Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hiking The Nassau-Suffolk Greenbelt Trail - Part 2

This past Father's Day we didn't really have anything special planned after we got home from taking the kids to see Marmaduke, so I figured I would take advantage of the sunny weather in the early evening to go for a solitary hike.

Last year, I had hiked a section of the Nassau-Suffolk Greenbelt Trail between Jericho Turnpike up to just shy of Stillwell Woods in Syosset. This time, I wanted to tackle a different part of the trail. I settled on entering the trail at Old Bethpage Road, with the goal of going as far north as the Northern State Parkway and then turning onto a loop trail called the Parkway Tower Loop Trail and use it to swing back south before rejoining the Greenbelt Trail on Washington Avenue in Plainview.

The section of trail at Old Bethpage Road is a flat, narrow strip that was originally slated to be part of a northward extension of the Bethpage State Parkway some years ago. There are very few trees and the vegetation consists of bushes and tall plants. As a novice birder, I paused a few times to listen to the cacophony of bird calls. There were a lot of gray catbirds and some red wing black birds, to name a few. This stretch of the trail, as well as presumably the section further south towards Haypath Road into Bethpage State Park, is very easy and would be ideal for young children as well.

The trail leads out to Old Country Road near an entrance road to some buildings owned by the county of Nassau. Crossing north on Old Country Road, the trail picks up again near a bus stop kiosk. In this section, trees begin to predominate and the ground rises slowly. The tree cover increases the further north you go, causing a concomitant decrease in the sunlight.

After about five minutes or so, I noticed a side trail that ran off to the right, and in the distance, a tree with what looked like some kind of tree house on it. I decided to take a closer look. The tree had some wood planking on it in a couple of sections, and between two large limbs some green chain link fence had been fastened into a hammock. On the ground a few feet from the tree was a car seat. Scattered on the ground around the tree were water bottles and cans of ice tea. I would guess that the site is used as a hangout by students from either the Plainview High School or the Mattlin Middle School, as both were close by. Given the absence of beer cans or bottles, it was more likely a haunt for middle school students. I decided to name the tree "The Party Tree" and returned to the main trail to continue my northward journey.

The trail continued a few minutes longer before reaching Washington Avenue. To rejoin the trail, one has to cross Washinton Avenue and then turn right and walk underneath the Long Island Expressway overpass until coming on an opening in the chain link fence on the left side.

This portion of the trail was very hilly, with lots of rises and dips. It can be a bit strenuous and for parents who want to bring children with them on nature walks, I would not recommend this section for kids under the age of 12. The tree cover here was even greater than the previous section. For those interested in birdwatching, this part of the trail was Blue Jay country. The air was filled with their screeching "jay!" and I saw quite a number of them flying around high in the tree tops. At one point, up ahead, I spied some larger bird that I could not identify swoop down amongst the trees and then it appeared to be chased out by a squadron of Blue Jays who seemed determined to defend their territory from other avian intruders.

As I continued further north, I knew from consulting the map in the book I carried with me, Hiking Long Island by Lee McAllister, that I would soon reach the Northern State Parkway. I started looking for signs to point me to the Parkway Tower Loop Trail. As the Northern State Parkway came into view, I continued to look for the trail marker without success. I stood there, baffled for a moment, not sure of what to do. I decided to turn around and head back and perhaps I might spot the trail marker heading in the reverse direction, and if I didn't, I would just go back the way I had come.

Well, my strategy worked. I didn't see the trail marker, but I spotted what looked like a trail. It was overgrown with grass, but it was clearly a trail. I still didn't see a trail marker, but I decided that this had to be the Parkway Tower Loop Trail and forged ahead. Very soon, the grass cover ended, and the trail became rocky. But as I continued along, I got the sense that this trail was not being maintained at all, as certain parts were overgrown or had tree limbs lying across it. Here and there a tree would me marked with a white rectangle with a blue circle inside it, which was the sign for the trail.

The Northern State Parkway was to my left, and to my right were the backyards of houses that were on Harvard Road. I could even see some people in their backyards and for a moment I felt a little awkward tramping along in the woods in my hiking gear. After about ten minutes, the trail turned south and led into a small field. A little bit further on and I was back on Washington Avenue again. I crossed over to the other side and walked past the St. Margaret Episcopal Church and cemetary. The sun was beginning to set, and while there was still daylight, I knew I did not have much time before it got dark.

