Happy New Year!



As is always somewhat inevitable, over the past few weeks some time has been spent pondering resolutions.  And yes, there are things I would like to change and achieve in 2014 but since my (and everyone else’s) track record for keeping these promises hasn’t been the greatest I won’t be sharing what I wish out of the year on here.

Well one thing I will share is that I would like to read more books in 2014 and related to that get better at tracking them through Goodreads.  My account tells me that in 2013 I read 13 books, which I know is much lower than the actual number, but I can’t remember a lot of the other books I read.

Oh and I would like to keep up with my newly rekindled love of baking and really expand into fancy breads.

Wishing you and yours the very best for 2014!




freedom in reading


The most salient characteristic of being a reader is freedom, and this freedom is part of the political nature of the novel. Even when you are twelve years old and required by means of rewards and punishments to read Oliver Twist, you may stop. More than that, you may question and resist. How ridiculous is it that Oliver can’t get a second helping of porridge? You decide. In fact, you must decide. You can decide that Oliver has suffered an injustice, you can decide that Oliver deserves his fate, you can decide that this can’t possibly be true, you can decide that you do not care one way or the other, but whatever decision you are making, you are free to make it – there is no group disapproval, as there might be in a theatre should you boo or get up and leave. The entire time you are reading any novel, you are experiencing freedom and autonomy, and this is a political experience. You are also experiencing either agreement with the author or disagreement, and this is a political experience, too. He or she is luring you with plot-twists, character development, pathos, wit, exotic scenes, but you decide whether to go along or resist. And there are resisters to even the most universally admired novels. A reviewer on Amazon writes of War and Peace, ‘The fact is that WP just isn’t great, and we’ve been sold a bill of goods to make us feel guilty about falling asleep over it.’ After cataloging inconsistencies in the text, he concludes: ‘I agree with Tolstoy – it’s a “monstrosity”.’

— from an excellent essay by Jane Smiley

bad science

I just finished reading Bad Science by Ben Goldacre and I feel kind of duped.  Well no, I actually just feel silly for not thinking about the many points he brings up that have to do with nutritional and pharmacological research, or lack thereof, how information is presented in the media, and the far-reaching consequences of not thinking critically about the statistics, numbers, and arguments presented to us on a regular basis.

I will say right away, if, like me, you have ever been interested in alternative medicine, this book may make you initially a little angry.  Mainly because it challenges many of the assumptions and arguments used in alternative health fields (especially nutrition) to justify the forms of “treatment” they prescribe.  If you are a believer of homeopathy, I dare you to read this book with an open mind and tell me that you are still a believer once done.  Or at the very least, that your fundamental beliefs in the practice have not been shaken.

The field of nutrition is another area Goldacre focuses on, and with good reason.  I am sure we are all aware that over the past few years there seems to have been a very fast increase in the amount of “stuff” we hear about what we should eat and what we should avoid.  This herb is good for this condition.  We should be eating antioxidants until we can’t eat any more.  This berry, when added to your diet, will change your life.  And so on.  It is a lot of information, which often contradicts other information.  As someone who has looked at the potential benefits of diet on rheumatoid arthritis, I can be the first to say that there is a lot of information out there and it is easy to feel overwhelmed.  In all seriousness I have often thought, “just how can I possibly get all of this “healing” food into my body every day unless I am eating and drinking juices around the clock?”

Reading this book made me realize that I often accepted a lot of what I read because it seemed to make sense on some intuitive level (bad science right there!) or because it just seemed, well, why wouldn’t it be true?  The problem, as Goldacre describes, is that theories in this modern popular nutrition field are often assumptions, extrapolations, and sometimes pure nonsense based often, but not always, on existing sound scientific/biological information.  The bottom line is that very few of these newer theories have been scientifically tested, and those that have, more often than not, do not show the amazing positive health benefits that we have been told to expect.  As he states, the bottom overarching slogan for this book could be “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.”

Here is an example that hit close to home.  I read somewhere about a year ago that a compound found in the spice turmeric, called curcumin, is highly effective for decreasing inflammation.  As someone with RA, anything that claims to help with inflammation is something I would like to know more about.  I did some more “research” on the Internet and sure enough, there are blogs out there that say turmeric is great for dealing with inflammation. I have since seen this “theory” espoused in many popular nutrition books.  And so, without really thinking about it, I accepted this as fact and started making homemade chai out of turmeric, buying capsules of the spice, and for a period of time sprinkling it on a lot of my food.  I should add that I have also done similar things with ginger, cayenne pepper, and who knows what else.

