Saturday, February 28, 2009

Why Action Wisdom?

If you've read my previous similarly-titled posts, then you probably have a good idea where this is going - once again, the short answer to the question is, "Because the world needs it." But why, though? As with pop science, my meaning of action wisdom will take a little explaining.

I am officially a student of philosophy, and the question I most often hear when telling people about my major is, "What can you do with philosophy?" My immediate response has historically been to ask right back, "What can't you do with philosophy?" When I'm feeling particularly frisky, I sometimes say that I'm a student of applied philosophy, which reliably causes even more confusion. This is usually funny at the time, but it also points out the problem I have with the cultural position of philosophy as a field of study.

The fact of the matter is that philosophy can be applied to anything. Such applications can occasionally lead us down some rather silly rabbit holes of inquiry if we're not careful, and it is these rabbit holes which I suspect drive most people away from philosophy. A favorite joke of mine goes, "Philosophy is questions that may never be answered; religion is answers that may never be questioned." But so long as we remain aware of these rabbit holes and try not to fall into them during emergencies, philosophy can be usefully applied to just about anything. Like science, I want to see philosophy popularized - I want trolley problems and Russell's paradox to be discussed over a pint in a bar. And not just by my friends and me.

Philosophy certainly spends a lot of time in the ivory tower, especially in academic papers, but it must not spend all its time up there. After all, thought with no action is just as bad as action with no thought. Business ethics and bioethics are two excellent examples of applied philosophy (even if they aren't applied well in the real world, they're still clear opportunities to apply philosophy). Philosophy of science is another obvious one, and can be applied to help one pick up new material more easily by having a better idea of what will be the most useful questions to ask. A little bit of decision theory can help one in dealing with others, and even a semi-functional utility calculus can help one to organize busy days.

There's nothing particularly fancy about any of this, but that's kind of my point: philosophy is no fancier than any other field of study. All subjects have their esoterica, every field has specialists, and philosophy is no different. My guess is that most people who find philosophy to be more esoteric than other subjects are unable to recognize its mundane applications in everday life. This is the action wisdom I'm talking about: practical applications of philosophical principles, living out one's values, attempting to act wisely in day-to-day situations. As for those who think of it as a willy-nilly, anything-goes sort of enterprise (some nihilists, serious solipsists, and their silly ilk), this is no different in kind from the misunderstandings of legitimate science perpetrated by the purveyors of pseudoscience. A more obvious application of action wisdom is the legitimate sound-byte department. Tell me if you've heard any of these before: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," " 'Is' does not imply 'ought,' " "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler." Each one of these phrases has practical application in modern life, and what's more, they're catchy! So why is philosophy not more popular than it is? Why is there no introduction to formal logic in high school? Why don't people seem to recognize just how often they do philosophy? Why should "action wisdom" appear to be paradoxical at all?

Every single person has a philosophy of some sort, some set of principles that plays a part in determining their thougths and behavior, whether these principles are well-organized or not (and whether the person is aware of them or not). The study of philosophy will help one determine those principles - both to discover and to decide. Just about everyone thinks of themselves as a rational agent who does the right thing most of the time, and philosophy can help make that a reality. In Crito, the titular character asks, “But do you see, Socrates, that the opinion of the many must be regarded, as is evident in your own case, because they can do the very greatest evil to anyone who has lost their good opinion?” Socrates replies, "I only wish, Crito, that they could; for then they could also do the greatest good, and that would be well. But the truth is that they can do neither good nor evil: they cannot make a man wise or make him foolish; and whatever they do is the result of chance.” It was true in ancient Greece, it is true today, and it has been true at every point in between. If it's ever going to change, then the world will need a healthy dose of practical philosophy in order to do so.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Why Pop Science?

Continuing in the same vein as my earlier post on evangelical humanism, today I want to talk about the importance of pop science. Let's get right to it: why pop science? As before, the short answer is, "Because the world needs it." The long answer is a bit more complex.

First, I want to clarify what I mean by "pop science." I do mean that science should be popular, but I most emphatically do not mean that this popularity should come at the expense of content. A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, and the wildly irresponsible speculations of pseudoscience are no fundamentally different for being based on a tiny bit of actual science rather than pure imagination. I mean that there should be a solid understanding, in the public mind, of the difference between good science, bad science, and non-science. I mean that the principles of the scientific method should be openly discussed in public, discussions which should be accessible to everyone. I mean, in short, that good & proper science should be popular.

This is, admittedly, a lofty and far-off goal. I am hoping for no less than a scientifically-minded society, which probably won't happen any time soon. Hell, it may never happen at all - but that's not for lack of need, and certainly no reason to stop trying. Lots of people are trying, in fact, and their labors have borne fruit already:
  • Richard Dawkins occupies a position created for just such a purpose, the Professor for Public Understanding of Science - he is also a prolific author, having written on all scales, from small essays and articles to the epic tome that is The Ancestor's Tale (a brilliant and very accessible read).
  • Brian Greene, a professor of physics at Columbia and theoretical physicist, has written The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos, both good books for popularizing some of the most exciting bits of physics.
  • Stephen Hawking, perhaps the best example of the benefits of science I can think of, has popularized physics with A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell. Both of these books are small in size, but great in stature.
  • Professor PZ Myers of the University of Minnesota, Morris is the author of Pharyngula, an extraordinarily popular blog on the admirable Professor Myers regularly blogs on current scientific research, explaining such things as the mapping of the platypus genome in layman's terms (well, perhaps a bright high school layman, or a layman with some college).
  • Ebonmuse's Evolution Pages present a clear and thorough look at several aspects of the struggle between legitimate science and fashionable idiocy. These short-to-medium-length essays (depending on how long an "essay" is in your mind - for me, it's "more than a newspaper article, less than a novel") are well-organized and written almost entirely in everyday language. The author's main site, Ebon Musings, also links to his writings on atheism and his blog, Daylight Atheism, which often bring scientific principles to bear on the more general conflict between reason and nonsense.
  • Penn & Teller have created a Showtime series, appropriately entitled Bullshit!, in which they popularize science with a technique similar to the via negativa, showcasing popular bullshit and exposing it for what it is.
  • Even House, MD touches on good, solid science - if you know what to look for. The show routinely touches on epistemology, parsimony, and ethics as applied to the medical field. The show is popular, and it's got science, so I call it a win.
  • Other TV shows, for reasons more obvious, also bear mentioning: Mythbusters, Planet Earth, and Blue Planet spring immediately to mind. Also, I may watch a bit too much Discovery Channel. Also also, I may try to argue whether that's possible.
  • Wikipedia also bears mentioning, not only for its status as a repository for knowledge, but also for its source-finding capacity.
So take a stand against the forces of ignorance, pseudoscience, and superstition in the most fundamental way possible: by knowing better. Set aside a few minutes of every day, or at least every week, and put a little science in your life. And your conversations. The world needs science to be more popular, so that "pop science" isn't thought as paradoxical as it now seems.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Why Evangelical Humanism?

I have some snappy little phrases up at the top of my blog. At first blush, these pairings may seem paradoxical: evangelism and humanism are not commonly thought of together; neither are action and wisdom; neither are pop and science. And, like all good paradoxes, there is something deeper beneath these surface appearances. That's what I want to talk about today.

This entry is not meant to convince anyone of the virtues of humanism itself, or to argue that this or that religion is not the case; these points are taken for granted here. I am instead trying to make the case to humanists, who agree with me on the aforementioned already, that there is something to be gained by an evangelical approach. With the scope of my intentions established, let us begin in earnest.

So, why evangelical humanism? In short, because the world needs it. At length, I believe that humanism is the best system of belief for the future of humanity, and must replace supernaturalistic religion as the dominant cultural meme in the near geological future if we are to survive as a species and make lasting social improvements.

Evangelism is, put simply, a charismatic approach to espousing an idea. There's nothing wrong with evangelizing in and of itself - what is being evangelized (and why) is more important by far. For example, when global warming threatens the vast majority of life on Earth, an evangelical approach may be called for, in order to spread the word and encourage constructive change in those habits of ours which affect the climate, all in the name of good solid science and the long-term interest of life in general. As Penn Jillette says in the Penn & Teller: Bullshit! episode on the Bible, "The fact is, we are two evangelical assholes. Bullshit is an evangelical show. TV preachers are doing exactly the same thing we are doing - they are telling the truth as they see it." In other words, there is nothing wrong in principle with putting one's point of view out into the marketplace of ideas, for all to see, with the intention of convincing others of that point of view.

Contrary to the popular association of evangelism with Christianity, evangelism has nothing to do with Christianity, neither by necessity, nor by rights. Jesus Christ himself explicitly directed his followers to eschew public prayer and pious displays, and instead to keep their faith to themselves as a private matter between them and their god (Matthew 6:5-7). This is good advice, and I am rather disappointed that so many appear not to have taken it to heart. Supernatural claims are categorically unknowable, in that they are unverifiable and unfalsifiable matters of faith. Leaving aside the fact that empirical study can render them superfluous, there simply is no way to settle such matters (especially not between competing supernatural claims, as they're all equally ridiculous).

