Pardon me while I write about something that has nothing to do with MD or PhD life.

I remember when I was small I was taught about Native American culture.  They taught us the differences between their culture and the culture of the White settlers, and how such differences were a source of tension and conflict.  I don’t remember much detail because I was very young.  I do remember, though, that what happened to the Native peoples was taught to us as being truly sad and tragic.  There was the story of the Trail of Tears, ambushes and massacres, and the general view that “Indians” were savage and uncivilized.  They were often seen as animals, and frequently treated worse.  It was obvious that the White settlers of the time were the villains of the story.  White government agents signed treaties and broke them.  Finally, tribes were expelled from their lands and moved onto reservations, many of which remain to this day — a legacy of the White man’s cruelty.

I remember my teachers describing the dichotomy of values toward the land: the settlers sought to own the land, while the Natives sought to be a part of it.  The White man saw the land as property to be claimed, and the Native saw the land as a life-giver to be respected. One felt compelled to dominate and tame the wild places; the other felt compelled to protect and harmonize with the wild places.  One viewed bison as a stupid beast to be killed for sport and wasted; the other viewed bison as a fellow dependent of mother earth to be used with great respect and efficiency.  One thought of bears and wolves as dangerous, scary, and a nuissance; the other saw them as powerful, magnificent, and respected.  One felt his destiny was to rule over the earth and its creatures; the other felt his destiny was to achieve balance and harmony with the earth and its creatures.

Of course, much of what I learned was an oversimplified generalization.  I’m sure that much of the story was romanticized, making White men seem evil and Native Americans seem saintly.  But what strikes me today is how similar we are now to the negative traits (fictitious or not) in those White men of old.  The writing between the lines of what I was taught was, “yes, our ancestors did bad things, but we’re better now”.  I now think of that idea and question it’s veracity.  We still seek to dominate and own the land.  We view animals more as property than as coexistent beings.  We seek to develop the few remaining wild places of the country under the guise of making them more “accessible”, building highways through forests so that semi-trucks can give deer, raccoons, porcupines, and any other animal a traumatic and unnatural death.  (I have hit a deer with my car once before, and nothing about it felt right or good.)  We continue to expand our population, and where there are wild grasses or groves of trees on a bought-and-paid-for patch of land, we often raze it to lay down asphalt or concrete to either park upon or build upon.  Our cities further encroach upon wilderness, and we wonder why there are deer and other animals in our suburbs.  And many still look down upon the Native Americans who live upon the reservations and we judge them for having problems with alcohol, violence, poverty, and education — we think of them as uncivilized.  In fact, we do the same thing about any number of groups of people.

We, as a people, are still much like the White man of those old stories.  We still seek to use the land for our own purposes rather than harmonize with it.  We view the Earth and its life as a resource to be exploited.  We see the Earth much in the same way that we see a convenience store.  It makes me sad that we haven’t learned from the past.  With our words we vilify the White man of the past as being greedy and racist and wholly cruel, but with our actions we continue down the same path that they did.  We justify ourselves by saying that we do it more respectfully, or that we do it with a greater eye for sustainability.  And in some cases that may be true.  We have, in truth, improved upon some things.  But the overarching theme of our culture continues to be one of domination, expansion, and exploitation.

I am, of course, complicit in all of this.  The very fact that I’m posting this on the internet is evidence that I am.   I wish I weren’t.  I should seek better ways to not be so.  But even being complicit in its destruction, there is a part of me that longs to abandon the city and live with nature, harmonize with this planet that provides us all that we need for life.  Inside of me is a little boy that wishes he could hear the wind blow across a quiet mountain meadow instead of the din of the city.  Not just on vacation, but always.  I hate that we have replaced the sound of crickets and natural night with the hum of artificial lights that blot out the stars.  At times I find it odd that we spend so much effort and money grooming and preening and pruning our lawns and rosebushes and flower gardens as if we somehow know how to improve upon nature.  The beauty of plant life isn’t enough, so we have to arrange it in neat little rows and cut every blade of grass so it is the same length.  Keep the hedges trimmed so they’re neatly and symmetrically shaped.  We take the massive and beautiful diversity of nature and strive to homogenize it.  We attempt to tame, to domesticate, and to civilize the wild.

I don’t pretend that this model of society has been wholly unsuccessful.  Our domination of nature has allowed us to do much.  I question, though, whether doing much should really be our goal.  I do lament the arrogance of modern humanity in its continuous pursuit of expansion and domination over mother Earth.  And I admire those whose values foster a respect and coexistence with Earth and nature.  We all depend on the Earth for life, and we share this dependency with every living creature on the planet.  In this way we can think of ourselves as brothers and sisters of the wolves, bears, deer, moose, trees, plants, and so on.  We all arise from, receive sustenance from, and return to the same dust, from the same Earth.  We are all connected.  In this way, I feel that protecting the few remaining wild places on this Earth is more important than just protecting species from extinction.  Finding a deep inner connection with the planet and its life brings greater meaning to being alive.  Nature has become a novelty for so many — a vacation destination akin to Disneyland.  And this makes me sad.  The true beauty of the natural world exists beyond simple aesthetics.  It is much more profoundly meaningful than that.  It touches something deep inside of me in a way that cannot be described with words.


research ethics a la facebook

I’m taking a research ethics class right now.  It’s required for certain grants, and it actually teaches some very valuable information about how to properly go about research.  It’s still boring, but good nonetheless.  It’s a small class of about 20 people — mostly residents and researchers.

