Thursday, December 24, 2009

But Baby, It's Creepy Inside

Thanks to my few weeks working retail again during the holiday season, I've had occasion to think long and hard about what Christmas songs are really saying to us. For example, I had always assumed the moral of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was that you should be nice to those who are weird or different. But really, if you think about it, the song is basically telling you you shouldn't make fun of weird people (or animals) because they might turn out to be useful someday, and won't you feel stupid then? What about weird people who never turn out to be useful to you—is it still fine to make fun of them?

The song that has caused the most mental turmoil, however, is "Baby, It's Cold Outside" (complete lyrics at end of post). Whether the classic Louis Armstrong / Velma Mittleton or Louis Jordan / Ella Fitzgerald versions, the simpering Jessica Simpson / Nick Lachey version, or the Elf soundtrack Zooey Deschanel / Leon Redbone version, it plays about once an hour in the beloved local bookstore where I've been a captive audience to its increasingly problematic lyrics.

The first time it caught my attention as more than a cheerful winter love song was when I caught the line "Say, what's in this drink?" over ambient noise that had until then kept me from noticing more than the tune. Upon closer listening when it played later, I also noted the line "The answer is no." When taken together, these two almost sound like a real roofie-fueled date rape is going on. Now, obviously I don't actually think that's what's supposed to be happening (if nothing else, Rohypnol didn't exist until 1972...though it seems GHB has been around since 1874), but lyrics that were intended to seem sweet or perhaps slightly risque (at the very least, clever and amusing) in 1944 have quite a different impact on the modern listener, particularly if she's a young woman raised in the modern "no means no" culture. The very occurrence of an explicit "The answer is no" followed by a wheedling "But baby, it's cold outside" can hardly help but activate one's creepometer these days.

Even then, I just thought there were a few unfortunate lines that had aged poorly and didn't really see the whole song as problematic. By now, though, I've heard it forty or fifty times this season and am thoroughly creeped out by the entire thing. Now, I don't know if this is supposed to be the case, but to me it seems like the guy (who apparently is identified as "The Wolf" to the girl's "The Mouse"—talk about creepy!) is older, while the girl seems younger, an ingenue overpowered by his suavity. (It seems he has his own place, while the girl lives with her family: "My mother will start to worry / my father will be pacing the floor / ... / My sister will be suspicious / my brother will be there at the door / my maiden aunt's mind is vicious...", so I envision him as an older, established man and her as some fresh-out-of-high-school stenographer or something.)

Nowadays I wouldn't be too concerned by an exchange like this because I would assume the two parties actually had equal power in the situation and the woman was just proffering excuses to seem like a nice girl while fully expecting to let herself be convinced and not actually caring what her parents or neighbors thought (not that this isn't a problematic exchange in itself), but since the song was written over six decades ago, it's hard to read it any way other than with all the power in the man's hands. The woman (The Mouse!) is scrambling for excuses, almost panicking in some versions, as she's overcome by the Wolf's wheedling ways. It's as if she's watching herself succumb while being unable to keep it from happening: "I wish I knew how / to break the spell..." Then either her will breaks or she rationalizes to herself: "I ought to say no, no, no sir / at least I'm gonna say that I tried..."

Even if you don't buy the power imbalance and prefer to think of the two on more equal footing, it's just plain aggravating. If I had decided not to stay over and was presenting my reasons, to have each one completely ignored as the guy attempted to flatter me ("Your hair looks swell"; "Gosh, your lips are delicious") or countered with a never-ending and irrelevant refrain of "It's cold outside" that completely disregarded everything I was saying, I would get more annoyed and considerably less likely to stay because I wouldn't feel like he was listening to anything I was saying and obviously didn't respect me as a person. At that point it becomes less about whether or not she actually wants to stay over (or just stay later; that's not really explicitly stated) and more about teaching this jerk a lesson for thinking her decisions are irrelevant and he can just unmake them. Nobody wants to be badgered into a romantic evening; that kind of kills the mood.

One of the last lines he sings, "Get over that hold-out," demonstrates just how little he's paying attention to what she's saying. Now, maybe she is being stupid for caring what everyone will think, but instead of answering that concern in a reasonable manner, trying to convince her she's old enough to make her own decisions and shouldn't care what people think about them, but as the lines "What's the sense of hurting my pride?" and the lamenting "Why would you do this thing to me?" make oh-so-clear, he doesn't really care about the reasons she's giving—what anyone thinks of her, any problems she'll have with her family the next day, or anything else; he thinks her holding out is just to torment him and ruin his evening. Get over yourself, forties creep! Seriously, "What's the sense of hurting my pride?"? That's like admitting he had already planned to crow over his conquest to his friends the next day and is upset she's taking that from him. Heaven forbid a woman take her own thoughts and feelings into account when she makes a decision instead of worrying what the guy is supposed to tell his friends in the morning. I guess they're both picturing the next morning and the people they have to confront, and she doesn't like that picture if she stays and he doesn't like it if she doesn't.

I really can't stay (But baby, it's cold outside)
I've got to go 'way (Baby, it's cold outside)
The evening has been (I've been hoping that you'd drop in)
So very nice (I'll hold your hands, they're just like ice)
My mother will start to worry (Hey beautiful, what's your hurry?)
And father will be pacing the floor (Listen to that fireplace roar)
So really, I'd better scurry (Beautiful, please don't hurry)
Well, maybe just a half a drink more (Put a record on while I pour)

The neighbors might think (Baby, it's bad out there)
Say, what's in this drink (No cabs to be had out there)
I wish I knew how (Your eyes are like starlight now)
To break this spell (I'll take your hat, your hair looks swell)

I ought to say no, no, no sir (You mind if I move in closer?)
At least I'm gonna say that I tried (And what's the sense in hurting my pride?)
I really can't stay (Oh baby, don't hold out)
Oh, but it's cold outside

I simply must go (It's cold outside)
The answer is no (Baby, it's cold outside)
The welcome has been (So lucky that you dropped in)
So nice and warm (Look out the window at that storm)

My sister will be suspicious (Your lips look delicious)
My brother will be there at the door (Waves upon a tropical shore)
My maiden aunt's mind is vicious (Gosh, your lips are delicious)
Well maybe just a cigarette more (Never such a blizzard before)

I've got to get home (Baby, you'll freeze out there)
Say, lend me a coat (It's up to your knees out there)
You've really been grand (I thrill when you touch my hand)
Oh, but don't you see (How can you do this thing to me?)

There's bound to be talk tomorrow (Well, think of my lifelong sorrow)
At least there will be plenty implied (If you caught pneumonia and died)
I really can't stay (Get over that hold-out)
Ah, but it's cold outside.

And then some versions end with the super-creepy:

Brr, its cold...
It's cold out there.
Cant you stay a while longer, baby?
Well... I really shouldn't... all right.

Make it worth your while baby
Ahh, do that again...

Thursday, November 12, 2009


It's that time of year when everyone starts declaring things they feel thankful for. They're thankful for their loving spouses, their beautiful children, their good health, their still-extant job, and a million small 'blessings' throughout the year. They're thankful that certain friends came into their lives, that they were given the opportunity to move somewhere great, etc.

What am I thankful for? Nothing.

That's right.

Not that I'm necessarily a Grinch, to mix holiday references, (though perhaps that is also the case). I do think it's a good thing to take stock every so often of the good things that have happened to you and the things in life that make you happy. But as I tried to think of things I was thankful for, I ran into trouble. Nothing quite seemed to fit.

My issue is primarily a semantic one. As someone who doesn't believe in a God who has a plan for our lives and acts in the world to bring us these people, those jobs, those opportunities, that good health, I can't in good conscience say I'm "thankful" for any of these things. Giving thanks requires an object; you thank someone for something. Both those parts are necessary. Feeling thankful implies a Giver who gave that for which you are thankful. Since I don't think God (or even Providence or Luck in any sort of deliberate way) has anything to do with what happens in my life, is it even possible for me to be thankful?

Probably not. And yet I do feel thankful, or at least I feel happy about things similar to the kind of things that other people feel thankful about. Is my feeling actually different from theirs? (There's obviously no way to know that.)

So instead, I say I'm "glad." This alleviates the problem of thanking divine Providence for things that just happened or for things that I myself am actually responsible for. I'm glad I live in a nice, liberal state. Obviously it wasn't an accident that I ended up here; I purposely moved here for that very reason. It seems silly to feel "thankful" for something that I did. "Self, I'm so thankful that you were smart enough to make such a good decision"? Ridiculous. I'm glad it hasn't snowed yet this year, not thankful that God has restrained the snow because he know it makes me depressed. I'm glad I don't have melanoma in my eye (yes, I've been rather terrified of this ever since I learned such a thing existed...and actually, I guess I don't actually know whether I do or not, but at any rate, I have no reason to think I do), but I'm not thankful that God kept my melanocytes in check. (How would that even work? Maybe I'll reconsider if I'm still melanoma free when I'm 60.) I'm glad we've had such a pretty fall, but not thankful that God has carefully timed the release of plant chemicals to create such nicely timed vibrant leaf colors to make me mildly happy each morning as I shuffle through varicolored leaves.

