Newspaper Columns

'Asta Bowen's op-ed columns ran bi-weekly in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer from the dawn of perestroika to the Afghan invasion. Samples follow.

 

Rainforests and Apartheid (October 1989)

Educational Standards (May 1995)

Artificial Intelligence (June 1998)

One Deadly Fiber (May 1999)

 

 

 


Rainforests and Apartheid
October 27, 1989

            They want me to save the rainforests.  The notices come in the mail almost daily:  buy a T-shirt, join a club, take a tour of the tropics, or simply send money (any amount), and I too can help preserve the earth's precious rainforests.  Not long ago the cause-du-jour was apartheid, and instead of tropical T-shirts the offer was for record albums and human rights, but the message was the same:  the triumph of goodness somewhere in the world depends on me.
            The appeal is hard to resist.  Between flattery and guilt and the inescapable facts of the situation, only an utter nincompoop could read one of these and fail to be moved.  And yet there is something unproductive, even counterproductive, about this national preoccupation with faraway concerns.
            From a distance, rainforests are a one-sided issue:  save them.  Same with apartheid:  end it.  Distance flattens reality and makes it one-dimensional, so somebody else's troubles always seem a lot simpler than your own.  However you stand on apartheid or rainforests, chances are you can find their moral counterparts right in your own community.  The parallels may be hard to recognize, because the issues at home will seem far more complex and intractable (or alternately, less important) than the same issues a hemisphere away.
            You may find, if you look, that rainforests are not the only forests that need saving.  A few weeks ago I went to take a walk on a mountain I hadn't been to in a while.  To make a long story short, it was gone.  Blacktail itself was still there, dutifully holding up a TV transmitter and microwave installation, but the trees were gone.  The big, sweepy firs draped in moss were gone.  The little rugged alders were gone.  A whole breathing forest, the same forest where once you could find lion tracks on the way out that weren't there when you went in, gone.  Logged off.  To make a living there now, a mountain lion would have to put up a tent and learn circus tricks.
            Nor do I have to look very far to find social injustice on a par with apartheid:  it is about 20 miles away on the Salish-Kootenai Indian reservation.  Less than a great-grandmother ago, all the land and water and plants and animals in this region belonged to these people;  now they are expected to survive on cinderblock buildings and government stipends.  Just because the Kootenai are not on national news storming the county courthouse doesn't mean justice has been served. 
            North or south, the forests are victim to a conflict between short-term economics and long-term environment.  North or south, the dispossessed are victim to a ruling group's choice to protect its power rather than promote democracy.  We all know the old dictum about the log in our own eye and the splinter in somebody else's, and still we go on pestering the Brazilians about land-slaughter and the South Africans about democracy, because it is the perfect lightning rod for the pain we feel over the same problems that lie within our reach and yet out of our grasp. 
            When we wonder why apartheid seems so unreasonably entrenched, or environmental attitudes so cavalier in the southern hemisphere, we need look no farther than our own lives and choices.  Would I have stood in front of the first bulldozer on Blacktail Mountain as if it were Tiananmen Square?  Am I going to give my hard-won half-acre back to the Kootenai?  Probably not. 
            Considering that moral vision seems to be so much better at a distance, perhaps we should expand the dialogue with our southern neighbors.  In return for the wealth of our advice and assistance, maybe we should ask Brazil for its perspective on our problem of old-growth forests, and South Africa for a remedy to broken treaties. 
            The activists are right about one thing:  the triumph of goodness somewhere in the world does depend on me.  Where it is just happens to be a little too close for comfort.  

Copyright 1989, 'Asta Bowen

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Educational Standards
May 19, 1995  

