Friday, November 20, 2009

Holiday movies should Uplift, not Depress

Christmas-time movies have been rolling out since before Halloween, echoing the tinsel and snowflakes prominent in the malls where multiplexes rule. I've seen two holiday releases; one is worth your investment and will leave you glowing with seasonal spirit; the other is depressing and, should you stupidly go to see it, will undermine any family holiday occasions with suspicion and dissatisfaction.

The one to miss is "Everybody's Fine," starring Robert DeNiro.  I seldom accompany my husband to screenings, since my criteria of no violence, suspense or slapstick only leaves a repertoire of romantic comedies.  But this was billed as a heartwarming story culminating with a happy Christmas scene, so I thought I'd take advantage of spending the evening with my man.

I should have known better.  On the way there, my husband said, "Any movie with Robert DeNiro in it is bound to be depressing."  Unfortunately, we were on the freeway, or I'd have gotten out immediately.

DeNiro plays a recent widower, pathetically lonely in his 1940's-style house; when all his far-flung adult kids cancel a reunion-at-home weekend, he sets off to "surprise" each of them with a visit.  In his travels, complicated by a respiratory problem caused by a career making PVC coating for telephone wires (a sappy theme--wires that communicate, versus his family that didn't), he discovers that for years his wife had conspired with the kids to spare him from family unpleasantries.

"Everybody's fine" was the euphemism that covered myriad long-festering problems.  You come out of the movie wondering who in your circle is hiding something; whether you've missed a deep-seated issue that you should have seen--and whether those you love who you think are doing well really aren't.
What a downer.

But across the hall at the multiplex is bound to be Disney's "A Christmas Carol," the 3-D animated masterpiece wonderfully faithful to Dickens' original story.  Jim Carrey offers all the malevolent timbre you expect from Ebeneezer Scrooge (he plays the three ghosts as well), and the magic of the animation takes you so close to his world that you can see every wrinkle on his miserly countenance was honestly earned.

Little kids might be spooked by the scary Christmas Yet to Come, but for those about age 8 up, the creative vantage-points (sometimes so weird they're a tad distracting) and roller-coaster-like glides (perhaps one too many) will enthrall.  The colors and detail will amaze, as will the exhilarating ending that every viewer knows so well. Finally, you'll leave with a new song in your heart, specially written for the film by Alan Silvestri.

I look forward to the holidays--twinkling lights, beautiful carols, Hanukkah parties...I much prefer to celebrate the closeness of my family, which is real and enduring, than sink in the dysfunction of others.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Coed Dorms Increase Risky Behavior? Maybe.

A new survey of 510 students at five geographically-diverse campuses reported in The Journal of American College Health says coed dorms dramatically increase the likelihood of collegiate binge-drinking and sex. As reported in USA Today, pupils in coed housing are 2 1/2 times as likely to binge-drink weekly, and nearly a third more likely to admit having at least one sexual partner in the last year.

As I read the story, I mumbled the statistician's mantra, "but correlation does not imply causation." Certainly those less inclined toward partying would choose the single-sex living situation, right? Apparently not; the study authors, Brian Willoughby, and his former professor Jason Carroll, both currently at Brigham Young University, say their findings "really caught us off-guard."  Plus, they say their "analysis controlled for potential selection effects," and that the colleges, not the students, made the housing assignments.

Maybe the result is an artifact.  After all, of the 510 students surveyed, only 68 lived in single-sex dorms.  But that's still enough for a potent statistical analysis.

Willoughby and Carroll's earlier work found that more than 90% of college housing is coed; their new study assumed that single-sex housing is the booby prize offered only after all the coed slots are filled.

Apparently, there's no getting around the fact that coed college living is deleterious.  Weekly alcohol binging (reported by 42% of coed dorm residents versus 18% of single-sex dorm residents) was most startling, but they found co-ed housing also correlated significantly with admissions of multiple sexual partners and use of porn. Even after controlling for the effects of age, gender, religiosity, personality and relationship status, "there was still something unique about living in a coed dorm that was associated with risk-taking," said study author Willoughby.

