Wednesday, October 26, 2011

In Which I Discover My Future During English Class

"It's not that we need new ideas, but we need to stop having old ideas." - Edwin Land

We are currently reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in my English class. I love this book, but this post is not about the book. This post is about the man who wrote it.

My quote feeds have given me a lot of Mark Twain quotes over the past two years, and I've enjoyed all of them, but I hadn't really known all that much about him until we started this unit.

The conclusion now is that in about ten years, I am going to travel back in time and marry him.

The reasoning:

  • Mark Twain's wife's name was Olivia. My name is Olivia.
  • Her family was from New York. My family is from New York.
  • According to the Wikipedia entry, through her he met  "socialists, principled atheists, and activists for women's rights and social equality." That describes my friends pretty well (we're going to ignore the logistics involved in getting all of them back in time too).
  • She was well-educated, and while I haven't been to college yet, I'm a bit ahead of most 19th century women.
  • She was his primary editor, telling him when he was going just a bit too far and doing some of the more nit-picky work. This is how I edit.
Also, their first date was to an event at which Charles Dickens was doing a reading.

So there you have it. I am sorry to inform all of you that apparently I died in 1904. Also, I got some darn good plastic surgery because that woman doesn't look anything like me. If I suddenly disappear off the face of the earth, look through everything Mark Twain ever wrote, because I'll be leaving secret messages for you. ;)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

In Which I Speak At A Library

"We relish news of our heroes, forgetting that we are extraordinary to somebody too." - Helen Hayes

The round-table writing discussion I was invited to co-lead took place today. There were maybe 15 people there, about half of which knew either me or my co-presenter. She took the self-publishing-and-market-your-book-around route, and I'm in the "still stubbornly going for traditional publishing" boat, so it was pretty interesting.

Except on the library website the event was titled "TEEN WRITERS EXPLAIN IT ALL!"

Man, if I could explain it all, I'd have a 6-figure publishing deal and be on the NY Times Bestseller List. Well actually, I'd have reached enlightenment and have better things to be doing, being a Buddha and all.

We each talked for a bit about how our novels came to be, and I wrote a bunch of links on the board (Alexandra Sokoloff's plotting advice blog, Figment, CreateSpace, NaNoWriMo, and the Writing Excuses podcast), and then people asked us questions. It was fun and it was weird and my co-presenter was really nice. (Apparently we had both looked each other up online this morning, which was funny. And we have multiple mutual friends. Here's the link to her book if you want to read it.)

And then halfway through I started coughing and couldn't stop because I've been sick all week and am not entirely better yet. So I was practically useless after that, but at least the nice librarian ladies had given us water. (Nice librarian ladies are the great heros of this world.)

Monday, October 17, 2011

Justice does not require the recognition of animal rights

“If I were dropped out of a plane into the ocean and told the nearest land was a thousand miles away, I'd still swim. And I'd despise the one who gave up.” So said psychologist Abraham Maslow, creator of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, as he illustrated the extent of humanity’s passion for life. Because I would be swimming right next to Maslow, I negate the resolution.
I would like to begin with two definitions. “Require” means to need in the sense of a pre-existing condition, such as in that a mass-produced T-shirt requires a factory in which it can be made.
Justice, regardless of any other specifics, is a construct. Its contents are determined by the collective agreement of all those capable of taking part in such a discussion, and therefore on Earth is currently a construct derived directly from humans.
Until such a time when justice can exist independently of humanity, then, I value the existence and welfare of humankind.
In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow introduced a hierarchy of human needs, more commonly known as Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs. The pyramid begins with physiological needs at the base such as air, food, water, and sleep, the next level emphasizing safety and security, before moving up to love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Maslow’s pyramid is commonly accepted in the realm of psychology, and I am therefore using it as my value criterion with which to measure progress toward the value of human welfare and, since it measures levels of needs, human existence as well.
My thesis, then, is that justice does not require the recognition of animal rights because animal rights have no bearing on Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs for existence and welfare.
Contention One: Animal rights must be ignored in order for justice to begin to exist.
All organisms instinctively favor the existence and survival members of their own species above that of others. Nature itself is shaped by this unshakeable bias, and few motivations are more powerful. It is what drives us to find food and water at any cost. It is what drives us to mate. It is what drives us to fight back.
In short, it is what drives us to fulfill the needs of the first level on Maslow’s Pyramid: breathing, food, water, sex, and sleep. While humans do have the agency to fast or abstain on an average day, we as a species are utterly at their mercy in the long run. In times of famine, we will do whatever is necessary for the survival of ourselves and those in our immediate families--both biological family members and artificial ones, such as close friends. At whatever cost, we will eat.
In such a basic, desperate situation, one does not have any concern for what is right or what is fair. There is only what will get us food, and what will not.
Only after we have fulfilled our Level 1 physiological needs can we bother with higher-level concepts such as justice. Only after we know we’ll have food for the foreseeable future can we care about the lives and pain of the animals we hunt. There are no vegetarians in a starving world.
If animal rights were taken into consideration at the beginning of the trek up Maslow’s pyramid, no one would have ever risen above the first level, and justice would not exist. Therefore, justice does not require the recognition of animal rights, because animal rights can only be recognized after justice has already been established.
Contention Two: The recognition of animal rights may be desirable, but it isn’t necessary.
Many people value the rights of animals. However, when worst comes to worst, those people will still ignore those rights in order to fulfill their Level One needs. While most of today’s world has climbed to the level of the pyramid in which justice may exist, if such a time comes in which we need to begin disregarding the rights of animals once more, we will.
For these reasons, I negate the resolution.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Resolved: Justice requires the recognition of animal rights.

