No glaciers on the news

Last night I wanted to see footage on television of the huge island of ice that has broken off of the Petermann glacier in Greenland. It’s the biggest such event in the Arctic for 50 years, launching a massive iceberg that has four times the area of Manhattan and is 600 feet thick. “The so-called “ice island” covers a hundred square miles (260 square kilometers) and holds enough water to keep U.S. public tap water flowing for 120 days.”

I thought that some enterprising Greenlander, perhaps from the Greenland Ice Patrol which monitors ice movement for shipping safety, would surely have gotten aloft and sent us all some live footage showing the area, but apparently not. Merging two clichés, one about cable tv and the other about big-box stores, I thought: “500 channels, but never what you want”.

Online, of course, there are photos like these from NASA.

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Real color photo from NASA. I added the orange line around the breakaway ice island. Source.

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False color photo from NASA. Source.

And I did find about two seconds of overhead video on YouTube. It’s about 20 seconds into the video, and most of the rest is talking heads taking sides on whether the event is connected to global warming/climate change. Maybe yes, maybe no, does it really matter if each individual event can be connected? Good for politicians and talk-shows.

In the Antarctic, however, there seems to be quite a clear pattern. Nearly all of the world’s glacier ice, 91%, is located there. An international scientific partnership including the US Geological Survey (and the British Antarctic Survey, with the assistance of the Scott Polar Research Institute and Germany’s Bundesamt fűr Kartographie und Geodäsie) has found that

every ice front in the southern part of the Antarctic Peninsula has been retreating overall from 1947 to 2009, with the most dramatic changes occurring since 1990. The USGS previously documented that the majority of ice fronts on the entire Peninsula have also retreated during the late 20th century and into the early 21st century.

The ice shelves are attached to the continent and already floating, holding in place the Antarctic ice sheet that covers about 98 percent of the Antarctic continent. As the ice shelves break off, it is easier for outlet glaciers and ice streams from the ice sheet to flow into the sea. The transition of that ice from land to the ocean is what raises sea level. [report dated 2/22/10]

Since 1950, total Antarctic ice loss exceeds 9,652 square miles. Temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula have risen faster than in any other area in the southern hemisphere – a rise that translates to more than five degrees Fahrenheit since the middle of the last century.

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This image shows ice-front retreat in part of the southern Antarctic Peninsula from 1947 to 2009. Distance bar may be hard to read: it’s 50 miles in 10 miles increments. USGS scientists are studying coastal and glacier change along the entire Antarctic coastline. The southern portion of the Antarctic Peninsula is one area studied as part of this project, and is summarized in the USGS report, “Coastal-Change and Glaciological Map of the Palmer Land Area, Antarctica: 1947–2009” (map I–2600–C). (Credit: Image courtesy of U.S. Geological Survey). Source.

It is expected that loss of the floating ice shelves will allow the land-based ice to flow faster toward and into the ocean. If the Greenland Ice Sheet were to melt completely, it is estimated that it would add about 23 feet (7 meters) to current sea level. The West Antarctic Ice sheet is believed to be less stable than that covering East Antarctica, because the ice of East Antarctica lies on rock that is above sea level and is thought unlikely to collapse. But the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is on rock below sea level:

“Not just a bit below sea level, it’s 2,000 meters below sea level,” said David Vaughan, a principal investigator with the British Antarctic Survey. “If there was no ice sheet there, this would be deep ocean, deep like the middle of the Atlantic.”

Some scientists have theorized that this makes the WAIS inherently unstable. If the ice sheet retreats beyond a certain point, a positive feedback mechanism should, they say, lead to runaway retreat that would not stop until most of the ice sheet disappears. [Source.]

The Western Antarctic Ice Sheet contains 13% of all the ice on the Antarctic continent, enough to raise current sea levels around 11 feet (3.3 meters). And when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made its climate change predictions, including the “mid-range projection” (mid-range meaning, not the best-case nor the worst-case scenario) that seas will rise 17 inches (44 centimeters), they did not include what the effects would be, if polar ice sheets began to melt faster than in the decade of 1993-2003. This was done because there wasn’t enough known about ice sheet melting and its change over time. The Antarctic Ice Sheet is 6 miles thick in places, so it’s not easy to know what is going on under it and finding out has only recently seemed important to those who fund such expensive research.

