Bacteria, by and large, have received a bum rap (pardon the pun). Ever since they were discovered, there was a sense they were up to no good. Why were they always hanging around sick people, it was asked? And why did foul smelling things –the miasma (you gotta love these words)- always have bacteria skulking about in the background? There must have been some reason why -since the beginning of time, we have instinctively avoided rotting meat or putrescent items… Could it be the bacteria?

Of course, this eventually caused people –okay, Scientists– to wonder why our intestines are full of these malevolent creatures –and therefore why we weren’t all dead, or at least always ill on their account. The further paradox was when it became murkily clear that if this same intestinal effluvium were mixed with drinking water, we would be –very ill, that is.

So, how can you have your cake and eat it, too? Could it be that there was some sort of balance of good guys and bad guys in our guts that kind of neutralized each other in there? And maybe the balance wasn’t the same in the water near the sewage pipe?

And for that matter, because there were so many of them inside us, maybe it was for a reason? Even thinking like that seemed anathema to doctors –and companies- who had made their fortunes out of fighting them. And then, slowly, as the moon slipped quietly behind some clouds on the horizon, came the dawn. The paradigm shifted and it became acceptable to speculate that at least some bacteria might be on our side in Tennyson’s ‘Nature, red in tooth and claw’. Helpful bacteria living in secret bowel-caves, like traitors imbedded behind the enemy lines, were diligently hunted. And myriad uses were ascribed to their families. I even wrote about this a couple of years ago:

So it was only a matter of time until those who had hitherto persecuted all microbes, were persuaded to alliances -marriages of mutual convenience. Helpers of helpers were proffered: probiotics.

Probiotic –even the word has come to inspire hope. And its etymology: pro –on behalf of- and bios –life, nails it, don’t you think? I’ve touched on the subject before in my essays, as well:

But I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel here, nor seduce you into re-reading my old essays. I am, however, still interested in the subject and was therefore somewhat disappointed in an article in the BBC News that seemed, at first, to denigrate the concept of probiosis: There is a link in the article to the original meta-analysis paper in Genome Medicine.

I suppose it captured my attention the way any attack on my Confirmation Bias might: once I have been converted to a point of view, I take umbrage at any attempts to desecrate it… No, actually, that’s not true –I pay attention to the detail of the contention and see whether it could be refuted -what Carl Popper believed must be an essential component of all good Science.

This paper –a review of seven randomized, controlled trials (admittedly small numbers in each) of probiotics in healthy adults- concluded that there was ‘a lack of evidence for an impact of probiotics on fecal microbiota composition in healthy adults’. Fair enough, but contrary to the headline that might have attracted people to the article (Probiotic Goods a ‘waste of money’ for healthy adults, research suggests), buried near the end of the piece is the admission that ‘the real impact of the probiotics may have been masked by small sample sizes and the use of different strains of bacteria and variations in participants’ diets, among other factors’.

And the author of the Danish study, Oluf Pedersen, admitted: ‘“To explore the potential of probiotics to contribute to disease prevention in healthy people there is a major need for much larger, carefully designed and carefully conducted clinical trials.

“These should include ideal composition and dosage of known and newly developed probiotics combined with specified dietary advice, optimal trial duration and relevant monitoring of host health status.”’

So I think the final word on probiotics is still to come. It would make sense that one might not notice much of a change in fecal microbiota composition in those who are healthy and presumably already in possession of what Goldilocks described as ‘Just right baby bear’ stuff. But whether it could be further improved is the point at issue. There seems to be some evidence that it can be improved in those who need improvement –but at this stage, even that claim is contentious.

But it’s early yet, and as Robert Frost observed when he stopped by woods on a snowy evening: The woods are lovely, dark and deep, But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep… And so do we.




As I Age

As I age, it becomes increasingly clear to me that Life is far more complicated than I could ever have suspected. It is like a stew where I keep finding new ingredients –some to my liking, and some… Well, let’s just characterize them as unexpected -mysterious strangers that surface from time to time, wreak havoc, then disappear again like shadows on a moonless night.

