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.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Food Marketing

Is it not disturbing to anyone else to think of farming as just another industry and crops as just another product to be marketed? I'm not talking so much about Pop-Tarts and Go-gurt commercials, though those are disturbing as well (and if I thought about it for a few more minutes, I'm sure I'd be horrified by that concept, too, but that's not where I'm going at the moment), but more about the marketing by various crop associations to large corporations, other industries, and even other countries.

It seems to me that the world as a whole and farmers in particular should think of growing food in terms of providing good nutrition, not in terms of growing market shares and such. Yes, making money is important, but the rise of agribusiness is taking it a bit to the extreme. Each crop, be it corn, wheat, soybeans, hogs, beef cattle, or dairy (because yes, animals are considered crops—another somewhat unsettling aspect of agribusiness) has its own association (or several), which lobbies Congress for various things to be included in the newest farm bill, provides information to its members, and tries to develop and grow a market for the crop.

One form this marketing takes is the various consumer-oriented campaigns: "Got milk?" (California Milk Processor Board), "Beef: It's what's for dinner" (National Cattlemen's Beef Association), "Pork: the other white meat" (National Pork Board) and so forth. These are not terribly disturbing until you realize that these associations (at least the beef and pork ones) are quasi-governmental associations and that the advertising is funded through checkoff programs, in which mandatory dues are paid for each beef cow or hog sold for the sole purpose of marketing these products.

I would be almost entirely comfortable with the U.S. government running advertising campaigns or public service annoucements to try to increase, say, milk consumption because of its health benefits—in fact, this is what I thought was happening until recently—however, it seems the goal of such advertising is primarily to increase the domestic market for these home-grown food products. I'm not sure there's much of an argument to be made that the U.S. government should try to convince Americans to eat more beef for health reasons. Red meat consumption has lately been even more strongly linked with heart disease and colon cancer, and at least the way beef is produced in America (corn-fed, in confinement operations, overloaded with hormones and antibiotics) makes it even worse. Corn-fed beef has higher omega-six to omega-three ratios than grass-fed; confinement operations and the various drugs used there decrease the animals' immune systems, cause the production of stress hormones which in turn affect the consumer, and can increase the spread of disease, especially when bacteria develop resistances to the antibiotics.

Then there's the way these various associations grow their market shares in more insidious ways. The corn growers have perhaps been the most successful in the past few decades, and as a result, it is quite difficult to find any sort of processed food that doesn't contain some ingredient derived from corn (high fructose corn syrup being perhaps the most ubiquitous, certainly the most recognizable, and currently the subject of much hot debate). This might not seem inherently problematic, but for one, it causes our entire food industry to be way more interdependent than is perhaps wise. One really bad year for corn, and suddenly it's much more difficult to produce a wide variety of products—and they likely cost more, too. For another thing, there is some reason to think corn may not be as great for you as the corn industry, for one, would like you to believe.

Lately, I've had occasion to encounter a number of interviews with farmers, officers on various crop associations, members of farm bureaus, and the like. A number of them mention trips to China and other developing markets to grow the international market for, say, beef or soy. Yes, the Chinese have been eating soy for probably millennia, but the soybean association isn't content with selling China soybeans for soy sauce and tofu or whatever other traditional uses there might be. No, they won't rest until they get the Chinese hooked on soybean oil and, even sneakier in my mind, introduce soy meal into Chinese meat production. To me, it seems that the American food industry is trying its hardest to export the parts of our food supply system that have made it the most artificial, unhealthy, and, yes, dangerous.

One interview that particularly bothered me was with a woman who worked at the National Soybean Research Laboratory. She waxed poetic about the myriad new uses for soybeans they were developing at the NSRL, which sounded interesting and exciting until I realized some of them were largely useless. She talked about using soy flour and other such products as good ways to increase protein consumption in poor Africa schools where cheap nutrition was really necessary. OK, so far, so good. But then she went on and on about how one could substitute between one-third and one-half of the wheat flour in, say, cookie or cake recipes, with soy flour, and so on and so forth. She never really explained why one would want to do such a thing, though. (Soy flour and wheat flour have basically the same calories and fat content, though soy flour does contain a bit more protein.) Apparently soy flour has a weird consistency, which is why one can't replace all the flour, so all in all, it seems like a lot of trouble to go to for only a tad more protein—and since when do Americans need more protein in their cookies, anyway? I am personally somewhat scared of soy (possibly irrationally so) because of the estrogens it contains and the possible effects of those. In general, I think it's unwise to be intentionally attempting to weave an ingredient so deeply into the food supply chain that when unpleasant news does come to light concerning its health effects it is nearly impossible to avoid its consumption (as is currently the case with corn).

What I find the most disturbing of all, though, is that the attitudes of so many in the agriculture industry who seem to view such expansion into overseas markets as their due. They complain about the stricter rules the European Union has, for instance, against genetically-modified grains, or that South Korea has, for instance, on the ages of imported cattle (an attempt to prevent mad cow from entering the country). I'm kind of concerned about our food producers having so much of an agenda of their own, separate from growing what consumers actually want. And really, when they begin to expand their production of meat or grains that adhere to whatever rules other countries have in order to expand their exports to those countries, America is going to be left with the inferior food because we have laxer rules—and that just seems backwards.

Note: My issue is not with expanding the use of corn or soy per se. For instance, I laud the development of corn-based, biodegradable packing peanuts and with the use of soy oil in glass to reduce shattering, and I have nothing against marketing those uses heavily. What concerns me is what seems like pushing the consumption of these ingredients in forms the health benefits or detriments of which have not yet been fully established (or regardless of the health detriments that have been established), working these ingredients into the food supply chain so thoroughly that they are almost impossible to later remove, exporting America's bad food habits to other countries, and, most of all, doing all this in such a way that the average consumer isn't even really aware of it and doesn't know how to comment on it if he or she is.