Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Very Cool Space Shuttle pic

I know, the machine is antiquated and has a bad track record. But it's such an amazing thing. And the image makes a very nice wallpaper.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Myth of the 'Vegetative State'

I'm against pulling the plug on people who appear to be dead, just because it's convenient. Not because of religious objections—for religious I am not, as my readers should have figured out by now—but because in my book, if there's any 'right' that we ought to grant to others is the 'default' right, if you will, to live. Death should only be inflicted on those who really, honestly and truly do not have a chance to ever recover anything resembling consciousness.

That the default-situation. There will be exceptions, but pulling plugs is not an acceptable default option. It is, however, becoming just that—as anybody with more than two neuron connected together should have figured out when they started making this kind of thing socially acceptable.

Now there appears to be evidence that this practice is killing people in pretty horrific percentages. Which could also have been predicted—and I did. When I voiced this—and I soon gave up, because there's no point trying to talk to people who don't want to listen or to know—it was poo-hoohed, as such things usually are. And, no, I didn't voice it to religious people, but to those claiming to be at least agnostic and definitely 'rational'.

I know, I know. What kind of quality of life do these 'vegetative state' people have? What kind of life can they ever have? And should resources really be allocated to those in such states, when the same resources might be applied to save those who have a real hope to live and to live what we might judge to be 'full lives'?

Well, maybe. But methinks that argument is already halfway down a slope so slippery that there's really no way to ever turn back.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Fire Storms In Australia

After weeks of scorching temperatures the ever volatile Victorian bush, with its oil-rich fuel reserves, exploded. Firestorms—literally 'storms'!—driven by already 'stormy' winds and started, occasionally, deliberately by human beings, swept across serene suburbs.

Many of its hundreds of victims either didn't even get a chance to leave, or were caught on the road and burned in their cars as they were trying to flee to safety.

Click here for an extensive image gallery of this disaster.

Australians responded spontaneously and as well as they could with donations, ranging from blood, to material goods, to monetary donations that may eventually reach the $AU 100 millon.

If you, dear reader can spare any cash at all, in whatever currency you happen to use, you can contribute on the Australian Red Cross site, using your credit card. It has been pledged that no cent of any donation made here will go to 'administration', and that everything will go directly to the victims or the rebuilding of their lives.

I don't usually do 'appeals', but this is an exception in exceptional times.

I'd also like to remind all that you don't need to be a soldier to be a professional hero. The firefighters and other Emergency Services people who are still putting their lives on the line as I write this—because the fires aren't over yet!—probably do this driven by much the same motivations that caused Trooper Donaldson to make some very serious decisions about what is important and what he needed to do.

Maybe death is not as imminent or certain for most, or nearly all, of those, battling the flames in Victoria, but these people, plus all the volunteers that are helping and putting themselves potentially similarly into harm's way, deserve our utmost respect and gratitude.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Trooper Mark Gregory Donaldson

On a different note to the somewhat depressing tenor of my last blog, here's something about a man and actions taken by him that you'd normally expect to see in military action flicks, like The Unit TV series, Tears of the Sun, or, somewhat more 'realistically' perhaps, Black Hawk Down.

But, no; it seems like this isn't fiction. I know that hearing of bravery on the battlefield will instantly turn some people off. They'll dismiss it for any number of reasons, almost all of which would better qualify as rationalizations. Because, just like hearing about the death of someone who matters to us in some way—or at least enough, for us not to just be able to dismiss it as a non-event—hearing about someone else exposing themselves, probably knowingly, to the risk of highly or apparently utterly certain death...that implicitly asks a question, which few of us will be willing to acknowledge, let along try to answer: Would I be similarly brave?

Or 'gallant', as it's sometimes called; a word that's pretty much fallen into disuse, and which would be found much more likely in the works of, say, Georgette Heyer, than in everyday discourse. And maybe this is a better term for it—because it has fallen out of use and therefore out of abuse. For words are like micro stories, in the sense that they possess narrative content, given to them by the context in which they appear through semantic extension. As such, 'gallant' has certain connotations that make it appealing because of its antiquated nature, and despite the fact that, if it is used at all 'on the street', it would be in the sense of 'gallantry' applied by men toward women—which, you must admit, isn't only unfashionable in the vast majority of societies aorund the world, these days, but in some instances will be considered inflammatory or insulting.

Back to the original subject. The truth is—as it has always been, but probably has become more so today, having found a myriad rationalizations by urbanized humankind—that few of us, very few!, are even capable of the kind of act for which Trooper Donaldson was cited for the highest military honor that can be bestowed within the nations of the 'Commonwealth'.

I can hear some cringe at reading something couched in those terms—if for no other reason, but that it makes them embarrassed. Said embarrassment could come from the notion that the Victoria Cross is awarded to those displaying exceptional courage 'in the face of the enemy'. And some would object that even thinking in term of 'enemy' devalues the decoration, and by implication the act for which someone might have been decorated; if only because the valor of the person in question is decreased because he or she thought of someone else as 'enemy'.

