by a group of gangsters who owe a large amount of money to an even more vicious gangster. Also working for the military manufacturer is another engineer, played by Hugh Jackman, who distrusts AI and is working on a larger robot which would be operated remotely by a human.

Of the three gangsters who steal the robot who become Chappie, two are played by Yolandi Visser and Ninja (Watkin Tudor Jones), members of the South African rap-rave group, Die Antwoord, and they are a joy to watch. Yolandi Visser is especially well suited to the role because she embodies both the cutesyness and the grittiness in the movie. She seems to be in her element whether she is committing a crime or sweetly encouraging the robot to call her “Mommy.”

It is strange that the gangsters in their lair, located in an abandoned industrial building with colorful graffiti on the wall, feel more real than the engineers in their office. That is a real weakness in the movie. I would have preferred to see the engineers working in teams, perhaps making the distinction between the people working on the software and those working on the hardware. It also would have helped if the office environment wasn’t just a generic office with cubicles that could have been lifted from any movie. Also, we don’t get any sense of the general population beyond the gangsters and the company that makes the robots. The summary from Sony Pictures Entertainment says:

In the near future, crime is patrolled by an oppressive mechanized police force. But now, the people are fighting back.

However, I didn’t get that at all. Is the government weak and the population terrorized by these gangs? Is the society totally dysfunctional and do most people rely on the gangs unless they’re really rich? We don’t really get what’s going on in this society.

Also, the ending doesn’t quite work emotionally.

District 9 was really something special. Unfortunately, Chappie is not. I hope Blomkamp gets it right next time.

So, I decided that I needed a little distraction. I’ve been spending almost all my free time exercising, trying to get in shape, and that has the odd combination of characteristics that it is totally self-involved, yet not very fun. For my birthday, my sister bought me a membership at the Museum of Natural History. I looked up online to see if they had any special programs and I found this:

As I think everyone knows by now, I just love chipmunks. Needless to say, I hurried out of the house. It’s great. For those of you who do not like violent movies, I warn you that an ant is eaten by a lizard and the mouse brutally kills a scorpion. I hope that is isn’t indicative an any Mammalianism on the part of the filmmakers that the fuzzy things come out victorious.

Since it was produced by the BBC, it’s playing in different museums that have large IMAX screens. Unfortunately, the BBC page doesn’t seem to be up to date on theater listings. It has the museum where I saw it today listed as “to be confirmed” under the “Coming Soon” subheading. However, if you have a museum or other institution with 3D capabilities near you, you might want to see if it will be playing there.

I really don’t know how they made that movie.

The chipmunk on the left is the friendly one.

The chipmunk on the left is the friendly one.

Well, I just got in from seeing American Sniper and I’m feeling pretty glum. Honestly, I’m just sitting here thinking that life has no meaning. I’m writing more because I’m not quite ready to go to bed than for any other reason.

First of, regarding American Sniper – Did you see the trailer? Did you read a review or two? Yeah, then you saw the movie. It was just barely interesting enough to not qualify as boring. I don’t know. I feel like I’m supposed to have an opinion about it. Is it pro-war or anti-war? Is it patriotic or does it subversively question patriotism? That would imply that there is something going on in the movie. It’s workmanlike in a not good meaning of the word. Does Bradley Cooper do a good job? I guess. He holds a gun and runs around believably. Did anyone else here feel like life wasn’t worth living when they left the theater, or is it just me?

I’ve been in a weird damn mood the past couple of days, and that it’s hard to tell if my response to that movie is due to my circumstances or if it was in fact, kind of uninteresting.

You see, what you probably don’t actually know, but you may very well have faint glimmers of it, is that I don’t have an especially rosy view of humanity. As I see it, we’re social animals. All of the crap we call morality is the decisions we make for whatever group we belong to survive and continue. We’re sensitive to power and status. Sometimes that causes us to do altruistic and caring thing, but more often we do petty and competitive things. Nothing matters to us as much as our place in that social hierarchy.

We all do what we have to do to make it in this society. Usually, that involves not being very nice to other people.

Okay, here’s my own preferences among the Oscar nominees. This isn’t in anyway a prediction of whether or not they will win, just whether or not I liked them.

