Acronym Syndrome

A year or so ago, Stockwell Day (a Conservative cabinet minister, in case you’ve forgotten) was defending a number of initiatives by the Harper Government to “strengthen” the criminal justice system. By “strengthen”, he meant “make people suffer more”. When a reporter asked what the reason for this was, considering that the crime rate was actually in decline, Day famously replied that “unreported crime” was on the increase.

I think Day should have set up a website first. “”. Then people could report their unreported crimes and we would have a better idea of the scale of the problem. He should have invented an acronym for it — UCD for “Unreported Crimes Disorder”. He would have sounded more authoritative if he had said, “of course, UCD is way up over last year, and URPCA is also on the increase. (Under Reported Perception of Criminal Activity). He might have added that if a citizen sees any activity take place which is not clearly a known legal activity then it should be treated as an unreported crime. And reported.

The problem is, if he had done this tens years ago, the numbers would still have declined. Because, after all, the rate of crime really is down, if you look at actual facts, so the amount of reported unreported crimes would also likely have declined. Do you see the problem?

Similarly, or not, there is a website for “The Invisible Disabilities Association of Canada”. It’s about two particular “syndromes”– I don’t know what to call it exactly– myofascial and fibromyalgia. Your first clue: myofascial is not in the dictionary. That is because it is not a real word. It is a made-up word.  That means it was just discovered– or just invented.

Now before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I believe it is quite possible that some people in this world, particularly in the affluent developed countries, really do suffer from tiredness, sore muscles, aches, and pains. In fact, it is quite possible that all of us do, to some extent. In fact, it is quite possible that life, in general, sucks. I’m not being flippant– life generally sucks. You make the best of it if you can, but it sucks.

I don’t care about that. I do care about bad science and irrationality, because those things lead to trouble.

So when this website informs me that fibromyalgia is diagnosed when “other illnesses and conditions are ruled out”, I am astounded. Let’s say you meet a person. Are you French? No. Are you British? No. Then you must be Chinese.

Fibromyalgia, we are informed, affects either the upper half of the body, or the bottom half, and can affect the right side or the left side. I am not making this up– check out the website.  [The website is out of business.]

Fibromyalgia consists of general aches and pains and tiredness. That’s good– because if it only affected specific parts of the body in a specific way, you would know when you didn’t have it.

Now, I have no idea how you would know if your aches and pains and tiredness are a syndrome or if they are just aches and pains and tiredness, or if your life sucks and you hate making the effort and you just want to veg out on the couch and you don’t have the courage to get out there and engage the world…. I don’t know. Nobody will ever know.

According to the website:

Generally people with Fibromyalgia state that they hurt all over, especially in the parts that are used the most. Stiffness, especially on waking, sleep disorders, irritable bowel syndrome (see separate sheet), irritable bladder syndrome, premenstrual syndrome, restless leg syndrome, headaches (especially migraines and tension headaches) (see separate sheet), muscle spasms, cold intolerance, TMJ, cognitive difficulties, numbness and tingling in the extremities are some of the symptoms. Other common symptoms include a decreased sense of energy, disturbances of sleep, and varying degrees of anxiety and depression related to patients’ changed physical status.

“Irritable bladder syndrome”? “Numbness and tingling”? “Cold intolerance”?.

Think about how it sounds if you say “I am cold”. Now say, “I have cold intolerance”. Different effect, isn’t it? Now try: “I have cold intolerance syndrome”. I will rush out and get you a blanket.

All of it sounds like the normal wane and flow of everyday physical life. It gets cold, it gets hot. If you move, you use energy, and if you use energy you feel tired, and if you feel tired you want to sleep, and if you feel restless, you have “restless leg syndrome”.

Why? Because a label is a label. Why did you stop going to work? Why do you sit on a couch all day watching TV and eating potato chips? Why are you fat?

