Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Collective Guilt is Scary

Here is an interesting article about Dr. Pou, who lived and worked in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. You probably heard about this case already.

I am not going to pass any moral judgement on her handling of her patients in a time of extreme crisis (or maybe I am but I'm just going to couch it in sarcasm). I'm sure they were in horrible pain and probably would have died miserable deaths. I'm also sure that the patients and their families are grateful for Pou's treatment and the medical decisions that she made. I'm sure that I would want her to do the same for me if I were elderly, terminally sick, and stuck in a powered down hospital during a natural disaster while the government sat around patting each other on the backs. I'm sure that I am completely OK with the decision to not prosecute her or the handful of nurses who worked under her.

That said, I'm also sure that she, according to medical law, is guilty of four counts of homicide.

As a country we feel incredibly guilty about Hurricane Katrina. We are angry at the government (particularly FEMA) for not doing more to help the people of Louisiana both before and after the disaster. We are saddened by the destruction of a large and romanticized city. We are horrified at the continued conditions of New Orleans and the surrounding areas.
The disaster highlights disparities in our treatment of people based on race and class. We north-easterners get to face our ugly regional prejudices. You know this already.

You also know about our good buddy Dr. Kevorkian who has become a medical pariah for doing what Dr. Pou did (though under much less duress) and the case of Terri Schiavo who had all sorts of people who never even met her alternatively crying and breathing fire over her assisted suicide (or pick your favorite term). Why do we hate the doctors of these two cases and want to love and protect a "Katrina Doctor"? The law isn't supposed to take situation into nearly that much consideration. All three are cases of doctors killing patients (or helping patients die with dignity, or pick your favorite phrase).

We can't have it both ways because we feel guilty as a country. If the medical community wants to say that Pou was acting responsibly in the best interest of her patients and the American public wants to look on her as a martyr for the cause of human compassion, maybe we should rethink our medical laws. Maybe many of us think that doctor assisted suicide isn't a crime. Maybe the law should reflect public opinion. If the law is supposed to be consistently applied to all cases it should be a law that can be consistently applied to all cases, even when we feel guilty (Pou) or the doctor is creepy and funny looking (Kevorkian), or we saw our favorite talk show host get all blubbery and emotional (Schiavo).

We either need to look past our guilty consciences or change the law. Just pick one.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Not Quite Mecca

Anna and I just got back from our vacation on the west coast. We did plenty of camping, sightseeing, eating, etc on our way from San Fransisco to Vancouver. One of our stops was in Seattle at the Science-Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. The three-or-so year old museum shares a building with some kind of music experience project something-or-other that seemed to be a giant Hendrix memorabilia clearinghouse. It's pretty obvious that the Sci-Fi museum is young and still in the early stages of developing and diversifying its collection, but we were able to see some pretty neat displays.

The museum starts you off in a cluttered room hosting a number of displays that give various overviews of the media genre. The Hall of Fame contained all of the satisfying names of writers, directors, and artists, but was, again obviously a very young display. They were still inducting the Gene Roddenberries and the Ridley Scotts. The sci-fi and history display was equally predictable and young feeling. The display had parallel timelines showing historical/scientific/cultural events and events specific to science fiction. While the display tried to draw connections between, say, the Cold War and Orson Wells' War of the Worlds radio fiasco, the timelines were not mapped on to each other well and both lacked satisfying explanations. Still a work in progress.

What I really dug about the museum were the constant nods to fandom. Many of the costumes on display were created for and worn at conventions by fans. The museum also had video loops of various sci-fi celebrities describing their experiences at conventions, both as fans and as personalities. The underlying message of these displays tended to be that the genre exists only because of its rampant fans. Certainly its us fans who pay to visit the museum, and who declare our favorite books and movies to be somehow fundamentally different from the rest of speculative fiction. We also love to hear about how wonderful we are and how much our idols think we rule. Nice marketing work.

I was also into a display that presented science fiction as a number of different "what if . . ." to be explored. It listed some relatively popular stories and boiled them down to a simple question. Wells' "The Time Machine" became "What if a man went to the future and got stranded?" Pretty neat, and it seems to work well enough and it's fun to figure out the questions for various other stories.

My school is letting me teach a sci-fi class spring semester of this year and I am trying to figure out a way of using this idea of boiling down to "What if . . ."s as the introductory ideas to the course. I haven't completely worked it out yet, but I was thinking I could also have the students think of what concessions the audience must allow the writer to make for the story to work. In Star Wars, we have to believe that the events happen long ago and far away, even though most of the characters are human. We also have to believe in some sort of Force that works like magic, but can be explained using science. This might be a nice way of getting students to start picking apart some of the stories and try to get to the meat of what they are actually saying to the audience. Something to think about over the next few months.

Check out the links on the Wikipedia page that I posted under Electronic Reading List. Most are pretty neat.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Because some people asked . . .

I'd like to explain the name of the blog (partially because i got a bit of concern and partially because i think that I just finally figured it out, myself). The name works for me for two reasons.

Firstly, think about the way that people imagine butterflies. The little bugs don't act. They have gone through some sort of change and have arrived at and end point. Now all they have to do is look pretty. People see them and they are observed and acted upon, but they don't do a whole heck of a lot. Even when they flap their wings and somehow cause typhoons in the Western Pacific (admit it, you saw that movie!), they didn't mean for that to happen. It's a random outcome from a random action, none of it planned, none of it intended. I think we can do better.

