22 September, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: Back After Katrina

Okay, so it's been a while since I posted. At least this time I have a (slightly more) valid excuse. Hurricane Katrina really screwed up a lot of my plans recently. Forcing its way hrough less than a week after school school began, I had not yet moved my stuff into my new dorm when I had to leave abruptly and catch a death cold of immense proportions. Even after power was restored and my sickness died down (thank god for a/c), I had lost two acquaintances to the storm's fury and two of my friends had severe flood damage in their home. The job I had agreed to take upon starting school again has been completely ignored so far; I won't even start until Monday of next week. Classes are severely behind, and class sizes are in some cases double what they were, because students from the destroyed campuses of Loyola and the like have transferred to Spring Hill College in an attempt to continue their education despite Katrina's wrath.

Writing this column does mean a great deal to me. It is, in my mind, a place where I may write about things that make people feel. And so I am quite glad to be back -- as odd as it may seem, writing these articles makes things seem more normal, even if they really aren't.

I have an article already written--it was finished before Katrina hit, actually--but I will wait until next week before posting it. It just doesn't seem appropriate, given that in every one of my classes, at least one person has lost their homes, or one of their family members' lives. For those of you who know of no one on the Gulf Coast, allow me to let you know that this hurricane has severely affected a great deal of people in very negative ways. But despite this, life goes on, and tragedy will pass in time.

Until next week, when I will present an argument in favor of infanticide, may you all live on, and enjoy life.

Be well.

25 August, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: Life.


Odd how life keeps continuing, despite what may happen at any individual point. Never would I have guessed how my life would end up had one taken the time to ask me about my thoughts of the future way back when I was still in grade school. Life is such a difficult thing to anticipate.

I'm taking a creative nonfiction class this semester at college, so I apologize if that style of writing starts to creep into this "weekly" column. Somehow I feel my writing has no real direction... I say I want to inform an audience in a readable way, yet none of my articles come close to doing that. Honestly, I just don't know about myself. My writing is terrible, though obviously from my word choices and stylistic attitudes, it is at least clear that I am a moderately competent reader. It's quite sad really. Having decided to start Panangelium.tk and subsequently bringing together a couple of writers that I have always felt are far superior to me in style, I am saddened by the fact that my own irresponsibility has caused my writing here to not only come out sporadically, but in such a very poor manner that sometimes I am too ashamed to even send it in to the editor that I myself appointed. It's really a quite depressing thought.

I think what I lack most is not a sense of rigor, though of course I am severely lacking in that respect, but instead I write without passion. Even when I truly care about a topic, I do not insert my feelings into the text, and in place of readable essays, I produce harsh-sounding stutter-inducing crap that looks like it was written for the front page of some backwater high school newspaper.

Life continues.

Stuff keeps happening to me. In the past, it was always a matter of my constantly hurting others, all the way up until I started college some three years ago. Even then, my overly violent nature could still occasionally be seen, as evidenced by one of my college friends, who pissed me off so badly one day in freshman year that I literally punched through a window. Believe me when I say that it isn't as easy as it looks in movies.

But in the past three years, it has not so much been the usual story of my life in which I hurt everyone who has ever dared to become close to me (even P, on multiple occasions, for which I feel especially terrible), but rather it is I who have been hurt, time and time again. Sometimes by the jocular voices of friends, and other times by the cruel stares of strangers. I realize it shouldn't hurt, and honestly, I am the one who is intentionally causing such events to occur, but nonetheless I am bound by the feelings that lie deep inside of me, feelings that I never let through to the surface except very occasionally, like with Mary or Jennifer or Stephanie or...Robin.

I do not (nor should not) expect you, the reader to understand any of what I am saying. This is not a personal journal, though it is a memoir of my ideas, and this is not the place for heart-felt confessions, though this is where I wish to reach out and touch my readers as closely as I can. In the end, I am but a man: stupid, rash, and utterly naïve. And as such, you, the reader I so desperately wish to speak to, will likely have no desire (nor even the slightest inclination) to read what few words I write here. Nonetheless, I write.


I write because I live. In living, I must communicate; but it is so rare that I find the ability to get across my feelings or ideas, and it is even less often that I am able to get across both of them. So I write. I write so that maybe, just maybe, my words might reach the eyes of a few. Likely I will never meet those few. In fact, I doubt to ever even know those few. But I write anyway.

I write because I hurt. Have you ever hurt so much? So much that something had to be done, yet there was nothing to be done? For me, it meant I had to break down and talk to Jennifer in Delaware. It meant I had to hold back my tears in Florida, even though Mary did all she could to make me feel comfortable enough to talk to her. It meant that here, in Alabama, I am pursuing thoughts, ideas, and patterns of life that I have not had glimpses of for literally years.

I write because I want to be a writer. Not that I will ever become one. But what a life it would be.... This website engulfs me—it tears me apart on the inside—just because it gives me space to write how I feel, to reach out to an audience that likely does not even read my scant words, to slump awkwardly, unable to cope with the idea that my words are falling into the endless gulf of the internet, never to be read by any other soul.

I write because some things are worthy of attention, even if I am not the one to ever get across such concepts. Fiction is great—really, it is—but my heart is simply no longer in it. I cannot deal with it. I can barely read it. I am hooked on reality. On finding out what is real. Like me. Like these very words, or, to be more precise, like these concepts that these words are attempting to signify. This is reality. This is me, whether you like it or not. I may not be a writer, but writer or not, I am still real. I am me.

