Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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The Power of Placebos

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Many of us have heard of placebos – fake medical treatments that are used to analyze the efficacy of real treatments. But the interesting thing about placebos is that even though they aren’t real medical treatments, they have a real effect on patients who receive them.

Sometimes the effect is negative, but often it’s positive. For example, people taking a placebo might experience the side effects that generally come with a particular medication. On the other hand, they might begin to feel better and even become better as a result.

One of the odd things about placebos is that they can even be effective when people know they’re taking a placebo. Because of ethical concerns, the dispensation of placebos has gotten a bit complicated, but some studies have allowed for giving patients placebos in addition to their regular medication and telling patients that even though the placebos do not contain active ingredients, they might feel some relief from taking them.

And then, surprisingly, a number of people do feel better. One would think the mind would inform the body that the “treatment” these people are receiving is nothing – a sugar pill or colored water – but the mind doesn’t work that way.

Instead, the mind somehow decides to manipulate the body to achieve the result the mind wants. It’s sort of like the power of positive thinking. And it can be good or bad. If a person takes a placebo to cure cancer, more than likely, the person is going to die. If, however, the person takes a placebo to fight depression, there’s a good chance the person will be helped just as much by the placebo as by antidepressants.

And the placebo effect isn’t just a medical phenomenon. It works in other ways too. For example, many (if not most) office thermostats are fake. Yet people feel better when they can “adjust” the thermostat in their office. Also, the “Close” button on most elevators doesn’t actually speed up the process of closing the doors. Yet people feel better when they’re allowed to press the button. They feel like the doors close faster.

Prayer may be another placebo. We pray for someone who becomes ill and the person recovers, making us believe our prayers had something to do with it. And perhaps they did, even if the person didn’t know we were saying a prayer for his/her benefit.

More likely, however, is that the placebo effect was at work, either on the patient or on the person doing the praying. If the patient knows about the prayers, that can serve as a motivator to get well. Depending on the nature of the illness, a placebo might be enough to bring about real healing.

If the patient doesn’t know about the prayers, then the healing might just be coincidence. Certainly the person praying believes in the power of prayer and attributes the healing to the prayer while making excuses if the prayers don’t work. “I didn’t pray hard enough” or “God said: No” or “the Lord works in mysterious ways.”

Many studies have been done on the power of prayer and almost all of them show that prayer is no more effective on healing than the rising of the moon. Yet people still believe. Why? Maybe because prayer is like meditation. It provokes a relaxation response in the body, whereby stress levels are reduced.

What does all this mean?

I think we should be happy our minds are strong enough to allow us to heal ourselves by many different methodologies. We can’t cure ourselves of everything, of course. And sometimes, prayers and placebos are downright harmful – such as when people rely on them too heavily, to the exclusion of more efficacious treatments.

But they have their place. So if you derive benefits from prayers or placebos, by all means: carry on.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Losing the War

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We fight many battles in our lifetimes, some of them external, many more internal. We see perceived injustice – the world not operating the way we want it to – and we attack. Sometimes those battles are more easily understood than others: like WWI and WWII.

Sometimes the battles – particularly the internal ones – are harder to understand.

Why am I not full after eating half a pizza? Why do I yearn for yet another pair of shoes? Why do I feel unsatisfied with my life?

One battle (or perhaps, war) we can’t escape is over climate change. Why do some folks insist that the planet isn’t warming? Or insist that even if it is, human actions have nothing to do with it? I think it’s because people are comfortable within a certain range of ideas, and the notion that running one’s air conditioner at 68 degrees can somehow melt a glacier in Greenland seems ludicrous.

Plus, people have been screaming about the sky falling for years (decades, even) and nothing really bad has happened so far – at least nothing that scientists are willing to pin on global warming exclusively. Too many of us don’t see what the long-term problem is. “So what,” they say. “We’ll figure out a solution when we have to – and not before.”

This leads some of us to want to do battle. While the rest of us look around and say, “What the hell are you talking about? You’re an idiot. Things are fine.”

The Olmec said that. So did the Nabateans, the Aksumites and the Mycenaeans. And the Anasazi. Empires all, once upon a time. Now all gone.

Some of those people left their societies, recognizing the inevitability of collapse. Others stayed and fought until the end, hoping to save their culture, their fellow citizens. But at some point, the end became known to all but the deluded. Their world was dying and they could no longer save it, so those few who remained, those few still alive, were finally forced to move on.