Here is an excerpt from the book,

And what about turmeric, which we were talking about before I tried to show you the entire world of theoretical research in this tiny grain of spice?  Well, yes, there is some evidence that curcumin, a chemical in turmeric, is highly biologically active, in all kinds of different ways, on all kinds of different systems (there are also theoretical grounds for believing that it may be carcinogenic, mind you).  It’s certainly a valid target for research.

But for the claim that we should ear more curry in order to get more of it, that “recent research” has shown it is “highly protective against many forms of cancer, especially those of the prostate,” you might want to step back and put the theoretical claims in the context of your body.  Very little of the curcumin you eat is absorbed.  You have to eat a few grams of it to reach significant detectable levels, but to get a few grams of curcumin, you’d have to eat one hundred grams of turmeric, and good luck with that.  Between research and recipe, there’s a lot more to think about that the nutritionists might tell you.

Hmmmmm…well when you say it like that…

I want to be clear on Goldacre’s behalf.  He is not arguing that all alternative medicine is bogus, that nutritionists are a bunch of liars (well he may actually be saying something close to that), that big pharma is innocent of any errors of deliberate “fudging” of data.  No, what he is arguing for is good science, responsible reporting by the media (one only needs to read his chapter on the ridiculous circus of the completely unreal supposed link between the MMR vaccine and autism to see the far reaching consequences of irresponsible media reporting), and a critical mind in the consumer of this information.  As he states, people are not stupid.  When they are presented with clear information, in a sensible way, most people can figure out what it means and what, if anything, they need to do about it, but until (if ever), we get to the point of the mainstream media thinking before they publish and not relying on at best exaggerated, at worst untrue, claims about the “latest research” I think we, as consumers of this information, need to put on our thinking caps a bit more often and really question where the numbers and findings are coming from.  A good place to start to see the difference between good and bad science is this book.

source: badscience.net


Author’s site

TED talk by Ben Goldacre

david foster wallace

The author David Foster Wallace ended his own life on this day in 2008.  I have never read any of his works and although I have heard the title of one of his works – Infinite Jest, I have never really paid too much attention to it.  I happened to see a story about the anniversary of his death, which mentioned a commencement address he gave in 2005 to the graduates of Kenyon College.  Apparently this speech is quite famous so maybe you have already heard this, but if you have not I would really recommend you give it a listen.

Sure made me feel better about “only” getting a Liberal Arts degree (two in fact!)

It also made me interested in reading his works.  I believe I have heard from others, and I think you can tell from his speech, that he is a quite verbose author which is sometimes quite difficult to absorb, but it seems like it is worth a shot.

Part 1

Part 2

It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.


Spotted this book at the ROM gift shop and am intrigued.  Definitely going on my “to read” list.

Below are two snippets I found on the web:

Some have argued that because the universe is like a clock, there must be a Clockmaker. As the eighteenth-century British empiricist David Hume pointed out, this is a slippery argument, because there is nothing that is really perfectly analogous to the universe as a whole, unless it’s another universe, so we shouldn’t try to pass off anything that is just a part of this universe. Why a clock anyhow? Hume asks. Why not say the universe is analogous to a kangaroo? After all, both are organically interconnected systems. But the kangaroo analogy would lead to a very different conclusion about the origin of the universe: namely, that it was born of another universe after that universe had sex with a third universe.

On Existentialism:

Customer in a restaurant: How do you prepare your chickens?
Cook: Oh, nothing special really. We just tell them they’re gonna die.

Seems like this is my kind of book.

life spent


There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less; time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life.

— Annie Dillard

dalai lama is lazy

I am currently reading Essence of Heart Sutra: The Dalai Lama’s Heart of Wisdom Teachings translated and edited by Geshe Thupten Jinpa, in response to my sister’s Buddhist teacher recommending that I recite the Heart Sutra on a daily basis.  No problem.  This is what she sent me.

heart sutraUh-huh.

And also this reference link.


