Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Groundhog Day

As I write this, it is only a week until Groundhog Day. That's right, only 7 more shopping days before that furry creature pops his head out of the ground and tells us if we can put our winter coasts away.

We don’t have a beaver day or a raccoon day or even a bald eagle day. So why does the groundhog get a day of his own, not to mention a Hollywood movie starring Bill Murray?

The groundhog's day is February 2. Granted, it’s not a federal holiday; nobody gets off work. But still, to have a day named after you is quite a feat. But what is special about the groundhog?

It stems from the ancient belief that hibernating creatures were able to predict the arrival of springtime by their emergence. The German immigrants known as Pennsylvania Dutch brought the tradition to America in the 18th century. They had once regarded the badger as the winter-spring barometer. But the job was reassigned to the groundhog after importing their Candlemas traditions to the U.S. Candlemas commemorates the ritual purification of Mary, 40 days after the birth of Jesus.

Candlemas is one of the four "cross-quarters" of the year, occurring half way between the first day of winter and the first day of spring. Traditionally, it was believed that if Candlemas was sunny, the remaining six weeks of winter would be stormy and cold. But if it rained or snowed on Candlemas, the rest of the winter would be mild.

If an animal "sees its shadow," it must be sunny, so more wintry weather is predicted: The groundhog and badger were not the only animals that have been used to predict spring.

Other Europeans used the bear or hedgehog, but in any case the honor belonged to a creature that hibernated. Its emergence symbolized the imminent arrival of spring.

Traditionally, the groundhog is supposed to awaken on February 2 and come up out of his burrow. If he sees his shadow, he will return to the burrow for six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t see his shadow, he remains outside and starts his year, because he knows that spring has arrived early.

In the U.S., the “official” groundhog is kept in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Every February 2, amid a raucous celebration early in the morning, “Punxsutawney Phil” as the groundhog is called, is pulled from his den by his keepers, who are dressed in tuxedos. Phil then whispers his weather prediction into the ear of his keeper, who then announces it to the anxiously-awaiting crowd. Of course, this is for show.

It’s a fun celebration and a great tradition. But Phil's keepers secretly decide upon the "forecast" in advance of the groundhog's arousal.

Besides, spring always arrives on or near March 21, so whether the groundhog decides to return to his den or remain above ground, the sad fact is spring will always have to wait at least six more weeks.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Religion vs Spirituality

Some people need religion. Others don’t.

One problem I’ve always had with religion is that the various religions and denominations of religions have become “mega-cliques.” Those who need religion and have chosen one tend to think everybody needs it, and that their chosen religion is the right one.

But religion is not a one-size-fits-all garment. Not everyone’s needs are the same, and those disparate needs cannot all be met by the same religion. That’s probably why there are so many.

I have recently had sort of an epiphany with regards to religion and God. No, God didn’t “speak” to me as others have claimed. And I didn’t run into a burning bush or get struck by lightning.

I contemplate a lot about religion. And there are a few things I’ve figured out. For one thing, I think the world, as a whole, would be better off today if religion had never existed.

Granted, religion provides a lot of comfort and hope for a huge number of people. So it can’t be all bad. People need comfort and hope. Some also need the social aspects of religion – meeting in church each Sunday morning and attending other church-related social events.

But if socializing were all religion was about, there are other ways to accomplish the same thing. What people really need is not religion, but spirituality. There is a difference.

Spirituality can also provide comfort and hope. Spirituality can bring people together; religion often tears people apart. Did God really intend to be the cause of more wars and loss of life than any other single reason?

I learned a long time ago that I don’t know what God thinks or how He works. Neither does anyone else. The problem with religion is that its subscribers believe they have it figured out and that everyone else should listen to them.

Religion also lends itself to the concept of worship. We gather together to worship God in church.

The epiphany I mentioned above is this: God doesn’t want people to worship him. He wants people to love him, to respect him, and to acknowledge his existence. But worship is a man-made creation. It is not divine.

