Monday, 24 June 2013

Velvet Glove, Iron Fist: A History of Anti-Smoking, by Christopher Snowdon

Why I read it: Economist Review

Podcasts: None.

Brow: Upper Middle

Summary: Ever since Columbus discovered it on his first voyage to the Americas, smoking has had its critics. Some were mild, like King James I, who called it 'loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs.' Others, like a Persian despot cut out smokers' tongues or poured lead down their throats. Today's anti-smoking activists fall somewhere in between, though they're getting closer to the Persian, with talk of 'third-hand smoke,' which means nicotine molecules that are transferred from a smoker's body to say, a sofa, then lie there for years until a child sits down and develops lung cancer, and banning smokers from adopting children. Snowdon picks the anti-smoking movement apart, showing us that no study has ever proven a link between second-hand smoke and increased risk of disease of any sort, not that that stops the activists. He then informs us what is in store for us when the zealots move on to their next targets: fatty foods, alcohol and fossil fuels.

What I liked about it: If you had asked me before I read this book, I probably would have been able to tell you that the persecution of smokers has got to the point of insanity. For example, in Ontario, where I'm from, you can no longer smoke in your car if there are children under 16 present. I was once outside a grocery store there and saw signs warning smokes to stay 9 metres from the doors. I also probably would have agreed that the actual risk of exposure for non-smokers is pretty minimal. But I had never really thought about it, or considered how the kind of thinking that led to these kinds of policies will never stop, even after we have all given up eating meat, drinking wine and driving. Then they'll move on to our other vices like using diapers, or having children at all, for that matter, and pretty much anything else that makes your life easier or more enjoyable.

What I didn't like about it: When he gets to the end of his smoking argument and gets into defending people's right to buy fatty foods, Snowdon gets a bit lost in the woods. I agree with him that no one holds a gun to your head and forces you to buy the child sized 512-ounce soda from Paunch Burger. I also agree with him that there is no demonstrated harm to being overweight, at least, not until you become morbidly obese. But I disagree with him when he argues that all that is needed is for the government to encourage people to make sensible choices and moderate their intake of fatty foods and sugary drinks. Just look at this map to see how, in 1985, no state had an obesity rate of more than 15%. In 2010, no state had a rate less than 20%. It's quite clear that anti-smoking-style information campaigns are not having an effect on waistlines.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

The Koran

Why I read it: Western Canon, Philip Ward's A Lifetime's Reading

Podcasts: Minnesota Atheists Koran Curious I didn't actually mean to listen to an atheist podcast about the Koran, but there was very little available.

Brow: Like all religious books, your brow rating for reading the Koran depends on why exactly you're doing it: if you use it like some bible readers do, opening it to a random page to either solve a problem or find out what's going to happen to you today, that's pretty lowbrow, but if you're reading it out of a genuine curiosity to figure out what your Muslim friends are always going on about, it's very highbrow. 

Summary: Allah doesn't fuck around:  if you follow him and obey his rules (in sum: believe in Allah), he'll reward you in heaven with virgins, or possibly grapes. The translation isn't clear. Failure to believe in Allah will result in an eternity of torture in hell. There's also some stuff in there about how Muslims should be Unitarians because Jesus, although a prophet, was not divine, when you can have sex with your slaves, and what you can and cannot eat, but 85 percent of it consists of admonishments to believe in Allah or else.

What I liked about it: Surah 109 is nice and tolerant:

Say: Unbelievers, I do not serve what you worship, nor do you serve what I worship. I shall never serve what you worship, nor will you ever serve what I worship. You have your own religion and I have mine.

But then right there on the same page of my translation, The Penguin Classics version, is this:

There are some who in their ignorance dispute about Allah and serve rebellious devils, though these are doomed to seduce their followers and lead them to the scourge of the Fire.

What I didn't like about it: It feels like every religious book is a dumber version of whatever it's based on. So the New Testament is a simplified version of the Old Testament, and the Koran is a simplified mishmash of the New Testament with a few nods to Leviticus and Exodus and a couple of the prophets thrown in. By the time it was written, the message was reduced to 450-odd pages hammering you over the head with the punishments for disobedience. By the end, I was just shell-shocked. Maybe that's the point. Thank goodness the Book of Mormon doesn't appear on any of my reading lists, as I understand it's a dumbed-down version of the bible written in pseudo-King Jamesese.