I write because I am me. I am a writer. I am alive. I am hurt. I am worthy of attention. I am real.

"I write as though I am whispering in the ear of the one I love."

And life goes on.

28 July, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: The Meta-article

I may be just enough of a masochist to try it out on the side as well.
I may be just enough of a masochist
to try it out on the side as well.
If ever there were a more morose, pitiably pedantic, and terribly trite joke of a job than writing weekly articles for no pay, then please let me know about it. I may be just enough of a masochist to try it out on the side as well.

Yet somehow this weekly column bit is teaching me a lot about what is and is not acceptable in writing to a general audience. In the two and a half months that Panangelium.tk has been online, I feel that I have progressed toward making my writing more accessible, interesting, and perhaps fun for the general reader. Though most who read my articles do not leave comments on the site (a situation I heartily regret), I do get e-mails occasionaly from some readers who perhaps feel obligated to read my stuff (i.e., friends and family), and from their incomparably comstructive criticism (which by the way outweighs praise by a factor of three to one), I think I have finally found how to adapt to an audience much more diverse than I've catered to in the past (as can easily be seen from a cursory glance at my LiveJournal). Now all I need is to learn to be more responsible with my deadlines and to (for the love of god) condense my writing (whilst getting rid of unnecessary paranthetical statements) to make it more palatable to the random viewer (of which, by the way, there are literally hundreds -- three hundred unique visitors since the site's conception in June 2005 -- though it may not look it due to the sparse traffic in the commentspace, literally dozens of random visitors in nine different countries [including Singapore, UK, Taiwan, New Zealand, Dominican Republic, and others] in twelve different time zones arrive each week to read one or another of our columnist's weekly articles, and about half of these readers are repeat visitors; admittedly, thats not too impressive when compared to most webzines out there today, but for a two-and-a-half month old site that has only content as its selling point, I'd like to think that it's particularly impressive).

As a weekly columnist, I am often given suggestions for future topic to write on in those letters that friends and family sometimes send me. Strangely, though, all of the subjects recommended to me seem nearly the same: Iraq, animal cruelty, Bush, Wal-Mart, Rove, etc. And though each of them does indeed deserve an article of their own, especially in a column such as this one, I simply cannot do justice to such lofty topics while I am still coming to terms with what it means to write in a weekly column to a very generalized (and multicultural) audience.

I'm telling you all thee things because this week, I have chosen a different topic: the topic of writing this column. Today's article is a metaarticle, where I am writing of the very fact of writing the article itself. I feel that such a topic is indeed worth of attention, not because I am full of myself, nor even of my job (having readers in nine countries isn't quite so impressive when you realize most of them come once, and never return to read another article again), but because I feel that all individuals are worth of attention; and quite frankly, I feel much more qualifed to write on what it's like to write than to take on the topics suggested to me by friends and family.

Writing [Panangelium.tk] articles has been especially hard for me....
Writing [Panangelium.tk] articles
has been especially hard for me....
Writing these articles has been especially hard for me, because I have had to learn to adapt to a general audience, whereas before my targeted audience was a very small chunk of what I write to now. Add to this that the last two and a half months have been some of the most turbulent in my life (see my LiveJournal for details), and one can easily see how keeping up with the demands of a non-paying job such as this one has taken quite a toll on me.

But, of course, I do not expect you to feel sorry for me. I just want you to know what it's like to write these articles. And man, let me tell you: it's fucking depressing.

I just want you to know what it's like to write these articles....  [I]t's fucking depressing.
I just want you to know what it's like
to write these articles....
[I]t's fucking depressing.
Not only do I have to research the terrible atrocities that I write about, but I also have to look for new topics as well, and when one is physically trying to get more information about the sad state of the world, one finds out some very disturbing things. I have read more essays and reports on how horrible things are going in this world in the past two and a half months than I have in the preceding twenty-four years. Life, I have come to find out, sucks.

But I deal with it. I mean, what else is there to do, really? I have a big heart, larger than most people realize, and I truly feel the plight of others whenever they are in trouble. Reading Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky and Peter Singer and William Blum, among others, serves to sadden me a great deal -- but it also gives me the chance to feel alive. It seems like before I spent so much time researching these things, I lived in a fake world, devoid of the concept of good and evil. Yet now, I feel like there is a purpose to life. Not just for me, but for all people.

And that's why writing these weekly articles is so enjoyable to me, even after all that I've said above. As morose, pedantic, and trite as this job is, I feel that it is a worthwhile experience, just because I may be able to share what I've learned to a broader audience, one by one. Starting on September first, Panangelium.tk will be enjoying an advertising campaign aimed at recruiting an order of magnitude more readers. In preparation for this, expect Panangelium.tk to undergo a few changes in how the site looks, as well as the introduction of a guest column, where each week, we'll begin to present articles from you, our loyal readers. If you think you might be interested in writing an article to be posted on Panangelium.tk, please e-mail me directly at Garacan@gmail.com.

Until next week when I bring up something significantly more depressing, be well.

21 July, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: Duty—NOT Charity

As a philosophical skepticist, I sometimes find it hard to make arguments that would convince anyone that I am correct in my views. But if I restrict my audience to a subset of the population, then I believe that I can, because of shared initial premises, convince a great number of people to see things the way I do.

