Runcible Blog

thinking about abortion

Last night I watched Lake of Fire, a fascinating (if long-winded) documentary about the abortion debate in America. I don't want to say much about the film except that even though perhaps more screen time was given to pro-life activists, the pro-choice intellectuals definitely had more thoughtful and thought-provoking stances on the issue. Only Nat Hentoff had what seemed to be a pro-life argument based not on religion.

Because the abortion debate in America has as much or more to do with women's rights than it does about the medical procedure, I don't really want to delve too deeply into the specific issue. But the film made me think about how people value life and how blurry and context-dependent that value is. Specifically, I'm curious about where individuals draw the line between caring and not caring about a particular life.

Reading about the ethical aspects of abortion can seem like a debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; or, when exactly does a bundle of cells become a person? If one is utilitarian and thinks that the fetus' suffering matters, then what happens if the fetus doesn't actually suffer during abortion? Hmm, well, another argument could be that abortion is morally wrong because it terminates the potential for human life, but if that's the case, contraception ought to be just as immoral because it prevents the potential for birth. I suppose some people do believe that, but the point is that it's very easy to draw imaginary lines in the sand declaring when it's important to care about a human life (or the potential for life, or the potential for potential of human life!). Everybody evaluates the point at which he or she starts caring — Do I lose sleep over spilt sperm? Should I worry about the suffering of a 6 week old zygote? Is it wrong to abort at 39 weeks? Am I bothered by the millions of infants who die every year due to preventable diseases or conditions?

If all life is sacred, then does being a pro-life activist mean you care more about the 800,000 potential births aborted per year in the U.S. than you do about the 850,000 infant malaria deaths in the world per year? What about the 20-30,000 gun-related deaths in the U.S. per year? How about the 40,000 car accident deaths per year? Why is one kind of life more important (or at least worth more energy) to protect than another? It can't be because of an unborn child's helplessness. Surely there are many more helpless children — real, live children — suffering and dying than there are aborted fetuses. For that matter, why do we limit our caring to children? Is a fetus in America more worthy of our attention than an adult in Iraq?

A person truly concerned about every kind of preventable suffering and death in the world could very well become paralyzed in thought or tirelessly devoted to every cause imaginable. Because most of us would rather not think about pain and suffering unless it's our own, we find ways to rationalize our lack of concern. There's probably some genetic defense mechanism behind our ability to abstract away (and as a result, ignore) distant sources of suffering, but I find it fascinating to think about the extent of our delusion. Tell anybody about that 40,000 number — the number of people in the U.S. who died in car accidents last year — more than 10 times the number of American soldiers who've died in Iraq since 2003 (or more than 10 times the number of people who died in the September 11 attacks). It's a relatively huge number, but for a variety of reasons, justified or not, certain types of suffering eclipse others.

Let's not forget meat, by the way. Every time somebody bites into a burger, he implicitly determines that his desire for meat outweighs a cow's suffering. The action says, "my immediate desire is worth more than a life." Years ago, these kinds of decisions would've been deliberate and maybe even difficult (is it wrong to hunt Bambi's mom?), but today there needn't be any thought process or effort taken before consuming another animal's life. As a society, we're so thoughtless, in fact, that every year, 34,000,000 cows are killed for our consumption. The numbers are staggering and hard to grasp, but for reference, only about 2 million humans die every year in America, for any reason. And considering there are about half as many cows as people in the U.S., well, they've got a pretty lousy mortality rate compared to us.

Don't worry, chickens have it worse. Americans eat about 8,000,000,000 chickens per year. That's Billion, as in: more chickens than there are people on the planet. The fact that we can commit such enormous, industrial acts of violence against whole species of animals every year is both a testament to the human race's dominance and to its savagery. That the majority find little reason to question an industry of mass killing neatly illustrates the ability to abstract away others' suffering.

Of course, vegetarianism again raises the issue of where to draw the line. As a lacto-ovo vegetarian, I can't honestly say that I'm doing everything I can to personally avoid partaking in animal suffering. Unless I avoid thinking about it entirely, it takes some mental gymnastics to rationalize that the 300 million chickens laying eggs in America somehow aren't suffering as much as those 8 billion slaughtered chickens (though it's hard to imagine). So, the line moves to veganism... Oh, but some vegans don't eat honey; do bees feel pain?

As another example of this blurriness, I can raise cattle, slit their throats, and grill their carcasses, but if I wanted to turn my own puppies into burgers, I'd probably be in trouble if anyone found out. Why is that? Who are we to judge the worth of one type of mammal over another? (Cows like to play, too) Furthermore, although I may not be able to buy cats for stew, I can certainly kill my kitty if he becomes too old, too sick, or too expensive to take care of. And years before I kill him, I'm supposed to cut off his testicles to ensure that my companion is an evolutionary dead-end. The justification for castrating our pets, of course, is that it helps decrease the 4,000,000 cats and dogs euthanized in America every year, weighing the suffering of death against the suffering of mutilation.

In any case, whether it's deciding to put an old pet "to sleep," whether to mutilate an animal to keep as a possession, whether to chow down on a bucket of abused chickens, whether to abort a fetus, whether to assassinate an abortionist, whether to send money to Save the Children, or whether to send a child off to war, we consciously and unconsciously make these significant decisions about how to value one life over another. Absolutism dissolves in these murky waters, leaving a very personal moral compass behind. The driving hope in any of these life-and-death issues is that we each have the capacity to be mindful. Whether we use that mindfulness or ignore it in favor of dogma or pleasure is the crux of the matter.

