June 30, 2011

Mission Impossible

Hate to say I told you so, but the war in Libya is going exactly as predicted here. The following appeared in CNN today:

Part of that failure was a lack of consideration of the makeup of the Libyan population, said University of Texas political scientist Alan J. Kuperman, author of "The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention."
"The fundamental error by the White House and NATO was to imagine that the Libyan people were united in opposition to Gadhafi," he said.
"In reality, Libya is divided along lines of clan and tribe, some of whom benefit greatly from Gadhafi, and therefore defend him fiercely," he said. "Any expert on ethnic conflict and intervention could have told the White House that ahead of time."
Why do we do this sort of thing over and over and over? We charge into a region utterly unaware of the history or the state of affairs on the ground, backing people we don't know a damn thing about in a cause that was lost from Day One. You're telling me that I could see it coming but the professionals in Washington, London, and Paris couldn't? Unlikely. They were blinded by ... well, I don't know by what ... oil? the Arab spring? revenge? Instead they blundered into yet another "quick" war that never turns out that way.

What a waste! Karl Marx had it right when he said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce.


I planted a small garden this year, but once planted, even a small garden requires tending. Each night when I get home, after I have fed the dog, we both go outside where she runs around while I water the garden. The first bucketful goes to the side yard garden, where I planted the tomatoes and squash. The second is for the green beans and a lone pepper plant. The last to be watered are the petunias which adorn the perimeter of the deck.

These small nightly oblations to the Earth Mother Goddess are chores, yes, but they are more than that. They tie me to the cycle of duty that binds the animal world together. For only animals have the notion of doing something for a future reward. Plants just grow. Animals do things for a reason. A bird gathers twigs to build a nest. Bees gather pollen to feed the hive. I raise tomatoes to feed the insects which feed the birds with the side benefit of the occasional tomato for a salad or sandwich.

Chores are the glue that bind together any society. Failure to do chores foreshadows a decline in family or societal fortunes. Each day that the unpleasant necessaries of life are left undone is a step farther away from cohesion and a step closer to collapse. The discipline that comes from the daily grind of doing chores is the only defense we have against entropy—the drag of nature against order, the weeds that left untended will return entire cultures to the jungle.

Just like individuals, societies and their governments have chores to do. And just like individuals, governments that fail to tend to their chores are on a course for eventual collapse. Chores are about stewardship, the taking care of things.  Can there be any doubt that our governments have failed in their duties as stewards of the future? They have borrowed heavily from the next couple of generations to finance a lavish lifestyle that Mother Nature has been telling us we can no longer sustain. We put off doing what needs to be done, preferring instead to cling to false hopes and false dawns.

Gloomy thoughts on a gentle summer's night lit by fireflies and moonlight.

June 27, 2011

Home of the Brave

From the "You Can't Make It Up" Department, subcategory "Florida": Yes, Osama bin Laden is dead, but his legacy lives on and on and on ....

June 22, 2011

The Sentence

 My son gave me Stanley Fish's How To Write A Sentence for my birthday. Fish defines a sentence as "a structure of logical relationships." He goes further to state: "Content, the communication in a thrilling and effective way of ideas and passion, is finally what sentences are for."

These theories snapped into focus when I came upon these two sentences in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness:
Droll thing life is—that mysterious arrangement of logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself—that comes too late—a crop of unextinguishable regrets.
Form and content. Logical relationships. Yes, they are vital. But when matched by a willingness to expose one's own heart of darkness, a sentence vibrates like a tuning fork deep in our hidden self.

June 21, 2011

Non-Communicable Diseases

This fits right in with yesterday's post, Death by Buffet. Following are the remarks by UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro to a media forum on non-communicable diseases, in New York, 20 June. The topic is the impact of four noncommunicable diseases—cancer, diabetes and heart and lung disease—on the global economy. (Obesity is a significant risk-multiplier for diabetes and heart disease.) An estimated 36 million people died from noncommunicable diseases in 2008. That's over 60 percent of all global deaths that year. According to one estimate, these diseases have cost the global economy $35 trillion over the last 25 years. (Emphasis added below.)

