Other Melanie Bacon stuff:
BEDTIME STORIES, tidbits from recent news
Who turned on the Infinite Improbability Drive?
Today is Monday. I almost wrote an essay on Saturday, because of the plethora of weird guys-in-power stories in the New York Times: the president of Bolivia announced that all government officials would be obligated to take drug tests, the Yeltsin government released a videotape showing Russia's Prosecutor General in bed with two women, and President Clinton said that "when the final word was written on his legacy, he would have one strike against him -- for lying -- but 'hundreds and hundreds and hundreds' of pluses for the times that he was truthful."
(Bill Clinton's epitaph: "Most of the time, he told the truth".)
Okay, so Saturday's news showed us we were living in a Kurt Vonnegut universe; not really a big deal, since we've actually been living there since Reagan was elected President (see Slaughterhouse Five). I thought for a while about writing an essay discussing the fact that our world's governments are clearly being run now by adolescent boys, but decided to shampoo my rugs instead.
And then today I read the online papers and realized that we - you and I - are now characters in a story that could easily be mistaken for Book Six of the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy.
The first hint that we'd slid into this other dimension came when I read the story about the four-legged chicken, proudly Dr. Frankensteined by scientists at Harvard Medical School (The Electronic Telegraph). The scientists did this by playing switcheroo games with chicken wing and leg genes ("To identify the genes that convey 'legness' is amazing", said one scientist). Holy Zaphod Beeblebrox!
The next little twinges came while perusing one of my favorite papers, The Sunday Times (London), where we make a kind of Michael Crichtonesque side trip into the world of reanimating extinct species, in this case, the dodo bird. British researchers are recovering fragments of genetic material from dodo body parts preserved at Oxford University's Natural History Museum, hoping to "pave the way for the species to be recreated some day", although the paucity of material makes it unlikely that they will be able to recreate a perfectly perfect dodo; they'll probably have to settle for a pseudo sorta dodo, using bits and pieces of semi-dodo wannabees. Hopefully they'll refrain from giving it extra legs. The Douglas Adams-like twist to this story? Ecologists are worried "that bringing back an animal resembling the dodo might persuade the public that there is no longer any need to protect endangered species, as any creatures wiped out by man could be recreated" (kind of like Kleenex - use it up, throw it away, and trust that the factory will keep cranking out replacements, hopefully new and improved).
One scientist made a statement I found kind of ominous: in discussing the difficult of recreating a perfect dodo using only the tiny fragments of material that survive, he said "You only need to get a little bit wrong to get a non-viable animal - a single mistake could be lethal". It seems to me that when you're messing with genes, "a little bit wrong" could result in something much more significant than a "non-viable animal" (the dodo is extinct, after all; non-viability is something of a redundant issue); my question is: lethal for whom?
Which leads to our next story, about the newest weapon in the British military arsenal, the Neostead shotgun. This is a handgun "so powerful it can demolish walls or stop a light tank in its tracks"; a weapon which "has never been seen outside Hollywood science-fiction epics"; it can "scythe through armour or spray advancing troops with hundreds of lethal ball bearings" and enable one man "to destroy a small convoy or kill dozens of advancing troops", yet "is small enough to be carried in a shoulder holster and has a recoil system so sophisticated that it can be held and fired with one hand" (The Sunday Times). The South African-made gun is being bought initially for special forces, but "could also be used by elite police squads".
I read this, my paranoid American mind racing with thoughts about the almost infinite abuses inherent in the existence of this weapon, wondering how many people (maybe even members of the criminal element!) are buying this thing on the Internet right at this very moment. You know me, always jumping to wild conclusions. However the wonderfully British Sunday Times is very prosaic about the inclusion of the Neostead in the British military and police arsenal, offering only one comment about other possible uses of this shotgun:
Those Brits are very serious about being sportsmanlike when you hunt. So when you go hunting four-legged dodo birds in Britain, leave your anti-tank handgun at home.
This isn't your grandmother's reality anymore.
Children for fun and profit
I have a web page called Bedtime Stories, in which I encapsulate strange news items related to children, culled from the various newspapers I read on the Internet. I found 5 stories today, from all over the world; no doubt I would have found more, but I'd already been on the net for two hours and needed to get a little work done. 3 of the stories bore a similar theme: people figuring out ways to capitalize on kids.
The first is a sad story about how children are the real victims in war; in this case, it's a civil war in the Sudan, where children are captured and enslaved by conquering forces. Outside agencies face a catch-22: they can buy the children and set them free, but if they do that (1) they validate the concept of buying and selling human beings by participating in it, (2) the children go back home to the war zone where they might end up getting recaptured and re-enslaved, and (3) the profits from the slave trade go back into the war machine.
What's an omniscient world body to do? Too bad it's children who are being seized - if the conquering forces were stealing oil reserves, the UN solution would be obvious.
And then there's that pesky illegal drug problem in the United States. Drugs, kids, drugs, kids - parents face such difficult choices these days. A Des Moines, Iowa woman figured out a solution: to settle a drug debt, she loaned her 11-year-old daughter to her drug dealers, who took the girl to California with them on business and then gave her a new pair of platform shoes, omitting to tell her that her feet were being used to ship product.
Both of these stories have at least the excuse of human desperation. There is no such excuse for my third and favorite story, a story about pure greed, sex and sensationalism: the race to produce and promote the first baby born in the year 2000.
This is a big deal right now, because if you're even going to be in the running you have to conceive the little bugger sometime in the next few weeks. There are companies right now, today, having conceive-a-thons, sponsoring and then interviewing panting couples who hope that the last ejaculation was the lucky one. But the big money will be in the delivery: people are scheduling cesarians, and reserving rooms at God's own end of the Earth (where the crack of dawn means literally that), and going to immense amounts of trouble to ensure that their baby will be the very utterly absolutely first one born in the year 2000, which will garner them huge pots of cash and prizes which maybe they'll even share with the kid (who is guaranteed to be named something cutely awful).
But only one member of the class of 2018 is going be the 'winner'. What happens in the families where the kid doesn't cooperate? Will Mommy and Daddy love Junior just as much if he's born half-a-second too late and they lose millions of dollars? What schemes will they come up with to recoup their investment? Will they sue the kid for emotional trauma and loss of income? Or maybe sell him to drug dealers?
I'm having this nightmare vision where a couple uses fertility drugs to ensure that at least one of their little darlings arrives at exactly the right moment (and you know, you just KNOW there are people out there right now planning to do this).
This baby race business gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "family planning".
I'm reminded of Hosea 13:13, in which God is trying to give birth to Israel "but he is an unwise son; for now he does not present himself at the mouth of the womb." What's a Mother to do with this uncooperative baby? "Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol? Shall I redeem them from Death?" No way, God the Mother says, "Compassion is hid from my eyes." And God didn't even have millions of bucks and a movie of the week deal at stake.
Inside the Monkey Lab