Appropriately Attired

The last time I ever saw protesters at a movie was when my parents took me to see Dragonslayer way back when that film was released in the early 80’s, and that was a gag protest; members of the Society for Creative Anachronisms had dressed up as dragons and were carrying around signs that said things like, "This Movie Unfair to Dragons". But I’ve never seen a serious protest at a film. Even when I went and saw The Last Temptation of Christ, there were no protesters there, and that was easily one of the most controversial films I’ve ever actually seen in a theater.

So when Jennifer and I went to see Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we were both amused to see people protesting. There was a little tiny group of people standing at the entrance to the move theater parking lot holding signs that said, "God Loves You But Hates Witchcraft!". As in all such things, the number of protesters was far outweighed by the number of people there for the event. There were perhaps four, maybe five people concerned for the souls of the movie goers, and probably hundreds of people there to see the movie, which Jennifer and I had bought advance tickets for a week ago.

Ah, well. We all have to do something, I suppose. And I guess I’m glad that there are people so concerned for the salvation of my soul that they’re willing to tell me not to see a movie.

And it’s a weird world, where sometimes the morally-self-righteous-but-bizarre win a depressing victory or two. In Fargo, North Dakota, according to this article at CNN, a group of students had their field trip to see the movie canceled because some people don’t like the portrayal of witches in the film. You know, this sort of thing makes me sad. These are relatively intelligent people, who think that preventing their children from seeing a film will make those children better people. Imagine how much better the world would be if people like this chose to focus that energy on showing their children that tolerance is good, that there are hungry and sick and needy people in the world who need attention, and that it’s possible to retain your integrity and faith even in the face of things that you disagree with; but perhaps that takes more moral fiber than some people have. I don’t know. On the other hand, I have to give some credit to the folks in Fargo; their argument that because some people consider witchcraft a religion (never mind that the witchcraft portrayed in the film is about as far away from Wicca as Fargo is from Hogwarts School of Wizardry), taking public school kids to see the film would be a violation of the separation of church and state is sort of clever in a really twisted, hypocritical sense. But that would be ascribing intelligence and forethought to these people, which I’m not quite willing to do.

But that’s all beside the point, of course. Last night Jennifer and I went and saw THE movie. I’m told that there were lines of people decked out in robes and hats and t-shirts and what-not, but since we went to the very late showing in the hopes of avoiding the hordes of children, we didn’t see any of that. But I like dressing up for that sort of thing anyway; so I donned the only bit of Potter paraphernalia that I own (a pair of boxer shorts — which no one saw, of course, because they were under my jeans) and a T-shirt with a picture of a dragon on it, and off we went.

I loved the movie. It was well worth the wait; the acting was great, all of the characters were just as I had imagined them (not that hard, really, given how much artwork the books have generated and how careful the producers were to stick closely to popular images), and it was a great story. There were a few scenes in the book that were left out of the movie, of course; but the film was already 2.5 hours long, and none of the missing scenes detracted from the overall story. It was magical, spirited, and fun. I really recommend that you see this movie, if you haven’t already.

You know, here’s what puzzles me about the protesters at the movie, and about those who would ban Harry Potter. The books and the movie make it quite clear that the values that are most important are courage, friendship, teamwork, and love; and that these things are much more important than wizardry and magic. Doesn’t it sound like these people who would ban Potter are trying to tell us that holding tightly onto a specific religious doctrine is more important than those human values? Isn’t there a war going on because some people feel that there own religion overrides everything else, even the teachings of their own religion?

Ah, well. Go see this movie. Enjoy it. Be like Harry Potter and the kids in Hogwarts, and let your loyalty, courage, intelligence and love make you a better person.

Old Trappings

I haven’t done any field research in a couple of weeks. From what I can gather, the graduate student who’s doing this project just wanted the data for the first week after the first storm event of the season, and that’s what we got. And this past week she was on a business trip in another state, so there was no field work done.

But as part of the process of me getting into graduate school in Ecological Systems Engineering, I’ve been communicating also with the student’s major professor. A week or so ago, I finally got to meet with him for the first time; he was very encouraging, and gave me a number of good ideas to improve my chances of getting back into school.

