Sheila Gostick, Confidence For Dummies. // NOW, Toronto.- 1-7.01.2004.- VOL. 23 NO. 18  [S]


I was sitting on a bar stool (surprise!) recently, watching my friend Michael J mix drinks, play trumpet, sing and successfully wheedle paper money into the musicians' tip jar. I ask the gentleman next to me, a trained therapist who has returned to school to study bureaucracy, whether he thinks such self-confidence can be learned later in life or is something, like good hygiene, that has to be instilled in childhood.

He replies that he's just taken a class dealing with the subject of charisma. Charisma, I return, is stronger than self-confidence – sometimes too strong. Charisma conjures up images of cult leaders and "Let's all drink the Kool-Aid." As a matter of fact, Jim Jones was mentioned in his class. So I don't need to get a degree, but I still want to know where healthy chutzpah comes from.

As coincidence would have it, the very next day I see a poster advertising a seminar/workshop at New Acropolis titled The 7 Keys Of Self-Confidence. The promo reads, "Self-Confidence. Bad news: self-confidence is not innate; we are not born with it. Good news: self-confidence is not innate; we are not born with it – we develop it day after day!"

Several blocks north of Eglinton, off Yonge, is a house whose upstairs serves as office space for an insurance broker and downstairs houses the Toronto branch of the New Acropolis School of Philosophy in the classical tradition. New Acropolis is a registered non-profit organization with outlets in 40 countries.

Open-minded, but with a terrible tendency toward accurate predictions, I walk into exactly the atmosphere I expected. It's reminiscent of a Raelian meeting, with Cirque du Soleil-style New Age soundtrack and some kind of incense or perfume spray that immediately begins to clog my airways.

I pay my $15 and take a seat in a tiny, low-ceilinged living room. On an easel stands a newsprint pad on which someone has printed, "From Shying To Shining." The metal-backed chairs are impressively uncomfortable. It's a living room – couldn't we just sit on couches? But that would be too cozy for something called a seminar/workshop.

I ruminate for a while on the posters on the wall. "Attitude. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want and, if they can't find them, make them." This aggressively can-do 'tude is illustrated by a lone kayaker heading straight down a dangerous-looking waterfall. Geese flying into the sunset promote the power of teamwork.

People are filtering in, a couple, a pair of friends, three people not together but all dressed in black. Finally, we're a mixed bag of 14. Frangoise Soria introduces herself. Originally from France, she's been with the New Acropolis for 13 years. She's wearing a spangly-edged skirt that I can't help associating with a player of the tambourine. Her accent is a bit thick, and it takes a second to recognize words.

She begins by asking, "What is self -confidence?" She writes down the answers offered by my classmates. Their answers are all good. "Feeling you are able to achieve your goals." "Believing in yourself." "Can you put, like, positivity?" "Courage." "Self-mastery." You'd never guess there was a shrinking violet in the room the way this bunch pipe up.

The tissue I get from the bathroom seems laden with something that's making me worse, so I quietly snuffle into my sodden hanky as Mlle. Soria lists the barriers to self-confidence. But, on the up side, a self-defeating attitude might just save you from taking crazy risks in a kayak.

I was worried we might have to do confidence-building exercises like addressing each other or talking about ourselves. Now I kind of wish we would. There's only so much palaver anyone can absorb. The group wilt must be obvious – our instructor asks, "How are you feeling? About to fall asleep?"

A man in a suit sells refreshments during the break. I browse a 2001 calendar of NA events, printed in Spain. I particularly like a slogan from El Salvador, "More philosophy, less Valium," although I doubt it's meant as a comment on the soporific nature of philosophical lectures. "It's not expensive!" exclaims the sexy York philosophy student of the $240 fee for the 12-week Philosophy Of East And West course.

It's time to reconvene, and by now I'm sneezing. I have never been much good with metaphors, and the one our teacher is using that opposes fog to clarity is no exception. Isn't fog more of a challenge, a mystery? I mean literal fog – anything to romanticize ugly Toronto. "If the sun is not shining outside, I am going to make it shine inside." I like rainy days.

The talk is chock-full of good things about living with integrity and purpose. We need to cultivate the "active patience" of nature. Ah, that's it, nature, the only teacher. Didn't old-time philosophos hold their sessions out of doors? Invigorating, stimulating, and here in Canada there would be the bonus of a time limitation due to cold.

