Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Great Reagan Speech

I can't believe I'd never seen this bit before. But it is surprisingly relevant, even now. Damn, but I love this man. Damn, but I do miss him.

Tipping my hat to The Anchoress and Cuanas for bringing this to my attention.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Never too late to learn

I left school six weeks before my high school graduation. In the intervening years, I have gotten my diploma and am no longer stigmatised as a "dropout." But the sensation of intellectual inferiority remains. I frequently encounter "holes" in my public school education. (This, despite having received what JCPS called an Advanced Program education from the third grade to the twelfth.) I learned more about US history doing genealogy research in adulthood than I had ever learned in school. (Aside from "Wash Ad Jeff Mad Mo Ad Jack Van Har Ty..." I learned nothing of our presidents. I'd have been hard pressed to discuss with certainty anything that occurred after the Civil War. And we can thank my grandfather for my familiarity with that period- not my teachers.) I learned my meager math skills calculating change and tips in my first few jobs.

That is not to say that I am stupid. Far from it; I consider myself relatively bright, and fairly well educated on a number of subjects. I read extensively, and have perseverating interests in a broad variety of topics that permit me to bore my friends and relations on a regular basis. But those holes, they remain. And I trip over them all too often.

One of the areas of confusion for me has always been earth history/geology. I did not take classes in the subject. Back in elementary school, I recall cutting apart a map and gluing together Pangaea for an assignment; that was my first and last childhood exposure to continental drift or plate tectonics. Later, I would have half a semester of "earth science"- which nicely informed me that some rocks form from molten lava, some from smushed sediment, and some from alterations of the first two. That's pretty much all I took away from that class.

But I don't live in a vacuum. I read, I watch Tv. I talk to people with better academic backgrounds than my own. And so I understood, academically, at least, the idea that continents had once been united. But I didn't really comprehend it. I'd often wondered "but what about what was under the water? How does Pangaea relate to that? What topological features would have existed there? If earth is a sphere of rock, floating on a molten core, where does continental drift come in? Where would the LAND go? Where did all that land at the bottom of the oceans come from?"

Only I was much too ashamed to ask for an explanation. I am allergic to looking stupid.

Bear with me. Y'all had the benefit of learning this stuff in school; I didn't.

So I am all excited to say that, as of an hour ago this morning, I get it! I have a mental picture for the formation of seafloor. (But I still want to know what Pangaea's seafloor would have looked like.)

Lovely, lovely website. http://www2.wwnorton.com/college/geo/egeo/welcome.htm

It's like the science textbook I never had. I bookmarked it, and plan to read much more. But the best thing so far?


Have a look-see at that. Nifty animations that show how it all works! I can't wait to show this to my children.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Copyright Law

I wrote a letter to some newspapers recently, and I think it might be enjoyed over here. So I thought I'd post it. I babble rather too long, about a subject that bores too many people, so it probably won't make print. But here goes:

I just put a book in the mail again. It's my tattered sixteenth printing of Lucile Morrison's "Lost Queen of Egypt." This book has been out of print for decades, and I loan it to at least two or three new readers every year. It's not a spectacularly important book, just a once-popular piece of young adult fiction published in the 1930's. It contains no great governmental secrets or dangerous ideas. Walt Disney has not seen fit to make a movie out of it. Simply put, the book is no threat to anyone. It is not making any money for any publisher. And it is firmly out of reach of the public domain, thanks to the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension of 1988. It will continue to be so, as long as the nice folks at the Walt Disney Company keep paying our congressmen for eternal copyright on the installment plan.

I love this book. But no school library is going to carry it today, as they did when I was growing up in the seventies. They cannot afford it. No sixth grade girl is going to stumble over a copy, discover Ancient Egypt and fall in love with the Amarna Period, as I did, unless a collector puts the book into their hands.

"Lost Queen of Egypt" was due to enter public domain concurrent with Disney's "Steamboat Willie" cartoon. This unfortunate coincidence, coupled with the heavy lobbying of our lawmakers by Disney and its subsidiaries, will keep this book forever out of the reach of its target audience. This would be a terrible thing in its own right. But Morrison's book is merely one of thousands of pieces of media essentially locked up, locked away, by this misguided piece of legislation. Right now, as I write this, there are early twentieth century newsreels and films, relics of our national history, disintegrating to dust. They are unable to be restored because of their copyright situation. There are books that will never interest another publisher, which cannot be legally distributed by any means, regardless of whether an audience exists for them.

