Self-Taught African Boy Impresses MIT

From  comes a fascinating story about a child prodigy skilled enough to earn the attention of the esteemed MIT. From the video’s caption (which includes additional links and information).

15-Year-Old Kelvin Doe is an engineering whiz living in Sierra Leone who scours the trash bins for spare parts, which he uses to build batteries, generators and transmitters. Completely self-taught, Kelvin has created his own radio station where he broadcasts news and plays music under the moniker, DJ Focus.

Kelvin became the youngest person in history to be invited to the “Visiting Practitioner’s Program” at MIT. THNKR had exclusive access to Kelvin and his life-changing journey – experiencing the US for the first time, exploring incredible opportunities, contending with homesickness, and mapping out his future.

Unfortunately, the video, which may be a tad too sentimental for some, glosses over how Kelvin managed such a remarkable feat, mentioning only that he’s “self-taught.” I’d very much like to hear him explain the creative and exploratory process that led him to do something that even those of us with the resources can’t pull off.

Stories like this – of child prodigies and other unlikely inventors – always make think: how many geniuses out there are harboring innate talents and skills that will never be known due to poverty and lack of access to educational resources? There could be millions of people just like this boy who are denied the opportunity to realize their potential. Imagine if Einstein or Newton had been born in abject poverty, without access to books, schools, or the time to focus on intellectual pursuits?

This boy pulled it off against all odds, but he’s an exceptional case: there are many more like him that remain under the radar, much to the detriment of the world. At the very least, the globalized and interconnected nature of our world (led by the internet) is allowing us to uncover such talents like never before – but it won’t be enough. The world can’t afford to let generations of potential scientists, innovators, and inventors remain unappreciated and untapped. There is no substitute for human brain power, and like any resource, it needs to be invested it and harnessed.

Mississippi Votes to Redefine a Person

Today, residents of Mississippi are voting a referendum to amend the state constitution so as to recognize a fertilized egg, and every other stage thereafter, as a legal person. Initiative 26, also known as the “Personhood Amendment” reads as follows:

Be it Enacted by the People of the State of Mississippi: SECTION 1. Article III of the constitution of the state of Mississippi is hereby amended BY THE ADDITION OF A NEW SECTION TO READ: Section 33. Person defined. As used in this Article III of the state constitution, “The term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.” This initiative shall not require any additional revenue for implementation.

The New York Times elaborates on the implications of this decision, which may go far beyond just abortions:

The amendment in Mississippi would ban virtually all abortions, including those resulting from rape or incest. It would bar some birth control methods, including IUDs and “morning-after pills,” which prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus. It would also outlaw the destruction of embryos created in laboratories. . .

The approach, granting legal rights to embryos, is fundamentally different from the abortion restrictions that have been adopted in dozens of states. These try to narrow or hamper access to abortions by, for example, sharply restricting the procedures at as early as 20 weeks, requiring women to view ultrasounds of the fetus, curbing insurance coverage and imposing expensive regulations on clinics.

The Mississippi amendment aims to sidestep existing legal battles, simply stating that “the term ‘person’ or ‘persons’ shall include every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning or the functional equivalent thereof.”

CNN further expands on the wider affects:

It could make in vitro fertilization treatments more difficult because it could become illegal to dispose of unused fertilized eggs. This could lead to a nationwide debate about women’s rights and abortion while setting up a possible challenge to the landmark Roe v. Wade case, which makes abortion legal… The Mississippi State Medical Association and Doctors Against MS 26 are voicing concern about implications for the health care of women as well as their ability to practice medicine.

Subsequently, many legal experts and bioethicists fear that voters won’t realize the greater repercussions this will have. As in most legal matters, the wording used is both vague and broad, going beyond what the average person has in mind when they head to the polls (in this case, merely the banning of abortion).

The debate going on within the state is also pretty heavy, with each side accusing the other of fear-mongering and scare-tactics to try and sway voters. It’s unsurprising that abortion would be so heated an issue, especially in light of the general trend of political polarization.

What the amendment means, and whether it is either the most sensible measure or the most extreme and dangerous one, depends on whom you talk to in Mississippi.

Terri Herring, the national director for the Pro-Life America network and an advisory board member for Yes on 26, said the goal of the amendment is to give people the chance to say there is a better way than abortion. She also said the vote is a way to change the national conversation and push to give more rights to the unborn.

“In Mississippi, we have the opportunity to lead the way on a social justice issue,” Herring said. “We may have been behind on civil rights, but we can be ahead on human rights, and that’s what personhood is really all about.”

But those opposed to the measure say that voting yes would be a huge mistake.

