Archive for November, 2013

Brian and Who?


Oh, the anticipation! It’s Doctor Who Day (or some such). Matthew Cobb has shared this set of vids. I’m exercising enormous self-control by holding off watching the last one until the other Who-nut in the house is out of a (cruel, evil, inhumane) work meeting online (on a Saturday!). But you – you go watch now, as soon as you can. Here, let me embed it …

Enjoy, all you folks down in Who-ville.


Confessions of a recurring omnivore


I fall short of my goals and aspirations. It happens all the time. Well, not all the time, but more often than I’d like.

You may remember my announcement, some time ago, that Deena and I were becoming vegetarians.

It was an exciting decision – a visible affirmation of certain values and beliefs that we hold. It was also difficult. It ran against a lifetime of habits – of thought as well as action. It created a distance between us and our non-vegetarian families. It meant relearning how to balance a diet. It meant learning a whole new set of recipes, and abandoning several cherished foods.

Reactions from people we knew were all over the map. Vegetarian and vegan friends congratulated us and helped get us rolling – offering recipes, pointing out web resources, and loaning us books on vegetarianism. Non-vegetarian friends were generally supportive, accepting it as a personal decision (just as we accepted their decision to continue eating meat), rather than as a public condemnation on our part of their meat-eating.*

I remember one exception: a friend once confessed over the phone to “sinning” (her word) because she had eaten meat that day. I think she had a similar inclination toward vegetarianism, but had not yet taken the plunge. I felt that her reaction said as much about her own attitude to meat-eating as it did about any overt condemnation she might have detected from us. I thought of this piece by Dale McGowan. (Just go read it – I’d never be able to summarize it justly.)

Some friends challenged me, probing my decision for inconsistencies. Would you eat a fish? (I’d prefer not – though it doesn’t seem as bad as eating a cow.) An insect? (I have no moral qualms about it – but I have the same ick-reaction that many Westerners have about it.) Simulated meat? (Absolutely – why not?) I really enjoyed this probing, challenging reaction. It meant my friends respected my reasoning, and that they were confident enough in my integrity that I would be willing to change my mind if they could demonstrate a fault in my reasoning.

Family reactions ran the gamut. Some were incredulous: “Why on Earth would you want to do that?” Some were supportive: “Good for you, acting on your values.” Some were mildly resentful: “What does that say about your father, who raises beef cattle?” All of them were understandable; but nevertheless we persevered – even through a visit home for Christmas.

Eventually, though, we reverted. We resumed eating meat and related products (like gelatin). A key reason was to address a pill-resistant low-iron problem. But also, it was just so much easier to include meat in our diet than to exclude it entirely.

Our values have not changed. The idea of animals dying (and, just as important, suffering) for our pleasure and convenience is still distasteful. But for now, we choose to accept that consequence.

What does that mean for our ethical outlook?

Well, I go back to the reason we became vegetarians: to reduce our role in the suffering and death of animals. Clearly, we haven’t achieved that role completely. But we have made progress: we now have some vegetarian dishes we really enjoy, to mix in our weekly menu. So we eat less meat than we used to.

Sure, there is room for improvement. I am not yet living up to my own ideals. But I can live with that. For the moment, I’m working on other aspects of personal development.

I think, since I still dislike the idea of animals dying for me, I will eventually return to being a vegetarian. Perhaps more gradually next time, more sustainably. Check out Greta Christina’s recent take on the same idea here, where she seems to express my own aspirations much more clearly and eloquently than I can.

If I do go totally vegetarian again, I will be more careful about how I communicate the decision to friends and family, to avoid as far as possible any perceptions of condemnation or moral high-horsey-ness. (Though, if I get any of these gems, I will knock them down firmly.)

I’ll let you know how I get along.


* Our transition was helped at the time because we lived in the UK, which has a higher proportion of vegetarians than Canada. There were two vegetarian restaurants near the university I worked at, and real vegetarian options on every menu – not just salads. And people were just more accustomed to knowing vegetarians, and making the slight adjustments in behaviour that it sometimes requires. I don’t know if we’d have managed nearly as well if we’d been back in Calgary.

Guiding in the wrong direction?


I generally admire the Girl Guides.

Everything I hear about them seems to indicate an organization that is interested in improving itself, and maintaining high standards of engagement with its members and the world at large. For example, unlike certain other youth organizations, they welcome atheists.

And I like their cookies. I kind of miss the old kind, which I haven’t seen in a few years, but even with the new ones I’m always happy to buy a box or three when they come knocking.

Well, recently, I heard about a petition underway that would take this fine organization a step in the wrong direction (and make me a little less interested in their cookies). You can find it (and sign it, if you disagree with me), over at Essentially, some people want the Guides to go GMO-free in their cookies.

Now, I have mixed feelings about genetic modification. On the one hand (despite the rhetoric of the anti-GMO crowd), the science is being conducted responsibly. There is no evidence that scientifically-responsible genetic modification (as practiced in the lab) produces plants that are any more dangerous to consume than other genetic modification (as practiced by nature, plant breeders, and thousands of generations of farmers).

Never forget: we’ve been genetically modifying our diet for millennia. The only difference is that recently we’ve learned enough to do it more carefully. The hysterical accusation of “unnatural” contains no actual justification for treating genetically-modified organisms differently. From what I can see, the difference is that now modifications can be done carefully in a lab, whereas with other methods they’re done haphazardly in the field, through random mutations and selective breeding.

On the other hand, I am distrustful of the economic model within which much of modern genetic modification is used. I think it is a maniacally bad idea for a person or company to be able to patent a genetic code. This concern was somewhat allayed by Steve Novella’s recent investigation and analysis on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe (episode 429), where he cut through some of the hysteria over Monsanto’s behaviour. But still, giving corporations that sort of social/legal support seems like a recipe for trouble.

If the anti-GMO people were instead to lobby for modifying the legal status of genetic innovations, I might support them. And, as a side-effect, this might severely curtail the amount of GM research being done. But of course, flagship species like Golden Rice would be unaffected – that’s an entirely public-funded project with a humanitarian goal: reducing death and blindness due to vitamin A deficiency. (And yet, a Golden Rice test plot in the Philippines been vandalized by ideologues who, ironically, often cry “untested” as one of their rhetorical cudgels.)

Anyway, lots of rambling there. The point is, although other petitions get my support, this will not. I almost feel like starting a counter-petition. “Keep Girl-Guide cookies tasty; leave out the bad science and confused ideology.” But I suspect that it’s not as compelling or catchy a headline. Instead, I’ll express my support by buying their cookies, GM ingredients and all. Others can express their disapproval by not buying the cookies.

Honestly folks, this is one of the great powers we have in a free-market economy: use your dollars as petitions, supporting products you approve of and boycotting those you do not.