Sunday, February 24, 2008

Electability Independence

It's good to know that I'm not the only one listening to what isn't being said in the Presidential campaign... but it's damned depressing to be reminded of exactly what it is that's being avoided. The one single most important issue not only of the election, but of the modern world, and nobody's saying word one of any real substance.

Fuel economy standards? Really? Offering a few more models of slightly less awful internal combustion automobiles is going to tip the balance in our favor? How about we talk about turning the American economy on its head by removing the automakers and oil producers from the throne, hmm?

Oh? What's that?

You don't want to talk about that right now? You'd rather discuss health care?

You're afraid that important "constituencies" might think that discussing such things could have negative effects on the economy? Well, that's interesting. What if we added something about public works programs and energy research funding incentives that would drive the development of a new, stable, responsible economy? That sounds pretty good, right? Well, here's the catch: people are actually going to have to want to make some change, not just have you fix it for them. Yeah, you're looking a little green in the face there, Candidate. Oh, did I forget to mention that you'd probably really piss off a lot of very powerful, deeply entrenched industrial-complex interest groups who have large financial stakes in the old, consumption-driven, unsustainable economy?

Oh, you don't want to talk about this any more? You'd like to talk about Hope and Change and Security and what George W. Bush has done wrong instead?

Yeah, I thought so.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

1 part announcement, 1 part rant, shake well, serve over ice

First, the announcement: last night, on the seventh anniversary of our first date (I know, saccharine indeed), I proposed marriage to Courtney, and, perhaps not unexpectedly after seven years together, she accepted. I am, in spite of my typical phlegmatic and sardonic manner, quite pleased about this. To say the least.

She, on the other hand, is positively giddy. I am glad that such a small gesture (which will, I am fully aware, blossom into a monstrosity of spectacle and lack of privacy for me given what large and loving families we both have) could make her so happy! I will not say that it has been a long time coming, because that would be frankly untrue; there have been a great deal of times in our relationship, times of all sorts. Many of them were bad, or at least not very good. It has taken me this long to figure myself out, and similarly, she is just getting around to figuring herself out as well. We began dating when we were only nineteen, so this slow and measured approach has been invaluable in letting us get to know ourselves even more than each other. Waiting until now has allowed us to grow up and then take this step, rather than utilizing this step as a surrogate for actually maturing. I regret some elements, but not the greater picture.

All relationships have cycles. Sometimes they run hot, and sometimes cold; sometimes they are good, and sometimes very bad. I was not able to feel secure about making a relationship permanent until I had fully internalized this seemingly rather simple truth. Moreover, after some of the things we've gone through together, I was definitely not able to feel secure about a decision like this until I felt secure in myself, and in my convictions, hard-won indeed after being raised by parents who loved me but had very real relationship issues of their own, that it is possible and virtuous to make things work, that good relationships are a matter of putting forth the effort, not just of dumping one person after another until you stumble into perfection. This is an ethic that my grandparents had, but many in my parents' generation did not, and while I knew it at some level all along, it took a lot of effort to really feel okay about it - to feel that it was neither silly juvenile justification, nor drawn-out teenage rebellion.

Anyway, enough with the philosophizing: Courtney and I have always had a simple, happy compatibility that extended far beyond whatever temporal events were affecting us. We, as one friend noted way back when we had only been dating a short time, work. After seven years, that working is no longer a simple, natural near-fit, but a polished and lovingly crafted artifact, and one that I'm proud and happy to be making official.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Science Debate 2008

I think I mentioned SD08 once before here. If not, you should check it out here! It's a pretty exciting idea with a large and increasing proportion of the entire scientific community behind it, including the AAAS and the NAS. The "debate" in question is a Presidential one, in which the candidates will, if all goes well, expose before the whole world their sad ignorance of scientific and technological issues or possibly vindicate themselves if they are not, in fact, sadly ignorant. I'm looking at YOU when I say "sadly ignorant," Mr. Huckabee.

Anyway! There was a debate between members of the campaign staffs at this year's AAAS meeting in Boston on Saturday, which in itself is unremarkable; it's not like the candidates themselves attended. It is certainly a step in the right direction, no doubt, but what got me excited was the response from the staffers when they were asked during the debate if the candidates would be attending the real deal SciDeb2008. Clinton's guy was quite noncommittal and you could tell he was trying to find a way to say "In your dreams, nerds" without losing any votes; I am unsurprised. Obama's rep, however, was quite stoked about the prospect and said that they were seriously considering it. I mean, that's hardly a pledge, but surely it's a good sign.