If you think you have fibromyalgia, I’m not saying your symptoms are not real. I’m saying that you don’t have something that is left over if nothing else can be diagnosed. I’m saying that you have no way of knowing how tough it is supposed to be to get up in the morning or to get out of the house and engage with the world. You say, I don’t know how real your symptoms are. You don’t know how real my symptoms are. Neither of us knows where the line is between attitude and illness, but I know that any illness that can affect the upper half of the body, or the lower half of the body, or the right side, or the left side, and fails to produce any empirical manifestations, hasn’t earned the right to an acronym.

Your last refuge: you don’t know what it’s like to not want to make the effort. And I admit that we have something pure there.

Of course there is an acronym. Developing an acronym for mythical conditions is essential to selling these conditions to the public. So fibromyalgia becomes “FMS”. I think it is believed that the general public will be more easily convinced of the reality of any condition if it has an acronym, especially if it has the word “disorder” in it.


Harry Chapin Takes a Taxi

The best lines of Harry Chapin’s epic “Taxi”, one of his most successful and popular projects, are these:

And she handed me twenty dollars for a two-fifty fare
She said, Harry, keep the change
Well another man might have been angry
And another man might have been hurt
But another man never would have let her go
I put the bill in my shirt.
And another man would have had Harry throw the bill in her face in the song and ruminate on how at least he didn’t sell his soul.

I’ve always liked Chapin, but his flaws as a performer and writer are a bit too pronounced to rank him anywhere near the greats of his era.

And there are some extraordinarily awful songs: “Circles” and “Flowers are Red”, and “Mr. Tanner” which is worse than awful: it’s disingenuous. It’s when you consider alternatives like Neil Diamond that Chapin’s honesty and seriousness are appealing. He belongs to a sub-genre of serious, unpretentious, and sometimes visionary but inadequately gifted artists like Don Maclean, Murray McLachlan, Tom Paxton, and Tim Hardin.

And I wonder sometimes about Kristofferson.

Well, you wonder about all of them. I loved “Sniper”, and “Taxi” has it’s moments, but I could hardly ever bear to listen to a Chapin album all the way through more than once. In fact, I don’t think he has a single song that doesn’t have a dud line or two in it (what the heck does “little boy blue and the man in the moon” mean?) And couldn’t he have found a better phrase than “you know we’ll have a good time then”? Even “Taxi” ends with a rather diminished: “I go flying so high/when I’m stoned.” And now that I mention it, “through the too many miles and the too little smiles”.  Does he mean too few smiles?  Or that the smiles were little?

But at least he was too honest to not admit that, in “Taxi”, Harry keeps the money. Of course he keeps the money. It is the moment in the story when it seems most clearly connected to real life.

By the way, Chapin doesn’t have a great voice, but he puts passion into it, and he takes risks, and he had Big John Wallace with the fabulous five-octave tenor and his cello to give life to his arrangements.

Trivia: Chapin’s widow, Sandy, won a $12 million lawsuit against the owners of the truck that rear-ended Chapin’s 1975 Volkswagen Rabbit in 1981 resulting in his death. According to the authorities, he may well have suffered a heart attack before the accident and the police investigation showed that he had slowed to 15 mph and was wandering the lanes at the time of the collision.

Chapin’s license had been suspended at the time for traffic violations.

But she still got $12 million? I guess if you rear-end someone, you’re going to be at fault no matter what the guy ahead you is doing.

What’s wrong with “Mr. Tanner”?

“Mr. Tanner” tells us about a man with a good voice who works in a laundry and sings to himself. His friends discover his talent and encourage him to move to New York and go for the big time. He does so. He takes every penny he has and rents a hall and gives a performance but he gets raked by the critics. He returns to his home town shattered and disillusioned. As in “Flowers are Red”, Chapin’s villains are made of straw and, as Susan Boyle showed, critics are far more likely nowadays to shower praise on mediocre talents than they are to savage good ones.