The public needs to be made aware of the manner in which our rights in the public domain have been stolen from us. Were Walt Disney alive today, he could not legally create his "Steamboat Willie" cartoon, because that cartoon itself was a derivative of Buster Keaton's "Steamboat Bill" movie. The Disney corporation has ensured, through their deep pockets and legalized bribery, that no creator of new content is able to do to them, what Walt himself did to the Brothers Grim and Buster Keaton.

We as a culture are poorer for it.

The copyright issues facing this country are not about property rights. They're not about "theft" or "piracy" or any of the other buzzwords the RIAA, MPAA, and the like enjoy in their thirty second soundbytes. The issue is public culture- who controls it and who benefits thereby. Right now, the only people benefiting are those with enough money to bribe the senate and the house of representatives. Our common culture is for sale, and big business is buying. Congress is having a bargain basement fire sale of our intellectual liberties while we sit around arguing over who got a low-quality digital copy of this week's number one bubblegum pop tune without paying for it.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Altering our children for convenience

I'll be honest. I'm an opinionated sort of person. Rarely do I come across an ethical issue which confounds me- by and large, my innate sense of right and wrong comes through loudly, and clearly.

So when I read about the girl who will never grow up, my first instinct was horror. How could a parent do that to their child? Certainly, she'll be easier to lift, bathe, feed, and dress in the body of a six year old rather than a fully grown woman. And that might keep her at home, and out of an institution, longer. In the care of her parents, and not strangers.

I discounted the idea that keeping her from growing breasts will prevent rape; that is so much nonsense. There are scores of children the world over who've been sexually assaulted. Cutting out her uterus? Well, she wasn't going to be using it, I suppose. And that definitely won't prevent rape, but it would prevent a pregnancy. And lord knows her caretakers have enough responsibility without dealing with a future pregnancy anyway.

But it didn't sit well with me, the idea of carving off "unnecessary" bits on a human being.

But I've been thinking about it, and I find myself, if not fully endorsing, then at least Understanding, their choice. I tried putting myself in the girl's position (a decidedly uncomfortable task) and tried to imagine what it would be like.

Imagine the intellect and comprehension of an infant; or even that of a very young child. Then imagine the body undergoes puberty. What would that be like? How frightening might it become?

It's not that hard for me to imagine, actually. Precocious puberty is defined in females as early onset of menses. For me, this horror struck at age eight. It came coupled with b-cup breasts and, in short order, height greater than the tallest boys in my school. Back in the seventies, no one called this a medical disorder. You just "Bloomed Early." And the physical and psychological effects were not discussed nor commonly understood.

Today that would be a treatable disorder. Puberty may be staved off to a more developmentally desirable time. I cannot blame my mother; she did the best she could with what she knew. There was no option of stalling the clock for me. But what if there had been? Would I have been better or worse off? I might have eliminated some of the terrors of my own childhood- the embarrassment, the teasing, the unwanted male attention in gradeschool. I might not have tried to stuff my breasts into my armpits and I might not have walked slump-shouldered to appear shorter. But I cannot actually KNOW that I would have turned out any healthier, or been more welcoming of menses at a later date. I might have hated my boobs and dreaded my periods anyway. Plenty of women do.

But I think of that fear and uncertainty- the worry that I was bleeding to death. The sudden clumsiness that came with a radically altered center of gravity. The disbelief and disgust when the biological purpose behind all these changes was made clear to me. ("THAT's how you make babies? Ugh. Gross!")And I can ask myself, if that was a traumatic thing to go through as a bright, healthy third-grader- how much worse would it be for someone with the mind of a baby? To suffer the menstrual cramps and indignity each month, for no earthy reason?

This poor girl is never going to marry or become a mother. She will never have intelligence enough to consent to anything. She will remain a happy, burbling infant, but now she'll be travel-sized for her parents' convenience.

Perhaps that last was uncalled for. But it does express my own murky feelings on the subject. I understand why they did it. I can even argue their point logically. But emotionally? It doesn't sit well. It feels dirty to even think that way, to think about making those kinds of very permanent decisions for another human being, even if it were my own child.

Because I have to wonder... if it's okay to shrink your mentally disabled child so you can always lift her, how far away is it to consider altering other aspects of biology in order to make your child easier to handle? We've already got mass dopings for difficult kids. We make them sit still, make them cooperate... when will we start making them prettier? Smaller? Bigger? Thinner?

And I worry. Because if you'd asked me at age nine, I'd have agreed to anything to keep from reaching this height. I once went to my mother to ask if anyone in this country practiced feet-binding. I was hoping to prevent my own (inevitable) growth into a size eleven shoe. What if my mother had encouraged me? What if she had allowed that? Is mutilation for acceptance that much of a stretch from mutilation for accessibility?