I guess the Clinton camp's response shouldn't really come as a surprise. Highly educated people - and scientists by definition fall under that descriptor - have never really been one of her strong demographics during this campaign, so there's no reason to think that she'd waste effort trying to please them this late in the game. I suppose the fact that educated folks don't like her much says something in itself, though, doesn't it?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Discussion: Darwin Day

I had an interesting if unintended conversation night before last with two gentlemen from the Discovery Institute.

For those who aren't aware, the DI is a Seattle-based conservative "think tank" (I really hate that term) primarily dedicated to sponsoring "research" by "scientists" which they think might be friendly to creationism. (I won't call it "intelligent design" until they start saying "evolutionary biology" or "the modern synthesis" instead of "Darwinism." Call me petty, but I think it's only fair.) They tend to utilize more or less the same arguments every other creationist group in history has used, namely: 1) Some aspects of life are too complicated to have evolved, so they must have been created by some intelligence which may or may not be God but which is, purely coincidentally, almost certainly quite God-shaped; 2) "Macroevolution," an essentially arbitrary distinction from "microevolution" based on the amount of change, hasn't been directly observed - which they're quite sure has nothing to do with the millions-of-years time frame involved; 3) Darwin was a bad, bad man.

I showed up at the Blue Star Pub on Tuesday night - Darwin Day, as it happened - for my first Seattle Skeptics Meetup, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the Blue Star was a pretty decent little place that had given us a back room, and that there were a fair number of people there - and some of them were even in my age range! I arrived before Courtney, so I had the opportunity to meet a few folks before she did.

I was surprised to learn about the guests from the DI, however. I was expecting a fairly quiet, fun night of getting to know some Seattle skeptics, not a vigorous argument; I'm not at my arguing peak at the moment. As it wound up working out, I was, out of perhaps 25 or 30 people, seated directly across from the creationists. When I learned this, I immediately ordered an imperial pint of Arrogant Bastard Ale; it seemed both fitting and necessary. When the waitress returned with my beer, she remarked, "You had the Arrogant Bastard, right? Yeah, I thought so. You kinda seemed like one." I considered this a good omen.

I won't waste your time, readers, with details of the ensuing debate; it was exactly what you would expect. I am an evolutionary biologist; they are... well, they are people who abuse science and promote bad scientists for a living. It wasn't pretty, although it was, to everyone's credit, always polite and in good humor. I feel like I carried at least a third of the non-creationist side of the argument, no small feat given that there were at least twenty people participating and only two of them were DIers; Courtney, for her part, jumped in now and then with biting remarks from the perspective of a religious studies major, and spent the rest of the time biting back less polite remarks.

For the most part, we talked in circles; I asked what mechanism they proposed this hypothetical intelligence used to create life, and Casey, the talkative one, replied, "Intelligence." I looked at him like he was an idiot, and attempted to explain what exactly a mechanism is, and he avoided the question entirely. I asked why the fact that intelligences create information today implied for any reason that all information was created by intelligence, and he replied, "Because today we see intelligence creating information." When I attempted to point out that this was roughly analogous to saying that since some round stones were smoothed in the gizzards of dinosaurs, there must be dinosaurs around to account for all round stones - though not, I regret, with that elegant analogy, which I hadn't thought of yet - he... well, he dodged the question entirely. Repeat ad nauseam.

All in all, though, it wasn't a bad night at all. We met some cool folks, and while I don't like to enjoy beating up on the deluded in debate, I did, in spite of myself, enjoy it. I had some good beer and a very tasty buffalo burger (which I regrettably really didn't really notice myself eating, since I was quite busy arguing). For anyone of an even slightly skeptical bent, I would recommend these meetups. There's a wide range of ages and professions, pretty cool people, and a good venue.

Sunday, February 10, 2008


Residing now for the first time in my life in a state where my vote might actually count for something, I caucused with the Democrats this Saturday, throwing in my lot with Barack Obama. As chance would have it - and not unpredictably since I live in perhaps the most educated and second-most liberal neighborhood in the Pacific Northwest - I chose the winning side by a wide margin, sparing me the chagrin of defeat or the necessity of standing up to a large opposition to speak my mind. I wouldn't have minded the latter, really, because although like many folks I'd have been scared witless at the prospect of public speaking, I think that if and when I can compose myself I can be a damn fine speaker.

