Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I promise this is not entirely an opinion piece.

Australian ethicist Peter Singer advocates an overhaul of previous incarnations of the social Left in a the idea of a "Darwinian left" - wherein the human inclination to compete would be recognized and re-directed as COOPERATION towards "socially-desirable ends"
And yet, severely premature infants and the very elderly can be euthanized (by family choice) because of their excessive strain on their families and society at large. Essentially, here are tradeoffs between the newborn's greatly increased needs and the emotional and monetary needs of others. That sounds a lot like competition is at work here. But eliminating the competitor doesn't mean you've reached a state of cooperation.
This view seems to me at odds with his position on poverty - that the developed world should forego "luxury" in favor of circumventing the "murder" brought about by simply allowing people to die. Is this not the same kind of 'drain' on society? Maybe we should just have a euthanasia option for parents of children in abject poverty, because their quality of life is necessarily and unequivocally reduced . . . If we follow his earlier logic, shouldn't it be a choice whether to donate or not, based on the strain YOU think it would cause you - as someone now somehow responsible for alleviating the problem? If Singer places such control of the problem in the hands of the average citizen (ar we getting a whiff of anthropocentrism?), why can we not be trusted to care for, manage, and eat animals (if their death is, like euthanasia, quick and painless)?

What appears to reconcile this disparity, is that Singer seeks to wield a definition of consciousness itself in his idea of 'personhood' - that a degree of personal interest in being alive must be achieved for one's rights to matter. A horse, then, has achieved personhood, but a fetus or a child with severe Down's Syndrome is only a 'potential' person whose personhood is unrealized. But how is personhood measured?
An appeal to neuroscience would be largely theoretical - and unless I missed the groundbreaking Nature article on "How to Identify Consciousness" in my sheltered collegiate haze, the corroboration just isn't there. I find his romanticism of Darwin theory similarly misguided. Looking back at the evolutionary pathway to which science itself has little access, essentializing it, and using it towards questionable social ends strikes me as pillars of salt upon a foundation of sand.

Do I think he has a place as a lecturer on campus? Certainly; because restricting dialogue tells you not the strengths of your convictions, but the narrowness of your own worldview. If you have an opinion (and I think you should), do your homework, stand up straight, smile graciously, and defend your position. For my own part, I have deep and abiding personal convictions about the subject based on life experience, but I will go to war only with a sword I can effectively yield.
See you there.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Time must escape to the same refuge as lost socks and life savings . . .

I know, it's been almost a month. But if you were looking for a linear timeline of what I am doing, see the facebook photos. They're in order,and if I don't have new photos, it means I'm in that two-week transition zone of a normal university life in Quito and THAT means that nothing noteworthy happened. Seriously though, where has the time gone?
You know what? I am actually glad my watch battery died on the flight to Quito, otherwise I would have had more than a few white-rabbit, I'm-late heart attacks that are unneccessary in a country where it is standard to show up two hours late for everything. This is a slow sort of country, but I do have to keep running.

Alright enough of the literature/evolutionary theory references. Here is a topic that has continued to crop up throughout my time here, and my response has languished half-finished in a tiny stained notebook for more than a month now. And back from the birthplace of evolutionary theory, I thought it was high time to put it someplace less smeared.


OK listen up. I've said it twenty times before in two languages and I figured I'd put it in print to save myself a few more times. Don't we all have a finite number of breaths to waste?
Anyway, it's about science. And God.
What people forget about science is that it pertains to what we can see. It's really the art of seeing - always improving our range of vision microscopically, telescopically, and theoretically and sharing the mechanics of sight with others through teaching.
Faith pertains to what we cannot see - and I know that here is where you start to judge me but please hear me out because one day I might have to explain it to you in person and risk having it be far less completely or willingly told.

I do not propose that the divine is a stand-in prop for science to surpass, or a brainwashing scheme by jihadists or George Dubya, or an archaic security blanket comforting us like children in the face of the unknown. I simply wish to do away with this ridiculus notion that the two are opponents on the same playing field.
Woah. I know. Just sit down and break out the Cracker Jacks. We'll work from here.
Analyze the passes, predict the plays, even place your bets (we call that theorizing.) Get out the chalk and scribble your circles and squiggles and arrows (vectors?) Science is the mechanics of the game of life.

