Monthly Archives: December 2011

On Poverty and Hunger

This year at Christmas I had the opportunity to buy one of my gift recipients a large amount of food.  Nothing says Christmas to a starving college student like a 50-pound bag of rice.  As I was trundling my wheeled grocery conveyance through the parking lot of the local purveyor of bulk comestibles and loading said bounty into the trunk of my car, it occurred to me just how ludicrously cheap food is in this country.  To the savvy and tolerant shopper one really can live on next to nothing.  It is a certainty that the fare available for the cheapest prices is neither particularly tasty nor diverse in character but it is nutritious and more than sufficient to sustain life.

As this thought was floating though my head, the contrary thought arose that there are still, even in this country of economical food, many, many people who go to bed hungry each night.  For many when the weather turns cold it is literally a choice between “heating and eating”.  How can these contradictory facts co-exist?  How can people be hungry in a nation where food is so cheap and so readily available to everyone?  I think the answer lies in at least three factors.

The first factor is purely an economical one.  I went to the store prepared to spend whatever it took to amass the needed food.  If the price had been twice as much, I would have come home with the same amount because the goal was to purchase a certain amount of food rather spend a certain amount of money.   So if the bill was $50 or $100 was largely irrelevant.  Unfortunately, this is a luxury not afforded to those in straitened financial conditions.  More often the amount to be spent is not only much less but absolutely fixed.  When one has $20 and 3 hungry children to feed between now and payday, the choices are much different.  No one in danger of hunger is likely to buy a 50-pound bag of rice.  This is unfortunate since the larger bag is likely to be several times more economical in the long run than the smaller one.  To those in poverty, however, the ability to invest in the future by buying the larger container is much more difficult.

The second factor is that of transportation.  For my shopping I simply packed everything into the trunk and drove home.  It was as simple as that.  Imagine though if I had to take the bus with my shopping.  Heaving a large bag of rice on the bus is well nigh impossible and may be utterly unthinkable if small children are in tow as well.  Even if a parent has the knowledge and resources to buy the larger container they’ll be hard pressed to get it home.

The third factor, and the one most consistently ignored by those who address the problem of poverty, is education.  I can go to the store and buy a month’s worth of food because I know what to do with it.  For parents whose primary sources of food are pre-packaged and highly processed, a bag of rice and beans isn’t a particularly intuitive source of nutrition.  If you’ve never cooked before, cooking can be an exceptionally daunting task.  Further, many shoppers don’t realize the economic benefits of buying foods packaged in a particular way.  It is somewhat counter-intuitive to think that a large container of food which costs more is actually more economical than many small ones.  Those in poverty who haven’t had the experience and education to guide them in this way perpetuate their economic positions through simple lack of knowledge.

Traditionally in this country our favorite mechanism for dealing with the hungry is to simply throw money at the people who are hungry.  Clearly though this only addresses a third of the problem.  Even if we give them the money to shop more frugally that is no guarantee that they will do so.  To be effective in combating the problem of hunger we not only have to provide but also educate.  This is a task at which churches and grass-roots organizations excel and at which governments traditionally fail miserably.  We need as a society to stop just giving money and instead give our time and energy to educate those around us who lack the basic knowledge of personal and household economics to run their lives in an efficient manner that will eventually draw them up from poverty and make their lives better.  Ultimately, those are lessons that are self-perpetuating and the benefits will be seen for generations and generations to come if only we make the investment of ourselves now.

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Report Card on 2011 and Goals for 2012

Since the holidays aren’t cliché enough, I think it’s time to write the post that everyone absolutely dreads: the personal goals year-end wrap-up post!  Yay, wrap-up post!  Yay, some stranger’s personal goals!

It should be noted at the onset that I don’t include in my assessment of the year things that have to be done and that would land me in hot-water if I failed to do them.  So we can take the usual claptrap as read: stay employed, don’t kill anyone, hug an offspring when appropriate, keep other people around me happy.  Let’s just say that’s all well and good because if it’s not, that’ll be a whole other post.