Our precinct ended up falling about 4:1 for Obama; we could probably have claimed all five delegates if we'd had a bit more time for debate and horse-trading, but I'm satisfied with 70 out of 82 voters. I was a bit worried at first; we showed up to find a house so packed there was hardly room to get in the door, and a lot of them were middle-aged women, whom it's easy to consider the natural constituency of Hillary. As often happens, however, the stereotype didn't really hold up. One older fellow - yes, a man, but still a Boomer - even stood up and spoke for the Obama side, mentioning in his speech that it was, in fact, time for his generation to cede some of their unprecedented stranglehold on political will to the younger generations. The whole of his address really wasn't spectacular, but I really appreciated hearing him make that point. I can honestly say I was not expecting to hear anyone in his generation say anything like that in the foreseeable future.

Anyway, it feels really good to be making a difference for once. I've been politically active since the age of 17, and this is the first time I've ever cast a vote that wasn't overwhelmed by an avalanche of apathy and conservatism. Pitfalls of being a liberal Texan, I know; but was defeating Kay Bailey Hutchison really that much to ask? I've never hated any public figure like I hate that smug vipress, not even George Dubya.

In another first, I also donated to the Obama campaign today. A month ago I still supported Hillary as the more effective politician with the better advisors, but at some point - I'm not sure exactly when - I came around and began to see that we really needed not just a new and different (and post-boomer) candidate, but the symbolism of what electing such a person would mean. I couldn't tell you what won me over; perhaps it was just the ever-growing weariness of Hillary's back-room dealings, power brokering, and negative campaign, or perhaps I was genuinely inspired, not only by Mr. Obama himself, but by the giddy passion he inspired in many of my friends, acquaintances, and peers.

I'm worn out on politics; I really am. I wish I could quit, but I can't. This is simply too important. All in all, though, that being the case, things really could be going much worse!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Generation Depression

I'm beginning to wonder if my entire generation might not be fundamentally, existentially depressed.

It expresses itself quite often as anger and detachment. I know I myself experience those feelings far too much of the time. From behavioral problems in school to employment issues to a now nose-diving economy - the result of materialistic young professionals living beyond their means, not improbably in a futile search for fulfillment through property - it seems like the entire post-Boomer population of the United States is lost and disgruntled. For myself, I see it not only in me but in more and more of my friends and acquaintances; they'll overreact to slights and mistakes, real or imagined, or they'll simply lose interest in living their lives. It's becoming such a common experience that I'm starting to wonder if perhaps it's not just a growing frequency of depression and dissatisfaction among the introverts with whom I tend to associate, but a genuine societal psychiatric disorder.

As a hypothesis, it's not unreasonable. Much of my generation certainly suffers from a strong sense of sociopolitical impotence and a not entirely unjustified feeling that the government and the majority of business and community leaders don't give a single goddamn about us. Many of us cast our first vote in an election in which misinformation and media irresponsibility made it impossible to tell exactly what we were voting for, and then watched on live TV as our sincere efforts to carry out our "civic duty" were annulled completely by dirty tricks and Floridian incompetence. For many of us, it was just the latest and greatest indignity in a lifetime of being overshadowed, ignored, and dominated by the incredibly egocentric Baby Boomers and their smugly self-(en)titled "Greatest Generation" parents. For a great many of my generation, the encouragement of genuinely loving and well-meaning but piteously self-absorbed parents took the form of pressure to perform and ridiculously inflated expectations designed to "boost self-esteem." This created, in many cases, young men and women who felt like pathetic failures because they were ordinary people instead of the Presidents, astronauts, battlefield doctors, theoretical physicists, and millionaire investment bankers they'd been led to believe they would naturally become.

I don't mean to press for censure of our predecessor generations. They were who they were. I don't say all of this to blame them for my own dissatisfaction or suggest that my peers and I are not responsible for sorting out our own lives. What I am attempting to do is to paint a picture of the unintentionally repressive climate in which we were raised in order to make a case for the recognition and ideally amelioration of a very widespread and pernicious syndrome.