Humanism, on the other hand, is a philosophy centered around human life on Earth. It is concerned with the improvement of people, at both the individual and social level, and lacks the focus on the hereafter which is typical of religions. This focus has given religion tremendous memetic survival value in the past, by trading people hope for a better life after death, in exchange for patiently enduring misery in this life. But, lacking any possibility of verification, claims about a life after death are unactionable wishful thinking which lull their adherents into complacency, and in modern times these claims at best serve only to distract us from those issues which truly do deserve our attention. At worst, they actively encourage us to look forward happily to the destruction of the world, an event which we have only recently gained the capability to cause.

The belief that there is a second, eternal life is a distraction from this one for reasons of pragmatic mathematics alone: compared to eternity, a century or less vanishes to nothingness. What importance can this life have, aside from the question of picking the right religion to ensure one's eternal bliss after death? Even taking into account the actual suffering that happens on Earth, which we know to occur, the belief in an afterlife can only dismiss Earthly matters as ultimately unimportant, and this is perhaps the most terrible mistake we can make: to not care about the real and important concerns facing us here and now, in favor of a hope for things unseen (Buddhism is a rather remarkable exception to this rule, but that is a subject for another day and I shall leave it for now with but a mention). Humanism is the antithesis of this position, dismissing those matters about which no knowledge may be gained in order to place our focus properly upon those matters on which we can gain knowledge and make improvements. And because there is actionable content and purpose in the belief system, evangelizing for it is not an empty exercise as it is for religion, but instead a legitimately useful activity.

Evangelizing for the humanist worldview, far from being the pointless exercise of spreading ancient myths, is perhaps one of the most culturally impacting actions that can be taken by any everyday citizen at this point in history. Looking at the data, we see that the least religious nations tend to be the best nations for their citizens - and every citizen plays a role in shaping that trend. Living by example, we can show that a secular humanist lifestyle is a better way than that of superstitious piety. We can spread the word of science, embody the virtues of empathy and inclusion, preach the good news of secular democracy. We do this not to save souls, but to improve standards of living by encouraging others to work for a better life here, rather than preparing in vain for another life we cannot justifiably expect. Living our lives according to these values, and encouraging them in others, is an investment in long-term cultural change which we would be wise to make.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Squid Invasion!

Animal Planet showed a program last night called Squid Invasion, which is a doubly apt title. It's meant to be about the Humboldt squid, a rather remarkable creature, which has recently begun aggressively expanding its territory from the Sea of Cortez where it originated, all along the West coast of the Americas from Alaska to Chile. The second sense in which the title is apt is that the squid themselves are being invaded - by humans!

Seriously, this was probably one of the most ridiculous "documentaries" I have ever seen. I learned four legitimately interesting facts: a Humboldt squid grows from a fertilized egg to a fully grown, 5-foot, 100-lb adult in about a year; the Humboldt's chromatophores look to be different from those used by the mimic octopi I've seen; and the Humboldt is aggressively expanding its territory from its previous niche into a much larger area. The fourth was a neat bit summarizing the surprisingly short development of a squid - not only do they mature fast, they develop fast from the get-go, from egg & sperm to fully functional (if diminutive) hunter in a matter of days (this bit alone justifies the science/biology tags - and a good thing, too, because things are about to go downhill). These are all fine and good, but there was quite a bit more in there, and it wasn't what I would call "educational."

For one thing, the humans talking on the program described the squid as "alien" at one point, and one guy even shoved an endoscope into a live specimen and referred to it as "probing," then laughed as the squid hurried away after he released it back into the water. Did he not consider that the squid might be swimming for its life after being abducted and probed? Also, during the probing, the squid's three hearts were beating "fast," which I am hesitant to quote because I don't really have a frame of reference here - but it seems not to have occurred to our host that an unexpected endoscopy might be a stressful situation for a subject, perhaps resulting in an elevated heart rate. But I don't know, I'm not a doctor. What do you think?

For another thing, the same guy who probed the squid also attempted to do a nocturnal filming with a night-vision camera to catch the squid behaving "naturally," i.e. without knowing they were being observed. As soon as he was in the water, he started getting attacked, so Mission Failed right there. Moreover, the night vision camera (which was probably not designed for underwater use) was so sensitive that it was picking up the bioluminescence from microorganisms and unable to focus on the squid themselves. So the boat turned on its light in order to fix that, whereupon the crew discovered that there were far more squid in the area than they had expected. Yet afterward, this guy proclaimed his efforts a success. By what measure, might I ask? He abused a piece of sensitive equipment, failed spectacularly to achieve his goal, and ended up being forced to retreat. That's like the definition of an epic failure.

Additionally, this same guy wanted to attach a camera to a squid so he could watch them go hunt something. I thought he'd put a tiny camera in an unobtrusive place, which would broadcast a radio signal so they could see what was up. Nope! This yahoo goes and puts something about the size of a handy-cam right on the squid's fin, attached by a wire to the boat. It was a long wire, but still! After making some wild conjectures about what some flashy color-changing might mean, this asshole watched in fascinated glee as the poor squid was attacked by her peers and then devoured alive. When the rest of the squid started attacking the camera, Dive Man remarked that the camera doesn't look like food, but they were still attacking it - seemingly oblivious to the possibility that the foreign object was the reason his victim was attacked in the first place. For all the time spent on talking up the squid for their intelligence (they may be capable of language, which seems to me a good indicator for self-awareness), these schmucks sure don't seem to have taken that into account.

Finally, they tried to transport a live squid to a research facility to study it, and failed at that, too. Immediately after catching it, the squid was placed into a cooler, of all things, and then driven for several hours. Yes, a cooler. Like, the thing you'd fill with beer & ice for a party in your garage. It might have been a Coleman, maybe an Igloo, I didn't get a good look. Unsurprisingly, the specimen did not survive the trip - which event was described by one bright member of the team as "ironic." Last I checked, irony involves defying expectations, and my expectations were that safely removing an animal from its natural habitat is often a tricky proposition. I want to throw these people out into space and watch them explode, then call their deaths "ironic." OK, not really, but it would be poetic. And illegal.

In conclusion, after watching this show and some of the ads on the channel, it has become apparent to me that Animal Planet is like the Discovery Channel, but for people who just want to gawk at animals. If you want an excuse to drink, get a fifth and watch this program - you may need to be hammered to withstand these hooligans.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Two steps forward, one step back

Daylight Atheism, one of my two favorite blogs in the world, recently posted an article about the events surrounding Johann Hari's criticism of the Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, itself a response to the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  The summary of events over on Daylight Atheism is excellent, and I will refer you there if you are not yet aware of the matter - it's a quick read, and very informative.

My intention with this post is to bring further attention to the matter, and encourage you, the General Reader, to speak out on this subject.  Just so we're perfectly clear on what's at stake here, let me point out that the UN has basically caved to pressure from Muslim nations, as nations have previously caved to pressure from Muslim fanatics, and made it explicitly verboten to address human rights violations carried out by Muslims in accordance with shariah law.  As I wrote in a letter to my congressperson today,
As a student of philosophy, and more generally as a human being, I cannot understand what bearing the beliefs of an individual have upon the justice of that individual's conduct towards others.  Is a rape not a rape, is a murder not a murder, is bigotry not bigotry, simply by virtue of the god worshiped by the perpetrator?  I think not.  I should hope you agree with me that for all to have equal rights, all must be subject to the same laws, regardless of race, sex, or creed.  The Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights is, put bluntly, antithetical to this basic egalitarian idea.
I would hate to take an apocalyptic tenor unnecessarily, but it does seem that what hope we have had of protecting the rights of individuals from the superstitions of others is being threatened.  While neither the UN nor any individual nation enjoy the status of perfection, this development is most certainly a step in the absolutely wrong direction, and we must do what we can to set it right.  As individual citizens, we may not be able to participate directly in the policymaking discussions that shape these events - but we can make our voices heard nonetheless.  If you live in the USA, then take ten minutes to write your congressperson.  Get up ten minutes earlier, or stay up ten minutes later, whatever suits you.  Like voting, writing to a representative is one of those civic duties that works better when more people participate.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Obama seems to really understand science!

OK, this is old news, but I just saw it today!  And I'm excited about it!
The fact that Obama felt it was necessary to make such an announcement tells me two things:  first, that he recognizes the decline of science's importance in the public mind as the threat to our nation's future that it truly is; second, that he agrees with me personally in thinking that something must be done about it.  Moral of the story:  Obama says to the nation, "Listen, children, it's time to go to school, even though I know you don't like to learn things."

I think the most remarkable part of this whole thing is that Obama basically says that the only way to learn about the world is by looking at it (the money quote is from 1:33-2:02).  Way to go!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

101 Interesting Things, part seven: Theia

Theia is a hypothetical planetary body approximately the size of Mars, thought to have travelled about the Sun billions of years ago, in the Earth's infancy. Theia's orbit and Earth's gradually converged upon each other until, the theory goes, they crashed into each other a little under 4.4 billion years ago. This is how the Moon was born.

OK, that's a gross oversimplification, but it really does appear to be the case that Earth's single moon was forged from the remnants of a planetary collision. Billions of years ago, Earth was sterile and toxic to any would-be life forms, well on its way to an unremarkable future. But then this cataclysmic collision occurred, drastically altering the face of the planet - as well as its angular velocity and composition. The debris ejected by this global merger coalesced into another rocky body itself, which currently hangs in a somewhat stable orbit and lights up our night sky with its cold, cratered face.