Whiplash, Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Selma, The Theory of Everything, American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Boyhood.

Boyhood may have succeeded in being the single most pretentious piece of crap ever made. It has one major gimmick. It took twelve years to make. No review can say anything positive if it doesn’t say that. It’s long, and it’s boring. Sitting on a park bench and watching people walk by for three hours would be more interesting.

Well, I’m going to sleep on it and see if I have anything more interesting to say about them tomorrow.

And… the nominees are:

Robert Duvall The Judge
Ethan Hawk Boyhood
Edward Norton Birdman
J. K. Simmons Whiplash
Mark Ruffalo Foxcather

This might be the most fun category. Many of the most interesting roles are not the leads, and, for better or worse, men tend to get meatier parts than women on average.

If one of the abilities of a good actor is to be able to disappear into a role, then I think all five of the actors here can said to be good.

The Judge was a good movie, but not a great one, and it is unsurprising to me that this is the only category in which the film has received any nominations. Robert Duvall stands out in this picture as a small town judge who may or may not have killed a man to whom he had given a lenient sentence many years earlier and who later went on to commit another crime. Eventually, he is put on trial himself, and one of the factors that might help to acquit him, that he suffers from memory loss due to chemotherapy, is a fact he is trying to hide. Duvall does a notable job portraying the frailty of an aging man. Once, I had an acting teacher tell me that one mistake people make when playing someone who is drunk is that they act drunk, whereas drunk people typically struggle to act sober. We see Duvall negotiate this contradiction. He plays a sick, frail, older man who is trying to hide just how sick and frail he has become. The role gives Duvall the opportunity for more dramatic moments as well as more subtle ones.

Boyhood seems to have really enthusiastic defenders. I am not one of them. I’ve been told that I am not capable of appreciating that the movie is supposed to be about those uninteresting parts of life that happen in between the more dramatic moments that are usually the subject of a movie. Also, it took twelve years to make. Ethan Hawke aged very naturally over twelve years. What else can I say? Here is a scene in which Hawke, who plays a non-custodial parent, tries to make small talk.

Birdman also had its detractors and vocal defenders and in this case I am with the defenders. I walked out of the theater feeling that I had just seen something remarkable. Later, one of my mother’s friends said she hated the movie because the main character was not likeable. In fact, none of the people on the screen are likeable in the banal sort of way that almost everyone except the evil step dads are likeable in Boyhood. Perhaps it says something about me that I identify more with the unlikable, but interesting, characters in Birdman than the likeable, but insufferably boring, ones in Boyhood.

Like Robert Duvall, Edward Norton also had the good fortune to be handed an exciting complicated role. In this case, Edward Norton plays a critically acclaimed actor, Mike, who steps into the role of a play days before opening night. The actor who had previously been in the role has an accident. Mike has a reputation as being difficult to work with, a fact closely connected to his talent since he throws himself into his roles.

Mark Ruffalo is over shadowed by just about everyone else on this list. In some ways, this emphasizes the importance that the writing has as the starting point. Ruffalo’s character is simply not that interesting. I’ve already said in my discussion of the screenplays that I felt that Foxcatcher lacked the intensity of the other films. The two central characters, John Du Pont, played by Steve Carrell, and Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum, are people with complicated motivations. Ruffalo’s character, Mark’s brother David, most just wants a stable life and is dragged into the drama happening between John and Mark somewhat against his will. I can’t say I’m overly fond of Ruffalo’s mumbling, shuffling, hunched over interpretation. I’m not really sure who to blame for this. I think the director needs to carry some of the burden. I’m really not very familiar with Ruffalo’s body of work. I was a little put off by the fact that Tatum and Ruffalo had such very different accents. Again, I feel as if the director should have picked up on that and stepped in.

Finally, we come to J. K. Simmons astounding turn as Fletcher, the music teacher, in Whiplash. Like Duvall and Norton, Simmons had the good fortune to be handed a meaty part. It is to Simmons credit that we don’t see Fletcher as purely evil. The following scene has been shown in just about every discussion of the movie, so I was tempted to show a different one, however I decided to include this one after all. In it, we can see the transition Simmons goes through from a demanding, although normal seeming, teacher to every student’s nightmare. (He reminds me of my first acting teacher who would regularly have me in tears at the end of a class. I used to say that he could get a performance out of a rock.) I understand that they first tried the scene faking the slaps but weren’t satisfied. In the end, the slaps are real, as you can see the redness on the student’s cheek. In a later scene, the student tackles the teacher and Simmons, I understand, broke a couple of ribs. It’s really an intense performance.