Social movements are often like that –or, rather, social solutions. Society changes over time and it has been the fashion of late, to see this as an evolutionary adaptation to underlying conditions –the slow but steady metamorphosis of caterpillar into butterfly. And yet, sometimes the change is more abrupt -a mutation- and we are forced to deal with the consequences. When things around us change, we attempt to keep up –or at least, like the Red Queen in Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, find ourselves running faster and faster to stay in the same place.

And one manifestation of this is the need to preserve a thin weft of values as a template during the inchoate and often thread-bare interregnum. I’m thinking, of course, about the age-old philosophical conundrum of whether we should tolerate the intolerant –and if so, then how? And at what price the compromise? One example from many: the need to establish special female-only transportation in the city of Zhengzhou in eastern China to help women feel safe from sexual harassment. To guard them.  Of course, the problem is by no means unique to China -other countries have discovered the same need and arrived at similar solutions.

But it seems to me that the issue is far more complex than these solutions might suggest. This gender issue, in some ways is not dissimilar to the racial problems that surfaced so violently in the last century in America. To think that having different buses for people of colour would salve the problem was proven to be naïve, and in itself discriminatory.

It comes down to the difference between toleration and acceptance: putting up with something that might not actually be approved of –enduring it: ‘toleration is directed by an agent toward something perceived as negative. It would be odd to say, for example, that someone has a high tolerance for pleasure’; versus  Acceptance: acknowledging and welcoming something as itself; permission versus approval. A power struggle either deferred, or shared.

To equivocate for a moment, should we tolerate mere tolerance, or accept it…? As an interim solution, of course. In other words, is it better to have the segregated buses for women, say, than groping and intimidation on more inclusive public transit? To say that there should not be sexual harassment is all well and good, but it ignores the present reality –there is, and to ignore it would therefore be akin to tolerating it. So are we  trapped in a never-ending game of chase-your-tail, forever condemned to wander the Mobius strip looking for an exit?

Perhaps it might be helpful to distinguish the component parts of the issue (I have adapted some principles from the peer-reviewed Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:  It seems to me that there is a difference between the more superficial and emotional response to whatever is being tolerated (Let’s call this the Reactive Stage) –the need to separate the aggrieved from the aggressor, for example- and the Rational Stage: the more dispassionate and reasoned analysis of the problem –if indeed such an analysis is feasible, or could even be rationally justified. In other words, on what grounds does the prejudice in question continue to exist? Is it remediable, or inevitable? Should we be forced to retreat behind our own societal boundaries and accept the relativistic excuses proffered that we simply can’t superimpose our own values on those who are not like us? That we, in fact, do not understand –nor likely ever will, since we are other?

Or, closer to home, can we ever hope to change attitudes such as disrespect and insensitivity to aspects of personal autonomy that have been entrenched –and indeed accepted- for countless unquestioning generations -that, until recently, were not even considered problems requiring solutions?

Well, societies do alter as time and members change; I’m not sure we could characterize the alterations as necessarily evolutionary, or teleologically driven, but certainly the initial reactive and then the more rational stages can often be discerned. The societal attitudes towards Gay rights, for example, have undergone major shifts within the past few years –even the initial toleration, which was rare in past decades, is now remodelling itself as acceptance.

So what -if anything- has Age taught me? What has the passage of years and the successive unfolding of events disclosed? Well, it has become clear that in the long run, our enemies become our friends; that we seek and find compromises satisfactory to each –bargains that in due course cease to be seen as concessions by either party, but rather as amicable balance; that Force only suppresses while it is being applied; and that discussion is inevitable and infinitely preferable to confrontation. We may not be able to evince our much-touted rationality in all things, but we are all eventually susceptible –amenable even- to accommodation.

Omnia vincit amor, I suppose.



Barbie in the Mirror

As an Ob/Gyn specialist I have been, I suppose, more than a passive observer of women over the years. But society has not been passive, either. Depending on where you live and in what cultural milieu, issues such as our sizes and shapes have become sources of real anxiety. Unrealistic expectations of morphology no doubt arise from multiple origins, but the end result is often the same -many of us don’t even come close to meeting them.