Finally, the aspect that has seemed to many the most frightening about climate change predictions: the unknown potential for interactions between complex systems such as wind currents and ocean currents, which could conceivably multiply foreseen effects. (Or, if we were amazingly lucky, cause them to cancel one another out; but we won’t know until it’s too late to do anything about it.) For example, it’s believed that the melting of Antarctic ice shelves is caused by warmer water flowing up underneath the ice. But this water is not from melting ice; rather it comes from deep within the ocean, and climate change may be making it warmer by one of those unforeseen linkages:

Antarctica is encircled by atmospheric currents that largely insulate it from the rest of Earth’s climate and keep it colder than it otherwise would be. Jenkins’ model showed that these circumpolar currents, sometimes called “Westerlies,” “the Screaming 50s,” or “the Roaring 40s,” actually push surface waters out away from the continent. This results from the Coriolis Force, the byproduct of Earth’s rotation that causes cyclonic systems to turn counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere. As surface water is pushed away, warm deep water rises to replace it.

If the atmospheric currents speed up, more water is pulled up. Indeed, observations indicate these atmospheric currents have sped up in recent decades in response to global warming. So increased upwelling seems likely.

[Read more in this article which goes into deeper detail than many accounts of climate research for lay persons. It reports on the 2007 the West Antarctic Links to Sea-Level Estimation (WALSE) international workshop.]

It’s this sort of unforeseen multiplier-effect between two systems (each one of which,by itself, strains our capacity to make accurate mental and statistical models), that makes me think efforts to mitigate, and prepare for, climate change should be at the top of every developed nation’s agenda. Of course it’s not at the top of any nation’s agenda, and won’t be, until the effects are severe—not just “extreme weather” like last week’s flooding and unusual heat waves, but unmistakeable (and irreversible) such as significant rise in sea levels. By then secondary results, such as mass migration of tens of millions trying to flee drought and famine, will be well under way and our primate brains will be where they are most comfortable, dealing with what’s right in front of them. Near-term possibilities are construed concretely, long-term ones abstractly, and the consequences of that upon human action are pretty much as you’d expect. Psychologists even have a name for this, “temporal construal”.

We are told that Homo sapiens mostly evolves culturally now, rather than physically. Yet human cultures in industrial nations are mostly under the control of corporate interests which manufacture and sell us “culture” in a form that serves their ends. Government, also, serves them. If corporations were subject to natural selection we wouldn’t have seen no-strings bailouts for banks and financial institutions, instead there would have been widespread failures. If American culture is poorly adapted for survival in coming conditions, and if the few run it for their short-term gain, then chances for “our” success seem slim. Humans are slippery devils, though, enduring and resourceful. And there are still a few groups of hunter-gatherers and nomads left who may well prove far more resilient than any of our proud nations.

Ah, Oregon!

Here in Elk Snout (the fictional small Oregon coastal town featured in the 1987 Kurt Russell/Goldie Hawn movie Overboard), things are different, all right.

From an article in the Oregonian about use of fake urine in drug tests, this information from a county Dept. of Community Justice spokesperson:

The tampering includes people who dilute their own urine and tricksters who turn in a range of substitutes. “For example,” she said, “someone tried to pass off a sample of elk urine as their own.”

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”You want what?” Photo source.

Siskiyou wild plants: horsetail, chokecherry and yarrow, and a detour into the Iliad

Today I’ll start with a genus of plants that is a bit different: it’s a “living fossil” from the Devonian (405 million to 345 million years ago, age of fishes and appearance of amphibians) when some specimens topped 90 feet (30 meters), it does not flower, and it’s found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. And, people both cook it and use it to scour pots. This is the genus Equisetum, commonly called horsetail. It’s a lover of wet places and we found it at the edge of a creek.

