Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Is global warming for real or isn't it?

I recently read Michael Crichton's book State of Fear and found it very troubling. Like many who love nature, I believed global warming was harmful and being caused by humans. Then I read State of Fear and I wondered. I started checking out some of the references in the back of the book and trying to do some research myself, and immediately ran into a brick wall.

I'm a teaching assistant, I've got some college, but the whole package of science on the climate is so diverse there isn't any one place to even look for basic information. There are numerous specialties dealing with the ocean, how much the ocean has risen or fallen or stayed the same over various periods of time, what the temperature of the ocean is and what the waves of the ocean are doing and what the composition of the water is, and so forth and so on...and that's just the ocean! Then there's the specialists in the atmosphere, and the specialists in land, and specialists in animals, or plants, or how animals and plants interact with each other, and finally I realized that one point Crichton made in this book is rock-solid. The complexity of the climate of our planet is too great for anyone to claim to know all about it.

Another point he makes that seems to be pretty solid is that scientists who are funded by a certain group are likely to find results that favor that group. Environmentalists hire scientists, and industrialists hire scientists, and politicians hire scientists, and it's only natural to wonder if scientists, being human beings like the rest of us, want to please the people who pay their bills. After all, if you make the wrong findings and lose your funding and have to go out and find another job, that's a pretty strong incentive, even if it's in your subconcious, to keep the guy with the checkbook happy. It's the reason scientists in medicine, for example, do double-blind studies, so that bias can't creep in and affect their results.

Crichton makes a good point when he talks in an afterword about eugenics, a psuedoscience that was once embraced as fervently as global warming is today. Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, Alexander Graham Bell, and the founder of Stanford University embraced eugenics. The Carnegie and the Rockefeller Foundations both funded research for it. The Supreme Court upheld legislation for it, legislation that was passed in a number of states across the country. And skeptics were shouted down, vilified, and driven out. Today we know that you can't mold the human race by weeding out "undesireables" like the feeble-minded or immigrants or Jews, but that was the theory of eugenics. It was created to address a crisis of the human genome. It was completely without merit, embraced with enthusiasm, and ended with the Holocaust. Is global warming to be compared with eugenics? I don't know. That's the thing. NOBODY KNOWS. We see trends in the weather, and we don't even know if it's normal or not. The earth has gone through warming and cooling cycles all through its history. Is this more of the same? Is the change normal? Harmful? Beneficial? No one knows, and everybody who claims to know is basing their knowledge on research that is not even scientifically valid, because it's not double-blind.

I'm not saying we shouldn't reduce pollution, or recycle, or try to preserve our wilderness. Those are all good things to do and we should all strive to do so. I do think this book made me realize that we need to be better informed-that we need to ask not just what the information is, but where it came from and if it's scientifically sound. Perhaps the most glaring example that people are too enthusiastic and ill-informed is the reference on the petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide, a colorless odorless tasteless substance found in rivers and lakes and the ocean. A substance that clings to fruits and vegetables after you wash them and when consumed makes you sweat and urinate. A substance so corrosive it's been called the universal solvent. Penn and Teller collected signatures on a petition to ban this substance-signatures from environmentalists who claim to love the planet. So what's the catch?

Dihydrogen monoxide is water. That's right-plain old water. And when described in the kind of alarming terms environmentalists use, you can get people to sign a petition to ban it without even asking what it is. If we're really going to save the planet, we have to be better informed. State of Fear challenges the reader to become better informed. The references in back are a good place to start. Maybe the planet is too complex for us to really understand, but one thing I took away from State of Fear is that joining and signing and donating without any idea at all of what's going on is a bad idea. You just might find yourself trying to save the planet from dihydrogen monoxide.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Real Problem with Voter ID