"A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out." - Walter Winchell

The debate tournament was yesterday, and I received an honorable mention for winning 3/4 of my rounds, which means I was either 7, 8, or 9 out of 24. The entire day was so much fun, and my team did really well (one girl was 1st in my event, one set of partners was 6th in theirs, and another girl took 3rd in humorous interpretation even though there were two other people performing her same piece).

I'll post my pro case today, and then the con tomorrow. Next month's resolution is "Resolved: Individuals have a moral obligation to assist people in need," and any thoughts for either side are welcome.

Affirmative Constructive:
Humans and chimpanzees share 98% of the same DNA. Chimps can use sign language to communicate with humans, and are even capable of using objects as symbols for more abstract concepts and then placing these symbols in order to convey messages. In short, chimpanzees can write. Dolphins are farther away from us in terms of genetics, but are listed by the Discovery Channel as the second most intelligent species on the planet. Elephants, the fourth, can empathize with each other--an ability which is considered one of the highest forms of intelligence.
Humans may be the most sophisticated creatures on the planet, but we are not the only intelligent ones, and we are not the only ones with the capacity for pain, love, lies, and even culture. For this reason and others, I affirm the resolution.
For clarity, I would like to define “animal rights” as “rights, as to fair and humane treatment, regarded as belonging fundamentally to all animals,” and “humane” as “inflicting as little pain as possible,” as supported by Merriam Webster and the World English Dictionary.
The context of the resolution asks for us to evaluate the requirements of justice with regard to a specific issue, therefore I value justice.
Justice, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, is “the maintenance or administration of what is just,” or actions and laws in accordance with what is merited. Suffering is only merited when the victim has done something wrong rather than when there is a simple lack of meritorious actions, and therefore my value criterion is that justice can be measured by the amount of undeserved and/or unnecessary suffering undergone by a given entity or group.
My thesis is that justice does indeed require the recognition of animal rights, because to ignore them is to allow unnecessary unmerited suffering, and that is certainly unjust.
Contention One: Insofar as a given species has similar capacities as humans, its members should be treated in a similar fashion.
Sub-point A: To discriminate on the basis of species when all relevant characteristics of the two species are the same is akin to discriminating against groups of humans on the basis of an arbitrary trait such as race.
Different breeds of animals are not treated differently, because while they may have different appearances and aptitudes, they are all, at heart, the same-- much as how no race of humans is inherently better than another.
In the same way, species above a certain level of genetic complexity are all treated with the same amount of respect. If a corporation is willing to factory farm one species, they are unlikely to have qualms about doing the same to another, just as an entity acting with consideration to one species on principle will act similarly in regard to others.
Here in the United States, our justice system operates under the assumption that humans have been “endowed with certain, unalienable rights,” and if we are to follow this type of thinking to its logical conclusion, in all of the ways that a given species of animal is on par with humans, those animals should be treated with the same respect and thoughtfulness as would be given to humans whenever possible.
Some governments are already taking action to rectify this ethical dilemma. In 2008, the Spanish parliament passed legislation declaring that since apes are humanity’s closest relatives, experience such emotions as love, fear, jealousy, and anxiety, and even lie to one another, they also deserve the rights to life, freedom, and protection from experimentation. Both Great Britain and New Zealand also forbid experimentation on primates.
If we are to discriminate against lifeforms with similar levels of sophistication based on a few traits arbitrary to the situation, there is no reason to stop us from doing so to other humans. This lack of justification demonstrates flawed moral logic. Not only does this treatment of animals cause them unnecessary and unmerited harm, but it also does them a disservice in terms of sensible fairness.
Sub-point B:  Non-human animals can and do suffer from some of the same mental dysfunctions as humans, and therefore these mental conditions should be taken into consideration when decisions regarding wayward animals are made, just as they are with humans.
According to Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain by neuroscientist David Eagleman, in 1903, an elephant named Topsy killed her three handlers at Coney Island, thirteen years later in a similar case, another elephant named Mary killed her keeper, and on August 20, 1994, a circus elephant named Tyke gored her groomer, trampled her trainer, and attacked her publicist. Topsy was electrocuted by Thomas Edison, Mary was executed in the world’s first and only elephant hanging, and Tyke was shot 86 times by policemen before she collapsed.
All three of these elephants were previously extremely well-behaved and never showed any sign of violence toward the humans with which they interacted, yet all were murdered without concern for their pain tolerance.
Such behavior was clearly not in the natures of any of the three elephants. According to Eagleman, something happened within their brains to set them off similar to the inexplicable motives behind the crimes of the mentally ill. Elephants are intelligent animals to the point that they are capable of being successfully trained to understand what behaviors are acceptable, and which are not. Therefore, they should be granted the same amnesty as humans in cases involving mental dysfunction if doing so would not put any involved humans in immediate danger. To do otherwise would be to inflict unnecessary, unmerited suffering, and would therefore be unjust.
