Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sea Monster Saturday! Xiphactinus

Any one with half a brain knows that the scariest place in the world is the ocean. That’s why here at El Fresco, every Saturday is Sea Monster Saturday! Over the last four hundred million years, there have been a whole bunch of big and nasty things coming out of the sea. And today’s is no exception!

Nothing says "Scary Sea Monster" like Kansas, right? Well trust me, it used to, because during the Cretaceous Period North America was split in two by the inland sea. And this inland sea was a scary friggin' place to be. The Western Inland Sea was filled with all sorts of huge carnivorous sea creatures that make a Great White look like your fat Aunt Sally (not that her fat ass isn't terrifying, but...). And one of those of those scary big bastards was this one: Xiphactinus audax.

Oh, sure, it's a painting I found online, it's not that scary. So, how about this one from an actual dig? This is a medium-sized specimen from a 1952 dig.

Yeah. Medium-sized. Discovered in 1872, Xiphactinus was a large bony fish from the late Cretaceous. And by 'large,' I mean it could grow up to be twenty feet long. Not only could this fish take your head off in a single bite, it could probably eat you in a single gulp if you wanted. Don't believe me? Well, that specimen above with all the people? Yeah, this is it mounted in the Sternberg Museum in Kansas:

That's a six foot skeleton of another fish inside the Xiphactinus. That's right, this fish was swallowed whole, and it was longer than I am tall.
And this thing had teeth, seriously. Observe:

Pointy sharp goodness! Xiphactinus was a scary big crazy fish, which is awesome. But he wasn't the biggest badass in the Inland Sea. Not by a long shot...

To be continued...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Problems of Registration

In case anyone hasn’t quite gotten the hint, I’ve always been interested in “Big Questions”. You know, the kinds of things that there aren’t easy answers to- moral ambiguity, religious ethics, the grand scheme of the universe, that kind of stuff. And the most infuriating part of asking those questions is that usually there aren’t any particularly good answers. To an information whore like myself, it’s maddening. You want to have a solution so badly, and the more you struggle with it the more sides and angles to the question that you see.

It doesn’t help that I’ve been watching Oz, too. Man, they just love their ambiguity over on Oz, don’t they? So as I’ve been watching Oz, it’s inspired me to ask some very, very uncomfortable questions, specifically on the moral and ethical ramifications of… (wait for it)… a Sexual Predator Registry.

‘Oh boy, beware that crazy pinko liberal activist is gonna start crying over perverts!’

Yeah, I know. Too bad. You see, the more I think about it, the more I realize I have real problems with these registry laws, just like I have problems with ‘enhanced interrogation’ and hate crime regulations. These are laws made with very good intentions, designed to protect children and keep parents knowledgeable. But see, there are two problems here. First, these laws frankly do not work. They don’t make children safer at all, and actually may possibly put them more at risk (more on that in a moment). And secondly, I’m not convinced that they’re really ethical, or the right way to protect children.

Here’s a statistic that everybody knows, but no one pays attention to! It’s generally estimated that about 90% of child sex abuse victims know their abuser. There’s a good reason for that- The child feels safe and secure around their attacker, never suspecting what’s going to happen since they trust them. Zoning laws don’t help in these situations, because these people already know their victims. Over 30% of these crimes are committed by a member of the child’s own family- clearly the registry can’t protect them in this case. Additionally, a 2004 survey of child sex offenders done by the US Department of Education found that 69% of these offenders worked in the education system. While the school systems screen for these things, clearly they are less than effective.

The Sex Offender Registry is like putting a band-aid over a third degree burn. The parents feel better because they know exactly where that pervert three blocks away is at all times, all the while never suspecting that their neighbor or cousin or their son’s PE teacher are far, far more likely to make him a victim. This abuse is like domestic abuse, it goes on behind closed doors between people who know each other, and it’s often overlooked.

The sexual predator registry may put people’s minds to ease, but it’s not going to make them or their children any safer. If anything it may make them less safe because it gives parents a false sense of security, making them feel informed but potentially blinding them to the reality of the situation.

But what about the roughly 10% to 15% where the victim doesn’t know their victimizer? Surely, the existence of the registry can help protect them, yes? That smaller percentage is still something, and protecting them is paramount.

Noble, absolutely. But again, the math involved is a little tricky. The United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world, both per capita and in terms of actual numbers. One in one hundred Americans were incarcerated in 2008, a year in which the US population was roughly 306,000,000. Worse yet, the recidivism rate of these convicts is atrocious. Statistically speaking, upon release from prison, nearly 70% of ex-convicts have been rearrested and nearly 50% are back in prison within 3 years, based on a study done by the Department of Justice. Clearly, there is a serious problem in our penal system, but that’s a debate for a different day.

Interestingly, though, sex offenders have a much lower rate of rearrest than non-offenders. 43% of offenders are rearrested (and that’s for any crime, not just a sex-related one), as opposed to 68% of non-offenders. More over, sex offenders that are rearrested only are rearrested for another sex crime 5.3% of the time. While they’re much, much more likely to recommit a sex crime than a non-offender is, that means that the odds of a sex offender being sent back to prison for another sex crime within three years is less than three percent.

Since the sexual predator registry is a retroactive measure, no one is on the list who hasn’t already been convicted for a sex crime. So, to get this all straight: Somewhere between 80 and 90% of a child sex criminals victimize children they know personally. So, if we assume that 15% of child molesters don’t know their victims, and that 5% of people on the Predatory Registry will commit another sex crime, the odds of a child being a victim of a sex crime by someone on the Registration list that they don’t know is roughly … 0.75%.

