Doctor Science Knows

Saturday, May 27, 2006

An Everest Proposal

It looks like 2006 is shaping up to be the deadliest year on Mount Everest since the disaster of 1996, made famous to the general public through John Krakauer's Into Thin Air. Everest News is constantly updated and is a good source of info; the Wikipedia entry also looks pretty good.

Much of the controversy so far centers around the death of David Sharp, a climber who was (in everyone's opinion, foolishly) climbing alone and with limited oxygen. He died of cold and anoxia while a party of 40 went by him toward the summit. The only person who stopped to give him aid & comfort was one of the sherpas. Sir Edmund Hillary said I think the whole attitude towards climbing Mount Everest has become rather horrifying. The people just want to get to the top . . . They don’t give a damn for anybody else.

I'm branching off from comments I left at Steve Gilliard's blog about "Walking Past the Dead" on Everest. Caveat: I have no mountaineering experience and never will, since I tend to have barely enough red blood cells to function at sea level. My perspective is that of an interested outsider who has spent some time thinking about the economic and political issues involved as well as the drama and excitement of the summit.

Here are the problems as I understand them:

A. The opportunity to attempt to get to the summit of Mount Everest is an extremely limited resource. There are only a few weeks a year when an attempt might be possible, and weather will permit an attempt only on a subset of those days. Even when there is a "summitable" day, there are only a few narrow paths that can be taken to the summit Basically, there are only a limited number of slots to try summitting Everest, and the demand for these slots is growing very rapidly. The law of supply & demand means, then, that these slots are becoming more valuable, and many of them will be taken by people with more money than sense.

B. The government and people of Nepal and Tibet/China are the proper owners of this very limited and valuable resource, and they should be encouraged to administer it for the long-term good, and to some extent for humanity as a whole. However, we have to recognize that they will naturally be tempted to get as much money out of it as possible in the short term.

C. The number of people who have "summitted" each year has grown explosively over the past decade, but the number of deaths per year has not. In other words, the death *rate* on Everest has fallen, not increased. This speaks very highly of the Everest mountaineering community, and how (I guess) they have used a combination of accumulated human experience and better communications & weather forecasting to avoid a disaster like the one of '96. But sooner or later there will be a convergence of bad luck and too many under-experienced people too high up, and 30-40 people will die in a night.

D. One of the issues in administering Everest is the well-known problem of trash on the mountain. It's not just that the mountaineers are self-centered, it's that getting to the upper part of Everest requires every bit of energy the human body has: summitters don't generally have the time or physical resources to do anything else without near-fatal risk.

I know a girl who (as many do) wanted a horse. Her parents said: "we'll only get you a horse if you truly prove your devotion by cleaning stables for six months." She cleaned the stables, she got the horse. And then she had to clean more stables, of course.

So here's my suggestion:

1. make getting to the summit a two-year process. The first year you don't have the right to go above a certain altitude. You get to pay your $50 (or your $5000, more like), and you pick up the garbage. This earns you the karma points to make a summit attempt in a subsequent year.

2. I say "points" because I imagine that not all cleanup jobs would be considered equal. The Mount Everest Access Committee (or whatever it's called) would decide how to allot points from year to year, depending on what needs to be done at what altitude.

3. These karma points, like traditional karma, would be non-transferrable. You are not just cleaning up, you are proving that you personally have the moral as well as the financial and physical right to use this extremely limited opportunity. In other words, you have to be *good* enough, not just good enough. (And even if you don't feel like a good person, you have to act like it.)

4. Citizens of Nepal and Tibet (=sherpas) do not need to earn karma points, because it's their mountain. Also, they're not self-indulgent rich people.

5. You can think of the karma points as a charge the governments and MEAC levy to pay for the proper maintenance of the site as part of the common heritage of humankind. It may be possible or necessary for Mount Everest and its approaches to become part of UNESCO's World Heritage Site program.

6. The two-year licensing system would depend on cooperation between the governments of Nepal and China, because it would have to start off with a one-year moratorium in which no-one gets to summit. By "no-one" I mean *no one*: no exceptions, no favoritism.

7. You can think of the moratorium as the price the mountaineering community pays to the governments and to the rest of the world for the privilege of climbing Everest. Or you can think of it as penance for letting the situation get to this parlous state. It would also be an opportunity for the mountaining community to act as a community with a shared goal.