I fear in many ways that we have reached that point. The end is known, at least by some of us. We have fought the battles and lost. We can continue the fight, hoping that this isn’t the end, but we know, deep down, that it is. We’re too late. We offer too little in the way of achievable solutions.

And this time there is nowhere to run. Our planet is full. We can’t just pack up and head to some undiscovered country where we can settle down and start anew. So do we keep fighting? And if so, how do we do it? Many of our fellow citizens don’t know what we’re upset about. They don’t see the decay. They think we’re like the old Greeks who lamented the youngsters disrupting their glorious empire.

Only those old Greeks were sort of right. That empire died out centuries ago. Yes, there’s still a country called Greece, but it’s no empire.

A call to violence seems too extreme. But civil discourse and peaceful protest seem to get us nowhere. Maybe the death of empires is inevitable. Maybe fighting against that kind of decline only results in frustration at our impotence. Maybe we should just accept that it’s too late to win the war.

But the smaller battles still rage around us. How do we continue the fight? One battle at a time, I suppose. One battle at a time.


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Ramblings on Snow

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

A single snowflake consists of many trillions of water molecules that form around a tiny particle of dust. A single snowman contains millions of snowflakes. A single snowstorm carries the seeds of thousands of snowmen.

We think of snow as pure because of the way light bounces off it, making it appear white to the human eye even though it is no more pure than rain. Still, if we are in the right mood, we find something in it that transcends its basic nature, its ordinariness.

Cold, crystalline, laden with our collective wonder, it drifts downward, blowing with the wind, whipping across the tarmac ribbons that cross the prairies, eventually settling beside fences or accumulating in corners, compressing itself into ice if left to its devices long enough.

In some ways, it reminds me of granulated sugar – silent but dangerous if you get too much of it. I learned recently that the sugar industry paid researchers who sought to downplay the link between sugar and obesity (as well as heart disease). So, just like snow, sugar in small quantities is pleasing – a delightful change of pace. In large quantities, it can be deadly.

And what is snow anyway? At times it seems like a liquid, flowing and blowing with gravity and wind. Other times it seems like a solid, compacting into hardness that can – over years – become ice – even though it actually is ice already: just loosely connected ice crystals.

They say that (like fingerprints) no two snowflakes are alike but I don’t think anyone knows that for certain. It’s just an assumption made from the study of thousands upon thousands of individual crystals, each one a smidgeon different than its neighbor, just like people.

Yet to us, the ones who traverse it or shovel it or just watch it fall and drift, there’s almost no difference, one from another. The flakes are all simply part of a larger mass, like grains of sand in a bucket. A few of them, to someone who has never seen them before, seem like a miracle. An avalanche of them seems like a nightmare.

I like snow, in small doses, on warm winter days, when I can nestle by the window and observe it, unbothered by the need to brave it.


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The Most Important Sense

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Answer quickly now: What’s the most important sense? Sight? Many of you probably said so.

I have to disagree. Our sense of touch, which we take for granted, is by far the most important.

Yes, the loss of sight or hearing can be very traumatic and even fatal. But the loss of the sense of touch can be even more harmful. Imagine being unable to feel pain as your hand encounters a burning stove. Imagine falling down the stairs and not knowing you’ve broken your leg or hip. Imagine, as a baby, not knowing to close your eyes when you’re flailing about in your crib and as a result you poke yourself in the eye and blind yourself.

Or imagine being emotionally wounded and seeking the comfort of a loved one’s arms, but never being able to satisfy that urge. Imagine never feeling a kiss.

Touch is vitally important.

Without touch, we cannot fully engage our world. A number of studies have shown that infants who are severely touch-deprived (for example, in an orphanage that is understaffed) suffer developmental problems, which can include obesity, an impaired immune system, heart disease, diabetes, psychosis and poor impulse control, among other maladies.

Conversely, babies receiving touch therapy have fewer infections, better sleep, gain weight more quickly and do better with motor coordination and cognitive skills. Even babies who have been touch-deprived benefit greatly when obtaining touch therapy afterwards.

The social rewards of touch greatly outweigh the social rewards of vision or any of the other senses. Touch transforms how we interact with the world far more substantially than the other senses – both for good and ill.

Consider, for example, a number of documented cases of people who cannot feel pain. Many of us would say they are lucky, but that turns out not to be the case. Pain is a signal to the body that some sort of damage has occurred. If we aren’t aware of the damage because we don’t feel pain, we could be seriously injured or even die.

Or consider people who are afflicted with extreme itching. What kind of torture must it be to endure that all the time? The loss of sight would be a blessing if it would remove that kind of torment.