On the way back down Yonge, I pick up the Learning Annex catalogue, jampacked with healers and sellers all promising self-confidence through power learning and real estate profiteering. I pass a woman from the workshop. She's gazing into a window display of shoes. I don't ask what she thought of the night. Is it because I don't want to interrupt her footwear fantasies? Am I too shy? The answer is more mundane. I have to retrace my steps to look for the subway ticket I lost on the street.

I try to think positively. "I will find that ticket!" I don't. Even the smallest efforts at confidence can do with some help from the fickle hand of fate.


Nick Cohen, The GM Jeremiahs. // The Observer.- 11.05.2003.  [S]

The Millennium meant to bring with it a wave of violence from maniacal cultists. Just before Christmas 1999, the Italian intelligence services warned the Pope that St Peter's could be attacked by Satanists, who had grouped together under the banner of the Followers of Beelzebub. They also worried about members of New Acropolis, a mysterious and mystifying sect dedicated to avenging the death of Giordano Bruno, an obscure philosopher who was burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1600.

The Jerusalem police were told to keep an eye open for Monte Kim Miller, who fancied himself a messenger of God. The former marketing manager with Procter & Gamble had predicted that his home town of Denver, Colorado, would be destroyed by an earthquake on 10 October 1997. His followers sold their homes and furniture. They were too hasty. Denver was still standing on 11 October. Eighty-five members of Miller's Concerned Christian cult vanished. The FBI worried that they would regroup in Jerusalem and attack holy sites on the eve of the millennium.

As it was, not much happened in Rome or Jerusalem. The religious maniacs who were to do real damage waited until 11 September 2001, and they weren't interested in anniversaries of Christ's birth.

In 2000, wild-eyed believers in Satan or the Second Coming were less hysterical than outwardly intelligent people. Investors, who believed that markets were rational, poured money into dotcom and telecom shares. They inflated the bubble to a point where a cataclysmic fall was inevitable. Meanwhile, managers and governments, who believed that computer programmers were objective assessors of technological risk, spent somewhere between £150 billion and £500bn warding off the millennium bug.

The precautions weren't enough, science correspondents assured the public. Full-throated doomsters predicted planes falling out of the sky, the infrastructure collapsing, nuclear missiles launching of their own accord and riots spreading as starving looters snatched what food was left on the shelves. Less excitable Mystic Megs said there would be a huge disruption to business and the emergency services, but not an actual apocalypse.

As it was, not much happened. Either the global effort to exterminate the bug was more successful than anyone dared hope or empire-building computer technicians created a pandemic of panic.

The latter seems more likely, and the dotcom bubble and the millennium bug paranoia suggest that historians will look back in wonder at many beliefs otherwise reasonable people held to be self-evident. After gazing at the stock-market and millennium-bug delusions, will they turn to the repulsion of the fin-de-siecle European middle-class for genetically modified food?

It's too early to be certain, but GM food has been around for about a decade in America and there's an embarrassing shortage of diners dropping dead and genetically modified superweeds rampaging across the prairies. Last week, the Royal Society, Britain's national academy of science, told the Government's review of GM crops that there was no evidence that they created allergic reactions or damaged health or reduced the nutritional quality of food. I would guess that the scientists failed to convince a single discerning eater. Just as the wised-up were certain that computers were going to crash at one minute past midnight on New Year's Day 2001, so they are now certain that GM food is unsafe and inferior.

The conditions which created the bug panic perfectly match the causes of the GM food phobia. Anthony Finkelstein, professor of software systems engineering at University College, London, had fruitlessly warned that billions of pounds were being wasted in the fight against the bug. In January 2000, when the catastrophe had failed to happen, he identified three causes of the mania.

The first was the developed world's state of ignorant dependence. People depended on computers but knew little about them. They were ready to be scared. Everyone depends on food, but most cannot understand how scientists can transplant bacterial DNA into a plant. All we know is that it sounds unnatural. It isn't a great comfort to learn that the human race has been genetically engineering crops by cross-breeding since the invention of agriculture because we don't understand plant breeding, either.