Then again...I have a daughter who lived in a single-sex dorm, and a second daughter who lives in a sorority. My sorority girl's house has rules about men's presence; definitely a chaste environment.  But you can't say that her type of single-sex environment deters or decreases drinking.  That daughter's currently writing a sociology paper on the phenomenon called "Thirsty Thursdays."

Still, I believe that many--probably most--women thrive in environments without the complications that sexual electricity can bring.  A government study of women-only colleges describes how such environments foster leadership and allow women to achieve in traditionally male-dominated subject areas more easily.

But the bottom-line truth is that women have a civilizing effect on men.  George Gilder said it years ago in his insightful Men and MarriageThe most disturbed and destructive segment of the population is single men. When they each commit to a woman and gain the responsibility of family, they move from selfish, sexual carpe-diem behemoths to dutiful, long-term-focused adults.  It makes sense that colleges would want women and men in the same dorms--usually on separate floors--to civilize the men there.

I'd postulate that if Willoughby and Carroll had looked at the differences in drinking, sexual promiscuity and porn use by gender, they'd find some not-so-surprising differences.  One comment on a report of the present study said colleges installed co-ed dorms to minimize damage to their facilities.  That makes sense. Just as guys together can create Animal House, guys tempered by women probably won't.

I don't think it's necessarily a good thing for women to have to share the same floor with men.  Proximity breeds familiarity, goes the maxim.  And it often takes more strength of character to hold to one's principles than to succumb to the lowest common denominator.  I mourn the loss of so many women's colleges, and wish that more than just 13% of college dorms were single-sex, to allow more freedom of choice.  But on the other hand, I don't know that this study is worthy of panic.  Much more troublesome is the nonchalance with which collegians accept alcohol use and abuse, whether in co-ed dorms or in the taverns of University Avenues across the land.

(The photo's from a Time article on the evolution of college dorms.)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Observations on the Coverage of the Fort Hood Terrorist

Just a few days short of Veteran's Day, an army psychiatrist, proclaiming "Allahu Akbar," goes on deadly jihad at the nation's largest military base, slaying 13 soldiers and wounding 29.  Everything I read calls Nidal Malik Hasan the "alleged" "shooter" (not murderer), or the "suspect," when dozens of eye-witnesses watched him in action.  If he had been taken out, (as surely he would have been if this occurred in Israel), would he be called the "alleged" shooter?  The "suspected" killer?

My favorite radio talk-show host distinguishes between this calculated attempt to kill as many soldiers as possible, and a "tragedy," which is news media's ubiquitous term for Hasan's rampage. The Fort Hood deaths and woundings were each enormous crimes.  Shakespeare wrote tragedies, in which characters, often due to personality flaws but never intentionally, fell or met their doom.  Tragedy involves destiny, the collision of events, an inevitably sad, but unplanned result.  The monster Hasan left a trail of behavioral and online breadcrumbs that should have led superiors to the devouring witch of Islamic fanaticism.

I'm annoyed when news outlets like the New York Times continue to elevate this premeditated murderer by using the title of Major.  My father advanced to the rank of Major in the army during World War II.  He served at many posts, one of which was running a prisoner of war camp in Anchorage, Alaska.  I grew up hearing his profound respect for the dedicated officers with whom he served, and of the efforts he made to achieve that rank.  Hasan the murderer no longer deserves the title of Major.  I think he should be called the Fort Hood terrorist.

And he is a terrorist.  I was flummoxed by early media stories insisting that Hasan wasn't one. But recently-uncovered associations and rantings now make his deadly agenda undeniable.  Still, few news outlets are willing to call the Dar al Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia, which Hasan attended in 2001 with three 9-11 hijackers, a well-organized, dogma-driven source of anti-American fervor. Oh, no.

