Thursday, October 9, 2003

6. Bats get a bum holiday rap

Halloween brings out all the scary creatures- ghosts and goblins, vampires, and mummies. Witches and the Grim Reaper, too. Don't forget Frankenstein, the devil and flying bats. Wait, bats? How ever did they get grouped in with this deplorable cast? Who is responsible for this inexcusable sort of prejudicial slander? Where is a good lawyer when you need one?

If you really look at them- bats are cute, at least in a flying-Gremlin sort of way. One just has to look past its rat-like body, big ears, piggish nose and beady eyes. Looks can be deceiving; it's what is underneath that counts; beauty is only skin deep- did I miss any?

Actually these little guys do lots of good. They save farmers money on pesticides by eating millions of pounds of insects each night. They pollinate key tree and plant species in the rain forest. They even produce (through there droppings known as Guano) an important component in gunpowder. That's right! In fact, in the War of 1812 and as late as the American Civil War, bat caves were so important that guards were stationed outside to protect them from their enemies. Finally, to aid in the World War II effort, Brazilian free-tail bats offered to have small bombs attached to their backs. Their Kamikaze-type plan was to be dropped by planes over Japan, land on buildings, and then detonate the bombs when they groomed themselves. Appreciating the patriotism offered by the bats, the plan was abandoned. Who are the "real" heroes anyway?

For their effort, how are they treated? In typical American fashion, a lack of appreciation and ignorance prevails. We destroy their habitats. But then again, bats shouldn't be offended- we indiscriminately destroy lots of habitats. We tell lies. Bats have rabies; they are evil and dangerous. They suck blood. They have become the victims of negative human attitudes. All the while the truth would tell us that they contract rabies at comparable mammalian levels (about .5%) and no North American bats include blood in their diets. Bats have been around for at least three million years, with over 1,000 species (or about 25% of all mammal species). But, alas, one-half of these are listed as endangered or as a candidate for endangerment, as many fail to realize that they are a peaceful and beneficial part of our ecosystem.

In the study of their nature, we find that bats really are amazing creatures. Famous for their echolocational abilities, they catch their prey by emitting a high frequency sound and with the returning waves paint themselves a mental picture of the prey's location. In mastering this technique, they are able to detect a single strand of hair in complete darkness. Bats are also the only mammalian species with the ability to fly. They have hands like humans, four fingers and a thumb, which have become elongated to form the wing (they also have five little toes). There are two general types, microbats- as small as a bumblebee and megabats- as large as two pounds. Microbats live off of insects, while megabats eat fruit and nectar. Finally, and in true Halloween spirit, northern bats hibernate in the winter- in colonies known as Hibernaculas!

There are three species that are classified as vampire bats, deriving their name from the European legends that preceded their discovery. They use their three front fangs to puncture the skin of a sleeping cow or horse and lap up the blood. They do not suck. Their saliva has a special chemical that prevents the blood from coagulating. Scientists believe that this chemical, as a blood thinner, could help humans. And now, suddenly, these bats, at least, aren't so bad.

So have your fun this Halloween, hang those scary plastic creatures in your house and off your porch. Shriek at the thought of being attacked by these bloodthirsty animals or getting them caught in your hair. Maybe even take in an old-time vampire movie. But next Spring, attempt to make amends with our cute furry insecticides. Invite them into our gardens and fields. Beg forgiveness for that whole World War II Kamikaze thing. Do the right thing- put up a bat house and welcome them in!

Thursday, October 2, 2003

5. Sounds like computer theft

Imagine, if you can, opening the hood of you new car and noticing a bright red warning sticker proclaiming, "Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws." You see, the sticker is now applied to all new cars because the Internet and slick new software programs enable the buyer of the new car to scan his or her car and "share" it with his or her friends anywhere in the world. That's right, friends anywhere can check out your new car, and if they like it, they can simply download it and, subsequently, duplicate it. And then their friends can download it, and their fiends, and so on and so on. Pretty soon, only a few people will ever actually have to purchase a new car because they will all be available on-line for free- that is, if people are willing to ignore the bright red sticker.

Although demonstrated through an impractical analogy, the point is the same- unauthorized duplication is stealing. Consider the impact on society and in the community of this somewhat absurd comparison. The car companies employ workers to design, create and produce automobiles to be sold at a profit. This profit ensures jobs for the employees and transportation for the customer. Consider the public outrage if the unauthorized duplication of automobiles cost thousands of workers their jobs because customers could, thanks to technology, obtain them for free!

Why then is it perceived justifiable in the situation of downloaded music? What ever gave file "sharers" the impression that what they were doing was legal? Here's how it works: someone in Australia (or wherever, with the user name "BigDog156") purchases a CD and places it on the Internet, "friends" then download it, write it to disk (duplicate it) and enjoy it without ever paying a cent to the creator or producer of the music. What explanation could defend the obvious duplication (or receipt) of material that was not paid for by the end user? Did the musician and music company not design, create and produce a product in the same manner, and with the same intentions, as the car companies?

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) estimates that there are more than 2.5 billion (yes, billion) illegal downloads of copyrighted material every month. Yet many express no or little sympathy for the music industry. Because they can obtain unauthorized over the Internet, they have assumed entitlement- that somehow this has become their right. They hide under the term "file sharing"- a type of sharing equivalent to one person paying for the dinner buffet, and the rest of the family eating for free.

The defense of those who download copyrighted material ranges from weak to ridiculous. Some complain that CDs are too expensive and that artists are already very wealthy (some automakers became wealthy, that didn't mean their cars were free for the taking). Others justify their actions by noting that they wouldn't purchase the CD anyway, so the artist is not actually out any money (is that like saying the baseball game would've been played anyway even if I didn't watch?). The best of the best ask why should we pay for them when we can get them for free- noting, graciously of course, that this is a free country (they're kidding right?).

The RIAA has sought a number of measures to protect their product from the illegal duplication, but at best are hoping for compromise. They have filed lawsuits against Person-to-Person (P2P) networks such as Napster and Kazaa, sought the introduction of legislation that would make file sharing a felony, and put pressure on universities who allow their networks to be used for illegal downloading. However, realizing that technology will continue to outrun enforcement, their requests have been modest- asking for "subscription fees" and possibly even bundling music fees into the room and board charges of universities. The problem will undoubtedly continue with the increase in availability of broadband connections and extension of illegal downloading to include other media such as software programs and full-length movies.

In many ways the battle has just begun, but ultimately some feel the only solution will be personal responsibility. They hope that some will wind up purchasing the CDs because it's the honest thing to do. Others, such as Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America, noting the "casual regard" some have in regards to file sharing asserts that people need to have a sense of the moral compact: to take something that does not belong to you is thievery.