So, if your sense of touch is relatively normal, be grateful. Things could be much worse.


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Why We Ignore What We Need

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We all have basic needs: food, water, shelter and clothing. Some would argue that we need love too or at least human connections, though plenty of people live without those things. Look at people with severe dementia or brain injuries, people in comas, or many of the homeless. They are often unaware that they are loved and yet they soldier on. So I think we can state that love is a want rather than a need.

But even if I’m wrong about that, my point is that we need relatively little. And most of us have what we need almost all the time. Very seldom do we go hungry or thirsty or want for clothing or shelter.

We have serviceable sustenance, yet many of us feel dissatisfied with what we have. We want nicer clothes or housing or comestibles. We want a newer car or a fancy vacation or the luxury of working only when we’re in the mood for it. Or we want the world to be a certain way, with a certain president or a certain weather pattern.

Why is that?

If our needs are being met, shouldn’t we be thankful? Shouldn’t we accept our stations and not worry about the might-have-beens of our existence? The answer, surely, is yes. But that’s not how most of our minds work.

We are driven by our wants precisely because our needs are largely met. We see others with more or imagine ourselves with more and that creates a spark of desire that can ignite into a conflagration with only the slightest breeze.

If we had a different governor, then life would be better. If we didn’t have so little rain, we’d be happier. If my neighbor’s dog would stop barking all the time, then I’d finally get some peace and quiet and be able to enjoy myself.

None of these are necessities and yet we feel extremely passionate about many of these wants. Protests in the streets, people shooting those with different ideologies – anger and resentment and fear building to a crescendo of negative emotion.

Conversely, people screaming their delight at a football team, anguishing with each bad play, celebrating every touchdown as if it were some momentous occasion. People tattooing a celebrity’s likeness on their body. All these circumstances deal in wants, not needs.

That doesn’t mean people are wrong to feel the way they do or to focus on intangibles that add a little spice to their lives, but it makes me wonder why we care so much about so many things that only indirectly affect us.

I think it’s because we want to feel. We desire the sensation of belonging or love or of being scared or outraged. All these emotions make us feel alive. Otherwise, we think, we might as well be robots. Yet, taken to extremes, these emotions wreak havoc on our lives. They push us to actions that are often not in our long-term best interests.

The Buddhist who claims that all suffering is caused by desire is onto something. The absence of desire (or more correctly, the control of desire) leads to a kind of inner peace, a calmness that slowly works its way outward to our fingers and toes and beyond, radiating out into the world, to an acceptance of those things that are not threats to our needs.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series


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The Lone Leaf

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

A lone leaf lingers on the lilac tree, rustling in the autumn breeze, oblivious to the demands of the outside world, the pressures that compelled its fellows to succumb: the dimming sun, the cooling nights, the hard rains and gusty winds.

It holds a vigil for its lost companions, a ceremony unaccompanied by others, witnessed only by a curious man’s eyes. With the passage of each day, its desperate struggle to remain attached to its foundation brings a sense of wonder to the curious man who cannot but check every few hours to see if it has lost the war yet.

But there it is, still fighting, gripping tightly to the bough that connects it to the roots, that connect it to the earth from whence it came. It looks defeated, yellow and splotchy brown, curling up on itself a little, and the curious man knows it cannot maintain its hold forever. Soon it must fall.


Yet not today. It has courage, this small leaf. Or does fear keep it attached to the summer it will never see again, to the friendships formed in springtime as its compatriots formed around it, sheltering it as it sheltered them, waving hello and finally, as light retreated into November gloom, goodbye?

Perhaps it clings to the branch for biological reasons, outside any sensate notions it might possess: an overly thick stem that will not surrender to winter but will only depart once the rising vernal sun brings a replacement, a tender shoot to keep a watch on the world, a sentry to record the movements of the squirrels and birds and the curious man who cannot look away for long.

Or perhaps some prankster crept along in the night and fused the leaf to the tree with Crazy Glue or some such adhesive, though why anyone would do such a thing is a mystery to the curious man.

No, some things cannot be understood; they remain unsolvable without Herculean effort. Besides, the reason for the leaf’s tenacity doesn’t really matter. What matters is the fact of it, the motivation that can be derived from the lone fighter who bucks the system, who continues on beyond all reason or hope, knowing he is doomed to fail but nevertheless fighting.

This little leaf, this paragon of fortitude.

One morning, the curious man knows, he will wake to find the leaf finally gone, caught up in a particularly heavy gust or a driving rain, some unstoppable force that even its greatest effort could not repel. It will have flown horizontally, twisting and turning on its way to the ground, or dropped under the weight of water to the carpet of grass and clover, long after its fallen comrades have been raked away.