John McCain did directly label Hasan's rampage "an act of terror."  In an Associated Press story that again "alleges" Hasan's culpability, McCain clarified to University of Kentucky students that it's clearly terrorist to kill one's fellow military on a base, motivated by "an extremist interpretation of an honorable religion."  Awk, even he can't stop pussy-footing.   Let's get this straight:  Hasan considered non-Muslims infidels and wanted them cowed; last week, he wanted them dead.

I took the time to read all 50 screens of the powerpoint presentation Hasan gave to a group of army doctors in June, 2007, when he lectured on Islam, instead of sticking to his assignment to discuss medical issues.  Aside from plentiful grammatical and spelling errors, the most notable aspect was the plethora of quotations that explained Muslim beliefs on reward and punishment, defensive and offensive jihad. Much is cryptic and requires explanation. The concluding slide recommends that Muslim soldiers be allowed the option of "conscientious objector" release from the military, "to increase troop morale and decrease adverse events."  And then, Hasan perpetrated a horrific "adverse event."

Veteran's Day is a time to celebrate those who served our country--who are alive to be appreciated.  On the eve of Pres. Obama's announcing the extent of additional troops to be sent to Afghanistan, we must renew our gratitude to the men and women and their families who continue to defend and protect us.

We who are so blessed to live in the United States chug along, heads down, thumbs poking our iPods and Droids, contemplating which t.v. program or movie to watch tonight. We are so spoiled. As the Fort Hood massacre reminds, life is fragile. One minute, one ideology, can change everything.

Monday, November 9, 2009

An Adventure on Seattle's New Light Rail

A gloomy Sunday in Seattle, perfect for a ride on our city's new Central Link light rail system, which opened to great fanfare on July 18 this year. After thirteen years of fits and starts and voters approving and then junking (three times) and then okaying and then resenting the $4.7 billion it took to open the 14-mile, 12-station train line, my husband and I wanted to experience it. 

The route goes from downtown Seattle to Tukwila, a town near SeaTac airport. A station close to the terminal is slated to open in December.  Projected daily ridership is 21,000 by the end of the year--the figures so far, though, show a slight decline from an August high of about 14,800. Given the extent of debt for its creation, Seattle might have dug itself into more than one kind of hole.

While it's a subway through downtown, Link rides above-ground through the lowest-income parts of town and industrial areas. Built with no parking whatsoever, riders are expected to walk, bicycle or bus to a station, with suitcases in tow, walk down three flights to tracks, and juggle luggage during the ride (cars have no racks).  At the last stop, airport-bound passengers must disembark, then find the bus that stops at the far end of the airport.

My husband and I boarded at the downtown terminus, Westlake, purchasing tickets ($5 per person) from a machine tucked at the top of a steep stairway.

We descended (there's no escalator down, only up) to find that buses and Link share the same two transit lanes. It wasn't clear where along the curb Link would stop, but after watching five busses pass, the sleek new trains noisily pulled up about 25 feet from where we stood.  We jumped on, settled into two seats in the nearly-vacant cars (which each hold 200), noticing an empty liquor bottle on the floor.  A young man at the end of our car proceeded to eat a sandwich, change his clothes and shoes, drink wine from a bottle, and then peruse his laptop computer before alighting.

At the first three stops, no one boarded, but at the next, a family entered, two parents and two little girls, one holding tightly to her mom's hand.  The elder girl, about 8, debated where to go, stepping out of the car--just as the doors closed.  The parents frantically pounded on the closed door as the train pulled away, their screaming daughter running alongside, falling behind as the car accelerated.

At the next station, just three minutes away, the family jumped off; the conductor announced that the parents of a girl left behind at the previous station should return, an easy task as the opposite-direction train would arrive just a few feet away.  Clearly, this little drama would end happily, and we could return our attention to the now-visible outdoor scenery.