"Thankfulness" seems rather self-centered, actually. It seems to assume that everything pleasing that's happened in your life was orchestrated just for you by some superior power who cares about your life.

But then there's an even darker side to thankfulness. People say they're thankful they were born into a rich, developed nation to educated parents with enough money to provide for them, with the opportunities for higher education and fulfilling careers, where they have the freedom to choose their own life paths and mates. Now, it's probably better to feel thankful for these things than to take them for granted, of course...but it almost seems that thanking God for these 'blessings' is taking them for granted (at least in the literal sense: God granted them to you). If God 'blessed' you by giving you all these things, doesn't it necessarily follow that he's cursing everyone else with lives of poverty and lack of rights and choice? Presumably he had some sort of systematic way of deciding who deserved to be born into happy middle-class American families and who deserved to be born into the middle of civil wars in Africa, right? I don't think anyone really thinks that (and if you do, you're basically saying you deserve it, and why bother being thankful for your just deserts?), and if not, then it had to have been entirely arbitrary and having nothing to do with the actual people which case, again, what is there to be thanking him about? He didn't do it for you; he just did it.

I think all too often, people who say they're thankful that God did X in their lives or gave them Y either simply mean that they're glad it happened, just like me, and are dressing it up in God language because that's how they look at the world or haven't really thought through the implications of what they're saying. Being thankful that you have it better than someone else seems terribly insulting. Not only are you judging their lives as too horrifying to contemplate, but you're putting yourself above them. It all seems rather fastidious and smug: Oh, I'm so delicate I couldn't possibly withstand such horrible circumstances. I'm so glad God knew that and saved me from such a fate. It almost seems that people who profess their thanks (or relief?) for their current station in life are half afraid God will take it away if they aren't properly appreciative. That hardly counts as true thankfulness.

I just got it: what it really sounds like to me is the subliminal socialization tapes used in Brave New World. "I'm really awfully glad I'm a Beta[...W]e are so much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid[....]And Epsilons are still worse. They're too stupid to be able to read or write. Besides, they wear black, which is such a beastly colour. I'm so glad I'm a Beta."

Thanking God for one's blessings all too often comes off like smug self-congratulation. I'd rather just smugly congratulate myself in full knowledge that that's what I'm doing. I'll be "glad" for things, whether things that just happened to work out the way they did or things I had a hand in, but I won't be "thankful" for anything that wasn't done for me by a particular flesh-and-blood person.

Happy Gladsgiving.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

"Life's Not Fair"

Maybe I'm just still six years old at heart (unlikely), but I really don't understand the attitude adults, particularly parents, take toward fairness. Fairness is obviously a fundamental part of human nature. From a very early age, kids understand the concept of fairness and will point out at any give opportunity, "That's not fair!" They're usually right. So why, then, do their parents inevitably respond, "Life's not fair," as though that's reason enough to quit expecting fairness in any situation? Parents invoke fairness when teaching their children to equitably divide dessert or toys or take turns, but the second their kid notices that someone else gets to stay up later or go on better vacations or get more Christmas presents or go to PG-13 movies and invoke the fairness principle, parents parrot, "Life's not fair" like it's an extremely clever and discussion-ending retort (hint: it's not) taught in parenting guides (if it is, it shouldn't be).

It's true, life isn't fair. Some people have more stuff than others, some people get better breaks than others, some people are taller or smarter or skinnier or better looking or more athletic or more musical than others, some people are born into families with more money and connections than others. But isn't it one of the main principles of progressive society that people are all inherently worth the same and thus the more the playing field can be leveled, the better? Don't we all want life to be as fair as we can make it? Isn't fairness the goal? Of course life isn't fair, but it should be. We should do everything we can to make it be. Simply citing life's unfairness as an unchangeable fact and going from there is so depressing. It's really frustrating for children: "It's not fair." "Life's not fair." "I know, that's what I'm complaining about!"

Maybe parents are just trying to teach their children not to expect life always to treat them fairly. If so, though, they're not doing a very good job of articulating their lesson. There's a big difference between, "Oh, sweetie, I'm sorry you didn't [do/get whatever]. Sometimes life just isn't fair and you don't get things even if you deserve them. That sucks, and I'm sorry it happened to you" and, "Life's not fair!" said in a tone that's half "So shut up already" and half "Whyever would you expect it to be, dummy?" It doesn't help that "Life's not fair" is generally used when a child is complaining about something unfair the parent him/herself is doing. It's an implied, Oh, life's not fair, so it doesn't matter that I let your younger sister stay up just as late as you, or, Life's not fair, so I don't have to make sure all siblings have the same level of awesomeness at their birthday parties, or, Life's not fair, so it doesn't matter that everyone else your age gets to do X and you don't. Simply citing the unfairness of the rest of life shouldn't get parents off the hook for not being as fair as possible. The rest of life isn't under their control, but bedtimes, presents, privileges, chores, and most of the other things children whine about the unfairness of are.

Or maybe I'm missing some important principle about justice and I'm stuck with an immature idea of justice as fairness...but I kind of doubt it. Is this one of those things that gets squeezed out of you as you age along with liberalism and thinking you can change the world? Doesn't it seem horribly like giving up everything good and right in the world to jadedly tell your small, pure, idealistic children the harsh truth of the unfairness of life, the universe, and everything and expect them to accept it? What's so wrong with fairness?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

This is Your Planet...This is Your Planet on Trash

Recently I visualized the problem with the environment (landfills particularly) in an entirely different way that kind of traumatizes me. I've been feeling a push lately to simplify my life and get rid of tons of junk that's just cluttering my space, but I feel guilty throwing things away because I know they'll sit in landfills for millennia. But then I realized that if they'll survive for millennia, they'll survive for millennia whether they're actually in a landfill or not. As far as the earth is concerned, our houses might as well be mini-landfills. Once stuff enters the world, it's there, and it doesn't really matter what you do with it afterward (unless it's recycled, but even that isn't entirely a pollutant-free process), it's trash. It's not like something magically happens to your junk when it enters your trash can that converts it into this mysterious "garbage" thing; it is what it is, and that thing is likely polluting the earth, or at least taking up space on it.

Once you remove the human angle of looking at things and ascribing worth to them and just try to look at it all from a purely physical point of view, it's pretty depressing. Our factories work day and night to pump stuff into our landfills with brief pauses in our houses. My mental image is of a planet (like when they show Earth on kids' TV shows with obviously too-big houses and proportionally giant people and such as a dramatization) devoid of people but with big buildings sticking up off of it filled with stuff, stuff, stuff. So really, the point isn't even what to do with all our stuff when it comes time to dispose of it, as if that's when it enters the waste stream, but whether to bring it into existence in the first place, since once it's here, it's part of the waste stream. (This is why "reduce" comes first in the "reduce, reuse, recycle" mantra, something that people too often forget.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Statistical Ephiphanies: My Favorite

I've been thinking about statistics lately, and I'm having one of those probably-obvious epiphanies. So in statistics, you generally measure whatever you're interested in on what you hope is a representative sample, then you generalize to the population as a whole. The more representative your sample is, the more accurate your statistics are for the population as a whole. Assuming you are truly randomly selecting your sample, the best way to increase the ability of your statistic to generalize to the population is to increase your sample size. The bigger the sample, the more people there are to neutralize any weird flukes, the less noise there is, and the more accurate your statistic is.

What happens if you keep expanding your sample size? Eventually the sample you are polling/measuring/whatever is your entire population. If you're measuring the entire population, your statistic is entirely accurate. There isn't a margin of error. You have attained absolute truth. (Congrats.)

But wait. How much does measuring whatever quality of everyone on the planet actually tell you about humanity in any true sense? Can't the entire population be seen sort of as a sample of all possible human beings? (I would hazard a guess that it's not a very random one at all, but that's beside my point.)

Let's take my favorite example, gender differences in math. Now, I assume we have not tested the mathematical skills of every single human on the planet, but let's pretend we had and that the numbers were similar to those I've seen for various samples in the U.S. The median math score for males is about five percentage points higher than the median math score for females.

(The distributions are pretty wide and overlap almost entirely; only the very, very, very tip (a fraction of one percent) in either direction is occupied solely by males or females. This basically just means that yeah, maybe the top however-many math people are male and the bottom however-many are female, but since every single person I know is almost assuredly in the overlapping spots, there's not really much that can be said for any given man or woman about their relative abilities. For example, I am a girl; supposedly I am worse at math than boys. No randomly chosen guy should assume that means he is better at math than me, a (not-so-randomly-selected) girl. Assuming elementary-school scores on the ITBS and the percentiles they provide are accurate (probably not, but just for the sake of illustration), the fact that eight-year-old me was in the 99th percentile on math obviously means that eight-year-old me was better at math than a lot of eight-year-old boys. Even if the entire top 1% was boys (doubtful), that would still put eight-year-old me above 98% of eight-year-old boys taking the ITBS. (I feel like the math I just did was questionable, particularly since there's no guarantee that eight-year-old ITBS-takers were half boys and half girls, but, hey, there's a reason I'm not using more recent math scores...))