Thank you, Dr. [John] Seffrin [CEO of the American Cancer Society] for your introduction.  I would like to express my tremendous gratitude to the American Cancer Society for all your work to improve public health.  And I thank you for this chance to speak to such an important group.

The media is critical to any public health campaign.  This is especially true for non-communicable diseases.  Because there are so many myths that need to be corrected.  And there are, at times, forces behind those myths trying to hide the truth.

This is the reality we have to face if we are going to tackle this problem.  We have to be aware of the potential roadblocks.  And we need the media to keep everyone honest.

Unlike sicknesses caused by a mosquito, a virus or an infection, non-communicable diseases are linked to factors like food, tobacco, environmental pollution and a lack of exercise.  These may sound largely like matters of individual habit.  After all, people can decide for themselves whether they smoke or drink too much, or whether they fail to get exercise or overeat.

Changing individual habits is essential, yes.  A major part of our campaign will be to promote exercise, reduce excessive consumption of alcohol and cut the use of tobacco products.  But this is not only a campaign for individuals.  Governments can take decisions that reward and encourage healthy habits.  Equally, they can raise the financial cost of unhealthy habits.

Governments can also strengthen health care for people with non-communicable diseases.  They can fund research.  Academics and scientists can foster progress.

And the private sector can make sure that while they pursue profits, they also protect health.  Companies can adjust the formulas of their foods to include better ingredients and ban those that are known to be harmful, like transfats.  Companies can also act responsibly when marketing products to children.  And all of us can take measures to keep harmful chemicals out of our environment.

Raising awareness is a simple and economical way to prevent non-communicable diseases.  Two thirds of all new cases of non-communicable diseases can be prevented by addressing the four main risk factors: tobacco use, unhealthy diets, lack of exercise and excessive alcohol consumption.  The private sector is gearing up to help and Governments are on board.  But their reach is nothing compared with the media.

At their best, journalists expose lies and offer the objective truth.  Articles and television programmes can promote exercise, responsible alcohol consumption and healthy eating.  They can encourage people to go for screening and take other preventive measures.  Ultimately, you in the media can help save lives.

Cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, cancer and diabetes are often mistakenly viewed as “diseases of affluence”.  After all — the thinking goes — if someone has plenty of money they will buy rich foods, alcoholic drinks and tobacco products.  And they will have plenty of leisure, not physical work.  Certainly this describes some cases, but not the vast majority.  Poor countries suffer 80 per cent of the non-communicable diseases’ death toll.  Poor mothers who lack good nutrition in pregnancy are more likely to give birth to babies vulnerable to non-communicable diseases later in life.

Smoking rates are highest among men in lower-middle-income countries.  Those countries also suffer two thirds of all cancer deaths.  Africa has the highest rate of people living with raised blood pressure.  Those countries are the least able to provide preventive screening.  That leads to late diagnosis, which in turn means more expensive treatment — and much poorer prognosis.

The economic costs of non-communicable diseases are astronomical.  But let us put aside those costs for a moment, even though they are catastrophic for too many families.  Let us think instead of someone we know who has suffered from one of these illnesses, maybe even ourselves.  There is no price tag on the anxiety and pain.  There is no cost-benefit analysis that can sufficiently describe the suffering of family and friends.  There is no calculation to determine what someone might have contributed to our world if only they had never fallen ill.

Many of us are here today because we have been directly or indirectly affected by cancer, diabetes, heart disease or chronic respiratory illness.  We know how debilitating and deadly non-communicable diseases can be — and that is why we are moved to act.  Now our challenge is to spread this message.

June 20, 2011

Death by Buffet

We were returning home through Pennsylvania from a wedding in New England when we decided to stop for lunch at a diner I had eaten at a few years back. The diner was not aging very gracefully, but you could tell the owners were making an effort to keep up appearances; the duct tape used to repair a tear in the seat was the same shade of red as the original Naugahyde.

