Categotry Archives: Essays

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Surrounded by Jackasses in America

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Categories: Essays, Family, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The prairie dog’s bark echoed across the plain – a plaintive cry for me to break the rules and hand over some of my popcorn. I resisted, glancing over at the sign: “DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS!” Though my mother, stepfather, sister, and I were the only humans in sight, I could feel the park ranger’s phantom eyes upon me. I pictured Tonto on horseback, riding up to scold me – “Maize no good for prairie dog, Kemosabe.” – and snatching the errant kernel from my hand (or, perhaps, an unnamed Indian shedding a single tear over my proposed misdeed).

I crumpled the end of the bag closed and returned the popcorn to the back seat of the family car. A worn-out Pontiac, it had nevertheless ferried us from the gentle, green hills of northern Illinois, to the vast, scrabbly tableau of South Dakota, to this nameless drive-thru nature preserve in particular. Along the way, that car carried us over the Mississippi (which seemed less mighty with a giant concrete and steel bridge shrinking it to a five minute drive) and sailed sickening seas of soybeans in Iowa.

There we made a stop in Mitchell to see the Corn Palace, which is indeed made entirely of corn. (Curiously, there was no maze of maize in Mitchell, however.) There was heat, though; oh my goodness, the heat. I was amazed the Palace didn’t spontaneously pop. It smelled of cooked kernels. Not the left-too-long-in-the-microwave smell: this was the almost sweet scent of corn and oil in a pan on the stove from my childhood.

Outside there were hawkers of all kinds, with Corn Palace bumper stickers and Corn Palace T-shirts and Corn Palace corn cob stuffed animals and Corn Palace books and Corn Palace videocassettes (no Corn Palace DVDs, even though it was the mid-Nineties). I was glad to be rid of Mitchell and its thrice-damned Corn Palace. Nothing like rampant capitalism to shatter a perfectly good reminiscence.

The Crazy Horse monument in South Dakota was little better. Only the outline of the noble native was visible, with completion a decade or more away, yet still rocks blasted away from the face of the mountain were for sale. I shook my head and wondered what Crazy Horse would have thought about selling broken parts of the earth – never mind carving his image into his Mother’s body. Of course, we bought one.

The Crazy Horse rock sat in the back seat of our Pontiac, and I used it to hold down my half-empty popcorn bag. An arid breeze blew across the amber waves that day, and I was not about to explain how the animals came to be fed through my negligence and a gust. Tonto would not be scolding this Kemosabe today.

I started when what I assumed was the chief of the prairie dogs let out three sharp barks. “Son of a…” I said as I cracked my skull on the roof, but my mother’s peregrine ears caught me before I could complete my curse. “Language, son,” she said.

The prairie dog’s language became more insistent, as if he had understood and ignored my mom’s rebuke. His barks came faster, louder, commanding his tribe back to their holes not more than twenty feet from the road winding through the preserve. I pulled my now-aching head from the car to see what his bother was. Scanning the horizon, I saw no wolf or fox emerging from the wood for a snack, no buffalo stampede threatening the dog’s den or our dying Pontiac – in fact, I had not seen a buffalo at all in South Dakota, though I had eaten one the day before.

My mom (originally from Canton, S.D.) was advised by her cousin in Sioux Falls to try a local burger joint specializing in buffalo. Signs proclaimed buffalo an “All-American Meat.” Presumably, this was because the buffalo were, as another sign shouted, “Free Range,” not that I had any idea what that meant.

I understood after the first bite, however. That burger was the most exquisite mesquite-fire-cooked hunk of flesh I had ever experienced. No grease dripped down my chin, yet the patty was moist and tender; no preservatives taxed my liver, yet the meat tasted as fresh as new-fallen snow; no vegetables garnished my plate, yet every bite came with a whiff of grass and scrub.

The McDonald’s down the street had a sign indicating there had been “Millions and Millions Served” there. If this little burger joint had a similar sign, it likely would have proclaimed “Dozens and Dozens Served.” Still, I had no doubt even Crazy Horse would have called this burger a work of art.

Returning to my search of the source of the prairie dog’s stress, I turned my eyes to the painted sky. I scanned the expanse, so much bigger here than in Rockford, Illinois. The stratus and cumulonimbus seemed miles long, and their height threatened to scrape the Hubble. Still, even in the clouds of South Dakota, I saw no buffalo.

I saw the predator, though: the slow-circling falcon – or perhaps it was a hawk or an eagle (though not a bald eagle: those I had seen along the banks of the Mississippi as a child on my grandfather’s fishing boat). I pointed it out to my mother, who decided we should move on to a different part of the preserve. I was sure she wanted to give the raptor a sporting chance. I was also sure she wanted to avoid having to explain the “circle of life” to my younger sister if the bird’s hunt was successful.

We piled back into the Pontiac and continued our languid tour of the prairie. Wildflowers and brush surrounded us and concealed the vicious dance of the smaller animals of the plain. My mother and stepfather decided our time in the preserve, and in South Dakota, had come to an end. As we made our way toward the park exit, one last obstacle kept us in Sioux territory a bit longer.

A pack of burros wandered along the narrow road winding through the prairie. Content and confident, they were little concerned about the car casually cruising toward them. My stepfather blared the horn at them; their ears moved, but not their hooves. Soon they surrounded the car, poking their noses in, sniffing for a treat (which they’d no doubt received from other tourists, despite the signs admonishing such activities). My sister cried when one of the donkeys licked her face, and so desperate measures were called for.

I took up the popcorn bag from under Crazy Horse’s stone, pushed a donkey aside with the car door, and climbed out, despite my mother’s warning. I opened the bag and offered a few kernels in my outstretched palm to the donkey I’d shoved out of my way. It seemed the best way to make amends for treating him so rudely. Ears up, the donkey devoured the popcorn in an instant.

Soon, I was making amends for crimes I hadn’t committed. The rest of the pack caught the scent of maize, and moved in to get their share. Shortly, the burros pressed against me, their short hair bristling my legs and arms like brushes. I was surrounded by jackasses there on the plain, just as I had been amidst the soybeans in Iowa.

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Creating a Renaissance for Authors in the Digital Age

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Categories: Essays, Writing, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Authors are in crisis. The Digital Age, with the rise of eBooks, has expanded potential readership by a degree not seen since the mid-1800s (Collins). However, as readers shift from print to electronic books, piracy looms as an economic threat to authors as it has for musicians. This danger, combined with falling print book sales, exposes the precarious financial position of writers in the 21st century. Each eBook downloaded from the Pirate Bay illegally, each chain bookstore that liquidates its inventory for pennies on the dollar, damages the economic incentives for authors to keep writing (Petit). Some writers may choose to pursue careers other than “author” if they’re unlikely to achieve even modest financial success. The idea of “author” as an occupation, with writers having ownership of their work and entitled to compensation therefore, is a new one, but has become deep-rooted in our culture (Childers and Hentzi 23). Authors expect to be paid for their work just as carpenters do. As Booker Prize winner Graham Smith intimates in his interview with The Guardian newspaper’s Nick Collins, without a change in the business model of authorship, the future of literature is in serious jeopardy.
 