After the cemetary, there was a strip of woods again. I saw a trail marker, but I could not discern any trail. On the other side of the trees was a road that led into the Kaplan Center. I walked down the road trying to see if I could figure out where the trail continued but had no luck. I had no choice but to walk south on Washington Road past the Long Island Expressway and head back south on the Greenbelt Trail. I probably walked nearly a mile before I got there.

With the darkness beginning to descend, I picked up my pace. I had my water bottle in my waistpack and secured it by closing the zipper on it. However, periodically, the zippler loosened and I would have to re-zip it.

As the last light faded away, I crossed Old Country Road and was on the last leg of the trip back. At this point, I noticed how eerily quiet it had become in contrast to the noisy bird calls that predominated earlier. I was relieved knowing that I was almost back at my car when I suddenly became aware that something was wrong. I looked down at my waistpack and saw that my water bottle was gone. I had a feeling that it must have just fallen out and I walked back a few steps to look for it, but it was very nearly pitch black, and I had no chance of finding the bottle, which was blue.

There was nothing more I could do but go back to my car and see if I had a flashlight. I did, but it didn't work. Still, I didn't like the idea of leaving my bottle on the trail. For one, I didn't want to have to buy a new one. Second, I hate littering and loathed the prospect of littering the trail. So, I decided to go home, grab a flashlight, and return. When I told my wife about it when I got home, she said "Just forget about it." But I couldn't. I grabbed a flashlight, as well as a glow stick in the event that the batteries died on the flashlight, and drove back to where I had begun my hike several hours earlier.

It was now about 9:30 and well past sundown. As I shined my flashlight ahead of me as I retraced my steps, I felt like I was in The Blair Witch Project. To my disappointment, I did not find the water bottle where I thought I had dropped it. The last I had remembered seeing it was when I took a few sips of water by the LIE overpass before getting on the trail at Washington Avenue. I did not relish the thought of walking that far again. I pressed on, crossing Old Country Road, going on another five minutes or so. I decided against continuing on to Washington Avenue and hoped that I had already passed the point where I had lost the bottle. Besides, since I had dropped the bottle on the way back to the car, I had a better chance of spotting it on the return journey.

As I crossed Old Country Road again, I caught something on the other side of the street by the curb in my flashlight beam. Walking towards it with my light shined on it, I was pleased to see that it was indeed my water bottle. I did not see it when I was retracing my steps earlier, because it was obscured by the curb. But going in the other direction, I was in a position to see it clearly. Tired and soaked with sweat, I gladly made my way back to my car, drove home, and took a much needed shower.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

I Don't Get It

The June/July 2010 issuse of Free Inquiry has an article by a Christopher diCarlo titled "We Are All African." Unfortunately, the issue does not seem to be up yet on the Free Inquiry website, so I cannot link to the article itself.

The main thrust of diCarlo's article is that the common African ancestry of all humanity can serve as a means of promoting human unity today. Since "we are all African," he writes repeatedly, "we are all humbled," "we are equal," "We are all exactly the same."

That's all well and good, of course, though I have my doubts that it really gets us anywhere.

The problem I have with the article though is where diCarlo references a book by a Steve Olsen titled Mapping Human History. According to diCarlo, "Olsen has calculated that we have to go back in time only 2,000 to 5,000 years to find someone who could count every person on Earth today as a direct descendant. If we go back just a little further, 5,000 to 7,000 years, every person is a direct ancestor to the over 6 billion people alive today (unless their line of descendancy died out)."

Now maybe I am overlooking something, but I just don't see how this is possible. If the ancestors of the Australian aborigines arrived in Australia some 40,000 years ago or the ancestors of Native Americans reached the Americas some 12,000 years ago, then how can a person who lived in Egypt some 5,000 to 7,000 years ago be the ancestor of all humanity? Since anatomically modern humans first began to migrate out of Africa some 60,000 years ago, it would seem to me that the ancestor of all modern humans would have to have lived more than 60,000 years ago. If anyone reading this could shed some light on this paradox, please feel free to enlighten me.

