Friday, September 28, 2012

Beginning of life

When does life begin? Wow. What a dangerous question. Yet our local boy, MP Stephen Woodworth, thinks it’s worth looking into. Virtually everyone (including him) agrees that this “pursuit of knowledge” is a thin veil behind which hides a push to eliminate abortion. After all, pro-lifers think, what other conclusion will be drawn except that life begins when that fateful sperm invades the monolithic egg, a real life version of the assault on the Death Star. His motion got schooled, defeated 203 to 91. (As an aside, Rona Ambrose, Minister for the Status of Women, voted in favour of the motion. Really, Rona? Jeez, lady. Even her own boss, Harper, made the move to vote against it.)

I’m thrilled this stupid thing got batted down. While usually I’m all in favour of finding answers to all of life’s questions, this strikes me as less a scientific query and more in the realm of philosophy. After all, before you can answer when human life begins, you’ve got to define precisely what we mean by “life.” As any fan of science fiction, knows, this isn’t an easy question. (Many fine episodes of Star Trek have tried to answer it. Star Wars, on the other hand, ignores the whole issue and keeps clearly sentient creatures--droids--as slaves.)

Living things undergo metabolism, maintain homeostasis, have the capacity to grow, respond to stimuli, reproduce and, through natural selection, respond to their environment in successive generations (stolen from “The Seven Pillars of Life,” by D. E. Koshland Jr.) Now I don’t know what all of that means, but it sounds complicated. I’m not sure I can do all of that stuff. So am I not alive? Or was I alive, but now I’m dead?

Note that the very definition of life includes a nod to Darwinism, the evil thing that creationists (invariably also pro-lifers) deny exists. Because they would deny they have this trait, does it follow that creationists aren’t alive? An interesting notion, if so. This could get complicated, Mr. Woodworth. You sure you want the answers you’re going to get if you run with this thing?

Let’s start with the simplest criteria: reproduction. What about someone who gets their cords cut? No reproduction equals not alive? What if you’ve been incapable since birth? Have you never truly been alive? Taking this on a more basic level, what if we determine that an organism is only truly alive once it’s sexually mature? Boom. Just like that, all humans that haven’t hit puberty aren’t alive.

Or take “capacity to grow” to its literal extreme. As an adult, all I can in terms of growth is a gradual widening of the waistband, ie. I get fat. Is this enough to qualify as alive? Or are we going to embrace the Logan’s Run ideology, and deem all adults as “non-alives?” Grab any of the other criteria and play with them, and I bet you can find examples of humanity that wouldn’t qualify.

It’s obvious that defining “human life” is going to be the truly tricky part, and I think we can’t predict where the final conclusions would end up. Sure, it might end up saving millions of fetuses if the debate can be taken in the direction the pro-lifers hope; life is when sperm fertilizes egg. But what if it goes the other way and the official “start of life” is pushed further back? Instead of just dealing with abortions, we might suddenly live in a country where it’s not considered homicide to whack a gaggle of teenagers. Or seniors. Or the impotent. Or the stubborn (no response to stimuli).

Even if the pro-lifers get their way and the fertilized egg is defined as “alive,” what happens to the ovulating female population? Fertilized eggs can often be swept out of the uterus during menstruation--is that manslaughter now? Our jails will fill overnight just because hopeful women are trying to get pregnant. Failure to properly track your cycle will be considered “criminal negligence.”

Is that really the world you want to live in, Woodworth and company?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

To turn Facebook stock around...

I log onto Facebook once or twice a day. That’s a conscious choice requiring a ridiculous amount of discipline on my part. Facebook, for some reason, is addictive enough that when I sit down at my computer or open my laptop, my first instinct is to go to that familiar login page. I suspect I’m not alone in this, judging by the quantity of Facebook posts out there. Voyeurism is probably the primary motivation for the success, a way to lurk in the shadows and spy on people you’re almost connected to with no danger of getting caught. It doesn’t appear to matter to our dark psyches that our nefarious “spying” accesses only the information people choose to share. I mean, it isn’t like we’re getting a glimpse into the skeletons in anyone’s closet. (Though in all fairness, many people appear to delight in sharing things with the world that I wouldn’t talk to my psychiatrist about.)

There are a few things that Facebook needs to add. The “Like” button is great, but what do I do when someone posts something tragic? “My mother died.” “Eighty-three massacred in Syria.” “My tests came back positive.” (Which is negative, in spite of how great it sounds.) “Mr. Snuggles died.” I want to show my support, but you can’t “Like” something like that. (You shouldn’t, anyway, in spite of the fact that people still do.) You’re forced to ignore the call for help, or leave a comment. But how many times does a post need “That’s terrible, I’m so sorry for you” under it? You try to come up with some unique variant of support that doesn’t completely match something already there. “Keep your chin up, buddy.” Or “Man, that blows, Mr. Snuggles was an awesome iguana.” You have to watch you don’t cross from “somber sympathy” to “smart ass fakery.” Telling someone “It can’t rain every day” comes off as smug, plus it quotes the movie “Crow” (with Brandon Lee, great flic, really, check it out if you haven’t seen it). Not good. (For the record, “Not good” also qualifies as “smart ass fakery.”)