So, in the spirit of Peter Singer (Famine, Affluence, and Morality), I present the following highly uncontroversial premises. First, I will start by saying that (1suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad. And second, I will assume that (2if it is within our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. Before I begin my argument, I will take a closer look at each premise to see what kind of audience would agree with them, and whether or not you, as a reader, would be one of those selected few.

Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.
I know more than a few people who would challenge this position, myself included. But if we define the moral sentence "X is bad" as "X is something that I wish everyone considered bad", then I think that everyone I know, no matter how attached to moral relativism they may be (nor how evil they think themselves), will accept this initial premise.

If it is within our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.
This premise is a little more challenging to get the maximum number of people to accept it, yet I still think that the vast majority of my readers will find themselves thinking it correct. When I say "without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance", what is meant is without causing anything else comparably bad to occur, or doing anything that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good that is comparable in significance to the bad thing that we can prevent. In other words, this premise only requires us to prevent what is bad whenever we can do so without sacrificing anything that is comparably morally important. Allow me to quote an example of this principle from Singer: "If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing."

I think that just from what I have said so far, a large number of you have already accepted this second premise. But if you have, then you may want to consider the following, to see if you accepted too hastily. The reason I say this is because this principle does not take into account the distance between the actor and the actee. It also does not take into account whether or not others might not be following the same principle. Yet I wish that I could convince you all to accept this principle without additional qualifications, because I do not think that distance or agreement with others is particularly relevant from a moral standpoint.

Distance should not matter. If a person is near us, then maybe that makes it more likely for us to help him, but it does not make it more important for us to help him, morally speaking. If we want to be impartial, and consider all equally, then we cannot discriminate against someone merely because he is far away from us.

I imagine some of you might argue: "But we are in a better position to judge what needs to be done to help a person near us, and also to give him the necessary assistance. Therefore, there is ample reason to consider first those that are near to us." Perhaps this may have once been a justification, but today instant communication and swift transportation have changed the situation. Today, expert observers and supervisors sent out by famine relief organizations or permanently stationed in famine-prone areas, can direct our aid in foreign countries almost as effectively as we could get it to someone on our own block.  Therefore this particular objection is not sound.

Agreement with others on this premise should also not matter. The principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position. If we consider the good to be good, then it does not matter if everyone around us is doing bad, we should still do good.

Some of you might argue: "If everyone in circumstances like mine gave $10 to charity, there would be enough to provide food, shelter, and medical care for the starving masses; there is no reason why I should give more than anyone else in the same circumstances as I am; therefore I have no obligation to give more than $10." The premises as stated are true enough; but the conclusion was incorrectly stated.  What should have been said is that "If everyone in circumstances like mine gave $10 to charity, then I have no obligation to give more than $10." This is a completely true statement, but seeing as how not everybody in circumstances like yours gives $10 to charity, the objection is moot. In reality, it is more or less certain that not everyone in circumstances like yours will give $10. So there will not be enough to provide the needed food, shelter, and medical care. Therefore by giving more than $10 (up to the point of marginal utility, at which by giving more you would cause yourself and your dependents as much suffering as you would prevent from the starving masses), you will prevent more suffering than you would if you gave just $10.

To paraphrase from Singer: If there are a hundred people around that same shallow pond, and none of them are doing anything to save the child, that does not mean that it is okay for you to not help.
And for those Christians out there, allow me to quote from St. Thomas Aquinas himself [Summa Theologica, II-II, Question 66, Article 7]:
Now, according to the natural order instituted by divine providence, material goods are provided for the satisfaction of human needs. Therefore the division and appropriation of property, which proceeds from human law, must not hinder the satisfaction of man's necessity from such goods. Equally, whatever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance. So Ambrosius says, and it is also to be found in the Decretum Gratiani: "The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry; the clothing you shut away, to the naked; and the money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the penniless."
By now, I would hope that the vast majority of my readers would agree that these two premises are acceptable. And as a result, I'm sure they already see what this means for them. But just to illustrate, I will continue by giving a few cases from Peter Unger's Living High and Letting De: Our Illusion of Innocence.
For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.
For many years to come, Bob enjoys
owning his Bugatti and the financial
security it represents.
Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. The Bugatti is his pride and joy. In addition to the pleasure he gets from driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its rising market value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement. One day when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a railway siding and goes for a walk up the track. As he does so, he sees that a runaway train, with no one aboard, is running down the railway track. Looking farther down the track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the runaway train. He can't stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where his Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed—but the train will destroy his Bugatti. Thinking of his joy in owning the car and the financial security it represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch. The child is killed. For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.
Did Bob make an immoral choice? I am certain that most of you will say that he did. Yet consider the following:
In your mailbox there is something from UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon. But, you throw the material in the trash basket, including the convenient return envelope provided. You send nothing, and, instead of living many years, over thirty more children soon die than would have had you sent in the requested $100.
Honestly, is there any difference between these two examples? Perhaps some of you might argue: "But Bob is the only one who can save the child on the tracks, whereas there are hundreds of millions of people who can give $100 to UNICEF." This is true enough, but does it make any real difference?
Suppose that there were more owners of priceless vintage cars—Carol, Dave, Emma, Fred and so on, down to Ziggy—all in exactly the same situation as Bob, with their own siding and their own switch, all sacrificing the child in order to preserve their own cherished car. Would that make it all right for Bob to do the same? To answer this question affirmatively is to endorse follow-the-crowd ethics—the kind of ethics that led many Germans to look away when the Nazi atrocities were being committed. We do not excuse them because others were behaving no better.
All it takes is $100 to save the lives of thirty starving children.
All it takes is $100 to save the
lives of thirty starving children.
After reflecting upon this for a moment, in the spirit of both Unger and Singer, I would like to provide a link to Unicef [800.367.5437] and Oxfam [800.693.2687] in the hopes that those of you with a hundred dollars to spare will take the time to donate the hundred dollars you would have spent on unnecessary clothing, video games, restaurants, or metro D.C. trips so that the money can be put to the much more excellent use of saving the lives of thirty starving children.
They will most certainly die unless you donate $100 right now. I'm absolutely serious about this. This is not charity—it is duty. And yet I am certain that only a very small percentage of my readers will actually take the time to donate that hundred dollars. And that deeply saddens me.