Anyway... So say we'd tested everyone on the planet and gotten a similar distribution. Hey, we all say, look, boys are indeed better at math! But what does that actually mean about masculinity making one good at math? Not necessarily anything. For one thing, correlation does not equal causation. Correlation on a planetary scale still does not imply causation. It would be rather impossible, not to mention highly unethical, to randomly assign people to a gender to see how that affected their math scores later in life.

And here's where my epiphany comes in. By sheer virtue of there being two groups, one of them basically has to be better and one worse on any given thing, be it math, communication, parking ability, cooking, singing, tennis, Tetris...whatever. Since there is a lot of variability in mathematical ability, like everything else, it is necessarily unevenly distributed regardless of how you divide the groups. It would actually be weirder if every division of humanity we could think of, whether by gender, race, religion, height, eye color, alphabetical order by middle initial, etc., scored exactly the same on every measure. It's like if you flipped a coin 100 times and got exactly 50 heads and 50 tails, and then did it again and got 50 and 50 again, just in a different order, then again, then again. Maybe if everyone on the earth vanished suddenly and God replaced them with six billion other random people, this time, girls would end up by a few percentage points just by virtue of which actual people were part of our group and this hypothetical group.

Of course, that's not to say that mathematical abilities don't actually have their basis in anything vaguely gender related. Obviously there are all sorts of things that influence mathematical ability, like what kind of society you're born into, what kinds of things your parents find important, how good your school was, whether anyone told you as a child that your group wasn't supposed to be as good at math as the other one, your specific math teachers, how good your parents were at math, what language you speak (yes, that's one reason Chinese kids are better at math than Americans, is because the words for numbers in Chinese make it easier to think about them and do things with them), whether your friends think math is cool, what else you're interested in, etc., etc., etc. Sure, gender might be one of them. Maybe testosterone is a math booster. (This might be slightly less unethical to test...) But I think it's important to realize that just because a majority of humanity is better at something than another group doesn't necessarily mean it's related to whatever the dividing characteristic is. Numbers are like that. There's variation. And most importantly, it's pretty obvious that all members of group X aren't better than all members of group Y at anything that I'm aware of, whether it's races and sports or genders and school subjects or species and some cognitive task.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself?

What's your favorite color? Who's your role model? If you could have a superpower, what would it be? What are you most afraid of?

Everything from first-day-of-school icebreakers to internet quizzes ask these sorts of questions in an attempt to have you reveal something about yourself so others can get to know you better. Left for another day is what exactly green or Shaquille O'Neal or invisibility reveals about your personality; today I'm thinking about fears.

Most people when asked to name their greatest fear say something like snakes or spiders: very specific, tangible things which probably do give them the shivers when they encounter them. But very rare are the people who actually have crippling fears of spiders, who spend their nights quaking with fear that tonight will be the night they'll swallow one of the seven spiders the average human apparently unwittingly consumes in his or her sleep.

No offense, but creepy-crawlies and other animals are kind of an immature fear. They prompt basically gut-level evolutionary responses. Very few people honestly have no reaction to snakes, spiders, bees, wasps, mice, rats, sharks, and the like, but most of us don't actually experience real, true, soul-crushing horror at the thought of such things or spend large chunks of our lives in mortal dread of possible stings or bites. Citing a fear of bees, though, is an easy way to admit to a fear without embarrassment. Bugs and such are socially acceptable fears.

Nobody ever mentions the things of which they are really and truly terrified, about which they stay up at night worrying, the thought of which is accompanied by a feeling in the pit of the stomach: the discovery their partner doesn't love them or has never loved them, the death of a child, dementia, nonexistence, humiliation in front of people whose opinion matters, poverty, debilitating illness, running out of money before running out of life, being friendless, failing at something important to them, completely screwing up the raising of their children, being stupid or inadequate...

These are real fears, and so naturally nobody's ever going to mention them as part of a getting-to-know-you exercise. Before you know someone, there's no way you're going to let yourself feel that vulnerable. I'm guessing either these are the sorts of things that just make everyone feel uncomfortable because nobody wants to think about them or that the sharer would fear looking stupid for sounding neurotic. Animal bites and stings are nonthreatening as a fear; nobody mocks you for being scared of wasps because everybody's scared of wasps...and why not? They sting! It hurts! Well, everyone's scared of being unloved and alone, of failure, of death and nonexistence and the unknown, too.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Health Insurance Reform

Well, it seems that the White House is indeed calling it "health insurance reform." So much for that brilliant idea. (I get the feeling this is kind of recent, though, when they backed down from reforming as much as they wanted to.)

I realized shortly after writing my last post that in my search for the eight principles, I did not actually find the ones I had intended to (which might explain why my post didn't make as much sense as it did in my head). I think I might be excused for this mistake, as I didn't realize Barack Obama came from an alien race with a base eight counting system: everything the White House has published about health care has been in groups of eight. There's the "eight ways reform provides security and stability for those with or without coverage," the "eight common myths about health insurance reform," the "eight reasons we need health insurance reform now," the "set of eight principles for transforming and modernizing America's health care system," and last (at least that I've seen) but not least, those eight I actually intended to post: "health insurance consumer protections: the security you get from health insurance reform":

  • No Discrimination for Pre-Existing Conditions. Insurance companies will be prohibited from refusing you coverage because of your medical history.
  • No Exorbitant Out-of-Pocket Expenses, Deductibles or Co-Pays. Insurance companies will have to abide by yearly caps on how much they can charge for out-of-pocket expenses.
  • No Cost-Sharing for Preventive Care. Insurance companies must fully cover, without charge, regular checkups and tests that help you prevent illness, such as mammograms or eye and foot exams for diabetics.
  • No Dropping of Coverage for Seriously Ill. Insurance companies will be prohibited from dropping or watering down insurance coverage for those who become seriously ill.
  • No Gender Discrimination. Insurance companies will be prohibited from charging you more because of your gender.
  • No Annual or Lifetime Caps on Coverage. Insurance companies will be prevented from placing annual or lifetime caps on the coverage you receive.
  • Extended Coverage for Young Adults. Children would continue to be eligible for family coverage through the age of 26.
  • Guaranteed Insurance Renewal. Insurance companies will be required to renew any policy as long as the policyholder pays their premium in full. Insurance companies won't be allowed to refuse renewal because someone became sick.
These are basic reforms that would fix what is horribly unfair and ridiculous (and sneaky) about our insurance system. Though I obviously would prefer something more sweeping and socialized, these protections (minus the extended coverage for young adults) are (or should be) something everyone could agree on as basically fair and what insurance companies should be doing anyway.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Obsessed with Health Care Before It was Cool

I feel like if it were referred to as "health insurance reform" rather than "health care reform," a lot of our problems would go away. "Health care reform" sounds like it could lead to (heaven forbid!) the British National Health Service and all sorts of strange, foreign-sounding, and potentially very unpleasant things. It seems like everything is on the table. "Health insurance reform," on the other hand, sounds like we're reforming a sector of our economy that most people admit the bureaucratic evilness of and cherish a hatred for that is second only to the too-overcompensated CEOs of bailed-out banks.

Seriously, does anyone like health insurance companies? They're just unpleasant to deal with. It's like dealing with your computer manufacturer or your cable provider except they're sneakier, they're more bureaucratic, and (most importantly) health is much more important than your failing laptop battery or the stealthy post–special introductory offer increase in your cable bill. I remember Mom spending hours on the phone trying to force our insurance company (Aetna is evil incarnate, by the way) to cover what it was supposed to, which in retrospect blows my mind, since at that point, we were all perfectly healthy. What were they trying to refuse to pay? A annual physical? A Pap smear? It's not like we were costing them a fortune in radiation treatments or dialysis or anything. We didn't even have broken bones or anything—nothing other than routine care.

I feel like most of the people who are yelling don't even know what they're yelling about. To hear them, you'd think Obama was going to go on a killing spree to take out Trig Palin, Ted Kennedy, and Stephen Hawking after converting our health care system into a socialized, bureaucratic system of meting out health care to those young and healthy citizens who were most likely to contribute to the economy (but who still might have to wait months for any treatments). Obama doesn't want any of that. I won't speak for anyone else, especially as I haven't read any of the proposed bills (hey, don't judge me; nobody else has either), but as far as Obama goes, it's pretty mainstream and reasonalble. How can you really disagree with this?