I say these things knowing full well that I have already stated that I don’t know what God thinks. But it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me that God would have created beings for the express purpose of worshipping him. Is he that egomaniacal and vain that he would have to create an entire species of life to worship him?

If you are a parent, do you want your children to worship you? No, you want them to love and respect you. You want them to grow up to be high achievers. You want them to be successful, but to always remember that you helped them over the hurdles of life.

Maybe God just wants the same thing for us all. He allowed us to evolve intelligence. It would only make sense that he wants us to develop it and use it, not to live our lives based on millennia-old biblical superstitions.

We are the only animals capable of understanding ourselves. We are the only ones who can contemplate our own mortality.

For that reason, centuries ago, people needed to comfort themselves about their mortality. So they invented religion. The ancient pagans invented various and sundry gods that were in charge of different aspects of their lives. They invented worship.

Those who chose to believe in the God of Abraham picked up on the worship aspect of religion from those pagans. And, throughout the centuries, styles of worship evolved into the various sacraments of Christianity.

The bottom line is that religion and worship are human inventions. Neither will grant anyone a pass into whatever afterlife there may be.

Spirituality, on the other hand, which is the most deeply personal form of faith, is what may bring our souls closer to everlasting peace and comfort. At the very least, it could bring peace on earth, something that religion has failed miserably to do.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Extending Life

One of my favorite lines of dialogue in a TV show or movie took place in the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Data, the android, was escorting Doctor Leonard "Bones" McCoy down the hallway of the starship while making casual conversation about the doctor's extreme age. He was 132.

After Data mentioned his age, Bones uttered one of his characteristic acerbic remarks, which prompted Data to ask if the subject of his age was troubling to him. Bones then replies, "Troubling? What's so troubling about not having died?"

When the oldest people on record seldom live beyond the ripe old age of 120, someone in his 130s may seem quite ancient. But the voyages of Star Trek are supposed to be taking place more than 300 years into the future. It struck me that Bones, at 132, should certainly have been thought of as a senior citizen, but not as particularly noteworthy because of his age.

I would hope that, by then, people will routinely live 150 to 200 years, perhaps longer. After all, life expectancies are gradually inching upward and have been every decade for at least 100 years.

The aging process has always fascinated doctors and scientists. Why do our bodies deteriorate as they age? After all, we grow a whole new set of cells every few months, so it's not like our bodies are composed of the same cells we had when we were born. The cells themselves mature, age, die, and are replaced. So why does the body as a whole deteriorate?

Some research has pointed to a likely culprit in the aging process: free radicals. These are the nasty remnants of the body's metabolic processes, the waste products of living that accumulate in our tissues and wreak havoc on our system.

They will combine with almost any tissue they come in contact with, altering it in the process. They destroy tissue, cause cancer, and are generally rather destructive. And there is nothing that can prevent their manufacture in the body as by-products of our metabolism.

There is, however, a way to "mop them up" before they can do much damage. Scientists have learned that the ingestion of substances known as antioxidants can react with these free radicals and allow them to be harmlessly excreted from the body.

Research involving roundworms shows that the life spans of these tiny creatures can be easily doubled by injecting them with powerful antioxidants. And they don't seem to simply live longer, but they seem to remain active during their extended maturity, too.

Of course, it is quite a leap from the lowly nematode to a human being. But the science is still the same. It should also, theoretically, work with humans.

The time may not be too far off when we can, if we choose, take a pill a day to extend our lives well past 100. And there is no reason to believe that those future centenarians will be feeble. Extending life does not necessarily mean extending the feeblest time of life. It may mean extending that period of life we call middle age. Being old and feeble will last no longer than it already does, it will just be pushed several years into the future.

It's true that there are negative aspects of extending the human life span. The earth is already becoming overpopulated. Making it possible for humans to routinely live to be 150 or 200 years old will probably aggravate the overpopulation problem. But that is something to be addressed separately. No matter how old we live to be, producing only two children per couple will still produce a stable population.