Some may question whether the pocketbooks of authors need saving. After all, they will argue, print is a dying medium and television, movies, and Internet media are the modern replacements. Instead of novels, writers should write screenplays; instead of short stories, YouTube shows; instead of poems, song lyrics. Why read American Psycho when Christian Bale was so good in the movie?1 What’s the point of reading anything Stephen King writes if it’ll end up a watered-down miniseries on NBC? Why bother flipping through a “Clifford” book with your kid when there’s an app for that?
 
First, without the work of Ellis, King, Bridwell, and scores of other authors, many of our contemporary movies, television shows, and Internet media would not exist. Hundreds of movies alone have been adapted from works of fiction, according to the Oxford County Library of Ontario, Canada. Entertainment without books to adapt looks like a 24/7 “Jersey Shore” channel: horrifying.
 
Second, authors play a special role in society, a role worthy of protection. As producers of fiction, authors have a responsibility to tell “the lie that tells the truth” (Childers and Hentzi 110). That is to say a book (print or electronic) is like a looking glass. Fiction, from tawdry romances to high-minded literature, is a commentary on society and culture. Without authors to hold up the mirror, we may forget what we look like, however ugly and beautiful we may be.
 
As the work of authors is important to society, and continued production of fiction depends on some degree of economic benefit to authors, what is to be done to keep authors writing? Maintaining the status quo is unlikely to succeed. The naysayers are right: print is dying. Readers are shifting to eBooks en masse, if Amazon’s sales figures can be believed (Collins). With more electronic books available, Digital Age piracy becomes a threat, and authors are already beginning to feel the same effects of piracy that have strangled the incomes of musicians2. Further, major publishers are all too willing to use the shift to eBooks as an excuse to pay lower royalties to authors (Collins). It’s obvious that an answer to the question of how to maintain financial support for writers must be found. While some have advocated for tougher penalties for copyright infringement and more robust digital rights management software to safeguard writer royalties, the best solution to the economic struggles of authors in the Digital Age is a return to the patronage system.
 
Patronage is “[t]he action of a patron in using money or influence to advance the interests of a person, cause, art, etc.” by the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition (“Patronage”). A patronage system, then, requires people (patrons) to advance the (financial) interests of persons (specifically, writers). During the Renaissance, wealthy individuals and families would patronize artists through commission of poetry, painting, and plays. One of the best-known examples of patronage in Renaissance Italy is that of the Medici family. The Medicis became a prominent and prosperous banking family, with strong ties to the Catholic church and politicians in Florence (Horth). They routinely bought and commissioned paintings and sculpture from the artistic luminaries of their time, including Filippo Brunelleschi, discoverer of perspective – the ability to give the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface3 (Horth). In fact, Medici patronage even brought a young Michelangelo into their home to live and work, and Leonardo Da Vinci counted the family among his patrons (Horth). With their sponsorship of artists such as Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Brunelleschi, the Medicis and their wealth could be seen as the driving force behind the Renaissance itself.
 
The benefits of patronage to the artist are obvious – financial support allowing them to pursue their art without the fetters of an unrelated day job. Shakespeare didn’t have to punch a clock at Ye Olde Walle-Marte; his full-time job was poet, playwright. In a letter to his patron, the Earl of Southampton, the Bard acknowledges his privilege (and accompanying responsibility): “…if your honour seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honoured you with some graver labour” (Brown 28). Edgar Allen Poe also wrote to his benefactor, John P. Kennedy of Baltimore, to “express by letter what I have always found it impossible to express orally — my deep sense of gratitude for your frequent and effectual assistance and kindness. Through your influence Mr White has been induced to employ me in assisting him with the Editorial duties of his Magazine [the Southern Literary Messenger ]” (Poe). Poe and Shakespeare wrote correspondence to their backers in appreciation of the support that allowed them to create.
 
But why did the Earl of Southampton and John Kennedy of Baltimore – and other wealthy patrons, like the Medicis – sponsor writers, painters, and sculptors? A common misconception is that the Renaissance patron bought an artist wholesale and dictated themes, colors, imagery, etc. to the hired creator. Writing for Renaissance Quarterly, Gilbert Creighton confirms this type of dictatorial control was sought by some sponsors; more frequently, however, general themes were suggested by a work’s title, and patron influence on tone and content typically came at the artist’s request and was collaborative. Instead of buying an artist to pull on like a marionette, the majority of Renaissance patrons were looking for “enhancement of their honor and splendor,” leaving details of composition to the painter, sculptor, or writer (Gilbert 446). It was enough for the Medicis to say they sponsored Michelangelo’s creativity – they didn’t need to tell him what to create.
 
Patronage thrived in Renaissance Italy, and it lives on in Digital Age America. Numerous grants and endowments are available to authors. These bequests serve much the same function as the direct commissions in the Renaissance era: support of art for art’s sake. There is a significant obstacle to authors looking to earn a comfortable living from grants and endowments, however. In the current depressed economic climate, funds are drying up. The effects of the Great Recession are presented in stark bullet points in a report by the State of Connecticut’s Commission on Culture and Tourism:

  • Corporate contributors are eliminating gifts entirely
  • Foundations are cutting 50% – 100% from previous levels…
  • Sponsorships have been delayed or decreased
  • Secured funders are delaying payments…
  • Value of endowments reduced 30% or more (Connecticut)

While the facts presented by Connecticut’s Commission are obviously specific only to that state, there is little doubt similar effects are being felt across the country. So, at a time when patronage is of vital importance to struggling American authors, less money is available to support them. Writers cannot hope to earn enough money from grants and endowments alone to continue creating in the current economic climate.
 
Literary prizes present another form of contemporary patronage to authors. Like grants and endowments, prize money presents a difficulty to authors looking to earn a living from their work. Most literary prizes require a reading fee for an author’s work to be considered, presenting a catch-224 to struggling writers; they need the prize money to keep creating, but they need money to apply for the prize. Even the prestigious Pulitzer Prize requires a fee from applicants, according to the Prize’s official website. Obviously, literary prizes cannot be the primary source of income for new writers without a pool of funds to draw upon first.
 
If the patronage of grants, endowments, and prizes are failing to adequately support authors, how is the patronage system the best solution to the economic woes authors face? Just as the Digital Age has exacerbated the financial struggles of authors, it has also presented a novel method of patronage: crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing is “a new form of commerce and patronage” as written by the popular website Kickstarter, one of the main crowdsourcing portals. Under the crowdsourcing model, the public-at-large is asked to support a project directly. A project might be anything from a new iPod dock to a feature-length film – or a book. Projects are presented through portals like Kickstarter, and typically feature videos and other “teasers” to educate potential backers and entice the pubic to support the proposed project. Project creators can set rewards for certain contribution levels which act as incentives to patronize the project5, though these are not required. Additionally, use of crowdsourcing tools like Kickstarter provides free publicity for a project (Kurutz). The success of a given project is decided democratically; good ideas (as defined by funding contributors – patrons) are funded, while bad ones are not.
 
The democratic nature of crowdsourcing overcomes one of the traditional arguments against patronage systems: that they favor the well-connected over the talented. Because which projects are ultimately provided funding is decided by the global online community, the success of a project is based on the strength of the idea behind it and how well it is presented, not on whom the project creator knows and how well they manipulate the bureaucracy of the endowing institution. Connections and influence may help an author gain exposure for their project, but exposure is not the same as money. If one is not interested in the premise of a novel, they’re not likely to give someone money to write it.
 