He also offered me a job on the spot.

Of course, I would like to say that it’s a well-paying job, and that I was offered the job because he saw that I’m a brilliant person with a sound mind, etc., etc., etc. But in truth, the main reason it happened was because he discovered that I was doing field research as a non-University-affiliated person, and there were liability issues at stake. I remember thinking it was kind of odd that I was allowed to go out into the field in slippery mud and dirty places without having signed any waivers or anything, and I mentioned that to the graduate student. She was puzzled too, but since no one had mentioned anything, we all assumed it was all good. But when Professor X (a sinister-sounding nickname, I know; he’s a great guy, I swear, but I have to call him something), he asked me several times, "And you’re NOT a student? Are you sure?"

And so, while it sounds great to say, smugly, "Yeah, Professor X offered me a job on the spot," the truth is that it was more of a formality than anything else. But there is still something positive to it: the student had told him that I was helpful and understood directions well, so that probably helped. He could have simply said, "No more field work, sorry," but he didn’t. I’ve been told by several people that Professor X is a nice guy, and having met him, I’m inclined to agree.

Yesterday, I got an e-mail from Professor X telling me that he had some library research to be done, and asking if I was interested. I said yes. And so today, I went back to the University, met with Professor X, and filled out a bunch of paperwork to once again be an official employee of UC Davis.

All the trappings are back. I have another staff ID card. I have a library card. Next week I’ll have a ucdavis.edu e-mail address again. The pay is a pittance, of course; even if I were working full-time, it would pay less than half of what I was earning at my last job, and my appointment is only 25%. What I’ll be earning won’t even be enough to make a dent in my UI checks.

The department secretary was surprised to see that I’d worked for the University before. "Wow," she said, "You worked in IT as a computer resource specialist. What did you do?"

"I was a web programmer," I told her.

"Oh, wow," she said. "So this is quite a switch for you, isn’t it?"

And then, later on:

"This staff card will let you get an e-mail account with the University. Have you ever used e-mail before?"

I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing. Asking me if I’ve used e-mail is sort of like asking me if I’ve ever eaten food. But, of course, not everyone knows me or my history, and even though she knew I was a web programmer, she may not have known what that entailed. It’s certainly not because she’s stupid, it’s just because it’s outside her realm of experience (I’d be completely lost, I’m sure, if I had to do her job, filling out departmental PO’s and making the financial side of things work smoothly). So I smiled and told her that yes, I was familiar with e-mail.

Professor X gave me a stack of papers at least an inch thick and a floppy disk with a meg of information, all to review for this current project, which involves rainfall simulators. I read through some of the papers while eating my lunch, and while it wasn’t all as exciting as, say, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, it’s still pretty interesting stuff.

So now I’m on my way. It all feels a tiny bit closer now. I’m still finding myself in a strange position, though. And if any of you out there has any insight into how to enter graduate school in a science field ten years after getting your bachelor’s degree in a completely non-science field, I will definitely appreciate the help!

Too Much to Ask for?

I really believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt. I believe that people are generally good, that things are improving, and so on. I even believe that most people, even politicians, usually want to do the right thing. I don’t believe that the government is evil, or out to get us; I believe that the government is, on the whole, comprised of people who are just as human as I am and prone to some of the same fears, stupidities, vanities, and mistakes that I am prone to. I don’t believe that President Bush is evil or despotic, but I do believe that he’s a bit of a moron who has allowed his anxiousness to please his deep-pocket friends to override his common sense.

It was my optimism that took a bit of a blow today, though, when I saw the article at Yahoo! News that indicated that President Bush had signed an executive order which will allow the military to conduct trials of those accused of terrorism, instead of the civilian courts. I guess that it makes a certain amount of sense, if you decide that we are in a state of war with a generic class of people called "terrorists", but I honestly think that that’s stretching things a bit. I had always thought that war was declared on nations and states, not on ideologies (though I suppose all wars start in ideologies anyway).

