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title Up Front

April 15, 2002 Issue Full Text

by Colby Cosh

21st-century schizoid man

A cover story in the March 26 Medical Post declares an urgent crisis in the Canadian psychiatric profession. According to a report by the Canadian Psychiatric Association (CPA), 14% of unoccupied medical jobs are in the psychiatric specialty, but only 5% of medical students are making psychiatry their top choice of career. Shortages are popping up across the country as residencies remain unfilled.

The reasons are surprising. One might think new docs are simply avoiding a career that sometimes seems to consist mostly of scribbling Paxil and Ritalin prescriptions. But the problem cuts deeper, according to the CPA survey. The sheer unpleasantness of working with the mentally ill ranked high as a reason for avoidance, but so did "the lack of efficacy of psychiatric treatments and the lack of scientific foundation."

Hang on...if med students think psychiatry is a crock, what's a layman to believe? But U of Toronto psychiatrist Allan Kaplan says these wacky, skeptical kids are misinformed. "Advances in neuroscience and genetics have revolutionized psychiatry in recent years, and there are now many ways to scientifically demonstrate functional abnormalities," he told the MedPost's Jenny Manzer. "You can now take a schizophrenic's brain, put it under a PET scan and say, 'Look at the abnormality.' It's quite amazing."

Ah. To have your faith restored in psychiatry, then, merely do the following. (1) Ignore the weekly news stories about possible new causes of schizophrenia (a recent one involved cat feces as an epidemiological vector). (2) Ignore the curious way diseases like "postpartum depression," diagnosed by real psychiatrists, often magically turn into the "functional abnormality" of schizophrenia. Just ask Andrea Yates' kids. (3) Ignore the mystery of why early diagnosis of schizophrenia is still a total crapshoot, even though schizophrenia is supposedly obvious in the brain. (4) Ignore the fact that psychiatrists can do all the PET scans they like, but they still cannot cure actual schizophrenia.

If you can do all that, you may be qualified to become a psychiatric resident. Or possibly a patient.

A (very) few good men

James Q. Wilson, the noted conservative sociologist, has published a new book in which he blames a literal manpower shortage for the explosion in divorce and single parenthood which began in the 1970s. "Whatever the Sixties did, it is hard to find much evidence that they created the divorce revolution," writes Dr. Wilson, whose "broken windows" theory of urban crime rates is credited with inspiring Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's successful effort to reduce homicide in New York City. "Where there is a shortage of men, many women will settle for less than what they had hoped for by becoming spinsters, accepting casual offers of sex from men who offer no marital prospects, or producing babies without being married to their fathers."

Dr. Wilson's data shows that there were more men than women in the U.S. in 1900, but the ratio declined steadily, reaching a low of 95 to every 100 in 1970. The problem was much exacerbated, he says, by high rates of male imprisonment, suicide and drug abuse. So you see, ladies, it really is hard to find a good man. But I'll bet you didn't know it was because they're all dead, in jail or high.

Don't get Left behind, the enervating Web site that provides a hobby for Judy Rebick and a wildlife preserve for her chums on the Canadian left, celebrated its first birthday April 18. What better way to observe the anniversary than a plea for cash? "A Globe and Mail subscription costs $22 a month. We're hoping you can commit $20 a month," writes Ms. Rebick. Why--because Rabble is only 91% as interesting as the Globe? Well, no argument here. But what kind of "rabble" has $240 a year (plus the cost of a computer and bandwidth) to burn on vanity Web projects? This is not your father's proletariat (or your mother's).

As a sample of Rabble's readership, one might cite "Feminist Mom in Montreal," who writes in to the Rebick advice column with a quandary to chill the blood of any parent. "I worry about keeping [my] girls as free as possible from girl hang-ups about weight and appearance," she writes. "One of my daughters is very pretty and gets lots of comments on her appearance. And the little one is becoming quite enthralled with things extremely feminine...What to do?" Through heroic force of will, Judy stops short of recommending double infanticide in her reply. If this sort of thing is your bag, step away slowly from the magazine and surf over to (Or you could check out the non-emetic alternative at

After September 11, everything changed--but not this

The Marguerite Bourgeoys School Board has upheld a LaSalle, Que., school's decision to forbid a 12-year-old Sikh boy from bringing his religion's traditional kirpan--a four-inch steel dagger--into the classroom. Lawyers for Gurbaj Singh Multani, who attends Ecole Sainte-Catherine-Laboure, will go to Quebec Superior Court in an effort to have the ruling overturned. In the meantime, he will be tutored at home.

A note of comedy was sounded in the Montreal Gazette article on the decision, which noted that parents and teachers were concerned that the knife "could be used as a weapon." Hey, it's a religious symbol, folks--it's not like kirpans have been used to hijack airplanes or anything. (Er, except for that one time in September 1981, when an Indian pilot had a kirpan held to his throat and was ordered to redirect to Lahore.) And it's not like Sikhs whip them out when there is a fight of some kind. (Except for that unpleasantness in January 1997 at the Guru Nanak temple in Surrey, where parishioners were videotaped using them on one another.) This is Canada, after all. (The aforementioned hijacker later moved here and applied for refugee status.)

The school board should save its money. A Canadian judge would rather eat fire ants than ban the kirpan from a public place, however sound the reasons. Now, if it were a box-cutter, things might be different...

The truth? They can't handle the truth

The Spring 2002 issue of Military History Quarterly highlights an under-reported news item from France, where retired French general Paul Aussaresses shocked European opinion last year with a memoir of the 1955-57 war against Algerian insurgents. Gen. Aussaresses wrote coldly and candidly of French tactics against the colonials, admitting to personally participating in the torture of rebel leaders. Electric shocks, water tortures and beatings were commonplace and tacitly condoned, the general wrote (noting that the same tactics were used by the other side too). Only his matter-of-fact tone was a surprise to historians.