So I tend to break the “things I want to do” down into three basic categories: two involving my own personal output and one involving the input the world provides to me.  Photography represents my drive to get out and see and do new things.  As long as I’m photographing things I haven’t photographed before, I figure I’m pushing my way out into the world.  Reading and Writing represent my assimilation of the information in the world and my ability to regurgitate it in a hopefully meaningful way.  In general, my writing doesn’t aim to generate a new information but hopefully to bring existing information into a more readable and useful form to a different audience.  After all, where else are you going to get plot summaries and analysis on 50’s sci-fi short stories?

Photography: The raw numbers are OK, but not great.  2,839 photos added to the archives over the past year.  Considering that I probably took 12,000 or so and weeded it down to that number it sounds like a lot but it’s really rather a pittance.  The depressing part to look back on is that 95% of them were taken in Indiana.   There was a brief jaunt to Michigan which yielded some good photos but that’s still a tiny, tiny percentage.  Pondering further, the unamusing part of this is that exactly none of these photos were taken at anyone’s request.  In 2010 I at least had a couple of requests for photos but nothing in the whole year of 2011.  I’m not sure entirely how to change that given the glut of photographers in the marketplace but I certainly can’t lower my prices any.

The goal for the coming year must be to get out of the state more and surely I can hit the 5,000 photos mark in 2012.

Writing: As with photography, the raw numbers aren’t terrible.  Across four blogs and mostly in the last three months of the year, I managed to push out 173 posts.  Of course the raw number says absolutely nothing about the quality of said posts but I don’t feel like I’m writing crap just to write something.  I’ve leaned heavily towards sci-fi as of late but that will pass once I finish the current omnibus of science fiction and move on to more diverse faire.  I will say that I’ve taken on a few fairly massive projects with the Sci-Fi Omnibus and the notes for the textbook on Islam and managed to come achingly close to completion.  The brief “see every movie in the movie theatres” phase was also fairly fruitful.  So I’m hesitant to be too hard on myself given the density and scope of some of my undertakings.

In 2012, I’d like to start the “Agnostics View on Religion” blog that keeps rolling about in my head and perhaps split this blog into two.  I’m not sure having personal mumblings and literary junk so intermittently in one spot really makes a lot of sense.  The cross-over interest is probably fairly minimal and I hate the idea of boring one set of readers while engaging another.

Reading: It is said that in order to write well, one must read well.  2011 has been a travesty on that front.  I made it through a record low 19 books in 2011.  Before I looked back at the official logs, I thought the number would be much, much lower so I’m glad it’s at least that much.

For the coming year, I need to consume more to the end that I can produce writing that has more depth to it.  I’ve churned and bubbled through 2011 on largely the same ideas I’ve churned on before.  Need new words.  Oh, and also need to finish up the Islam textbook and these summations of 50s sci-fi stories.

To sum up, 2011 was rather a sleepy year.  I had energy but it was very localized.  I produced but it was not fresh.  I did, but the results were not very novel and not, honestly, all that interesting.  As I sit here and ponder the people around me, I find that my life is really rather shallow.  If we all are granted a reprieve from the apocalypse of 2012, then I’m hopeful that at the close of next year I’ll have more positive tales to relate.

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Winner Lose All – Jack Vance [1951]

Galaxy Science Fiction 1951

Galaxy Science Fiction 1951

Thousands of light years from Earth three creatures arrive at the same spot with the same goal but very different ways of going about achieving it.

A human spacecraft has landed to mine a pitchblende outcropping.  Once they do so they can then prepare the planet for human colonization.  The Unigen, a creature composed of tiny energy ‘nodes’ loosely connected and spread throughout millions of light years of space, has discovered the deposit at the same time.  It can metabolize the uranium ore directly.  As the humans prepare to begin mining, they notice the Unigen’s nodes as mere pests and assume them to be indigenous insects.  Capturing one, they examine it microscopically but in doing so it explodes getting the attention not only of the humans but also of the suddenly wounded Unigen.