The same could not be said for the customers, who for the most part ranged from obese to morbidly obese, which is defined as 100 pounds over one's ideal weight. My wife and I both have worked in public health, so we saw before us not customers but a cluster of age- and weight-related diseases, the treatment of which would have to be paid by all of us to some degree.

One woman stood out. She was enormous to the point where she could only hobble around with the assistance of one of those aluminum canes with a tripod base for stability. Twice I saw her head for the buffet line, cane in one hand, tray in the other. The second time she was hitting the desert portion of the buffet, painfully inching her way along, adding cookies, a slice of pie, and piece of cake.

She was literally eating herself to death. There is no other way to describe it. Somewhere along the line she had given up. Instead of fighting to control her weight, she had given in to her appetites. That sounds judgmental as hell. Of course, it isn't that simple. But it was terribly depressing to watch.

My post-war generation has survived the culture wars and the digital divide. Now we are on the front lines of the health care crisis. Too many of us will die from self-inflicted wounds, especially obesity, which has reached epidemic proportions in certain sections of the country, and more troubling, among America's children. Twenty percent of children aged 6 to 11 are obese, according to CDC.

The irony is that a different problem exists at the opposite end of the spectrum, what I would call the morbidly thin. I get just as concerned at the sight of a stick thin teenager as I do at the sight of an obese adult. Neither extreme is good.

You have to wonder about a culture that spawns two such opposite yet equally worrisome eating disorders. Gives a whole new twist to the phrase "meeting in the middle."

June 12, 2011

Fighting Words

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, in response to a question asking if he would disavow the science of global warming:
"I don’t speak for the scientific community, of course, but I believe the world’s getting warmer. I can’t prove that, but I believe based on what I read that the world is getting warmer. And number two, I believe that humans contribute to that. I don’t know how much our contribution is to that, because I know that there have been periods of greater heat and warmth in the past but I believe we contribute to that. And so I think it’s important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases that may well be significant contributors to the climate change and the global warming that you’re seeing." 
Not exactly Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses, but this simple restatement of the current scientific consensus on global warming had an equally galvanizing effect upon the defenders of Republican conservative orthodoxy. It would all be laughable were it not for the price I fear my grandchildren will pay for the Republican Party's foolish consistency.

June 11, 2011

Heart of Darkness

A couple of posts back I quoted a passage from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. That got me thinking that I hadn't read the story in quite a while, so I downloaded it on to my Nook. As I got caught up in the story, I remembered a piece I wrote a few years back about a man named E. D. Morel, whose story may well have inspired Conrad. I've reprinted most of it below. It's a bit long but well worth reading through to the surprising end to an astonishing life.

E. D. Morel is at the center of a wonderful book by Adam Hochschild, called ''King Leopold's Ghost.'' Morel was hired by a shipping agent to oversee shipments of goods and services between Belgium and it's colony in Africa, the Congo. It would be more accurate to say the colony of Belgium's King, for Leopold owned the colony in his own right, separate and apart from the Belgian government. Pretty sweet deal for Leopold. Not so great for the Belgians.

Anyway, Morel right away noticed something peculiar about how things operated. The ships coming to Belgium from Africa were laden with rubber and ivory, the two principle exports from the Belgian Congo. That was okay. What struck Morel as odd was the nature of the return cargo going back to the Congo: guns and bullets.

It didn't take Morel long to put two and two together. Elephant tusks and rubber coming in. Guns and bullets going out. Oh, maybe a few beads and copper wire and trinkets, but mostly just guns and bullets. No trading goods. Just guns and bullets.

Morel decided to take a closer look at the paperwork. This led him to the inescapable conclusion that all those guns and bullets could have only one purpose: to force the native Africans to perform labor for the white colonists. What he was looking at was the infrastructure that supported a vast system of coerced labor.

Horrified by his discovery, Morel set out on a decades long crusade to first uncover and then eliminate the use of slave labor in the Belgian Congo, for that is surely what was going on. Morel published a newsletter devoted exclusively to the topic of the brutal treatment of native Africans. Soon it became pretty widely known that if you had dirt to dish about what was happening in the Belgian Congo then Morel was your guy.