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Above are both stages of growth side by side: the jointed stem somewhat like bamboo, which I plucked from a slope next to the creek, and a smaller stem that has already “leafed out” in radial whorls of needle-like leaves. This picture from Wikipedia shows the leaf whorls well.

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The unleafed stems were beautifully colored,

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and hollow.

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The stems are said to be “anatomically […] unique among plants”.

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This beautiful microphotograph is of a stained cross-section of stem.

Equisetum species grow from underground rhizomes that are extremely persistent and invasive; think twice before deciding it is the perfect plant for that boggy spot in your yard, because it is likely to be there (and maybe other places too) forever. They’ve been used for all sorts of purposes through history. Many a camper and wildland dweller has scoured pots with the stems, which have a lot of silica in them, and they are “still boiled and then dried in Japan, to be used for the final polishing process on woodcraft to produce a smoother finish than any sandpaper.” The leaves are used as a dye for a soft green color. The young shoots are eaten but require special treatment because they contain the enzyme thiaminase[172], a substance that can rob the body of the vitamin B complex.

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In addition to spreading locally via rhizomes, Equisetum produces spores on terminal cones, shown below.

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Photo source.

There are several species found in Oregon, and I think the one we saw and photographed is Equisetum hyemale but I’m not sure. Equisetum, by the way, means “horse-bristle”, as in “scrub-brush”, and hyemale is from hiemis, “winter” (both terms from the Latin). Other common names include scouring rush, pipes (children play with them, as the hollow segments can be taken apart and put back together), and scrub grass.

Downstream from the equisetum, back on the road, we saw next to the narrow concrete bridge a small tree growing in the water

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and laden with tresses of white blooms.

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This is choke cherry (Prunus virginiana), a species of “bird cherry”. Fruits are small and sour but very high in antioxidant pigment compounds, like anthocyanins. With a lot of added sugar, they are used to make wines, syrups, jellies, and jams.

Yarrow cultivars are familiar garden plants. Here is the ancestor of those, Achillea millefolium or common yarrow. It’s found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, even in the Himalayas.

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A closer view of the flowers.

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The leaves are distinctive, giving rise to the common name plumajillo, or “little feather” in Spanish-speaking New Mexico and southern Colorado, and to the millefolium (thousand-leaf) in its scientific name.

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It’s called Achillea after Achilles, Homer’s hero in the Iliad, who was well-trained in healing wounds as well as in causing them. Yarrow has been used for thousands of years to staunch the flow of blood and for other medical purposes, and among its common names are “herbal militaris” or soldier’s herb, nosebleed plant, and soldier’s woundwort. But there doesn’t seem to be any peer-reviewed research into compounds in the plant that may have medicinal properties. One site I visited, planetbotanic.ca, promoted it as an immune stimulant to ward off colds. But then the site’s “fact sheet” also tells us that “Yarrow’s scientific name hints of a legendary use. Achilles’ famous heel is said to have been healed when yarrow was applied to it.” Other than the words “Achilles” and “heel”, everything in this sentence is wrong: Achilles’s mother held her infant by the heel while dipping him in the River Styx to confer invincibility upon him. The water did not touch that part of his body, and eventually the warrior who had survived many wounds was killed by an arrow to the heel, from the bow of Paris.

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Achilles bandaging the wounded Patroclus. From a Greek vase painting. Source.


Paris was not much of a fighter. He mostly stayed with the women and old men observing the ten years’ war from the heights of Troy’s great battlements, so it’s ironic that his blow (even if delivered from a distance) should kill the otherwise invincible champion of combat, Achilles.

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Achilles in battle. Source.

Homer doesn’t include the death of Achilles in the Iliad; he ends with a final consequence of Achilles’s wounded pride, fit of rage and refusal to fight, when his friend Patroclus goes out wearing the great warrior’s armor to drive back the attacking Trojans. Patroclus and the Greeks carried the day, indeed seemed about to breach the walls of Troy, but the god Apollo intervened, striking Patroclus so as to daze him, sending his borrowed helmet spinning in the dust; one Trojan wounded him from behind and then Hector, Prince of Troy, delivered the fatal blow. When word of this reached Achilles he put aside his pride under force of a greater rage, and went after Hector like a lioness whose cub’s been killed.