Meanwhile, a third creature, this one more plant-like, has arrived at the same deposit.  While the two sentient beings fight make plans to kill each other, the third quietly and patiently digs its roots deep into the rock face.  The humans and the Unigen fight themselves to stalemate until neither believes it’s useful to continue and eventually they both leave the planet.  Patience wins out for the third creature as its birthright is realized.  Refining the ore on which it feeds into volatile Uranium 253, the explosion which results is tremendous.  Tremendous enough, in fact, to eject the seeds of the creature into space to drift hopefully into the vastness of space until they find root on another suitable planet.

Personally, any story including panspermia is a winner in my book.  The thought that life could cross the frosty boundaries of space like a cosmic coconut to land on our planet is … well, intriguing as well as terrifying.  I hope it happens… but I also hope that when it does that it’s fairly friendly when it gets here and more importantly that it tastes good on pizza.

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Plague – Murray Leinster [1944]

Astounding Science Fiction, February 1944

Astounding Science Fiction, February 1944

The year is 2075 and Ben Sholto is stalking the Sethee bird in order to record its elaborate nuptial dance.  Recently he made the unfortunate mistake of disobeying the exact phrasing of an order given to him by his commanding officer in the Space Navy and was court-martialed and demoted to Reserve status.  His disregard for the erroneous command saved countless lives but nevertheless he lost his position.  In addition to his career, his act of reason in an unreasonable organization cost him his girlfriend, who happened to be the daughter of the man who gave the order in the first place and needed desperately to cover his own error.

Ben is interrupted from his stalking by an order from Reserve Headquarters.  The nearby planet of Pharona is under quarantine because of a mysterious plague but a single ship has broken the picket and is headed towards his position.  Headquarters orders him to destroy the ship without question should he find it.  Apathetic, and well aware that the immensity of space makes it almost impossible that he will make contact with the vessel, Ben positions himself for an uneventful watch with sensors scanning at full range.

Hours later, he makes contact with the errant ship (it wouldn’t make for much of a story otherwise) and finds that it carries but a single passenger, Sally, the girlfriend from whom he was so recently estranged by his court-martial.  Ben collects Sally and sends her ship on a collision course with a nearby star.  All seems well until it’s discovered that Sally has carried the plague with her from Pharona despite taking every known precaution.  Unfortunately, this information is revealed to Reserve Headquarters when Sally is heard exclaiming in panic during a video conference.

The two, now hunted by the entire civilized galaxy, plan their escape by hiding in an asteroid field.  They match the inertia of the debris around them and engage their engines only when they need to compensate for the gravity of the other massive objects around them.   Thus ensconced, they wait patiently to float out of the area being searched.

Out of immediate danger, they turn themselves to dealing with the plague.  Close examination reveals that the plaque isn’t really a disease but actually a life form composed of a loose association of free electrons that have somehow gained intelligence.  The creatures attach themselves to human female hosts and feed off of their brainwave energy, slowly killing them while emitting positive ions as waste.  Ben devises a scheme to slowly poison the creatures by insulting Sally from all electrical contact thus causing the positive ions to build up and drown the creature in its own feces.  After a few days under these conditions the creature flees into the ship’s metal bulkheads when Ben provides a nearby electrical conductor close enough for the creature to arc to but not close enough to discharge the build-up of positive ions.

Several days of peace go by with the creature right and properly extracted but sadly this can’t last long.  Through an accidental breach in Sally’s electrical insulation via a kiss with Ben, the creature, by this time starving, finds its way back to Sally and begins feeding and reproducing with a vengeance.  Now the ship is littered with dozens of the creatures all feasting on Sally in turns.  Desperate for an answer, Ben wracks his brain and devises a device that generates alternating positive and negative potentials to entrap the beasts.  The new gizmo manages to cure the plague and with it Ben threatens and blackmails his way to freedom with the authorities.