My mother, who lives in New Jersey, came to visit me in California in the early 1990’s and was distressed that she couldn’t cash her traveler’s checks. At that time, New Jersey didn’t require a photo ID and no bank or check cashing place, not even my own, would accept the checks. I had to cash them myself and have her pay me back. It was not a happy visit.
I’ve been thinking about that visit lately with all the talk in the news about voter ID, and I’ve been wondering, what do people have against a photo ID in the first place? I’ve read the arguments for and against voter fraud. It may or may not be a widespread problem-everyone has a persuasive argument for their side, complete with statistics. I would think that the very fact that voter fraud is a possibility would be enough for people. Nobody wants their vote negated by a non-citizen, or a dead person, or someone voting more than once in different places. A photo ID is not a guarantee, of course. There are no guarantees, but it is a sensible measure to ensure that the person casting the vote is actually the person registered to cast the vote.
But let’s set that to one side. Let’s say that voter fraud is not any kind of a problem. Let’s say that there are enough checks and balances in the system to prevent voter fraud. And let’s look at the core issue of a photo ID in the United States of the 21st century.  Here, in the New York Times,, I find an article about a ninety-three year old woman who had her purse snatched and who may not be able to get her ID in time to vote in November. Voting is important to this lady-so important that she is suing Pennsylvania over the voter ID laws. Her story, her courage are indeed touching, as long as the first paragraph is ignored. In that first paragraph, we read that her purse was stolen four years ago.
I cannot help but wonder why four years are not enough time to obtain a photo ID. How has this lady been managing? She has never had a driver’s license, and perhaps has direct deposit and the need to cash a check has not arisen in four years, but if she is not taking prescription medication or has not been to the doctor in four years, she is probably the only ninety-three year old in the country enjoying such a blessed state of health. I’m fifty years old and on three different medications. Whenever I go to the doctor or refill a prescription, I have to present a photo ID. When I ride the trolley and the police check my mass transit pass, I have to show a photo ID along with the pass. When I go to my own bank to cash a check, a bank I’ve been going to for years and where I am on first-name terms with the tellers, I have to show a photo ID. Last month, I had to show a photo ID to get into SeaWorld, and both the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Wild Animal Park have asked for photo ID. I also had to present my photo ID to get a library card. Having a photo ID in this day and age should be a given, not something seen as an attempt to prevent people from voting.
Here, in the Huffington Post,, Jesse Jackson talks about marching with Martin Luther King for civil rights. He also claims that requiring a photo ID suppresses the rights of minorities to vote. I can’t help wondering how anybody can talk about those two things on the same page without seeing the disparity. The people who marched with Martin Luther King for civil rights, among the rights the right to vote, did so at the risk of their lives. They were bitten by dogs, knocked down by fire hoses, beaten, arrested, their families were threatened, and sometimes they died fighting for their rights, yet still they marched and fought. Martin Luther King organized a March on Washington that took place on August 28, 1963 and was attended by at least a quarter of a million people. I wonder what those people would say, what King would say, to the proposition that getting to the DMV to pick up a photo ID is too difficult, or that the amount of money required, perhaps twenty to thirty dollars, is too much to pay for the necessary documents to prove citizenship and the right to vote.

And I wonder what James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Shwerner would make of the current attitude to voting-that it is not important, that it is something people have to be coaxed into, and that requiring an ID and nothing more at the polls is a barrier to voting. These three young men were murdered in Mississippi on June 21, 1964, for their efforts in registering blacks to vote. They knew there had been threats and violence against civil rights workers and they knew they were walking into danger, but their commitment to equal rights for all, including the right to vote, outweighed their consideration of their personal safety. They paid for their courage with their lives, but they died knowing they were doing the right thing.

Today people all across the country are fighting over the issue of a photo ID as if there were some personal danger in getting one, or some onerous burden that cannot be met to acquire one. A photo ID is a constant requirement in all walks of life and in every strata of society. And registering to vote is no longer an act that invites the kind of violence that King protested and he and others died fighting. Nor is voting an act that is likely to bring about a person losing their job, or their home, or their life. Voting has become a chore that many people are apathetic about, to the point that requiring the same sort of ID that the library or the drugstore does is seen as a barrier. And it’s that apathy that is the true problem with the voter ID laws. It’s not that a photo ID is so difficult to get. It’s that there are people who just don’t care enough about voting to want to get one.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Books I've Written

They Made Me A Rapist is a play in three acts about a man accused of rape under the affirmative consent law, a new law that requires people to enthusiastically consent to each aspect of a sexual encounter. Rape is legally defined as forcible sexual intercourse against a person's will. The affirmative consent law, which only applies to college campuses, does not require that sex be against a person's will, only that the person making the accusation claim that they did not enthusiastically consent to every aspect of a sexual encounter. The play addresses some of the concerns raised by this law, including the denial of due process to young men accused on a campus, the impact such an accusation can have on their lives, and the fact that the worst punishment a college can inflict is expulsion. To expel an innocent person for sexual assault is a life-changing punishment, because it will be almost impossible for such a person to gain admittance to another school. Their whole future is derailed. To expel a guilty person for sexual assault leaves an actual rapist with no criminal record free to commit further assualts.

Future Slave was inspired by two books-Black Slaveowners by Larry Koger, and The Devil's Arithmetic by Jane Yolen. The title of Black Slaveowners speaks for itself. The Devil's Arithmetic is a fantasy about a young Jewish girl who goes back in time to a Nazi concentration camp. The idea of time travel is a fascinating one-coupled with the thought of how a teenager today would cope with life in the past it is positively enthralling. After more than a decade working in public schools in the inner city, I found myself wondering how a black teenager from our world would handle life in the old south. Black Slaveowners and The Devil's Arithmetic gave me a frame to work with. My own experiences gave me some ideas. Future Slave is the result.