As the train wobbled and bumped nauseatingly, a panorama of dilapidated homes, graffitti-splashed warehouses, cars on cinderblocks, cheek-and-jowel-stacked "affordable" condo construction, strip malls with signs in unknown Asian languages, treeless avenues, paved lots of service vehicles and semi-trailers defined the view.  This was a Seattle I hadn't considered, a broken-down town with none of the sophistication, energy and intellectual dynamism of, say, Ravenna, Magnolia, Fremont, Queen Anne, Greenlake, Capitol Hill--all  neighborhoods pulsing with character and style.  Central Link light rail takes passengers through the seamy, sometimes necessary but gritty fringes scrambling to maintain.  I thought about vacationers, flying to Seattle to see the sights, traveling from the airport balancing their rolly suitcases on their laps, forming their first, mistaken impressions of a city sad and decrepit.

Still, the ride was exhilarating.  I'm a closet anthropologist; seeing how others live, glimpsing their backyards; passing by loading docks, distribution centers, diners with uneven neon, storefront churches, all excite me.  I loved every moment.  It was at least 40 minutes since we left downtown, but it blinked by, and soon we arrived at Tukwila.  End of the line. I snapped a few photos as the 4 pm sun slanted beneath the gray blanket of clouds, suddenly brightening the miles-around view from the elevated station.  Trees were yellow with autumn, Cascade foothills outlined dark behind.  A handful of passengers boarded the two connected cars equipped to hold 400, and soon we were on the return ride, back past the graffitti, the sprawling assembly and dissemination plants, the urban ticky-tacky condos. So much to notice, largely bleak and unattractive but nonetheless compelling.

Just $5 for an afternoon's fascination.  But the junket convinced me that light rail is a complete waste of taxpayer money.  The smattering of customers, each of whom is subsidized about $130 per ride, could have taken a bus, probably much more conveniently.  No official checked to see if we'd actually purchased a ticket; I wondered, given their torn clothing and odors, whether two riders had actually paid.  Supposedly, stubs are randomly checked, but we never saw a conductor on any of the trains we rode or passed.

Everyone knows that light rail is a financial disaster. I can't find any instance where publicly funded rail lines have made a profit. Rather, they serve a political agenda--to eliminate private autos and ultimately, independent travel. It's part of a larger worldview that promotes leveling the field--eraticating differences between people based on wealth and achievement.  Often camouflaged as an effort to promote environmental causes, the crusade against cars and for mass transit really seeks to quash anything that differentiates and individualizes people and their choices.

I can understand that classic subways, like Manhattan's or Paris' are necessary--they serve cities built before cars, urban sprawl and suburbs.  But west-coast towns, like L.A., San Francisco and Seattle burgeoned because of the automobile; trying to reconfigure these cities to light rail is like trying to cram toothpaste back in the tube.

I certainly enjoyed my jaunt today on Seattle's downtown "tube." It was cheaper and lengthier than a ride at Disneyland.  Unfortuntately for taxpayers, like the attractions at the Magic Kingdom, Link light rail is also built on fantasy.  No one wants to give up his car to take four times longer and pay perhaps double or triple, with much greater inconvenience.  Even friends who, in principle, support light rail admit they don't use it.  Every time I drive by the Mount Baker Station on Rainier Avenue, which I do often, I search the station for activity. Usually there's no one, either walking near the station or on the trains. Once I saw an orange-vested maintenance man.

Seattle just elected Mike McGinn its new mayor, by a super-thin margin.  His primary promise is to expand light rail; he worked to block new suburban roads. He's a Sierra Club officer and rides his bike to work.  Though he'll rationalize Link's poor performance and lack of customers, sanity may still prevail.  Given the cost over-runs and delays inherent in building light rail (Central Link is the most expensive such project in the nation, ever), he'll long be out of office before the next segment can break ground.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Why God Made Naked Mole Rats

I've always been a fan of naked mole rats.  It's true; I've been known to drag friends to our Seattle Science Center so they can join me going ga-ga over these absolutely bizarre and awesome--as in causing true awe--creatures.  So I was delighted to find one of my favorite mammals in the news again, this time helping humans avoid cancer.