All is not the clashing of bronze and shedding of blood in the Iliad. This is a famously tender moment, famously sad as well, one that is familiar to too many soldier parents.

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“And tall Hector nodded, his helmet flashing:
… shining Hector reached down for his son—but the boy recoiled,
… screaming out at the sight of his own father,
terrified by the flashing bronze, the horsehair crest,
the great ridge of the helmet nodding, bristling terror—
so it struck his eyes. And his loving father laughed,
his mother laughed as well, and glorious Hector,
quickly lifting the helmet from his head,
set it down on the ground, fiery in the sunlight,
and raising his son he kissed him, tossed him in his arms…”

Iliad Bk. 6: 556-56, in the very readable translation by Robert Fagles. Source.


The Iliad ends with Hector’s father King Priam of Troy humbly seeking his son’s body for burial. In his boundless desire for vengeance upon his friend’s killer, Achilles has been dragging the body behind his chariot, around and around the city. Yet when the old man, escorted through the enemy lines by a disguised Mercury, kneels before Achilles, kisses his hands, and implores his son’s killer to think of his own faraway father and give up Hector’s body, Achilles weeps with Priam, and relents.

All that was about 1250 BC, yet reading the Iliad we find characters and feelings that match those we can see around us still. The immense destructive power of rage and wounded pride are as great now as then. And the history of the humble yarrow also connects us to people like Achilles and Hector; their eyes saw these flowers, crushed these leaves to keep with them against the likelihood of wound from sword or spear.

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Troy, level VI, defensive walls, as excavated by Schliemann. This level is about a hundred years earlier than that believed to have been the city destroyed by war in the Iliad, about 1250 BC. Source.

Reading and the brain, and “brain scans”

There’s a new book out about what happens in our brains when we read, which may appeal to people interested in accessible accounts of neuroscience, as well as to those of us who are watching the shift from paper to electronic reading.

Reading in the brain : the science and evolution of a human invention
Stanislas Dehaene. (New York : Viking, 2009)
ISBN: 9780670021109 – Description: xi, 388 p. : ill., map ; 24 cm.

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I put a reserve on it at the library and am waiting for it to arrive. In the meantime, I found that the author has put all the color figures online along with short chapter summaries. The imbalance on the webpage between text, and the diagrams and brain maps, makes the book look more forbiddingly technical than it is, I hope. Unfortunately the book on Amazon doesn’t have the LookInside feature, so we can’t look at more of the text. Reviews have been mostly positive (links to several, on author’s page; Barnes and Noble review) though one was critical of the book’s accessibility for us “interested lay readers”:

Unfortunately, he needs to lay a lot of groundwork. This makes the first 100 pages of the book an excruciating slog. While it picks up after the first two chapters, the book still sometimes slips back into detailed explanations of neurophysiology. Dehaene is first and foremost an academic, and he seems to want to make his work defensible to his peers even as he tries to explain it to laymen. This is especially problematic in his diagrams. Rather than helping to clarify points, his visual presentations are almost always overly technical, presenting formulas and pictures of the brain that are difficult to decipher. Part of the problem is that images are all black-and-white. While he offers up full color versions on the book’s website, that’s only useful to readers who are also regularly consulting their computers. …The result is a work that requires focus to read, but rewards the effort.

It is disappointing that, according to this reviewer, the images in the book are not in color like those on the web. This reminds me of a book I looked at recently on the various branches of our early human-ish ancestors, in which maps to locate the various hominid species were poorly done or not there at all. Publishers try to cut corners and end up crippling the book. But I hope that won’t be the case here, and even if parts of it are over my head I look forward to the exploration.