At any rate, I certainly am willing to give this life-extending technology a try, should it ever come to fruition. I want to live long enough to see if we can ever really develop Star-Trek-style matter transporters. I've always had a fear of flying. But once the technology is perfected, I might could stand to be "beamed."

Monday, January 17, 2005

Adding Machines

I had eaten lunch at a Steak ‘n’ Shake restaurant the other day when I noticed a mistake on the ticket. The waitress had charged me full price for my shake, even though I was supposed to have gotten it at a reduced price with a platter combination.

I told her about the mistake and she apologized and asked me to tell the cashier before I paid the ticket.

When I was ready to check out, I informed the young lady at the cash register about the mistake and she seemed a little puzzled. She had to call her manager over to explain how to subtract the extra amount charged.

I watched as the manager showed her the steps. The instructions went something like this: “First you push this button to let the computer know there’s a coupon. Then push this button for the shake and then push here to get the right price for a platter shake. Then let’s go back and take off the wrong price by pushing here and then here.” Huh?

It’s no wonder the employee didn’t know what to do. It would take weeks of training to learn the intricacies of the Steak ‘n’ Shake cash register.

As most people who read this column know, I love technology and computers. But in some cases, what is meant to make our lives faster and easier just makes them much more complex.

Return with me now to those less than thrilling days of yesteryear when restaurants and grocery stores were equipped with adding machines. That’s right; they had adding machines, not computers, to figure out your bill.

Of course, even in my youth, most supermarkets had electrically-powered cash registers. The old Jay-C store, when it was located in the building that is now the police department, had cash registers with electric motors. When the cashier pushed the large “add” button, the motor would spin and whir and the price of the item would mechanically pop up on the display.

And if she made a mistake, she would just key in the price again and push the subtract button.
Shelby Avenue Market had an even lower-tech adding machine. As a neighborhood kid, I bought most of my goodies (and sold most of my pop bottles) at the store we just called “Ralph’s.”

But when we bought multiple items, Ralph would enter the price of each onto the keypad of his adding machine, and then he would pull a crank that made the gears in the machine add the price to the previous price. To get the total, he would hold down on another button and pull the lever at the same time.

In Elmer Rice’s play called “The Adding Machine,” set in the 1920s, there is a dispirited accountant named Mr. Zero who fantasizes about adding machines of the future. In it, he dreams he might one day, “sit in the gallery of a coal mine and operate the super-hyper-adding machine with the great toe of my right foot.”

It wasn’t being operated by anyone’s toe, but the very first time I saw an electronic cash register that allowed the cashier to push a button with the name of the item on it instead of having to key in the price was at, yes, Steak ‘n’ Shake. It was sometime in the mid-1970s in Indianapolis.

I was surprised and quite impressed with this new-fangled “super-hyper” adding machine. It even printed out what I had ordered on my receipt.

Of course, these days, nearly all stores have code-reading laser scanners to read the prices. And the receipts have all the details anyone might need, include the item name, the date, time, who your cashier was, and how much you saved with coupons. I’m surprised they don’t tell your fortune as well.

They are great pieces of technology for the consumer. The trouble is, unlike the old adding machines, they have a pretty big learning curve for the people who have to run them.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Textbook Disclaimers for Evolution

Back in 2002, the school system in Cobb County, Georgia mandated that a sticker be placed inside the cover of all biology textbooks. The stickers say, “This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.”

Last Thursday a federal judge told the school district to remove those stickers. The judge ruled that it was yet another attempt by the state to denigrate the scientifically proven theory of evolution and to promote alternative religious theories of creation.

While the stickers do not specifically mention alternative “theories” to evolution, the judge correctly determined that it clearly was meant to isolate the theory of evolution as somehow undeserving of the same respect mustered by other scientific theories.

He said, “While evolution is subject to criticism, particularly with respect to the mechanism by which it occurred, the sticker misleads students regarding the significance and value of evolution in the scientific community.”