Second, Said Finkelstein, someone must have an interest in promoting fear. The millennium bug made a lot of technicians a lot of money. With GM food, the commercial interest appeared to be with the other side. Monsanto, the biggest supplier of GM crops, began lobbying to get GM food accepted in Europe in 1998. Its timing was terrible. Capitalist triumphalism was at its height and people were wary of US corporations which seemed able to persuade weak governments to let them do whatever they wanted.

But GM also upset the interests of the setters of style and taste. Marie Antoinette and her courtiers dressed up as peasants and shepherds. They invented a phoney authenticity and pretended to live the simple life while the real French peasantry was close to starvation. Their heirs have a fad for 'nat ural' child birth, although genuinely natural child birth for most women in the Third World is about the most dangerous experience of their lives. Discriminating modern Europeans also want the organic food the peasantry once produced, although, again, natural farming for the majority of peasant farmers is back-breaking drudgery, most of which is undertaken by the women who have survived the pains of natural child birth.

Last, but by no means least, come the media. The millennium bug was a fantastic story until 1 January 2000. The clock was ticking. Robots were about to run amok. There was a race against time to save the planet. What hack could ask for more? GM food was the issue which took Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth from the broadsheet press's ghetto to the popular mainstream. There was a time when you couldn't pick up the Daily Mail without seeing a warning about what 'Frankenstein foods' might do to you or your children.

Which isn't to say that the environmentalists have been proved wrong. Whatever the Royal Society says, absence of evidence isn't evidence of absence. Just because no one has proved that GM food can damage your health doesn't mean that it can't. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have a check list of dozens of tests they want carried out. Their spokesmen point out, reasonably, that it is very hard to find out if GM food has damaged Americans because there has been no proper monitoring of who eats what.

The power of the biotech business to push regulators about is as feared now as it was in the 1990s, and with justice. But still, Greenpeace, in particular, will be against GM crops whatever tests are passed and so will millions of European consumers.

If the GM scare boiled down to what Europeans eat, it wouldn't matter greatly. The Government is angry that biotech industries are being driven offshore and jobs and new industries are being lost forever. But the consumer is king and consumers in Britain and the rest of the EU have made their minds up that they don't want GM. They may be being silly, but governments can't legislate against folly.

When it comes to the Third World, however, resistance to GM may be malign. The opponents of biotech emphasise that the industry isn't interested in feeding the hungry any more than the pharmaceutical companies are interested in treating malaria. The developed world is where the profits are.

But there are inventions such as the 'golden rice', created by Dr Ingo Potrykus of Swiss Federal Institute in Zurich, which aim to relieve suffering. Dr Potrykus modified rice to help the 200 million or so children who risk death or blindness from vitamin A deficiency. If it works, and if it is taken up in Asia - two big ifs - children will live who would otherwise die.

Dr Potrykus isn't a pawn of Monsanto, yet he is vilified. He has been told that he has been used by the biotech companies and that people will have to eat impossibly large amounts of his rice to get a minimal benefit. He denies both allegations. When he learned that Greenpeace had reserved the right to take direct action against golden rice tests plots, he said it would be guilty of a 'crime against humanity' if it did.

Historians are likely to write more in anger than amused bewilderment if the GM phobia turns out to have been a European mania which was fatal for non-Europeans.


Barrett Hooper, What is the Matrix? Good Question. // The National Post (Toronto).- 14.12.2001

What is it? Good Question -- The Matrix has garnered an unlikely group of fans - philosophers, academics and other professional thinkers

Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Agent Smith (Hugo Weaver) face off in an unreal world in The Matrix. The film raises a host of queries around the meaning of reality and our ability to influence events in our universe.

The film is more than two years old, but the question remains: What is The Matrix? A John Woo meets William Gibson, kung fu-fuelled bullet ballet with a hit of Alice in Wonderland trippiness and a driving techno-rock soundtrack? Or a thought-provoking allegory on the progressive awakening of the human consciousness and an exploration of the nature of our very existence rooted in the ideas of Plato in 300 BC?

The answer is both.

The hit film, which portrays a future when people unknowingly serve as batteries for machines while "living" in a comforting virtual world called the Matrix, is resonating with academics as much as it did with movie fans when it was released two years ago. It has become a topic of study at schools ranging from Harvard University to the New Acropolis International Cultural Association in Toronto.