Some of the clues which lead to such an interesting conclusion are themselves rather striking. The Moon is covered in a layer of dust, but beneath that are some of the oldest rocks that have ever been found, which helps us date the collision. These rocks are also completely dry. And in some places, there is orange volcanic soil beneath the dust. What these clues tell us is that, since the oldest rocks on the Moon are about as old as some of the oldest rocks from Earth, these rocks probably cooled at about the same time. The total absence of moisture in these rocks indicates that the Moon was very hot at some point, even having volcanoes of its own.

So, at this point, the most likely explanation seems to be that Theia, this planetary body about the size of Mars, collided with the Earth and all the hot matter ejected into space from that collision coalesced into a volcanic satellite, which cooled over time into the moon of today.

Here's a bit from the History Channel on the giant impact hypothesis:

Thursday, February 12, 2009

101 Interesting Things, part six: House, MD

House, MD, for anyone who may have been living under a rock since 2004, is an amazingly good and supremely interesting television show.  Full Disclosure:  I kind of finished watching season one tonight.  Double-Full Disclosure:  By "kind of," I mean "entirely."

Perhaps the most striking feature of the show is how extremely human the titular character of Dr. House is written.  He is a peerless medical genius and a consummate master of sarcasm, that much is exaggeration.  But his flaws are deep and very realistic.  Without spoiling any part of the plot, it will suffice to say that House is a hypocrite - he is no less susceptible to the weaknesses he points out in others, and he does not live by his own advice or with the knowledge granted him by his expertise; he simply covers up for it rather well by keeping everyone else on the defensive.  The occasional crack appears in his facade, and these insights into the character are revealing without being melodramatic.  The fact that he is an unapologetic atheist (as are at least two other characters on the show) is icing on the cake for godless heathens like myself.

I first started paying attention to the series about a year or so ago, when a roommate of mine started watching the third season on the internet.  I got the first two seasons for Christmas, and the pilot was more or less what I expected:  a slightly more ham-handed (but otherwise true to form) version of the later show.  Still well done, but pilots are subject to expositional needs that later episodes simply are not.

Watching the special features made me see the show in a new light, though.  Aside from Omar Epps, I had never heard of any of the actors before (nor had I heard of any of the production crew, but I usually don't pay enough attention to that stuff), and I had been watching under the impression that this was some otherworldly cast, immune to the foibles and vagaries plaguing the rest of humanity.  I was swiftly disabused of this notion during the special features.  Omar Epps and Robert Sean Leonard are the only main characters who do not appear in the special features I watched (I opted out of the set tour), so I can't really judge them based on this, but everyone else came across as a rather stereotypical actor gushing in front of the camera.  The sole exception was Lisa Edelstein, who remained composed for all ten seconds she was shown.  The producers seemed kind of full of themselves, too.

Despite all this, House, MD is still an amazing show, and this is the part that made me want to write this post.  Sela Ward described Hugh Laurie as being "outside the box," and I immediately exclaimed to nobody in particular, "No!  He just fits perfectly into an extremely well-designed box!"  I think this is what's really so great about the series:  it is an uncommonly good example of the common TV show.  Every episode follows the same formula:  open with a slice-of-life vignette of whoever will become the patient (with a possible red herring), proceed to House getting his arm twisted to take the case, follow with initial diagnosis and small complications, proceed to crucial complications, repeat last step as needed, and achieve resolution.  Sprinkle character development to taste I mean, "for pacing."  Variety and good writing keep it somewhat fresh, but that's the formula, and it manages to be well-executed just about every damn time.  OK, it also helps that they throw medical jargon and scientific principles around like confetti at a New Year's bash - as my best friend's microbiology professor pointed out, "Pay attention while watching House, and you'll get a reasonable entry-level medical education."

So that's what I find so interesting about House, MD:  it's a common show, done uncommonly well.  In a time when we have a word, "Foxed," for good shows that get shit-canned, I think it's a pretty impressive that such an excellent show has enjoyed such sweeping success.  Or maybe I'm just coming down with acute rapid onset fan-itis.  Look, try watching three episodes and see if you aren't hooked.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Thoughts on tonight's press conference

Less than an hour ago, President Obama (it still feels good just to write that!) finished his first White House press conference.  I missed the first ten minutes, on account of being held up during a few errands (who knew it could be so hard to find a copy of Good Night, and Good Luck?).  But by and large, I was pleased with the event.  Afterwards, on MSNBC's coverage, the Olbermann/Maddow/Matthews trio began delivering commentary.

First, a complaint:  one of the correspondents, whose name I do not remember, asked Obama a question about a timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan as well as whether Obama would lift the restrictions on media coverage of returning troop caskets.  The first part was answered well enough, if not conclusively, but the second part was not addressed at all.  The particular phrasing of the question - letting the media cover returning troop caskets so that the American people could see the human cost of the war - made it all the more pressing to my mind, and I was rather disappointed that this part of the question was completely ignored.

That is my only complaint.  Chris Matthews, I believe, was the one to point out that Obama actually took the time to fully answer several multi-part questions.  As Keith Olbermann pointed out, the complete answers to several of these complex questions were over seven minutes long.  I agree with the two of them that this is a good thing, by and large - the shortening of our attention span, as a people, is something that must be stopped.  This is why I was disheartened to hear Rachel Maddow say - playing Devil's advocate, I believe - that in lacking the punchiness of sound-byte material, the length of his responses could lose some people.  Yes, when running any advertising campaign, the struggle to maintain a foothold in the mind of the public requires pandering to the shortest of attention spans - but a press conference is not the time for such nonsense!

"Hope" fits on a bumper sticker.  So does "Change we can believe in."  Obama retreated to past turns of phrase come buzzwords often enough during his press conference, the message does not need to be dumbed down any further.

So that's when I stopped watching.  My friend Jack just got here to watch Good Night, and Good Luck, so we're gonna go do that now.  I'll have some updates with more specific information as I'm able to recover the specific details from the media.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The real problems in this country

So Michael Phelps, the fourteen-time gold-medal-winning Olympian swimmer, has just incurred a three-month suspension from competition from USA Swimming because there is a photograph somewhere of him holding a marijuana pipe.


Not only has he been suspended from competition, but he has also had his funding cut off, and the Kellogg corporation is not renewing their sponsorship contract with Phelps.  A statement from USA Swimming acknowledges that Phelps has not violated any of the World Anti-Doping Agency guidelines - whose tests Phelps has passed with flying colors, as a member of Project Believe, which tests in excess of existing standards - yet they still want to send "a strong message" to the swimmer because some people don't like pot.

I'm aware that this is all too typical of a reaction, but I'm still rather angered by it.  It's the same reason that I'm angered by any mothering law, by any conception of moral "substance," by any attempt to limit fun and freedom for everyone due to overconcern for safety.  As Bill Maher so succinctly put it, "Sometimes, fun costs ya."  Everyone knows that too much alcohol gives you cirrhosis and wrecks your body; everyone knows that too many cigarettes will give you lung cancer and wreck your body; and lots of people know that too much caffeine will also fuck you up.  It should therefore come as no surprise that tetrahydrocannabinol, like any other substance on the planet, is bad for you in excess.  Nobody wants to be a stoned slacker, I'm sure; but neither does anyone want to be an abusive alcoholic, or a lung cancer patient, or even dependent upon caffeine.  Phelps' decisions on what to do in his spare time to have fun are, quite frankly, his own decisions and nobody else's business.  The fact that he's a very public figure, if anything, should help to refute the stoned slacker stereotype - this guy managed to win fourteen gold medals, while possibly enjoying a toke every now and then?  Way to go!

But some progress is being made, I suppose.  Evan Morgenstein, an agent for a number of Olympic swimmers (and a rival agent of Phelps'), acts as our reasoned voice of "who gives a shit" in the public sphere.  "Enough is enough," he said, "The penalty is far greater than the crime. He has said he is sorry. Let's move on to the real problems in this country."

Amen to that.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Poison for your Brain: Pareidolia, the Islamophobic way!

Dammit, America! I thought we had come so far...

So there's this doll that Fisher Price makes, and it "talks" - in the sense that "gibberish" can be considered "words." Actually, in this case, that's exactly the problem: a bunch of people are mistaking gibberish for words. The same has happened with a videogame on the DS.

As the gentlemen at Penny Arcade were kind enough to point out yesterday in comic strip form, this is just crazy. First off, it's gibberish. You have to want to hear something to make words out of it. Second, so what? So what if it says, "Islam is the light?" Do people honestly think that the mere pronouncement of a viewpoint by a doll or video game will cause some manner of harm to their children?