If you disagree with that statement, just think about this. Why did the school district not order similar disclaimers for all other scientific theories? The sticker says that evolution should be “…approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.” But isn’t that good advice for pretty much everything?

Should chemistry students not carefully study and critically consider the atomic theory? Should physics students approach the quantum theory with any less care and critical consideration?
No, evolution was singled out as the only theory that should be approached with caution. And the reason is obvious: Evolution theory tramples on the dogma of fundamentalist Christians. And Georgia is full of them.

So is Alabama, which mandates a similar sticker. That state has no plans to remove its dubious disclaimers, despite this latest ruling against the back-door encroachment of fundamentalism in the public schools.

Now, I’ve written on this topic enough to know that if someone believes in a literal six-day creation of everything in the universe by God, then nothing I say is going to change his mind. That’s not my intent.

I realize that most fundamentalists wouldn’t recognize the real theory of evolution if it crept out of the primal muck and bit them on their collective asses. Let's just say they know just enough about it to be dangerous.

My point is that even if I, myself, believed in creationism or intelligent design, I would still oppose placing such stickers in textbooks or teaching creation in schools as an alternative “theory.”

That’s because I know creationism is not a scientific theory. Evolution is. And even if there remains some controversy over its exact mechanisms, it still is a full-fledged, bona fide scientific theory that has withstood the test of time and scientific scrutiny.

Since students are supposed to learn about science from science textbooks and in science class, then it seems excruciatingly obvious that evolution must be a part of that curriculum, whether it tramples one’s personal religious beliefs or not.

The judge is simply reaffirming this notion, as have many other judges before him.
Of course, there are those who insist that evolution itself is nothing more than a belief. But this notion is truly absurd. Science, by definition, has to be neutral and impartial.

Certainly, some scientists have pet hypotheses that they like to see confirmed by observation or experiment. But if, in the end, the hypothesis doesn’t pass scientific scrutiny, then it has to be either modified or abandoned.

One of Charles Darwin’s contemporary’s, Thomas Huxley, once stated, “The great tragedy of science is the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” It’s the nature of science.
The theory of evolution has withstood the tests of 150 years, and it is far stronger now than it was when Darwin proposed it. It certainly deserves its spot in biology textbooks, undiluted by spurious disclaimers.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Answering Machines

Most people own one, but most people hate it when other people use theirs. What is it? The dreaded answering machine.

It’s the device that created the modern phenomenon of “phone tag,” when you call someone and leave a message on their machine but then, when they call you back, you’re not home, so they leave a message on yours. It sometimes goes on like that for days.

And, although they are not as ubiquitous as they once were, those “amusing” messages people leave can be a little annoying. A few years ago, a big seller on TV commercials was the cassette tape that came with several humorous voice characterizations. But really, when all you want to do is leave a message, you really don’t feel like being entertained by lame impressions.

But answering machines do serve a very useful function, which is why most people have one of the contraptions. Americans truly do have a love-hate relationship with their telephone answering machine.

It wasn’t always like that, of course. Back in the 1970s, almost nobody had an answering machine. Even most businesses didn’t have one, except the movie theaters.

I was probably one of the first individuals to own one. And when I bought my first one, it was against the telephone company’s rules to install one, making them virtually useless unless you broke the rules.

Of course, I had no qualms about breaking telephone company rules back then and I slept perfectly well after having broken them. I wired my new high-tech gadget directly into the phone line in my apartment and it worked wonderfully. (The telephone installer actually showed me how to wire it – unofficially.)

I tried going the “legal” route. I called the phone company to find out about installing one on my phone line. They actually sent a couple of representatives out to my house to discuss the ins and outs of telephone answering machines and to show me a line of products. But the monthly charge for their use was in the hundreds of dollars.

So I elected to buy my own, for a one-time cost of about $150 at L. S. Ayres. It was their cheapest model and consisted of a miniature reel-to-reel tape recorder. Radio Shack had a cheaper model, but it was junk.