Of course, there is a legitimate complaint regarding patronage in that many talented writers may yet go undiscovered, unpublished. With a high degree of competition in a global online marketplace, there is no doubt some gifted and innovative authors will still see their manuscripts languishing in the bottom of a desk drawer (or, more likely, in their Google Docs account). Many authors find themselves in a similar position today. With a large volume of manuscripts incoming every day, many editors and literary agents6 cannot give each a thorough reading, and even when they can, publishing houses may be unwilling to risk financial losses on a book without significant market potential (Petit). A book that is well-written and interesting may not be published because the potential return on investment is too low for the publisher to make a healthy profit. Money, not talent, drives the book publishing world today. The possibility of undiscovered talent is no different than the status quo, and is no reason not to pursue a course likely to find more great fiction produced for readers around the world.
 
That the continuation of the status quo is not an acceptable response to the economic dilemma before writers has already been demonstrated, but some have called for continuation of the current publishing model with additional copy-protection and anti-piracy measures as a bulwark against the emerging digital threat to authors. Unfortunately, the promise of uncrackable eBooks is a lie. Cory Doctorow, a prominent technology blogger and science fiction author, points out this fundamental premise of computer science in a 2007 article for the U.K.’s The Guardian newspaper titled “DRM [Digital Rights Management] Vendors Are Pushing The Impossible.” In his article, Doctorow explains how emails and text messages can be securely transmitted with common encryption programs, but media are more difficult to protect because the consumer is the person the encryption is supposed to defeat. We, as consumers, must be entrusted with the decryption keys embedded in our DVD players and eReaders. Doctorow cites the example of “Muslix64,” a hacker who broke the Blu-Ray encryption system – without even being in the same room as a Blu-Ray player. Further, copy protection only has to be cracked once; as soon as the material is available on the Internet, anyone can get the unprotected version without having to do any cracking of their own. Doctorow concludes his article by asking “how long will paying customers stay when the companies they’re buying from treat them like attackers?”
 
Instead of treating readers like potential pirates as publishing houses have, Digital Age authors could instead turn to them as crowdsourcing patrons. Contributors to an author’s book project could, perhaps, be rewarded with special thanks in the front matter of the book at lower contribution levels, and with print copies of the book (signed, even) at higher levels. Piracy of the electronic version of a completed novel could be avoided by making the book free to download. Through another Digital Age marvel – self-publishing – authors maintain complete creative and financial control over their projects, so rewards for contribution, price points for finished products, and marketing budgets are entirely theirs to decide.
 
Decisions about how to combat the ills of the Digital Age are ultimately up to authors. These decisions are of grave import for society, as authors hold a special role as commentators on culture. Authors can decide to continue working within the existing publishing system, hoping for crackdowns on eBook pirates and the largess of major publishing houses. By choosing the status quo, authors are setting themselves up for failure. Publishers are using the eBook revolution as an excuse to pay smaller royalties. There will be no uncrackable encryption system to stop illegal copying of eBooks.
 
Authors can instead choose to pursue patronage. In a patronage system, authors ask their fans to support their work directly. Writers maintain creative control of their projects in such a system, and can work collaboratively – instead of confrontationally – with readers. No patronage will be forthcoming for authors lacking in sound ideas and writing ability, however, so talent and ability will still trump connections and influence in a crowdsourced patronage system.
 
Crowdsourced patronage has been adopted by other creative professionals, such as filmmakers, musicians, and designers. The lessons learned by these vanguards of crowdsourcing should be noted by authors looking to fund their book projects. While crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter allow an author to raise money to cover production costs of their books and provide instant exposure for the project, they do not provide technical or legal advice (Kurutz). Authors must carefully consider all the costs of their projects, from their time spent writing to shipping fees on incentive rewards. Also, authors will still need to educate themselves on copyright issues, production sourcing, taxes, etc. They must act more as entrepreneurs than entertainers, doing what they can themselves and hiring others to handle work they cannot.
 
Other professions could benefit from author crowdsourcing and self-publishing. By acting as creative entrepreneurs, authors will likely employ others throughout the process of bringing a book to market. No matter how talented the writer, for example, a book’s manuscript ought to be proofread by a professional copyeditor7. The fees for copyediting should be part of an author’s project funding total. Likewise, most authors will need the services of a competent graphic designer to create the book’s cover image. Children’s books may need an artist to illustrate the author’s vision. Additionally, prudent authors will find the services of a competent lawyer and tax advisor indispensable. Should an author find him- or herself unable or unwilling to navigate the crowdsourcing and social media jungles, marketing and public relations professionals could be employed to craft a campaign to increase a book’s or author’s exposure. All of the outsiders an author may need to employ will be paid by the crowd. The positive financial effects of patronage will radiate like mirrored sunbeams from the patron, to the author, then to other professionals – and on to society as a whole.
 
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y=mx+b or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Maths

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Categories: Essays, Geek Stuff, Randomness, Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Like many, I’ve long held the belief I’m “bad at math,” but as the spring semester at Rock Valley College winds down, I’ve learned this isn’t true.

In 5th grade, I tested into the gifted program in the Rockford Public School District. I jumped from standard 4th grade classes to advanced 5th grade classes. Given the shoddy state of Rockford’s standard curriculum in the late Eighties/ early Nineties, it’s no surprise I struggled, especially in mathematics. My gifted program teachers taught as though I had been in the program from kindergarten (as most of the students had been). My troubles at home, which manifested as poor behavior at school, didn’t motivate my teachers to give me extra help, I’m sure. After a rough 5th grade, I returned to standard classes in 6th grade. The result of this ping-ponging between curricula was a severe deficiency in basic arithmetic skills.

Fast-forward three years, when I was enrolled in the Academy, RPS’s gifted program for high schoolers. Still behind in math, I failed my college algebra course the first time around and barely passed geometry. My senior year, I dropped out of my advanced math class (trigonometry, if I recall) rather than face another two semesters of brutality. I hated math.

In 1999, when I took the entrance exams at Rock Valley, I scored less than 50% on the math portion (shocked, I’m sure you are), earning me the privilege of several remedial courses, including geometry. This semester, I’m completing a “super course,” which tackles all of those remedial classes in one semester, save geometry. I have a 91% in the class right now, and finals are in two weeks. On a lark, I retook the geometry portion of the placement test, and scored an 80%: enough to skip the required remedial class. I have one college-level math class to take – scheduled for next semester – before I graduate with my A.A.

What I have learned in this semester at RVC is that I’m not bad at math; I’m bad at arithmetic. I have little difficulty understanding algebraic concepts. Where I struggle is with simple multiplication and division, managing fractions, and the like. My difficulties stem almost entirely from the learning I missed back in 5th and 6th grades. From these deficiencies flow frustration with myself and feelings of stupidity. But I can’t help also feeling proud I’ve been able to overcome some of my limitations (thanks to help from Texas Instruments) and score an A in a class I was convinced I would barely pass, if at all.

It’s perhaps a bit strong to say I “love the maths,” but I do have a new-found appreciation for them, especially algebra. There are theories in math to be sure: ideas unproven because we can’t test every possible case, but for the most part, algebra is fundamental, truthful. Race, religion, political affiliation: these don’t matter to algebra.  y does, in fact, equal mx+b.