A new article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, covered by the New York Times, explained why these hairless, nearly-blind, eusocial 3-inch-long burrowers who eat their own poop and live up to 28 years never get cancer.  Apparently it's because they, like us, have a cancer-inhibiting gene called p27kipl that kicks in when cells are invaded.  But those queer Eastern-African Heterocephalus glabers, whose teeth are outside their lips, and who can nearly turn around their bodies within their floppy skin, have a first-level defense, an additional gene, p16ink4a that repels cancer upon immediate contact.  It's discovery of that extra cancer-fighting gene that interests scientists and made news.

But naked mole-rats are worthy of fanclubs for many of their astonishing characteristics.  For example, scientists are also trying to glean how it is that the tunnelers don't feel pain when exposed to acids or hot chilis that cause torturous burning in every other creature.  Apparently mole rats lack a neurotransmitter, but weirder yet, according to National Geographic News, "The researchers also found that nerve connections in the naked mole rat's spinal column are different than those of any other animal."  Once they figure out the unique mole-rat nervous system, they can adapt it to spare humans chronic or post-operatic pain.

But that's not all.  They're also teaching us how we might combat all sorts of deadly conditions caused by lack of oxygen. Naked mole rats, while mammals, are cold-blooded, but have no means (like perspiration or fever) to maintain body temperature. They spend virtually their whole lives in close underground quarters, in earth so compact they've evolved so they can function beyond 14 hours in just 3% oxygen (our air has 21%).

They live in colonies averaging 75 (but up to 300) members, all with well defined roles. There's the queen, who, after vanquishing all challengers, grows the space between her vertebrae so she can churn out four or five litters per year of up to 27 pups each, with her three hunky consorts. There's the support crew, who tends the young. There are egalitarian male and female soldiers, who rush forward when they whiff a predator (usually a snake) and fight him off, shoving dirt in his face, clawing at him, and occasionally, for some altruistic souls, sacrificing themselves.  Then there are the workers, who use their tusk-like pairs of incisors (that move separately!) to make miles and miles of tunnels, replete with turnouts, latrines, nurseries, mess halls and communal bedrooms, all in search of food.  They talk, by the way, with chirps, and when a digger hits pay dirt, he returns to wave a chunk of his find, chirping loudly to summon the others to retrieve the bounty.

They find their sustenance by luck, and have been known to unwittingly burrow mere inches from a juicy target. Cuisine for a mole-rat is tubers, those fat roots of plants in the Sahara, where it may not rain for years, selflessly shared by all.  Mole-rats do not drink, and host special symbiotic bacteria and protozoa who help them digest tough fibers.  They carefully gnaw out only the inside of the tuber, so it can regenerate, thereby feeding the commune for years. Which is a good thing, because food can get mighty scarce, and when it does, the mole rats drop their metabolisms by 25%, from already half that of a regular rodent--perhaps one reason why they live ten times longer than a mouse.

If they can survive lean years, and never get cancer; if they can dig a mile-long labyrinth in three months, if they can fight off predators and maintain social order--how do other colonies get established?  After all, naked mole rats, called "sand puppies" by native Africans, are rife, with a conservation status of "least concern."  It turns out that even in mole-rat colonies, a few square pegs may not fit in the round holes.  Research by biologist Justin O’Riain of Cape Town University found that a few fatter and lazier ones get wanderlust, heading topside and journeying by night as far as a mile to find a similarly-inclined mate to start a new colony.

I'm not sure what we're supposed to learn from that, but it's Jewish teaching that we are to learn about God and about human behavior from animals, and naked mole rats seem to have plenty of messages to share.

If you, like me, are captivated by naked mole-rats, you'll love this Smithsonian zoo site, and want to peek at the naked mole-rat cam.