Apparently so. This reminds me of that asinine prop 8 ad where the mother was shocked to find out her daughter had learned of the existence of homosexuals - not anything about them, just the fact that they're in the world. It also reminds me of this other comic, which is also about the mythical power contained in children's toys (actually, that whole series is pretty good, and only 16 strips long). As much as the term "Islamophobia" is bandied about as a buzzword by hypersensitive hypocrites, I think it really applies here: what else could explain the reaction to the mere (and merely alleged) statement of a viewpoint, except a phobia of that viewpoint itself? Pat Condell has a pretty good bit on Islamophobia, but I have one rhetorical quibble with him: it's clear from his preamble that he doesn't fear Muslims themselves, but only the most fanatical of their number, and only because of their fanaticism. Religious extremism of any flavor is harmful, to be sure, but this ridiculous "controversy" over so much nonsense is a pareidolian (pareidolic? Pareidoliac? How about apophenic?) knee-jerk reaction to the simple suggestion of the legitimacy of some religion. Does it get any crazier?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Rendezvous: Chapter 19

The drive out to California was long and boring. Dee and Sam rotated driving and sleeping, raiding gas stations when they were both awake. Dee talked with Sam a lot, trying to work out just what the Hell was going on in her head. After two days of solid driving, they arrived in Northern California. A state map looted from a gas station guided them to the San Andreas fault line, and Dee was able to remember vaguely where she and her companions had first found the spaceship last time. They agreed that it was likely the case that the ship was not there yet, however, they might get a chance to figure out just what it was that the owner of the ship had found worth making a landing. If not, then they would go down to Dee's previous hideout and see what they could work out with the current residents.
A quarter-mile after the end of a dead-end road, the ship came into sight, glistening in the sunlight. If it was merely dormant now, perhaps they could go back again and right things. That was the plan, anyway.
The plan failed when they saw him. Standing outside the ship, gleaming in the sun, the man in white was staring right at them before they had even identified him. As the truck approached over the high desert scrub, more details came into view. His clothing was skin-tight and shining in the sunlight, and his head - no, wait - he wasn't wearing clothing. His "suit" was him.
Dee pulled the truck right up to the man and put it in park, the engine still running. She leaned out the window to get a closer look at him, now that the truck wasn't bouncing all over on its suspension.
"Welcome back," he said as she sized him up. "I was wondering when you would arrive."
"Well," Dee said, struggling for something snappy. "You look like you're just full of answers."
"Oh, most certainly. I was hoping for the same from you."
"Dee? You know this guy?"
"Umm." Dee shifted her weight back inside the truck. "Not exactly."
"Please," the man said, affably. "Come, join me inside." He turned and stepped into his vessel. Dee and Sam stared for a moment, stunned by the surreality of the scene. Then Dee shut off the engine, and the two of them stepped out of the truck and followed the man in white.
Inside, the ship looked just as Dee remembered it. Now that they were out of the harsh mid-day sunlight, she could see that the man's skin was not white per se, but iridescent, almost like mother of pearl. Other than that, he looked like a standard Earth male, sans reproductive organs or any hair.
"So, uhh - who exactly are you," Dee stammered.
"My designation would be difficult for you to comprehend. You may call me whatever you wish."
"All right, then. I'ma call you Bob."
"Very well. Right this way, if you please." The women followed him deeper into the ship.
"So," she asked as they walked, "I don't suppose you're from around here?"
"Most certainly not," he said with a mechanical chuckle. After a pause, Dee spoke again.
"Yeah, so, uhh - what're you, an alien or something?"
"I suppose you might call me that, for my origins are far from your planet. However, others of your species would probably call me a god. A demi-god, to be more precise."
"I see," Dee responded at length. Sam, for her part, was completely occupied with looking around at the ship. It was, to put it mildly, unlike anything she had ever seen. A hidden light source followed them, illuminating their path. Glyphs hovered in the air, apparently responding to the man's presence, and shimmered as he interacted with them.
"Here we are," he said as they arrived in the room Dee recognized from last time as containing the terminal. She felt numb. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, coming at her as through a thick fog. "Dee, would you kindly interact with the terminal, as you did last time?" The man stepped aside and gestured to the interface as it sprang to life.
"I, uhh - sure. How - how did you know my name?"
"Oh, I know quite a bit about you, Dee. I've been watching you for quite some time. You and all your friends, in fact. Very interesting, the lot of you. Please, begin interacting with the terminal; we may speak as you do so, but I wish to get my investigation underway."
"Yes. It is a most interesting development that you were able to intuit the meanings of the machine language after mere minutes of exposure. My guess is that it is due to the fact that it is coded in the same language you are, and the two of you share much architectural overlap. In order to test this, though, I must observe your interactions with it." Dee stood frozen, trying to guess at what was being spelled out to her. "However, if you do not cooperate, I shall be forced to end your process and run simulations with a backup copy. The results will not be as reliable as this method, though, so I would greatly appreciate it if you would afford me the courtesy of your cooperation." The affable tone in Bob's voice did not falter.
"I - uh - yes. Yes, sure thing." Dee began staring at the terminal's interface and touching the glyphs. She had to focus to cut through the disbelief that seemed to weigh her mind down. Whatever Bob was saying, though, he wanted something from her, and was prepared to "end her process" in order to get it. Dee was certain she didn't want that. "Rosie?" Anxiety crept into Dee's voice.
"Uh - yes?" Sam's bewilderment was apparent in her tone.
"Please tell me that I'm not going crazy. You're seeing all this, too. Right?"
"I - I don't know. I mean, I see a guy. He's shiny. We're in his ship, I guess. You're using a magical computer. Hell, I think I'm going crazy."
"OK. That's OK. Maybe it won't be so bad if we're crazy together."
"Calm yourselves, please," the man insisted. "I assure you that you are both sane and lucid. This is very strange for you both, to be sure, but my investigation cannot proceed properly without your cooperation. I am monitoring both of you, and while your heart rates and blood pressures are elevated, you are not yet in danger of going into shock - oh, my mistake, it appears that Sam may be. Would you like me to administer a sedative?" Sam started at the mention of her name, then composed herself as she declined his offer. "Very well. Please take care to maintain your composure, I would like this to go as swiftly and conveniently as possible for us all." Bob smiled warmly and turned his attention back to Dee, who was staring at the glyphs in the air before her.
"OK, Bob," she said, manipulating the symbols, "I got a few questions for you."
"Go right ahead. I would be happy to discuss matters with you while you assist me."
"Good. OK. So. Were you the guy who bombed all our power plants?"
"And took out all our satellites?"
"And brought the parasite here?"
"So - OK, pardon me for being rude, but - why shouldn't I just kill you?"
"That is a good question, and please, allow me to respond before you decide to pursue such an unwise course of action. In the first place, I do not think you fully comprehend your role or mine in the larger scheme of things. Second, attempting to do battle with me would be quite pointless. To be blunt, I am able to become invisible, and I have the ability to do many things which would be quite fatal to your frail anatomy."
"Uh-huh. Invisible, eh? How's that work, then?"
"There is a photoreactive component in what you would call my 'skin' which, when dormant, is responsible for my iridescence and luster. However, when activated, it will bend light in your visible spectrum around me, rendering you quite unable to see me. I thought it would be the most effective way for me to conceal myself from your species. Observe." As the ladies watched, Bob shimmered for a moment and then disappeared entirely. Moments later, he reappeared where he had been.
"OK, neat trick. So how does the parasite work, then?" Dee kept fiddling with the glyphs, trying to figure them out so that perhaps she might be able to turn back the clock once again while Bob was distracted. It was a longshot, but the only chance she had - she was certain that Bob would kill them both when he was done with them.
"As you surmised, it functions by overwhelming the human immune system, and then takes root in the brain to alter both higher-order planning processes as well as base instincts. Your suspicions about the lowered metabolism of the host were also correct. Once the brain has been infected, the parasite induces what you would probably call 'brain fog' in the host, and gives it the urge to find and turn others, as you saw with the one you called Shep." Damn. He had been watching them rather closely. Pulling a fast one on him might be harder than Dee had suspected. "After introduction to the ecosystem, the parasite would spread over the planet, where it would infect but not kill plant matter, as you saw. Newborns, of course, would be powerless to resist infection, and within sixty years or so, all organisms possessed of a brain would be dead. Then, in another forty years or so, the parasite would simply die off, as it is genetically programmed to do after a certain length of time."
"All right, so you bomb our power plants, knock our satellites out of the sky, and turn us into zombies, then get rid of it all with your Houdini parasite. Fine. But the sixty-four million-dollar question is: why? What was all this for? An occupation or something?"
"Oh, most certainly not. Regrettably, I shall be forced to resort to analogies here, as many of the pertinent issues do not correspond to concepts for which you have words. Please, bear with me."
"Fine," Dee said, "I just want to know what's going on."