Now, once again, this is not meant to minimize a horrible, gut wrenching crime. I’m just trying to put some perspective on this, but even just one instance that’s stopped because the parents were aware of a local predator is an amazing thing. If my reservations about the Predator Registry were all about math, just one child being saved from this fate would be enough to make me feel it was all worth it.

But my problems with the registry are a lot more complicated than that. I’m very uncomfortable with the precedent that such a list sets, you see. Theoretically, once you finish your prison term you’re as free as any other citizen-unless you’re a sexual predator that is. There are a couple complications, of course: you legally can’t vote, you’re likely to have trouble finding a job, et cetera. But while these are difficulties, they’re nothing like the problems a sex offender faces. Sure, their crimes are a matter of public record, but you have to know that to find them. The Sex Offender Registry brings the sex offenders to you. The only way I can find out if Joe Blow is a felon is to look up his record in the county he did his crime in.

And here we start to see a potential slippery slope inherent in a registration list. I can look up the registry to see if my next door neighbor is a sex offender. But he could be a convicted burglar, and I’d never know. And a convicted burglar is far more likely to repeat his original offense then a sex offender. So what is to be done?

Essentially, we’ve created an unfair standard, making sex offenders into a sort of mega-criminal in the public’s eye, their crimes far worse than any other. While I myself might agree with that assessment, legally it just seems unsuitable. All men are created equal, and in the eye’s of the law, the sentence is determined by the severity of the crime (in theory, anyway). If we as a society choose that child sexual misconduct is the worst sin in society, then surely the prison sentences for it should be as steep as for murder. But they aren’t, clearly. Society thinks there are worse things out there.

Personally, if sex offenders- who statically speaking aren’t very likely to affect me- have to be registered and tell me they’re perverts in person, then I want the burglars, carjackers and murderers to do the same. They’re much more of a risk to me. I know, why don’t we set up a national criminal registry? Every convict has to tell all their neighbors everything that they did and why they’re such a bad person!

“But wait, what about the right to privacy, which is guaranteed under the Bill of Rights? Just because I did something stupid and stole a stereo system twenty years ago when I were a kid doesn’t mean it should ruin my life. I’m a different person now! I don’t want other people to know about that!”

Which is exactly my point. In our society, you do the time, you get out, and it’s assumed by the law that you have learned your lesson. Unless you break the law again, you’re officially off the hook. You’ve paid your debt to society…
…Unless you’re a sex offender. Again, protecting our children is of major importance to us as a society. But frankly, what we’re doing isn’t helping. More to the point, it’s crushing our liberty.

As far as I’m concerned, the entire purpose of the penal system should be reform. A reformed criminal doesn’t want to commit crimes anymore. But think about it: why should a sex offender reform? Getting out of prison isn’t the light at the end of the tunnel. What awaits them is essentially a blacklisting from all of society. Everyone already views them as a monster, which doesn’t exactly help defer them from becoming one. What these people need is counseling, conditioning, learning why what they did was wrong.

The sad truth of the matter is demonizing these people is far too easy. They’ve done despicable acts, hurt an innocent in a way that can never be truly mended. But they are still people, human beings just like you and me. Treating them differently than other criminals isn’t going to help them realize how horrible what they did was. I think we need to rethink what we’re doing here, because the only way to protect children from these people is to change their behavior. And further ostracizing them isn’t going to do that at all.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Sea Monster Saturday! Megalodon

Any one with half a brain knows that the scariest place in the world is the ocean. That’s why here at El Fresco, every Saturday is Sea Monster Saturday! Over the last four hundred million years, there have been a whole bunch of big and nasty things coming out of the sea. And today’s is no exception!

Say what you will about Hollywood, but they got this one right: sharks are freaking scary. Great Whites are like this nasty fish out of hell, all teeth and blood and pitch black eyes. Even the massive Basking Shark and Whale Shark, which are completely harmless to humans- let’s face it, they’re kind of freaky.

But what if there were a shark like the great white… only with the proportions of a whale shark? Make it so, monkey paw, make it so.

Whoa! No, that’s not photoshopped, that’s for real. Behold the mouth of the largest known carnivorous fish ever, Carcharocles megalodon! Growing to an estimated size of 60 feet long, and weighing some 70 metric tons, this fish was the biggest, meanest, nastiest badass in the ocean. What’s more, Megalodon was the apex predator of the entire ocean for some 17 million years.

This fish ate anything it wanted. Its teeth were serrated, and bite marks from C. megalodon have been found on the remains of every thing from sperm whales to seals. Not only was this shark beyond huge, but there’s evidence that C. megalodon was even more vicious in it’s attacks than modern white sharks. It would attack the flippers and lower vertebrae of whales first, making it impossible for them to swim away to safety.

Here’s something to put things in perspective. Below, we have a tooth of C. megalodon, a tooth of Carcharodontosaurs, a predatory dinosaur the size of T-Rex, and a standard US quarter.

Or how about this… interesting-looking woman holding a tooth?

And then we’ve got this lovely chart, with a great white shark for size comparison.

Yeah. Seriously.

Thank god for global cooling, though. It appears that C. megalodon went extinct roughly 1.5 million years ago, thanks in large part to the glaciation of the planet during the late Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs. Megalodon lived and hunted in warm waters, which meant as the sea level got lower and world temperatures cooled, there were less and less waters to feed in.

On top of that, whales frankly evolved better. The species of whales that survived during these climates changed their migratory patterns, and moved to polar regions, effectively moving away from where the massive shark could prey upon them. Megalodon’s food supply was dried up, and the scariest animal on the planet starved itself to extinction. With the exception of humans, massive whales haven’t been preyed upon since.

All that being said, C. megalodon was clearly a monster for the ages. Now, all we need is a time machine, and we can really make Steven Spielberg wet his pants…