I typically sit towards the back row, and yesterday I noticed something funny.  Of all the people using laptops, at least 4 of them were looking at facebook during the lecture and everybody else was using email or google.  I thought that this was a phenomenon of people my age and younger, not older people who have real jobs.  I was wrong.

I’m guilty of it too, though.  I’ve been known to take a peek into the book of faces during lulls in lectures, but not in this class.  I don’t feel that using a computer is justified in this class as I take scanty notes.  I usually just sit there with a notebook and write one or two sentences per two-hour session.

The interesting thing was that facebook didn’t seem to distract from class participation or discussion.  We still held a lively discussion about what constituted human-subject research, yada yada yada.

So maybe facebook doesn’t get in the way of learning as some people have suggested.  Well, actually, it probably does.  In either case I suppose it’s disrespectful to the instructors, and you shouldn’t do it — very much.

But at least the younger students aren’t putting thumb tacs on teachers’ chairs and pulling other stupid pranks like they used to.  Nowadays a lot of them are just listless, obese, and apathetic.

Not sure which is better.

the ardent fans of harry potter

credit: warner brosI’ve only gone to two midnight movie showings in my life.

The first one was the 2001 re-make of The Planet of the Apes.  That was interesting.  My advice to movie makers: never attempt to re-make anything that originally had Charlton Heston in it.  Don’t ask why.

The second one was the recently-released final Harry Potter film.  This one wasn’t that bad actually.  Stuff happened, and there was blood.  That’s the great thing about making a movie or writing a book that is “the conclusion” of a series — every character is expendable.  After a decade of character development, you can finally kill off major characters.

I do chuckle a little bit about it, though.  Since some overly-enamored Harry Potter fans have spent so many years becoming acquainted with these characters, they have formed a strong emotional bond with them.  Some Harry Potter fans have spent more years getting to know the books’ fictitious characters than they have getting to know most of their current real-life friends.

So… I was sitting there munching on popcorn and sipping on soda.  The movie had come to a dramatic moment when some major characters had died while fighting in a magical battle.  Little by little, I became aware of quiet sniffling all around me.  Then the girl sitting to my left gradually began to sob profusely, complete with anxious gasps and moans.  (I would strongly recommend clicking on the words “sobbing profusely” in the previous sentence.)  Perhaps I’m a bit cynical, but I couldn’t help but smile and laugh quietly to myself in the darkness.  Fortunately, nobody could see me, because they most certainly would have been angry with me.

The whole experience was pretty entertaining.  I couldn’t help but laugh a little about how seriously people took this book/movie series.  Here were people, mostly in their mid-twenties, dressed up in ornate costumes of their favorite characters, complete with little magic wants that had lights on the end — how could I not laugh at them a little bit?

And then there was the guy walking around in a storm trooper costume.  Yeah… I don’t know what that was all about either.

toilet pager

Do you wear a pager?  Ever noticed how when you go to the bathroom the pager just seems to be laser guided directly into the toilet?  Seriously!

You undo your belt and start to move things in the desired direction, and the next thing you know… KerPlunk!!!  You swing around and to your horror the weight of the pager has forced your belt to come out of the belt loops, and the pager has flown directly into the dirty waters.  (Hopefully the waters aren’t too dirty yet…  anyway…)

Next comes the terrifying moment of reckoning.  You stare at it sitting there on the bottom of the porcelain sea, tiny bubbles streaming out of it, and you think to yourself:

“Do I grab it, or should I try and get a stick or something?  If I wait too long it’ll be ruined.  Maybe if I grab it fast I can save it.  Yup… gotta grab it.  I can scrub my hands after.  Okay.  Ready.  GO!”

So you reach in and you grab the pager.  It’s a little surprising how much it splashes – you must have grabbed it more quickly than you thought.  And now you’re standing there, pants around your ankles, looking at yourself in the mirror, holding a soaking wet toilet pager in your hand.

You look at it.  The screen is dead.  Crap!  You grab a towel and wipe it off, shake out some of the water that got inside, and towel it off again.  Oh!  Take out the battery!  That might help.  It’s probably still okay.  It’s just got to dry out.  Right?

Now what?  Oh yeah!  Wash your hands!!  Now quick, pull up your pants and go google “toilet pager”!  With the towel-covered pager in hand you move with purpose to the computer.  To your surprise (or not) there’s actually a large amount of information on the subject.

RICE!  That’s the answer!  Bury the pager in a bowl of uncooked rice and wait for like 2 days.  Okay… you have a plan… everything’s going to be all right… take a breath.

Now… back to the bathroom to finish the business that you had initially set out to take care of.  …Maybe leave the cell phone behind.