Friday, April 22, 2011

The Wrong Side of History

I wonder: In a few generations, when our distant descendants access their history feeds, and take a look back at the 21st century, will they look on the meat-eaters among us with the same horror and embarrassment with which we look back on slave-traders?

I don't think that veganism (or even vegetarianism) will become the dominant mode of nourishment for most people in the developed world anytime soon. Probably not even in this century, if ever. But it is a growing movement. I personally feel that, barring the occasional violent repression, humanity is definitely trending towards increased freedom and equality. As my Dad likes to point out, at the beginning of the 20th century, no country on Earth was a true democracy. Not even the United States. By the end of that same century, democracy was not only the norm, but through the United Nations, democratic nations actually had the power to peacefully impose economic sanctions on states which mistreat their citizens.

So, democracy and freedom are on the rise. People are showing more concern for their fellow humans. But what about their fellow organisms? What about freedom for other types of animals?

Most people, when asked about vegetarianism, will say that they respect it as a lifestyle, but it's not for them. They admire vegetarians' commitment to animal rights, but they don't personally feel the need to change their eating habits. When pressed, most of them will try to deflect criticism with humor: "Animals may be our friends, but they're so delicious!"

This argument doesn't hold much water. Simply because something is easy or pleasurable does not make it morally acceptable. Most people recognize that the meat they buy at the grocery store does not come from animals who have lived a full and happy life on Old MacDonald's Farm (E-I-E-I-O). Even fewer would feel comfortable actually watching a slaughter take place. People feel uncomfortable acknowledging that the meat on their table, until very recently, was a living, breathing animal.

People acknowledge this, but they ignore what they know. I feel it's similar, or at least related to, the tendency to change the channel as soon as a Save the Children ad comes on TV. They feel guilty, and know that they haven't been doing all they could. To open themselves to the suffering of one child means acknowledging the suffering of many more, and facing up to the fact that until that moment, they could have saved lives but chose not to.

Carnivores say that animals aren't human, and hence don't deserve the same rights. We feed and shelter them, and thus it's within our rights to use them as we see fit. They couldn't survive in the wild anyway, and we keep them safe and well fed for their whole lives, which may be short, but hey, they're not missing too much, right? What's more, eating meat is a central part of many cultures, and has existed since the dawn of time. The last time we tried to outlaw something so delicious and fun to consume was during Prohibition, and that didn't go over too well, now did it? Besides, the meat industry built several major American cities (such as Chicago), and many towns still depend heavily upon it for their economic sustenance. In 2009, the U.S. cattle and beef industry alone was valued at $73 billion!

Well, I hate to break it to you, but these arguments all sound suspiciously like the ones that slaveholders used to argue against Abolition. The fact is that vegetarianism is on the rise in the developed world, and those who continue to eat meat may one day find themselves on the wrong side of history.


But what about me? I eat meat all the time! I know the moral implications (as you can see in the blog post above), but I continue to eat it anyway. Even for someone like me, who (more-or-less) knows the science and knows that it would be better to make a change, the process is very difficult. We don't live in a society which encourages vegetarianism. It's tolerated, even accommodated, but it's very difficult to avoid eating animals when even Caesar salad dressing contains pureed anchovies.

Going vegetarian would be better for my health, would help reduce or prevent climate change, would make it easier to end world hunger, and is better for the welfare of my fellow creatures.

So what's stopping me? Am I being too hard on myself? Or am I just lazy?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

In Which Several Exciting Discoveries Are Made

In the acclaimed 2008 Pixar film WALL-E, there is a scene where one of the residents of the starship Axiom notices, for the first time in his life, that they've got a pool! He's lived there for his whole life; in fact, several generations of his family have lived there for their entire lives, and he never even suspected that they had a pool. No one bothered to tell him, and he never bothered to find out.

I thought that this was meant as a warning from Pixar. "If you don't do something different, your descendants might wind up like this." But now I realize that the warning was actually directed at us.

Case in point: the walk I took today.

After living in Ypsilanti on-and-off for six years, I tend to think of myself as an old hand. I might not know as much about the city as a native townie, but I certainly know a lot more than an incoming freshman, and maybe more than your average graduate. I felt like I knew this city pretty well.

But I've realized how little I truly know. This afternoon I took a walk from my apartment to Michigan Avenue, intending to walk through Riverside Park, and maybe Frog Island Park as well. But once there, I happened to glance across Michigan Avenue, and I realized that although I had walked and driven by this area many times, I had never bothered to see what lay south of Michigan Avenue. I decided on a whim to change my plan; I wanted to see how far south I could walk along the Huron River.

Turns out that's quite a ways, thanks to the B2B (Border-to-Border) Trail, a non-motorized trail that runs along the length of the Huron River, passing completely through almost half a dozen counties in Southeast Michigan. I never even knew that such a long biking and walking trail was even in the works, let alone actually being built!