I know what you think. I am not about to suggest that the Game of God operates on a separate field entirely, perhaps with more complex rules or better paid coaches. No, the two must actually intersect (believe me, I heard the Dalai Lama speak at a football staduim.) You see, we need a reason to keep playing.

Maybe we play to win an eternal one for the team (Christianity?) either more technically (Catholicism or Mormonism), or perhaps less technically (mainstream Protestantism.) Maybe we come purely to enjoy the beer and the buddies and the face-painting (hedonism.) Maybe we're in it to garner enough skill and respect to play quarterback next time around or just get out of this ballgame entirely (Buddhism.)
Some are still waiting for the ref to come around and sort this mess out (Judaism), and some swear that the guy who used to wear jersey #33 went on to become the best one yet (Islam.) Some vehemently maintain that they don't NEED a reason to be here (atheism); some derive comfort from ceasing to wonder (agnosticism), and stil a few more got off at Fenway instead of Franklin and haven't really figured it all out yet.

And you know what? Not one of them is sufficient to explain away the woes of the world - high ticket prices, the wanton waste of Gatorade. Always getting benched or never getting a break. Crowded parks and empty seats and, yes, mowing the grass THAT many times a week - but it helps.

'Yeah,' you ask, 'but what about the SCIENCE part? In your cocky collegiate haste you've damaged your cause by trying to make things fancy and then aptly skirting the question.'
Well hold on to your hot dog, 'cause I'm not finished yet. The beef you have is with biology specifically. No one ever understood enough physics to make it a public debate (Oh wait, bombs are physics. . .) And since we all value prescription drugs and fossil fuels and curing cancer, really the only beef left to have have is with evolution.
Evolutionary theory supposedly flies in the face of the most conventional Occidental creation story. What's the big deal with one story? Sure, we wrote it down, but we also wrote down the one about the Earth on a turtle on a turtle on a turtle on a turtle. The big deal is that there are stories to chose from.
But science is not trying to replace a story, because the thing is that evolution itself is not a complete story. We've just been putting together pieces from what we can see - NOT purporting that we've exposed the whole continuum from beginning to end and that Jesus sucks besides. And here it is:
Seeing doesn't have to be believing - else blind Sampson would have been an atheist the minute his eyes were gouged from his head. I would venture that he is faithless who thinks that seeing is a legitimate threat to something that is by definition independent of sight itself. So stay in the ballgame; have faith in what you will - be it Jesus or Jehova or the Torah or turtles. But don't limit the observation, please.

This is not published in jest, nor to offend. This is published to lend insight into my cause, my cross, and my chromosomes (or maybe just to clear out my notebook.) See?

Or do you believe?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

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What I actually did this weekend

My new resolution is to stop telling you how behind I am. I mean, you wouldn't know what I was doing if I didn't tell you, so I guess we'll just push on from the most recent recorded adventure.

The six of us went to Guaranda - a sleepy sierra town four hours south of Quito - for the uniquely South American Carnaval. I guess it's the only time the town wakes up, and it's probably because it spends the rest of the year sleeping off the hangover. For those who don't know, Carnaval is founded on the same principles as Mardi Gras: eating tons of food, watching parades, dancing, and getting drunk, but with a lot more emphasis on getting other people messy. Spray foam is sold for $1.50 a can, in varieties that either stain clothing or claim not to, and eggs, flour, and water are thrown with abandon (actually, now that I think about it, gringos are specifically targeted.) We found the only hostal with space that appeared in the guidebook, and here are some initial thoughts on the experience.

230 Hosteria Cochabamba.
Dingy room with peeling ceiling.
Two cracked bedside tables, and low beds that one would call rock hard if it weren't for a hint of nest-like lumpiness and a tendency to buckle towards the middle. I sleep in my jersey sleep-sack, covered in a cheery sky blue and red wool blanket and a horrendous 70's bedspread - one of those dark brown and orange floral numbers finished with yarn fringe and cigarette burns. I bunch it under my pancake of a pillow and add to the lumpiness. A non-functional dial TV is mounted alongside the foot of my bed, I guess solely for the viewing optimality of the two beds facing mine. Never mind that it is dangerously close to the doorway. The light switch is mounted squarely in the middle of the single backless armoire so that we must push aside our drying clothing to find it. The top board is also masking a pasted-on sign that welcomes the senor pasajero, and advises him to take care which outlet he plugs his cigarette lighter into so as to prevent fires. There are no towels, and by the way, the management will not be responsable for forgotten effects.