            Every so often, we get another reminder that educational standards are on the skids.  One time it's a Carnegie report, next it's a tale of woe about some high school graduates who can't read.  This year's reminder comes in the form of an announcement from the Educational Testing Service--that academic holy of holies--that for the first time in over 50 years, it will change the way the SAT test is scored. 
            Under the new system, an average performance will be marked about 100 points higher than the same performance in years past.  The new scores, duly noted with an asterisk, can be compared to the old using a conversion chart.  It seems that SAT averages have dropped enough since 1941 that ETS needs to "re-center" the whole scoring system. 
            That SAT scores were on the decline was no secret.  That they had fallen enough to restructure the entire test is, however, news:  the kind of news that makes concerned citizens wring our hands in consternation.  Ironically, we hand-wringers have our own place in this downward trend.
            Educational standards didn't start falling last month, last year, or even in the last decade.  Ask your parents or grandparents:  if they got to attend school, chances are they remember requirements tougher than yours.  Each generation, it seems, is getting dumber than the one before. 
            In my case, there can be no doubt about it.  I am definitely dumber than my parents, and I've got the Chicago Examinations to prove it. 
            In 1937, some 3000 high school graduates took the three-day Chicago Examination, an entrance test to the city teacher's college.  Based on the results, my mother and father were among 120 hopefuls admitted to the three-year training program.  Some 50 years later I, too, joined the teaching profession, and had to pass a national teacher's examination (NTE). 
            Recently, I was looking at a copy of the old Chicago test that my father had saved.  First question, chemistry:  "If a substance is not changed chemically by heating, does this prove that it is an element?"  I flunked that page hands-down, and didn't do much better on the remaining 28.  For comparison, I obtained a few questions from a recent NTE booklet. 
            A math question from the Chicago exam:  "Reduce the following fraction to a mixed expression just as you would reduce 13/5 to a mixed number:  [4x2 - 6xy + 3y2]/2x-y."  A math question from the NTE sample:  "If today is Thursday, what day of the week will it be 120 days from today?  (A) Saturday, (B) Friday, (C) Wednesday, (D) Thursday." 
            An English question from the Chicago exam: "Discuss each of any two of the following works.  Consider each of the two, in so far as you can, as to its authorship, its subject matter, its general plan, its qualities of distinction, and the circumstances connected with its composition:  Pepys' Diary, Canterbury Tales, Boswell's Life of Johnson, Faerie Queene, The Rape of the Lock, The Forsyte Saga."  English from the NTE:  "The part of the word subterranean that means 'earth' is:  (A) ra, (B) ean, (C) sub, (D) terra."
            Have standards fallen?  Consider these questions from 50 years ago.  Botany:  "Define the following terms:  ovule, xylem, phloem, saprophyte, spore, thallus, rhizome, pollen, mycelium, fertilization."  Art:  (true or false)  "Raphael's painting, 'The Madonna of the Chair,' should be framed in a rectangular frame."  U.S. History:  "Tell about the formation of the cabinet and the beginning of political parties in Washington's administration."  Physics:  "Define index of refraction." 
            Chicago examinees answered a dozen or more such questions in each 90-minute period of the test.  I would be lucky to answer them if I had all day--and yet I sailed through the late-model teacher's exam in 1989.  In turn, a certain group of tenth-graders I know would protest that my standards are not ridiculously low, but impossibly high.  Between the SAT and the NTE it would seem that we are getting dumber, and our tests are getting dumber too, in which case granny's finger-wagging lectures have finally found their mark. 
            Then again, maybe dumbness is a kind of advantage these days.  We don't need Spenser's Faerie Queene to shop at K-Mart, and we don't need to know about King George in order to do exactly as the boss tells us.  We don't need higher math to run the remote control, or a college vocabulary to follow sound bites.  Unfortunately, the advantage of such ignorance lies not with us, but with those who would take advantage of us. 
            A profit-driven consumer state may not need an educated citizenry, but a Jeffersonian democracy does.  Whither standards?

Copyright 1995, 'Asta Bowen

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Artificial Intelligence  
June 26, 1998   

            I think it's time we had a little talk about the difference between computers and human beings. 
            This hasn't been a big problem on a day-to-day basis.  That is, I haven't seen too many cowboys sidle up to the video poker machine and offer to buy it a drink (at least not in the early part of the evening), and the literature on family dysfunction has not, as yet, broadcast case studies in which Mother mistakes little Tommy for a modem and tries to plug him into the Internet.  In a practical sense, most of us remain capable of distinguishing our own species from inanimate objects, even at distances of a hundred yards or more. 
            Where we get confused, it seems, is in the arena of competition:  specifically, where people go head-to-head against computers in contests of intellectual skill--and lose.  The first big take-down came in chess, when world champion Garry Kasparov finally lost to IBM's new and improved Deep Blue computer. The latest defeat comes in Scrabble, where the game's top two players teamed up to challenge Hasbro's "Maven" program.  Even against a pair of champions, both capable within seconds of turning "agentries" into "reseating," or "dreariest" into "steadier, with an 'r'," the computer took the series by six games to three. 
            Now, I come from a family with serious chess on one side and serious Scrabble on the other.  I understand bragging rights, and I can even appreciate the smatch of valor that comes from persisting, and ultimately prevailing, in a difficult game. 
            What I don't understand is the spasm of insecurity brought on by these contests of "man vs. machine."  Instead of marveling at the human mettle which can create such elegant and complex electronics, we act like our species just won the dunce cap.  In the case of Scrabble, The New York Times Magazine found it "sad that the most popular human word game is being conquered by a machine."  Even when we invent both the game and the opponent, a loss somehow casts a pall on human "dignity" and "honor." 
            Funny, but the cowboy's honor is not besmirched when he loses twenty bucks at that poker machine.  Mathematicians do not, as a rule, go around moping because a three-dollar calculator can find square roots faster than they can find their little toe.  Arnold Schwarzenegger does not harness himself to a caboose and race locomotives up the Continental Divide, and if he did, the ensuing commentary would question his sanity, not his dignity.  As one chess organizer said of human-only tournaments, "You don't invite forklifts to weight-lifting competitions." 
            The latest developments in computer technology reveal plenty about human nature, but lack of intelligence should not head the list.  More noteworthy is our tendency to build machines in our own image, and our fascination with the aspects that can and can't be replicated.   For example, when IBM was cutting back on other research several years ago, the company still pursued Deep Blue, a mere game:  what is more human than the instinct for play?  Researchers contemplate ways to give a robot "skin," an outer membrane that relays sensory information back to the CPU just like ours does.  
            What's interesting is that even as we attempt to revisit the glory of our own creation, we tend to reduce that glory to terms we can understand and control.  In the industrial age, we saw ourselves as an elaborate machine;  now, in the computer age, we're inclined to view everything as an elaborate information system.  I suspect we're more than either, and more than both put together.  In fact, I hold with the "mysterians" who say that it is not in our nature to know our full nature.
            Not that it makes Kasparov or the Scrabble guys feel any better, but we're for sure more than pawn-pushers and letter-descramblers.  For that matter, we are more than our intelligence, impressive as that is, and little of our dignity depends on whether we can outperform machines of our own making at games of our own invention. 
            The better measure of our humanity, I'd say, has to do with qualities that, so far, we show only modest ability to sustain, much less replicate:  love, compassion, imagination, courage, curiosity, wonder, thankfulness, awe.  If the guy in charge of reincarnation is listening, that's one machine I'd really like to see.