Keep “Like” if you want to, but maybe add “Sympathize” or “Testify!” or even a little “sad face” emoticon. Just so we can digitally pat our fellow sufferers on the back without the awkward need to verbalize our sympathy (ask anyone who’s ever visited a palliative care ward just how hard it is to do time and time again).

The second change is more far-reaching but also far more critical. Using state-of-the-art image recognition software and keyword search engines, Facebook needs to automatically take every single post relating to cute kittens, lovable puppies, and adorable animals and throw them onto a special page. Let’s call this new domain “Petbook” and there, and ONLY there, will you be able to peruse at leisure the myriad pet-related posts. Once Petbook is up and running, we’ll all be saved from involuntarily seeing yet ANOTHER kitten batting at toilet paper, or a bushel of fuzzy puppies over the caption “Joy” (“Personal Hell” would be more accurate). I’m sure Petbook will have plenty of viewers, but I won’t be one of them. One picture of a pug cocking its head quizzically looks much the same as the rest of them, after all, and how many pics of kittens do we really need? If we’re ever lonely for the visual of a pink-nosed furball, Google has this handy thing called “Image search” and I GUARANTEE you’ll find kittens there if you bother to look.

Besides, there’s only ever been one image and video as far as kitten pics are concerned. The rest are all just wanna-be’s and sad copies. I speak, of course, of the The Laughing Cat:

Best video ever. Maybe I should post it on Facebook.

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Face

I'm a cheerful atheist. I don't see how any atheist could be anything but. When I die, that's it. I don't have to jump through any metaphysical or spiritual hoops to get to some weird eternal paradise afterlife. The atoms that comprise me go back into circulation, the ultimate in recycling. Simple, easy, straightforward.

(I've never understood the lure of an "eternal paradise" anyway. When you apply "forever" as a time limit, anything becomes hell. Maybe it'll take six million years, but eventually, you're going to wake up on your memory-foam bed (all beds in heaven are memory foam--if ever there was a heavenly-sent material, it's memory-foam) and wish for the peace of the Long Sleep. Mark Twain had it right, anyway: Go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company. I love my Grandma, but she's a realistic cross-section of the type of people that will be up there, which means there's no WAY I'm going to be able to find a gaming group.)

I have respect for people who have faith, but I have NO respect for the religious organizations themselves. This post was going to be a scathing assault on Catholicism (who better deserving of one?) spurred on by the death-bed honesty of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini (you go boy!) but then I realized I had nothing to say that hadn't been said a billion times already. To summarize: Martini said the church has no clue, is 200 years out of date, and needs to transform itself, particularly in light of the child-abuse scandal it's been going through. I found a bunch of quotes from the Pope where he makes light of the situation and downplays its impact and seriousness. Then I was going to show you a picture of him and talk about how he looks like an evil grandpa, the kind who beats you and locks you in a closet.

Pope Angry German really does look harsh. Yet he was chosen by a whole host of people as the best choice to lead his church. Theoretically, these people had seen him and were aware that many pictures would be taken of him, but they still went ahead and lifted him on their octogenarian shoulders to victory. It's a testament to how competent they believed he'd be, because I wouldn't have the guts to hire someone like that: he'd scare the crap out of me every day, and who needs that at work? It did get me thinking about the physical appearances of other world leaders.

Sure, we shouldn't be judging people on their appearance. Beauty is only skin deep and all that. Comeliness is an accident of birth and can't be taken as a measure of a person's worth. But where's the fun in that?

Let's start local. This is Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada. Note the cold eyes; he's famous for them. If this guy came to your door, would he really get your vote? Or would you excuse yourself as quickly as possible, throw the deadbolt, and peer through the blinds until he'd left? How he continues to get elected is a mystery to me, but having a popular figure that is simultaneously loathed and impossible to get rid of is a perversely Canadian trait (see Celine Dion and Nickelback).

This is Stephen's dad. See the resemblance around the eyes? Mercy does NOT run in the family. Oh, wait, my bad. That's actually John Boehner, Speaker of the US House of Representatives. Still, a chilling visual, isn't it? People voted for this guy, too.

Doesn't this guy look like a lot more fun? As I've already stated, I think he's going to take the race this November. But if we're rating presidents entirely on "movie star appearance," his competition is a fierce opponent:

Look at that chiseled jaw. Those dreamy eyes. His grey temples, so reminiscent of Mr. Fantastic. If you weren't allowed to listen to him speak or read his very flexible political positions, he'd be a shoe-in.

Moving to a broader stage, here's Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. This guy looks more fun and personable than all the rest combined. Nothing against Kofi Annan, but I hope Ban is around for a long time just from a photogenic standpoint. The camera loves this guy!

And then there's the man who inspired this little journey down Superficial Lane:

Sorry about the nightmares.