The National Institute of Mental Health, a branch of the NIH, shows depression rates at almost 10% in the United States. A more striking but perhaps misleadingly vague figure is the rate of increase in depression in young people - a remarkable 23%. Most tellingly, I think, well over half of those surveyed believe that depression is a personal weakness.

That's most telling because that attitude is both symptomatic of and causative of deep depression. Dissatisfied and mildly depressed individuals who believe that their unhappiness is their own fault are far more likely to sink into a deeper funk and potentially into major depression. It would be far too simplistic to blame the "Greatest" generation's bluff, insensitive insistence on self-reliance for this pernicious attitude, since the American propensity for self-reliance goes much further back; nevertheless, my generation's parents in particular were told altogether too frequently what was wrong with them and how they ought to fix it their damn selves, and it seems that some of it was passed right on down to us.

Depression is a very complicated issue. There's a lot more to it than being ignored parentally or politically, of course. For some sufferers, it really is a neurochemical disorder, although trying to figure out whether a mood disorder is caused by external events which create self-sustaining chemical changes or whether the chemical changes dictate destructive and self-sustaining behaviors in response to external stimuli is rather like arguing about a proverbial avian and ovum. For many, medications can help to shake them out of a bad episode, although these medications are certainly not without their side-effects, some of which will almost certainly become known only in the long term.

I am coming to believe, however, that a societal remedy is needed, not just quick fixes for broken individuals. It's not unreasonable to look back into recent history and see major events that gave previous generations their places in the world: the Depression, the World Wars, the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, the Cold War - positive and negative events, some of which happened to the generations shaped by them and some of which were done by them. One does not have to dig deep, however, to see that in each of these cases the really formative events were the ones, whether by initiative or in response, which were actively performed in a constructive manner by young people - the works initiatives of the New Deal or the Eisenhower era; the American war effort; the protests and massive societal shifts of the 1960s. These things united each generation, if not in purpose or opinion, then at least temporally. They gained focus, even if they focused from entirely different directions at times.

It may seem a bit ghoulish to say that it's unfortunate that the generations of the 20th century are living much longer than their predecessors, but for me and my peers, it is unfortunate. It's unfortunate because those older generations are staying active longer and growing ever more self-righteous, refusing to move over enough to share fair and equal space in society with a younger generation that's feeling ever more cramped, oppressed, and dissatisfied. We are, frankly, voiceless and bored. We don't have the will or strength to forcibly supplant our elders because we're still young, still figuring out exactly how the world is run, still far too fractious in our views, still idealistic enough to back any of a hundred thousand causes instead of just one out of two.

Our time may be coming. The crisis of climate change and the necessity of converting to a world that's not only climatologically sustainable but economically sustainable in a post-fossil-fuel world may galvanize us and become our generation's New Deal or Civil Rights. It's hard to say. I think an awful lot hangs in the balance right now, in the current election cycle; there are forces - primarily Hillary Clinton and, well, everyone among the Republicans - who want to drag us, consequences be damned, back into what they perceive as the better world of the 1990s - back into the century in which they were born and raised and out of this brave new world that they simply don't quite fit into. I don't want to turn this into a smarmy endorsement of Barack Obama, but he is the only post-Boomer on the field, and he is the only one that I see as capable of taking us forward instead of back, more because of how his campaign is structured and what he represents than because of anything actually intrinsic in him.

Obama's election, if we're lucky enough to see it happen, may well shake us up enough to cure the social depression that's afflicting us. I don't know. Personally, I think it's a good first step, but certainly not an adequate cure. There are elements missing, primarily those which would allow large numbers of people to actually get hands-on with elements of the new society we could create. My suggestion, then? Off the cuff, I'd say we're damned well overdue for a vast program of infrastructure renewal and New Economy (e.g. Green) retrofitting of existing infrastructure and industry. Not only would it potentially cure this social malaise, its other benefits would be legion; by repairing our infrastructure, we'd improve efficiency and safety greatly; by such a large expenditure of labor and capital, we'd give an enormous boost to our economy; by taking real, meaningful steps toward a Green economy, we'd restore our standing in the world community substantially; by giving people meaningful, productive work, we'd provide purpose and fulfillment to a lot of Americans, and maybe give a lot of them a hand up out of poverty as well.