I don’t believe that the government has been clamoring for years for an excuse to erode at our civil liberties; that sort of thinking I usually let the conspiracy nuts and militia goons handle. Personally, I think that the government would understand the value of controlled dissent in an oligarchy, just as in 1984 and Brave New World, rather than shut down all freedoms. No, what saddens me about this is that it’s more a sign of fear than anything else. The government is allowing its fear of further terrorist attacks to direct its actions in the "War on Terror". Between this and the announcement that attorney-client privilege between accused terrorists and their legal counsel has been suspended, one really has to wonder what will happen to ordinary citizens who for some reason or another find themselves accused of terrorism of any kind; and what constitutes terrorism in any case? I’m not extremist enough to believe that speaking out against the government’s actions in the "War on Terror" will itself constitute terrorism in the government’s eye (I’ve always been glad to live in a country where, despite its other faults, you can vote how you want without fear of being gunned down outside the polling booth). But I can’t help but worry how far things will go before it gets better. Even McCarthyism came to an end.

Today, I met with the pastor at our church. She and I both agreed that a religious faith (or any mode of thinking, for that matter) just isn’t worth the neurons it’s thought with if it can’t stand up to doubt and questioning and incorporate new challenges. I feel that the same thing applies to principles and values, especially at a national level. If our national ideals of democracy and civil liberties can’t weather the crisis that we’re currently facing, then how important are they really?

Indeed, it seems to me that it’s in crises like these that we need to hang on to our national ideals the most. Not only do we need to stay united as a nation, but we need to stand more firmly than ever behind the values for which our nation stands.

Or is that simply too much to ask for?


On another note, I discovered that some unsavory characters had signed up on my notify list for no other reason than to get new e-mail addresses to send spam to. I’ve unsubscribed any e-mail addresses that looked suspicious to me, but the damage has already been done. If you were subscribed, and you’re one of the Good Guys, my apologies! Sign up again! But the list is restricted now to those who are willing to submit a first and last name.

Unappreciated

There are times when I’m afraid that Jennifer just doesn’t appreciate me enough. In response to this entry in her journal, and her calling me a "beanhead" earlier this evening, I created this picture for her:

And this:

And, the piece de resistance:

…which is truly my masterpiece.

And my wife looks on these and tells me, "That’s nice, dear."

The things I have to put up with sometimes.

Whose Apocalypse?

The other day, I was supposed to meet a graduate student from UC Davis’ Graduate Group in Ecology at Borders in downtown Davis. Unfortunately, the student didn’t show up, but I did get a chance to browse through a book that I found on the shelves. This book is called The Skeptical Environmentalist, by Danish statistician and Greenpeace member Bjørn Lomborg. The thrust of this book is that most of the environmental doomsday scenarios that we encounter are based more on bad statistics and bad reporting than on good science. In fact, most of the statistics that he reviews show that, on the whole, the environmental state of the world is actually getting better, and not worse. Many of the studies he cites are the same studies cited by organizations (such as Greenpeace and the World Wild Fund for Nature), but he reviews the entire study and not just selected elements, and puts them in a broader context.

The Pacific island Easter Island — home of those giant stone heads — is often called upon to serve as an example of how human exuberance can lead to environmental destruction. And it is quite true that the human inhabitants of Easter Island did not manage their resources properly, and the island went from being a lush forested place to a nearly desert island, around about the 1400’s. Lomborg points out that while this is true, only fourteen of the over 10,000 inhabited Pacific islands encountered the same fate; and that the islands that did suffer that fate had local economies based on a very slow-growing type of palm tree which could not produce enough resources to supply even a much smaller human population for more than a couple of generations.

The point of this is not to belittle the tragedy of Easter Island and the inhabitants of the island; the point is that Easter Island serves as a poor model of how human beings are devastating the planet. On the whole, according to Lomborg, the planet’s air is getting cleaner, food is being produced at faster rates, fewer people are starving, water is cleaner, and so on. He even presents statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), demonstrating that the Earth’s human population is not growing as fast as many environmentalist doomsayers would have us believe. We are not in danger of running out of food, water, or clean air any time soon.

Lomborg is careful to point out that this does not mean that the Earth’s environment is good, nor that human beings have not damaged it badly in our tenure on this planet. What he points out is that the Earth’s environment is getting better, but is still not good enough. Work still needs to be done.