The other flaw with “Mr. Tanner” is that the circumstances of his disappointment are ridiculous: critics don’t attend vanity concerts put on by somebody who has never performed publicly anywhere before, and if they did, they would never have reviewed him in the same way they would review professionals. He wouldn’t have been “fair game”.

It’s not likely professional critics would even attend a concert presented by an unknown singer without any previous professional credits. And Chapin conspicuously omits a critical component of this scenario: the audience. Either they would have loved him because, in Chapin’s scenario, he really is very good, in which case he would have been validated regardless of critical opinion, or they would have booed, thus validating the critics.

But that would have eviscerated Chapin’s goal of eviscerating the straw-critics.  And it would have been problematic: there are so many mediocre singers who are very popular and successful.  “Mr. Tanner” might very well have been a hit.

It tells me that this song is not based on any real experience or first-hand knowledge. If it was, Chapin would have dealt with the problem of the audience.


A far more interesting take on this issue is the wonderful film, “Florence Foster Jenkins” staring Meryl Streep as someone who really did have a terrible voice and was still able to throw a concert, in Carnegie Hall, of all places.

Unfortunately, Chapin wrote a sequel to the song which, if nothing else, proves that sequels are almost always a bad idea. Especially since, in this one, (role reversal) she refuses the money.

So Chapin re-visions the song… and reverses the most endearing — and believable– detail of the original.

Generals Who Never Admit Defeat Even When it Stares Them in the Face

General Petraeus thinks that Obama is leaving Afghanistan too soon.

After 10 years of rather conspicuous failure, Petraeus and the other generals and a few faithfully militant Republicans like John McCain claim that we are on the verge of success– just give me one more chance, honey. I know I’ve let you down over and over again, but this time I think it’s going to work.

Philosopher Karl Popper argued that a scientific theory (or any theory) could not be said to be true unless it was theoretically possible, in a rational sense, to prove that it was false. In other words, to “falsify” it. I wish there was a succinct, well-known term for this position. Maybe there is and I just don’t know it. But once you understand it, it makes perfect sense.

For example, someone tells you that he is underpaid. He deserves more money for the work he does. That’s his theory, his hypothesis.  But is it possible that everyone deserves more money for the work they do? I think a rational person would think not. Next question: is there a single person in the world who does not feel he deserves more money for the work he does? No. So you can’t falsify the hypothesis here– you can’t reasonably believe that any person feels that he should not get paid more. So you respond, “don’t we all”. He hasn’t made his case.

So when the generals argue that the Afghanistan effort is on the verge of success, we could believe they might be right if you could make a sensible case for the idea that they might, if the evidence was convincing, believe that they were ever not on the verge of success. But it is clear that, short of a total annihilation, these generals will never admit that they lost this war. We know this because the generals have lied from the very beginning about how well they were doing, and the prospects of a conclusive victory. Now, some generals even argue that they shouldn’t even look for a conclusive victory: let’s just stay there forever.

That, of course, is not what they promised the American tax-payer when they initiated this war.

In certain criminal cases, fiber evidence is sometimes presented by an “expert” to prove the guilt of an individual. The question I always ask is, knowing what we now know about fiber experts, is it possible that this expert could have failed to find at least one match for any fiber in any suspect’s apartment?

Apparently not. Has one of these experts ever testified in court that they could not match any fibers from the body with any fibers found in the suspect’s apartment? I’ve never heard of it.

So if I had been a congressman back in, oh, 2005, and had been part of one of those hearings at which the generals explain what they are doing and why and how it will lead to success, I would have asked the generals to lay out for me a definition of “failure”, just so we would know what it looks like if it was ever staring us in the face. I would have written it down carefully, made it into a framed poster, and hung it on the wall in the hearing room, so that five, six, seven, ten years later, when the same general was arguing that the U.S. should continue to spend over $1 billion a week on this war, I could point to the poster and say, no, we failed, let’s admit it and move on.