But regardless of how each of you reacts, I hope that all of you readers will have lots to think about, and I hope that you will forward a link to Panangelium.tk to all of your friends and family, so that they might also get a chance to think on the points that I've brought up in this week's article.

Until next time, be well.

(Information taken heavily from Peter Singer's Famine, Affluence, and Morality. Cases cited are from Peter Unger's Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence and Peter Singer's The Singer Solution to World Poverty.)

14 July, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: A Shitty Situation

So the other day, I was reflecting on the fact that I'd just turned 24 years of age, and I found myself taking stock of my life up to that point. My life has really been a roller-coaster ride, rife with soap-opera like circumstances that seem unique at first glance, but upon extrospection turn out to be quite similar to the life stories heard from many different people in very different places in life. Anyway, as I sat at that park bench, watching the rest of civilized society enjoy the free live jazz concert held on the lawn in front of the Washington Monument, I realized that, like most others who went through the tribulations of youth and inexperience that I endured, the majority of my past life is nothing but shit. That's right: shit. My past experiences, though useful as a learning tool of what not to do, benefitted me in only in the most miniscule of ways; far better it would have been to have learned from the past experience of others. After all, it makes no sense to reinvent the wheel, unless you want to create a more efficient design. And since others have already had rich and fulfilling lives, why should I try to improve on their methods to success, except in those areas specific to my own (admittedly strange) personality?

One of my friends recently went through a breakup that on the surface did not seem bad at all; their relationship ended positively, cooperatively, expectedly, and without undue complication. But reading his journal entries makes me realize how much pain he is going through regardless. And that scares me.

It seems that no matter what we do, we can never quite get away with living without shit.
It seems that no matter what we do,
we can never quite get away with living
without shit.
It scares me because I suddenly realize that even an intelligent, well-rounded intellectual who goes through a breakup that is expected, mutual, and ending with a nod to continued close friendship can feel completely and utterly shitty as a result of it. Whereas I thought at first that it was just my past life that was shitty, I suddenly came to the realization that living as a human being in this crazy world of ours is very nearly a sufficient condition for experiencing shittiness at some point or another. It seems that no matter what we do, we can never quite get away with living without shit.

But just because we can't avoid the fact of nature that shit happens all around us doesn't mean we can't have a perfectly wonderful life. Shit happens, but who says it has to be a bad thing?

Apparently, Sweden does.

For years, the Swedes have been the leaders in sewage treatment. In the '60s, a strong economy and a huge environmental lobby angry at the degradation of Sweden's beautiful lakes and rivers made the country the first in the world to apply large scale advanced sewage treatment to urban areas. Their lead was soon followed by most industrialized nations, leading to the extensive sewage treatment facilities often seen today. But after only a few years, it soon became obvious that something was wrong. The more treatment that the sewage underwent, the worse the resulting sludge became. For thousands of years, the use of solid and liquid waste as fertilizer was the norm; but after Sweden started treating sewage, those farmers that used it found unexplained damage to crops, both above ground and in their root systems. Shortly afterward, Sweden banned the use of sludge on agricultural land.

As time wore on, other methods for disposing of sewage sludge were tried: ocean dumping, incineration, and landfilling. But ocean dumping was soon outlawed for the damage it did to the ecosystem, and incineration proved to simply foul up the air. Landfilling was the only viable alternative, and even then no one would accept the waste until a thinktank came up with the idea of renaming sewage sludge as 'biosolids', so as to make the concept seem 'greener'. It was unexplicable; for tens of thousands of years, the disposal of solid waste has simply been a non-issue, but after the introduction of advanced sewage treatmemnt facilities, it seemed that there was no efficient way to get rid of it all.

The problem, Sweden found out, is that of heavy metals found in sludge. The introduction of industrial chemicals found in waste products made what used to be perfectly good fertilizer into extremely toxic sludge. In October 1999, Sweden banned completely the dumping of sludge with concentrations of heavy metals beyond a certain level. But even that was not enough, as much of the populace has absolutely refused to dump sludge even if it was within the tolerance of legal levels.

But if it seems worrisome that Sweden is having such a huge problem with their sludge, then it would be beneficial to take a look at the levels of heavt minerals considered acceptable by one other country: the United States of America.