Cristen Hemmins, a mother from Oxford, has been speaking out against Initiative 26 because of what it could mean for her, her daughters and the ability of families to make the choices they want with their doctors.

“Whether or not you believe life begins at conception, this amendment goes too far,” she said. “It is too ambiguous. It seems so obvious to me that it is far-reaching and it is going to be big government getting all up in my uterus.”

Hemmins believes that passing the amendment would give the state too much control over women’s reproductive rights.

Herring, on the other hand, thinks the amendment would be a way for Mississippi to be the first to support the rights of an unborn fetus while correcting contradictions in the state’s constitution.

“If a woman was attacked and her unborn child was killed, it would be fetal homicide. That is considered a person,” she said. “But on that very same day in the same area, a woman could go and have an abortion and kill her child, and nothing would happen. So we have a contradiction, and that is what we’re trying to fix here.”

But Hemmins believes that passing the amendment would be a “blight” on Mississippi, not a shining moment, and she cautions those who think this is just a local issue.

Note that Mississippi, the poorest state in the country, also has the highest rate of teen pregnancy and STD infection, which means that reproductive issues go far beyond just abortion. Some have argued that the state should focus on these core problems instead, while others believe bestowing personhood will make women more cautious about their reproductive decisions.

Mississippi is a deeply conservative state, with both Democrats and Republicans in support of the amendment. Polls show that residents favor the personhood measure by a wide margin, and most analysts believe it will pass. Were that to happen, it would likely go through an appeal process, given its unconstitutionality. The weight behind it means it could go through the appeals process, and possibly all the way to the US Supreme Court – which is currently majority-conservative. There is a slim but plausible chance that Roe v. Wade could be overturned, though I personally doubt that will happen: once rights, even contentious ones, have been legally and socially established, it is generally difficult to dislodge them.

Personally, my views on abortion are agnostic. I believe that it is a matter of privacy, and therefore a woman has a right to do with her body as she will – so in that sense, I support its legality. On the other hand, even as an irreligious person, I do have some ethical concerns about the practice, and consider it unfortunate. I’m of the position that, legal or not, it is best prevented, and that it is a symptom of wider socioeconomic and educational problems that should be addressed.

I also find it curious that many conservatives, who are viscerally opposed to big government (particularly as it pertains to social programs), would nonetheless support a measure that will permit government intrusion in one of the most personal matters imaginable (though many will certainly counter-argue that matters of “murder” are obvious exceptions).  

If this measure were to be enforced, I also believe that the rate of back-alley abortions and miscarriages are going to rise, as will unwanted pregnancies and the strain that causes to state services and poor families. Social issues are always difficult to legislate without addressing their core origins.

But abortion is a highly complex topic with no clear or easy answers. It’s hard to find a middle-ground – other than to try and prevent it, which will never happen completely. Taking a solid position one way or the other seems untenable to me, mostly due to the presuppositions involved: what evidence is there for a soul in the first place, let when it is implanted? If it is a woman’s right to choose, what is the cut-off point? How do we define a person as a whole? I have my positions, but I’d rather save them for another post, given the time and effort required to tackle this.  

If there is one thing I and both sides agree with, it is that this amendment will have far-reaching impact on the national debate. Already, several states have in mind to put similar initiatives on the ballot in the coming years (including my state of Florida). The group behind Amendment 26, Personhood USA, will likely expand its efforts throughout the country were it to succeed. This topic is certainly going to get a lot more contentious – even by it’s own standards. 


Homosexuality: The Greatest Threat to America?

It looks absurd to any rational person, but this is precisely the claim that at least one (doubtless not the only) Evangelic Christian organization, the American Family Association, is making. A New York Times article reports on the influence of conservative religious groups like the AFA on the coming 2012 elections, including drumming up support for candidates that explicitly take stands against gay marriage.

Groups like the AFA go on the offensive against what is perceived to be a “homosexual agenda,” combining the far-right’s usual fondness for paranoia and conspiracy with a tendency to blame a narrow group, social trend, or belief system. They provided support to California’s proposition eight, which sought to ban gay marriage, and were behind the successful effort to unseat the Iowa Supreme Court judges who had supported gay marriage.

But the [American Family Association] has sharpened its edge over the years, moving from its well-known crusades for public “decency” to harshly opposing what it calls an anti-Christian “homosexual agenda” — not only same-sex marriage and the acceptance of gay troops in the military, but any suggestion that homosexual “behavior is normal.” The association also campaigns against anti-bullying programs that teach tolerance and corporations (like Home Depot, a current target) that support gay pride parades.

This is just spiteful and petty. It’s enough that people make such a fuss about gay marriage, which does no harm to anyone whether you care for it or not. But to campaign against efforts that promote tolerance and fight anti-gay bigotry? They’re essentially condoning discrimination and bigotry against homosexuals.

