Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Remembering Kristin Lodge-Miller

During 1993 and into 1994, I drove every morning down Estes Drive in Chapel Hill. My attention was often drawn to a pile of flowers I would see there, near Phillips Middle School. I say "pile" rather than "arrangement" because they appeared to have been tossed there by people walking by. Every once in a while it would look like someone had spruced it up a bit, making it more into an arrangement. But every day the display got bigger and bigger.

I knew what that was about because I was reading the Chapel Hill Newspaper. On July 15, 1993, a jogger was gunned down at that spot. Her name was Kristin Ann Lodge-Miller. She was 26 years old, and she worked as a speech therapist.
Her killer was an 18 year old student at Chapel Hill High School. Anthony Georg "Tony" Simpson was known as a very troubled young man. He was riding his bicycle and carrying a concealed .32 caliber handgun. At around 6:00 AM on a busy street, Simpson assaulted Lodge-Miller on the jogging trail, and got pepper-sprayed for it. Enraged, he pulled out his handgun and shot her 5 times. This he did in daylight in front of many witnesses. The 5th time he shot her was in the back of the head as she lay dying. He was arrested almost immediately afterward.

Since then, artificial flowers, sometimes in baskets, sometimes casually tossed by people walking by, and at least one styrofoam cross, appeared on or near that spot. It was interesting to watch it grow every day. As shocking as it was to know that such a crime of senseless violence could occur in such a peaceful town, it did my heart good to see that people cared enough to make a shrine for her.

Every day for the rest of that year, the pile of flowers kept on getting bigger. Then one day, when it was decided that the jury for Simpson's trial should be taken to see the scene of the crime, the whole display was removed. It was supposed that the jurors shouldn't see that, though I didn't really understand why. It was said that it might somehow "bias" the jury. I thought it made a pretty good statement.

I was hoping the flowers, baskets, crosses, and other memorabilia would be saved and put back after the jury completed their tour, but I was told it all got trashed. This made me sad, but I noticed another display had begun soon afterward. In time, it too became pretty large.

It was early the following year that the trial was concluded. Not a single person I knew was happy about it. The killer pleaded guilty. The charges were reduced to second degree murder. Why? Because the killer was provoked by his victim's attempt to defend herself. As you can best believe, it seemed the whole town was outraged.

I was pretty upset myself, and was compelled to add a basket of flowers to the new display. It seemed to me that it was the Orange County Rape Crisis Center who took issue with this more than anyone else. There is now a permanant marker on the spot, and on a nearby tree, courtesy of the OCRCC. They have an office across the street from there, next door to Amity Methodist Church.

It is now 14 years later, and there was a renewed interest in this case when it was announced that Tony Simpson would be eligible for parole. It looks like he didn't get it. A recent Google search on the name "Kristin Lodge-Miller" didn't show much in results. I was disappointed I couldn't even find the old newspaper stories I've read before. But I did find two articles by Dennis Rogers with the News and Observer, that I thought were quite relevant. One is dated Dec. 11, 2002, and the other May 10, 2003. I have sent an e-mail to Dennis Rogers asking for permission to post them here, and I am still awaiting his reply.

My friend Joy works as a volunteer at the Rape Crisis Center, and I support her efforts whole heartedly. Violence against women is not just a women's issue to me, but a citizen's issue. I get the feeling there is a lesson to be learned here that we haven't learned yet.
Does anyone else feel that way?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Remembering Sept. 11, 2001

Today is September 11, 2007. This is an anniversary of a day I will remember the rest of my life. In honor of this historic date, I have selected the following by Richard Dawkins. -- BW --

Religion's misguided missiles

Promise a young man that death is not the end and he will willingly cause disaster

Special report: terrorism in the US

Richard Dawkins

Saturday September 15, 2001

A guided missile corrects its trajectory as it flies, homing in, say, on the heat of a jet plane's exhaust. A great improvement on a simple ballistic shell, it still cannot discriminate particular targets. It could not zero in on a designated New York skyscraper if launched from as far away as Boston.

That is precisely what a modern "smart missile" can do. Computer miniaturisation has advanced to the point where one of today's smart missiles could be programmed with an image of the Manhattan skyline together with instructions to home in on the north tower of the World Trade Centre. Smart missiles of this sophistication are possessed by the United States, as we learned in the Gulf war, but they are economically beyond ordinary terrorists and scientifically beyond theocratic governments. Might there be a cheaper and easier alternative?

In the second world war, before electronics became cheap and miniature, the psychologist BF Skinner did some research on pigeon-guided missiles. The pigeon was to sit in a tiny cockpit, having previously been trained to peck keys in such a way as to keep a designated target in the centre of a screen. In the missile, the target would be for real.

The principle worked, although it was never put into practice by the US authorities. Even factoring in the costs of training them, pigeons are cheaper and lighter than computers of comparable effectiveness. Their feats in Skinner's boxes suggest that a pigeon, after a regimen of training with colour slides, really could guide a missile to a distinctive landmark at the southern end of Manhattan island. The pigeon has no idea that it is guiding a missile. It just keeps on pecking at those two tall rectangles on the screen, from time to time a food reward drops out of the dispenser, and this goes on until... oblivion.

Pigeons may be cheap and disposable as on-board guidance systems, but there's no escaping the cost of the missile itself. And no such missile large enough to do much damage could penetrate US air space without being intercepted. What is needed is a missile that is not recognised for what it is until too late. Something like a large civilian airliner, carrying the innocuous markings of a well-known carrier and a great deal of fuel. That's the easy part. But how do you smuggle on board the necessary guidance system? You can hardly expect the pilots to surrender the left-hand seat to a pigeon or a computer.