European Community19861–350–140100–15030–7550–300150–3001–1.5
The Netherlands0.83610035851400.3
United States199320750150021015014008

As can be clearly seen, the levels of tolerance for heavy minerals in the United States is well above that of Sweden, even though the Swedes are actively worried that their sludge is still too dangerous, and the American populace seems perfectly fine with their situation.

Something about this seems a little bit fucked up.

Whereas Sweden and most other countries determine their tolerance levels based on what heavy minerals are in the environment prior to sludge dumping, the United States justifies its much higher tolerance levels of heavy minerals on how each minerals performs in a risk assessment to determine what levels are acceptable. But knowledge of toxicity and environmental interactions of sludge-borne pollutants is wildly incomplete. Because of this, risk assessments can come up with very different results.

For example, both the Netherlands and the United States used the risk assessment approach, yet came up with extremely different standards. (See table above.) This is due mostly to the fact that the U.S. assessed the risk of maximum levels that humans showed resistance to over a five year period, whereas the Netherlands measured the risk of maximum levels that humans felt absolutely no adverse effects from over a fifteen year period. Also, the Netherlands measured the negative impact on important ecological life in the area of sludge-dumping, wheres the only ecological effect taken into consideration by the U.S. is the copper toxicity effect on earthworms.

European countries actively denounce the U.S.' improper standard for tolerable levels. The Report of the Independent Scientific Committee, published by an independent scientific committee in the United Kingdom, wrote in Review of the rules for sewage sludge application to agricultural land: Soil fertility aspects of potentially toxic elements (United Kingdom Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forests and Department of the Environment, MAFF Publications: London, 1993) that caution is entirely appropriate in determining sewage sludge standards, even when the evidence is still partly inconclusive, "particularly because heavy metals, unlike many other pollutants, cannot degrade [and] are retained in soils virtually indefinitely.... As a result, there is little opportunity for natural recovery from the consequences of any error in judgment." As an example of what the committee went on to recommend, the upper tolerance level of zinc in sludged soils was demanded to be reduced to a maximum of 200 mg/kg -- a standard that the U.K. immediately adopted. The recommendation came as a shock to most European countries, though, who had already set a limit of 100-150 mg/kg for zinc. The comparable U.S. standard for zinc in soils is 1400 mg/kg.

But what makes the U.S. standards so apalling is not so much their far more lenient tolerance levels for toxicity; rather, it is the continual decision to ignore results in scientific findings which go against the levels that the U.S. has already determined.

In the case of Rhizobium, non-U.S. studies show that two species (one smbiotic with clover and the other with peas and beans) are adversely affected by high zinc concentrations in soil -- although the soybean symbionts are not (Plant and Soil Science, 1999). Says Dr. McGrath in the study, "Not only does Rhizobium have a major impact on agriculture, but it is also a sentinel species, demonstrating that the heavy metals in sludge are potentially damaging to the soil ecology."

Strangely, similar studies done in the United States found completely contradictory results. The EPA published A Guide to the Biosolids Risk Assessment for the EPA Part 503 Rule (EPA/8332/B-93-005; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Wastewater Manangement, U.S. Government Printing Office: Washington, DC, 1995) which found no adverse effects on nitrogen fixation for plants other than clover. Faced with these conflicting results, the United States EPA did not opt for caution. Instead, the agency simply did not accept experiments that showed an adverse effect on Rhizobium. Further, the National Academy of Sciences (an American institution) endorsed the EPA's findings. The NAS review considered the European evidence, but decided it was inconclusive.

Y'know, when I first read about this, it really scared the shit out of me. I mean, I've personally already reached far beyond the point where I think politicians are in the game to truly do what's best for society.  But for some reason, I always held scientists to a higher standard. Yet the fact that the EPA would issue such a blatantly immature report simply astounds me to no end. It's really scary, when you think about it.

But it doesn't have to be this way. There are ways to help the situation, even on an individual level. Like composting toilets.

The composting toilet is the answer to the problem that has plagued us since the Roman era.
The composting toilet is the answer to the problem
that has plagued us since the Roman era.
The composting toilet is the answer to the problem that has plagued us since the Roman era. It is a sanitation system that keeps toxic and human wastes separate, prevents pollution, and returns the nutrients from human waste to the soil as a fertilizer. It is safe, ecologically friendly, inexpensive, and best of all, not the least bit smelly.

In a composting toilet, human waste drops away instead of just sitting in a bowl of water, stinking up the room. Composting toilets never smell, nor fill up. Within three years, the feces turns into the best grade humus fertilizer that one can buy, via bacteria, fungi, worms and other micro and macro-organisms. Within days, the urine does the same thing, and with only a nitrification process needed to turn it into an odorless, stable, nitrogen-rich fertilizer that can easily be sold if the owner does not wish to use it himself.

Composting toilets are inexpensive mostly because they do not really have to do anything in order to work. It isn't complicated systems that kill pathogens in the tank, but rather just lots of time. In general, pathogens require their host to survive. But even those that would survive are unable in the highly competitive environment of the tank. They simply cannot compete with the composting organisms that live in the tank.

Shit happens. But it doesn't have to be a negative thing, unless you force yourself into looking at it as such. That's the real lesson to learn from all of this. Maybe we can't trust scientists. Maybe our sewage will sicken or kill most of our children. But even if we sometimes feel bogged down in shit, we shouldn't feel as though life were just out to get us. Because shit isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Yeah, maybe my past life really has been shit. But I don't care. I like where I am today, and I feel that I received valuable life experience from all the shit I was forced to go through. If you cannot yet say the same, then perhaps maybe it is time that you started.