Leinster’s tale is among the best afforded to us in this little collection that I have so assiduously plodded through these many months.  His own obvious annoyance with government bureaucracy is well expressed and at times outright comical.  He describes at length a universe that has aged only slightly with the advancement of scientific knowledge since it was written.  While the story does at times blather on at unnecessary length, it nevertheless does remain engaging.  At the end we’re treated to a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, the mindless bureaucracy of the Central Government might just sort itself out.

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Trigger Tide – Wyman Guin [1950]

Astounding Science Fiction, October 1950

Astounding Science Fiction, October 1950

Our narrator is on the planet to do a job.  If he fails, an entire culture will be plunged into a war.

Guin’s “Trigger Tide” is a gritty little story with more than its share of espionage and awkwardly constructed sentences.  It is at times utterly unfathomable and fails completely to be any more than vaguely interesting.  Criticism of its plotlines aside, our author does paint an amusing backdrop for his tale that is otherwise vacant of any actual literary merit.

The protagonist is a Central Operator sent to some far-off world to assassinate one of the local leaders.  His predecessors met with an unexplained and rather sudden end to their attempt to do the same job months earlier.  The story opens with our hero beaten, bloodied and near death on a quartz reef in the midst of one of the planet’s numerous oceans.

Guin does construct for us a fairly complex and wholly alien world.  His planet is aquatic with the exception of vast quartz reefs constructed by the ocean’s teeming denizens.  Five moons circle his large blue planet and trigger highly erratic tides that rise and fall rapidly but in predictable patterns so the reefs are regular shelves rising to four different heights depending on which moons happen to be in play at any given moment.

The more civilized inhabitants are fundamentally carbon copies of characters from 1950s private detective literature.  They do have the unusual property, however, that they refuse all physical and business activity when any of the planet’s five moons rise high overhead.  These periodic and frequent siestas create a rhythm in the populous that Central Office has previously disregarded as irrelevant local custom, much to their detriment.  The intense gravitational variation caused by the constant rhythm of the moons causes a planet-wide piezoelectric effect that foils electronics of all sorts, including those of Central Operators sent to the planet for the purposes of assassination.

Having painted the backdrop of Guin’s world, we move back to the realm of the plot, such as it is.  As expected, after a prolonged battle in anti-gravity harnesses, all is well and the bad guys are thwarted.  All in all, exceptionally predictable and generally unamusing once you get past the use of the word piezoelectric, which makes a giddily rare occurrence here.

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Merry Chri$tma$!

Yes indeed, it’s Christmas time again. Amusingly, it’s that time of year when we’re all bitterly reminded that the stuff we have (or get) has no relationship whatsoever to our long-term happiness. Have you ever noticed that December 24th is a LOT more entertaining than December 26th? The anticipation of gift-giving is much more powerful than its aftermath. This effect is much amplified, and therefore easier to observe, in small children.

The night before Christmas for a small child is the closest thing possible to gleeful insanity one can ever experience.  One would think that tomorrow they were going to be taken off into a world of absolute bliss. They can’t sleep, they don’t want to eat, they won’t even talk to you about anything BUT those blasted presents under the tree. As soon as that wrapping paper is off though the inevitable downward slide begins. Suddenly they realize that even the most perfect toy isn’t going to solve all their problems and that the world before and after Christmas is largely unchanged except that it might be just a bit more cluttered.

You would think that given this common childhood experience, adults would learn the lesson, but sadly we go through the same process ourselves with bigger toys and more money spent. We amass more and more stuff to fill our houses, bigger and bigger houses to fill with more and more stuff and yet we’re still not any happier for it.  All cultures have endless allegories on the topic from the Whos down in Whoville to King Midas but do any of us really pay attention to any of that?  Stroll through any department store and you’ll see countless attempts by advertisers to make you literally buy into the materialism of society.  I’m always especially amused by Target’s campaign as they actually have large banners bearing the words ‘BUY’ and ‘WANT’ in huge block letters under photos of ugly jewelry, impractical underwear and idiotically fashionable shoes. The people who WANT this stuff are seeking happiness in entirely the wrong place.