8. Yes, this would make attempting Everest even more expensive than it already is. However, whenever there is a strictly limited supply of something and a growing demand, it would be foolish not to expect the price to increase. Furthermore, the current system shoves cleanup costs -- which are part of the true cost of climbing Everest -- onto future generations of locals. The two-year karma point system just makes those costs visible and puts them on the people who should be paying them in the first place.

9. One advantage of the two-year system is that it requires more of a commitment in time and effort on the part of the summitter, and will thus tend to weed out people who don't have what it takes to be attempting Everest in the first place. I expect that the increase in cost (which favors the rich & foolish) will be more than outbalanced by the increase in rigor, so that a higher proportion of the summitting slots will end up going to people who can actually use them in reasonable safety. Juan Oiarzabal says that right now Too often people go to Everest without knowing what it is like above 8000m. They pay huge amounts of money – and they don’t pay for a climb, but for a summit. The two-year system would ensure that everyone who attempts the summit has experience at extreme altitude, and will be used to working in a group with other mountaineers.

10. This system would have to be backed by the UIAA and the IGO8000, working with the governments of Nepal & China. It would probably only succeed if some very prominent mountaineers promoted it from the start. I do not envy the task of the MEAC, which would have to determine what maintenance work needs to be done on the mountain, allot karma points, make sure no-one summits without a license, and herd cats.

There it is: my (really) modest proposal for cleaning up Everest, regulating traffic to the summit, keeping the local people and their governments happy, and reducing the death rate on the mountain. It's up to people in the mountaineering community to decide if this would work for them; I'm just someone with no personal interest in the situation who hates to hear about needless deaths and littering.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Slut Uniform

This an expansion of a comment I made to Amanda's post at Pandagon about "How to dress like a slut", which is an expansion of this discussion to a post of Jill's at Feministe, especially the commenter who talked about "I see these 12-16 year old girls wearing the slut uniform as they walk home from school holding hands with Mr. Right-now".

My take:

You're all wrong. Sorry.

The post and comments in question, I believe, are referring to teenagers. So I asked my native informant, a HS junior, whether there is a "slut uniform".

"Of course there is!" said she. "It's the slut uniform!"

"How can you tell?" said I. "Doesn't 'slut' mean a woman who's comfortable with her body and sexuality, and feels like showing it off?"

"No no," she said. "In the first place, it's a *uniform*. It's worn by girls who feel pressured to dress just like everybody else, whether they like it or not. In the second place, it's not worn by girls who are doing it because they're comfortable with their bodies. Take it from a teenaged feminist." (I'm so proud.)

She then proceeded to describe the current Slut Uniform at her public HS in NJ. It is in the nature of such things that there will be regional variations, and it is certain that next year's Uniform will be different in style though not in intent. She also warns that no single element of the Uniform is a clear marker: it's not the items, so much as the way they're worn.

1. The fundamental idea is to show (or imply) as much skin as possible above the hipbones, while still staying within the school's dress code. Her school's code includes: no visible navels, no intentionally visible underwear, skirts must extend past the wearer's fingertips, tops must have straps of some minimum width (either one or two inches, she's not sure).

2. The top is either a tube top or a strappy top that does *not* conform to the dress code. Over this, the girl wears a diaphanous, code-conforming longer top, usually tied or wrapped in such a way as to push the breasts together and outward, to emphasize the cleavage, which most of them don't have a lot of. If you look at this picture of Paris Hilton and imagine her wearing a black tube top instead of the black bra, that would be exactly the look the girls are going for.

3. The bottom is more variable.

3a. If a skirt, it will be the minimum length allowed by the dress code. The skirt may have a ruffle at the bottom, which keeps the length within code but bounces up a lot.

3b. If jeans, they will be hip-huggers, the kind that look decent when you're standing up but when you sit down force you to either kind of lean back onto your chair or else prove to the entire class that yes, you are wearing your red thong underwear today. This is not a hypothetical example.

3c. If sweats or shorts, they usually have wording across the butt, which my informant calls "the back". I find these bottoms soul-searingly indecent, but my informant says no, wording on your butt doesn't mean you're a slut, it depends on what it says and who's wearing them. And how she wears them: if she walks so as to bounce her hips from side to side, bonding the boys' eyes to her butt with the krazy glue of puberty†, then yes, but not if it has the name of her team or hobby and she just walks normally in them.