Without a doubt– without the slightest doubt– people like John McCain would have objected. He would say, we didn’t define failure in the right way. I have a new definition. And it’s not what we have now. And we would know that the truth is that every last U.S. soldier could be killed and every last armament destroyed and he would still insist they could win if they would just do the same except more of it.

At least it would be more transparent what people like John McCain want to do, how they see the world, how they understand the purpose of government.


Unemployment. The War in Afghanistan. The war in Iraq. Global warming. Thousands killed in Syria. The government collapsing in Yemen. Spain and Portugal going broke. Japan. Cancer. AIDS.

The Anthony Wiener story is intended to amuse the illiterate, the sheep, and the frigid-hysterics while the government and big corporations continue to ensure the gradual impoverishment of the middle and lower classes and continuation of disastrous foreign policies over there.

I am hugely disappointed in Jon Stewart. The story was funny for five minutes, not 105. And it wasn’t funny because a foolish young politician made stupid decisions. The very, very funny part of the story is Wolf Blitzer with a straight face pretending to be a journalist. At least he got that right.

I was baffled, at first, by the amount of time Stewart was giving this story. Wasn’t he doing exactly what he frequently ridicules other media organizations of doing? Tunnel vision. Flogging a trivial, inane issue to death?

Mystery solved: Stewart is very touchy about some critics who claimed he low-balled the issue on the first day because of his personal friendship with Anthony Wiener– not, they believed, because he was rational. Those critics successfully manipulated Jon Stewart and made him look like a fool as, on the very next Daily Show, he desperately tried to muster the hysterics to prove that he really, really can’t be tricked out like some CNN tart. He made the story the centerpiece of three consecutive Daily shows, long after it stopped being funny.

But then, that’s about all you get on the news these days, including the CBC up here in Canada. When it’s not falling over itself to drool over the royal wedding.

At the end of the June 8th “Daily Show”, Stewart played a clip of a reporter listing five or six important stories she had intended to cover and then announcing that she would not be covering those stories because there were new developments in the Anthony Weiner story.

My wife and I could never could figure out if the reporter was being sarcastic or serious. It is so had to tell nowadays. But it was utterly shameless of Stewart to play it because he was doing the same thing or worse.

If you were to be honest with yourself for a moment… if you woke up one day and heard that Anthony Wiener, who is married, had flirted with several other women online, would you really believe that this was an important story that needed to be on the front page of every newspaper and online news website in the country?

But you believe it now, don’t you? Because it was on the front page of every newspaper, top of the news on every broadcast, all over the web. You believe that no story would be given such prominence by so many different news organizations and media entities if it wasn’t really and truly important.

Or do you think for yourself?

No matter how many news organizations cover it, nor how many gallons of ink are spilled on it, or how many photographs or videos or web pages, or self-serious pundits using euphemisms, no matter, no matter, no matter, the Anthony Weiner scandal is trivial and irrelevant and unimportant.

The real story now is just how bad is the entertainment-news industry in the U.S.? And the next real story is, is this really what Americans want– because they do tune in– or is something they are having shoved down their throats? The Anthony Wiener story might well begin to seem important to some people because coverage of it is ubiquitous.

This story will die soon enough. Unlike Sarah Palin’s enduring idiotic appeal to every numbskulled dissident survivalist in the U.S.– something that appears to be trivial but isn’t (we’re talking about the intellectual ability of a potential candidate for the highest office in the land)– this never was a real story, there never was a real impact, and not even Fox News can make a whole turd out this fart.

No crime was involved. No political issues were involved. It’s none of anybody’s damn business.

Palin Pizza Trump Taco

Yesterday, Sarah Palin and Donald Trump had pizza together in New York at Famiglia’s, a chain, in Times Square. The pizza at Famiglias is widely regarded by New Yorker’s as detestable.

She muttered something about a real New York pizza as she left.

And I don’t want to contribute any more to the mad media fascination with the most mediocre mind in American politics.