Aside from the thin wall-length window, the light source is a single uncovered halogen lightbulb descending half-cocked from a piece of baling wire. It is drafty, and as the light fades, the grimy halogen signs sizzle on outside and the speakers are hooked up and tested on the eardrums of anyone within a four-block radius. There comes a knock at the doors as I ponder sharing a bathroom with about 20 other people, and soon the industrial flecked-tile floor is sticky with CocaCola and a few other things, the hollow rooms twist laughter to a ragged crescendo, and I am once again losing after one round of hearts. Glancing at the row of young faces and travel-worn backpacks, I note that I would call this squalor if it weren't so fun.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Still behind . . .

Now that you had something interesting to read, it´s back to the laundry lists so I can be on track when I get back from the coast. We leave on Monday to commence such diversions as counting crabs, hitching rides in the backs of pickups, poking limpets, and tanning.

So after our last stop at Papallacta, we started back down, observing disturbed areas along rivers and roadsides while still trying to not get hit by speeding semis. See pictures of crazy plants on facebook. We said goodbye to our hitchiking frineds and beat it to the hotsprings - perhaps the best by-product of volcanic activity that everyone can appreciate. A favorite activity was going from the hottest pool (complete with brown algae), to submersing ourselves in the small stream that ran around the back. Estimated temperature difference - forty degrees.

Hmm, that was last Friday. Now I´m only about five days behind.
Saturday was a series of Indian markets and a volcanic lake, an dSunday was the Cotopaxi volcano where we started *gasp* science.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

And now for something completely different . . .

 So I read through my blog just now and realized just how much it sounded like a laundry list of bus rides. All of you apparently think fondly enough of me to read it anyway, but I decided to spice it up a little by throwing in some field notes. Great, you think. Now something that IS a laundry list. But these are the unofficial field notes that I´m not turning in, which means they morphed into something much more enjoyable. To write, at least. But after all this explaining you´re really not gonna stop reading, are you? 

The Evolution of Field Notes
Actually, it´s more like the original idea of descent with modification. I didn´t mean to do it, it just happened that way. Note the pivotal transition to sentence form.

Pine plantations
good wood, economical
planted in rows
so that those closest to the road
are simply stripped, shortened
used as living fenceposts

Same is done @ park entrance --- recognizeable only for the sign that marks it.
These ones are cut to a point, and the tops are painted white to deter rot.
They look like giant pencils.

I want to pull one out and color the Andes - big triangles with jagged snowcaps.
Then the angry volcanic fissures, almost poked there with a tightened fist.
Then the boulders awkwardly littering the paramo
like foreign pebbles cast from a giant´s shoe.
slate grey looming on a brown cover that looks deceptively fertile

Then I would shade in the washouts and a tiny whitetail would spring into penciled existence, bound up the hillside and away. 
Perhaps a rabbit would skitter frenzied from the shrubby cover lower down - reduced, mouse-like ears flattened against the harsh wind, heart bashing equally against the ribcage.
Then a hawk, with shiny black wings caked in graphite, might seize it for the biggest meal it would land in a week. Anything left would be pounced on by one of three naked-headed vultures, each one twice as black and four times as ugly as the last.

Then suddenly the wind would change, and all would go about their lives alone
And I would put the pencil back 
because it is alive, 
after all.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

High and, wait, Not dry

Then we  inched up into increasing whiteness  - a fog I had never even seen on the arctic tundra - which made the whole endeavor a lot mistier than I expected. Dominant vegetation - bunch grass. We picked up a couple of birwatchers who had been unsuccessfully scanning the indistinguishable sky since 6 AM. Fortunately, we had a half-empty bus and a captive audience, and so found out that they were actually biologists from Southern California - Stephanie White a marine biologist, and Rob Baty whoo had worked on the extensive effort to rehabilitate the California condor. Break out the snacks and let the stories begin.

The cool thing about snacks is that, with this kind of altitude, you have to eat sugar all the time. I decided to do it the local way, and bought a brick-sized hunk of brown sugar, panela,  for 50 cents, broke it up with the kitchen mallet intended for that purpose, and shared the wealth.

We would make one more stop on the way up, to a zonation populated only by cushion plants and lichen. And a bunch of nutshells hualed up there to prevent erosion. Lesson of the day- No, children, palm nuts are not found at 14, 000 feet . . .