Further (I feel like i'm writing a five paragraph essay), I have encountered many people who are convinced that they, because of their individuality, deserve to be the warm center of attention at all times. Worse, i have met even more people (and I often fall into this category) who lavish their attention on flitting ideas and celebrities. Not because the celebrities have any meat behind them, just because they are what's out there.
Both of these situations are counterproductive. All ideas should be tested and constantly critiqued and revised. No idea (or person with an idea) should be the constant center of attention for too long. And when they are it should be because they present something that actually pushes us forward or changes our direction.
Certainly we are all individuals and that should be a source of pride. However, this individuality should not come with undue recognition or responsibility. We may be beautiful and unique butterflies in our own minds (and among our friends and family) but we shouldn't expect to be to the rest of the world unless we get there with real thought and action. We also shouldn't put that label on others. Let people's actions and the affects of those actions dictate our perception of them, not the perceptions of others.

This is starting to be the real backbone of the way that i look at the world. It's how i try approach my students, and it keeps popping up in my writing and music. This blog is partially a way for me to see common threads in all the disparate ideas that I like, and the title is the first one that I noticed.

Whew, okay, no more stupid philosophising, i swear.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

People ask me what it's like to teach high school

This answer works pretty well. I recently turned this in as an assignment for a grad school class. We were supposed to find a creative way of expressing what it felt like in our classroom. I heard each of the sentences here during a single period on the day the assignment was given (names have been changed).

Monday, 1st Period

Just passing through, don't mind me. Mister, I don't know how to start! Hey, just wanted to let you know the coffee machine broke again. I've had my hand up for like five hours! You drawlin'! Have you checked your mailbox yet? I hate metaphors! I don’t know, something important. What do I owe you again? You lost my paper! You know how it is. Mister, the phone's ringing! Could you stop by my office during your prep? I know I turned that in! Oh, wait, here it is. What period is your prep again? Mister, write up Lauri! Can you cover Stevenson's seventh period? Lauri just stabbed me with a pen, yo! Attention staff and students. Drew started it! I only stabbed him because he started it! Please excuse the interruption. I forgot my homework! Would students signed up for the public speaking workshop please report to the cafeteria. These teachers! Not you, Mister, but these other teachers be drawlin’! You teach the Freshmen Seminar second period, right? I never curse! I'm not interrupting anything, am I? Mister, I'm Christian! Could you bring your freshmen group up to the library next period? Christians don't curse! We need to see them for course selection. Mister, I know you have candy. Running to the copier soon? You were ignoring me, Mister! Would you take this over for me? Mister, I saw you come in with candy this morning. Could you sign this permission slip for Josepe to play in the game tonight? But I didn't eat lunch yesterday, Mister. He asked you during class, I guess you didn’t hear him. I'm hungry! Don't forget about that meeting at three. You teachers should feed us more! Have a good one. What were we supposed to be doin' again?

Monday, July 2, 2007

What I Thought Dune Was Going to Be Before I Read It

I've been working on this idea for a sci-fi novel for the past year or so. As I write bits and pieces of it I will put some of them here. Comment or not, your call. The main character is going to write these paragraphs right at the beginning.

The thing that makes writing on a computer screen harder than writing on paper is the forced linear nature of the computer. Since I can only interact with the virtual paper via the mediation of a keyboard and a monitor, the interaction must happen in terms defined by the media. However, with a piece of paper, the mediation happens only between my hand and a pencil. The media allows me much more freedom. I can easily orient the paper however I want, write in any direction that makes sense at the time, and fill the margins with whatever notes I need to put down at the time. Any idea that I may come up with while writing, whether or not it is on topic, I can jot it down in the margins without interrupting the flow of my writing. However, on a computer screen, if I have any tangential ideas that I would like to write down, I need to shift to a new file, or somehow change the formatting of the information on the page to achieve the same affect. My tangential ideas either end up in a different document, or they interrupt the flow of the main writing that I am doing. My pages are not littered with extraneous concepts, but neither are they annotated with enrichment material. With a virtual page I can write only in one direction, and it is very difficult for me to productively get off topic.

I think of this as a problem only because of the disconnect between my way of thinking and the method of idea transformation preferred by the current media. I could very easily save my file, put down my computer, pick up a notebook and a pen, and continue writing in a more comfortable media. I would be able to feel the page in my hands, fold it as I would like, write my notes on the back, and doodle aimlessly at the top of the page. My extra information would be saved exactly as I created it. This is analogue. My virtual page takes my information, breaks it down and organizes it for me. It is saved in a much smaller format, can be transmitted and copied with startling ease and can be accessed by other virtual media. This is digital. Neither my digital nor my analogue page is perfect. While I am more comfortable with one, this is mostly a function of the generation in which I was born, the education that I received as a child and an early adult, and the discipline (or lack thereof) in my thinking.

In this way media, effects the way that I save my information. As far as I know there is no way of saving information where some of that information is not lost or somehow altered in the saving process. I cannot save the order of the information as I write it down on a page without jotting done numbers next to my sentences. Doing that would insert information into my ideas that does not always need to be there. I could save it with the numbers and then be able to tell when I wrote some sentences out of order and when I took breaks to write in the margins, but then I would have writings on the page that would have to be ignored to be read properly aloud. Alternately, I could write without the numbers allowing me to read the writing as it is on the page without skipping any characters, though this would mean that I may later forget which sentences were written out of order, and when chronologically I wrote certain notes in the margins. Information is restricted by the media in which it is saved.

I think of this phenomenon as a problem. Sometimes I get distracted by a desire to fix this problem.