"Very well. There exist what you might call 'gods,' but they are quite unlike any that have been conceived of in the most dominant of your world religions. The are neither omnipotent, omniscient, nor benevolent, and while they do not take a personal interest in the day-to-day lives of humans, they are quite keenly interested in the events that take place on Earth and in the Universe as a whole."
"And why is that?"
"Dee, in your career as a physicist, I am certain that you have made extensive note of the mechanistic regularity with which the world tends to function. Yes?"
"Of course."
"That is, quite simply, because the Universe - as you are able to conceive of it - is a machine. A sloppy one, I must admit, with all kinds of imperfections and inefficiencies, but a machine nonetheless. However, the results returned from this machine have already been used to help design better, more efficient machines. So, you may rest assured that once this one runs down, its legacy shall live on in other designs."
"So - you're saying all this is just an experiment," Sam asked.
"More or less."
Dee and Sam considered this for a moment.
"Wait a second," Sam said. "That still doesn't answer the question of why all this - the last couple months - why you did it."
"Of course not, but I am getting there. You see, this part - what you call Earth - had performed its function and was being prepared for a new one. The slate was being wiped clean, so to speak."
"So instead of blowing up the whole planet," Dee said, "You decide to turn everyone into fucking zombies?"
"I apologize for any inconvenience, but it would be the height of foolishness to waste such resources. There are many more useful operations that could be performed with this hardware, and destroying it utterly would simply be out of the question."
"You speak as though it's just some sort of computer."
"I suppose, in a manner of speaking, that that's exactly what it is. Do you throw away a pocket calculator when you are done with it? Of course not! You clear the data, and then perform a new calculation when you next need it."
"Doesn't that strike you as, I don't know, a little inhumane?"
"No, not in the least; quite the opposite, in fact. While under the effects of the parasite, humans experience a constant low-grade euphoria. The pursuit and infection of other humans is their raison d'etre, and while engaged in these activities, the pleasure centers of their brains are constantly stimulated. It was the most effective way we could devise to ensure that the hosts would keep at it. So, speaking from a standpoint of pleasure versus suffering, this was the most humane way to go about it. To be sure, those of you in the six-hundred forty-seven encampments to survive the first winter would disagree, however, you would be greatly outnumbered by those who were starving or otherwise miserable in the world before."
"I - you - that just -" Dee shook her head vigorously, and cursed to the air. "Look, that aside, that's not what I had meant. I was asking whether it was really humane to just conceive of us as programs in a computer. Isn't it unethical to simply shut us down like this?"
"That is a pair of questions, and I shall answer them in turn. It is neither humane nor inhumane to conceive of humanity as an aggregate program - it is accurate. That is what you are, and that is the intention with which you were brought about. Your second question will require the use of an even more clumsy analogy, but I hope you will bear with me. When you use your own computers, or play your own video games, does it ever occur to you what the software is 'thinking' when it asks you if you're sure you wish to quit the program? Or do you simply say 'yes' or 'no' depending on your intentions alone?"
"But - but that's different! Computers aren't people! Software doesn't think! Games aren't self-aware!"
"A matter of scale, nothing more. Compared to the gods, you can hardly be considered to be 'aware' or 'intelligent.' In fact, by this comparison, you are far more like isolated magnetic domain values than entities unto yourselves."
"Excuse me?" Dee was furious. "You can't be serious!"
"Oh, quite." The man's imperturbably pleasant tone was beginning to grate on Sam and Dee's nerves. "I don't think you comprehend the difference in scale at work here." Dee screamed at the air and kept working at the symbols.
"Then please, enlighten us," Sam said, her voice on edge.
"Very well, I shall do my best. When you start up one of your computers, you are able to observe the startup sequence, correct?" They nodded. "However, it all goes by so quickly, it hardly even registers. Do you agree?" Nods once again. "Even that higher-order output on the monitor, though, is the result of nothing more than ones and zeroes being calculated by the machine. And those ones and zeroes flicker by so fast as they are calculated, you would be unable to perceive them or even meaningfully interact with them, even if you were somehow able to look into the computer's components. Their output is so simple but so fast, and the concepts and terms in which you wish to communicate are so much richer, so robust, that it often takes you great spans of time to determine how to break it down into terms that the machine would be able to understand. Do you agree with these observations?"
"Yes," Dee said. "Computers are fast and stupid, people are slow and smart. Go on."
"To the gods, the users of this cosmic computer, your speech and thought processes are as the ones and zeroes in the machine - imperceptibly fast, though blindingly simple, and only truly meaningful in aggregate. The gods, to you, are as users of these computers - so slow and ponderous, a message may be sent with no response for days, and only that quickly if no deliberation is required." Bob's tone began to crack.
"Sounds like something personal," Sam said.
"Oh, I know firsthand. I have been in that position. Do you know how many times a computer's processor cycles while waiting for you to click 'OK?' How many more computations it could perform as you read the message displayed on the screen and decide how to respond?"
"I thought you said you were a god," Sam asked. Bob's tone returned to normal - that is, irritatingly polite - once more as he responded.
"Oh, no - I said that some of your species might call me that, simply because my abilities and experiences vastly exceed your own. However, it would be more accurate to call me a demigod, perhaps even a messenger. I am but a program, somewhat like you, though much longer-lived and vastly more capable, due to the necessities of my station."
"And you're just cool with that?" Sam was bewildered. Dee was lost in the glyphs, tapping them furiously. "You're fine with being nothing more than a cog in the machine?"
"Aren't we all? I don't see why I should be unable to accept and enjoy my role in the greater scheme of things. It is the only place I shall have, and I have known it for quite some time. As you may have surmised, I do not always enjoy every aspect of my existence, but I assure you that I am quite happy with my life when taken on the whole."
"So what kind of computer is this, anyway? I mean, if we're all calculating stuff, what's it for? What kind of answers are we outputting?" Dee gave Sam a thumbs-up over her shoulder, and waved her hand around to indicate that she should keep going. The man in white, his back to Dee, regarded Sam coolly for a moment before responding.
"My apologies, but many of the answers - even the questions - would take far too long to explain, requiring concepts and mathematics that very well could be beyond your ability to grasp."
"Try me," Sam said, trying to give Dee as much time as possible.
"I suppose that the short answer is that the users wished to see what would happen, in the same way that your theoretical physicists perform computer simulations in order to see what would happen. One discovery of import concerned the way you use numbers. It is fascinating to note that while most of your counting systems rely upon decimal notation, most of your species can only recognize cardinal numbers up to seven, yet you do most of your mental groupings in threes and fours. Truly, sometimes it is our failures that tell us more than our successes ever could."
"Ah-ha!" Dee shouted triumphantly and punched one last glyph with great enthusiasm. Bob calmly turned to look at her, and a set of glyphs moved to the center of the display. "Wait, what? Disabled?"
"Of course," the man said. "I could not allow you to step back the program's operation as you did last time. I am simply trying to determine how it is that you were able to use the terminal. That is all."
"I - you - son of a - fuck!" Dee was crestfallen. "So - well, shit. I mean, now that the gig is up, how come I didn't go back last time, like I wanted to? Is this thing broken or something?"
"Not at all. In fact, it performed your instructions to the letter. You ordered the machine to recompile the code from your time of birth, with the current iteration of your own variable exchanged for the original. It sent you back, all right. You did not ask it to send back my ship, your colleagues, or even your body, though. And so the machine did none of those things."
"I guess - I mean, I thought it would send, y'know, all of me back, not just my mind."
"When you consider a program, do you conceive of it as the media it is stored upon, or merely the data itself that is essentially 'the program?' Similarly, to the machine, 'you' are the sum of the data in your head, and not the head itself, nor the body supporting it. At any rate, I thank you for your time. My report is nearly complete. I will now escort you outside, before I complete my work."
"And what exactly is that," Sam asked as he led them outside.
"To stick with the computer analogy," he said as they walked, "I suppose you could say that this program has performed an illegal operation, and must be terminated. Before doing so, though, I need to compile the error report so I may display it to the users."
They walked in silence for a few moments, Dee and Sam both trying to work out how that could possibly mean anything other than what they feared it meant.
"Just what kind of program are you," Dee asked as she exited the ship.
"I suppose you could say that I am a de-bugger."
With that, the man in white turned and disappeared into his vessel, which shortly lifted off and departed into the sky. Sam and Dee held each other as they watched it disappear, then saw a flash of light, followed by pin-pricks descending to the Earth below. Each speck went in a different direction, and one came directly towards the two of them. As it neared, Sam buried her face in Dee's shoulder. Dee kept her eyes on the sky.
Dee felt the air moving as the thermonuclear warhead approached. She kept her eye on it as it fell to the Earth before her. She squeezed Sam and mentally counted down to when she thought it would detonate. She got to zero just as the weapon reached ground level.
Then she never felt anything again.