Eventually, the phone company standardized their jacks and plugs and started allowing people to connect their own equipment to the phone lines. Answering machines became more readily available. More and more people started buying them. You can buy one today for about $25 or less with far more features than my old reel-to-reel model. Most don’t even use tape anymore, but record your voice electronically.

The modern counterpart of the answering machine is voice mail. It’s really the same thing, except you don’t have to buy the equipment. Just pay a small monthly fee and the telephone company keeps track of your messages for you.

I tried voice mail, but decided that having an answering machine met my needs more economically. But there are no cute messages on mine, just the standard greeting. I don’t even bother telling people to wait for the beep anymore, because answering machines are so common, there’s no one out there who doesn’t know what to do when they get one on the other end of the line.

“Hello. This is me. Please leave a message.” Beep!

Friday, January 07, 2005

Technology in Schools

It’s become almost a cliché, businessmen and women darting around all over the country carrying there tiny notebook computers, cell phones, and personal digital assistants. Then there are the kids. It’s long been known that young people tend to assimilate technology into their lives better than their parents.

Most businesses incorporate computers and technology into nearly every aspect of their daily workings, and today’s employees know they must adapt or seek employment in what few low-tech fields remain.

Unfortunately, there is one American business that remains far behind the average in making use of computers and technology. It’s the business of education.

A government report says that schools lag far behind much of society in incorporating technology. Education secretary Rod Paige said that training and understanding about how computers can be used to help students is still lacking.

In the National Education Technology Plan, Paige said, “Education is the only business still debating the usefulness of technology. Schools remain unchanged for the most part despite numerous reforms and increased investments in computers.”

Nearly all American schools are connected to the Internet. But many teachers still lack the skills necessary to incorporate it into their daily lesson plans, or in using it to communicate with parents.

Colleges are ahead of elementary and secondary schools in the assimilation of technology into the daily flow of information. For example, Franklin College is well wired. It uses the Internet, or its own intranet, to facilitate nearly every aspect of campus business.

Professors still teach students face to face in the classroom, of course. But the Internet is used to make assignments, give and grade tests, distribute grades, and communicate with students when they’re not in class. Students, in turn, use campus computers or their own computers connected to the campus network to research their assignments, write their reports, and submit them to their instructors.

For at least the last 10 years, it has been technologically possible to almost eliminate paper from the classroom. But in that period of time, the use of paper has actually increased. E-mail is used more and more to facilitate communication between teachers and administrators. But, teachers find it hard to let go of paper documents. The first thing many of them do when they receive an e-mail is to print it out on paper.

Indianapolis Public Schools introduced its IPS Online system this year. It is an integrated online system that allows teachers to keep track of daily attendance, grades, and reports. It can be used to communicate with parents and to post assignments.

Yet the only thing it is typically used for is to keep track of attendance. Few teachers and administrators use the more powerful features of the system.

Ideally, computer technology could be used to replace bulky textbooks and student notebooks. Teachers could issue all classroom assignments via the school’s network. Students and parents could access these assignments at home, where the students could complete them and submit them to be graded, all without paper.

Schools often say they lack the money for technology and training, but the government report essentially rejects that idea. Money for technology can come from reallocating existing budgets and basing all spending decisions on whether they support learning.

It seems logical that the institutions charged with providing the best education possible to America’s youth would be ahead of the curve in matters of technology. Ironically, they are behind the students they teach in many cases.

A few schools are meeting the challenge. A handful of schools are now replacing printed textbooks with laptop computers containing the digital counterparts. Some schools are even issuing laptop computers to all students in the system.

Eventually, it will be commonplace for students to be issued laptops instead of textbooks. Teachers will no longer use blackboards or overhead projectors; they will use electronic drawing pads, capable of sending information directly to the student’s computer. And all assignments will be made and graded online. Communication among faculty, parents, and administrators will be done online.

Unfortunately, all that should be commonplace by now. Technologically, most schools are about 10 years behind where they ought to be.