While it may seem unusual to create discourse through something as shamelessly about style-over-substance as the Keanu Reeves cyberthriller, science fiction provides a good tool for teaching philosophy. According to James Pryor, a philosophy professor at Harvard University, the genre often deals more directly with larger life issues in a more salient manner than mainstream movies.

In Pryor's class, for example, a discussion about what makes you the person you are might involve Star Trek's transporter and whether or not people are "just a collection of molecules that can be broken down and reassembled or whether our identity, the essence of who we are, would be lost," he says. His students may further examine the nature of identity by reading Spider-Man comics or watching the sci-fi film Blade Runner.

But The Matrix offers numerous philosophical jumping-off points "useful for illustrating and testing different theories," says Pryor, who has incorporated the film into two of his courses, including an advanced theory of knowledge class.

One of the biggest and most obvious issues the film raises is "how you know whether the things you perceive are real or just an illusion," he says.

It's a recurring theme, he explains. In the pivotal blue pill/red pill scene, Neo, the hero played by Reeves, must decide whether or not to "see" the real world. His mentor, Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne), asks: "Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?"

Later he asks: "What is real? How do you define real? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain ..."

Those are the kinds of questions that have made philosophers' heads spin for centuries.

"Given that Neo discovers he is living in a dream world within the construct of the Matrix, it can lead us to further question whether or not we are living in the real world or a dream world," says Pryor. "And how does Neo know that his experiences of breaking out of the Matrix program were real? Maybe it was all part of the program too, and if we're in an unreal world, how could we tell when we've escaped?"

If that's not enough to bake your noodle, how about whether the computer-generated enemy agents in the film have genuine mental lives of their own? If they are just computer programs without self-consciousness, says Pryor, then why does one agent named Smith tell Morpheus he hates being in the the Matrix program among "all the smelly humans"?

"Do you think computer programs could really have enough of a mental life to hate things?" Pryor wonders. "Could they genuinely desire to be doing something other than the task assigned to them? How would we be able to know whether the programs have real mental lives?"

Pausing for a moment, Pryor's musings chase the white rabbit from The Matrix into our world. "Do you think we have more free will than machines could ever have? Aren't our choices and desires just as determined by the laws of nature as their choices are determined by their programming?"

In the end, Pryor says we're left wondering, "What is it that gives you a mind? Could a computer have a mind?" If not, "What's the difference between you and a computer?"

"It's like Star Wars," says Francoise Soria, director of the New Acropolis, explaining why The Matrix has become a regular lecture topic at the non-profit cultural centre that offers courses in philosophy and mythology. "It has timeless teachings in how The Matrix reflects and relates to the human experience that are [analogous to] the fundamentals of Hinduism, the teachings of Buddha. It's a modern movie that reflects archetypal principles," becoming a rabbit hole to exploring the human adventure.

Soria compares Neo's plight in the film to the man chained in the cave in Plato's Myth of the Cave. "The allegory of a man who tries to set himself free only to realize that life in the cave is a lie is much like The Matrix, about this progressive awakening of the consciousness" as Neo begins to realize the world in which he thought he was living isn't real.

While the tagline used to promote the film -- What is The Matrix? -- is designed to pique the interest of moviegoers, it also speaks to our own search for identity and meaning, according to Soria.

"It's a realization of our limitations, the feeling of being trapped, the feeling that something more exists in life, and like the movie in front of our eyes, in life we are more a spectator than an actor," she says. "It's about questioning the truth in that."

There's a very strong religious theme in the film. Neo is presented as a Christ figure. He is called The Chosen One, the saviour of Zion, the last city on Earth. He questions and doubts his purpose. He is betrayed by one of his own people, killed and resurrected.

And much like the question of whether Neo is going to heed his calling, Soria says the film is about each of us heeding our own calling. "It's about whether or not I'm being completely true to myself, my dreams and aspirations," she says.

"It's the idea that something else exists and we have a choice of staying in our comfortable lives, not changing, or going further," she says. "It's the crossroads of life" -- as shown when Neo meets Morpheus and is given a choice: The red pill or the blue? Fantasy or reality? Subsistence or existence?

"That's a major moment in the movie," says Soria. "Am I going further? Am I going to start walking toward authenticity, toward truth, which involves giving up a certain comfort, accepting that I'll have to go through tests, to grow?"