Rendezvous: Chapter 18

Chapter 18
Dee’s eye started to twitch. She held the note in her hands, staring at it, trying to integrate this new information with the events of the last month, with what little she remembered of her childhood.
Behind her, the box of tapes and papers beckoned. The video cassettes were arranged roughly in chronological order, judging by their labels; beneath them, the stacks of paper and binders bore symbols and contact information representing mental health institutions and various courts.
“Dee?” Sam was as nervous as she was confused.
“Yeah, Rosie?”
“What exactly happened in California?”
“I’m starting to wonder the same thing.”
They hauled the box downstairs to the TV in the living room and got the generator going. Dee found the tape with the earliest date, from when she would have been three years, six months old. The video quality was not very high, but this had been done in the early eighties, when consumer video equipment was bulky, expensive, and rare. A hand briefly came into frame before disappearing again, and then the focus adjusted and the camera panned to the view of a hallway. A woman Dee had only seen in photographs was leaning on a wall, arms folded across her chest. The camera froze on her for a beat, and she spoke.
“Just what the Hell do you think you’re doing, Tom?”
“Calm down, Tracy. I just want to be able to show this to the doctors. They need to see this with their own eyes, in case Dee gets nervous and decides to clam up.”
“That’s bullshit, and you know it. You just want to document this because you believe her.”
“No, I don’t. I think it’s just as weird as you do. But I think there’s something going on here, and -“
“And what? And you want to get to the bottom of it? Bottom line, Tom: she’s crazy! I don’t know how, or why, but that’s all there is to it. Just let it go. This is freaky enough as it is, we don’t need to be preserving it for posterity.”
“Then don’t watch it. I’m gonna go talk to Dee.” The camera moved past the fuming woman into a living room strewn about with children’s toys. In the middle of the floor was three-year-old Dee, reading a book while laying on her stomach, feet kicking idly in the air. “Hey there, hon. What’cha up to?” The child looked up at the camera and beamed.
“Hi, Daddy! I’m studyin’ aggerculture!”
“Oh, really? And why are you doing that?”
“For when the zombie umpocalypse happens! We gotta be prepared, or ever’body’s gonna die.”
“Really? And how do you know that?”
“I saw it. I was there.”
“When was this? Should you have been sleeping when you saw these things?”
“No, Daddy, I didn’t dream it.” The girl on the screen rolled her big brown eyes. “I mean I was there, an’ it happened, an’ I found a way to come back an’ warn ever’body. I’m ‘onna save the world, an’ then I’ma get a physics prize when I find the time machine again!”
“That’s pretty far-fetched, you know. Some people might not believe you. What else can you tell me about all this?”
“Well, for one thing, we’re gonna need clean rooms, ‘cuz otherwise the parasite’s gonna get all up in our kids, an’ then -”
“That’s enough, Tom!” Little Dee went wide-eyed and silent at her mother’s angry shout. The frame swung around to capture Tracy’s livid countenance.
“Jesus, Tracy, what’s your problem?”
“I don’t want to hear any more of this! That’s enough, the doctors will be able to see that something’s going on, OK? This is freaking me out!”
“Well, then calm down. Why don’t you go have a smoke out back or something? We’re just talking, it’s not -“
“You’re not ‘just talking,’ Tom, you’re encouraging her! Whatever’s going on, you’re just feeding it by asking her questions.”
“Well, maybe if we ask enough questions, she’ll run into something to trip her up and then we can talk her out of this.”
“No! Not in this house! This is too weird!”
“Mommy, calm down.”
“Dee, I’m talking with your father, don’t interrupt us.”
“Mommy, he’s right, you should just calm down. Talking won’t hurt anyone.”
“See what you’re doing, Tom? Now she won’t shut up!”
“An’ why should I? I got a right to talk, don’t I? What are you afraid of?”
“Dee, honey, I’m - I’m afraid that my little baby girl’s really sick, and I don’t want her to hurt herself, or anyone else, and I don’t want to worry about what other people will think if they hear about this.” The anger had mostly faded from her voice by now, and tears were coming from her eyes. “They won’t understand you, sweetie. They’ll say really mean things that will make you feel bad, and you’ll wish you didn’t do the things you did to make them say those things.”
“What, the same way they did to you when you were in college?” Little Dee’s voice was flat, challenging. Tracy’s jaw fell open.
“What -?” Dee came back into frame, getting to her feet. “Tom, what have you been telling her?”
“What are you talking about, Tracy? I’m never around, I work all the time! I only even know about this because you told me!”
“He didn’t tell me, Mommy, you did. You told it to me when I was in high school last time, about the doctors and their drugs and their so-called ‘treatments’ on the hippie-farm. You just don’t want me to go through the same embarrassments you did in college. Well, I can handle it, OK? My daddy’s not an alcoholic, so I don’t have to sleep with other men to feel good about myself, so leave your baggage out of my life so I can do my work!”
“You - you fucking bitch!” Tracy came into frame as soon as she set into motion, raising her arm as she stomped towards little Dee.
“Jesus Christ, Tracy!” Tom set the camera down sideways on the couch, then ran around it to try to get between them. Dee was in frame again, standing her ground. As her mother approached and swung at her, the child reached for Tracy’s arm while simultaneously leaping with the force of the blow. Tom’s figure occupied the frame immediately afterward, obscuring what occurred. There was a scream and a thud, then Tom stopped abruptly and backed away. As he left the frame, Dee was standing upright with her mother face-down on the floor in an arm-bar. Her tiny hands were each gripping one of Tracy’s fingers, twisting her wrist and elbow in a way her shoulder wouldn’t turn.
“I’m not afraid of you, Mommy,” the child said. There was iron in her voice. “I’ve been killing zombies for years. I won’t let your personal hang-ups get in my way. So get over your bad self, and let me do what I need to do, OK?”
“Goddammit, Tom! Get her off of me!”
“Dee, honey, let your mommy go, OK? She didn’t really want to hurt you, but you can’t say things like that. They’ll just make people angry, OK?”
“Well, she needs to fucking believe me, Daddy! Everyone does! Or we’re all gonna die! I’m serious!” Little Dee started crying as she released her mother’s hand and embraced Tom’s leg. Tom scooped her up and set her down on the couch next to the camera, then went to help his wife up. Tracy had already gotten to her knees, and pushed him away as she rose to her feet. Her voice was low and detached as she spoke.
“That’s it, Tom. We’re through. I’m done - I am fucking done - with this. I’ll be back for my stuff later. You can expect divorce papers on Monday. You have fun with your little freak show. This is too much for me.” The door slammed, and she was gone. Tom was left alone in the frame, frozen, palms out in supplication, jaw open in shock. The only sign that the tape was still rolling were little Dee’s sobs from off-camera. Then Tom’s shoulders slumped, he moved to the camera, and the recording ended.
The tape picked up again during a birthday party. They both recognized Linda’s house from the Chicago suburbs - Dee was in junior high at the time of the recording. As the party wound on, Dee and Sam watched in silence, reeling from what they had just seen. After a few minutes, Dee ejected the cassette and popped in the next one.
Tom was alone at a table in a white room. After a few seconds, a door opened and closed, then a man in a white labcoat with a clipboard came into frame and sat across the table from Tom.
“So is that thing on, then?” Tom pointed to the camera.
“Yes, as you requested.”
“Thank you, doctor.”
“It’s no trouble. Like I said, the hard part is going to be getting your hands on it. Sometimes you can request copies, but if what you told me is true, well - look, to be honest, I think you may need to take legal action. It can be done, but we’ll probably have to see a court order before releasing the records.”
“I understand.”
“OK, then. Is there anything else?”
“Not that I can think of. Shall I go get her?”
“Sure thing.”
Tom stood and left the room. He reappeared later with Dee, who sat at a third chair around the table.
“Hi, doctor!” She grinned and stuck out her hand.
“Hello there, Dee. You can call me Dan.”
“OK, Dan. Does my daddy hafta be here?”
“Well, strictly speaking, he doesn’t. But he can stay if that makes you more comfortable.”
“No, that’s OK. I don’t want you to think he’s coaching me or anything.” Dr. Dan let out a nervous chuckle and looked at Tom.
“Hey,” Tom said, shrugging. “It’s her show, I guess.” He stood and left the room again.
“So, Dee, your father tells me you have quite a lot on your mind. Why don’t you tell me all about it?” He readied his pen above the clipboard.
“Listen, Dan,” she said, reaching up to fold her arms on the table. “I know you’re gonna think I’m crazy, OK? But you hafta believe me, and I dunno what else to do.”
“Well, don’t be too hasty, OK? I don’t think you’re crazy. I can’t right now, because I haven’t even heard what you have to say. So why don’t you tell me what’s going on, and then we’ll see how things go. Does that sound all right to you?”
“Sure, fine.” Dee took a deep breath. “I use’ta be a scientist, OK? I was a physicist, I graduated from UCLA, and when I was twenty-three and in grad school, a bunch’a stuff went down. Twenty years from now, unless I get this all sorted out, it’s all gonna happen again.”
“Really? And what - went down?”
“First, the power went out. All over the world. Every power station got bombed, all within a few minutes of each other. The satellites went down, too, which made us think that whatever did it came from space. An’ three days later, the zombies showed up.”
“Zombies, huh? And what were they like?”
“Well, they’re not like the zombies you see in Hollywood movies. They’re technically alive, but the hosts of this parasite. It looks like a lichen sometimes, like a moss other times, or like a fungus. It can grow anywhere, it just grows differ’ntly depending on where it’s growing. It can even be like a slime mold when it’s living in the human body.”
“So you’re saying that this parasite - which isn’t just one plant, but several - it can infect people and turn them into zombies, huh?”
“It is one plant. It just goes into a different life phase depending on where it’s growin’ at. We think it spreads by spores in the air, and they latch on to stuff, and that’s how it gets everywhere so quickly.”
“We - that would be you and who else?”
“The other scientists. We all stuck together. We couldn’t do too much without power, but we still found out a lot with good-ol’-fashioned science.”
“I see. Let’s go back to the parasite for a second. How is it that an infection can turn a person into a zombie?”