I’m expecting a stimulating mix of actual established neuroscience, conclusions based on new research still open to interpretation, and informed speculation. After discussing how, he believes, reading (including our writing systems) developed in response to our neurological structures—“over time, scribes developed increasingly efficient notations that fitted the organization of our brains”, Dehaene applies the same theory to other areas of human culture: “Mathematics, art, and religion may also be construed as constrained devices, adjusted to our primate brains by millennia of cultural evolution.”

Cautions about fMRI (brain scan) studies: What a fish can tell us

I don’t know how much of Reading in the Brain relies on fMRI data, but many of the popularized “this-is-how-your-brain-works” revelations do rely heavily on brain scans, including fMRI, and we’re seeing some push-back from other scientists. A study at Dartmouth (reported by Wired, and Science News) found that a salmon’s brain had “a beautiful, red-hot area of activity that lit up during emotional scenes [photos put before the salmon’s eyes]”. Wow! Unfortunately for all but the spiritualists among us, the fish in question was dead. Apparently the neural activity that showed up was random, and more rigorous statistical analysis of the data revealed this. While many popularizers, especially in the general media, give the impression that brain scan interpretation is cut and dried, the truth is quite the opposite.

Less dramatic studies have also called attention to flawed statistical methods in fMRI studies. Some such methods, in fact, practically guarantee that researchers will seem to find exactly what they’re looking for in the tangle of fMRI data. Other new research raises questions about one of the most basic assumptions of fMRI — that blood flow is a sign of increased neural activity. At least in some situations, the link between blood flow and nerve action appears to be absent. Still other papers point out insufficient attention to insidious pitfalls in interpreting the complex enigmatic relationship between an active brain region and an emotion or task. (Science News)

Michael Shermer, founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine and columnist for Scientific American, gives an excellent presentation of how fMRI works and why “bright spots” in the brain don’t necessarily tell us much of anything. His article (pdf) , “Five Ways Brain Scans Mislead Us”, is as technical as it needs to be but won’t give you a headache. A more technical but still readable article by Edward Vul et al., “Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality, and Social Cognition” examines one major source of errors in brain scan analyses. [There’s a short summary here at mindhacks.com, if you want to skip the technical details, and an interview with Edward Vul at scientificamerican.com.]

So while the area known as “social cognitive neuroscience” is fascinating, and we all love quick and easy explanations, remember that much of what you read in this area is, like the lottery, best used “for entertainment purposes only”.

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Terrorism begins at home

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Hamas patrols beaches in Gaza to enforce conservative dress code

From today’s Guardian newspaper (UK) comes an article worth reading about the efforts of Hamas to “Islamize” the Gaza area of Palestine, where they are the elected government, by controlling dress and behavior–––especially of women, of course. Ownership must be maintained!

It began with a rash of unusually assertive police patrols. Armed Hamas officers stopped men from sitting shirtless on the beach, broke up groups of unmarried men and women, and ordered shopkeepers not to display lingerie on mannequins in their windows.

Then came an effort to force female lawyers to abide by a more conservative dress code, and intense pressure on parents to dress their daughters more conservatively for the new school term. Last week police began enforcing a new decree banning women from riding on motorbikes.

For the first time since Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections nearly four years ago, the group is trying to Islamise Gazan society. In public, Hamas leaders say they are merely encouraging a social moral code, and insist they are not trying to imitate the religious police who operate in some other rigid Islamic countries. But to many it feels like a new wave of enforcement in what is already a devoutly Muslim society.

Asmaa al-Ghoul, a writer and former journalist, was one of the first to run up against the new campaign. She spent an evening with a mixed group of friends in a beachside cafe in late June. After dark, she and another female friend went swimming wearing long trousers and T-shirts. Moments after leaving the water they found themselves confronted by a group of increasingly aggressive Hamas police officers. “Where is your father? Your husband?” one officer asked her. Ghoul, 27, was told her behaviour had not been respectable. Five of her male friends were beaten and detained for several hours….

