Posted on 29 April 2011.
The new film version of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged has performed dismally, grossing only $2.5 million, and casting doubt on the proposed sequels. But Tea Party enthusiasm has seen sales of Rand’s books increase, with “Atlas Shrugged” taking number four on the Amazon Bestseller list on the film’s release day. But commentator Jonah Comstock says Rand’s work, and another fundamental tea party text – the Bible – are at odds.
My father is a Presbyterian pastor, and so when I was growing up I went to church every Sunday. I took what I was learning there pretty seriously.
From the age of 10, Dad’s sermons would spark family discussions that would last all the way home, or into dinner, and even crop back up later in the week. My twin brother and I would take opposite sides on the free-will versus predestination debate. Dad tried, in vain, to articulate a Calvinist middle ground.
These conflicts weren’t challenges to my faith. They were just part of growing up Christian. But there was one frustration that did start me questioning my faith.
Every Sunday the congregation would read a prayer of confession in unison. I was OK when we were confessing vague sins that we had all probably committed. But sometimes I would be called upon, by reading along with the congregation, to confess to eating the apple in the garden of Eden, or building the golden calf, or crucifying Jesus. I didn’t do any of those things! I hadn’t even been born yet!
My Dad’s explanation – that original sin applies to all people – wasn’t good enough for me. I resented not having the opportunity to try to be good, even if I was doomed to fail.
A few years later, as a teenager, I read Ayn Rand, and her novels gave me a framework for articulating that outrage. In her novel “Anthem” a collectivist council rules the world, and the symbol of their oppression is that people refer to themselves only as we, never as I. I couldn’t read that without thinking of the confession.
The hero of Anthem throws off that burden and proclaims himself an I, accountable only for his own actions. Rand’s heroes owe nothing to anyone else. They are ruled by individual reason. By ignoring the voices that tell them what they can’t do, they accomplish the impossible. And reading the stories of these men was inspiring. It was intoxicating. I wanted to live in that world.
On the other hand, standing in church and admitting what I couldn’t do … was deflating, embarrassing, and crushing.
I knew it was either/or. Rand’s heroes worship themselves. If man has it in his power to do anything through reason, why would he need God?
Ultimately what it took to teach me that Rand was wrong and the gospels were right was just living, and realizing that I’m not perfect, and I never could be. For a 16–year-old that’s an outrage. For an adult, that’s life. And I was so hung up on the unfairness of the confession, I was blind to what came right after it in the service, when my father would come forth, wash his hands in the baptismal font, and say “all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, but in the waters of baptism we are forgiven.” The bad news was that I couldn’t be a Randian superhero. The good news was that I didn’t have to.
Years later, I turn on the news and I see the Tea Party, an organization with strong ties to the religious right, re-enacting my adolescent crisis. Tea Partiers object to government spending on social welfare programs because they believe people can and should succeed for themselves, without government help. They say the free market will take care of everything. Ayn Rand would be proud.
But the Bible shows us a world of charity and forgiveness. Even the best, strongest heroes in the Bible, like King David, can’t succeed for themselves, can’t make it on their own. They screw up – and they’re forgiven. Being a Christian is all about accepting that we need help – from above, but also from each other.
Rand found all that repugnant. She said it amounted to making the successful slaves to the worthless. But Jesus said that whoever wants to be first among people must become servant of all. If they want to have any intellectual integrity, Tea Partiers have to make the same choice I did: a delusion of human greatness, or the good news of human salvation.
Jonah Comstock attends Broadway Presbyterian Church on the Upper West Side. He wrote his undergraduate Philosophy thesis on Ayn Rand.
Posted on 02 April 2011.
Checking for cancer isn’t a quick process. From the time doctors first notice a tumor-like growth, it takes as much as a week before they can be sure of what they’re seeing. But a new technology could change all that. Doctors at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital have completed clinical trials on what they’re calling a Diagnostic Magnetic Resonance device, or DMR. The machine is smaller than a shoebox, and can diagnose cancer in an hour.
Dr. Ronald Ennis is the director of radiation and oncology at New York’s St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital. He says cancer diagnosis usually starts with an MRI or CAT scan, and then a biopsy, which involves taking a lot of cells with a large needle.
“There can be some tissue damage caused by the biopsy itself,” he said. “Those risks are usually low, but in the lung for instance there can be a possibility of causing lung collapse”
But risks like these could soon become obsolete—along with the waiting time for test results. The DMR uses a tiny fraction of the cells a biopsy takes, and can screen them for cancer within an hour.