On the whole, Lomborg makes sense to me; his book echoes some of the things I’ve been thinking over the past few years. There is a part of me which would think that the more responsible thing to do would be to promote the doomsday scenariors, in order to get people to act, but a more mature part of me knows that more harm is ultimately done by promulgating bad data and mistruths rather than true numbers and statistics. Mind you, I’m only in Chapter One of his book, and it is a thick book.

I’ve noticed that people seem to like bad news, and the media never gets tired of printing it. I’ve believed for a very long time that there is more good than evil in the world, and that people are, on the whole, good; but, for some reason, evil, or badness, gets better press. When we open the newspaper, we see headlines screaming about murder and chaos and destruction, but, unless we’re in the local news section, we don’t see headlines reading, Chicago Boy Scouts Make Nursing Home Patients Feel Loved. But these things happen all the time; according to the FBI, the number of violent crimes, especially in the schools, is going down; but events like the Columbine shooting two years ago and other similar tales so predominate the news that we think that the number of such incidents is skyrocketing. I’ve lost track of the anthrax scare, but I’m willing to bet that there are still more people dying of leprosy in our country than of anthrax contracted while handling mail.

We all like our mythologies. Mythologies help us cope with the world around us. And it seems to me that mythologies, whether religious or cultural, have some sort of prophecy about the end of the world. In Christianity, the Revelation of St. John portrays in rather hallucinitory detail the end of the world and the coming of Jesus Christ (though the metaphors work best if you interpret them in terms of ancient Rome instead of the modern world); ancient Nordic mythology talked of Ragnarok, the final battle of the gods, and the end of the world; and so on. Our modern society is much more secular than older societies were, but we still have apocalyptic prophecies; they range from the prophecies of Nostradamus to the doomsday scenarios envisioned by die-hard environmentalist groups such as the Earth Liberation Front.

But despite it all, the world has failed to end, and humanity has failed to destroy itself. I remember hearing three predictions of imminent doom in one week when I was in junior high back in the 80’s — one involving nuclear holocaust, the other two involving cataclysmic earthquakes — and none of them came to pass. There was the Jupiter Effect, and, of course, 5/5/2000; both predicted massive tectonic and climatic catastrophes caused by planetary alignments. And, of course, there was Y2K, which many predicted would end civilization on earth, but which ultimately failed to blacken a single light bulb (though one friend of mine told me that Y2K was responsible for his fourteen-cent PG&E bill in February 2000).

I’ve never believed in humanity’s power to destroy the earth. It would take a massive, massive nuclear exchange, which is unlikely to happen at this point (and which I never believed would happen, even at the height of the Cold War) (Carl Sagan’s "Nuclear Winter" hypothesis was interesting, but ultimately proved to be flawed). And I’ve never had much faith in our ability to destroy our own civilization. Apocalyptic scenarios are interesting to speculate on, and some of my favorite science fiction and horror stories are based on apocalyptic themes, but I don’t think they’re realistic. I do believe in catastrophic change; I think human civilization encountered at least two catastrophic changes in the twentieth century alone. And each time, civilization has lived through it, and even advanced because of it.

Which is partly why I’m an optimist when it comes to humanity. I believe that we have advanced morally and societally in the past thousand years or so; we’re more aware than ever of our interconnectedness to each other and to the world around us. While there are still countries which practice horrifying human rights abuses, there is not a single nation left in the world which officially condones the practice of slavery. Despite the work that needs to be done, this is still, in my mind, evidence of progress. There will be world peace, and humanity will reach a point where we will be ruled primarily by wisdom and humble scholarship; it certainly won’t happen in my lifetime, unfortunately, and it probably won’t happen for a thousand years at best, but I believe very firmly that we’re headed in the right direction (Star Trek has the right vision, but is far too optimistic in its timeline).

We’ll get through the current international terrorist crisis, I believe. A bit scarred, a bit worn, but intact. And, I believe, just a bit wiser. It will probably take some time for that new wisdom to manifest, but it will be there.

Who knows? Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps God will let sound the four trumpets and the seven seals will break and the Worm will have his thousand year reign on Earth. But, to paraphrase David Brin (in his essay "Whose Millenium"), why would God bring things to an end now, just when we’re starting to get our act together?