While I agree with diCarlo's sentiments about promoting a common humanity as a means of overcoming racism and xenophobia, I can't help but think that some humans left Africa some 60,000 years ago because they were either forced out or they were trying to get away from other people with whom they did not get along with very well.

Toilet Talk

It seems every year, as summer approaches, we receive flyers in the mail from our local elected officials or read columns in our local Pennysaver type weekly publications informing us of the importance of using less water and providing us with a laundry list of suggestions, like this one.

One of the statistics thrown at us is that 25% of our indoor water use comes from flushing the toilet. Every time we flush the toilet, we are using about 3 to 4 gallons of water. When you factor in a family of 4 in a home, with each person flushing the toilet about twice a day, that's anywhere between 24 to 32 gallons of fresh water. Most of us take this for granted, which is amazing when you consider that in some parts of the developing world, people have to walk for miles to obtain water from wells and trudge it back to their homes.

I have several things I do on occasion that I guess are not deemed as proper for suggestion on these lists of ways you can reduce toilet water use. In my house, we only have one bathroom for four people. Inevitably, there come times wherein one of us is sitting on the toilet doing a bombing run and someone else needs to take a wicked piss. For instances where I or my son are the ones who have to urinate when there is another occupant on the toilet, the solution seems fairly simple to me, pee in the bathtub.

Due to anatomical differences, it is of course easier for males than females to do it by directing the urine stream towards the shower drain. Once that's done, a short burst of water from the tub faucet does away with any traces of the offending substance. Of course, both genders can urinate in the tub while taking a shower, where aim is no longer really a factor.

Another unconventional thing I do sometimes is simply pee in a cup and pour the contents in my compost pile in the backyard. Thankfully I don't seem to be the only one who does it. Besides reducing the need to flush one's toilet, pouring urine into a compost pile is beneficial because the urine contains phosporous, which is an important fertilizing component.

You will likely never see these ideas listed on any official list of things you can do to conserve water, as they are probably seen as being outside of the mainstream (pun intended). But if water conservation is important, and my suggestions do help to reduce water usage, then the hell with polite convention, I'm putting it out there in the public domain.

For some reason, we take certain ways of doing things so much for granted that the idea of doing things differently is seen as bizarre or beyond the pale, even if an honest examination of the evidence clearly demonstrates their benefit. Several weeks ago, Bill Maher had on his program John Fund of The Wall Street Journal. Fund is from the pro-business/libertarian wing of the Republican Party rather than the socially conservative wing. At one point on Maher's show, Fund was complaining that government is too big and does too much, and specifically mentioned government regulations on how much water a toilet uses when it is flushed.

Given how much water we use on a daily basis from flushing the toilet and the fact that some parts of the country suffer from chronic shortages, it absolutely makes sense to regulate how many gallons of water are used per flush. I know some people will complain that if you reduce the numer of gallons per flush, you will just end up having to flush the toilet more often when you have just taken a massive shit. But more often than not, it is not the crap itself that causes the toilet to clog or be ineffective, it's the amount of toilet paper you use to wipe your ass that causes the problem.

"Tommykey, are you seriously suggesting that we don't use toilet paper?"

In short, well, yes! I don't use toilet paper anymore. I use baby wipes. Instead of putting them in the toilet, I put them in the garbage pail. Since I've been doing that, I can't really recall having any problems with the toilet clogging up on me. By eliminating the problem of clogging or having to do multiple flushes, I am helping to reduce water use further. Unfortunately, my wife and kids are currently not on board with this, so I am the only one in the house who does this. But I like to think that every little bit helps. And hopefully, down the road, I will be able to convince one or all of the rest of the family to follow suit.

There are steps one can take even beyond my modest suggestions to reduce water consumption. For instance, waterless composting toilets, such as this one by Envirolet, have been on the market for a few years. There are even waterless urinals for restrooms, such as offered by this company, which is appropriately named, well, Waterless.

NOMA Indeed

Came across this article on Yahoo which discusses the possibility that "[a]n obscure compound known as pyrophosphite could have been a source of energy that allowed the first life on Earth to form."

The article has a comments section, and naturally it has resulted in a lot of "God fearin'" people to come crawling out of the woodwork.