But 'enemy' is another one of those words that lives through the attached narrative. In its most parsimonious meaning-provided-by-context, an 'enemy' is someone—usually a person or persons, but quite possibly something more abstract...let me think; maybe 'stupidity'? that could be a definite 'enemy' and it is, for a great many people!—who wants to do you and yours harm. Now, while I sympathize with the 'civilized' way of looking at things and trying to figure out ways to make an enemy less inimical by using 'rational' approaches, there are times and places, and they aren't really as rare as many would claim, that 'reason' needs to take a backseat to expediency, and that the only 'reason' which applies is the one that says 'Fixing things is not within the scope of the dead' or something like that.

I do, however, suspect that the true source of embarrassment when people read the excerpt from the citation of the Trooper Donaldson's award below, is that they know, or at least suspect or maybe even fear, that, were they called upon to perform an equivalent act of gallantry, that would truly put their own precious lives into some serious harm's way, they would be incapable of stepping up to the challenge. And what easier and expedient way to devalue or make trivial someone else's accomplishments than by denigrating his or her framework of existence. And yet, at the heart of it all, I smell the stench of envy.

And here's the true and bitter irony of this: many of these people—and this is something unprovable, though there's ample evidence that it is true—are actually capable of the same level of...well, let's stick to 'gallantry' as Trooper Donaldson, though they're living in circumstances that will make it far less likely that they'll ever have to prove it. While others probably think they would be—and they're not likely to. This is usually the way of things.

Until we are tested, most of us will never know. Some of us have the good fortune to be tested and to survive and to make things better. Others will be tested and also make things better, but at the cost of their lives. And yet others will be tested, lose their lives and their sacrifice will be in vain. It appears to me that Trooper Donaldson is not only a gallant and brave soldier, but also a very, very lucky man.

As are we all—if only we saw this for what it is—because what happened demonstrates that gallantry need not end in tragedy, even though it often does.

On 02 September 2008, during the conduct of a fighting patrol, Trooper Donaldson was travelling in a combined Afghan, US and Australian vehicle convoy that was engaged by a numerically superior, entrenched and coordinated enemy ambush. The ambush was initiated by a high volume of sustained machine gunfire coupled with of rocket propelled grenades. Such was the effect of the initiation that the combined patrol suffered numerous casualties, completely lost the initiative and became immediately suppressed.

It was over two hours before the convoy was able to establish a clean break and move to an area free of enemy fire.
In the early stages of the ambush, Trooper Donaldson reacted spontaneously to regain the initiative. He moved rapidly between alternate positions of cover engaging the enemy with 66mm and 84mm anti-amour weapons as well as his M4 rifle. During an early stage of the enemy ambush, he deliberately exposed himself to enemy fire in order to draw attention to himself and thus away from the wounded soldiers. This selfless act alone bought enough time for those wounded to be moved to relative safety. The patrol was forced to conduct numerous vehicle manoeuvres, under the intense enemy fire, over a distance of approximately four kilometres to extract the convoy from the engagement area.

Compounding the extraction was the fact that casualties had consumed all available space within the vehicles. Those who had not been wounded, including Trooper Donaldson, were left with no option but to run beside the vehicles throughout.
During the conduct of this vehicle manoeuvre to extract the convoy from the engagement area, a severely wounded coalition force interpreter was inadvertently left behind. Of his own volition and displaying complete disregard for his own safety, Trooper Donaldson moved alone, on foot, across approximately 80 metres of exposed ground to recover the wounded interpreter. His movement, once identified by the enemy, drew intense and accurate machine gun fire from entrenched positions. Upon reaching the wounded coalition force interpreter, Trooper Donaldson picked him up and carried him back to the relative safety of the vehicles then provided immediate first aid before returning to the fight. On subsequent occasions during the battle, Trooper Donaldson administered medical care to other wounded soldiers, whilst continually engaging the enemy.

Trooper Donaldson's acts of exceptional gallantry in the face of accurate and sustained enemy fire ultimately saved the life of a coalition force interpreter and ensured the safety of the other members of the combined Afghan, US and Australian force. Trooper Donaldson's actions on this day displayed exceptional courage in circumstances of great peril.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Israel and 'Palestine' — Keaen and Tergan

One of my reviewers, not really in the spirit of paying me a compliment, called Keaen a 'political novel' and accordingly convoluted. For those of you—most of you I'd guess—who haven't read the novel or its sequels, it's probably informative to mention that the parallels between the Israel-Palestine thing, at least in some aspects, are stunning. Not that I planned it that way. I had a completely different narrative thing in mind, and these aspects of similarity between the kingdoms of Keaen and Tergan, and the parallels with the worsening Mid-East situation, were quite incidental, though now they are steeped in bitter irony, especially when considering this rather depressing article in the NYT.

In connection with this, it might be an idea to also to have a look at this and this article, both of which should give pause for thought—or not, depending on one's political inclination.

