Sunday, April 29, 2007

Keep the Change, Stupid!

Bank of America's new gimmick is its Keep the Change program. The ads are all over the places: TV, radio, billboards, subway trains. They feature coins idling on escalators, in dryers, under the carpets, and in other odd crannies. These are the loose changes that BOA vows to help you save: if you use the BOA debit card, your purchase will be rounded up to the next dollar, and the difference will be deposited in your BOA savings account.

Keep the Change, this concept of aided saving, is laughable at best, if not entirely senseless. Having outgrown my piggy bank in teens, I only saved quarters for parking meters and washing machines, and I had barely saved enough quarters before the smart cards caught on in the laundry rooms. If you count on loose changes for your savings, you'd better vote for a financially responsible president so that social security will always be there for you. With two purchases a day, 50 cents of change per purchase, you will save $30 a month, $360 a year. Not exactly helpful for your retirement, or your children's college tuition.

That's why BOA disguised this laughable concept in their advertisements: it's not just about helping you save your money; it's about putting those otherwise lost coins into real use. A misdirection, but a clumsy one. If you are using a debit card, there will be no loose change to begin with. So why round up the price and put the difference into the savings account? Why not just keep the change in the checking account for your next purchase, and put aside larger sums regularly into savings? Why is a BOA debit card better than any other debit card?

When a good magician pulls off a trick, he uses enough misdirections to ensure that the audience cannot reconstruct the mechanism by logic deduction. A good magician knows that people are not stupid. If only the brains of BOA knew that too.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

A Stem Cell Called Sputnik

In April 2004, 206 members of Congress signed a letter urging President Bush to loosen the restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research.

Stem cell controversy is another knot in the long string of conflicts between ideology and intellectualism. As it is more a rule than an exception, intellectualism has been on retreat. In 1995, President Clinton signed into law the Dickey Amendment, banning federal funding for all research in which human embryos are destroyed. Although Clinton later considered revising the restriction to applying only to research that directly destroy human embryos, George W. Bush took office before the revision took place. On August 9, 2001, the new president announced that no federal funding would be available for research on new human embryonic stem cell lines.

On the surface, the focus of the stem cell debate is this: is the blob of scores of embryonic cells, 8 days since conception, a human life? Or more poignantly, does it have a soul? To most biologists, the answer is an obvious no. Without a beating heart or a thinking brain, this blob of cells is no more human than a severed, wiggling tail of a lizard. To the God-fearing people, the answer is an obvious yes. According to the church's interpretation of the Holy Script, God gives each human egg a soul at the time of its insemination., which, blasphemously, makes God the greatest voyeur ever, as He must be watching all the fucking on earth in order to promptly mete out the souls.

Questioning the inception of human soul, of course, has been a popular pastime since Aristotle first heard it from Plato. But the current participants of the debate argued with a vigor unsurpassed in history. Although emotional involvement is not unheard of within the pale of metaphysical debate, legislative actions have been rare. Clearly, the current debate is not just about the definition of human life. There is more at stake.

In this fight over stem cell controversy, the two sides are not fighting about the definition of the human soul; they are fighting about whose definition matters in present-day America. Has science firmly established its persuasive upper hand, or does the religious belief still holds its doctrinal sway? The outcome of this conflict will not only determine whether God gets to keep his job of administering the souls, it will also call into question whether God will continue to manage heaven and hell, or to keep calendar for Judgement Day. God already got a black eye when the earth turned out to be orbiting the sun. If the church concedes this time again, God may start to claim unemployment benefits very soon.

So far, God gets to keep his job, as long as George W. Bush keeps his. Bush, in his moment of epiphany, saw the unity of faith and democracy. Perhaps in his reading of the Declaration of Independence, Bush subconsciously added the words "by God" to the end of the sentence "all men are created equal", thereby uniting creationism with democracy. Regardless of his source of inspiration, Bush formulated Bushism in the same spirit as the Chancellor in V for Vendetta:

Hegemony through democracy.
Democracy through faith.

By refusing federal funding to the human embryonic stem cell research, Bush unequivocally demonstrated his resolve to promote God in American life. In this, he was not only restoring faith in this hedonistic country; he was also reviving the tradition of anti-intellectualism in American politics. Face it. Capitalism, and American business, stand to gain as much from brainwashing as Communism or Saddam Hussein's dictatorship. The technique is the classic one from George Orwell's 1984: exaggerating the threat from an external enemy. McCarthy did it in the 1950s; Bush does it fifty years later. Invariably, the Congress goes along. The problem is, although the Capitol Hill is full of white men, there are only a few balls, and they are often black.

So what caused the change of hearts of congressmen in April 2004?

In March 2004, the leading scientific journal Science published a paper entitled "Evidence of a pluripotent human embryonic stem cell line derived from a cloned blastocyst", where the now crestfallen Korean scientist Woo Suk Hwang reported the first cloning of human embryonic stem cells. Technically, Hwang's work would also be eligible for federal funding in the United States. Nevertheless, the report sent shock waves across the stem cell research community across America. Overnight, American policymakers realized that if America did not foster a favorable environment for stem cell research, it would lose its race in this promising arena of medical research. The next revolution of medicine may take place on foreign soil. The thought of having to order their transplant organs from Korea along with Hyundai cars in the future was scary enough to frighten 206 congressmen into advocating hESC research.

In October 1957, the Soviet satellite Sputnik disillusioned the American public from their ingrained belief of capitalism's superiority over communism. It also brought American scientists and intellectuals back into relevancy to American life. Hwang's cloned stem cell achieved a similar, albeit shorter-lived effect, until sadly the scandal broke out that discredited Hwang and his research. But with the current anti-intellectualism mentality in America, and the government's negative stance on hESC research, it will be only a matter of time when America wakes up to find that regenerative medicine has become a reality overseas, that its sons and daughters are the last terminally ill to die.