Contention Two: Since inhumane treatment of animals is necessary for neither human survival nor human safety, it is unmerited suffering, and hence unjust.
A prime example is the way in which corporate hog factory farms function. Sows are considered a useless waste of resources if they are not either pregnant or nursing, and are not given breaks in which to recover in-between pregnancies. After being impregnated, they are confined to crates which are so small that they cannot even turn around. With no bedding in sight, many develop painful sores on their shoulders and knees. These pigs, who are normally very clean creatures, are forced to live surrounded by their own waste.
The air inside the containment facilities is filled with dust, dander, and gases from the animals’ waste. This puts the human employees at high risk for five different serious respiratory diseases, not to mention the pigs themselves who live in that environment 24/7.
Life is even worse for the piglets, who are subjected to mutilations such as tail-clipping and ear-notching without anesthesia before being taken away for fattening. A full tenth of these piglets die before they are three weeks old, and those who don’t are slaughtered at 6 months when they reach 250 pounds.
In addition, over 80,000 hogs die each year simply from overcrowding during transport. Why don’t the owners load fewer hogs onto each truck? Because it saves them 25 cents per pig.
These hogs have not done anything to warrant such treatment, and it is neither necessary for our well being nor for our consumption of the animals. If they are treated well while alive and are killed humanely with concern for their well-being, then they would no longer be the victims of unmerited suffering, and our corporations would be able to say that not only are they a successful company, but they are also a just one.
For these reasons, I affirm the resolution, and I now stand ready for cross-examination.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

An Entire Nation Left Behind

"The past is really almost as much a work of the imagination as the future." - Jessamyn West

In January of 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which set nation-wide goals for testing, test scores, and qualification levels for prospective teachers. Although I was too young to understand or care about the legislation at the time-I only noticed the new poster hanging on the wall near the office-these are the sort of ideals I can really get behind, since I believe effective, widespread education to be one of the most important initiatives for any and all levels of government to pursue. The general public seems to agree with me, as education is one of the United States’ few socialized systems-not even health care has anywhere near the same level of public funding.
However, the Act contains two fundamental problems, the first being the emphasis on proficiency rather than growth, and the second being the failure to provide for academically gifted (AG) students. As a participant in the AG program, I have suffered from both of these shortcomings. The system needs incentives to help students at all levels grow to reach their full potential.
While the goal of a publicly-funded school system is to bring the general populace up to a standard of knowledge, the purpose of education is to increase that knowledge. Schools located in high-income areas tend to have larger populations of higher-achieving students, but these students aren’t necessarily learning very much per year, while utterly fantastic schools in lower-performing areas go unrecognized even if their students are learning in leaps and bounds, because their test scores aren’t as high as the Act would like. Funding for reading assistance (“Title 1”) programs is only given to the schools that show adequate proficiency- the schools whose programs already work. In addition, this focus on performance rather than growth inevitably leads to teaching only what will be on the test rather than exploring the full richness of each topic, which leaves no room for curiosity.
The second problem is so deeply ingrained that even the name of the act is clearly focused on keeping the bottom students from being left behind instead of providing schools with incentives to help all students grow to their maximum potential. The AG teacher at my elementary school was relegated to teaching out of a closet due to the school’s focus on fulfilling their Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) minimum requirements in order to avoid losing funding.
Since a country’s children are its future, our education system must have significantly more ambitious goals than those outlined by this Act. Even as no child is left behind, our nation itself is falling further and further behind relative to other leading countries.
We must improve the system in the following ways. First, the AYP framework must be redefined around progress rather than pre-existing aptitude, and provide incentives to encourage AG students in the form of greater funding for advanced programs in schools with higher proficiency scores. This encourages AG students to maximize their potential while simultaneously ensuring that the funding being given to deserving schools is being used in a manner that befits the reason for which the money was initially given. Lower performing schools can surpass their AYP minimum goals if they are encouraged to focus on real learning and the growth of all of their students. Furthermore, the system must provide monetary incentives to allow the lower performing schools to attract more/better teachers. If every child is learning in leaps and bounds, we won’t have to worry about anyone getting left behind.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Procrastinating **cough** I mean, blogging