Mostly the campaign focuses on what women wear. One startling poster decries the trend for young women to wear their headscarf along with tight jeans as a “satanic industry 100%”. It shows a red devil holding an image of a fashionable young woman and recommends a fuller, less glamorous head covering, counselling: “The right hijab is your way to heaven.”

Asked about his attitude to those few Gazan women who do not cover their hair, Abu Shaar said: “We tell them it is an essential element to being a Muslim. Wearing the headscarf is as essential as prayer.

If you think my comment about maintaining ownership goes too far, note the enquiry of the police officers, “Where is your father? Your husband?” and the beating of the male companions. Women must not be allowed out in public without their owners being present to control them. Men are responsible for the behavior of “their” women, their wives, daughters, sisters; if they do not exercise that control, they may be punished too, a powerful example to other men. The excuse for honor killings, of disobedient women, even women who have been raped, is that these “immoral” women bring upon the family dishonor which can only be washed clean with their blood.

Some women are resisting the increased Islamization in Gaza:

When the Hamas-appointed chief justice, Abdel-Raouf al-Halabi, ordered a new uniform for all lawyers, which for women meant a headscarf and a jilbab – a full-length robe – he had not counted on the temerity of the response. Nearly all of Gaza’s 150 female lawyers already wear headscarves, but they challenged the ruling on the grounds that it had no basis in law. The chief justice was forced to back down.

“It was absolutely illegal,” said Dina Abu Dagga, a lawyer who has covered her hair since she was at university in Cairo.

It was not the chief justice’s right to change the dress code, she said. Under Palestinian law, that power rested with the lawyers’ union.

“We’re not against the hijab. I wear it myself,” she said. “We’re against imposing it and restricting our freedoms. Today you impose the hijab, but tomorrow it will be something else.”

But, unlike the lawyers with their union, most women do not have a “place to stand” in order to resist safely.

We are obsessed with terrorism, since 9/11. But only when it is directed against a national government. When women are threatened, murdered, and repressed, that is terrorism too: the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion (Merriam-Webster). What is more political than the subjugation, by fear and violence, of one portion of a population?

As politicians well know, religion can provide the best justification for terroristic acts, since they are being performed at God’s behest. Once a behavior (like not wearing a headscarf, or wearing one that is too revealing) has been linked with the devil, anyone who fits the description is risking their mortal soul, and endangering the entire society by their example. As Barry Goldwater famously said, “Extremism in defense of virtue is no vice”. Or “If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out”; much easier if it is someone else’s eye, or even your own daughter. [image below from a painting by John Singer Sargent, A Spanish Woman.]

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Listening to what people say: no victim “deserves it”

Recently I’ve noticed, in reports of crimes against persons, an abhorrent phrase that seems to be commonly accepted: people being quoted as saying that the victim “didn’t deserve this”. Who does deserve being beaten, raped, or murdered? Ah, but maybe this person did deserve a beating––but was murdered instead. No, too subtle.

Was I imagining it? I googled “didn’t deserve to die”, the strongest usage, and quickly came up with half a dozen different instances.

Then, on the front page of the Oregonian a week or so ago, I saw this one: a driver with a blood alcohol level “approaching .30” ran his car up onto a sidewalk in broad daylight and pinned a pedestrian against a utility pole. As the drunk tried to drive away he hit the pedestrian two more times. Oh yes, and the pedestrian was blind and carrying a white cane. The driver was chased and boxed in by other drivers. Since his arrest, he had been trying to make a good impression: visiting the badly injured man, publicizing his own past volunteer work (performed while he was a bank exec), all that sort of thing. The article reported on his appearance in court for sentencing, definitely an occasion to choose one’s words carefully. What did he say, in his attempt at an apology?

“He didn’t deserve it. It was all my fault.”

Good to know that the blind man didn’t actually deserve being run over three times, we were all wondering about that.

What’s going on here?

According to my unscientific survey the phrase is used at least as often by the relatives of victims, as by those accused of the crime in question. So I conclude that this represents a general societal attitude, which tacitly regards some people as deserving to be harmed or attacked by others.

