Sunday, February 28, 2010

On Orcas and Elephants

Last week, an orca at Florida's Sea World park killed trainer Dawn Brancheau. According to witnesses, Brancheau was standing at the edge of the pool when the orca, Tilikum, grabbed her ponytail and dragged her underwater.

This was not the first human fatality in which Tilikum was implicated. His career in show business began at British Columbia's now-defunct Sealand of the Pacific park. In 1991, trainer Keltie Byrne was killed by a group of three orcas that included Tilikum. In 1999, a drifter stoner named Daniel snuck into Tilikum's pool after hours, a stunt which earned him a Darwin Award.

There are other documented cases of captive orca attacks. Sea World officials make excuses. The animals don't do it on purpose, they claim. They don't understand that humans can't hold their breath that long.

Bullshit. They know exactly what they're doing. The abrasions on Tilikum's human victims indicate that they were dragged against the bottom of the pool. Daniel was stripped of his swim trunks by Tilikum's sharp teeth. The killing method is reminscent of the brutal dolphin-on-porpoise violence observed by researchers in Monterey Bay. Those dolphins were not captive animals made neurotic by confinement; they were wild, free creatures who chose to brutally hunt and kill another species of marine animal not for food but perhaps to eliminate the competition for food. Orcas are the largest members of the dolphin family. They are just as capable of brutal and pre-meditated killing of another species for reasons of their own.

Dawn Brancheau's family believes that her death was an accident. I am reminded of Siegfried Fischbacher's contention that Montecore, the white tiger that almost killed Roy Horn in October of 2003, was trying to help Roy by picking him up and taking him offstage while he was suffering a stroke. People who work with these large and dangerous animals hold them in great affection. They want to believe that the animals hold us in affection as well. But we are their jailers. No matter how comfortable we make their prison, it is still a prison.

Sea World claims it is keeping and breeding orcas in order to help an endangered species survive. But in reality, they are making big money off their exhibition. It is the same reason why humans continue to keep elephants -- for profit. Elephants are big attractions (no pun intended) in zoos and circuses. They are also useful beasts of burden in India and Thailand, particularly in the logging and ecotourism industries.

Elephants also have a long history of attacking their human trainers. One brutal attack, in 1994, was captured on video for posterity. There is growing evidence that wild elephants are deliberately targeting humans and their property in revenge for previous poaching and culling incidents.

Orcas and elephants have some other common traits, besides their size and their troubled relationship with humans. Both species are highly social, with highly-developed vocalizations. It is likely that their vocalizations are a rudimentary language. It would not surprise me if the Defense Language Institute (conveniently located near Monterey Bay) were working on decoding cetacean vocalizations. Our navy already trains and uses dolphins for a variety of purposes.

Maybe someday we will be able to effectively communicate with orcas and elephants, and recruit some of them to work for us of their own free will (in exchange for an easy food supply and plenty of mating opportunities). Until that happens, we will continue to see news stories about orcas and elephants turning on their trainers.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Joe Stack, American Loser

A lot has been written over the last several days about Joe Stack, the amateur pilot and unsuccessful tax evader who deliberately flew a small plane into an IRS office building in Austin, Texas. Some have even gone so far as to call him a hero for his stand against the IRS.

Joe Stack was a loser for most of his adult life. Yes, he tragically lost his parents as a young child. Numerous Americans have overcome similar adversity to lead productive lives. Stack had the benefit of a good education. He worked as a software engineer. Like most American losers, Stack always blamed others for his problems, even those that were self-inflicted.

He tried to use the tax code to his advantage, taking advantage of breaks given to "self-employed" consultants. When that loophole was closed, he seethed. When the dot-com bubble burst and he was out of work, he cashed in his IRA and neglected to pay the taxes due. He claimed that he didn't think he owed anything, since he had no income. When one sets up an IRA, one is informed by the financial institution of the allowable uses for the balance, and the penalties for early withdrawal for other purposes. But Stack didn't like the rules, so the rules must be wrong.

In reality, Stack is little different from William Ballerio, the Baraboo loser who shot his roommate in the head before killing himself on the same day that Stack set fire to his own house and crashed his plane, or Amy Bishop, the loser neurology professor in Alabama who opened fire on a roomful of colleagues after she was denied tenure, or Terry Hoskins, the Ohio loser who defaulted on his mortgage, then bulldozed his home when the bank began foreclosure proceedings (although at least Hoskins didn't try to kill anybody).

None of these people were heroes making a brave stand. They were all pathetic losers who lashed out like spoiled children when they didn't get what they believed they were entitled to.

Anyone who believes Joe Stack is a hero is an even bigger loser.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Russ Decker Supports Gun Racks in Pickup Trucks

Senate Bill 222, introduced by Senator Russ Decker, among others, would loosen regulations for Wisconsin's hunters. Among other things, "This bill eliminates the requirement that an unloaded firearm placed in a vehicle be in a case."

This seems, at best, like a solution in place of a problem. At worst, it seems like a needless undermining of public safety. I am by no means an anti-gunner. I support responsible gun ownership. I have not made up my mind on the issue of open carry. I do not believe Wisconsin should start registering gun ownership, but I do believe in background checks at the time of purchase.