Obama's stated eight principles for successful and meaningful health care reform:
  1. Protect Families’ Financial Health. The plan must reduce the growing premiums and other costs American citizens and businesses pay for health care. People must be protected from bankruptcy due to catastrophic illness.
  2. Make Health Coverage Affordable. The plan must reduce high administrative costs, unnecessary tests and services, waste, and other inefficiencies that consume money with no added health benefits.
  3. Aim for Universality. The plan must put the United States on a clear path to cover all Americans.
  4. Provide Portability of Coverage. People should not be locked into their job just to secure health coverage, and no American should be denied coverage because of preexisting conditions.
  5. Guarantee Choice. The plan should provide Americans a choice of health plans and physicians. They should have the option of keeping their employer-based health plan.
  6. Invest in Prevention and Wellness. The plan must invest in public health measures proven to reduce cost drivers in our system—such as obesity, sedentary lifestyles, and smoking — as well as guarantee access to proven preventive treatments.
  7. Improve Patient Safety and Quality Care. The plan must ensure the implementation of proven patient safety measures and provide incentives for changes in the delivery system to reduce unnecessary variability in patient care. It must support the widespread use of health information technology and the development of data on the effectiveness of medical interventions to improve the quality of care delivered.
  8. Maintain Long-Term Fiscal Sustainability. The plan must pay for itself by reducing the level of cost growth, improving productivity, and dedicating additional sources of revenue.
What is so scary about this? Most of it seems, actually, scary only insofar as it makes you realize, Oh, wait, why is it this way in the first place? I mean, obviously everyone, including Republicans, is a fan of number eight, fiscal sustainability. And what about reducing "inefficiencies that consume money with no added health benefits" (number two)? Who isn't for cutting costs in areas that don't lead to cuts in outcome? Preventative care (number six)? Sounds good. (That saying "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure"? Totally applicable. Helping people not get fat is cheaper than paying for their insulin and then foot amputations and eye surgeries and whatever as their diabetes progresses. Plus, you know, then their lives don't suck.)

But the big one for me is number four: portability of coverage. The absolute stupidest part of our health care system in my mind is that it is currently almost entirely linked to one's employer. I assume this will erode, regardless of what happens with this current attempt at reform, as Gen Y ages, since nobody is doing the work-your-whole-life-at-General-Motors kind of thing anymore. We're all changing jobs every year or two or four. (Seriously, who do you know who's working for the same company they plan to be with in five years? I may never get to that point.) If we're all going to be changing jobs every couple of years, especially if there are going to be any gaps between one job and another, the current system simply sucks. Yeah, there's COBRA to cover the gaps, but it's prohibitively expensive. And what about families? Within a period of four years or so (late high school and early college), I changed health insurance plans a ridiculous number of times: from Dad's to the COBRA Dad got after losing his job at the Federal Reserve to Mom's when she started working for the school system to Dad's when he got his new job to Mom's with Grady when Dad got called back to active duty...or something. Dental also changed, but not always in tandem with medical, so I lived in a permanent state of confusion. This is bad because even if people are on top of things and do arrange to have seamless medical coverage, there's only a certain period of time they can actually be covered. When you switch, it takes like a month to get your new card and all your information, and then you have to find a new doctor because your old one isn't covered with this plan, and then you have to wait a month or more for your appointment because new patients always seem to get screwed... So even if you've technically been covered for six months, only half of that time is time that you could actually be seeing a doctor, and that's only if you're on top of things (not like me) in making appointments before you switch insurance again.

And then there's the rest of number four: "No American should be denied coverage because of preexisting conditions." I can understand why health insurance companies developed this rule. Obviously it's not fair for someone to smoke for forty years and never have health insurance, but then when they find out they have lung cancer, the treatment of which is going to be quite expensive, to take out a health insurance policy so they only have to pay the few hundred dollars' of deductible plus a few $20 copays. (Of course, if we require everyone be covered, this can't happen...)

What's even less fair, though, is that people can be booted out of their health insurance when they turn out to have, say, breast cancer, because they didn't report it when they applied for insurance...if they didn't know it themselves at the time. Or that people who develop one of these dreaded conditions must then either stay at that job or find another with similar coverage forever, else they be left unable to purchase insurance on the private market because of this now-preexisting condition.

My mom, for example, would now be unable to purchase insurance on her own because she had a melanoma a few years back. It was entirely isolated, entirely removed, and has nothing to do with anything else that may happen in the future. It was stage zero, entirely contained, and it's been years since then, demonstrating that even if these facts were somehow mistaken, it hasn't spread. Regardless, Mom is now a cancer patient and thus anathema to all insurance providers. I mean, good thing it's something that was simple and self-contained and doesn't affect her ability to work (unlike the chronic diseases that make up most preexisting conditions), so she doesn't really have to worry that much; as long as she has a job, she'll be OK as far as health insurance goes. But for people whose illnesses preclude remaining at work? Sucks to be them.

The worst? That insurers can simply drop people from their plan if their health care becomes too expensive, regardless of whether or not it was a preexisting condition. I didn't even know this was possible until recently (thank you, plethora of indignant health care–related articles), and I am appalled. That's cheating! The whole reason people buy insurance is because they're afraid they'll develop a devastating disease that will bankrupt them. It's not fair to quit covering them when they do after having accepted their premiums for however long. If AIDS is too expensive for you to want to have to worry about, just state straight out that you don't cover AIDS, so then if anyone's worried about it, they can just go to another insurer rather than paying you for years until it becomes an issue and you announce you don't want to deal with it.

Seriously, I don't understand why this is so hard. People shouldn't be bankrupted because they develop a chronic disease. We should help people avoid avoidable chronic diseases. We shouldn't spend money to do stuff that doesn't work or spend money when it's irrelevant (most back MRIs—back surgery is way more of a pain than it's worth in most conditions, so all an MRI does is tell you, "Yep, your back is messed up"...which you knew anyway), spend more money for stuff that doesn't work any better (the new name-brand cholesterol drugs that aren't any more effective than the decades-old ones have been in the news lately), and we should do the cheap things we know do work (like washing hands and following other hygeinic procedures to reduce/eliminate hospital-acquired infections like MRSA). We should all have insurance so taxpayers don't get stuck with the uninsured poor's emergency room visits for what should be primary care issues (or, for that matter, the uninsured poor's bona fide emergencies). Insurance companies should do the duties they ostensibly exist to perform without being evil in order to discourage people and increase their profit margins.

Insurance as it is now sucks. Health care, if not a right (people keep arguing that; I'm not taking a side in this post at least), is certainly one of the more important creature comforts and something any reasonable and humane person or society wouldn't want to be caught denying anyone else. So let's suck it up and be mature grown-ups about this already.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Reality, or What's Really Real?

A Facebook friend posted a note about how relativism denies individuality today that seemed to me like a bunch of gobbledygook (or I may just be out of practice with my philosophy), but it prompted some general thought about relativism and subjective experience.

Surprisingly enough, I don't think I'm a relativist, or at least not in the strict sense. I do think there is absolute truth, that there is an actual reality out there. Obviously reality cannot differ from person to person: either the sun revolves around the earth, or the earth around the sun, or they both stand still, or they both revolve around something else entirely, or they both just vibrate up and down, or the sun is really a collective hallucination, or...something else. There is a way the universe works. The problem is, however, that none of us actually directly experiences reality, so we don't necessarily all agree on what that is. It's impossible. That's exactly what perception is—the attempt of our brains to interpret signals and form a coherent view of reality. I mean, it's not like reality is in bright, living color. Color is entirely a product of living brains translating wavelengths into visual impressions because, for some reason, sight is the sense we use the most to gain information about our environment. Obviously things do reflect whatever wavelength of light they do whether or not we were looking at them, and if you wanted to, you could define that as color, but the qualia of, say, yellow, requires a human (or some animals, I suppose) brain.

(Incidentally, is this the point people are getting at when they say God can see/experience things much more clearly than us because he isn't limited by our senses? I mean, I assume he still has senses, but that they're different ones, because I don't understand how you can, um, sense reality without senses, unless, of course, you are reality, but that's going a little too out there for my tastes at the moment.)

Anyway, I think it's pretty well established that different people do perceive the physical aspects of reality differently. People have passionate arguments about whether something is navy or black (or maybe it's really dark purple?) or whether a particular shade of blue-green is more blue or more green. Some people hear that noise TVs make, while others of us can't hear that wavelength. Some people think cucumbers have a strong taste while the rest of us don't have the kind of taste bud or the chemical or whatever that makes the bitterness stand out. So obviously in the most fundamental ways, we all perceive reality slightly differently. And at least in most of these examples, it's nonsensical to say that one person is perceiving reality accurately and something's wrong with the other person. (It's much easier to say that if, for example, someone is colorblind, though I would still say that to that person, light at wavelengths of 510 and 650 nanometers are gray, just as they are green or red, respectively, to others.) Does the reality of cucumber have a strong bitter taste or a very mild, nearly flavorless taste? Neither. Obviously it does contain a chemical that makes it bitter to some people and to those of us who can't taste that chemical, it's not bitter. It's not that it is bitter but we're not tasting it or it's not bitter and some people are just making something up; it actually is bitter to some and not to others. Voila, subjective experience.