My personal favorite attributes it all to "Man's misguided attempt (under the influence of Satan) to explain away the Creator. God is not mocked. Science used to be the study of God's creation, but it has been abused and has become it's own religion to the unbelieving- the Antichrist campaign. Without God, man feels free to sin without conviction and conscience. For the Love for the Lord has waxed cold..."

Another commenter adds "No, evolution is a convenient excuse for sinning. No maker=no responsibilty. "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." I really feel sorry for you nonbelievers."

I already dispensed with that "we're atheists because we want to sin without responsibility" canard here.

One thoughtful commentator (and presumably a theist) does make an attempt to bridge the differences between the science and Biblical literalist camp:

"Those of faith and those who are agnostic or atheists, are all sharing the same world. The Bible tells us to love each other, including those with whom we disagree. That is a good concept regardless of your belief system. I don't need to agree with someone to offer them a hand up, and I don't need to agree with them to accept their hand up, either. We need to stop the pointless and petty bickering over ideology and realize that we are all here, and we can work together towards a common good regardless of what we believe in. Hey, we all need food, shelter, clothes, etc., don't we?"

Admirable sentiments, with which I largely agree. However, in the paragraph above that, this commenter wrote:

"Also understand that there is no conflict between religion and science. There is nothing in the Bible (I don't know about other religious texts) that contradicts anything science has discovered, and there is nothing that science has discovered that contradicts the Bible. If you believe there is conflict, you are not understanding either the Bible or science. Or both."

As limited as my scientific knowledge is, it is my undestanding that science does contradict the Biblical account of Genesis, or at least a literal interpretation of it. For example, Genesis has the Earth existing before the sun around which it orbits. Science tells us that planets are the byproducts of star formation, which means that the Earth could not have been created before the sun. These are two mutually incompatible claims. See, I didn't even have to touch on evolution!

Anyway, if anyone is interested in stirring the pot and rile some fundies, click on the link to the article above and join the fray!

Saturday, June 05, 2010

On Banning The Veil

First things though, apologies for the lack of posting lately. I just haven't had the time to write, and when I did, I just could not seem to push myself to do it, even though I had a number of topics that were of interest to me. But anyway, here I am.

Unfortunately, due to my recent inactivity, I am a bit behind the curve in writing about proposals to ban the practice of Muslim women veiling their faces in public in countries such as Belgium and France. However, since I had already collected information from various points of view on the subject, I figure I might as well get it done and posted already.

The impetus for wanting to do write about this subject came from reading
this post at Daylight Atheism by Sarah Braasch, who is an occasional contributor to that blog. Sarah makes her stance on the issue very plain:

"I support the anticipated public burqa ban in France. And, I would support a public burqa ban in the United States. In fact, I would support a global public burqa ban.

It is beyond ludicrous to think that any society can maintain a liberal constitutional democracy with its electorate walking around in public with their identities wholly obscured. You first have to claim your humanity before you can claim your human rights. You first have to claim your citizenship before you can claim your civil rights. This is not possible without claiming one's identity. Identity is power. Why do you think misogynists impose the burqa upon women? To render them powerless.

I'll admit it: I hate the burqa and the niqab. I hate everything it represents. The oppression of women. The demonization of female sexuality

In the May 29th-June 4th 2010 issue of The Economist, a letter-to-the-editor by an Elizabeth Purdam of the UK echoes the same sentiments as Sarah's:

"[W]earing the purely and simply to do with the subjugation of women. It is about control and possession. It is overt and aggressive sexism and it is a disgrace that it is tolerated at all. We should no more tolerate the wearing of the burqa in public than we permit nakedness."

But while it may indeed be in some instances that the niqab (which is the correct term for the veiled attire worn by some Muslim women in Europe, which is distinguished from the burqa in that it does not cover the entire face but rather has a slit that reveals the wearers eyes) is imposed on Muslim women as a form of subjugation, that is not necessarily always the case.

a post I wrote before on this topic, I opined that "I find the idea of Muslim women wearing veils in our society to be a provocative act. The veil serves not only as a physical barrier, but a psychological barrier as well. It is as if the Muslim woman views the rest of us as some kind of contamination to be kept at bay."

On the other hand, I also recognized the possibility that for a Muslim woman, "wearing a veil from her perspective is in its own way a feminist act. It is an expression of her individuality and her right to deal with our society on her own terms."