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Human Capitalism

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Categories: Essays, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Attempting to describe an individual’s welfare is no easy task. A psychologist might discuss a person’s neuroses. A physician could talk about cholesterol and lung function. A sociologist may explore a person’s relationships with friends and family. Human welfare is made up of mental, physical, and social health, but it’s also a person’s ability to provide for his or her needs, contribute to the society at large, and enjoy the freedoms provided by responsible political and economic governance. While psychologists, physicians, and sociologists use different terms and tools to measure human welfare, economists use terms like GDP1 and tools such as the United Nations Human Development Index to determine welfare. Economic measures alone are not perfect determinants of human welfare, but they do provide easily quantifiable metrics for comparing the effects of different circumstances on welfare. Things like immigration/ emigration, infant mortality, average lifespan, AIDS infection prevalence, and adult literacy can be determined, and impacts to a nation’s GDP (the standard of living) explored. Of course, a comprehensive exploration of each country’s circumstances and the impact upon GDP thereof is outside the scope of this essay. Instead, a small sample (three countries each) from the UN Human Development Index in the low-, medium-, and high-development categories will provide case studies from which generalizations can be made about the impacts of illiteracy, HIV/ AIDS rates, life expectancy, infant death, and net migration on GDP.

In high human development counties, positive net migration has a positive impact on GDP. The high (relative) GDP entices further immigration, creating continuous upward momentum in economic growth. As Bade and Parkin note in their economics textbook Foundations of Macroeconomics, “population growth is the only source of growth in the quantity of labor that can be sustained over long periods” (220). The medium development countries, however, face a continuous struggle with negative net migration putting downward pressure on GDP. As their citizens flock to other, more prosperous, countries, less labor is available and GDP suffers. In the low human development countries studied, net migration was also positive, which would normally help boost GDP growth. Unfortunately, any upward trend in GDP in these countries created by positive net migration is offset by other factors.

One of the major factors depressing GDP growth in low development countries is high infant mortality rates. Over nine percent (on average) of children born in the three low development countries studied will not survive to their first birthday. This dampens labor growth, which slows growth in the country’s GDP. The problem of infant mortality is not much better in the medium development countries studied. With rates well above 1%, these countries struggle to increase their populations – and thus the pool of available labor – and a smaller GDP is the result. The high human development countries, conversely, enjoy dramatically lower infant mortality rates. These low rates of infant death help ensure the population continues to expand: greater labor supply pushes GDP upward.

The upward trend in GDP enjoyed by the low infant mortality rate in the high human development countries studied continues into old age. With average lifespans around 80 years, workers in high development countries stay productive longer, further contributing to GDP growth. People in medium development countries enjoy life expectancies between 68 and 77 years; these workers also stay productive for a relatively long period of time. The average life expectancy in the low human development countries (less than 60 years) destroys GDP growth potential. Workers in these countries aren’t likely to see any form of retirement, and will have little incentive to invest in their own human capital.

Workers suffering from HIV/ AIDS are also unlikely to invest in their own future when that future seems so bleak. In the low development countries, average infection rates are well above 1%. Sick workers are unproductive workers. Unproductive workers drive down GDP. Further, the high incidence of AIDS infection seen in the low development countries spills over into higher numbers for infant mortality and a shorter average life expectancy. The medium and high development countries enjoy lower rates of HIV/ AIDS infection and higher GDP figures.

The lower incidence of HIV/ AIDS infection that helps bolster the GDP numbers of the medium and high development countries is in addition to, or perhaps because of, an adult literacy rate that’s dramatically higher than the ones seen in the low development countries studied. While medium development countries have rates around 90% or better, and 99% of the population in the high development countries is literate, 30% – 50% of adults in the low development countries cannot read their native language at a functional level. These low development workers are therefore unable to contribute to the economy in anything but the simplest, lowest-skill jobs. These jobs, of course, are also low-paying. The drag on GDP caused by this lack of human capital development is substantial.

As the previous paragraphs illustrate, low human development countries face significant challenges in growing their economies and promoting human welfare. These challenges are not insurmountable though; policies designed to target the core issues depressing economic activity can improve the lot of citizens in third-world countries. Many issues facing the developing world are important and should be addressed to improve the standard of living in the poorest nations. Two policy initiatives, however, are critical in improving economic conditions and human welfare: HIV mitigation and literacy improvement.

Lowering the incidence of HIV infection is imperative for low development countries as it dampens economic growth by increasing the infant mortality rate and lowering the average life expectancy. In the third world, medicines to extend the life of AIDS patients are not readily available, and infected mothers frequently pass the disease along to their newborn children. High rates of HIV/ AIDS disease also drive down human capital growth, because “as life expectancy shortens so does schooling inducing a lower growth rate of income” (Huang, Fulginiti, and Peterson).

Reducing HIV/ AIDS rates is facilitated by a literate populace: people who can read can be taught more easily than those who cannot. Those same literate workers can also acquire job skills more easily. As noted by Grant Johnston, in his work for the New Zealand Treasury, “people with better literacy skills are more likely to be employed, and to earn more, than people with poorer literacy skills.” Adult literacy also has non-economic benefits, such as increased appreciation of arts and culture, political and religious tolerance, and family stability. 

1Throughout this essay, the acronym “GDP” is used to signify “real gross domestic product per capita.”

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New Essay: “The Duty to Die”

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Categories: Essays, Writing, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

For the record, I am not a utilitarian, and this essay helps explain why. I hope you can at least appreciate the logic I employed in crafting my thesis. Without further ado, here is my essay, “The Duty to Die”:

For those existing with the intense pain of a terminal illness, the right to life sounds like a cruel joke. Every day becomes a choice: continuing to endure the pain of disease, taking powerful pain medications to ameliorate the discomfort, or ending one’s life. Which option to pursue can become a moral dilemma to someone battling excruciating bone cancer or advanced HIV/ AIDS. Some may choose to grit their teeth and bear it, believing they must preserve their mental clarity in the final stage of their illness. Others seek comfort in the form of potent narcotics that may render them incoherent. The morally virtuous instead choose to die on their own terms, either by their own hand or with assistance.

The moral theory of utilitarianism requires us to always choose the action that maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain for all those affected by the action. Thus the terminally ill patient must perform a wicked calculus; which of the three available end-of-life treatments will maximize pleasure and minimize pain for everyone involved? Obviously, in the situation of someone who is terminally ill, it’s doubtful there’s any hope of maximizing pleasure. Therefore, the patient needs only focus on minimizing pain.

This eliminates the possibility of sustaining one’s life without benefit of pain management drugs while maintaining moral correctness. As noted by Foley et al, “the suffering of an individual radiates throughout households, neighborhoods, and villages.” Toughing it out certainly does not minimize pain. In fact, it does the opposite; it maximizes pain and minimizes pleasure. The second option available is to continue existence with palliative drug treatments. While this does minimize the pain of the patient, the family and friends of the terminal patient continue to suffer. In their February 2010 article on Scientific American’s website, psychology professors Robert Emery and Jim Coan state:

During a particularly stressful experience, the anterior cingulate cortex may respond by increasing the activity of the vagus nerve – the nerve that starts in the brain stem and connects to the neck, chest and abdomen. When the vagus nerve is overstimulated, it can cause pain and nausea.