Soria says when the choice is made, it becomes about preparing oneself for the journey ahead, represented on the screen by Neo's martial-arts training, "which symbolizes the self-mastery that we have to attain to get rid of our fears, our doubts, [and] learning how to use the mind, how not to be tricked by the mind. As in the movie, it's very well shown how the mind can be just a program that is actually mastering us."

Finally, there's the climactic showdown between Neo and the forces of the Matrix, "which represents the battle with our own shadows and our own dragons, to use a medieval image," says Soria. "And so it's the fight for what we believe in and again there is always this choice: Am I going to fight for these values I believe in or am I just going to submit to my fears?"

As Morpheus says, "There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path."

And as Keanu Reeves might say: "Woah ..."

The New Acropolis is holding a lecture on the philosophy of The Matrix on Dec. 20 at 7:30 p.m. at its offices at 20 Craighurst Ave., Toronto. Tickets are $12 for adults and $9 for seniors and students. For more information, call (416) 486-7198.

Jasin Boland, Village Roadshow


Rory Carroll in Rome, Satanists threaten the Pope's party. // The Guardian.- 18.12.1999.  [S]

On top of transport chaos, insufficient toilets and vanishing pilgrims, Rome's holy year planners yesterday discovered three more things to worry about: satanists, anarchists and terrorists.

Italian intelligence services warned that underground groups might try to unleash violence in St Peter's Square on Christmas Eve, when the Pope is due to welcome the vanguard of 20m pilgrims.

All branches of the security service have been put on alert for a possible attack by two millennial cults known as Followers of Beelzebub and New Acropolis, according to Franco Frattini, the president of a parliamentary security committee.

He said Rome had also been alerted by this week's warning from the US state department about planned terrorist attacks at unspecified locations during the millennial celebrations.

Hundreds of thousands of people are gathering in St Peter's Square to celebrate the Roman Catholic church's jubilee, a holy year held every 25 years. Mr Frattini said the event was one of the most tempting targets of all the festivities planned to celebrate the millennium.

The New Acropolis group is dedicated to avenging the death of Giordano Bruno, a cleric accused of heresy who was burned at the stake in Campo dei Fiori, 400 years ago next year. The Italian Anarchist Movement has incited followers to disrupt the celebrations, and intelligence services have found internet sites with instructions on making bombs.

The authorities and the Vatican have tried to reassure Italians and foreigners that it will be safe to visit Rome.

Projections that 30m pilgrims would travel to Rome in 2000 to see the Pope have been cut by a third because of negative publicity about the city's preparations.

Yesterday the Swiss-based International Road Transport Union threatened to leave Rome out of its tours if city officials did not ease restrictions on coaches during the holy year.

Jubilee organisers promise that most of the widespread scaffolding, roadworks and traffic diversions will disappear from the capital by New Year's Eve.

A shortage of public toilets has led to a row between city officials and bar owners about whether pilgrims can use their toilets without first buying a drink.

Concern that the historic city would be damaged by visits from too many pilgrims and tourists is giving way to fears that the bad publicity will chase them away and void the huge investment in infrastructure.

At least one threat to the pilgrims has been decisively squashed. A licensing edict has ensured that the city's historic centre and jubilee routes have been purged of sex shops.


Bomb hits Paris cult bookstore. // Associated Press.- 14.08.1996.  [S]

PARIS (AP) A small bomb exploded at the Paris meeting place of a reportedly racist cult Wednesday morning, partially damaging the building's ground floor and injuring one person, police said.

The bomb shook the bookstore, temple and meeting hall of The New Acropolis, a ‘very racist cult’ based in South America that has some 500 members in France, police said.

There was no claim of responsibility for the bombing which injured the building's superintendent, who was taken to a nearby hospital.

The sect had maintained its Paris headquarters there for 10 years, police said. The building is located on the rue Daguerre, a well-known open-air marketplace in France's residential 14th district.

Police bomb experts were at the scene to determine the exact nature of the explosion, authorities said.

The New Acropolis, which police said is named in reference to ancient Greek mythology, is known to be involved in the theft and trafficking of stolen artworks and is suspected of setting up a paramilitary training camp in Belgium.

The New Acropolis issued a statement Wednesday afternoon calling for the quick apprehension of the bomber and denying any involvement in illegal activities.

The New Acropolis's ``activities have always respected the law as it is in France as abroad and it has no paramilitary structure,'' the statement said.

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