In Boston, at his lab at Mass General, engineer Hakho Lee showed me to the DMR prototype, which was in three pieces on a table. A metal cylinder in a clear plastic cube, a little smaller than a shoebox, was connected to a plain metal box–like an external hard-drive. That was attached by a jury-rigged cable to an iPhone. Lee touched the smartphone’s screen, displaying a red chart.
“And this little computer or little electronics is being interfaced with this iPhone here, so, just with a tap, you can start the measurement,” he said.
The “MR” in DMR is the same as in MRI – magnetic resonance. That’s because the DMR is essentially a scaled down, stripped down MRI machine. The DMR uses a magnetic field to scan tissue samples for particular proteins, the calling cards of whichever kind of cancer the doctors are looking for.
Cesar Castro–another doctor at Mass General–says that in tests like this one, DMR also detected cancer more accurately than traditional biopsies. But speed and ease of use are where the machine really shines. With a DMR, patients could get an immediate diagnosis at their bed-side, or even from their family doctor.
“It essentially equips the clinician and the researchers with more information about the status and kind of a snapshot of the cancer throughout the course of therapy. We haven’t been able to do that previously with prior technologies,” Castro said.
Cancer may not be the only disease the DMR can detect. By changing the protein markers, engineer Hakho Lee envisions using the device in third-world countries as a near-instant test for tuberculosis. The machine is also cheap to make – about $200 each if they were mass-produced – though Castro says the DMR will still need to be handled by medical professionals.
Dr. Ronald Ennis is cautiously optimistic about this invention. He says the greatest benefit could be to patients, who experience a lot of anxiety waiting to hear about test results.
“If that could be shortened to an immediate procedure instead of you know a week or two of one scan and then a biopsy and then waiting for the results, that would be great in terms of patient experience,” he said.
Ennis warned that technologies that look good in a lab don’t always make it into the real world, and he admits that a cancer detector that’s smaller, faster, cheaper, AND more accurate than current methods sounds too good to be true. But if the DMR makes it through clinical trials, it may turn out to be just that.
Posted on 05 March 2011.
It’s not yet 9 a.m., but the Union Square Greenmarket is bustling. Farmers are selling everything from apples to goat cheese. A table at the end of the row is selling potting soil. This isn’t just any soil. It’s made from kitchen scraps collected at this farmer’s market. Christina Datz-Romero is the co-founder of Lower East Side Ecology. They have collected food scraps for composting at Union Square since 1994.
“We have these barrels out here, they’re actually 55-gallon barrels,” she said. “We collect about 4 tons of material here during the week, so we fill about 12 of them each time we are here.”
The barrels sit in a circle, next to the table, where a steady trickle of people come to dump small bags of banana peels, egg shells, and other food scraps. There’s no reward or incentive for composting, but Datz-Romero says interest is growing.
“With more and more awareness about global warming and climate change, people are really looking at the small things they can do in their lives to have a positive impact instead of a huge carbon footprint,” she said.
At 10’ o’ clock, volunteers set up a podium in front of Datz-Romero’s table for City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who is announcing a pilot study to create six more compost pick-up sites across the city. The Council will be teaming up with GrowNYC, which runs the Greenmarkets.
“With the opening of new drop-off sites in other burroughs, we can significantly expand that effort,” she said. “It’ll show that New Yorkers want to compost, show that they care about the environment, and help build more momentum to help us take this program broader across the city.”
The long-term goal of the program is to reduce the amount of food waste that goes to landfills, where it creates harmful greenhouse gasses.
Lower East Side ecology processes the compost from Union Square itself, and then sells it at the site. But the new initiative is expected to collect from 300 to 500 tons of food waste a year – more compost then the city could handle. So the pilot program will send waste out to a corporation in Pennsylvania to be processed, and the city won’t make any money from it. But Quinn says in the long run composting will help the state economy.
“The degree to which we expand the amount of composting in this area then creates demand, that demand could create the potential for a facility in this area, which would be good because having a facility in this area would put New Yorkers to work,” she said. “You don’t really think of food scraps as an economic development engine, but they really could become one for the city.”
Here at Union Square, a middle-aged New Yorker named Patricia is pouring a plastic bag of food scraps into one of the drums. Though she’s been shopping here for years, she’s composting for her first time this morning. “Overripe bananas, overripe shallots, what else? Red onion, that’s about it,” she said.
She says anything the city can do to make it easier will be appreciated. “It was a challenge for me because I had to put it in a bag, and I live on 38th St, and I had to carry it here. So, was it easier? No. [Jonah] But you think it was worth it? [Patricia] Yes.”
City Council is working on a study about implementing composting on a scale more on par with how we deal with recycling now – a mandatory, curbside model. That could be years away. For now, New Yorkers can at least take some comfort in the fact that they don’t have to go all the way to Union Square just to compost.