Few would argue dealing with a loved one suffering from a terminal illness is not stressful. Therefore, simply by being terminally ill – whether one utilizes pain management or not – a patient is causing pain to his or her friends and family. The death of the patient is also stress-inducing, and the pain of losing a loved one can last for years, decades, or a lifetime. Friends and family suffer their own pain while the ill person is dying, and after their death. The final solution available is to terminate one’s life. Suicide, whether assisted or not, can be accomplished painlessly. The terminally ill patient’s pain ends at the moment of death. This means less pain for the patient than if they had foregone medication, and the same amount (or less) than if they had opted for palliative care. The friends and family of the patient will still experience the pain of that person’s passing in the same way as the previous two options. They will, however, be spared the pain of watching their loved one languish away. The friends and family of the ill person will skip the pain caused by watching the patient slide closer and closer to death, and move directly to the pain caused by the death itself. This means less pain for those affected by the patient’s passing than if they had continued to suffer with their disease, medication or no.

Clearly, then, of the three options available to the terminally ill patient in pain – palliative medicine, no medication, or death – self-euthanasia is the option required of the morally righteous, according to the utilitarian thesis. It is the choice that maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain for all those affected by the action. The patient’s pain ceases; the suffering of family and friends is diminished. Terminally ill patients in pain not only have a right to die, they have a moral duty to pursue their own death as quickly and painlessly as possible.

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New Essay: “A Contract of Love”

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Gays are not very gay when it comes to the issue of marriage. In most states, they are not allowed to marry. In some of those states, civil unions offering a smattering of the same rights married couples enjoy are allowed. In a tiny minority of the United States, homosexuals are granted full marriage rights equal to heterosexuals. Gays and lesbians are upset in the states that offer no legal standing for their relationships because this relegates them to second-class status. They are simply not treated in like fashion to their straight peers. Some homosexuals are unhappy in states that offer civil unions as a supposedly equal alternative, claiming these unions don’t offer the same host of rights married couples enjoy. Others are angry they are branded with a different term, seeing a civil union as not equal to marriage in that the difference in language creates a prejudice against them, even if the union grants them the same set of rights as a married, heterosexual couple. Some straight couples, on the other hand, are upset the laws governing their marriage have changed. They see granting of marriage rights to gay couples in the states they’re allowed as fundamentally changing the nature of their heterosexual marriage. Other straights are angry they did not have the option of a civil union, instead being pressed into a marriage, which has a different social expectation attached. Furthermore, some heterosexuals are frustrated there’s a debate over gay marriage at all; they would prefer sexuality remain a topic that stays “behind closed doors.” In response to these varied – and often conflicting – frustrations, federal and state government officials have proposed numerous pieces of legislation in an attempt to balance the wants of their constituents. In 2004, opponents of gay marriage even proposed a Constitutional amendment to ban any marriage not between one man and one woman (Kuykendall). Yet, for every new proposal, a new round of angry condemnations and frustrated protests emerges. Lawmakers are in a fight they cannot win; they can’t please all of the people all of the time. Based on the frustration and anger generated on both sides of this issue, it’s evident a rational solution that works in the interests of most citizens must be found. The best solution to the issue of gay marriage is for state and federal government to replace current marriage regulations with domestic partnership agreements for all citizens.

Domestic partnership agreements would be structured in much the same way that business partnership agreements are set up now. In the simplest terms, a domestic partnership agreement would be a legal contract recognized by state and federal government as binding the parties for the purpose of creating and maintaining a shared household. The agreement would stipulate who is party to the agreement, the rights and responsibilities of the partners, and how changes to or dissolution of the agreement would take place. As with any contract, parties to a domestic partnership agreement would have to be legal adults. A domestic partnership could have more than two partners, provided all parties were in agreement with the arrangement. It’s also possible a person could be party to more than one domestic partnership, but this could present legal challenges depending on the wording of the individual agreements. Like a business partnership, a domestic partnership would have certain minimum rights and responsibilities conferred on the partners: right to make binding decisions on the partnership’s behalf, responsibility to act in the partnership’s best interests. Provisions could be added to the domestic partnership agreement allowing for other marriage-like rights and responsibilities, such as medical power of attorney and required monogamy. If the partners wished to amend the existing agreement, they would have to enter into a new agreement that supersedes the current partnership, or they could have stipulated a process for making changes to the agreement in the original contract. If one of the partners violated a provision of the domestic partnership agreement, the other partner would have cause to sue them for breach of contract in civil court (divorce).

Granting access to domestic partnership agreements to all citizens addresses the concerns of homosexuals that their relationships have no legal recognition. Domestic partnership agreements put homosexual relationships on equal footing with heterosexual ones, at least in the eyes of the law. The two-tiered system of civil unions and marriages would be cast aside in favor of a system that treats everyone as equals. Even if the pre-existing civil unions and marriages had like rights, the language in a domestic partnership is the same, thus eliminating the subtle prejudice the difference in words creates. Heterosexuals who are already married would see little change in how their marriage is treated for legal purposes. Their existing marriage would be converted to a “standard” domestic partnership agreement. For straight couples looking for a legal recognition of their relationship, but adverse to a traditional marriage, the domestic partnership agreement provides a handy solution to their dilemma. Further, for those who prefer such topics remain “out of sight, out of mind,” allowing domestic partnerships for all creates a veil of uniformity by eliminating the dichotomy between civil unions and marriages. From a legal standpoint, no one will care that the names on the partnership agreement are Bob and Mike. Finally, the domestic partnership solution eases pressure on politicians. They can allow the gay marriage debate to move from the legislative chamber back to its rightful place – the pulpit. Marriage is a religious institution made legal. By eliminating marriage from the public policy sphere entirely, politicians can focus on legislation that tackles critical issues with real impacts on people, such as the economy.

Of course, there will be objections to any change in marriage laws. Some will oppose changing marriages to domestic partnership agreements on the ground that what we have now is good enough. These objectors will claim the current system works fine, and just needs a few tweaks. They will oppose such a radical shift in our policies as disruptive to the status quo. These objectors are right: such a tectonic shift in American laws on marriage will disrupt the existing order. But, as we’ve seen in our country’s past, sometimes such a radical swing in policy is needed to exact social justice. Without intercession wildly opposed to popular opinion, yet just and fair, women in the United States would not be allowed to vote, and blacks would still be property – only 3/5 a person. Other objections will come from the religious right. They claim marriage as a holy institution that must be protected from those who would pervert it. They will also decry homosexuality as abhorrent and sinful, and that state sanction of homosexual relationships erodes the moral standing of our country. As anti-gay-marriage activist Brian Brown puts it, “… the marriage issue is the last frontier in the fight [to protect families and ensure religious freedom] …ultimately, same-sex marriage is not true” (Conant and Maloney). By enacting domestic partnerships for all citizens, the objections of these religious dissenters can be overcome. First, marriage is a religious doctrine, and as such should be debated in the appropriate forum – church. The free exercise provision of the First Amendment to the Constitution allows religious factions to determine for themselves whether or not to perform a religious marriage ceremony for homosexuals. Free exercise and free speech also grant religious individuals the freedom to speak out against homosexuals as sinful, abhorrent, and morally lax. The equal protection clause of Amendment XIV, however, grants gays and lesbians those same rights. Further, it affords homosexuals the right to equal legal recognition of their relationships.

