May 30, 2012

Here's A Quarter

A couple of days ago, I wrapped up a 6-year stint working in a local elections office. As is the custom, I was feted with lunch, followed by cake and the presentation of a basket filled with mementos and gifts, all of which was very nice and very much appreciated. Among the items in the basket was a quarter. Registering my quizzical look, the basket's chief designer repeated a quote I sometimes thought aloud after listening to the complaints of an especially tiresome caller: "Here's a quarter ... call someone who cares."

The irony, of course, is that people who work in elections care very much about their work. I have to say that my six years--during which I went through nine elections--was an eye-opening experience. Most folks have no idea how much hard work goes on behind the scenes to stage an election. A typical county may have dozens of polling places that have to be located, equipped, and staffed by volunteers who in turn need to be recruited, trained, and motivated to work a ridiculously long day for very little pay.

And the fruits of all these labors? An indifferent electorate that seldom bothers to show up to vote. Imagine you decided to throw an elaborate party, invited 100 of your closest friends, rented a hall, hired a caterer, printed up menus and after all that only 30 some odd folks bothered to show up. That's pretty much what happens every time we hold an election. Most registered voters stay away from the polls. A forty-percent turnout would be considered massive.  Of course that doesn't stop the no-shows from bitching and moaning about politics any chance they get, to which I say, "Here's a quarter ... call someone who cares ... and pray someone is there to answer."

May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

Today we honor the memory of those who died while serving the country in our armed forces, a tradition that began after the Civil War. Scarcely a decade has gone by since then that we haven't added more names to the rolls maintained in town squares all over the country. By some counts, there were 225 conflicts and wars fought during the twentieth century, resulting in nearly 46 million casualties. Just in my lifetime, we have sent American soldiers to fight in four major wars and several smaller actions, adding tens of thousands of new names to the lists of the dead.

For the most part, we fought in wars of choice; we sent our men and women to remote places in the world to defend the national interest, a usefully elastic notion that could be stretched to include just about anything. Winston Churchill used the phase "an unnecessary war" to describe World War II. Imagine what he would have to say about the Vietnam War or the second invasion of Iraq, two wars that were justified by the slimmest of pretexts, one by a single shell that struck an American destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin during a naval battle the Americans initiated, followed by a second encounter that never happened, the other by weapons of mass destruction that existed only in the mind of the man we set out to destroy.

Throughout it all, our soldiers fought bravely under incredibly adverse circumstances, from the harsh winters of Korea to the intense heat of Vietnam and Iraq to the valleys of death in Afghanistan. They did what they had to do and came home. World War II veterans were greeted as the conquering heroes they were. After that it went downhill quickly. Korean war veterans were forgotten. Vietnam veterans were shunned. The veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan were given a slap on the back and then sent back to fight again and again and again. We got better at treating the wounds easily seen, but the wounds you couldn't see--the damage to our soldiers' hearts and minds, the havoc wreaked in families by extended deployments--those wounds remain largely untreated. The answer today is pretty much the same as it was when I got out of the Army in 1970: you're on your own.

Memorial Day should be a day not merely to remember the brave few who gave everything for their country, but to remind ourselves of the role played by the indifferent many who stood silently by while the politicians started wars that never needed to be fought. And let's not leave out the diplomats, soldiers, and spies who should have known better. Maybe Lyndon Johnson didn't understand the long and tortured history of Vietnam that led up to our involvement, but the career diplomats for damn sure should have known what we were getting into. Maybe George Bush really believed that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11, but there were many in his councils of government who should have and did know better. They stood silently by as another generation of young men and women were sent off to die far from home and loved ones.

Until we absolutely refuse to accept war as an alternative, the cycle will never end. There's already been too many wars, too many lives lost or shattered on all sides. We need to do better. We have to do better.

May 22, 2012

They All Disappear From View

A few days ago, I had minor surgery to remove a fatty lump—in doctorese, a lipoma—from my left shoulder. The procedure went well, and I am rapidly recovering. As these things go, this has to be considered a small speed bump on the road to older age. I'm also leaving my current job and starting a new job in a couple of weeks. As if all this wasn't enough, I have a birthday coming up soon.

Time was when all these changes would prompt hours of soulful introspection, usually along the lines of "Is that all there is?" I don't bother much with that any more. I already know the answer: this is all there is. Still, I find myself looking backwards with increasing frequency. Lately, that backward gaze has led me to revisit the simple pleasures of rock and roll in the 1950s.

Several new and old musical traditions--jazz, boogie-woogie, the big band sound, folk, the blues, rock 'n roll--all vied for air time, each form still able to produce a hit or two. Somewhere in the oceanic acidification of the 1960s, we lost touch with many of these forms on the mainstream radio, only to rediscover them all over again. Nowadays, groups of that era tour just as often as they did in their heyday.

This was an era when musicians actually got together to record songs. The singers and back-up musicians were given one three-hour session of studio time. The best cut was the one that was pressed into vinyl. Listening to a song such as 'I Only Have Eyes for You,' by the Flamingos, I can't help but be transported back to a time when life seemed to be simpler, even if it wasn't. Fifty years can be a long time or they may all disappear from view as the eternal harmonies reach across space and time.

May 13, 2012

South Asia and the changing climate

Each Sunday, in my blog Planet Restart, I post a video that deals with some aspect of climate change, be it global warming, population growth, or energy. This week's video looks at the impact of climate change in South Asia, home to over one-fifth of the world's population and some of the planet's most geopolitically unstable terrain. Climate change is a multiplier. It takes an existing situation and makes it more complex and difficult to manage. This is why attention must be paid, especially in these already troubled times.