Morel was joined by two Baptist missionaries, The Reverend John Harris and his wife Alice, who had lived in the Belgian Congo and who were as determined as Morel to eliminate the brutal conditions they had seen and heard about. Eventually Morel and the Harrises went on speaking tours throughout Britain and the United States, speaking at hundreds of gatherings.

Ultimately, enough public pressure built up so that the worst abuses were eliminated. Not bad. Almost singlehandedly, E.D. Morel had taken on a king and a whole colonial structure and had forced change. But it didn't end there for Morel.

In the months leading up to World War I, Morel became an outspoken critic of British policy. He warned against the war fever that was building up against Germany, and he alleged that the British government had entered into secret agreements with other governments, agreements that would tie Britain's hands in the event that hostilities broke out. A group he formed, the Union of Democratic Dissent, became the main voice for antiwar sentiment.

For his pains, Morel was vilified as a German sympathizer. The British government adamantly denied the existence of any secret agreements. More ominously, a serious effort was made to discredit Morel. Eventually, Morel was arrested on charges of sending antiwar literature to a neutral country. He was found guilty and sentenced to six months at hard labor.

Upon release from prison, his health seriously weakened, Morel resumed his speaking and writing. After the war ended, it came out that Morel had been right all along, that there had been secret treaties. Morel became the darling of Britain's Labor Party and in 1922 ran for Parliament against a former Cabinet official who had been in the government that had sent Morel to jail, a chap named Winston Churchill. Morel won that election, and the next, and the next. By then, he was so popular that 20,000 people came to see him off to London.

Although relatively young, Morel was in very bad health, having suffered a series of heart attacks. On November 12, 1924, when Morel was but 51 years old, he went out for a walk in the woods, and sat down against a tree to rest. He never got up.

June 10, 2011


Am I the only person who goes into a funk on their birthday? You'd think I would be happy (or at least relieved) to have made it through another year. Certainly, part of me appreciates the unearned privilege of life. But a larger part of me prefers the company of the Three Horsemen of Regret: coulda, woulda, and shoulda.

The Anniversary Syndrome—for this is what we are talking about here—is a well-documented phenomenon, usually linked with post-traumatic stress. Something marks you in a way that links time and place and event, and the sub-brain remembers and goes on alert when those factors realign, like planets lining up every 500 years cause us to gaze skyward in the vague expectation of some portent of doom.

I go through this every October, the month I went to Vietnam. The effect has diminished with the passage of time, but in those years right after I got back it was sometimes overwhelming, a feeling of unease and sadness that would creep in on the tide of memories, catching me unawares.

When you think about it, life is one big episode of post-traumatic stress, so I guess a certain amount of Anniversary Syndrome is inevitable. I have my own cure for these damp-drizzly-November-of-the-soul days. Tonight, I will sit out on the deck and watch the birds in the tree and the clouds in the sky and the way the leaves shimmer in the early evening breeze.

Happy Birthday To Me!

June 9, 2011

Feeling the Heat

The heat is on. Yesterday was 100°F, and today doesn't look any better. One of the ladies in the office said when she walked outside at lunch it was like being in your kitchen and opening the oven door. I let the dog out this morning at 5:15 a.m. and immediately felt the thickening air settle onto my skin.

They say the key to surviving extreme heat is to drink plenty of liquids, avoid prolonged exposure to the direct sun, and don't over-do it. But I think surviving extreme heat (or extreme cold) is as much about the head as it is the body. In Joseph Conrad's classic, The Heart of Darkness, Marlowe goes to a French physician to be checked out before his trip to Africa. He received this advice for dealing with the constant heat:
'Avoid irritation more than exposure to the sun. Adieu. How do you English say, eh? Good-bye. Ah! Good-bye. Adieu. In the tropics one must before everything keep calm.' . . . He lifted a warning forefinger. . . 'Du calme, du calme, Adieu.'
  Still excellent advice: Cool it!