Briefly, Jokeem, a black teenager in the 21st century, is angered by a history lesson about Frederick Douglass. He wants his parents to complain to the school, but they are good friends with the history teacher and believe that history should be taught accurately. The next day, after a conversation with his mother about reparations for slavery, Jokeem tries to go to school but is involved in an incident with the police and hits his head. He wakes up as a slave in the old south. He learns that he belongs to a black woman who was once a slave herself, named Sally Seymour. She is a famous pastry cook and owns two slaves named Felix and Chloe. Jokeem becomes good friends with Felix and Chloe and begins to learn some surprising facts about slavery. I have created personal histories for the more obscure people in this story but with the exception of Jokeem, all the slaves and black slave owners are documented as such in Mr. Koger’s book. It is my hope that people who read the book will take away the message that racism is not confined to any one time or place or people and that we all need to work together if we ever hope to put this particular scourge of humanity behind us.

The Pardon is even more of a fantasy. It's based on the story of the thief who was crucified next to Jesus, but virtually nothing is known about this man, not even his name. He appears in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 23, verses 39-43, rebuking another thief crucified on the other side of Christ and asking Jesus to remember him when He comes into His kingdom. Jesus assures him that he will also be in Paradise. There are traditions about the thief, but this brief mention in the Bible is all that is recorded.
I've often wondered about the thief-who was he? Where did he come from? Did he really do something that bad, or was he in the wrong place at the wrong time? And what happened after he died? All these daydreams came together in the shape of a story about a brother I gave the thief-a brother so grieved by his death that he would do anything to revenge himself on the Christians. Weaving this brother through several events in the Bible gave me the opportunity to address the subject of forgiveness-how we all need it, how it's hard to ask for, and sometimes hardest of all to extend to ourselves. True repentance is impossible to measure from the outside of a person, yet it is the most life-changing experience anyone can go through.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Technology vs Civilization

I recently read a rather obscure science fiction novel, The Lani People, in which an impassioned character makes a speech about the dangers of equating technology with civilization. The question seems especially relevant today, as our society makes ever-greater strides in technological advances, particularly in the area of communications. The terrible irony, of course, lies in the fact that so many people use communication devices to avoid face time with their fellow man. I read about a survey done by the Pew Internet & American Life Project which focused on how people use their cell phones. According to this survey, 13% of all mobile phone users in the United States admit to pretending to talk on the cell phone to avoid talking to the people around them. In the group of 18-29 year-olds, 30% of people use cell phones for this purpose. There is also the story of Simone Back, who announced on FaceBook that she was going to kill herself. No one did anything to help her, and several messages on her page were of a taunting nature.

It all begs the question-how far have we advanced if our idea of interaction is typing at a keyboard or talking to a disembodied voice (or in 13-30% of cases no voice at all) instead of spending time with a real person? I've heard the phrase "the lost art of conversation" but is it really that bad? Maybe it is. Maybe without the living presence, it's impossible to make a real connection. We feel so close to those who reach out and touch us through our technology, yet when it's so difficult to know the people we actually live with, how can we think we know someone we've never even met?

There's the other side to the coin, of course. The Internet is a marvelous tool for finding people who share your interests. I find people from all over the world, people who would never know I exist were it not for the Internet, who enjoy the same movies and books I do. I can trade tips on how to use herbs with people I could never have found in the real world. I even met my husband by email, and after our marriage we waited six years for his visa to come through. There he was in Russia, and here I was in America. He didn't even have a telephone-just access to the Internet once a week. Without email, we wouldn't have had much contact for those six years. The Internet made our separation a little more bearable.

So I'm not a technophobe who yearns for a simpler time before all these wonderful advances were made. I have health problems that are more manageable with modern medicine. I'm a writer who is able to share my work thanks to the Internet. I don't use my cell phone very much, but having it makes me feel more secure, especially when I'm out alone in my car and know that a call for help is never any farther than my pocket. And paperless billing and banking on the Internet make life easier.

Yet there is the nagging feeling underneath it all that a basic part of our humanity is lost when we look at skyscrapers and cell phones and say, "Look at what a wonderful civilization we have!" when what we really mean is, "Look at how technologically advanced we are." There is a sense of something precious being lost in the shuffle when people use the latest device to avoid eye contact with others, and a cry for help is met with taunts by strangers who label themselves "Friends." I have a longing, not for that simpler time before modern medicine and easy communications, but that simpler attitude towards others, before background checks and credit checks and every other kind of check made it possible to find out so much about another person before trying to get to know them. No doubt some terrible things occured when it was not possible to find out about a person. Were they any worse than some of the things that have happened today, when a few checks on the Internet can create a false sense of security about a person who is still essentially a stranger?