In this, I am reminded of a passage from Ayaan Hirsi Ali's book Infidel, which I have mentioned before, wherein she wrote of her feelings when she began to wear Muslim robes during her time in Kenya, "It made me feel powerful: underneath this screen lay a previously unsuspected, but potentially lethal, femininity. I was unique: very few people walked about like that those days in Nairobi. Weirdly, it made me feel like an individual. It sent out a message of superiority: I was the one true Muslim. All those other girls with their little white headscarves were children, hypocrites. I was a star of God. When I spread out my hands I felt like I could fly."

Another thing that unsettles me about the veil is that has the effect of dehumanizing the wearer in my eyes. Rather than seeing a living, breathing human female, I see a thing. Those of you who remember the largely forgotten 1979 Disney sci-fi film The Black Hole may recall that the protagonists discover the long-lost space vessel Cygnus, with seemingly only one human survivor left aboard, Dr. Reinhardt. His only company is the fearsome red robot Maximilian and large numbers of human shaped robots whom Reinhardt has garbed in monastic looking robes and tinted masks. As time goes by, the protagonists discover that these robed servants are not robots but are in fact the surviving members of the original crew who have been lobotomized by Reinhardt to be his obedient servants. My theory about why Reinhardt had their faces hidden behind the tinted masks was that in doing so, he could make himself forget that they were human beings so as not to trouble his conscience about what he had done to them. So much of what makes us human to one another is being able to see each other's faces. Hide that face behind a veil, along with virtually the rest of the body, and that person becomes, well, less than human.

But while seeing a Muslim women wearing a veil in public bothers me on a visceral level, as it clearly does to so many other people, is that a sufficient justification to support banning such an attire? When encountering a Muslim woman garbed in such attire, we tend to project our assumptions on to her about why she is dressed that way, while her actual motivation for dressing in such a fashion might be something else entirely. What we think about the veil says more about us, I should think, then it does about the women who wear it.

Cycads, a Malaysian feminist blogger, turns the issue of female subjugation on its head. European societies that want to ban the niqab or the burqa are actually the ones attempting to subjugate the woman who wears it. In
this post, she writes, "The ban on the full-face veil in Belgium seems like the easiest thing to mete out as far as unconstitutional legislations are concerned. Out of about 215 women who wear either the niqab or burqa in the country, many belong to immigrant communities, many are hard done by multiple forms of discrimination already in addition to being economically disadvantaged and politically under-represented. Penalising them is like flicking away ants or beating someone when they’re already down."

In its May 15 issue, The Economist devoted both a leader and a full article on the push for a ban on the veil in various European countries. The magazine
considers the arguments in favor of the ban but does not find them convincing:

"Europeans’ hostility to the burqa is understandable. It doesn’t just deprive them of the beauty of women’s faces; it offends the secularism that goes deep in European—and especially French—culture. Its spread goes hand in hand with the growth of a fundamentalist version of Islam some of whose proponents have attacked the secular societies they live in; and, at a time when those societies feel under threat, the burqa makes it harder for police to identify security risks.

[T]he three arguments for a ban—security, sexual equality and secularism—do not stand up. On security, women can be required to lift their veils if necessary. On sexual equality, women would be better protected by the enforcement of existing laws against domestic violence than by the enactment of new laws forcing them to dress in a way that may be against their will. On secularism, even if Europeans would prefer not to have others’ religiosity paraded on the streets, the tolerance that Westerners claim to value requires them to put up with it

In the same May 29th issue in which the aforementioned letter of Elizabeth Purdam appeared in response to the May 15 article, another letter was published that was written by a Mohsin Zaidi of Brussels, Belgium. Zaidi writes "There is little distinction between a country that forces women to wear the burqa and a country that forces them not to wear it. Although the former is more easy to categorise as going against our Western notions of equality and secularism, the latter just as readily violates those fundamental principles."

As I wrote above, I admit I am troubled when I see Muslim women wearing veils in public here in the United States on occasion. But I believe that in the interest of fairness, I do need to be mindful of my personal prejudices. Thus, at least for the time being, I tend to find myself leaning towards the position advocated by Mohsin Zaidi. A woman should not be forced to wear a burqa or a niqab if she does not want to. Likewise, she should not be forced not to wear one just because I do not like the fact that she may voluntarily want to wear it.