How about using humans as on-board guidance systems, instead of pigeons? Humans are at least as numerous as pigeons, their brains are not significantly costlier than pigeon brains, and for many tasks they are actually superior. Humans have a proven track record in taking over planes by the use of threats, which work because the legitimate pilots value their own lives and those of their passengers.

The natural assumption that the hijacker ultimately values his own life too, and will act rationally to preserve it, leads air crews and ground staff to make calculated decisions that would not work with guidance modules lacking a sense of self-preservation. If your plane is being hijacked by an armed man who, though prepared to take risks, presumably wants to go on living, there is room for bargaining. A rational pilot complies with the hijacker's wishes, gets the plane down on the ground, has hot food sent in for the passengers and leaves the negotiations to people trained to negotiate.

The problem with the human guidance system is precisely this. Unlike the pigeon version, it knows that a successful mission culminates in its own destruction. Could we develop a biological guidance system with the compliance and dispensability of a pigeon but with a man's resourcefulness and ability to infiltrate plausibly? What we need, in a nutshell, is a human who doesn't mind being blown up. He'd make the perfect on-board guidance system. But suicide enthusiasts are hard to find. Even terminal cancer patients might lose their nerve when the crash was actually looming.

Could we get some otherwise normal humans and somehow persuade them that they are not going to die as a consequence of flying a plane smack into a skyscraper? If only! Nobody is that stupid, but how about this - it's a long shot, but it just might work. Given that they are certainly going to die, couldn't we sucker them into believing that they are going to come to life again afterwards? Don't be daft! No, listen, it might work. Offer them a fast track to a Great Oasis in the Sky, cooled by everlasting fountains. Harps and wings wouldn't appeal to the sort of young men we need, so tell them there's a special martyr's reward of 72 virgin brides, guaranteed eager and exclusive.

Would they fall for it? Yes, testosterone-sodden young men too unattractive to get a woman in this world might be desperate enough to go for 72 private virgins in the next.

It's a tall story, but worth a try. You'd have to get them young, though. Feed them a complete and self-consistent background mythology to make the big lie sound plausible when it comes. Give them a holy book and make them learn it by heart. Do you know, I really think it might work. As luck would have it, we have just the thing to hand: a ready-made system of mind-control which has been honed over centuries, handed down through generations. Millions of people have been brought up in it. It is called religion and, for reasons which one day we may understand, most people fall for it (nowhere more so than America itself, though the irony passes unnoticed). Now all we need is to round up a few of these faith-heads and give them flying lessons.

Facetious? Trivialising an unspeakable evil? That is the exact opposite of my intention, which is deadly serious and prompted by deep grief and fierce anger. I am trying to call attention to the elephant in the room that everybody is too polite - or too devout - to notice: religion, and specifically the devaluing effect that religion has on human life. I don't mean devaluing the life of others (though it can do that too), but devaluing one's own life. Religion teaches the dangerous nonsense that death is not the end.

If death is final, a rational agent can be expected to value his life highly and be reluctant to risk it. This makes the world a safer place, just as a plane is safer if its hijacker wants to survive. At the other extreme, if a significant number of people convince themselves, or are convinced by their priests, that a martyr's death is equivalent to pressing the hyperspace button and zooming through a wormhole to another universe, it can make the world a very dangerous place. Especially if they also believe that that other universe is a paradisical escape from the tribulations of the real world. Top it off with sincerely believed, if ludicrous and degrading to women, sexual promises, and is it any wonder that naive and frustrated young men are clamouring to be selected for suicide missions?

There is no doubt that the afterlife-obsessed suicidal brain really is a weapon of immense power and danger. It is comparable to a smart missile, and its guidance system is in many respects superior to the most sophisticated electronic brain that money can buy. Yet to a cynical government, organisation, or priesthood, it is very very cheap.

Our leaders have described the recent atrocity with the customary cliche: mindless cowardice. "Mindless" may be a suitable word for the vandalising of a telephone box. It is not helpful for understanding what hit New York on September 11. Those people were not mindless and they were certainly not cowards. On the contrary, they had sufficiently effective minds braced with an insane courage, and it would pay us mightily to understand where that courage came from.

It came from religion. Religion is also, of course, the underlying source of the divisiveness in the Middle East which motivated the use of this deadly weapon in the first place. But that is another story and not my concern here. My concern here is with the weapon itself. To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used.

Richard Dawkins is professor of the public understanding of science, University of Oxford, and author of The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, and Unweaving the Rainbow.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Why we make fun of Miss SC

I think we ought to give Miss Teen South Carolina a break.

It was quite a phenomenon I've observed, how quickly the videos have been submitted to YouTube since the story first came out in the news. It seemed like everyone was getting in line to make fun of her.
Today, the 1st of September, I find YouTube has a considerably large collection of videos on the subject of what a stupid blonde ditz she is. I admit I found some of them to be really funny, and I was even compelled to read some of the comments made. The comment that most got my attention was on how we have taken advantage of the fact that it's a lot safer to make fun of a person who is white, especially if she is female and blonde.

I believe the reason blonde jokes have become so popular is because it is no longer PC to make fun of ethnic groups, as my generation has had so much fun doing while we were growing up.
As Kris Kristofferson says, " Cuz everybody's gotta have somebody to look down on" (Jesus was a Capricorn)

But if we want to make fun of someone for being stupid, I think we ought to shift our focus a little bit. What about the 1/5 of Americans who can't find the USA on a world map? Does that seem to bother anyone as much as it does me?

We were so busy laughing at Miss SC, that no one appears to be trying to answer the question she was asked, except as another joke.
Why is it that 1/5 of the American people (that's 20%) cannot find their own country on a map?
Had someone asked that question of me, I'm not sure I could answer it either, though I'm more inclined to blame poor education rather than a shortage of maps.

Still, I'm sure we need to find the answer to that question.
I consider this a wake-up call for us.