Of course, political action alone won't change culture, at least not overnight. It may be a bit too late to alter some of the fundamental aspects of personality that have been ingrained into the newest generation of engaged adults, or it may not. Time will tell. For now, there remain the traditional remedies of medication, escapism, and denial; or, just perhaps, if we seek hard enough, maybe we'll find fulfillment and meaning even in a world where those commodities simply aren't for sale.
Tradition: the cultural application of the clear and universal historical principle that older ways are always better, as demonstrated by the superior alchemical databases and widespread horse-related education of the middle ages versus today's sadly alchemy-ignorant and widely unhorsed society.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

One more step down the road to vegetarianism

If you haven't already stopped eating slaughterhouse meat, well, there's no better time. For a full-scale primer, I recommend picking up Eric Schlosser's eponymous Fast Food Nation, which, working backward from an in-depth, scathing, and deeply poetic investigation of the fast food industry, spends multiple chapters detailing the ills of our modern meat industry. Suffice to say for now that he chronicles - and amply documents - horrifying failings in sanitation, safety, oversight, and, of course, animal welfare. The meat our nation's industry produces is not biologically or ethically safe to eat, and while you don't just have to take Eric Schlosser's word for that, he's a good place to start. The book, a few years old now but hardly out of date, is a modern homage to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle and should be every bit as much a call to action.

For now, though, what got me thinking about this stuff was one more nail in the coffin of my tolerance for this appalling industry: this fascinating piece on an autoimmune disorder developed by slaughterhouse workers exposed to aerosolized pig brains.

That's right: they accidentally snorted pig brains. And it's eating their brains.

If you're like me, your first thought upon seeing the headline was probably of vCJD - variant Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease, the human version of BSE ("Mad Cow") - and how vCJD prions must have been transmitted through the airborne brain tissue. It's a good guess, but in this case the answer is both simpler and more insidious.

You see, in many ways, pigs are very similar to humans. This is why diabetics for many, many years have used pig insulin in their treatment, and why pigs were chosen to be the transgenic hosts for human insulin genes later on down the line. It's also why pig organs are occasionally considered when a human needs a transplant. (It is also, I feel obligated to note, why human flesh is reputably said to taste like pork.) Relevant to this case, many of the proteins in pig neural tissue are very closely related to proteins in human neural tissue.

When foreign biological matter is introduced into our bodies, our immune systems mobilize a response against it intended to neutralize any threat and then coat and destroy the antigen. This is the basis for all immune response, be it to viral or bacterial invaders, a splinter, or as the case may be, inhaled pig brains. Antibodies, the primary component of the secondary (big) immune response, are specifically created and targeted by a really incredibly cool but complicated process (that I won't get into here) to bind to and thus mark for deletion very specific pieces of macromolecules in biological tissue that the body recognizes as "other." These specific pieces are usually oligopeptides, small pieces of foreign protein that have been broken down by one of a few types of big mean phagocytic white blood cell.

There's a whole lot more to the immune response than that - even the basics. Indeed, I took more than a year of advanced coursework on the subject and I'm still a relative novice. The important point here, though, is that the body produces massive numbers of specifically targeted antibodies in response to foreign biomatter.

The hitch comes when parts of that biomatter are marked as foreign but closely resemble the body's own tissue. In this case, apparently pig brain tissue had certain protein sequences that were close enough to sequences in the human brain tissue of the victims that the antibodies and other immune response molecules which were supposed to be targeted at the pig brains began binding to and attacking the victims' own brains instead. This generated a chronic inflammatory neural disorder. What that means in layman's terms is that these slaughterhouse workers, many of whom were immigrants who didn't speak much English and didn't know their rights, were struck with long-term, debilitating pain, weakness, burning sensations, and even paralysis.

From snorting pig brains.

I rate this particular horror as follows (out of a possible 10 on each count):

Ick factor: 8.8 (they fucking inhaled aerosolized pig brains)
Awfulness: 7.1 (most of the victims are making partial recoveries, but inflammatory brain diseases are ugly)
Prevalence: 1.8 (it affected only a dozen people, though the possibility that something like this might be happening elsewhere in other slaughterhouses is not low)
Inexorability: 3.0 (it's unlikely to be an unstoppable problem)
Piteousness: 7.8 (it was totally avoidable by very simple measures, and happened to people who almost certainly had no better prospects and no way to know what was happening to them)

On the whole, I suggest that U.S. pork producers adopt the following as an internal safety-focused counterpoint to their venerable marketing slogan:



I've always talked big about being a dynamic individual in a dynamic generation, but I have a terrible secret: I'm afraid of new technology. Well, specifically, I'm afraid of prosaic new technology. I'm as excited as any futurist about AI and nanotech and bioinformatics, but social networking sites and the iPhone make me very uncomfortable.