Of course, the political issues in the Valley were ultimately resolved, mainly because those in power were somewhat more benign, intelligent and less uniopic than those in power in the real world, but what the heck? Mine was a story. This happens to be real. As are the victims of the whole affair.

The only question—by no means as easy as the world seems to think—is: whose victims are they?

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Movies You'll Watch Again - and Those You Probably Won't

I finally managed to catch a flick called Hot Fuzz the other day. I laughed and chortled and chuckled at all the right places. The spoof factor was high, and if you know about schlock horror flicks there's more in-jokes here than you can throw a stick at. The producers, directors, actors and everybody and sundry probably had a lot of fun making it, and so that's good. If you're not having fun making a movie, or are at least feeling good about it in some significant way, why bother—except for making money, which is a definite reason for many.

When Hot Fuzz was done, chortles and all—and many people I know think this flick is very, very funny indeed, and they watch it as comfort-movie; you know, when you're doing the ironing or having to sort out accumulated papers and such like—it occurred to me, and don't ask me where that came from!, that I probably would not trouble myself to watch it again. That would be a waste of time.

One might argue that watching it once would then also have been a waste of time, and maybe it was. Indeed, I often decide whether to watch something at all using a 'waste of my time' basis kind of assessment. Lots of people do this. Like I have some dear friends who will simply not go and see Australia, because they feel this way about that movie.

Others are differently disposed and will go and see a movie, or read a book, or visit an art exhibition or a concert, with what Bob Seger ('Fire Inside') might have called—and I transpose the words for the sake of narrative flow here—"the open minds [of] dilettantes", just because they think they ought to. They'll usually also finish books that really don't appeal to them, just because they think that that's the 'done' thing or they ought to or some crap like that. Like they owe the author anything. This whole issue reminds me of the 'Personal Message' at the header of the M'soft Messenger window of a colleague of mine: "If you don't stand for something you'll fall for anything." Indeed, indeed...

Anyway, Hot Fuzz wasn't so unmemorable that it wasn't worth watching once; butmore than once? Not for me, chickadee.

To watch something again—and again and again and again and...—there has to be, I guess, to be something in it that speaks to you and resonates, and keeps on resonating. Something that's not only familiar, but in a friendly, embracing kind of way; even if occasionally it's not necessarily 'comforting', because there may well be unsettling movies or books that one comes back to. This doesn't happen as often, and they may well end up on the book or video shelf as reminders of what one has seen/read and maybe one day will want to revisit again; and to have the freedom to revisit it, not just by being able to get it from a rental store or library, but by actually having it at one's fingertips on the shelf, right there, sitting, staring at one, waiting.

All right! I admit, I have no idea where this whole discussion was going, and so I'll finish it. I guess it was just about sharing some stray notions of what's worth spending time on; if any. And why. Though, of course, I have no idea why—most of the time I really don't. I guess it's just all about narratives that wave into one's own, possibly to the extent of becoming part of one's own narrative fabric, so that by revisiting them repreatedly one strengthens that fabric—for whatever reason.

And for a different set of reasons, others just will not be allowed in there. They are and remain 'external'; something we watch with some kind of fundamental detachment, and though we may appreciate some aspects of them, they'll never become 'ours'.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Hearing With Your Face

Here's an excerpt of an article that sheds even more light on the twisted ways in which all sorts of factors interfere with our cognition.

Whenever I read something like this, it reminds me how fragile this whole cognition business is, and how little we can actually rely on not being hoodwinked by context and contingency. Yet we all implicitly believe the rote "If I can see it and hear it and smell it...then I'll believe it's real." or something along those lines. Yet together with Loftus's research into false memories, this kind of research seems to leave most of the pillars of our hold on 'reality' up for grabs. What is real and what is confabulation?

As far as this particular issue is concerned, consider that it may imply for the potential distortion in perception occasioned by starting to say something, or even twitching to say something, even while someone else is speaking. What does it mean to really 'listen'?

Hearing With Your Face

The movement of facial skin and muscles around the mouth plays an important role not only in the way the sounds of speech are made, but also in the way they are heard according to a study by scientists at Haskins Laboratories, a Yale-affiliated research laboratory.

"How your own face is moving makes a difference in how you 'hear' what you hear," said first author Takayuki Ito, a senior scientist at Haskins.

When, Ito and his colleagues used a robotic device to stretch the facial skin of "listeners" in a way that would normally accompany speech production they found it affected the way the subjects heard the speech sounds.

The subjects listened to words one at a time that were taken from a computer-produced continuum between the words "head" and "had." When the robot stretched the listener's facial skin upward, words sounded more like "head." With downward stretch, words sounded more like "had." A backward stretch had no perceptual effect.

And, timing of the skin stretch was critical perceptual changes were only observed when the stretch was similar to what occurs during speech production.

These effects of facial skin stretch indicate the involvement of the somatosensory system in the neural processing of speech sounds. This finding contributes in an important way to our understanding of the relationship between speech perception and production. It shows that there is a broad, non-auditory basis for "hearing" and that speech perception has important neural links to the mechanisms of speech production.