There, it will stand sentinel until the snow has melted and the sun has moved higher in the sky and the universe has given its blessing for the leaf to finally let go, relinquish its hold, to rest, to crumble, disintegrating into the dirt that birthed it once upon a time.

And the curious man will weep at the loss and the regeneration, and wish he had the courage and will of the lone leaf.


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Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Now that the election is over, people say we need to come together and heal, unite behind our new president and move forward, but that just isn’t possible – and here’s why:

Roughly half of our voting population wants a strong military. Another roughly half thinks our military is already far too large.

Roughly half of us want to be part of the global community. The other half wants to isolate ourselves from the world.

Roughly half of us want to help our fellow citizens with generous social programs while the other half think too many of us are idling about and using up our precious resources without contributing to our economy.

Roughly half of us wanted a criminal (who violated national security laws) to be our president while the other half wanted a different criminal (who is also an admitted sexual predator).

A large minority of us think abortion is murder while a majority of us want safe and rare abortions.

Roughly half of us think tax cuts will bring us prosperity while the other half think we need to increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for the infrastructure improvements we mostly agree we need.

Roughly half of us wanted a president who would at least pay lip service to climate change while the other half wanted a president who thinks global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.

Half of us are conservative; half of us are liberal.

Let’s concede for the moment that we all want America to be great. Fine. Now what?

Half of us are on the north side of the Grand Canyon treading a path we believe is the only one to greatness. The other half of us are on the south side, convinced that our path is the only way to achieving the success we all want.

How do we bridge that?

By compromise, of course.

And who is willing to do that?

Almost none of us. We all say, “Come over to our side on this issue. And on the next one. And maybe the one after that.”

“We won,” say the losers who won due to the Electoral College system. “Not really,” say the winners who lost for the same reason.

And where is the compromise anyway when the two views are that far apart? The point is that we can’t unite as a nation until we agree on what kind of country we want to be. And we can’t agree on that while we’re so diametrically opposed on so many issues.

No, I’m afraid we’re doomed to struggle against ourselves for quite some time yet. We will only be able to come together once a large enough crisis forces us to take some collective action – I don’t think we’re there yet.


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The Problem with Cats

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Cats. Many people love them – and why not? They can be enormously affectionate. In America, they are more popular pets than dogs. They enjoy playing with toys, particularly those that resemble prey. Is there anything cuter than cat videos? Not much.

And yet, cats are a huge problem. The biggest problem is feral cats, those that have escaped or been released into the wild. They prey on smaller animals and particularly birds, killing billions every year.

This might be okay if they killed birds and rodents we don’t like, but cats also kill bluebirds and rabbits and other small creatures. They don’t limit their destruction to species we find unappealing.

But there’s another largely unknown problem with cats as well – toxoplasma gondii – a parasite that lives in cat excrement. These parasites can only reproduce in the bodies of domestic cats. When the cats defecate, the eggs of the parasite can get passed on to other creatures, even humans.

That’s why pregnant women are warned to stay away from stray kittens and not to change kitty litter or cat bedding. Toxoplasmosis can lead to fetal abnormalities. In people who are infected with the disease, researchers have noticed behavioral differences. Men are more prone to road rage. Women are more likely to engage in promiscuous behavior. Both are more susceptible to traffic accidents, either because of impulsivity or decreased reaction time.

And it’s not just people who are at risk. Mice and rats infected with the parasite will approach cats as if aroused by them, greatly increasing their chances of being killed so that the parasite can continue to spread, infecting others. A recent study even showed that toxoplasma gondii is responsible for the deaths of a number of monk seals in Hawaii.

The good news is that toxoplasma gondii is treatable with antibiotics. The bad news is that it can be hard to detect because its symptoms are not very noticeable. And how do you get antibiotics to an endangered seal in the wild anyway?

Toxoplasma gondii is on the rise because of global warming, which allows the parasite to survive the warmer wetter winters we are increasingly experiencing. So what’s the solution? It’s quite simple. Feral cats should be killed – humanely. People who own cats as pets should never let them outside without a leash. They should never be allowed to roam free and hunt.

If people take responsibility for their cats, this is one problem we can easily solve.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Election Season

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

The election is almost upon us, and I have to say I don’t know for certain which candidate would best serve our country in the long run. One supports the status quo, the continuation of the policies of the past several decades, which have led us to this particular point in time.