Domestic partnership agreements are the rational solution to the gay marriage debate. They would afford equal protection to gay and straight couples, eliminate the controversy surrounding the use of the word marriage to sanctify homosexual relationships, and separate the legal recognition of a relationship from the religious one. As noted in her essay “The President, Gay Marriage, and the Constitution: A Tangled Web,” Mae Kuykendall writes “our Constitution as written supports gay marriage.” However, by taking the word “marriage” out of the debate, many of the opponents of same-sex rights would be silenced. Consenting adults would be granted the privileges and duties spelled out in their agreement with their partner(s): polygamists, homo- and bisexuals, and heterosexuals would all be equal under the law. Existing marriages would be largely unaffected by a shift to domestic partnerships, and politicians would be freed to tackle more pressing issues. For these reasons, a change from marriage defined by the state to domestic partnership agreements contracted between loving, consenting adults is needed.

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New Essay: “Who Is John Galt Having Sex With?”

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Human sexuality is a complex and diverse issue. Pornography, homosexuality, sadomasochism, other so-called perversions have real moral implications and affect real people. An issue as intensely personal as sexuality calls for a moral guide just as personal. Thankfully, in moral egoism, we have a theory of morality and ethical behavior centered on the individual. Proposed by philosophers like Ayn Rand, moral egoism in its simplest form states that an action is right for a person if, and only if, it promotes their best interests. As a consequentialist moral theory, egoism posits that the results of an action are what determine the moral worth thereof. Moral egoism also accounts for circumstantial relativism – the idea that the situation surrounding an action helps determine whether that action is right or wrong. If a given act in a given situation produces (or is likely to produce) outcomes that advance a person’s agenda, it is right. If not, it is wrong. Applied to sexual ethics, egoism requires individuals to rationally examine the potential outcomes of a sex act in a given situation to determine if engaging in the act is in their best interests. A sex act, then, is perverted (morally wrong) inasmuch as it opposes a person’s best interests. Through this lens, sexual activities that have traditionally been viewed as morally corrupt – such as promiscuity, sodomy, and masturbation – are actually morally acceptable behaviors.
Promiscuity, for example, is morally acceptable so long as the promiscuous person is honest with their partners that the relationship is purely physical in nature and safe sex methods are used. Sex is a near-universal desire in humans. Thus it is in most people’s best interests to have sex. If a person desires a large quantity of sexual contact, or multiple partners, being promiscuous could be in that person’s best interests. Desire alone does not make promiscuous behavior acceptable, however. As a consequentialist theory, moral egoism is concerned with the results of an action to determine moral rightness. It is for this reason that the would-be Lothario or Jezebel is morally obligated to practice safe sex and honesty about relationship expectations with potential partners. Unsafe sex has the potential for results not in the promiscuous person’s best interests, namely disease and unwanted pregnancy. Dishonesty with partners could create vindictive responses. Obviously, jilting Glenn Close’s character from Fatal Attraction is not in one’s best interests. Sodomy is also morally acceptable between consenting adults who find the act mutually pleasurable and perform the act safely. The egoist sodomite is morally required to use safe sex practices when engaging in anal or oral sex. As with promiscuous behavior, sodomy carries the risk of disease. Contracting a sexually transmitted is in no one’s best interests. Further, consent and mutual pleasure are morally necessary. Non-consensual sodomy carries the obvious legal ramifications of arrest and potential conviction for rape. One would be hard pressed to argue an arrest to be in one’s best interests. Masturbation is morally acceptable for those whose sexual desires cannot be met in full by their partners. Some people desire more sex than they receive from their partners, and it is in their best interests to relieve their sexual needs by themselves in lieu of engaging in rape or soliciting a prostitute.
Some will object to “deviant” sex on religious grounds. They will appeal to divine commands as condemning the immorality of non-missionary, non-heterosexual acts. The Christian Bible, for example, contains many prohibitions against sodomy and masturbation, and any sex outside of marriage is forbidden by church dogma, much less having sex with multiple partners out of wedlock. These dissenters appeal to the divine command theory of morality that states that an action is right if, and only if, God commands us to do it. According to this perspective, because God commands us not to have any sex other than vaginal sex with our spouse, these acts are immoral. Others may claim that engaging in promiscuous acts cheapens sex or fails to honor the other as a person. Deontologists like Immanuel Kant would likely take this perspective. Kant’s first Categorical Imperative states that we should only act on maxims we can will to be universal law. If everyone were to engage in promiscuity, the first Imperative argues, no one would form lasting, non-physical relationships. The second Categorical Imperative proposed by Kant states that we should always treat people as ends unto themselves, never as a means. Followers of CI2, then, object to promiscuity as failing to respect the personhood of the one-night stand. Still others object to sodomy and masturbation as defying natural law. As one of the natural functions of a human being is procreation, any sex act that does not (potentially) result in fertilization of an embryo is immoral.
Unfortunately, the objections of religious zealots appealing to divine command theory are essentially meaningless. As the existence of God cannot be proven, any morality derived from the deity is suspect. The egoist can look to studies, facts, and statistics to help determine what is in his or her best interests sexually. The first Categorical Imperative objection fails to conceive that some people might prefer not to be promiscuous. Egoists may be promiscuous or not, depending upon what best serves their interests at any given time. Kant’s second attempt at outlining a moral code also fails in condemning promiscuity adequately by failing to take into account the will of the seduced. It presumes the seducer is acting upon the seduced with no input from the seduced party. Egoism, on the other hand, only provides moral sanction to promiscuity if both parties are consenting. Appeal to the natural law theory to object to deviant sex relies on the premise that humans have a natural function. However, proving what this innate function is is impossible. There is no “functionometer” to measure how well a human functions and no means to adapt that function to varying situations. Moral egoism, however, takes into account that what’s in one’s best interests can change over time and in relation to differing circumstances.
Religious leaders and intellectuals alike struggle to rationally explain why “deviant” sex acts like promiscuity, sodomy, and masturbation are immoral. The theory of moral egoism provides a rational explanation that justifies these kinds of acts as morally acceptable in certain circumstances for a particular person. A given sexual behavior is therefore immoral only if it hinders a person’s best interests. As such, laws banning acts like sodomy and social stigmas regarding promiscuity and masturbation should be reevaluated. As there is no logical moral objection to the acts and no harm to society by engaging in them, there’s little reason to perpetuate antiquated ideas regarding these common aspects of modern sexuality.

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New Essay: “Our Darkest Parts”

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Our Darkest Parts

Since the earliest days of humanity, there have been legends of the dead returning to life. The most familiar tales of the undead in western culture are those of the vampire and the zombie. Countless novels, comic books, movies, and video games are devoted to portraying these night stalkers, these predators of predators. Both vampires and zombies return from death to feed upon the living; vampires drink blood and zombies consume flesh. As apex predators, humans are unaccustomed to thinking of themselves as prey. The thought of being another creature’s food is atrocious to us. It is not the fear of consumption that makes vampires and zombies horrifying, however. It is the mirror which they hold up to our culture, reflecting our darkest parts, that makes the undead terrifying. Vampires and zombies, in their opposing extremes, reveal American fear of that which is outside the mainstream.