I support hunting rights, and I want to see Wisconsin's hunting traditions continue. I do not see how this bill will make things better. Right now, if you shoot a deer for another member of your hunting party, you need to be in contact with the member with the tag. That helps to prevent multiple people from shooting deer for the same person, which would result in senseless waste, as an untagged deer will likely be left to rot, since it cannot be legally claimed.

If this bill passes, you will not have to be in contact with the member of your party who still has a tag to fill. They will have one hour to tag the deer. How likely is that, if you are not in contact?

Also, you would no longer need to keep your guns in a case in your car. How is it a good idea to transport guns uncased? Even if it is unloaded (which the law would still require, but which is sometimes mistakenly overlooked), without the protection of a case, there is a greater possibility that your gun will be damaged in transit (especially if you are driving on dirt roads in the woods). How does that help Wisconsin's hunters? Is it really that much of a hardship to purchase a case for your (far more expensive) deer rifle? It will also allow individuals to drive around in the city with their (presumably unloaded) firearms on the seat, within easy reach. That could be a law enforcement nightmare.

Most perplexing of all, "The bill also provides that the prohibitions against the placement of a firearm, bow, or crossbow in a vehicle do not apply if the vehicle is stationary."

Does that mean it's OK to have a loaded gun in your car if the car is parked? Why is that a good idea?

Decker is blatantly pandering to the rural libertarians in his district. But more puzzling is Lena Taylor's co-authorship. Given her troubled relationship with the Milwaukee Police Department, this bill is unlikely to win her any endorsements from law enforcement organizations.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Some Thoughts on Steroids

It's Superbowl Sunday, so my thoughts turn naturally to steroids. The major league baseball scandals have made it apparent just how prevelent steroids are in professional sports. The NFL has not been aggressive in testing for steroids, so we have not seen too many players disgraced. Yet.

But only a very naive football fan would assume that steroids are not widely used in the NFL. Any time a player becomes stronger and more muscular in his 30s than he ever was in his 20s (I'm looking at you, Donald Driver), one cannot help but suspect steroid use.

But is that necessarily a bad thing? Yes, steroid use brings serious health risks. No, we do not want young players to feel pressured to start using them in order to compete. However, it appears that steroids are most popular with players over age 30 who are trying to maintain the physical abilities they had in their younger days and compete against younger players. Younger male athletes produce more testosterone, which is a muscle-building androgen. Anabolic steroids are a synthetic form of muscle-building androgen.

Why not allow steroid use for players age 30 and over? Presumably, they are mature enough to weigh the risks and benefits. They already have an established professional career, so they are not rolling the dice on a pipe dream. It's not much different from post-menopausal women taking hormone therapy. There are serious risks involved there as well, so it is no longer routinely prescribed. But there are still women who choose hormone therapy, under the advice and supervision of their doctor.

I believe that mature athletes should also be able to choose hormone therapy, if they wish. Many will decide it's not worth it just to play for a few more years. Others (particularly lineman) may find that the extra muscle mass will just wear out their knees more quickly. But a few may give us the best years of their career. Is that such a bad thing?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

An Alternative to Security Theater

Ever since Sept. 11 changed everything, airports around the world have introduced escalating inconveniences for air travelers. The Recess Supervisor had a good post on the subject last month.

Frequent travelers have coined the term "Security Theater" for the measures that are imposed on the public mainly to convince them something is being done. The ban on liquids was put in place in response to a specific plot to mix liquid explosives from components hidden in toiletry bottles. The outrage from flyers who demanded the right to pack toothpaste and shampoo in their carry-on bag led to the allowance for liquids in three-ounce, clear plastic bottles in a quart-sized zip-loc bag. The allowance makes the restriction utterly useless in preventing terrorists from smuggling liquid explosive components on board. So why are we being inconvenienced? To convince us that the TSA (and its counterparts around the world) can protect us from terrorists, so we'll be willing to travel by air.

In reality, the terrorist plots on airplanes since 9/11 have been foiled either by old-school procedures that were already in place, the sheer incompetence of the would-be terrorists, or quick thinking (and tackling) by flight attendants and fellow passengers.

If we really want to make people safer on planes, we should spend as much time giving them tips to spot and stop a terrorist as we do showing them how to use the oxygen masks and flotation devices on the plane. That emergency card tucked into the back of every seat should also include a list of suspicious behaviors and appropriate responses (grab the offender's hands and yell "Hey, what are you doing? Help!" to alert flight attendants and your fellow passengers to help you subdue someone who is trying to blow up the plane). The flight attendants can pantomime how to place a suspected terrorist in a bear-hug, right after they show us how to put on our life preserver in the event of a water landing.

This will be at least as helpful as restricting us to tiny bottles of shampoo. It has the added benefit of making the public feel empowered (and therefore, less easy to terrorize).

Monday, February 1, 2010

Grammy Fail

Who thought it was a good idea to feature a rap stars collaboration that ended up being about 25% - 30% silence for the TV audience? Did none of the producers see that coming? Did they think that would make for good television?

Maybe HBO should broadcast the Grammy Awards from now on.