Don’t get me wrong, my sister also offered to really explain it to me the next time we had a Skype date but I sort of forgot all about it.  However, past Xenia had the brilliant idea of ordering the Dalai Lama’s teachings of the Heart Sutra from the library so present Xenia was was more than happy when she saw this little book sitting on Holds shelf at the library waiting for her to read it.  I have yet to reach the point where the text addresses the Heart Sutra directly, as the first part of the book discusses Buddhist philosophy on a general level, but I am quite enjoying this refresher.

However, what stopped me cold in my tracks was reading this in the first few sentences of the first chapter

In my own case, the major portion of my life is already gone.  But, although I am a lazy practitioner of Buddhism, I can see that each year there is some progress in my life.  Above all, I try to be a genuine follower of Buddha Shakyamuni and a good Buddhist monk. [emphasis added]

Ummm?  This is the Dalai Lama calling himself “a lazy practitioner of Buddhism”!  I … I just don’t know what to do with this information.  If he is considered “lazy” what hope do any of us have?  But maybe this is just the super-modesty that comes from being a monk.  Let’s go with that.

I will leave you with a passage out of the book that has stood out so far

As the eighth-century Indian philosopher Chandrakirti points out in this Guide to the Middle Way, we first grasp a sense of self, and then we extend that grasping on to others.  First you have a sense of “I,” then you grasp at things as “mine.”  By looking into our own minds, we can see that the stronger our grasping is, the more forcefully it generates negative and destructive emotions.  There is a very intimate causal connection between our grasping at a sense of self and the arising of destructive emotions within us.  As long as we remain under the dominion of this erroneous belief, we have no room for lasting joy – this is what it means to be imprisoned in the cycle of existence.  Suffering is nothing but existence enslaved to ignorance.


cats + t. s. eliot + edward gorey = <3

In 1939 a book called Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot was published.  Its content based on poems about cats that Eliot wrote for his godchildren.  In 1982 the book was re-published with illustrations from none other than the wonderful Edward Gorey.  Here are some of those illustrations along with one of the poems which I find to be incredibly endearing.



You’ve read of several kinds of Cat,
And my opinion now is that
You should need no interpreter
To understand their character.
You now have learned enough to see
That Cats are much like you and me
And other people whom we find
Possessed of various types of mind.
For some are sane and some are mad
And some are good and some are bad
And some are better, some are worse –
But all may be described in verse.
You’ve seen them both at work and games,
And learnt about their proper names,
Their habits and their habitat:

How would you ad-dress a Cat?

So first, your memory I’ll jog,
And say: A CAT IS NOT A DOG.

Now Dogs pretend they like to fight;
They often bark, more seldom bite;
But yet a Dog is, on the whole,
What you would call a simple soul.
Of course I’m not including Pekes,
And such fantastic canine freaks.
The usual Dog about the Town
Is much inclined to play the clown,
And far from showing too much pride
Is frequently undignified.
He’s very easily taken in –
Just chuck him underneath the chin
Or slap his back or shake his paw,
And he will gambol and guffaw.
He’s such an easy-going lout,
He’ll answer any hail or shout.

Again I must remind you that
A Dog’s a Dog — A CAT’S A CAT.

With Cats, some say, one rule is true:
Don’t speak till you are spoken to.
Myself, I do not hold with that –
I say, you should ad-dress a Cat.
But always keep in mind that he
Resents familiarity.
I bow, and taking off my hat,
Ad-dress him in this form: O CAT!
But if he is the Cat next door,
Whom I have often met before
(He comes to see me in my flat)
I greet him with an OOPSA CAT!
I’ve heard them call him James Buz-James –
But we’ve not got so far as names.
Before a Cat will condescend
To treat you as a trusted friend,
Some little token of esteem
Is needed, like a dish of cream;
And you might now and then supply
Some caviare, or Strassburg Pie,
Some potted grouse, or salmon paste –
He’s sure to have his personal taste.
(I know a Cat, who makes a habit
Of eating nothing else but rabbit,
And when he’s finished, licks his paws
So’s not to waste the onion sauce.)
A Cat’s entitled to expect
These evidences of respect.
And so in time you reach your aim,
And finally call him by his NAME.