The way in which one is turned from normal human to vampire or zombie reveals our twin fears of individualism and collectivism. The act of turning someone into a vampire is intimate and personal. The progenitor vampire is often portrayed in fiction as stalking its victim and learning everything about their lives. The vampire then seduces the would-be convert. The victim is told only they are worthy of the vampire’s gift of immortality; only they are special enough among the teeming throngs of humanity to be elevated above their peers. Zombies, on the other hand, are equal-opportunity undead. They transmit their infection through bites and scratches delivered to their unlucky victims. Rich or poor, young or old, black or white matters not to a zombie. If you are alive, you’re a valid target. If you escape one zombie attack alive, it’s simply a matter of time before you become one of the shambling dead yourself. You will be assimilated into the undead collective. This is one of the most common themes in zombie movies. Inevitably, one of the minor characters of the movie will be bitten, conceal the violation, and turn into a zombie at the most inopportune moment.

Americans pride themselves as individuals, but understand we are all part of a linked society. Neither the vampire nor the zombie operates within the confines between the extremes of egoism and collectivism: vampires holding themselves above the masses, zombies dragging everyone down with them. We loathe equally people being swallowed by the collective and being held up as better than their peers. Should an American hold themselves to be of a status far beyond the lot of common folk (as is often the case with celebrities), we feel the need to knock them down a peg or two. Our independent streak, however, prevents us from embracing the other extreme, collectivism (or communism).

The societies vampires and zombies exist in reveal our dual fears of autocracy and anarchy. Vampires form autocratic societies centered around a “head vampire.” This head vampire becomes the center of a cult of personality, its members made up of the converts it previously exalted. We see this theme frequently in the cinematic portrayal of the vampire. The heroes in vampire movies frequently are on a mission to destroy the head vampire in order to save a loved one from the curse of vampirism. The vampiric autocrat echoes the tradition of dictators like Hitler or Stalin, convincing its followers to commit unspeakable acts without hesitation. Conversely, zombies need no prompting to kill and devour. They are uncoordinated packs of ravenous cadavers. No one zombie directs the others; no vote is taken to determine which unlucky victim is to be consumed. Zombification is anarchy. Zombie novels often focus on the random nature of these beings. Living characters may be attacked at any time, in any situation.

Americans cherish democracy, where every voice is heard, but understand restrictions need to be placed on individuals for the common good. Neither the vampire nor the zombie respect this balance: vampires trampling democracy with their autocratic machinations, zombies disobeying all laws in their hunt for flesh. The American Revolution was fought to throw off the shackles of a tyrannical monarch, and our hatred of autocracy is deeply ingrained in our culture because of it. On the other hand, we are a rational people. Our rationality makes it impossible for us to abandon all government and laws in the other extreme.

The symbolic results of destroying a vampire or zombie reveal our opposing fears of existing without reason or emotion. Vampires are killed with a stake through the heart. The heart is seen, traditionally, as the seat of emotion. Thus, destroying a vampire with a stake through the heart is symbolically the same as destroying its emotions. Ironically, vampires are cold, calculating monsters, devoid of emotion. Nearly every vampire-themed comic book, game, story, or movie has the stake through the heart as a means of destroying the vampire, or at least immobilizing it. Zombies, conversely, are ended by destroying the brain. As the brain is seen as the organ of logic and reason, putting a zombie to rest is akin to the destruction of reason in the creature. This is again ironic, as zombies are mindless, flesh-eating corpses. The annihilation of grey matter is always a means to eliminate a zombie in fiction and folklore.

Americans use reason and emotion in harmony, striking a balance between what is practical and what feels right. Neither the vampire nor the zombie have this harmony: vampires abandoning emotion for cold logic, zombies eschewing rationality in their hunt for flesh. We fear being subsumed by emotion as much as being caught in the icy grip of dispassionate logic. Most Americans believe, as the ancient Stoic philosophers did, that being ruled by emotion limits one’s ability to make sound decisions. On the other hand, we also believe capitulation to pure logic limits one’s ability to sympathize with other people.

Vampires and zombies are truly terrifying creatures. The undead feed on our very flesh and blood. They devour those we love; they make a lie of our predatory supremacy. The terror engendered by vampires and zombies is not due to their consumption of human fluids and tissues, however. It’s due to the extremes in our culture they represent. We see the danger in collectivism or extreme individualism. We fear anarchists as much as dictators. We prize emotion and logic, and avoid the destruction of either. Vampires and zombies embody the extremes of thought we seek so desperately to balance in life. Perhaps it is because these monsters are not alive that we are able to project our faults on them so easily. In any case, the undead have become the examples of our darkest parts, and we fear them for it.

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New Essay: “ZOMGWTFBBQ!@#”

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History may record the late 20th century as the beginning of the end of western civilization. The Computer Age gave way to the Internet Age, which is giving way in the 21st century to the Social Networking Age. Technology continues to progress at a blistering rate. The current generation of consumer-level microprocessors are one thousand times faster than the most advanced supercomputers of just twenty years ago. Connection speeds have improved at a similar exponential rate. The internet is everywhere. The current crop of mobile devices would look like technology from “Star Trek” to someone from the 1990s. Our society is wired (or wireless) and constantly connected to the internet. There’s a price to be paid for being “always on,” however. The brief, random, and artificial nature of the internet has made us confused, distracted, and superficial.

If brevity is the soul of wit, our wired society is at least witty. Internet shorthand, whether it’s the character limit imposed by services such as Twitter, overly simplistic Facebook “Likes,” or IM acronyms, creates confusion through lack of clarity. On Twitter, for example, users are limited to 140-character updates. These stunted messages force adoption of abbreviation. Common phrases such as “OK. Thanks. Goodbye.” become “Kthnxbai.” To the uninitiated, this string of characters is meaningless gibberish. Sorting out the meaning of these truncated phrases leads to confusion and misunderstanding. It’s just as easy to misunderstand systems that are overly simplistic, like Facebook’s “Likes.” A system that’s too simple fails to accurately capture the nuances of real-life thoughts, beliefs, and preferences. A Facebook user might “Like” the Republican party based on a belief in fiscal conservatism. If the same user is a social liberal, however, they may also “Like” the Democratic party. Based on their “Likes,” one would be at a loss to explain their political views. This would lead to confusion at best, and outright misinterpretation at worst. The same is true of instant messaging jargon. The sheer number of acronyms employed by users is confusing: deciphering their meaning, more so. Woe be to the sender of a “LOL” IM in response to news of a breakup or death in the family. Experienced IM users know, of course, that “LOL” means “Laughing Out Loud,” but newer users could just as easily think it to mean “Lots Of Love” or “Lonely OnLine.” By embracing the brevity and simplification of our lives, the internet causes chaos and confusion, leading to social breakdown.

Another element contributing to the decline of our society is the random nature of the internet. Email spam, online ads, and search engine results bombard us with information: some relevant, some not. Our email inboxes are a prime example of this distracting randomness. Nigerian princes promising unfathomable riches – if only we share our name, address, bank account and Social Security numbers – distract us from the bill notifications sent from our cable company. Links to porn pictures compete with the pictures Grandma sent from her latest cruise. Males and females alike are spammed by ads for cheap Viagra. Thankfully, there are spam filters in most popular email programs. They are not always effective, however. Oftentimes, spam filters fail to catch every junk message; other times, they catch too much, forcing users to sift through a mountain of bogus, distracting messages anyway. The random garbage that piles up in our email distracts us from the truly important communication we receive. Even run-of-the-mill websites are an exercise in distracting randomness. Nearly every site on the Web has advertising on it. These flashing words and videos naturally distract the eye, leading users away from the actual content of the page. Trying to read a newspaper article online becomes an exercise in futility when ads for techno-gadgets, concert tickets, and a thousand other random products distract us from the box score of the latest football game. If we run a search to find a “better” site, we’ll likely end up just as distracted. Googling a common term may return hundreds of thousands of results. While most may be relevant to our search, many of the results may have nothing to do with what we’re looking for thanks to SEO (Search Engine Optimization: tricks website owners use to make their page appear higher in a search engine’s results). Trial and error is the only process available for determining if a link is germane to one’s search. Sifting the virtual wheat from the digital chaff distracts us from whatever our original reason for being online was.