Under a 1968 general amnesty, the 83-year-old general could not be prosecuted for the war crimes themselves. Yet his callousness could not go unpunished. French legalists ransacked the books and found a solution: they tried Gen. Aussaresses for the obscure human-rights offence of excusing or justifying war crimes (complicitè d'apologie de crimes de guerre). On January 25 the 17th Court of Correction fined him 7,500 Euros (about $10,500 Canadian) for speaking out.

He was unrepentant. "Torture was useful and necessary," MHQ quotes him as telling a French newspaper. "If I had bin Laden in my hands I would repeat what I did without hesitation. Anyway, I am convinced that every army in the world still uses torture today." A chilling thought. With the U.S. deliberately transporting terror suspects to countries where harsher interrogation techniques are legal, one wonders if history has caught up with Gen. Aussaresses.

The thrilla in vanilla (milkshakes)

You have probably seen the infomercials for the George Foreman Grill, which is, as you might guess, a grill endorsed by endomorphic boxing great George Foreman. It cooks both sides of the meat, allows the excess fat to drain out of your burgers, etc. You know all that, but did you know that George and his manufacturer, Salton, have sold US$1 billion worth of the grills? According to the Wall Street Journal (March 11), the idiot-proof Foreman Grill represents the kitchen's future.

Appliance manufacturers face a problem: Americans (and Canadians) don't cook anymore. Well, that is an exaggeration, but only half of households use their stoves every day (it was 70% in 1985), and when they do get used, it is mostly for frozen dinners and one-pot meals. The multi-course sit-down meal is becoming an increasing rarity, and with it the traditional tools of the housewife's trade. So appliance merchants have staked their hopes on a new generation of specialized Gadgets for Dummies. Items include a frozen-pizza heater that stops automatically when the pizza is done; the Oster In2itive Blender, with built-in procedures for people "intimidated by blending"; and even a self-timing egg boiler.

The Wall Street Journal does not mention what is really happening here. Domestic lore (like how to boil an egg) was once passed down from mother to daughter. But now we take young girls to work instead. Reporter Pooja Bhatia spoke to one woman (a software engineer) who "wouldn't deal with timing her own soft-boiled eggs," and another who found the humble milkshake a bridge too far. In short, they are just as helpless as bachelors have always been. Lord have mercy on our stomachs.

Duly Noted

A University of Toronto professor is suing Air Canada for $1 million, claiming that the airline discriminated against him because he is a cyborg. The term derives from "cybernetic organism" and refers to a human being with robotic or electronic enhancements. When Steve Mann tried to board a flight decked out in computerized eyeglasses, a helmet and various other techno-accoutrements, he was told he could not board. He said he could not remove the computers for medical reasons, came back the next day with a doctor's note and was subjected to a search of the equipment so gruelling he says he ended up in a wheelchair. Hey, wouldn't a proper cyborg already have wheels? In fact, why does this guy even need an airplane?

Lloyd's List, the shipping periodical of maritime insurer Lloyd's of London, is abandoning the centuries-old tradition of referring to ships as "she." In its pages, the List will now refer to ships as "it." According to an editorial, this "brings the paper into line with most other reputable international business titles." However, it also leaves the paper well out of line with actual sailors, who have, judging from press coverage, denounced the decision nearly unanimously. "Ultimately," wrote editor Julian Bray, "[ships] are commodities...not things that have characters." Best of luck getting people who make their living from them to agree, Mr. Bray.

A Quebec law allowing homosexuals to undergo "civil union" for the purpose of obtaining the legal benefits of marriage has been rejected by Michael Hendricks and Rene Leboeuf, a gay couple together since 1973. Messrs. Hendricks and Leboeuf are challenging the law in Quebec Superior Court, complaining that other provinces would not be obliged to observe the validity of a "civil union" as they are a marriage. "Marriage is marriage," Mr. Hendricks told the Canadian Press (March 23). "It's the gold standard in social acceptance, and it's mobile." Social acceptance? Mobility? For pity's sake, couldn't these gentlemen just buy a Lexus?

Reuters reports (March 26) that Westminster City Council is going to install self-cleaning telescopic toilets in central London. No, not toilets equipped with telescopes: they will be hidden during the day and rise from the ground at night after being activated by remote control. Partly because of the threat of IRA bombs, there is a keenly felt lack of public facilities in London, one which forces men to use walls (and women to suffer) after the pubs let out. The results can only be described as vile, and authorities are finally taking action. Indeed, this could be a whole new tourist attraction for London. Imagine the itinerary: Tower Bridge, Madame Tussaud's, Trafalgar Square and the awesome, synchronized Midnight Rising of the Loos, set to the music of Gustav Holst. Book your tickets now.

B.C.-born starlet Pamela Anderson, star of the TV series V.I.P. and the notorious best-selling video of her own honeymoon, disclosed March 20 that she is suffering from hepatitis C. The bosomy Baywatch refugee went to the UCLA Medical Center for outpatient treatment of the disease, which kills eight to ten thousand of its nearly four million U.S. sufferers every year. Miss Anderson is seeking custody of her two children with Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee, and says she contracted the disease by sharing a tattoo needle with him. "He never disclosed it to me during our marriage," she complained in the statement issued by her publicist. Uh, Pam, he was the drummer in a heavy-metal band, OK? Hep C is tough, but you should count yourself lucky you did not pick up the rest of the alphabet too.

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