The connexion that came up in my mind was with a shift in moral education over the past three decades or so, which changed the focus from the person acting, to the person being acted upon, and from general principles of interpersonal behavior, to principles regarding certain groups. In an effort to end harassment of minorities and those perceived as different, we started teaching children and adults to avoid ridiculing this or that sort of person––overweight or gay, for example. Something needed to be done, to end these long-winked-at instances of bullying and cruelty, but how much better to emphasize a universal (and positive, rather than negative) approach of being polite and compassionate. Singling out groups creates assumptions that groups not named may be fair game. “Nobody told me not to call him names, he’s an Italian/left-handed/too skinny/a nerd!”

The general approach is better all around.

Some pragmatic reasons: It’s far easier, no need to remember who you’re supposed to be kind to this week. Like deciding that you are going to stop your car whenever a pedestrian is trying to cross, instead of having to make a judgment call on the fly each time. No type of person is accidentally omitted (though of course people who are dangerous, manipulative, etc., can and often must be treated differently). Those are points of persuasion for people not so much moved by moral considerations alone (to me it’s surprising how often there are practical reasons which could be used to bolster the “should/ought” arguments).

Moral arguments include: putting responsibility where it belongs, on the act-or instead of the act-ee; promoting human community rather than division; generally strengthening the moral rule which is one that makes human interchange run much more smoothly and harmoniously.

Then, from a different angle, there’s Shakespeare’s take what the just deserts of a human being, “poor bare, forked animal”, may be

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More about credit cards, debt, pyramids, and eschatology

My recent post “Why I’m canceling my Bank of America credit card” brought a comment pointing out that cancelling credit cards can adversely affect one’s credit score, perhaps making it difficult to borrow for cars and houses. That may well be true, but it seems to spring from a view of credit and debt quite different from mine. Rather than dump this on the hapless commenter as a reply, I’ll say it here.

First, the companies have no incentive to restrict credit, and I expect they’ll soon be back to sending out credit apps to dogs and kindergartners. When the banks lose money through extending credit unwisely, they raise rates on the rest of us to recoup. Worst case, as now, the taxpayers bail them out, they buy each other up, write off debt, get tax breaks for losses. So I think people can safely cancel all but one or two cards, and still be able to use credit to make major purchases.

Second, I’m hoping that ordinary people, who DO have an incentive to learn from the present debacle, may start restricting their debt to large necessary items. Cars and houses usually do require going into debt. But I’m old enough to remember life without credit cards; my mom had a metal “charge-a-plate” for Macy’s, and there was layaway at some stores, but no credit cards. If you wanted something you saved up for it. If you couldn’t afford to go out to dinner, you didn’t go. To those accustomed to incurring chronic credit-card debt for indulgences, such a life may seem a bleak prospect. But actually I recall very few people growing despondent for want of cruises, concert tickets, and designer handbags.

Back in the 1980’s when I saw items at an Oregon department-type store bearing tags that said “Want me? Buy me!” and a credit card logo, I viewed it as a dangerous & selfish attitude to cultivate. Along with it came the re-definition of human beings as “consumers”.

The present economic system is a pyramid scheme because it is predicated on continual growth. We do not live in a world of infinite resources and space, therefore neither population nor consumption/production can continue to increase forever. Business interests, and even the administration, expect increased consumption to get us out of this depression. If it does, it can be only a temporary fix.

I know there are a lot of optimists out there who say not to worry about dismal stuff like the economy, climate change, and all that, because the world is going to end in 2012 (Mayan Calendar theory) or “soon” (some Christian fundamentalist theories). But I just can’t be that optimistic. Call me crazy, but what if we’ve got those Mayan numbers just a little bit wrong? Or some translator introduced an inaccuracy into the Book of Revelations? What if God has changed His mind, and now thinks it might be amusing to see how His little creatures manage with these challenges? We just can’t know. Better to keep our eyes on the ball, as it were (in this case the planet & its inhabitants) and not count on the Umpire calling the game on account of End of Time.