Some go online to make a social connection, but the artificiality of the internet makes that nearly impossible. Online dating sites, massively multiplayer online games, and social networking sites claim to offer genuine interaction, but instead promote superficiality because of their artificial nature. Dating sites like Match.com allow users to create a profile or browse other profiles to connect romantically. These profiles are sales pitches, designed to portray the user in the best possible light. By answering a few simple personality questions and uploading a picture, the user says, in essence, “Look at me! Don’t you want to be with me?” The desperation and artificial sense of competition created by online dating sites leads users to present an inauthentic version of themselves. With a glut of superficial profiles to sort through, users make snap, superficial judgments based on how cute a user’s picture or how riské their profile is. In MMOGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games, like World of Warcraft), the game itself creates an artificial ranking system. Based on the in-game items a player has collected, the player’s character is assigned a “gear score.” For many players, this gear score is all that matters when deciding to ally with another player. Instead of deciding to forge a relationship based on personality or playing skill, these players rely on an artificial number. This superficial ranking prevents many enjoyable connections from ever being forged. Numbers are important in social networking as well. Sites like MySpace and Facebook list the number of “friends” a user has. This friend count becomes a kind of prestige in the online community. The more friends one has, the more popular and desirable a connection with them becomes. This artificiality leads users to collect online friends like people used to collect baseball cards. There’s little real attachment to individual friends (cards), save a few rare and important ones (Babe Ruth’s rookie card). This superficial treatment of real people cheapens the online experience and contributes to our communal decline.

The internet – glorious arcade, shopping mall, reference library, and cocktail lounge rolled into one – is confusing and distracting us while simultaneously making us superficial. We’re perpetually connected, but we pay a terrible price for connectivity beyond our monthly broadband bills. We gather hundreds of online friends to improve our superficial online status. We’re bombarded by random offers of riches and all-natural male enhancement. In that barrage, we fail to notice the message from a potential employer or old college buddy. Perhaps it’s better we missed the past friend’s message: we may be completely confused when he or she writes “ZOMGWTFBBQ!@#”

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New Essay: “For Those About To Roll…”

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This essay is an edited version of my first required essay this semester in my Composition 1 class at Rock Valley College. It is the first essay I’m making available online. I hope to add more as coursework and time allows.

Some of my real-world friends may recognize themselves in the essay. Be advised, I’ve fictionalized you where needed. Names have been changed to protect the innocent (or guilty). Enjoy!
 

For Those About To Roll, We Salute You

Eli walked down the stairs into the basement. His hands were full: a case of Coca-Cola in his left hand, a grocery bag full of snacks in his right. On his back, a burgeoning, grey knapsack threatened to burst its seams. As he made his way down the stairs, the small, gold crucifix around his neck bounced out from under his T-shirt. The shirt itself was black, a gaming-inspired riff on a classic rock band design: an isosahedron (the twenty-sided die ubiquitous in fantasy role-playing games) appeared with the phrase “AC/HP” in a heavy-metal font.

Upon reaching the bottom of the stairs, Eli set down the soda and tossed the bag of chips on the octagonal, faux-wood table dominating the room. Eli took his seat at the table after unloading his backpack. Though the sack was heavy with books, pencils, and dice, Eli seemed happy to haul it. An easy smile came to his boyish face as he considered his cohorts in turn: Rob, Josh, Jenny, TJ, Carlton, John, and Tom.

Rob leaned back in his chair. His shaved head glistened under the track lighting in the basement. Tan skin belied Rob’s mixed Haitian and Mexican heritage. Rob flipped through some pages in a legal pad, the handwritten notes printed in meticulous, all-capital letters.

Josh was a tall, broad man with a booming laugh. His hands were as large as oven mitts, dwarfing the mechanical pencil he held. On his finger, a size 15 ring emblazoned with a pentacle proclaimed his pagan spirituality. Josh reached over to turn the volume down on his laptop. A Megadeth song had been playing.

Jenny was the picture of soccer-mom suburbia. Her brunette hair hung to her shoulders, and she dressed in casually conservative style with jeans and a sweater. A tasteful diamond ring shimmered on her left hand. Her pale, blue eyes flitted to and fro, following whomever was speaking like a hawk tracking prey in the underbrush.

TJ was pure gothic-punk. Two rings intersected her lip, and countless hoops and studs lined her ears. The lacy, black tank top she wore revealed no fewer than a dozen tattoos decorating her arms and shoulders. A purple, velvet skirt covered TJ’s snow white legs.

Carlton (like Josh) was tall, but his frame was loose and lanky. His ebony skin stretched over ripcord muscles. Unlike his fellow males, Carlton did not wear jeans. Instead, he had on neatly pressed khakis. A proper broadcloth shirt completed his simple – yet classy – ensemble.

John, a slight man of Korean descent, was quiet and unassuming. His soft voice and gentle laugh made his small body seem even smaller. A faint odor patchouli (or something else?) clung closely to John’s skin. The Fu Manchu mustache he kept was, perhaps, the only thing about him designed to draw attention.

Conversely, Tom went out of his way to get attention, at least from the fairer sex. His hands worked the keys on his cell phone as though possessed. When not absorbed in texting, tweeting, and Facebooking, Tom’s gaze bounced between Jenny and TJ (and not exactly their faces, either). He barely acknowledged Eli’s entrance.

After greetings and pleasantries were exchanged; snacks and sodas situated; books and dice readied; Rob brought the game to order: “You find yourselves in a dark and dank dungeon…”

In the 1970s, when the first fantasy role-playing games appeared, gamers were almost without exception white, teenage males. This homogenous group was perceived as isolated, insular, and immature. Poor hygiene and poor social skills went hand-in-hand with those early gamers. As the hobby has grown, however, the base of players has likewise expanded and old trends no longer apply. Just as the games have changed, so too have the players.

Contemporary gamers are a diverse bunch. Blacks and whites, Asians and Hispanics, males and females all engage in the benign escapism that is role-playing. Catholics join forces with pagans in vanquishing dragons. Democrats and Republicans plot together to overthrow the evil sorcerer-king. High school dropouts ponder ancient glyphs with graduate students.

Most gamers now are adults: parents and workers. They have active lives outside of the hubby. They own cars and homes, with the bills that accompany them. They have real-world responsibilities. Gaming provides these adult players with a safe, inexpensive way to escape the stresses of daily life. Many other role-players are young: middle- and high school students. These younger gamers have new ideas to challenge older players. The only factor common to modern gamers is that they are gamers. Shared love of the hobby binds these disparate people into a common clan.

Diversity is crucial to the continued health and vibrancy of the hobby. Without new and flesh perspectives, the stories told in role-playing games will become as stagnant and cloying as the musty basements many gamers still congregate in.