What people really want out of life is fulfillment. Not the house full, filled with crap type of fulfillment, but the type you get from a job where you’re productive, have goals and work towards them. The fulfillment you have from raising happy children or just coaxing a smile out of your baby. People need something to DO with their lives. Goals and dreams to work towards. Instead, we have replaced real happiness with the momentary rush of endorphins one gets from obtaining something new.

So next Christmas, let’s forget the baubles and just get together and talk and have Christmas as a family without spending a dime. No matter how pleasant he may be about it each year, dad does not want another coffee-table book, uncle Joe has enough cologne and all your other relations have enough time and resources to buy as many of the above trinkets as they ever really care to have.

Instead of filling each other’s houses with more inane possessions, let’s help each other accomplish our real goals.  Encourage that underachieving nephew with a trip to a college campus and a discussion of what they can do if only they apply themselves.  Get help for your alcoholic uncle; offer to babysit for your friend who’s a single mom so she can get out and unwind for a while.  Take the time each month to sit down and talk to grandma and grandpa; write their stories down for future generations to hear and learn from.  If you’ve got extra time and money left after you’ve done all the truly good things you can think of for your own family then there are plenty of other people out there who still have basic necessities like clothes on their Christmas list.  I’m sure that Uncle Joe will be perfectly happy that you bought a Christmas dinner for a single mother raising five kids rather than getting him his usual bottle of cologne.

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All Over but the Wrapping

So Christmas is over.  Well, at least the annoying part.  I’ve bought the blasted presents which society dictates I should buy and all that remains is to encapsulate them in colorful paper and distribute them.  Call me a Grinch whose heart needs to grow three sizes and break that cardiac measuring device, but it seems like there’s a much better way to do all this.

Tradition dictates that I give the people closest to me presents RIGHT NOW.  To be honest, RIGHT NOW isn’t a great time to be giving presents.  Everybody and their frickin’ mother is out at the mall trying to do the same thing and that makes it a rather large pain to try to buy anything.  Not to mention, it’s the beginning of winter and I’m at the ebb of my creative energies as far as gift giving goes.  Long and short of it… not a good time.

Here, in my never sufficiently succinct nor humble opinion is how it SHOULD work.  To heck with Christmas.  Instead of having one time a year when we get together and appreciate each other and have loving family harmony, how about we spread this out through the whole year?  I would postulate that most of the time we fail at harmony because there’s just too damn much pressure.  We’ll have much better luck if we just work harder the whole year along to demonstrate our appreciation.

Sound hard?  Not really.  OK, so here’s how I try to handle things for myself.  I have a list on my phone titled, “graphic descriptions of spiders I have recently encountered.”  This title, however, is a ruse and so entitled to keep Laura from peeking.  In reality, it’s a list of things that Laura has said that suggest to me that perhaps she’d like to have something.  For example, we might see an ad for Hungarian Beaver Cheese and she might make a positive comment.  So that stealthily goes on the list.  A couple months later, the item she expressed an interest in might just randomly show up in the mail.  Lather, rinse, repeat, as the wise and all-knowing shampoo bottles say.

As to the rest of humanity, they’re all on the list but at a lower priority.  A while ago I made advertising-based artworks for all the people in my department.  That was apparently two years ago if the dates on the photos are to be believed.  Slowly, slowly my mind has turned back towards the idea of creating another round of artwork to give away.  I’m hopeful that when this happens again, that it will somehow be more meaningful than some scripted gift-giving routine dictated by society.

To sum up, to heck with the holidays.  Let’s just appreciate each other all year around.  Sure it’s more work but ultimately, this isn’t about it being easy, is it?

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