As for me, I’m continuing to continue. I’ve picked up a book or two on ecology and ecosystem modeling, and given myself a project to build a fully functioning ecosystem modeling tool in Java, complete with a web interface and drag-and-drop functionality. This will kill several birds with one stone by allowing me to learn Java and the skills and methods of ecological modeling (including mathematics and statistics and so on), all of which will certainly help me in both my job hunt and in my journey to graduate school in Ecological Systems Engineering.

I’m pretty optmistic about the future of the earth and humanity, but I think that there is a lot of work yet to be done. I’d like to think that I’m doing my part.

The Hardest Cut

Jennifer dared me to participate in National Novel Writing Month, and, so, of course I signed up. Producing fifty thousand words in thirty days? What the heck? I dug out some notes on an old novel that I was planning on writing about three years ago and began to outline, but at the last minute — about 11:45 on October 31, to be exact — I decided to write something completely different instead. So I’ll be writing the novel Unfallen, which is based on a role-playing game that I ran a couple of years ago. It was one of the players from that game who suggested it. "Because I really want to know if I was my own evil twin or not!" she said.

So on Thursday I sat down and started writing Chapter One. This morning I finished it and began writing Chapter Two. So far I have about 4,000 words written. I’m almost 10% done!

The scary thing, though, is going through my old notes from the game and realizing that there’s no way I can possibly include everything that I want to in just fifty thousand words. The plot that I had developed for the game is marvelously complex, spanning several centuries and continents and with as many twists and turns as I could possibly devise (of course, I was creating the plotline for five players, and I have always had a policy when running role-playing games that every player deserves to be screwed with as much as possible). Now that I’m writing the thing up as a novel, I’m discovering that I can’t make the plot nearly as complicated and intricate as I really want to. I have to cut a lot out, and while I know it will actually be a better novel for the reduced intricacy, it still hurts. It’s like giving up your children for medical experimentation or something.

Overall, though, NaNoWriMo has been a lot of fun. So far, at least. Now I have an excuse to actually stay up late, drinking coffee until almost midnight. And my wife — on the principle of "darers go first" — is doing it with me. I’ve read chapter one of her novel, and I think it’s quite good.

On another note, I just finished reading a horror novel called Black Dawn by D. W. Stern. My tastes in general do run towards the apocalyptic, and this novel is about as apocalyptic as they come. I admit that I was disappointed in the ending; there are times when I think a novelist just gets tired of writing something, and winds up rushing the ending. Loose ends get left untied, and the narrative pace gets choppy. There were about twenty pages left to the end, and none of the major plotlines had been resolved; I had determined that this book was part one of a series, even though there was no advertising to that effect on the cover or in the summary; and, yet, the author ended the novel with no room for sequel.

On the other hand, it was a pretty well-written novel, and I admire the author for having the guts to kill off major characters before the novel is even halfway done. Many writers are reluctant to do that.

I admit that I was reluctant to read an apocalyptic novel, with the world in the state that it is currently in. Of course, I know that we’re not facing the End of the World, but anyone who knows me will attest that I’ve been a worrier since childhood (in fact, I remember going into deep denial when I was ten or so, refusing to accept that there might be a black hole at the center of our galaxy — I actually had nightmares about that). But Black Dawn was just too intriguing for me to pass up. I’m glad I read it; it wasn’t a spectacular book, but it was decent enough.

Being unemployed is a nice feeling right now. I have plenty of productive things to do while I look for a new job: plenty of reading to catch up on, plenty of writing, plenty of learning. I’m enjoying participating in the stream sampling field research. I’ve got three major creative projects going on at the moment — Unfallen, my novel for NaNoWriMo; Worlds’ End, a Dungeons and Dragons campaign that I’ll eventually be running; and Outer Darkness, a science fiction/horror role-playing game that I’ve been developing with Evilpheemy for a couple of years now.

And, of course, when I get a new job, something will have to be dropped from my list of things to do. Will it be the writing? The reading? The field research? Just like the intricacies of my novel’s plot, something will have to be cut. I only hope that my new job will be worth it.