In the meantime, enjoy your week, and, as always, be well.

23 June, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: Impugning Punishment

Impugning Punishment

A couple wakes up from their shared bed in a beautifully decorated hotel-like room with windows over-looking the ocean. As they get up, they check their itenary for the day, which includes a visit to the massage parlor, the gym, a sauna, and a trip to the local museum. As they get ready for the day, they greet their neighbors walking by in the hallway outside their room, check the status of their e-business, and e-mail an application for parole to the parole board.

That's right; believe it or not, this scene is what the majority of prisons in Finland are like.

Thirty years ago, Finland became the first country to completely reverse its policy on handling citizens that broke the law. From its long-standing tradition of harsh punishment aimed at deterring crime dating to when Finland was still an apellate of the former Soviet Union, the people of Finland decided to switch tactics and follow one of the most liberal philosophies of justice in the world today.

In 1975, Finland passed its Sentences Enforcement Act, which stated in part that "the enforcement of sentence must be organized so that the sentence is only loss of liberty", and that "punishment shall be enforced so that it...promotes a prisoner's place in society." In addition, the Act stated that the conditions in prison must be similar to conditions in the rest of society. This dramatic turnaround changed Finland from one of the harshest to one of the most lenient of punitive systems.

But for the Finns, lightening the punishment of being in prison was not enough. They wanted to reduce their prison population dramatically.

So laws were enforced regulating how long offenders could spend in jail. Prisoners may be considered for parole after just fourteen days, and even those who violate parole and return to prison are eligble again after one month. And all first-time offenders are released after serving just half their sentences, with the rest let out after two-thirds.

But even more amazing is their policy of using fines in lieu of prison time. The vast majority of crimes which in the United States would result in a mandatory prison sentence are instead dealt with through a complex fine system which is based upon the offender's income.

In 2002, Anssa Vanjoki was forced to pay a fine of $165,000 -- for a speeding ticket. That's right; a speeding ticket. Doing 74 km/h (46mph) in a 50 km/h (31mph) zone doesn't seem like anything much -- after all, it's only 15 mph over the speed limit. But because Vanjoki is the multi-millionaire Vice President of the Nokia corporation, his fine was scaled to a sum that most would find outrageous. Yet the philosophy behind such scaled fines is one of equity; if a fine is imposed as a penalty, then the penalty should be equal under all who break the law. And whereas a $100 ticket might be a stiff penalty for someone of low income, for a multi-millionaire like Vanjoki, the only way to give a similar penalty is to increase the fine proportionally.

Some critics might think that all of this is nice in theory, but how does this kind of punishment affect the level of crime?

Before Finland's change, the state of the Finland law enforcement and prison system was similar to the St. Petersburg region in Russia. Their populations were similar, their law enforcement systems were simlar, they had similar crime rates, and their prison sentences were about the same. But today, whereas St. Petersburg employs 72,000 police officers, Finland gets by with only 8,500. Russian criminals are more likely to be punished with prison time, and their sentences are consistently far longer. Yet today Finland is much more safe: the murder rate in Russia is ten times that of Finland.

After thirty years of reform, crime rates are down. Repeat offenders are down, even for violent and sexual crimes. Finland's turnaround stance to rehabilitation rather than punishment worked, and the people of Finland are now blessed with one of the lowest rates of crime in the world.

(But please don't think Finland is by any means perfect in its dealings with criminals. Finland has compulsory service of citizens in its army, and has a habit of putting its own citizens in prison if they have conscientous objections to military work and are unwilling to work with any part of the Finnish armed services.)

It would be nice if other countries were to follow the Finns' example. But unfortunately, despite the mounting evidence that lighter punishment and a focus on rehabilitation actually helps to reduce crime, governments (and the people under them) have remained skeptical of such overly scientific theories.
To the Chinese, a common-sense approach of Striking Hard seems to obviously be much more effective, even though no scientific studies agree with the system.

Today, China kills more people than all other countries combined. The death penalty is imposed for murder, bank robbery, and even political corruption. There is no room for appeals; most executions come within days of the verdict.

The Chinese government calls this policy "Strike Hard". The philosophy is one of instilling fear -- those convicted are paraded in the streets before they are shot. And strangely, independent surveys continue to find that a large pecentage of the Chinese population actually supports these practices -- some reports find the approval rating of Strike Hard to be as much as 97%. But, if anything, crime has merely risen since the adoption of the Strike Hard policy.

Yet China is not alone in such practices. The United States has a history of severe punishment, which although psychological instead of physical, still ranks with many of China's unscientific policies.
The philosophy of justice in the United States is one of locking up criminals and forgetting about them.  It is a long-standing policy that has much support from the American people. This philosophy is most easily illustrated in the case of supermax prisons.

Pelican Bay is a supermax is prison on the coast of California. Inmates at Pelican Bay are kept locked in solitary cells for twenty-three hours a day. By law, they are required to receive one hour a day of exercise, but this is done indoors with only a chin-up bar and a track for running, and as always, the prisoner is left alone there. Prisoners never receive eye contact with each other. The only time they have human company is when they are searched for weapons.