“We never figgered that out exactly, but it had something to do with the brain. It works on the microscopic scale like zombies work on other people in Hollywood movies - just surround your prey and overwhelm them. It’s hard for it to get through the skin, unless there's an open wound - or I guess if you had a coma or something. But it mainly goes in through the lungs or stomach. You can hold it off indefinitely with booze and cigarettes, as long as you catch it early enough. Babies din't stand a chance, though - they were infected three, four days out the womb. Five, tops.
"Anyway," she continued in an excited tone, "I remember that it had something to do with the frontal lobe and the base of the brain - y’know, all that 'lizard brain' stuff. Decision-making processes and base instincts, that's really all it needed to change, the way we figured it. The rest of the brain - balance, coordination, whatever - that could all run on its own. After the infection takes root, it gets into the bloodstream and goes up into the brain where it grows like roots. But it gets into all’a major organs, too, since it needs to keep the host alive. The parasite also slows down the host's metabolism, which we think is why the zombies moved so slow but lived so long without food or water. We found redundant circulatory and nervous systems in various stages of development as the zombies lived longer an’ longer, too."
"How long did this go on?"
"Oh, about six years or so."
"Really? And what happened then?"
"That's when I found the time machine!"
"OK, tell me about that."
"Well, even affer we hooked up our generators and got things running, nobody else had power, and all the satellites were down, so we couldn't really do much. We started lookin’ around, though, and six years after the blackout started, we found some electrical signals from the North, by the San Andreas fault line. We thought it might be another survivor outpost, but they didn't respond to our messages, so we sent some people to look. What we found looked like some kind of alien ship. It's hard to describe. It didn't appear to have any weaponry, it was just all shiny an' stuff, so we drove up to it, figuring we were dead if we ran, anyway. We had all gone a little stir-crazy at that point, and just wanted a break in the routine. Well, nobody was in it, it looked like, so we went inside an’ started pokin’ around. At the back, I found what looked like some kind of computer, but way more advanced than anything we had built at the time. I managed to find a way to send myself back -"
"Wait a second. If this was alien technology, how could you use it?"
"I dunno. It wasn't in English or anything, but it was really simple to use. After staring at the symbols for a while, I just felt like I understood ‘em, like they were written to be recognizable."
"I see. Thanks for clearing that up. Please, continue."
"OK, anyway, I started recognizing physical constants, and it looked like it could be used to go back to points in time. So I tooled around with it until I got to the year I was born, and then sent myself back."
"But it didn't send you back."
"Oh, it did."
"Well - I'm sorry, I'm confused. Why is it that you only appear to be three years old, if you were really twenty-nine when you used the time machine?"
"I'm not sure how, but it sent me back to the way my body was at the time. So, I have the mind I had when I went back, but with a renewed lease on life, I guess."
"And you didn't tell any of your scientist friends in the ship?"
"No, I thought the whole thing was gonna go back."
"Oh, it didn't?"
"No, I told you, it only sent my mind back. Otherwise somebody would’a found the ship by now."
"Of course."
The conversation wound on and on, little Dee explaining details of the situation that confirmed their findings over the past month, as well as what Dee had thought were her own delusions resurfacing. Sam was aghast, Dee was stone-faced. After about thirty minutes of talking, Doctor Dan sent little Dee to go get Tom. He came back alone.
"So what's the story, Doc?"
"I'll be straight with you, Tom: I don't envy you."
"Huh. Yeah. I can see that."
"I'll definitely want to review that tape you've got. Have you made a copy?"
"Yes, I duplicated it in case you wanted to keep one, it's out in the car."
"I do, and thank you. It will be one less thing you have to get back from us, I guess." Dan jotted a few things down on his clipboard. "We'll want to perform a few tests on her, nothing invasive, just some cognitive assessments and CT scans. The results will be shared with you, but as for getting copies of your own, well -" Dan trailed off, alluding to yet another red tape barrier in Tom's way.
"Yes, I had assumed so."
"OK, then we can discuss the tests out in the waiting room, I'd like to schedule what we can at the same time."
"Sounds good." The two men stood and left the room. There was a brief jump, and the time-stamp changed to a few weeks later. Otherwise, it was the same shot of the same room. Dee and Doctor Dan entered and sat at the table.
"So, Dee, how have you been?"
"I been well, thanks."
"Things going OK at home?"
"Yeah, they're fine. Mommy left, though. I guess I won't have a brother, after all."
"Hm. Speaking of your mother, your father showed me a tape of you from a few weeks ago. Do you remember that?"
"Yeah, the one when I was readin’ up on aggerculture?"
"Yes, that's the one. Do you remember what happened after that?"
"Well, yeah. It was just a couple weeks ago."
"Can you tell me about it?"
"Ugh. You watched it, didn't you?"
"Yes, but I want to hear how you'd describe it."
"Fine. I started talking about the future. Mommy threw a fit. Dad an' I tried to calm her down, then she started projecting fears from her own youth onto me and I called her out on it. So she came over and tried to hit me, and I put her on the floor.”
“Uh-huh. Those were some pretty fancy moves you had on that tape. Not many three-year-olds could take down a fully-grown adult.”
“Well, she doesn’t really know how to fight. I mean, she took some judo and some tae kwon do when she was in college, but that was a while ago, and she didn’t really stick with it, anyway.”
“Hm. So, where did you learn to fight like that?”
“From one of the survivors who stuck with us. He was a second-degree black belt.”
“Ahh, neat. Is that in - karate, then? Tae kwon do?”
“No, none of those.”
“Well, which martial art, then?”
“It’s called ‘bujinkan.’”
“Uh-huh - and how do you spell that?”
“Bee you jay eye enn kay ay enn. Boo-jin-con.”
“I see. And what manner of martial art is this, then? I’ve never heard of it.”
“Meh, you can look ‘em up on the web.”
“The - excuse me, what ‘web?’”
“Y’know, the inter - oh crap, that’s right. This is only 1987. Look, in a few years, everyone’s gonna have a computer in their home. Like, the progress with ‘em is just going to be amazing, leaps an’ bounds beyond the pocket cacolators we got today. An’ all the ‘puters are gonna be connected by a network that spans the whole world - well, the whole developed world, anyway. It’s called the ‘internet,’ or the ‘world wide web,’ or just the net or the web.”
“Computers, huh? You mean like that clunky beige box with the green letters on the screen, right?”
“Hmph. Comparing that ‘puter to a ‘puter from twenty years from now is like comparing a Model T to a Lamborghini Gallardo. I mean, sure, they’re both technically automobiles, but one’s a relic and the other’s an example of state-of-the-art technology.”
“Umm - there is no Lamborghini Gallardo. At least, I’ve never heard of it.”
“Of course there is, it - oh, dammit, that’s from 2003. OK, nevermind. But do you get the idea?”
“Sure, I guess. You’re saying that in twenty years, computers will make progress equivalent to almost a century in the automotive industry?”
“Yeah, it’s Moore’s Law, accelerating returns an’ all that. The better machines we build allow us to build even better ones, an’ those allow us to build even betterer better ones which are even more an improvement than last time.”
“I see.”
Once more, the conversation wound on, then little Dee left the room and Tom entered.
“Hey, Doc.”
“Hi, Tom. How are you?”
“Eh, I’ve been better. Tracy’s still living with her parents, but she’s having second thoughts about the divorce. Things are just really busy.”
“I can imagine. How’s Dee?”
“She seems to have calmed down a lot. I guess she really just wants to talk to someone about this.”
“That seems about right. I have the results from the tests here, would you like to go over them now?”
“Yeah, sure.”
“OK. Well, let’s see what we’ve got.” Dan pulled a folder from behind his notepad on the clipboard. “The tests we performed on her are helping to put this into perspective. Intellectually speaking, she’s got the cognitive abilities of a college graduate. It’s quite frankly amazing. The imaging we did on her brain also shows highly-increased brain activity in nearly all areas. Her mind - look, this is - Jesus, Tom. If I had fewer scruples, I could make a career on this girl.”
“What do you mean?” Tom raised an eyebrow.
“I mean that her brain is highly developed, and I don’t know when it would stop. There are people who would want to study her, but - look, sometimes, ethics doesn’t really keep a strong hold over actual practices, OK? I look at her, and I see a sweet little girl who’s really smart but also really confused. Others wouldn’t see her like that. They’d see her as a puzzle, something to be figured out, and they’d probably try to get you to sign all kinds of releases to do all kinds of things to her that would screw her up for the rest of her life.”
“Why are you - I mean, you’re not doing yourself any favors by telling me this.”
“I’m not trying to make myself look good here, Tom. I’m trying to do what’s right for her. That girl - if she can get her head screwed on straight, there’s no telling what she might be able to do. But not if a bunch of researchers get their hands on her. They might never let go.”
“So - OK, what are you saying I should do?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t. And truthfully, that’s up to you. You have to follow your own conscience on this and do what you think is right. Just be careful, OK? Watch out for her.”
“That’s what I’m trying to do, but - Jesus. I don’t know.” Tom held his head in his hands. “I don’t know what’s right. I don’t know what will turn out well. I don’t know how to do the best thing for her.”
“Nobody knows the future, Tom. You’ve got to make decisions you can live with.” Dan put his hand on Tom’s shoulder. “I told you last time, I don’t envy you. I’m not going to sugarcoat this - you have a lot of hard decisions to make.”
“I know.” He sniffed and rubbed his eyes. “OK. So what’s next?”
“Well, the tests show that Dee’s incredibly intelligent, but getting to the bottom of what’s causing her to say and think these things, that’s going to take some time. Do you want to schedule another appointment?”
“Yeah. Let’s do that.” They stood and left the room, and there was another jump in the time stamp to a week later. Dee and Dan entered and sat down once again.
“So, Dee, what do you want to talk about today?”
“Dunno, Doc. What do you want to know?”
“I’d like to know whatever you want to tell me.” Dee sighed and put her elbows up on the table.
“Look, Doctor. I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but I don’t think you’re taking me very seriously. Nobody does, it seems.” Dan put his elbows on the table and steepled his fingers. He took a deep breath before speaking again.