So this is this, and that is that:
And there’s how you AD-DRESS A CAT.

giller prize shortlist 2012 pt iii

It has been quite a while since I have written about a Giller Prize shortlist book (you can read part i and part ii if you missed it) because I was about halfway through reading 419 by Will Ferguson when the book won the prize and the demand to borrow it from the library skyrocketed!  My loan time ran out and when I put a new hold on the book the wait list was somewhere in the 2000s!  It took me about three months to get my hands on it again, but luckily I remembered most of the story and was able to pick up where I left off.

The title of the book comes from the Nigerian Criminal Code, the number corresponding to a section dealing with fraud, and this 419 scam becomes the common point between four intertwined stories.  This novel reminded me quite a bit of Dan Choan’s Await Your Reply, as both track seemingly separate stories the connections of which are only revealed towards the end, and both (to a degree) deal with very modern scams made possible by the internet.

419 is a very well written book full of vivid descriptions interlaced with a complicated “who dunnit” story which makes for a very easy and fast read.  I also really appreciated that there was never very clear black and white divisions, the “good” and the “bad” often fall into the grey zone where knowing motivations makes it difficult to judge actions.

A captivating, very well-researched, and interesting read.  Highly recommend!


Another fairly lazy Sunday here on the books at the Shanty.  After two weekends off I was back at the yoga studio early in the morning for my volunteer shift.  Last week was pretty busy for me and I actually didn’t make it to one class.  Having these Sunday shifts is a good reminder of why I love hot yoga so much.  I see the people as they enter the studio and as they leave the class and I can definitely tell you in that span of 60-90 min something changes.  Sweaty, smiley faces are always coming down the stairs after classes.  It makes me crave the same feeling.  This week I have no plans outside of work so am hoping to make it to a class everyday.  I can tell that both my mind and my body are missing it.

Besides missing the yoga classes my first week of “April the detox” month has been going very well.  I have stuck to the smoothie challenge and have had a green smoothie, or two, or three everyday so far.  I haven’t had any alcohol outside of one beer during the week and one on Saturday night.  My eating has generally stayed pretty healthy (with a few minor exceptions) and overall I am feeling pretty great!  I also got fantastic news from my rheumatologist last week.  It seems that my body is starting to heal!  In 2011 I had MRIs done of my hands and feet which were not good at all.  The images showed a lot of fluid, swelling, and other unfortunate symptoms of RA.  About a year ago I decided to start taking Enbrel in order to prevent any permanent joint damage and to try to “turn off” the mechanism in my body that was telling my immune system to basically freak out.  Well it seems to be working.  My blood tests have never been so good and X-rays show an amazing improvement in my hands and feet with no permanent damage.  And when I say that it looks like my body is starting to heal, this is not me talking, these are the words of my rheumatologist.  I can now start taking Enbrel every other week instead of every Sunday, and this has been a huge motivator for me to stay on track with the lifestyle changes in the hopes that very soon I can go off the medication completely.  Isn’t that swell?

I decided to treat myself on Sunday to a celebratory smoothie (not green but still very healthy) that imitates a good ol’ chocolate shake.  This is yet another thing I have been meaning to try for a few months now and I was not disappointed at all.  Here is the recipe if you want to give it a try.

Chocolate Date Smoothie

15 pitted honey dates (soak in water for about 2 hours)

2 cups unsweetened plain almond milk (rice, hemp, or soy milk would work as well)

1 banana

1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon cardamom (optional)

1 teaspoon turmeric (optional)

splash of vanilla

Throw in a blender, whirl it up, enjoy!  This recipe makes two smoothies.

This smoothie actually ended up being a little too sweet for me so in the future I plan to replace the banana with half of an avocado which will also help create that smooth texture without the added sweetness.  Also replacing the dates which are quite sweet with soaked prunes.  I chose to put ground cardamom in for a bit of spice, and the turmeric because it is a great anti-inflammatory.  I try to use it wherever I can.  Just a word of warning though, powdered turmeric has a very strong, and not very pleasant taste, so use sparingly.

I have also started to be very curious about how our current understanding of nutrition was formed.  How did we discover vitamins?  How do we know what vitamins and minerals are in what food?  And additionally, how do we know which of these elements is good for specific parts of our bodies?

My first attempt at research led me to a few books that the Toronto Public Library has.  First is Terrors of the Table: the curious history of nutrition by W. B. Gratzer.  This was my wrap up to Sunday evening.  A good read thus far of which I am sure I will be sharing tidbits on here very soon.

Hope you all had a great Sunday!