I can't say for sure how long or how far I walked, but I was gone for quite a while. I saw many strange and secluded places that filled me with a sense of what the Germans call ruinenlust - a love of ruins and abandoned places. I saw broken lamp-posts that had been converted into birds' nests, like some postmodern spin on The Chronicles of Narnia. I discovered a vast desert of gravelly sand; a ring of stumpy, broken stone squares; a rickety, moss-covered old footbridge; an entire park that I'd never even heard about; a disc-golf course; the warren of what appeared to either be a woodchuck or a groundhog; the overgrown remains of a baseball diamond and batting cage, the broken lights watching over all like blind giants; and a swingless swing-set that had been abandoned for so long that trees were growing right up through the structure itself.

I wish I had taken pictures. If I had known what I would be seeing, I would certainly have brought my camera. Maybe I'll make another trip sometime soon, and post the pictures here. Or on Facebook. Who knows? It's an adventure!

My point is: go for a walk. Like, today. Right now. Just put your hands in your pockets, pick a direction, and walk as far as you can. You might be surprised at the things you've never noticed from the window of your car. You might have been living in your neighborhood for years, but have you ever really explored it?

Now seems like as good a time as any to find out.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Animatronics: Not Dead, Just In Storage

When was the last time you saw a film (besides on DVD or through Netflix!) which boasted of using of "the most advanced animatronics available"? Or indeed, any animatronics at all? A long time ago, I'm willing to bet. Ten years? Maybe more?

To look at it from another angle, when was the last time you saw animatronics used in a real-life, face-to-face setting? Chuck E. Cheese's? Some ride at a theme park for a movie that left theaters fifteen or twenty years ago? Okay, I seem to recall encountering one or two robotic puppets at "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter", but they weren't true animatronics, just models of giant spiders attached to robotic arms.

Animatronics just don't seem to get the same amount of love they once did. The reasons for this are threefold:
1) animatronics are expensive, and once you've made one it's set in stone; you can't do a redesign if the creature doesn't test well with audiences;
2) animatronics contain thousands of moving parts, the malfunction of any one of which could cause the whole machine to cease working, leading to costly delays when filming must be halted while repairs are made; and
3) animatronics are subject to many of the same laws of physics which they attempt to overcome. For example, you can't build a three-story tall praying mantis animatronic for the same reason that a real three-story tall praying mantis wouldn't work: an insect that large simply could not support its own weight.

With these fairly major shortcomings in mind, it's no wonder that filmmakers have turned to CGI to satisfy their needs in the special-effects department.

But I feel that animatronic animals and characters have several advantages over CGI. Advantages which suggest that animatronic technology is not yet dead, nor yet completely outdated.

Number One: Animatronics will always look real.
This one gets swept under the rug a lot. When making a film, the director's primary concern is to get the movie finished on-deadline and under-budget. Everything else is secondary. But what director doesn't want their movies to look good for future audiences, when their films are being displayed by historical societies or film-school professors? The temptation to not just do well, but to leave landmarks for those who follow in one's footsteps is a powerful desire in many directors.

For proof, one simply needs to look at Star Wars.

Pop a copy of Episode I into your DVD player, and take a good look at Jar-Jar Binks. (I know it hurts. Just bear with me for a moment.) Look at how he moves, how he interacts with the objects and actors around him. It doesn't quite look right, does it? Kinda... floaty, right? Like he's not really there? Jar-Jar was created just twelve years ago, using the most advanced CGI technology that had ever been assembled at that time. Barely a decade has passed, and he already looks fake.

Okay, now eject the disk, invite a priest over to purify your entertainment system, and pop in your DVD of Star Wars: A New Hope. Take a good hard look at Chewbacca. He looks really solid, doesn't he? He makes fluid motions, casts realistic shadow-effects, and has a palpable stage-presence. That movie is twenty years older than Episode I, yet Chewie still looks more realistic than Jar-Jar ever could. Why is this? It's because Chewbacca was actually there on the set! Which brings me to my next point,

Number Two: Animatronics have superior stage-presence to purely-CGI characters.

When a CGI character interacts with a flesh-and-blood actor, in almost every case the actor was playing to an empty room, or a blank green-screen. As any actor will tell you, playing a part, any part at all, without another human presence to judge by and interact with, is an extremely difficult endeavor. Even if there was a man in a skintight greensuit standing where the monster's going to be in the final version, it's not the same as actually having the monster standing right in front of you, roaring and spitting venom in your face.

Number Three: Animatronic characters have a warmer, more human appearance.
Even if the character in question is not human at all, animatronics often induce much greater feelings of affection in audiences than any CGI character. Because the machines are bound by the same laws of physics as we are, their motions, by definition, look real and natural. While animators are busy trying to figure out how to convey a sense of weight and solidity in their creations, all a puppeteer needs to do is hit the "ON" switch and play around for a few minutes.

Furthermore, the fact that a puppeteer (or team of puppeteers) controls the machine's every motion means that all their motions will be infinitely more human. The animators don't need to search for the key to simulating natural movement; it's sitting right in front of them, waggling its ears and making faces at them.