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 . . .

Into the forest

So . . . there we were in the Polylepis forest, one of the last strongholds of native vegetation in the country. The trees grow in cool, boggy areas, so we crawled down into what would have been a swamp if it wasn´t for tons of moss and sharp grass to make the ground solid.
It sort´ve makes one feel a part of the slightly creepy, but still delightfully strange part of the pre-Disney fairy tales. Legend even tells of Llagantes, or Incan treasure hidden in Polylepis lakes. But I´m pretty sure they only tell that story to white peeople . . .
The trees themselves are low, gnarled, and slow growing, which is why they were replaced by beech, pine, and eucalyptus for construction purposes. As, is, they make for perfect climbing, and the bark has the texture of layers and lyaers of half'burnt paper. The was all kinds of moss everywhere, and little snapdragons that looked like shoes )zapatitos.) I got my own shoe wet crossing the stream for optimal tree climbing, but there were dry socks  and still half the mountain waiting up at the road.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

OK back to Papallacta . . .

So, after we visited the sewer river on Saturday, we headed up the gradient a bit and stopped at another bridge. The landscape looked surprisingly familiar, and before I even got off the bus, I had to verify that the surrounding rock was indeed tufa. What I didn´t know was that tufa is already an hispanization, and that real geologists call it ´tuff.´

Tufa is way harder than I had previously thought, being comprised of volcanic ashfall bascially compressed to a brick. It is surprisingly resistant to erosion, despite its sandy appearance, and it took quite a while for the river 300 m below to establish itself. There were a few flowering plants, some shrubs, the ever-present eucalyptus, and huge agaves just hanging off the cliffside. You know the soil´s not ideal when native plants still grow there . . .

The bus continued its climb up Papallacta into un ambiente increasingly colder, mistier, greener, and full of domesticated llamas grazing on 50-degree slopes. We stopped along the highway and crawled down into what I can only describe as the prehistoric birthplace of hobbits, otherwise known as the elfin forest (that is, if the speaker alludes to the gnome-like keebler elf and not the proper Tolkienesque counterparts . . .)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Dang it - I´m out of order

So Papallacta was Friday and Cotopaxi was Sunday. Both involved planty and geology things. Will sort it out tomorrow . . .

Haha - left you hanging . . .

Wow, it´s a good thing not too much happens during the week, ´cause I have a lot of weekend catching up to do . . .

So we drove up to Cotopaxi National Park on roads that make the Main Hill road look like a great place to start your teenager driving. Quito is at about 9,000 ft, so we were climbing pretty high just to get up there. Wow, I realize how bad my English sounds and it would actually be kinda funny if my Spanish was better . . .

Right at the bottom of the Cotopaxi volcano itself is a eucalyptus plantation. Eucalyptus is everywhere, and is not native. It was brought from - guess where? - as a fast-growing, straight tree for construction. Its fragrant smell is actually a chemical that inhibits the growth of other plants. This makes for virtually no understory, a change in the overall soil chemistry over time, and there aren´t even koalas for compensation . . .

I realize this is a diverse audience, but for those of you who doubt that I am doing sicence;

We did a few little excercises with (plant) species diversity in the area, and averaged about ten - from the Eucalyptos themselves and the few mosses that cling to them, to the hardiest grass that can somehow tolerate growing in cough-drop-flavored dirt.

We continued on for another 20 min to the museum that every park is obligated to have.
The tiny, dated exhibit showcased (in the form of taxidermy and washed-out 80´s photos) a bit of what we were about to see in the Andean highlands - not much, but a few cool things including a small deer, a few hawks, a rabbit that looks a lot like a pika (the general rule is that your extermities, ears inlcuded, get smaller as the temperature drops), and the Andean Wolf. It looks like a coyote, lives like a fox (solitary) and is genetically a wolf.
here was also a stuffed condor, young, but still huge. It´s actually the heaviest bird that can still fly, and the national symbol of Ecuador. I think I like the eagle better. I´d even go for the wild turkey. But I guess there is something impressive about a vulture with a ten-foot wind span . . .

But we came to see plants in the Paramo (PAHR - uh -mo), and nobody goes to a museum to learn about plants, so after partaking of the 25-cent empanadas, we piled back into the bus to continue our ascent.

More tomorrow . . .

Monday, January 18, 2010

So this one time on the bus . . .

Actually, we're not that immature. We're in college.

This one might be quick since the power cut out the last time I wrote it and I'm kinda pissed.
Ecuador runs a lot on hydroelectric power and they haven't gotten enough rain recently. So, we have scheduled power outages - 11 am on MWF *or LMV for you hispanohablantes* and 230 on TTh *MJ*
And then there are all the times that aren't scheduled. 
ANyway, back to the bus .  . .
Friday we piled on a 12 person school bus  *two seats for every person* at 8 AM and headed West to Papallacta *paw-pie-yock-ta*, one of South America's numerous, still active volcanoes with a cool name. We passed through Cumbaya *yep, keep laughing, it's pronounced just like the African campfire song*, the little town where USFQ is located, and were surprised to find that it was our first stop.  The river we pass by every day is essentially the sewer system for Quito, a poorly-planned quick fix solution to rapid expansion and limited government funds. Apparently there was a detergent spill in the same river a few years back, so that might have cleaned things up a bit . . .  Anyway, nothing lives there, so we climbed back on the bus and headed north and up . . .

Tuesday, January 12, 2010


I have found a computer and a statistically significant chunk of time!
Where to begin _ crap, I can't even find the front-facing question mark . . . this will probably be super disorganized . . .

So, arrival in Quito was fine. I am staying with Victor and Fanny de Maturana, who, as per the hispanic tradition, have a few additional last names that I can't remember. They are a lovely retired couple who insist that they are my abuelitos.
About -ito . . . Everything in Quito is diminutive. There is not cafe, but cafecito. Not Manuel but Manuelito. And even if you ask for just a poquito de comida, they still give you a five-course meal, with two and a half of the courses being either bread, hminy, corn, plantain, or yuca, two being just rice, and about half a course of fruit. Needless to say, I am not so chiquita anymore . . .

I'm petty sure with all the -ito-ing, that Quito's name will evolve to be Quit-ito in about 20 years . . .

Hmmm . .. I have my own room, bathroom, and lukwewarm water that turns off at some regularly indeterminate time in the late morning. We live in this kind of compound behind garage doors, and I have four keys to get all the way through the doors/bars/etc to my room. Most people put variously colored broken bottles at the top of the concrete barriers to deter ladrones, but I guess we're not that artistic.
A BU student lives above me with one of the single daughters of my family. So, I have a bus buddy and a gym budy and a meal buddy and I'm sure he's quite tired of me at the moment but I'm a gringa girl and I can't go anywhere by myself.

more on details later . . .

THe eco kids start their traveling this weekend, with a trip by bus up altitudinal gradients to look at plantlife, and a not-to-be-missed side trip to some hot springs on the way back *which are, PS, not crowded on Fridays . . .*

Then to the indigenous market of Otavalo on Saturday with all the BU kids - send requests . ..
Sunday will be Cotopaxi - a mostly inactive volcano that, dependong on how you measure it, is actually bigger than Everest
But who the hell measures form the bottom of the ocean . . .

hmm, that's all for now. I'll attempt chronological order when I catch up.
Off to get a $1 cup of coffee . . .