And as if that worry wasn’t enough, there has now been added the perhaps more troublesome issue of health. Despite the euphemism ‘plus-sized’ there is no disguising the stigma of the special term for many women –particularly when it comes wrapped with innuendoes of obesity and diminished well-being… not to mention beauty. Shakespeare would have us believe that ‘Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.’ But does it? Once again, morphology rears its stilted head.

But we are a curious lot, we humans, influenced as we are by fashion and culture. Fickle in our choices, mercurial in our attitudes to those who fall outside the norms, we deride those who fail to satisfy the arbitrary boundaries –temporal though they may be.

Some have argued that one of the barometers of expectation is the shape of dolls –Barbie dolls in particular. They become, after all, the matrix of imaginary play and serve as proxies for the roles the children are trying to understand.

A fuss seems to have been engendered by the release of three new types of Barbies: curvy, petite and tall. There are also skin colour differences, presumably to reflect the diversity in modern societies. But also, one could argue, to deflect the criticism of pandering to the thin, blond phenotype so prevalent in their models up to now. ‘Mattel [the makers of the doll] argues Barbie shouldn’t be expected to represent average proportions in the first place. “Barbie is a doll. She is not meant to reflect a real woman’s body,” says Sarah Allen from Mattel UK. “The purpose of introducing three new bodies into the range is variety and differentiation. When you look at the dolls collectively you can see the range in relationship between the dolls. “’ It’s a start, I suppose.

Therein lies the problem, of course, and it seems to me that it is hydra-headed. On the one hand to portray a doll that is truly representative of the reality that the child sees around her, would be to normalize –legitimize, really- the scourge of the 21st century: obesity and all of the health risks that entails: ‘[…]were Mattel required to accurately reflect the average British and American woman across all ages, the dolls would be overweight or obese.’ And yet, from a more modulated perspective, ‘Lenore Wright, from Baylor University, Texas, conducted a study in 2003 that explored the role of Barbie. She found Barbie’s shape didn’t really matter to children – her function was more important.’ Dolls, in other words, are just pretend –they’re substitutes that are merely assigned the role the child is exploring. The child knows they are not real.

But ‘Wright adds that Mattel’s new line has been criticized by some feminist scholars for reinforcing an old stereotype – that women are defined by their bodies.’ As I suggested, there are many divergent perspectives but remember that a Minotaur waits at the center of the labyrinth. We must be careful not to wander too far in our approach; we must not let our zeal mislead us.

It seems to me that children have always played with dolls and represented them according to their needs. To criticize a stick-doll, for example, or to confuse it with the reality the child apprehends is to stray dangerously far into revisionism. We are not children and we do not think as children. In a world where dolls are doctors, and dogs are patients, we are now strangers. Adults. Other… Forgive me for referencing Corinthians, but I think its advice was prescient: ‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’

Amen to that.






Is there really Something in a Name?

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.

So said Shakespeare’s Juliet. And yet even then –especially then- it mattered. Tribes have always mattered; we have always been known by our tribes: we are all either us or them aren’t we?” And little has changed despite the agglutination of the numberless tribes into tightly knit societies; there are still passwords.

I suspect I have lived in a bubble somewhere all these years; I really did think things were improving –that we were becoming less prejudiced- but I suspect it is just one more of those parochial shadows obscuring our vision here in Canada. Names, religions, skin colours, gender –appearance– all are code words for acceptance or rejection. We may fantasize that we live in a meritocratic land where Justice is blind and deaf, where we are all judged by our abilities and not our backgrounds, but alas we are deceived –or, rather, we deceive ourselves.

And so, more thoughtful societies have cast about for solutions to those biases so deeply ingrained, and often so hidden that we scarcely notice them anymore. The idea of ‘blind recruitment’ might offer one way to help resolve unconscious (or not) biases that plague many employers. Symphony orchestras were among the first to try it as the following CBC news article points out: -‘When the Toronto Symphony Orchestra began to audition musicians blindly in 1980, putting them behind a screen, the result was profound. While the hiring committee could hear an applicant’s performance, they not see what he or she looked like. They even put down a carpet so high heels couldn’t be heard. Now the orchestra — which was made up almost entirely of white men in the 1970s — is almost half female and much more diverse.’ Another news article, this time in the BBC News echoes this:

Talent will out, if that is the sole criterion; but it isn’t. Unfortunately, our judgments are not entirely determined by merit; we sometimes are distracted by other, unrelated issues. Gender, seems an obvious one, but topping the list, is race. Foreign-sounding names seem to discourage interest in the further exploration of a CV: ‘Studies in the U.S. and Canada reveal that job applicants with ethnic-sounding names are less likely to get a response than more Anglo-Saxon names, despite having the same experience and credentials.’ So, unless ‘name blind’ applications are mandated, applicants with foreign-sounding names are at a distinct disadvantage in the job market. This is such a blatant waste of talent and opportunity that –at least anecdotally- some career advisers have suggested that their clients harmonize the names they use on job applications to more societally acceptable ones. Or more pronounceable: ‘Luxshiani Ganeshalingham says her friends automatically change their names when they’re looking for jobs. “We shorten our names to get a better response, or more responses.”’

Hiding things on the initial application may allow people the chance for an interview, but it is obviously far from the solution to racial, gender, or religious bias in hiring, however. ‘”… the reality is that people carrying out interviews, at the next stage on from applications, are humans,” says Azmat Mohammed, director general of the Institute of Recruiters. “The thing is for them to be able to analyze their own biases. Everybody has them and businesses are working to address this issue.”’

And nowadays in most Western countries, where discrimination is prohibited by law, or even discouraged by popular media, the biases have been driven underground. ‘”Modern prejudice is the transformation of our biased attitudes,” says the students’ professor Michael Inzlicht. “[About] 40, 50 years ago, one could express overt hostility or antipathy toward a group — ‘No, I’m not going to allow a black person into my golf club,'” he says. “You politically can’t say that any more.” Modern racism is less overt, Inzlicht says, but we see “very clear” biases. “It’s more dangerous … if you’re not aware of it,” he says.’

I can remember sitting on a rather crowded bus last year and feeling grateful that I had found the last unoccupied seat. A young woman with sparkling brown eyes in the adjacent seat seemed to be absorbed in reading and writing notes on some loose papers in a folder, and as she read I could see her sigh, or at times, chuckle at their contents.

Although I tried to be discreet, she obviously noticed my interest and turned to me with a smile. “Students nowadays are so funny,” she said, glancing first at my face, and then back at one of the papers. “They think they are inventing the wheel each time they answer… But, you know, sometimes they come to the question with such an innocent perspective, they really are… The world is different for them –new, exciting… They’re not muddied by the old methods we bring to questions -the old thoughts that channel us like pipes.”

I looked at her more closely when she said that. She was a young woman, in her late twenties perhaps, with dark hair, and a nut-brown complexion. She was actually excited by what she was reading. I smiled at her enthusiasm and, as strangers will, we began to talk of other things as the bus honked and jolted its way through rush-hour traffic. Just before the journey’s end, we exchanged names. Hers was Alice. I smiled at the name –it has always been one of my favourites and I told her so.

She returned the smile. “I have always liked it, too,” she said, almost wistfully. “Maybe it was Lewis Carroll’s influence –sorry, I mean Charles Dodgson’s,” she corrected herself academically with an embarrassed grin. “My mother always read to me in English at night when I was a little girl growing up in Tehran, and I used to ask for Alice in Wonderland all the time…”

“So you mean Alice was a name you chose for yourself? It’s not your birth-name?”

Again, she seemed embarrassed. “No, my real name is Aza; Alice is pretty close though, don’t you think?” The almost childish delight returned to her face and she smiled so brightly, her teeth seemed to sparkle in the sun coming through the window.

“But…” I was confused. “But Aza is such a beautiful name. Why would you want to change it?”

Her expression changed for a moment and she looked puzzled. She tried to disguise it, but her eyes inspected me to determine if I was patronizing her. As if I, of all people, should know why she’d changed her name. For that brief moment, I was one of her less gifted students. But it passed like a cloud and suddenly her smile returned.

Her stop was coming up so she reached up and pulled the cord. Then, in an effort to atone for her doubts about me perhaps, she touched my hand. It was a gesture of friendship at the very least. “Names, not credentials, get you interviews,” she said with a sad smile as she stood up to leave. “And I wanted to teach…”