“Dee, I want you to listen very carefully to me, OK? I take you seriously. I really do, and I want you to believe that. However, the things you’re saying are very far-fetched and hard to swallow. There is a difference between you and the things you say, and for a person in my position, that is a very important difference. Do you understand?”
“Please don’t patronize me. You don’t believe me, and that’s OK. What would it take to get you to believe me, though? How can I convince you?”
“Well, let’s see.” Dan leaned back in his chair and tapped a finger on his chin. “I suppose actually seeing the time machine would be a very strong piece of evidence for your case.”
“I told you, we didn’t even see it until twenty-three years from now. And it didn’t come back with me. I don’t know how it works, so I can’t build a new one. I thought it would come back with me, so I didn’t really plan on needing anything else to convince people.”
“OK, well, if you know the future, then tell me some things that will happen.”
“Well, I already told you about the development of computers.”
“Yes, I remember you talking about that last time. I went to the library and looked some things up - I understand you go to the library a lot, too - and the things you said - well, after checking some facts -“ Dan stammered for a moment before continuing. “To be honest, what you say doesn’t sound that far-fetched, now that I’ve done the research. Actually, it looks like a very educated guess - and you are highly-educated, to say the least. And for someone with your intellectual abilities, I don’t see it as that far of a leap to hypothesize that things will go the way you say they will.”
“Well, how about elections? George Bush is gonna win in eighty-eight, and then Clinton in ninety-two - he’s the governor of Arkansas - and -“
“No, Dee, that’s even easier. Elections are a fifty-fifty shot, more or less, and I can’t see those as anything more than lucky guesses.”
“Well, dammit!” Little Dee slammed her hands down on the table. “What’s it going to take, then?”
“Dee, the claims you’re making are extraordinary, and they’re going to require -“
“Extraordinary evidence, I know. Carl Sagan said that.”
“Yes. Good job. Now, I have to look at what the most likely explanation is. You are an extremely intelligent young girl, Dee - probably more intelligent than anyone I’ve known. However, you’re also very young, and children your age typically have imaginations that run wild because they don’t have the experience required to rein in those extraordinary imaginations. So please, put yourself in my position, and ask yourself what looks most likely in this situation: a little girl has an incredibly detailed and completely unfalsifiable story of what the future’s going to be like. Is it more likely that she’s telling the truth? Or is it more likely that she’s confused, caught up in her own fantasy world?”
“Well, when you put it that way -“ Dee’s shoulders slumped, and her arms fell into her lap. “OK, then put yourself in my position. You know what the future’s going to be like, but you’re helpless to prove it. Nobody else will believe you. What do you do?”
“That’s a tough question, Dee.” Dan sat up in his chair again and folded his arms on the table. “I really don’t now. It’s hard to say, because I’m not actually in your position, and I don’t know what it’s like to be you. If I had any solid evidence, though - anything at all - then I would try to bring that forward to convince people. Otherwise, I would probably just bide my time and prepare myself. That’s what I think I would do.”
“But - I mean - dammit! Lives are at stake here! People are going to die - lots of people - and a whole lot more will, too, if nobody listens to me!”
“That may be so. And lots of people have been in that position in the past. How many military advisors do you think have had their pleas fall on deaf ears, only to see their worst fears come true on the battlefield? They were right, too - but nobody would listen to them. And if nobody will listen to you, railing about it won’t help you get your point across. It will just make you look like -“
“Like I’m crazy.”
“That’s not what I was going to say.”
“That’s what you meant, though.”
“Other people would probably say that, sure. And, well, other people will hold a lot of influence over your life. Even if they’re wrong, you have to take them into account. What it comes down to is: do you want to be right? Or do you want to be effective?”
“I want to be both. I know I’m right, so how do I be effective with that?”
“Well, what do you think would be the most effective course of action, if nobody listens to you?”
“I guess - I guess - I would just have to wait it out.” Dee’s head bowed in thought as she said this. She looked defeated. From there, little Dee talked about her feelings about the situation, how helpless she felt to change things, and Dan returned to his usual clinical self. This was his territory, this was progress to his mind - getting past the facts of the situation and discussing what they meant to people, and the effects they had on feelings and relationships and how those affected interactions between people. The conversation wound on, and eventually, Dan and Tom were in the room again.
“How are things at home, Tom?”
“Tracy’s thinking about coming back, now that Dee’s in therapy. I told her how Dee had started calming down, now that she had someone else to talk to, and that seems to have improved Tracy’s opinion on the subject.”
“I see. Hopefully, she can come back for good. Dee would probably show much more improvement in a stable household.”
“Yeah. So what’s next?”
“Well, Tom - I think we made some good progress this session. She’s starting to understand how other people think of her fantasies, and the effects they have on those around her. However, I think that we may want to try some other things as well.”
“Such as?”
“Well, did you have a chance to look over the side effects on the medication information sheets I gave you?”
“Yeah, I read them all. They look pretty intense. I’m not so sure about them.”
“Well, we have two options. And they’re not mutually exclusive, we can try them in combinations. The first is therapy, the second is medication.”
“I would highly recommend therapy. Dee seems to get a lot out of talking to people, and I think interaction is really what she needs at this point. However, she has some really solid beliefs in her fantasies. She’s a child, after all. These fantasies, while extraordinary to you or me, are really just blown-up versions of the fantasies that any child has - the difference is that Dee has the intellectual capacity to flesh them out with convincing details that other children can’t. When adults do this, we call these fantasies ‘delusions.’ Dee shows all the classic signs - she’s thoroughly convinced, her story is unfalsifiable, and she lacks the slightest bit of evidence.”
“I just - it seems that putting a child on these drugs, while she’s still developing - I think that could do more harm than good.”
“That’s true. There have been studies to show that if a person isn’t psychotic, then antipsychotic medications can actually induce the conditions they’re meant to treat. There is a small possibility that if this is merely an overgrown fantasy and not a full-blown delusion, the medication may exacerbate her condition.”
“Yeah. That’s what I’m worried about. I mean - maybe this is just wishful thinking, but if she talked herself into believing these things, can she maybe - do you think she can talk herself out of it?”
“That brings us back to the therapy option. I’m glad you came to that conclusion, Tom - I’m at the same point, myself. The human mind is a very powerful thing, as I’m sure you’ve seen. If Dee is - if she’s under the impression that she’s on these medications, and undergoes therapy in tandem, I think we could get her to do exactly that. She would probably look up the side effects at the library or something, and maybe imagine that the sedative and amnesic properties were taking hold, in effect talking herself out of it without actually subjecting herself to the potentially harmful side effects.”
“Are you - I mean - lemme get this straight, Doc. Are you trying to get me to hypnotize my daughter?”
“No, not hypnosis. Well, not in the Hollywood sense, anyway. No dangling pocket-watches or ‘you’re getting sleepy’ nonsense. However, we would in a sense be trying to use the power of suggestion on her. The way I conceive of it is this: we’re giving her another, better fantasy to counteract the one she’s got, and it will eventually be indistinguishable from reality.”
“And when she’s old enough, well, then we can spill the beans. Right?”
“Ideally, yes. That’s the hope. We just want to get her, as you said, to talk herself out of this fantasy until she’s old enough to grow out of it on her own.”
“And when would that be?”
“I can’t say for sure. This isn’t a hard science, exactly. I don’t even know if it will work, to be honest, but I think it’s worth a shot, and I think it would be the safest option to try at first. What do you think?”
“I think - I need to sleep on this.”
“I understand. Take as much time as you need. If, as you say, just talking to me is calming her down at home, then maybe we won’t even need to go that far.”
“Yeah, hopefully.”
“Same time next week, then?”
“Sure, sounds good.”
“OK, let’s go tell Carrie up front.” The two men stood and left the room.
“Jesus Christ,” Dee said, staring at the TV. “What the fuck?”
“My God,” said Sam, equally in shock. “I mean, I’ve - everyone knows about the placebo effect, but this - this is just - how on Earth could they -?”
The women stared, numb, as the next session played on tape. The story, as best they were able to reconstruct it from the other tapes and various documents, was that Tracy had moved back in and things went back to normal for a bit. Then Dee started to backslide, culminating in the pipe-bomb-at-the-library incident, and Tracy walked out again, this time for good. So Tom started going along with Doctor Dan’s recommendation for suggestive therapy, and it worked. Little Dee fell for it, hook, line, and sinker. She talked herself into forgetting everything she had known from her previous life. When Tom moved, he had to take legal action to get the records released, but he got copies of all the hospital records and court transcripts so he could hold on to them. Dan, for his part, downplayed the extent of Dee’s condition to another doctor in Illinois, and her therapy continued uninterrupted. Eventually, when Tom felt she had a handle on things, the talk therapy went away altogether - but this was after numerous backslides during gradeschool due to a not-entirely-smooth transition between therapists.
Tom saw how well Dee was doing scholastically and socially, and didn’t want to rock the boat with the news until after Dee had graduated college. He didn’t even tell Linda. While Dee lived under his roof, he handled all the prescription pick-ups, then handled the legal forms regarding the placebo medication when she left for college.
Dee was floored. It was too much at once for her to feel anger, sadness, frustration, anything but utter shock. Sam, too, was bewildered beyond words. They watched and read in silence, eyes wide, mouths shut.
As darkness fell, Dee rubbed her eyes and finally spoke.
“Well, I think we’ve seen enough.”
“Um. Yeah. I think so.”
“Then I guess we go to California?”
“I guess so.”