Now that's all well and good; we already knew we feel temperatures slightly differently and see colors slightly differently and taste and hear things slightly differently and that some smells that are foul to some are fair to others (gas, Sharpies). All that doesn't really matter, though, as you can pretty much average it all out and assume that's close to the truth. And really, what does it matter if some people can hear a sound that others can't? None of this is very important to everyday life (as long as you're not the colorblind one who can't tell what color the traffic light is) and epic truths. We can all be pretty sure that where one of us sees a brown cow, someone else doesn't see a bolt of lightning or a bicycle or a scarf, so as long as we both see a large animal with dark fur, we can be pretty confident that it has some connection to reality, and that's enough for now. (Of course, we could just all be sitting in cold tanks of water in the bowels of the earth with machines activating the parts of our brains that tell us we're seeing large, dark mammals, à la The Matrix, so I suppose agreement doesn't necessitate accuracy, but for simplicity's sake, let's go with it for now.)

So, on to things less immediately tied to direct perception of reality: religion. If there is one real reality, is there any sense in which beliefs can be true for some people and not true for others? I think here, it depends on what kind of truths you're trying to get out of religion.

Can there be one god, and also be many gods, and also be no gods? Can Jesus have died for our sins 2000 years ago, and the Messiah not yet have come, and if there's going to be anyone to save us it's going to be us ourselves? Can God have created the earth and everything on it in seven literal days, and life on earth have evolved over millennia, and us all be perched on the back of a turtle? Um, I can't see how. Some things (particularly specific events) directly conflict and thus cannot all be true.

But can it be true that God's plan for their life gives some people meaning and purpose while others would feel their lives less purposeful if they thought their lives were being controlled by a god? Can the route to communion with God be through traditional rituals for some, through unrestrained emotional expression for others, and be impossible or not to be desired by yet others? I certainly would say so.

Contradictory? I think not. Certain factual claims either have to be true or false. Either God is an old white bearded man or has blue skin or is Jewish-looking or is a plate of flying spaghetti or is something else; he certainly cannot be blue-skinned and white and Jewish and pasta. You can certainly argue, and I think most people do, that God is none of these things and that these are all our representations, which can differ according to what best suits us and what we are best able to worship without affecting the actual nature or existence of God. This nicely removes this entire problem. But to remain in the realm of factual questions of what God actually is or how the earth came into being or whether our consciousnesses will live on after death—when there are contradictions, some options must be right and others wrong. (Of course, my personal feeling is that it's highly unlikely any one religious tradition has it all right. Nevertheless, there is a right that it is theoretically possible to be.)

Pointing to the physical realm as proof of one belief or another often fails, and this goes back to the perception issue. One person looking at nature sees evidence of God's handiwork in creation, while another sees evidence of a struggle for survival resulting in evolution by selection. One person sees healing through prayer where another sees healing through modern medicine with prayer just happening to coincide. One person sees God's hand at work in their life, guiding them to the right decision about a job or relationship where another sees their own decision-making process with different aspects of their consciousness trying to hash it all out. One person sees God bringing a person into their life for a reason while another sees a chance encounter that they may or may not learn from. Each of these could be a reasonable interpretation of the data, but obviously the mindset, belief structure, and past personal history they are being filtered through affect which interpretation is decided on.

Other claims are less coupled to an absolute reality and depend yet more on a person. For example, it is obviously true (at least if people's claims are to be believed) that believing in God makes some people feel as though their lives have meaning, since they are all a part of God's great plan. Equally as true to others, though, is that the only meaning that could comfort them is one devised by themselves rather than imposed from outside; they have no desire to be a cog in some great unknown plan, the devising of which they had nothing to do with. For many atheists, the thought of living under God's thumb is terrifying. Now, obviously these feelings do not change the reality of whether there is or is not a God who has a great plan we are all a part of, but the 'reality' of whether God is nice or good or whether God comforts people can certainly and legitimately vary from person to person. Religion (or God) can give meaning or sap meaning, soothe or agitate, inspire or depress.

Since to me it seems rather difficult to prove any given claim (even God's existence, much less his color or age or gender or habits of creation) to everyone's satisfaction, I feel we're left with relativism. Of course you have to believe what you believe, what your perception of reality causes you to believe, and it's only reasonable that you should accept that others only believe what their perceptions of reality lead them to believe, whether or not you accept the validity of that belief. And really, to a certain extent, if you can't perceive the true reality and have no way to know who is closest, it almost doesn't matter. I mean, if more evidence comes to light that would push you one way or another, you should take it into account, for the truth does matter, but if the truth is actually unknowable, what you believe doesn't.

NB: I know most people who are religious (and, for that matter, most who aren't, I suppose) do say you can know, but since various groups admit as evidence that which other groups aren't disposed to admit as evidence, we seem to be at an impasse. Yes, the Bible says, but to believe what it says, you have to believe it was inspired, so you have to believe in the God who inspired it, which is what the Bible was supposed to be convincing you of. Likewise, I assume to believe in what scientists have to say about origins of life and such, you have to be convinced nothing exists which cannot be measured or sensed, but isn't God exactly such a thing? Presumably one wouldn't want to rule out God at the very beginning of a process one was hoping would reveal evidence for the very same.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Do you think veterans and concentration camp survivors and astronauts and such really self-identify primarily as that thing the rest of their lives? On the one hand, it seems ridiculous for something you did for two years fifty years ago to define you as a person, but on the other hand, some things do completely change you and the way you look at the world.

I keep seeing headlines like this one: "Nazi Concentration Camp Survivor, 90, Found Strangled." To me, to identify someone as a concentration camp survivor in the headline means that's relevant to whatever the significant event is, like if he had been killed by neo-Nazi groups or something. But if someone is attacked and killed apparently at random and as part of a robbery, isn't that equally tragic regardless of what their past is? Do we really need to know he's a concentration camp survivor to make us care? (Well, yes, actually, but that's not the way things should be, right?)

But I always wonder if, for example, before this guy died, you had asked him to describe himself, "Well, you know, I survived a concentration camp" would be the first thing to come to mind. Probably not. I assume what he's done with the rest of the life he managed to save is more important to him.

I've actually been pondering this idea for a long time concerning veterans. On Veterans Day, when people talk about those who fought for our freedoms and how we should respect and honor them, I've always wondered if this sort of recognition seems a little peculiar to any of the veterans themselves. Most veterans, especially the ones drafted for World War II or Vietnam spent two years or so in the military, and probably only half of that actually in the war zone. Not only is it such a small chunk of their lives, but it was when they was very young and barely even the people they are today. Does it ever seem strange to them that their 18- to 20-year-old selves are what has defined their lives? (Who else wants to be defined or even reminded of the things they did when they were 18?)

For Vietnam vets, especially, they may not have even wanted to be "defending our freedoms." (Does that description even make sense regarding anything since World War II, anyway?). If you were drafted to fight in a war you didn't believe in, I imagine once you had returned home, formed a family, developed a career, built a life, and so forth, you would really probably prefer not to be forced to remember on every patriotic and pro-military holiday what you had done for your country, much less be praised for it. Wouldn't you prefer to be praised for the part of your life you actually had a hand in, the kind of person you actually chose to be, than for something that just happened to you?

Even with positive things, like landing on the moon, it seems a bit strange for such a small portion of a man's life to utterly define him to the world. In a recent TIME magazine article, the astronauts' bewilderment of what to do with the rest of their lives and how to relate to the world is evident. A few do craft their lives around their identity as astronauts, whether by writing books, painting space-themed pictures, or giving speeches. Others, however, pursue other careers. After 40 years as a CEO, would you still think of yourself as an astronaut first and foremost? I'm willing to bet there are days on end where that thought would never even cross your mind. When it does, I'd imagine it would be of the "I was in space, for Christ's sake; why do I have to put up with this crap?" variety.

None of this is to say that trauma or fame don't change people. Obviously war and other traumatic events from the Holocaust to rape do have an effect on the person involved, and presumably going to the moon has a pretty profound impact as well. Presumably the person one becomes after such an event is different than who one would have become had that event never happened, but it doesn't necessarily follow that one is (or should be) defined by that event, particularly by others. We all learn from and are formed by our life experiences, but the rest of us aren't forcibly identified by one life experience from early in our lives. If one does identify strongly as a veteran or POW or rape survivor, talking about it all the time or using it to explain why they hold some of the attitudes and opinions they do (McCain comes to mind), of course that's perfectly reasonable, understandable, and natural—I just wonder if they all do. If they don't, it seems somewhat disrespectful for society in general to decide that's who they are. I feel like we're missing the point, like we're using labels (once again) to keep from actually getting to know the individual for what he or she has done with his or her own life.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Thoughts on Eating Animals

I really want to be a vegetarian. The main reason I am not one at the moment is not that I can't bear the thought of giving up bacon (believe it or not), but it's rather a matter of convenience. Lifestyle changes don't come easy. I'm not a very experienced cook already, so this just adds another layer onto any cooking anxieties I have. Not only would I need to find a recipe for dinner, but it needs to be meatless while still being something that this picky eater won't turn her nose up at...while also being relatively well-balanced and healthy. Right, that's a cinch. Another thing that makes me less likely to try new vegetarian recipes is that they tend to include some rather intimidating ingredients (nutritional yeast?), or at least ingredients that I don't tend to keep in stock and am somewhat unsure of where to locate.