Here's the reason: I don't find them appealing. I find them frivolous, full of obnoxious kids and nattering technophiles, and of dubious utility. In short, I am old and stodgy with regard to the current tech level of communication. I am conservative.


It's not a decision, mind you. Indeed, I'm glad that all those blabbering teens and constantly-connected tech professionals are around with their text messaging and Blackberries to make sure that technology gets used, because use drives the market to improve it, and that creates more innovation. I just don't like what it says about me that, because I was born a few years too early, I look at MySpace and Facebook and shudder with distaste.

Some futurist I am.

I suppose the "moral" here is that remaining open-minded and flexible is hard work. People tend to stultify and petrify if they don't actively exercise dynamism. That sounds so dry and smugly didactic, though...

Hell, I don't know. Just go buy yourself a new tech toy that you're totally uncomfortable with, or set up a website in a format you don't know. I don't know. Learn to use something, and see what happens. That's what I'm going to try, anyhow.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

On vitriol

I am in a peculiar dilemma: I have, upon reflection, become an angry, bitter, hateful man... and that really pisses me off.

The blame - or the cause, I suppose, to look at it in a more analytic and less resentful manner - lies in at least two places: depression and politics. The former is more or less self-explanatory, I think, and I've discussed it before, but I'll give it a sentence or two here. The gist of it is that, whether the ultimate causes are inherently biological or environmental, I suffer from what's known as dysthymic depression or simply dysthymia. It's a form of depression that's classified technically as minor, but has, in the long run, some of the most destructive effects of any form, because it's low-grade but very pervasive and long-term. Just like a chronic inflammatory infection can be minor in the immediate term but far more destructive than serious trauma in the long run (it's true), dysthymia often goes untreated (treatment is controversial and not always effective) and, frequently not even knowing why, sufferers may wind up alcoholics, career or academic failures, or even suicides (often subsequent to alcoholism and failure). It's a devastating condition, because what it does, in my case at least, is to eat away at motivation. At the most basic level, this is probably just an expression of the fact that it causes dysphoria - dissatisfaction and the inability to be content; this leads to a reduced reward mechanism for success in any arena. Personally, I find that it leaves me a terrible procrastinator and socially a deeply avoidant pushover. I know that these are problems, but, since I'm so incredibly demotivated, I feel like there's nothing I can do about them. I am now, of course, with the support of a number of people, fighting this, and I think in the long term I may succeed, but it's hard.

Anyway, enough about that for now; that's not really what I wanted to talk about. What I wanted to discuss was investment, outrage, and just plain rage. Primarily, I want to know if the three can really be separated without sacrificing commitment and integrity.

There are several designs of bumper stickers that read one variation or another of the phrase, "If you aren't outraged, you haven't been paying attention." I am sure you have seen them. While "bumper sticker wisdom" is generally a shallow, lukewarm sea of useless platitude, there is almost always a kernel of some deeper sentiment, and this one speaks to something to which I feel very deeply connected. I think that people are simply not adequately invested in the human enterprise. I am very deeply invested in it; maybe that comes from too much exposure to the grand dreams of future societies in science fiction, maybe it's the result of upper-middle-class-white-kid syndrome (in which the well-meaning parents of an average but well-off child fill that child's head with assurances that he has so much potential and innate brilliance that one day he will grow up to be a great man who will change the world) or maybe it's just youthful liberal idealism, but whatever the origin, I care with an almost megalomaniacal fervor about the improvement of society and the human condition and my role in that improvement. I care deeply about the flaws in our collective endeavor that allow discoveries from the curiosity-satiating to the fundament-shaking to go unmade and hundreds of millions to go unfed.