I think I first became aware of this issue when reading The Adventure of the Creeping Man by Arthur Conan Doyle. It's a Sherlock Holmes story in which the great detective solves a mystery created by a technological advance, one used by the titular character to try and make himself young again. Holmes says to Watson, "When one tries to rise above Nature one is liable to fall below it. The highest type of man may revert to the animal if he leaves the straight road of destiny....There is danger there -- a very real danger to humanity....the material, the sensual, the worldly would all prolong their worthless lives. The spiritual would not avoid the call to something higher. It would be the survival of the least fit. What sort of cesspool may not our poor world become?" Indeed, what sort of world will we create if our only idea of progress is technological advances, rather than human connections?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Of Ethics and Anime

I recently read a review of Trigun by a Christian lady who wrote that the protagonist, Vash the Stampede, reminded her of Jesus Christ. I understand this. Trigun is an anime series and might be dismissed by people who think it's "just a cartoon." There's no denying that Vash is a goofy guy, obsessed with donuts and prone to acting like a lovesick teenager whenever he sees a pretty girl. The first few episodes are silly beyond belief-or are they?

The series is only 26 episodes, and as it progresses, it quickly becomes evident that the way Vash acts is just that-an act. He has an almost unbearably tragic past and it has left him with a firm determination never to kill and an overwhelming desire to protect the innocent. His idiotic grin is conciously used to hide behind-a fact that characters comment on from time to time. His true self is much more serious.

Trigun poses the tough questions. Vash wants more than anything to save people. He wants everyone to live together in peace and happiness. He suffers for his convictions, his body terribly scarred, his soul oppressed with grief and pain as he is forced to come to the realization that it is not always possible to protect an innocent person without taking the life of a guilty person. His anguish when he is forced to kill one villain to save two helpless women is overwhelming.

It begs the question-how far does one take pacifism? Is it even possible to be a pacifist in this imperfect world? How does one reconcile a belief in the sacredness of life with the pure evil that some people spread through their lives, and how does one stop an evil person without killing them? Is mercy to the guilty injustice to the innocent? These are the questions Vash wrestles with and there are no easy answers, nor does Trigun provide a happy ending. In fact, the finale is rather troubling, with Vash once again attempting what seems an impossible task-the redemption of his brother, a merciless killer, yet a man he loves and is not willing to give up on.

Trigun is not a show for children, although Vash is one of the most visually striking characters in anime and there's a lot of exciting action. There's also a lot of death, including the death of children, one of whom is shot when he is about to kill Vash. It's an intellectually demanding show that takes the viewer, not to some grey area between good and evil, but right up to the razor's edge in the middle of the grey area, where morals and values cease to be words and become worth dying for and one step over the line becomes a burden that can never be lifted.

There is a heavy Christian influence in Trigun. Aside from Vash's mantra "Thou shalt not kill" there is the priest, Wolfwood, who not only kills but bitterly quarrels with Vash over the necessity of killing. He's seen Vash's scars, mental and physical, and he doesn't believe in the ideals that Vash tries to live up to. Yet in the end, he comes around to Vash's point of view. In fact, there are a number of people, good and bad and indifferent, whose lives are turned around by Vash. His willingness to suffer so that others may be spared has an extraordinary effect on those he comes into contact with. However, Trigun doesn't pull any punches. Vash's desire to keep his own hands clean sometimes leads to terrible consequences. He's not all-powerful and sometimes his pacifism costs more lives than it saves. Yet somehow he never loses faith that he can find the answer to the impossible questions his pacifism raises. When he is finally forced to kill, he is sure that he could have found an alternative that would have allowed everyone to live. And he agonizes more over the death of one murderous criminal than that criminal did over the deaths of hundreds of innocent people.

In the end, Vash seems to find some balance in his life, an awareness that it is not always possible to save everyone. At the same time, he does not lose his faith in the belief that everyone is worthy of being saved, nor does he lose his hope that if he tries hard enough, he can find the answers to the tough questions. Trigun rewards rewatching, the early silliness having an almost unbearable poignancy as the viewer remembers all the pain and sorrow Vash is hiding with his buffoon act. It's impossible to view this show in a thoughtful manner without pondering the problems Vash is facing, and trying to find some answers for oneself. And the lady who found Vash reminding her of Jesus Christ? I understand. While Vash isn't Christ, he is an example of how a person can find redemption in following the ideals of Jesus. Perhaps "Thou shalt not kill" is an impossible standard, especially in life and death situations, and perhaps it is foolish to believe that everyone can be saved. It's still good to watch something like Trigun, a story that advances the thought that impossible standards are worth trying to live up to.