June 5, 2011

Going For Broke

Tell me you don't feel it ... this sense that the problems far outnumber the solutions. Here in the United States, we know we need to "fix" Social Security and reduce government spending. The Europeans know they have to do something about Greece (and Spain and Ireland and Portugal and maybe Italy). The Japanese get it, but the scale of the problem is just overwhelming, especially for a country still recovering from a recent economic meltdown. We know that carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere by all our cars and factories is changing the climate in ways we still can't predict.

All these problems have one thing in common: money. But with a twist. Normally, politicians solve a problem by throwing money at it. But what do you do when money is the problem? We've been throwing so much money at so many problems that the resultant debt has become a mega-problem. And guess what? You can't solve that problem with more money, not unless you want to have money lose value totally.

The only way out is to stop needing money, or at least so much of it. And if people aren't prepared to do that, then they need to start paying down their debt. And that means more taxes. All those willing to sign up for that please form a line to the right. Uh-huh. Didn't think so.

So you tell me. What's the answer? It seems to me we can either face the inevitable and agree to live within our means and really buckle down and start chipping away at that debt we have piled up or we can ... what? Keep doing more of the same? Do nothing? Or maybe we will just revert to the most ancient solution of all and start killing each other. If you think that can't happen, then you'd best think again.

June 4, 2011

The Vegetable Garden

I spent the afternoon planting my vegetable garden. Normally I have it done by Mother's Day, but this year I couldn't quite decide whether or not to even have a garden, much less what to put in it. The fruits of my labors have been rather sparse the last couple of years. And it's not like planting a garden is free and easy.

In addition to the vegetable plants, I had to buy a bag of compost/manure mix and some top soil to replenish the two or three inches worth that somehow mysteriously reabsorbed itself into the ground over winter. Then there is the whole process of preparing the garden for planting. I use a spading fork to turn over the soil and break up the clods. Any weeds are thrown to the side. Then I spread the compost/manure mix and rake it into the top couple of inches of soil. More than enough activity to work up a decent sweat, even on a pleasant day like today.

After that it's into the ground with the plants and a bit of watering to get them properly settled. A final side dressing of manure and compost and they are good to go. This year's garden is small: three tomato plants, four yellow squash vines, a yellow pepper plant, some green beans, and a bit of basil and parsley. Hardly worth the bother, really. If I'm lucky, I'll enjoy whatever survives the ravages of soil imbalances, stink bugs, and the inevitable lapses in watering.

So why bother? Partly because hope really does spring eternal; maybe this will be the year everything comes in, and I reap a bountiful harvest with blue-ribbon potential at the county fair. Mostly because I won't give in to the entropy that tugs at me as I  grow older. I need to know I can still do it, still get out there and prepare the soil and plant the vegetables and tend them through a long summer until they are ready for harvest.

It's a small garden, for sure, but a garden nonetheless. For now, that's what matters.

June 1, 2011

Global Warming Blues

For those who are still paying attention to the global warming issue, some disturbing news out of the International Energy Agency (IEA):
"Energy-related carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2010 were the highest in history, according to the latest estimates by the International Energy Agency (IEA).

After a dip in 2009 caused by the global financial crisis, emissions are estimated to have climbed to a record 30.6 Gigatonnes (Gt), a 5% jump from the previous record year in 2008, when levels reached 29.3 Gt.

In addition, the IEA has estimated that 80% of projected emissions from the power sector in 2020 are already locked in, as they will come from power plants that are currently in place or under construction today.

 'This significant increase in CO2 emissions and the locking in of future emissions due to infrastructure investments represent a serious setback to our hopes of limiting the global rise in temperature to no more than 2ÂșC,' said Dr Fatih Birol, Chief Economist at the IEA who oversees the annual World Energy Outlook, the Agency’s flagship publication.

Global leaders agreed a target of limiting temperature increase to 2°C at the UN climate change talks in Cancun in 2010. For this goal to be achieved, the long-term concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere must be limited to around 450 parts per million of CO2-equivalent, only a 5% increase compared to an estimated 430 parts per million in 2000."