May 7, 2012

Clouded Vision

The latest kerfuffle in climate science involves the role played by clouds in cooling or heating the planet, with consequences for the pace of climate change induced by global warming. Deniers of global warming and its importance as an issue assert that heavier cloud covers will keep the Earth cool. The fact that just about every climate scientist disagrees means nothing to the diehard opponents of climate change. The truth is that there is no way to guess which way it will go, at least based on present modelling techniques, but so far the Earth is getting noticeably warmer. If the clouds are indeed going to save the day, they had best be getting to it.

New York Times reporter Justin Gillis discussed this and other topics with Dr. Kerry A. Emmanuel, an atmospheric scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During the interview, Dr. Emmanuel said some things that really hit home for me. I started my climate change blog Planet Restart because I was worried about the future we are leaving to our children and grandchildren. Closer study of the issue, coupled with long and bitter experience watching the political system fail, left me feeling pretty gloomy. Then I read this from Dr. Emmanuel:
"Things could turn out to be fine — I hope they do. But there’s no evidence at all that would support an assertion that we’re not facing serious risk at this point. Is there an example from human history of a culture taking action with the intended beneficiaries being two or more generations downstream, when there’s no benefit or maybe even sacrifice to the current generation? I haven’t been able to come up with one, and I suspect we’re just not genetically programmed to worry about two generations downstream. That may be the heart of the problem."
That echoes exactly the conclusions I reached. We have a political system that excels at deferring painful choices, that specializes in doing too little too late, that defines victory as putting off the problem for another election cycle. Asking this crew of politicians to spend billions of dollars to avert a climate crisis thirty years from now is the ultimate Mission Impossible.

I wish I had better news for my grandchildren, but if the science is to be believed, we have missed our chance to avert some level of impact. The only question remaining is how bad it will get and for how long. Not much of a legacy to pass on. This will be our generation's eternal regret and shame, that we could have done something and didn't.

May 6, 2012

Programmable Matter

The Browser is a wonderful source of interesting articles on just about everything. One that caught my eye was Is Origami the Future of Tech?, by Drake Bennett. My son was very good at creating origami figures, so I was curious to see where the author was headed. Turns out art imitates nature, and now science would like to leverage that into some amazing new technologies.
"We have a paradigm where we want to build things by having a solid block and then etching away at the block until you get whatever shape that you want,” says William Shih, a Harvard University biochemistry professor. Think of Michelangelo chiseling his forms from boulders of marble, or a milling machine carving an engine part out of a hunk of steel. “The way that nature does things is different,” Shih says. “It uses a folding algorithm, and it’s something that seems to be very efficient. We can look to nature for inspiration.” Shih himself has designed devices at the nanoscale that assemble themselves out of DNA strands, a process known as DNA origami."
As if that wasn't enough deep thinking for one day, I came across a reference in the article to something called programmable matter, substances that can alter their properties. A little research quickly leads to claytronics, creating shapes using artificial atoms called catoms.

Okay, I don't know about you, but I'm feeling pretty dumb at this point. There are people out there dreaming of and dreaming up new worlds that I suspect few of us are even aware of, much less understand. Well, thank goodness for YouTube, where you can find pictures worth a thousand words on just about any topic, including programmable matter.

May 5, 2012

A Sporting Chance

In my little memoir, SitRep Negative: A Year in Vietnam, I talk about the guy at my physical who was in perfect shape except for a bad knee from high school football. He was 4-F, while I was just what the Army wanted ... weak eyes, bad back and all. At the time, it struck me as somewhat ludicrous that this perfect physical specimen would be rejected in favor of an out-of-shape schlub like myself.

Now I look back and wonder if that young man was disappointed at not being able to serve, like my father was in World War II, when he was 4-F because of a hitherto unsuspected heart condition. That bothered my father for his entire life. Maybe that guy ahead of me in line was equally bothered by his rejection. Another thing I wonder about is how he is doing today. Does his leg bother him on rainy days? Has it progressed into arthritis? These aren't things you think about in your twenties, but to a man in his sixties such thoughts come easily.

What happens to athletes as they age has become a controversial issue, especially for professional football, where violent collisions are the order of the day. The recent death of Junior Seau, even though it may never be shown to be connected to head injuries, has reignited the simmering controversy over how much the game takes from, and in return, owes it players.

Years ago I watched a special about aging football players from the 50s and 60s who were now barely able to walk, men whose faces plainly showed the lingering affects of constant pain. That fear now haunts every player in the NFL as the evidence of long-term damage from concussions mounts.

My kids never played sports. But lots of parents do have kids in high school and college playing in hockey and football, two sports known for high-speed collisions. You have to wonder where that tipping point is that convinces parents that the risks to young bodies and minds are not worth the rewards of what can be very fleeting fame.

Most sports need players with only average ability to fill out the rosters so that the truly talented kids can play at their higher level. I have trouble seeing how the parents of those less talented kids kids—knowing that their playing days will begin and end in high school, knowing that their future lies elsewhere—are going to continue to be able to talk themselves into believing that high school football or hockey is worth the risk to their kid's future.

Without those average players, can high school football continue? Many sports analysts believe that football ten years from now will be significantly different from the way it is played today. I hope that a safe way is found to play football. But if I'm a parent looking at signing my kid up for the next season of high school football, this is a tough call to make. I would want to give my child a sporting chance at a good life, and the sport of football as currently played does not seem to be a good bet.