The other is a bizarre outsider who talks about making America great again but offers essentially zero in the way of specifics. He might do anything once elected. He is a self-absorbed, bullying misogynist.

Logic would dictate that I should vote for the status quo because the outsider might do something crazy (probably will do something crazy) that will have horrendous consequences for the country and possibly the world.

Those who are doing well (and even some who are not) insist we need to vote for the status quo, especially since she’s also the first woman to head a major party. They believe she will keep us on the right path to success – and they’re correct. She’ll keep us on the path that allowed those very successful people to be successful, continuing the policies that benefit them.

We might benefit tangentially, but I’m not certain we will be the people she’s primarily concerned with helping.

On the other hand, many of those who are struggling, who remember the past fondly, even if it wasn’t as good as their memories would have them believe, think that if we vote for the new guy, he’ll somehow bring us back to the days when we were the undisputed heavyweight champions of the world.

They look at the status quo and see a rigged game designed to help the few at the expense of the many. Yes, we’re generally all doing better than we were fifty years ago, but a select few of us are doing way, way, way better while the rest of us are doing only slightly better.

Of course, the reality is that the outsider is a blusterer who likely can’t deliver anything he promises. But is that a bad thing? Maybe what we need long-term is total dysfunction, a complete breakdown like a great depression to prod us to action.

The great recession didn’t do it. The Occupy Wall Street protests died. The Black Lives Matter movement may have staying power but we don’t know. It seems to have reached its peak and begun to decline. And its message, while powerful, does not yet speak directly to issues of economic inequality.

So perhaps things need to get worse before they can get better. I’m not advocating that. I’m just wondering if we can lift ourselves up without first reaching rock bottom. Our collective human history suggests that we do better when the adversity is greater – and perhaps the adversity we face isn’t great enough yet.

But one thing is certain. Regardless of who wins, the status quo isn’t going to cut it much longer. People are getting fed up with the way the oligarchs who run this country have sabotaged the ladder of upward mobility, reaping for themselves the fruits of our labor, patting themselves on the back for thinking up new ways to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us.

Some day, a revolution is gonna come. And it’s gonna be ugly.


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What does it mean to be human?

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We like to think we’re special, we’re different than the rest of the animal kingdom. We can reason and communicate and imagine and empathize and manipulate our world in a way no other creature can. We have consciousness, self-awareness. All these attributes allegedly make us human.

But what does that mean?

Other animals, like dolphins and elephants, are self-aware. They communicate and reason and empathize and even occasionally manipulate their habitat. Do they imagine? Probably. So what makes us special?

The truth is: We make us special. We’re special because we say we’re special, not because of any inherent quality or virtue we possess. We observe the world around us and note that no other species does quite what we do, even though many species do similar things.

And up until relatively recently, we didn’t even appreciate the similarities that other creatures have to us. We thought: Isn’t it cute that the crow over there is playing with a coin? or Look at my cat toying with that mouse.

But the more we’ve studied the animal kingdom, the more we’ve come to appreciate how little difference there is between humans and many animals. We have an evolutionary advantage in that we developed all these wonderful abilities at a high level whereas most animals can claim only one or two of these attributes.

Dogs, for example, can communicate, empathize and reason, but not to the same level and not in the same way we do. At least, that’s what we think. But we might be wrong.

Dogs can communicate by sense of smell in addition to vocally but we didn’t understand that until recently. For instance, dogs can tell time by using their noses. They know that when the number of “owner” molecules in the air decrease to a certain level, their owner is going to return. That’s why they’re often waiting by the door when we come home from work.

Monkeys have a sense of justice and will scream in outrage if they’re treated unfairly. No different than us. Deer and cows can sense magnetic north; dolphins and bats use sonar; people can’t do either of those things.

So why do we think we’re better than them? Mostly, because we have power over them. It’s not that different than white privilege or Nazi superiority. If you look at the historical record, you see that the people claiming whites were somehow better than blacks were white people. The blacks didn’t think of themselves as inferior. It was the people who had the power who made that determination.

The same thing is happening still, with the folks in power (humans) claiming that they’re superior to the folks not in power (plants and animals). Yes, humans are different than zebras, but zebras are different than ostriches, and ostriches are different than halibut. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses. It’s just that our strengths tend to be stronger than the rest of the world’s creatures and our weaknesses tend to be fewer.

So it’s okay to think of yourself as human. It’s okay to see yourself as a member of the dominant species on the planet. But I’m not certain it’s okay to think of ourselves as inherently superior to the creatures around us. We’re different, that’s all.

book 2 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 2 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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