Copyright 1998, 'Asta Bowen

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One Deadly Fiber
May 28, 1999

            You remember asbestos:  it used to be the hottest little insulator around.  For years we crammed it into buildings and warships, wrapped it around water pipes and brake pads, wove it into fireproof clothing and flame-resistant drapes.  Then we found out how toxic it was:  one micro-scopic fiber in the lung, so the legend goes, and suddenly you're at risk for asbestosis, lung cancer and other lethal consequences. 
            Whether the actual danger point was one fiber per lung or five million per cubic foot, we started getting rid of the stuff as fast as we could, spending billions on cleanup and control--not to mention pro-duct liability and litigation.  Unfortunately for many victims, mainly asbestos workers, those measures came too late;  while we were scrambling to clear homes and schools of the materials they had provided for us, disease was already taking its incremental, irreversible toll on their bodies.
            It was in the dignity of such company, a few weeks ago, that I witnessed the closing arguments of an asbestosis case tried against the W.R. Grace corporation in Libby, Montana.  Despite the eloquence of lawyers on both sides, in that courtroom the most telling statement was the occasional cough that punctuated the proceedings, a sharp and sudden reminder of the injured lungs in attendance. 
            Surprisingly, to the untrained ear an asbestos cough sounds a lot like any other cough.  For such a deadly thing, you might expect a basso profundo rumble or a bone-rattling tsunami that sends out Richter waves in every direction.  But death, like evil, is capable of great subtlety, and what sounds like the end of a nasty cold can, in fact, suggest a much more certain end.  Like so much about asbestos, what seems merely unpleasant on the surface can get outright ugly, the deeper you go. 
            Ask Edie Finstad, whose husband Jerry brought the recent case to court;  he has five, maybe ten years to live, and they will not be easy years.  Ask the town of Libby, Montana, the site of the vermiculite plant where Finstad once worked.  Under the management of the Zonolite corporation and later, W.R. Grace, untold numbers of citizens were exposed to toxic levels of asbestos dust;  so far, 88 known are dead.  Hundreds more, including Jerry Finstad, have been diagnosed with serious lung disorders.
            If this were mere accident, it would be tragedy enough.  But this particular tragedy is barbed, not unlike the asbestos fiber that remains lodged in the body long after other particles are coughed out. 
            For one thing, the plant didn't actually produce asbestos;  it was just a waste product that the corporation never found a way to sell.  Second, though Finstad only worked in the mill for two years, it was enough to help disable him three decades later.  Third, there are asbestosis victims in Libby who never worked a day at the plant;  some were family members exposed to dust brought home on the workers' clothes, and others may have inhaled the fibers as children, playing on ore piles outside the plant. 
            Finally and most painfully, this particular jury deemed the company more than negligent in its treatment of this worker;  by ordering punitive as well as com-pensatory damages, the Finstad verdict found fraud and/or malice in the corpora-tion's failure to protect its employees from the hazards--known even in the 1960s--of asbestos exposure. 
            Tragedy enough, one might think, that even one man's health could have been sacrificed so, but by W.R. Grace's own records, at one point over 90 percent of all long-time workers were known to have abnormal chest X-rays.  According to one expert, that's the highest published rate of disease in any work force in the world, ever. 
            One final barb on this tragic hook:  if certain interests prevail, Congress could pass a law that would all but prevent injured workers like Jerry Finstad from taking their cases to court.  Called the "Fairness in Asbestos Compensation Act," it would lift a burden both from the legal system (facing 30,000 new asbestos cases each year) and from an industry burdened by the amount and unpredictability of asbestos settlements.
            On the surface, the bill doesn't sound so bad:  the "truly sick" getting prompt and fair compensation for their injury;  opportunistic lawyers and clients sent elsewhere to grub for their millions;  courts freed from a massive and growing caseload.  There's just one little thing that sticks in my chest, though, and that's the message that corporations can wind up somehow above the law--but only if their wrongdoing is great enough. 
            That's the final barb, as subtle as it is lethal.  And once it's in our system, like that first asbestos fiber, we'll never get it out.

Copyright 1999, 'Asta Bowen

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