Why is it black and white?

People sometimes ask me how I decide to convert a photo to black and white, and I don't have a simple explanation. I'll try to illustrate the thought process on a typical image.

There are some simple reasons for converting to monochrome:

  1. The scene is already desaturated or otherwise monochromatic.
  2. Color in the scene detracts from the content or message. (i.e. a bright red truck in the background)
  3. You're going for an old-fashioned look.
  4. You want the image to seem "serious," as in a journalistic style.


Sometimes the reasoning isn't as simple, and an otherwise perfectly fine color photograph might work better as black and white. Let's look an image straight from the camera (or as close as Aperture will lead me to believe):


A candle-lit portrait with auto white balance usually spells ORANGE, so let's try to correct the white balance:


Now the image is merely murky and flat. I prefer more contrast, and my general rule is to increase contrast until I've lost too much information in the image, then bring it down a bit. So, completely black shadows are usually fine (the eye can make up the difference), but completely white highlights are to be avoided because the eye fixates on the brightest part of the image, detracting from the rest of the tones. Although I try not to go overboard with saturation, a little bit helps to bring out the natural color in faces.  And I brought the exposure up about 2/3 of a stop to make the skin tone closer to reality.


 This image is a little too red in the right cheek, but we'll let it slide for now...

The question is, should I keep the image as color or convert it to black and white? In this case, even though the reds are vibrant, I don't think color adds enough to the image to keep it around. The blue window and yellow walls (with red stripe) in the background are a little distracting. The tricky lighting situation makes her face unnecessarily ruddy. On a nitpicky level, I took the photo at ISO 1600, which leaves some chroma noise that can be irritating at large magnifications (or even in print). Let's convert the image to black and white using Aperture's monochrome mixer at 90% green and 10% red. 100% green channel is too unnatural, but I like the look of this 90/10 mixture:


You can play around with different channels to get a more even-toned monochrome image. Since I like relatively high contrast and try to approximate the look of my favorite film images (this one is an extreme example), I go with the green channel and bring the black point up a bit. I may even increase contrast further.


Finally, the light in the top left ruins the illusion that this could be a film image (because the highlights are blown linearly, as only digital can produce).  Let's crop it out:


And there you have it. The photo isn't perfect, but we end up with a rich monochrome image with a reasonable amount of tonal gradation and texture, and no important information lost. If you look closely, the pupil and iris are still distinguishable, which is also something to take into consideration when fiddling with the contrast.


There are a lot of little details to think about when processing digital images, and the decision to convert an image to monochrome shouldn't be made flippantly. Sometimes a dull color photo can be made more interesting by converting to black and white (just as a dull image can be jazzed up by blasting the saturation or going crazy with Photoshop filters), but the challenge is to apply adjustments thoughtfully, understanding how the end result might affect your viewers' perception of what you're trying to show.

Whatever you do, don't click "convert to grayscale"!

my favorite contrarian

I read all of Cliff Stoll's books 8 years ago, and I often channel his contrarianism about social networking, computers in education, and even my own choice of current occupation. He's influenced my life; it's a shame that his passionate questioning 10 years ago has faded into irrelevance, steamrolled by the billion dollar drive to get everyone connected and clicking away. With the impending failure of the OLPC, I wonder if anyone will take the opportunity to think about whether the number of man-hours spent producing green plastic doorstops for impoverished Peruvians could've been better spent thinking about ways to cure malaria or simply training more teachers to work in remote villages. I don't know.

In this hour-long presentation from 1996, Stoll raises important questions about computers in society, in his own frenetic style. Throughout, he maintains that he loves computers and the internet, but he wants people to question the assumption that computers and networks change everything for the better. What happened to the folks who said that the transistor radio would replace teachers and textbooks? Or televisions in classrooms? Or CD-ROMs? (yeesh!)

I particularly liked his comparison of the information superhighway to the interstate highway system built in the 50's. Back then, he said, the interstate highway was sold as something to make the country stronger, bring people together, spur jobs, growth, and cheap goods through easy transportation. All of those things came true, but at what cost? Whether it's the dissolution of communities due to suburban alienation, a looming ecological disaster from a polluting car-culture, or dependence on foreign oil which drags the country into perpetual resource-wars and economic ruin, maybe it would've been worth questioning the costs of that new infrastructure at the time. Similarly, why not question the effects that computers will have on our society? Lots of people have (here's a recent Frontline episode), but Cliff Stoll is a unique contrarian -- a pioneer of the internet and admitted "propellerhead" who thinks that maybe we should take a step back before trashing art class for Microsoft Word and bowling with friends for chatting online.

On a personal note, I think about what kind of value I'm producing in my job as Software Designer Level IV for a Fortune 11 company. There are so many stories to tell. Valuable stories that could make a difference. In comparison, what is the value of another multi-threaded webserver or a faster website for buying souvenirs? Well...

going to pycon

I'm at Logan airport, waiting for a delayed flight to Chicago, heading to PyCon. I'd say more, but blogging on the iPhone is tedious. More later.