Prisoners at Pelican Bay may not participate in work or in furthering education. TV and radios are prohibited. Books are allowed, but only if someone sends them a book -- no libraries are available. Showers are limited to ten minutes three times a week. There are no windows. The lights are left on 24 hours a day.

Misbehaving inmates are sometimes put into 'strip cells', with temperatures left at fifty degrees and only boxer shorts to wear, with no bedding; but if they're really unlucky, they are chained spread-eagle and naked to concrete beds.

Inmates regularly go mad in these prisons.

It should be noted that crime in the United States has continually risen for as long as data has been collected, and at a faster rate than every other industrialized nation except China.

But supermax institutions, as horrible as they may be, do not have much force when spoken of, because we are so very used to the idea. More apalling might be the case of the self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in America".

Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Phoenix, Arizona, has some pretty old-fashioned ideas of punishment. The jails he runs are specifically designed to break inmates through psychological torture -- but this is not a supermax, where only overly violent offenders are sent; this is the regular, everyday jail that the least offender in Phoenix is sent to when convicted.

Convicts work in chain gangs on the main streets of town, and sleep in tents despite the desert conditions. Recordings of Frank Sinatra are played twenty-four hours a day, and meals are served cold twice a day, consisting of bologna sandwiches day in and day out. Inmates are forced to wear pink underwear, and misbehaving inmates have to don pink handcuffs, too. Yet the cost of running Arpaio's jails are tremendous, costing millions in taxpayer money on settlements in court for overly severe conditions. And the crime rate has risen dramatically since the institution of Arpaio's tough jail policies.
But, to be fair to those who think such tough rules should follow the common-sense idea of lowering crime rates, it is possible that Phoenix's rising crime is more due to Arpaio's mismanagement of law-enforcement funds; recently, he spent massive taxpayer money on a publicity stunt rounding up prostitutes while twelve unsolved execution-style murders in the county remained unworked on the books.

But nothing said so far is quite so impressive as Japan. Japan has by far the lowest imprisonment rate in the developed world, and the lowest crime rate. The rate of armed robberies is a hundredth of the US rate.

The secret is that Japan uses shame as an alternative to jail, much like Finland uses fines. In Japan, for most crimes, one can get out of jail sentence by publicly apologizing to the offended, the offended's family, and the offender's own family. Communities are regularly visited by the local police, with at least two visits to each household twice a year -- not for inspections, but just as a reminder of how important law and order is in the Japanese community.

But when a prisoner does go to prison, conditions are harsh. Short, but harsh. The average sentence is only two years, even including violent crimes; but imprisonment includes such penalties as sitting for a week on one's knees for misbehaving. Leather belts and manacles are common, and inmates are marched for hours in parades around the city, forced to show their face to the society that they wronged.

I will leave you with words of wisdom from one of the most intelligent moral philosopher mathematicians that I know (in short, the closest thing to a hero that I have):
When a man is suffering from an infectious disease, he is a danger to the community, and it is necessary to restrict his liberty of movement. But no one associates any idea of guilt with such a situation. On the contrary, he is an object of commiseration to his friends. Such steps as science recommends are taken to cure him of his disease, and he submits as a rule without reluctance to the curtailment of liberty involved meanwhile. The same method in spirit ought to be shown in the treatment of what is called 'crime'.
- Bertrand Russell
Join me next week as I explore the wonderful world of shit. Yes, you heard me right: shit.

Be well.

(Sources for this article include MCSO.org, Arpaio.com, CNews, Amnesty International, Pelican Bay Prison, The Wall Street Journal, and special thanks to Galafilm's "To Kill or To Cure" for inspiration.)

16 June, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: Tackling Hedonism Head-On

Though there are many things in this world that are worthy of attention, only one issue may be discussed first in this column. And rather than using this initial pulpit to discuss politics, or the environment, or the subjugation of non-human animals, I wish to bring up the one issue that most directly affects all of my readers, regardless of their cultural background. It is the single thread that binds all peoples and transcends boundaries of time, place, and happenstance. In the view of many, it is the most important issue that we may ever discuss, and as such, I feel justified in dedicating my first substantial article to the idea. This topic, debated even back during the pre-socratics, is on human happiness.

Human happiness, as it is intuitively understood, is the individual state that all humans aspire to, regardless of their views on life. Plato argued that individual human happiness comes only with leading the good life, which he described as being part of a well-functioning (i.e., happy) society. Aquinas argued that this good life came about only through being pat of the most perfect well-functioning society: the kingdom of god. Rand argued that the good life comes only from living 'separately' from society, focusing on the individual as the largest unit capable of human happiness. Aristotle said the good life has nothing to do with it; the only way to truly be happy is to philosophize with friends. But in all these vastly differing opinions, one constant remains: achieving human happiness is always considered as one of the most lofty of goals.

The most likely reason for placing such emphasis on hedonism is that it is the only measureable moral entity that we may observe. Some, like Kant, have seemingly argued against human happiness as the most important of issues; but a more sophisticated view of human happiness soon reveals that even categorical imperatives that apply even when against the desires of the individual go against them are in actuality hypothetical imperatives in disguise: if you agree to follow my normative views, then you will do such and such, even if you do not desire to do so. In effect, the categorical imperatives that I believe in are in reality the same as the hedonistic values that I follow most closely. All morality, in fact, can be understood as nothing more than hedonism, albeit sometimes a sophisticated form of hedonism that takes into account more than just one's present state of happiness.