My own instinct would be to give the award to Simmons, but it would hardly be surprising if Duvall and Norton were to win it. If Simmons wins, Norton may have had the misfortune to get one of his best roles during the wrong year.

Okay, I’m not a professional writer. I’m not a researcher either, although I do have a liberal arts degree and internet access, so I wonder what the hell those professional writers are thinking when they type words and pick up a paycheck for that. Sure, I know the Daily Beast is garbage and I shouldn’t even be reading it, let alone complaining about it. Still, M. L. Nestel is getting a paycheck for employing words without knowing their meanings.

It was a story about a twenty-one year old man who is currently missing. His parents report that he experienced an extreme change in his personality, which they ascribe to supplements he was taking. I won’t go into other parts of the story, but I just wanted to deal with Nestel’s apparent misunderstanding of the word “homeopathic.” One of the supplements the young man was taking is described by Nestel as “a kind of homeopathic Viagra.”

I have to say, I never thought I’d find myself searching the internet for “Penis Enlargement Pill – BIG JIM & THE TWINS- MALE ENHANCEMENT.” Forgive me if I don’t provide a link. You can sully your own internet search history. However, you will be glad to know that it does not have a five star rating on Amazon, and it is reassuring regarding humanity that it is not highly ranked in the Health & Personal Care category. Toilet paper is the top seller. Much of humanity, it seems, is practical.

If I ever go missing, the police, or my mother, will have tons of fun with my browsing history because I’m the curious sort. I look at all sorts of things I would never admit to. Hell, I’m telling you about how I looked up Big Jim and the Twins, so let your imagination go regarding what I’m not telling you about. But I have an excuse. You see, I wanted to know if it was homeopathic. Big Jim and the Twins Male Enhancement Formula has a description that is surprisingly, ahem, small.

Big Jim & The Twins is a potent male enhancement formula fortified with powerful ingredients designed to promote sexual health including Tongkat Ali, Maca, L-Arginine, Ginseng Blend, Proprietary Blend: Saraparilla, Pumpkin Seed Powder, Muira Puama Powder, Oat Straw, Nettle, Cayenne Pepper, Astragalus, Catuaba Bark Powder, Licorice, Tribulus Terrestris, Orchis, Oyster Extract, and Boron.

One thing this does not say is that it is homeopathic.

Homeopathy is a pseudoscience created by Samuel Hahnemann in the late eighteenth century. Happily for us, medicine has advanced somewhat in the past couple of centuries. Unfortunately, the news appears to have not yet reached the suburbs. Hahnemann believed that illnesses could be cured by substances that caused the same symptoms as the illness. So an illness that had fever as a symptom could be cured by a substance that causes a fever when ingested. However, the substance must be taken only in the smallest amount. Therefore homeopathic remedies are extreme dilutions in water of the substances indicated on the label, usually containing not a single molecule of the named remedy. (Do you know who liked homeopathy? Nazis!) Needless to say, homeopathy “is not effective for any condition.”

Several of the herbs listed as part of the supplement are used in folk medicine and those uses include male sexual performance. I did a quick run through of the list on the internet and, while I can’t claim my research was thorough, so I may have missed something, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that most of them work for male sexual performance. Worse yet, there have been concerns recently that supplements to do not contain the herbs on the label.

Tongkat Ali (Eurycoma longifolia) has been shown to have an effect on testosterone levels in lab animals. Unfortunately, many products that claim to contain Tongkat Ali are fraudulent. The government of Malaysia, where the herb is native, has banned many fake products.

It is also important to remember if an herbal product is potent enough to have the intended effect, it can have side effects as well. Speaking for myself, I would not take an herbal supplement without consulting a physician.

But whatever it is and whatever it does, it is not homeopathy.

An amusing detail: On the Amazon website, the bottle of Big Jim and the Twins in the picture is empty. Symbolic?

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