Then there's the whole fake-meat thing. If I read one more "Go veggie—it's easy!" article that recommends fake-meat hot dogs, fake-meat hamburgers, chicken-less nuggets, fake cheese, fake cream cheese, fake sour cream, etc., I'm going to scream. First of all, I don't really eat those things anyway (with the exception of cheese) and thus am not seeking replacements for them. Secondly, I really doubt "you can't tell the difference!" Thirdly: um, hello? Eating nasty fake processed foods is what I'm trying to avoid by changing my diet.

Obviously my motivations for limiting the consumption of animal products aren't really those of most vegetarians, or at least the ones who write how-to sites.

Is the main motivation for vegetarians really that cows are so cuddly, and even fish feel pain, and stuff like that? I sure hope not, but that's the impression I get. Let me set one thing straight: I do not have a moral problem (well, I have a few faint twinges, but they're at a level I'm prepared to ignore) with killing animals for food. I do not think animals are worth just as much as people (hell, half the time I don't even feel like people are worth as much as people). I do (at least to some extent) think that the fact that we're bigger and stronger and smarter gives us a right to eat the smaller, weaker, dumber species. (Yes, if a polar bear or an tiger or a shark eats me, that's my own stupid fault for not being better prepared. May the best beast win.)

That being said, I do have a problem with killing for the fun of it, inflicting unnecessary levels of pain, killing more than we need, and treating animals entirely like products (while they're alive). Animals aren't humans, but they are life, and we do owe them some degree of respect. We need to be good stewards, I guess, for lack of a better word. Yes, we can raise animals for food, but just because we brought them into this world and plan to take them out of it does not mean we can treat them inhumanely while they're here. Now, I don't mean we should avoid doing anything that hurts their delicate little selves in the slightest or read them stories at bedtime or whatever PETA people think we should do, but we should try to treat them at least somewhat naturally.

Animals that evolved to eat grass should not be force-fed corn they can't properly digest until we kill them shortly before they would have died anyway. No animal should be kept in a cage or pen where it cannot move and especially where the bars bite into its skin for its entire life. Why? Partially because, yes, they can feel pain and pain is generally a bad thing to inflict on anything, but mostly because it's horribly unnatural, bad for the animal, and bad for the person consuming the animal. (The stress hormones that are constantly coursing through confinement operation animals' bodies actually affect the nutritional impact of the meat on the consumer. Similarly, corn-fed beef has bad ratios of omega-6s to omega-3s, has more saturated fats than grass-fed, and so forth.) Just as you can't expect a Dalmatian to be a good pet for a third-floor apartment with no yard, you can't expect livestock to live in the dark in super-cramped cages, wallowing in their own excrement. If we're going to say that we're in charge of the planet, we have a responsibility to at least try to keep the rest of the planet in healthy, decent working order.

The part that really scares me about confinement operations, though, is that in addition to the unhealthy meat exacerbating our obesity epidemic and rates of cardiovascular disease, there are the germs. Since they live in close quarters, in their own feces, and eating foods their systems aren't really equipped to best handle, obviously livestock tend to get sick pretty often. No problemo, right? Just shove antibiotics down their throats. (Seventy percent of antibiotics used in the U.S. are used in livestock.) Only one problem: haven't we learned yet that overusing antibiotics is a great recipe for trouble? All we're doing is encouraging bacteria to evolve to be resistant. Then what will we do, when some resistant strain spreads (like wildfire, due to the close quarters) through our food supply?

Oh, but antibiotics aren't all we have to worry about. I mean, there's e coli and salmonella and stuff, but that's beneath my radar. The really, really, really disturbing thing? The swine flu that we're all panicking about (well, nobody's really panicking anymore/yet, but whatever—it is a big public health issue). I mean, this one is kind of a big deal and all, but there's nothing keeping a much, much worse influenza virus from developing in swine because of—you guessed it—confinement swine operations.

See, pigs can get viruses from humans, and pigs can get viruses from poultry, and then pig cells are just fantastic at mixing up and recombining little bits of RNA—voila, a new virus that can pass back to humans. (See this Newsweek article—it starts getting relevant about halfway throught the second page.) So, since we have these "four-legged viral mixing vessels" living in close proximity to each other and often to poultry and humans, we're all set for more viruses to emerge from confinement operations to sweep the globe. Sure, most of them may not be particularly harmful, but it's really just a matter of time until one is. For instance, if the kind of flu that kills people but isn't easily transmitted combines with the kind of flu that's easily transmissible but not particularly deadly and the kind of flu that's resistant to Tamiflu...we're all doomed. (Doomed, I say!)

On the plus side, if we all get wiped out by a new super–swine flu, we won't have to worry about global warming, which is where I was headed next before I got so caught up with superbugs. You know, farts, land use, methane, inefficiencies in growing food to feed to food instead of just eating food, blah, blah, blah.

Basically, I'm just pretty damn sure that our food supply system is going to kill us all, but since I can't really control the entire system, I'll just try to eat lots of whole grains and veggies, which are considerably less likely to kill me and destroy the planet. Plus, you know, I like being in whiny minorities that hold the high moral ground.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Best Era to Live In?

I assume I'm not alone in periodically finding myself wishing I had lived in some other historical era. Being a pioneer in the nineteenth-century frontier: what a simpler time. Living through the World Wars and Great Depression: definitely meaningful, if perhaps somewhat sucky. Being around for the invention of light bulbs or cars or being present for various periods of great social and cultural change—sometimes it seems that practically every time period was more interesting, more dynamic, and more significant than the current one.

(Of course, I have since come to the conclusion that no time seems particularly history-making and society-changing while you're in the midst of it, if for no other reason than that half the time you're not even aware of what's going on until it's over. It is somewhat difficult to detect broad changes without the benefits of hindsight. Anyway, of late, this time period has started seeming pretty interesting: advent of the personal computer, cell phones, the internet; a couple of sweeping social changes (like gay rights); general historical events like 9/11, the election of the first black president, and a crippling economic downturn; a few ridiculous scientific/medical/technical advances (mapping the human genome, anyone?). All in all, it seems my lifetime is set to contain plenty of interesting things that my grandchildren will (hopefully) be jealous I got to live through...even if robots and flying cars are, as yet, not a part of that.)

Anyway, so I was wondering when the ideal time to be born would have been in order to have lived the most interesting / best life (let's keep it narrowed down to America, just for simplicity's sake). What would have been the perfect lifespan—to experience plenty of interesting times and historical events and to be at good ages for appreciating certain things as they occurred? For instance, being a teenager or young adult in the 1920s or the 1960s would definitely be more fun and/or meaningful than being 75 then (a senior citizen flapper?). And don't forget avoiding the worst of negative times; just as graduating from college and seeking a job in 2009 seems less than ideal, obviously, the same would be true for embarking on adult life during the Great Depression or the Panics of 1837 or 1893. (Can we please start calling this the Panic of 2008? That makes it sound much more interesting than "the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression.") Similarly, being on the verge of retirement when the Panic of 2008 hit pretty much messes up the remainder of your life, and I'm sure the same is true, though to an admittedly lesser extent, during prior recessions.

Right now, I'm thinking coming of age around the turn of the twentieth century would have been a particularly interesting time, though I suppose that puts you raising a family during the Depression (but is there really an ideal time of life to be hit by the Depression?). I'm pretty sure being a baby boomer is not my idea of the ideal life. I mean, it's great for some of them, like Bill Gates, who were able to get into certain industries at exactly the right time (read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell), but in general, being a middle-aged adult at this point in time seems entirely unappealing.

I'm thinking, as odd as it sounds, that being born in the thirties (too young to really remember much of the Depression, or just being around for the tail end of it) and coming of age around World War II might have been a pretty good time to live. In general, I'm anti-war, but as far as wars go, WWII was probably our most justifiable one. Plus, the entire country was involved and invested—everyone had brothers, cousins, sweethearts, and classmates fighting overseas, the war effort was supported at home (bonds, scrap metal, victory gardens, and the like), and it generally just seems the country all came together. Then that puts you raising a family in the fifties, which seems to be one of the best times to do that. Of course, then you're still stuck being old now, which as we have determined, might kind of suck. Also, the last forty years or so haven't been so great for farmers, which it can safely be assumed a large percentage of these people would have been. Oh well.

I think I'm just biased through the oral histories I've been transcribing for work. So many of the most interesting people whose life stories I've gotten to hear did have this approximate lifespan (which I guess is obvious, since they're pretty much the oldest generation around, so of course they're the ones whose stories people are concentrating on recording before they all die).