I've used a lot of loaded philosophical terms so far, but even though I need them in order to be completely specific with my words, please understand that it is certainly not neccessary to consult a dictionary of philosophy in order to know what I am talking about. Essentially, human happiness is a concept that we may all talk about, and, indeed, that we all should discuss.

What is human happiness? Clearly, it is what pleases us. But the word 'pleasing' is not exact enough to capture the true meaning of human happiness. True happiness arises from many different sources; not just the pleasures of the flesh, but also of the mind. Aristotle counted receiving respect from one's peers and even personal attractiveness in the eyes of others as qualities that contribute to human happiness. Maybe not all of us achieve happiness in the same way; personally, I do not think I could truly be happy without sexual gratification, for example. But others might disagree. Some might be perfectly happy as social outcasts, or even in being complete morons. But regardless of how we each achieve happiness, the achieving of it is certainly one of the foremost issues that we may each have to deal with.

In the past few years, I've undergone a complete reversal in my personality and outlook on life. Activism has slowly grown to become an important part of my life, and spreading my own emotive views on normative judgments has become something of a personal quest. It is, in effect, my method of achieving human happines. Nevertheless, I have retained my strict philosophical viewpoint in dealing with such issues, and as such have been forced to reconcile with the fact that there is no particular reason why my personal brand of morality should apply to any other.

Retaining a responsible philosophical attitude while trying to get others to agree with my own moral beliefs is hard on my psyche, and ultimately damaging to my own happiness. But I cannot pretend that I know best when others could just as easily know better. Ultimately, my happiness would only be undermined if I were to ignore the philosophical examination that I by now am so used to participating in.

In the end, we're all hedonists. We have to be; there is no other moral-like property that we can observe.  I personally believe that humans can never be happy unless nonhuman animals are justly treated. As much as I may wish this to be a categorical imperative, in the end, it is merely how I feel. And I must recognize the same for others.

How another feels life should be (the culmination of which would be their own personal happiness high point) is no better nor worse than my own, at least as far as can be observed. Whether it is Bush further entangling the federal government, big business, and the Christian right; or Plato sacrificing the wants and desires of the philosopher king for the good of the republic; or even the small business owner taking advantage of each employee, client, and supplier because the capitalistic system allows him no better alternative to succeed, the moral views (and thus the personal human happiness) of every being is no more nor less likely to be better nor worse of any other.

Human happiness is a laudable subject. But there is no way of determining which person's views on human happpiness we should follow, not even our own. But the one thing we do know is that in the end, it all is nothing more than hedonism. So if you ever find yourself in a situation where you are unsure of what to do, try to do what would be best for you. In the end, that is all we can do.

Until next week, where I will discuss the role of punishment in society, I bid you all adieu. Be well.

02 June, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: Coming to New Beliefs

The question of morality is always a sticky one. What is or is not considered to be ethical changes with each person you ask. Nevertheless, it is clear that the vast majority of human beings agree on a few so-called 'basic' moral judgments, such as the undesirability of killing one's own family without any professed provocation. Why there is agreement on such matters is not entirely clear. Some would say it is a product of evolution, while others would use it as evidence of a defensible moral standard. Bur regardless of how one views the evidence, it cannot be denied that such widespread agreement on some moral judgments does in fact exist, and it is the job of the ethicist to attempt a determination of what exactly these moral judgments may be reduced to.

It is in this spirit that my column is dedicated. Not because I wish to impose my own normative claims upon the world at large, but because what is most worthy of attention in this world of ours is to take stock of reality itself, which we all too often gloss over; and morality is by far the most important of all glossed-over ideas. After all, addressing moral issues, even if it is just in determining whether or not normative claims exist, is the pre-eminent ideal that comes before all else, even the concept of god. As Plato so astutely pointed out, if one places god above morality, then whatever god happens to consider good would be okay. Since we would not follow a god whose morality differs wildly from our own, then we must consider morality to be even above god.

The thing about morality, however, is that (assuming a sufficient level of sophistication) no matter how hard one tries, no one can ever change what you may or may not consider moral, unless they do so with social brainwashing (such as school, parenting, or the like). Certainly, I in particular cannot affect (or effect, for that matter) your normative standards merely by employng argument. Indeed, it takes something considerably more theistic in nature in order to manage another's views on ethics.

Nevertheless, by starting with the preconceptions and prejudices on morality one already has, along with an ideal of logical consistency, I can use 'mere' argument to force one into a logical contradiction that may only be resolved by 'working out' one's own moral system, and perhaps realizing that what they believed all along means something that they had never fully comprehended it to mean at all.

Effecting change in this manner is not an ability that only I possess. We all have the capacity to argue out of a logical inconsistency, and improve one's vantage point of morality in the process. In fact, if normative standards do exist, then it is of paramount importance that we educate both ourselves and others to the existence of such a moral standard -- so not only do we all have this capacity for introspection, but it is right and just for us to employ that ability at every opportunity.

In future editions of this column, I will be showing much of what is worthy of attention, yet goes unnoticed by so many. I will be taking stock of reality itself, and showing how the reality of the world you and I live in does not always jibe with the moral standard each of us claims to possess.

In the meantime, may we all look closer to our prime beliefs, and act accordingly each day that we live our lives.

Be well.