It is for this reason that I get really fired up about politics. When things go as deeply wrong as they have in the twenty-six years of my life, and especially in the last eight years, in the governance and leadership of the nation that is supposed to set a shining example of innovation, brotherhood, and liberty for the world, I feel it in the pit of my stomach. It's a gnawing, sick feeling, like a cancer that's growing, not inside myself, but in the greater extension of myself in the world as a whole. That's why I feel such ecstatic highs when it seems like something might go right for a change, when Barack Obama gives a speech, and why I crash to such tooth-grinding, sickening, wrathful lows when I think about what Dick Cheney has gotten away with or the absurdity of the idea of a goddamned young earth creationist being President of the United States.

In short, I am paying attention, and "outraged" doesn't really begin to cover it. "Enraged" is closer, and that's a problem - rage is not healthy. It makes blood pressure spike; stress hormones are dumped in the system; in general it cuts years off your life expectancy. And yet what else am I supposed to feel? I've been completely disenfranchised my entire life, not just by Bush and Co., but by a pervasive culture of shallow and dishonest politics. There has not, for example, been a single non-Christian candidate that I have ever had the opportunity to cast a vote for, because Christianity has become an important selling point to the disinterested, attention-deprived people of this nation. Christianity is used as a simple, easy-to-grasp package of perceived values and qualities that obviates the necessity to actually look at a candidate. So that disenfranchises the supposedly Constitutionally protected religious (and nonreligious) minorities in the US? So what? It's easy.

It goes on. Science is, by its very nature, complex and uncertain, and both of those words are almost literally poison in popular media today - the popular media through which the vast, vast majority of Americans and global citizens get their information. Attempting to introduce ideas which are too complex or too uncertain in Hollywood, the major TV networks, or any other mass media outlet will get you not just fired, but blacklisted, because that stuff is harder to sell to people who don't want to put in the effort to think about it. Not surprisingly, the end result of this is that the popular understanding and treatment of science in this nation whose prosperity has always rested on innovation is appallingly bad. This condition cannot persist, and already, in the current recession, we're feeling the first shocks of the coming bad times as our own sad, stubborn ignorance erodes away the underpinnings of our way of life, ironically enough in a way that is far too complex for most people to bother to understand.

I don't really know if there's a way to face these issues without being negative, angry, and very bitter. I try. I am not, deep down, a pessimist; I'm an idealist and a shining, hopeful optimist, who believes in the world promised by generations of practical philosophers and sagacious futurists. I believe we can realize human potential. I just don't know if we will, and most frustratingly, I don't know how I can help make it happen. All the tools are already here for us; I feel like I have a part to play, but no greater whole in which to play it. I want to make things better. I want the best world we can have for everyone, not just because I want my own jetpack and implanted wetware computer.

It's damnably frustrating to want to make the world a better place, only to be rebuffed by reality and told that your type ain't wanted around here. I struggle every day to find a way to stay involved and invested without succumbing to numbing, bittering anger. I know that for some people it seems to be possible, but I always have to question whether those people are really fully aware or whether they're accepting a certain amount of ignorance or denial in order to remain optimistic and functional. Take, if you will, Barack Obama; I have a great deal of hope for the man, but I know, I know that as a politician he is and must be a consummate liar, not only to others, but to himself. He is a contradiction, to me: a man who strives to be an agent of positive change and integrity who must submerge himself deeply in a politics of regressiveness and dishonesty in order to get where he needs to be. Can he make it through intact? I wish I knew the answer.

For myself, I must keep listening to the news and maintain my emotional investment. It's just a part of who I am. I hope that I can find a way to come out of it intact; more importantly, I hope that when the end of my life is near I can look back and actually see a positive, forward trend in human society over the span I lived. I'm no great leader, no Augustus, no Bismarck, no Franklin Roosevelt, so I can't singlehandedly make that happen; and it's hard to rely on a world that seems so stubbornly resistant to becoming better with any sort of efficiency. It's hard to want to do a good job in your role as a tiny cog in a great machine when you care deeply about what that machine does but aren't anywhere in its control apparatus.

But we'll see, I guess. Maybe if I tackle that depression things will look brighter. Maybe if Barack Obama comes through this election in good shape I can start thinking about the next century without going apoplectic. Maybe if I stick with it and do damned good science I really will be able to make a difference of some significant sort. I really don't know. But that's life, right? You don't know.

Boy, for someone who touts the virtue of uncertainty, it certainly took me a long time to arrive at that.