"Never express yourself more clearly than you are able to think." - Niels Bohr

This Saturday is the first debate tournament I'm attending in which I'm actually debating. As of right now, there are only three pieces of paper in my Con binder: my two-page opening speech, and my only piece of evidence.

It's possible that I may have won the practice debate today with only that (in terms of arguments, although I'm still getting used to the actual form of the event, so I may have lost basically just due to being inexperienced). I've only had two practices so far, and we're just meeting on Thursday to go over our cases.

On the Pro side, I'm a bit more prepared, but I'm working on developing a set of blocks for Con, which are pre-written supports and counter-arguments not actually used in the opening speech. My opponent today (both of the other people in my event are very nice people, so I'm glad to have them to practice with) said she was caught completely off-guard by my chosen line of reasoning, so if I can keep my thoughts (and speeches) organized, I think I'll be good to go for Con.

The resolution is "Justice requires the recognition of animal rights," and I'll be posting both of my constructives (opening speeches) on here after the tournament. (And if you're wondering why on Earth I like my Con case better, you'll just have to wait and see how I tackled it.)

Meanwhile, I have an application packet for Governor's School to finish, the PSAT and an interest meeting for UNC tomorrow, an interview for a place in a series of youth leadership seminars and a friend's poetry slam on Thursday, and my school's play on Friday.

And what am I doing? Oh yes, I'm blogging. Smart.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

"I'm Not Dead Yet!"

"When unhappy, one doubts everything; when happy, one doubts nothing." - Joseph Roux

Nothing was set on fire today, but that was probably only because our principal came on the intercom at about 12:30 to announce that we were entering a Code Yellow Lockdown due to a bank robbery across the street. We stayed in 3rd period an extra 30 minutes before the police said it was definitely safe to go outside.

My principal is having an awesome week.

Prevailing rumors on the fire:

  • They caught the person who did it Monday
  • Monday and Tuesday were the same person (possibly a sophomore no one I know actually knows).
  • Five people made a pact to each set a trash can on fire on an assigned day of the week
  • Monday was a smoking accident, and Tuesday was just a copy-cat who thought it was funny
I guess it sounds like I go to school in a really bad neighborhood, but that's not actually the case. We just have a mall filled with businesses across the street and apparently one or more immature people who think arson is amusing. They're wrong--the only thing that's funny are the jokes we make about it while waiting for class to start.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


"Never be afraid to sit awhile and think." - Lorraine Hansberry

"Tact is the ability to describe others as they see themselves." - Abraham Lincoln

Two of my friends buy lunch at Dairy Queen every day, but there's no way I can afford that, so I bring lunch from home and go along with them. Yesterday as we were walking back to campus before last period, we see several hundred students milling around in the middle of the bus loop. Was it a fire drill? They usually had those first period.

We asked someone what was going on. Turns out there had been a real fire in one of the buildings. After the administration had determined it was safe, everyone who wasn't at lunch went back to class, and we wandered around outside for another ten minutes. Yay: less class. During afternoon announcements, our principal said someone had set fire to a trash can in the boys' bathroom, and there was a 100 dollar reward for any information.

Today as we're throwing away our trash, I make some joke about how "Haha, how much you want to bet there's been another fire?" It wasn't so funny when we returned to campus and saw another fire truck.

Boys' bathroom. Trash can. Different building.

I'm just glad this is happening while I'm at lunch in case something goes wrong and no one notices until things get out of hand. Not that there's much flammable stuff in the bathroom, but...