Furthermore, as is typical among the Christian right, there is the usual rhetoric decrying the loss of Judeo-Christian values and drawing a link between America’s current state of decline and the growing secularization of society (never mind that most secular countries in the world – the Scandinavian nations, Australia, South Korea, and others – are doing rather well in terms of low crime rates, high levels of education, high standard of living, and so on). The AFA goes as far as to claim that there is a Manichean conflict between an alliance of gays and secular elites and the religious community.

Mr. Wildmon [AFA's founder and chairman] warns that if current social trends go unchecked, “homosexuals will become part of an elite class” and “Christians will be second-class citizens at best.”

This is nothing short of a delusional conspiracy, to say the least. Anyone who thinks that homosexuals are out to control the masses and keep the rest of us down is just rehashing the same old nonsense that’s been said about some minority or another for centuries (most notably Jews). Such an absurd claim is a complete non-sequitor for me. It’s also akin to how past movements concerned with the rights of women or blacks were similarly derided, with claims that they were trying to shake up the stable and wholesome social order (which was great if you were a white male).

As if this statement isn’t upping the ante enough, one of the organization’s talk radio hosts – who I cringe to add is probably reaching at least 2 million of the groups’s members and sympathizers,  if not more – heightens tensions up even more with this little gem:

“I don’t think we are exaggerating the dangers to the country, the culture, the American family,” Mr. Fischer said in an interview. “The stakes are as high as they could be.”

Dangers to this country? To our culture and families, with high stakes involved? These folks might as well just declare war on homosexuals and be done with it. It’s bad enough that this group makes a point to curtail any effort to promote tolerance and understanding of homosexuals; it’s bad enough that they go the next step and claim LGBT people are part of some nefarious anti-Christian plot. But now they’re inciting some sort of existential threat to our entire society and it’s well-being?

Of course, it hasn’t even begun to get worse. On top of their war against America – which is essentially what these AFA people are stopping just short of saying – homosexuals bear one another concerning threat: they’re tyrants and Nazis in the making. To quote the NYT article once more:

Perhaps most notably, Mr. Fischer trumpets the disputed theory that Adolf Hitler was a homosexual and that the Nazi Party was largely created by “homosexual thugs” — evidence, he says, of the inherent pathologies of homosexuality. Mr. Fischer has also said that no more Muslims should be granted citizenship because their religion says to kill Americans, and that welfare recipients “rut like rabbits” because of what he calls welfare’s perverse incentives.

So every homosexual is a potential murderous tyrant in the making? Chalk that up with similar claims about gays being innate pedophiles, sexual predators, and abusers. This isn’t just vapid and inane drivel – it’s frightening. Claiming that the Nazi regime, and everything it did, is an inherent feature of homosexuality “run amok” is not a light claim by any stretch. This is a vile and disturbing connection that no group of people, even those behind such a remark, should be tainted with.

Am I the only one that sees the danger in all this?  It is one thing to have some personal gripes about homosexuality (though I find that silly and baseless, to put it nicely). But going on about some paranoid  scenario pitting homosexual elites against the entire country is insane and possibly perilous. The AFA, which is just one of dozens of similar groups, is proliferating these hateful claims to millions of people around the country – and at a time of inflamed passions, fears, and divisions. People are already quite misinformed about homosexuality and other non-heterosexual identities as it is.  This just lessens the dignity and humanity of LGBT people even further.

I’ll never for the life of me understand why people are so inflamed and hateful towards a small minority with different sexual identities and orientation. With all the real problems facing our society – poverty, inequality, debt, crumbling education and infrastructure systems, and so on – we’re putting all this energy, vitriol, and attention on gays marrying or seeking civil protections? With all the real crooks and monsters out there, we’re framing people – guilty of nothing more than having a different sexuality than most of us – as malicious elites and Nazis?

The idea that a politician’s career can be made or broken by whether they at least tacitly take a stand against LGBT people is disheartening, as is accepting that millions of people vote with this “issue” being foremost on their minds, ahead of many other considerations. I don’t think any rational and decent person, whatever their political or religious persuasions (if any), could not feel, at the very least, perplexed by all this, if not disgusted.

Also, before I receive the usual feedback that not all Christians believe or endorse these kind of statements, let me make clear that I acknowledge this and am in no way claiming all religious people are guilty of this sort of bigotry and stupidity. I’m focusing merely on those that do, although I advise the moderate or tolerant religious readers among you to reflect on where such trends are coming from, and to perhaps consider reigning in on your co-coreligionists’  frightful rhetoric.