4. The shoes should be flip-flops, or strappy sandals, or other footgear not designed for ease of movement.

The important point is that the Slut Uniform is *not*, as lb assumed, worn by "sluts":
assuming the definition of slut is that of the empowered slut (as opposed to, say, the insecure overcompensating slut, the derogatory slut strawman, or whatever other competing definitions there might be
My young informant's opinion is that, by definition, the Slut Uniform is worn by "the insecure overcompensating slut", because *hello*, teenage girl. "We're HS students, none of us have reached the empowered stage yet." The Uniform is worn by girls who want to fit in with other girls, and who are using male attention to gather "points" for a (normal human) social dominance/bonding game they play with other girls. It's also used by girls to reassure themselves and others about who they are: "I'm a girl! I dress just like the other girls! And boys notice me! So I'm a normal girl!"

My informant is also of the opinion that girls do this to give boys what they want, which is easy, whereas giving the Calculus teachers what they want is hard.

She also notes that the clothes worn by the athletic girls overlap with the Slut Uniform, but the athletes' clothes, even when very skimpy, tend to stay in place more when they move around. The athletes are, as a group, more comfortable in their bodies than the rest of the teenagers, and as an adult I think part of what the Slut Uniform is aping is that physical comfort. But I notice that the girls on the gymnastics and cheerleading teams (whose practices I watch while I'm waiting for Sprog #2 to finish her gymnastics class), though they wear sweats or shorts with words across the butt (the team name, usually), have tops that stay put. Even more noticeable is that they don't bleach their hair, and around here bleached-blonde hair is definitely part of the Slut Uniform (see Paris Hilton).

From my informant's POV, Ms. Kate's definition:
1) aggressive sexuality (or at least unapologetic)
2) lack of subtlety

is only half right. Lack of subtlety, no question, but it's not aggressive sexuality that *she* sees, it's
1) interest in giving boys (part of) what they want

I don't think it's just that my baby feminist here despises women who give men what they want. I think it's something about the culture as a whole, that one of the worst & most common insults for a women is that she gives men what they want. It's a fucked-up variant on "I wouldn't join a club that would take me for a member": "I wouldn't respect a woman who'd actually want to have sex with me".

†a great expression, but not my own.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Defining Conservatism

Conservatism is not a philosophy or an "ism", it is a feeling: "things shouldn't change." Since everyone has that feeling at least some of the time, conservatism always has a very broad appeal.

Political conservatism is the feeling that *power* shouldn't change, that the people (individuals, families, or groups) who were powerful when I was young should be the powerful ones when I am old. That's why 19th-century conservatives were in favor of hereditary aristocracy, while 21st-century ones favor large corporations. To my mind the Republican abandoment of the professed principles of "movement conservatism" (small government, low public debt) doesn't show that they aren't "really" conservatives, it just proves that political conservatism is and was always about unchanging structures of power.

Social conservatism and even religious conservatism have IMHO become ever more clearly about keeping one particular sort of power unchanged: the dominance of men over women. It has also become clear to me that gender conservatism is a huge motivator: it's why abortion, gay rights, contraception, etc., are such hot-button topics in the US. It doesn't matter how much you're being screwed by the crony capitalists so long as women know our place.

There is a useful place in the political discourse for a position of scepticism to any major change: "don't change horses in midstream," if it ain't broke don't fix it". This is what in old-time (e.g. Dante) Christian virtuology (or whatever it's called) was covered under the cardinal, pre-Christian virtues of Prudence and Temperance.

The trouble with it as a political approach is that it doesn't address the most basic of all political issues, which is "who has power?" Do you change ruling classes in midstream? Do what degree does the distribution of wealth have to be broken before you fix it?

Justice is also a cardinal virtue, and it is by nature not conservative: it defends the weak against the strong, it undermines the natural conservative order of things.

I'm chewing over in my mind whether the rise of fundamentalisms and other reactionary conservative movements is due, perhaps, to Future Shock. Not just the technological shock Toffler mostly talked about, but the shock of seeing the society around you constantly and acceleratingly changing. I can't remember if Toffler predicted a new wave of fundamentalism as a response to future shock, but he should have.