My absolute ideal life, as far as I can tell? Being an AP journalist born in the late twenties or early thirties. If you're covering the news, you're practically guaranteed to be present for a pretty big chunk of it. While now is not the best time to be a journalist, retiring a decade or two ago still leaves you with a nice, exciting life full of adventure and feeling generally useful and important. Ah, to have been born 75 years ago...and also a man...whose father knew someone in the newspaper industry...

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Creation Myth

This story was written for a college course my freshman year. We had been studying creation myths and were then assigned to write ones of our own. Mine was received to great accolades, which I found amusing, as I had written it as snarkily as I could and felt it was probably directly ripped from an amalgam of every science fiction story I had ever read. At any rate, here it is, edited only lightly (as apparently my grasp of semicolons at the age of 18 was not as flawless as I had heretofore thought):

The Creation of the World (Among Other Things)

A very long time ago, before the world had been created, there existed a spirit.
He had no name, but in later years, he has become known as The First One (for obvious reasons). This First One had no body. He was merely a spiritual being that existed in empty space. Well, not quite empty—the space had random balls of gas that gave off light, now known as stars, strewn around it, apparently randomly. The First One could not see the light given out, however, for he had no eyes, and without eyes, there is no perception of light. He was, however, perfectly fine without being able to see. He had no need to see, as he could sense where these stars were. Actually, he did not even have to sense, somehow he just knew. (Incidentally, The First One was not really a “he” either—spirits have no need of gender. He is now referred to as a “he” just to make it easier for those telling the stories, and for those to whom the stories are told.)

The First One does not know how he came into existence, so we cannot know either.
He does not remember coming into being, but he knows he has not been in existence forever. He deduced that he had to have been created by something, probably the same something that created the space and the stars, but he was not sure what this was, nor did he really care. He saw no reason why he needed to know how he came into being, as long as he had (a quite logical view, but one that humans, unfortunately, do not share).

The First One had mental abilities. He could create things just by thinking about them and willing them into existence. He discovered this one day when longing for company. Though his mind could amuse him for years, he had been in existence for thousands, or perhaps millions or billions, of years, and he now desired the company of some other being. Since his only experience was with the space (no company there), the stars (ditto), and himself, he logically began thinking of another being similar to himself. It began as an imaginary friend sort of thing, but because The First One had these powers, his “imaginary” friend became real after he had longed for it for hundreds of years. The First One was greatly shocked when, one day (though there were not really days—or years, for that matter—since there was nothing revolving or orbiting the sun, nor, in fact, a sun per se, just millions of unremarkable stars) another being popped into existence. It took him some time to figure out what was happening, as he had never before had contact with another consciousness. In fact, at first, he was a little concerned for his mental health. He did not know if this consciousness was indeed a separate entity, or if he was fooling himself into thinking it was out of some insane desire for company. Eventually, he decided it did not really matter, as long as it alleviated his loneliness and boredom.

The two spirits reveled in the company of each other for some time. Then, The Second One began probing as to her (again, not really a “she,” but the myth has evolved to refer to The Second One as “her”) origins. The First One communicated to her how he had basically thought and willed her into being. They decided to try again, and see if both of them could produce other beings. They could. The First One was naturally better at it, since he had had previous experience. However, The Second One caught on quickly. Soon, there were many spirits occupying the star-strewn space, which we now call the universe. They all enjoyed creating things out of their minds.

Since these beings were intelligent spirits, with no physical manifestation, they communicated through their consciousness. Now, it would be referred to as telepathy or mind reading; however, this is not exactly what it was. The beings basically shared a common consciousness. They knew what the others knew and sensed what the others sensed. Somehow, though, they were yet somewhat separate. We cannot comprehend fully how they were, as it is beyond our realm of experience. There was no actual sending of messages or thoughts; whatever one thought, the others sensed. They could tell that it was originating outside of their own minds, but other than that, it was very similar to the process of their own thoughts. This link existed because each of them had been constructed out of another’s mind. It is impossible to create an intelligent being without having some sort of connection with it.

One of the newest beings, The Little One, somehow made matter with his mind. It was probably an accident, as they had never really thought about matter. The only matter about was stars, which they generally ignored, as they were of no use to these spiritual beings. Nobody had ever thought to try to make anything other than company, in the form of other spirits, nor would they have known how to go about it if they had thought about it. Somehow, though, The Little One created particles of matter, which he arranged into interesting shapes. (The spirits still could not see, but The Little One could sense his matter, since it was his creation. The others could therefore sense it through him.) This accidental discovery started a fad among the younger beings, who began spending all of their time in contests to see who could make the most interesting and novel things out of this matter.

The space began to be fairly cluttered with random clumps of matter. This was not really important, since the spirits had no matter in and of themselves, so it was not as if the creations were taking up space they needed to live in. However, some of the Elders (a few of the older spirits who had created most of the others and who had more traditional mindsets) grew upset at the way the younger spirits were treating their space. They mandated that each spirit who wanted to play with matter in this manner got a specific area of the space. These areas were marked by stars. Each spirit who so desired got one star, around which he could strew his creations. If they expanded too far, the gravitational forces of someone else’s star would capture them, and the spirit would lose his creations, so they were pretty good about only taking up the space allotted to them. The spirits did not create this gravity, nor had they ever sensed it until now, when it became relevant to their existences.

The Elders were still not happy about the fad of matter creation; however, there was nothing they could do about it. They felt a vague uneasiness about the whole thing, since it was meddling with something unknown. Matter and the laws of physics had never before intruded upon their existence, and they felt no reason to be wasting time with such trivialities now. The newer beings, however, did not care about this, thinking (as many young beings do) that they knew better than the older spirits and that since their way was new, it was progress.

One day (for now that there were planets orbiting stars, there were days, years, and other measures of time, or at least the possibility of them, had anyone felt inclined to use them), another young spirit decided it would be fun to make a physical dwelling for his consciousness. He formed a body, which he then occupied with his mind. Soon, everyone was imitating this novel idea. They did not inhabit the bodies all the time, for it would be quite boring to be constantly limited by the physical laws matter was subject to. They created worlds as habitats for the creatures they inhabited, as well as other creatures to interact with the ones they inhabited.

The Elders saw the state of chaos and disrespect into which their universe had fallen, and through their superior brain power (it was closer to the original, and was therefore stronger), bound these young, irresponsible beings to the bodies they were playing with. They were now forced to remain forever in the bodies they had made only to entertain themselves. Separation of the spirits into bodies encouraged them to think more and more within themselves and less and less among the others, causing them slowly to lose their telepathic ability to communicate. In the beginning, it was their choice; they chose to sequester themselves and withdraw from the society of beings. Once they realized the consequences of that choice, they tried to reverse it, but it was too late.

These embodied spirits became the ancestors of every intelligent form of life on every planet. Each one had been embodied on his own planet, in the body he had made for himself to play in. Therefore, the beings on various planets differ widely. Some died out because they had not prepared their bodies to survive very long, and some died out because they had neglected to design a means of replication. There were many, however, who survived. Though the bodies they designed may not have been perfect, they still had enough mental powers to change them slightly before their powers dissipated. The designs for the bodies were still not flawless, but they were good enough to last, and in many cases, they could adapt over time to better fit their environments. Obviously, one of these planets where this occurred is one that we now live on. And this is the beginning of mankind as well as all the other intelligent races on other planets.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Everything I Know, I Learned in Middle School -- Not!

This is a conversation I have gotten into with a variety of people, some of whom had pretty much the exact school experience I had and some of whom had a nearly-indistinguishable one at another of (usually Georgia's) public schools. Mileage may vary according to location, school district, teachers, and, of course, other types of schools, but in general, the people I know (including myself, naturally) are rather displeased with the quality of their educations.

Thus, Things I Should Have Learned But Didn't:

  • Foreign language(s). It is well-established that language acquisition is easiest before the onset of puberty. How perfect, then, that most schools begin foreign language classes a few years after puberty. How much easier would it have been for us to acquire near-fluency in another language in elementary or even middle school than in the last half of high school?
  • Recent history. Part of this problem, I think, is due to the inevitable crunching at the end of the year as teachers realize everything has taken longer than they thought. Until 11th grade and AP US History, my American and World History classes had never made it past World War II, though I assume we were supposed to in at least some cases. Topics never mentioned: the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, U.S. presidents/policy from Harry Truman to the current president, social movements from the fifties to the present, conflicts and wars in the Middle East, the de-colonization of African and South American nations and various related conflicts. Knowledge of the past fifty years or so, especially the past 20 (things that have occurred within our lifetimes but that we were too young to understand thoroughly or even to be exposed to, say?) is probably more useful to gain an understanding of the problems facing our country and the world now than pre-WWI European history is or than re-studying the World Wars (for the fifth or sixth time) is, don't you think?
  • Current events. I know some teachers tried, but without first having sufficient background in the issues of the day, how much could middle-schoolers really be expected to learn about the world from reading and summarizing one newspaper article a week? It would have greatly helped to have more guidance in the relevant topics of the day. I assume this is discouraged in the name of avoiding the teaching of possibly-controversial personal opinions, but I think there are certainly ways it could have been done.
  • Systems of government. I suppose we got a pretty decent overview of the U.S. government, the various offices, and checks and balances, and the like. There's still a lot that's skipped, but I suppose that's inevitable; nuanced understandings of the inner workings can be saved for Poli Sci majors, right? But something I think vital to a true understanding of our political system is a comparison to others. Other than the very basic knowledge that the Soviet Union and China were evil commies and that most of Africa and South America were run by evil dictators (not very nuanced...), one emerges from high school with no idea how the rest of the world runs their governments or even that there are significantly different ways for democracies to run. It was in a college German class that I was first exposed to any detail about another democracy's inner workings. Yes, Germany has a president, but their president's role isn't nearly as great as ours; instead, it is their chancellor who is Germany's face to the world. This was the first time I really became aware of a democratic process that used more than two parties. I guess I had assumed that since the U.S. had (almost always) had two main parties that that was the way it worked and that was best. But wait, some countries have four, six, or more large, relatively powerful parties that usually get proportional parliamentary representation and who select leaders through elaborate alliance-building and negotiations. In many nations, it is common to have votes of no confidence in the prime minister or whomever, forcing a leadership change and a new alliance. Imagine—the American political system is not the only way for modern, industrialized, developed, democratic nations to be run; in fact, it may not actually be the best. (Oh, right, heresy—perhaps why this isn't taught in middle school Social Studies classes.)
  • Perhaps a more critical view of the role of America throughout history? (Right, heresy again.) The Spanish-American War, the Mexican War, Manifest Destiny in general...I'm sure there are plenty of other things I can't even think of at the moment or still don't know. The only vaguely anti-American things I remember learning were about displacement of Native Americans and about Japanese internment camps, and I know there's certainly a lot more where that came from, and more recent, too.
  • Asian, South American, Middle Eastern, African, and Russian history. Yes, I know, all theoretically included in World History (both in high school and the three to six times before then that the Social Studies courses were supposed to be given a world history slant), but definitely under-covered. (Maybe the problem here was that they tried to teach us the same too-broad topic—World History— five or six times in the broad sense rather than focusing one year on Africa, one on Asia, etc.)
  • Science. Yes, all of it. I really can't remember much of anything I learned in science in high school. Before then, I remember plate tectonics, discussion of the sea floor, the water cycle, weather patterns, photosynthesis, types of rocks and how they are formed, the food chain, plant germination, evolution (with a "you may not believe this; I don't really, either" disclaimer), pH, organ systems, colors of pigment vs. light, reproduction (with a variety of disclaimers) and a variety of other useful but basic things. But high school? My strongest memories of physics are of Chewbacca noises from the stools and blaster noises from slinkies attached to the ceiling. Biology? We never even dissected anything, but we did grow some plants, some of which were rumored to have been marijuana seedlings thanks to our resident potheads. Chemistry, I actually do remember a decent amount of, though not in any detail: stoichiometry, valence electrons, chemical reactions.
  • Issues to keep an eye on in the future. I would have greatly appreciated someone sitting down and telling us what my generation was likely to face throughout our lifetime: Middle Eastern turmoil, climate issues, the end of Social Security, oil crisis, etc. I think all those could have been pretty easily predicted as important issues of the next five to fifty years or more when I was 13.
  • The environment. I'm not sure if we learned what we did because that's what general opinion was concerned with and that's what was known at the time or whether it was to avoid more controversial or frightening topics, but I remember our main environmental lessons being about endangered species, rainforest depletion, acid rain, the ozone layer, and that styrofoam never, ever decomposes. Did we ever talk about the effects of being hooked on gasoline? Melting of the polar ice caps? Global warming in general? Water pollution? The effects of American agriculture on everything? Did we even talk about conserving energy and water in the home?
As sad as it is, I think basically what I came out of public school with what I now consider to be a decent understanding of boils down to basic math (well, up through algebra and geometry, and with the addition of statistics) the English language (which I'm pretty sure I had more than a decent understanding of going in), and the ability to touch-type. I suppose reading, writing, and arithmetic is all that one is promised from a public school education, but it sure seemed like parents, teachers, society, and students all assumed school would prepare students for the "real world." If that's the real goal, it fails miserably. I feel horribly ill-informed about entire centuries of history, huge swaths of science, and basically everything that has actually occurred in my lifetime until the past five to seven years. Upon graduation from high school, I was ill-prepared to be a good citizen of my country, (having said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning for 12 years decidedly does not count as adequate preparation to be a good citizen), much less the world.

Of course, it's not like I have any idea how to adequately prepare children and teenagers for the world. Discussion on any meaningful topic does provide ample opportunity for indoctrination, which the school system is ostensibly against. And then there's the problem of motivation. Children really do not understand at the age of eight or twelve or even eighteen what they're going to wish they had learned or paid attention to when they're 20 or 35 or 50, so even if the appropriate things were taught, there's no way of ensuring they will actually be learned and internalized by students. How depressing. There's got to be a better way.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Melting Brains in the Post-college Young Adult

What happens to people's brains in their twenties that makes homophones suddenly much more confusing than they were previously? I for one grew up never confusing to, too, and two; there, their, and they're; it's and its; since and sense; lead and led; who's and whose or any other set of homophones—ever. I remember doing assignment after assignment of fill-in-the-blank exercises on homophones in English classes from probably third or fourth grade until sometime in high school, but I always thought those assignments were stupid. I seemed to have been born knowing how to use these words correctly and had, in fact, never even realized that there was any reason to confuse them. I wondered if there really were people who thought of homophone pairs (not pears) as the same word and who actually needed to take a minute to distinguish between them, for I had always just unconsciously used each one in the appropriate context and had never even grouped them in pairs as things that could possibly be confused. Their similar sounds were significant only for use in puns.

Sometime toward the end of college, however, I began to notice the occasional slip in my writing, usually while instant messaging. I would almost always catch it before sending and fix it panickedly, annoyed that my brain was starting to fail me. Over the past few years, it has worsened, and I often notice myself making it's/its errors or even more egregious substitutions (at least as far as degree of difference in meaning is concerned). At first, it was only the occasional it's/its or their/there error, but lately, I've noticed right/write confusion, and then twice in one day last week, I noticed that I had written "sense" for "since." Luckily, I caught them. (I can only hope I catch all my errors!) Today I wrote "loose" for "lose" (which isn't even a homophone, or at least not the way I pronounce them—are there regional pronunciations in which those do sound the same?). I even once wrote "tern" for "turn." (Actually, that one, I'm going to assume, was actually a misspelling rather than a homophone confusion, as terns don't really spend a lot of time at the forefront of my mind.)

I would be really concerned about very, very early-onset Alzheimer's or be worried that perhaps the occasional Wiener Schnitzel I ate as a child did indeed contain mad cow (as seems to be the concern of the Red Cross) and that I was now expressing symptoms of Creuztfeld-Jakob, except for the fact that I've noticed the same phenomenon in others. My roommate, another nerd and grammar Nazi like myself, has started complaining about the odd stupid moment concerning homophones. In instant messaging my brother, I've noticed an increase in the number of homophone mistakes he makes. (Of course, he does catch them...most of the time. The other day, though, he said he could feel my judgment through the computer and took another look, catching an its/it's error I had been glaring at.) Several other friends, all of whom are the sort whose souls cry when they encounter such mistakes, are suddenly popping up making them themselves. It's the people who always used to lament these mistakes loudly among themselves, somewhat mocking the poor saps who didn't understand these basic tenets (not tenants—not quite a homophone, but commonly confused regardless) of the English language, who have now begun to commit these same egregious mistakes—and it's so much worse for them! Maybe it's some sort of karmic thing—the universe giving us uppity know-it-alls our just deserts (not desserts—OK, this is one that I actually didn't know, but simply because this word is never used outside that phrase, so I wasn't familiar with it).

All I can think is that for some reason, humans become more phonologically-oriented around the age of twenty, and thus, we write what we hear in our heads rather than what we "see" or otherwise think/represent while we're writing. (Related: phonological representation is much less deep a way of encoding than semantic, and as such, it seems not only particularly prone to errors but also perhaps more likely to occur when one is distracted.) I wonder if this is simply an age thing or if it is somehow related to multitasking or reductions in attention spans. Is the internet making my generation stupid? If so, I can only imagine what it's doing to the kids who are supposed to be learning proper speech and writing now, and who probably get over half of their reading practice on the internet, where there's no guarantee anyone is spelling or using any word correctly. Actually, that might be a large part of the problem: increased exposure to incorrect usage, both via the internet and via working as a preceptor and in the writing lab in college could be skewing my (and my like-minded peers' (not piers)) grammatical compass(es). Continued sightings (not citings or sitings) of misused words could be, in effect, lowering the grammatical defenses of hordes (not hoards) of those who normally speak and write correctly.

What is to be done? If anyone has a solution to this or a better explanation than mine, please let me know. In the meantime, my brain will continue exploding every time I commit this grammar sin.