December 30, 2012

Wild Geese

Time pushes us along like leaves in the wind. Sometimes the wind blows hard, urging us forward. At other times, there is a brief lull. In those moments of reprieve, we can sometimes catch a glimpse of what we missed.

At the end of the road I travel daily, there is a farm that lays nestled among gently folding hills. A cornfield abuts the small country road that winds past it. At this time of year, the field seems bare, the dried corn stalks long since harvested for winter feed. In fact, the ground is littered with undigested bits of stalk and corn kernels the harvester swallowed and spit back up. The field is covered with the remnants of the last snow storm, a white blanket stretching out to the horizon, where it disappears among the bare trees standing guard along the ridge-line of the mountains.

The wild geese know about the field and the food it holds, the open expanse of worked ground matching their inner eye's mapping drawn from centuries of interactions with men and their plows. You hear them before you see them. The distant echoes of honking carried by the wind, heralding their arrival. Then the wavering vee formations emerge from the sky to the north, circling first this way then that way, finally coming in for a landing, wings flapping hard to slow the descent, a brief moment of awkwardness as they transition from sky to earth.

We arrived together, the geese in the field and I on my way to work, for once with a few minutes to spare. I was listening to Leontyne Price singing "Liebestod" from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde when I came to the STOP sign that faced the field. Across the road, I could see the snow geese dotting the corn field, their heads bent down as they searched for seed, oblivious to the other arriving gaggles. There must be hundreds of them.

The winds of time stilled to a whisper. Sight and sound merged for one magical moment. Sensing time's reprieve, I lingered to watch the geese circling down from the sky as Leontyne Price carried Isolde's grieving heart skyward on soaring notes. I stayed in that moment for a brief eternity. Then time was up. I had to get  to work.

But the after-images linger. I replay the scene in my mind over and over, just as I have replayed "Liebestod" a hundred times at least. This is the last memory I want to cling to as I lay dying ... the sight of wild geese settling onto the snow-dusted fields, Price's "Liebestod" floating through my head: In the billowing torrent, in the resonating sound, in the wafting Universe of the World-Breath --- drown --- be engulfed ---unconscious ... supreme delight! Love ... Death.

December 27, 2012

A New Year's Resolution

Another year, another gridlock. We are a society at war with itself, and we Baby Boomers are the chief combatants. It began in the early 1950s, when we had to take up sides in the Cold War. Then came Vietnam and Watergate, Reagan and Clinton. The battle lines hardened. Now we find ourselves at the edge of a cliff, and we seem quite ready to jump. 

It doesn't have to be this way. We must end this "us or them" thinking, the idea that it has to be either/or, my way or the highway. Instead, let's take the road less traveled. Let's start this new year out resolving to make it both.
  • It's not the Second Amendment or a safer society. It's both.
  • It's not raising taxes or cutting spending, it's both.
  • It's not standing by your principles or compromising, it's both.
  • It's not  rich man, poor man, it's both.
  • It's not the Muslims or the Christians, it's both.
  • It's not energy or the Earth, it's both.
  • It's not humans or all other life on the planet, it's both.
  • It's not this generation or that generation, it's ... all of us.
 We're all in this together. It's not either/or. Maybe it's not even both. It's bigger than that. It's all of us. Bruce Springsteen has a wonderful quote: "Nobody wins unless everybody wins." It's that simple, really.That is truly the American Way. We just have to work a lot harder at it. The lives of our children and grandchildren depend on it.

December 23, 2012

The Christmas Spirit

We've all heard the lamentations about the commercialization of Christmas. Nowhere is that felt more keenly than here at the epicenter, working in retail. Honestly, it just beats the Christmas spirit out of you. This was the conclusion of a scientifically valid random survey of retail workers scattered around the break room a couple of days before C-Day.

The disparity between how people are supposed to be and how they actually can be is, well, dispiriting. It leaves those of us in the front-lines hollowed out, desensitized by the constant onslaught of people driven frantic by the pressure to get their shopping done.

Let's face it. People are often at their selfish worst at a time of the year when we are all supposed to be infused with the spirit of giving. You want peace on earth and good will to men? Well, stay home then and watch old movies. Out here, it's a jungle. Welcome to the heart of darkness, waiting for you at the end of the line for the doorbuster of the day.

This is true of retail on any day, of course, but this time of the year really does seem to bring out the very worst. Not that there aren't random acts of kindness, but they are overwhelmed by the tidal wave of humanity pushing and shoving to be first in line, driven by the desire to get the most for the least as they buy dozens of presents for people they couldn't possible care all that much about.

This is what has struck me most this year, the extraordinary amount of gifts some people buy. You see the same people day after day, loaded down with packages. Who the hell are they buying them for? I don't even know that many people, much less that many I would buy a gift for. What sense of obligation impels people to feel that everyone who has ever crossed their paths deserves a little something at Christmas, even if it is a 99-cent piece of crap that no one in their right mind would want.

Speaking of which, I'll never forget the look on a customers face--this was several years ago during my first stint in retail--when she returned a gift and found out that it cost 99 cents. You could read the hurt in her eyes. Really? That's what I'm worth? Ninety-nine cents? I would have felt bad, but who the hell brings back a 99-cent gift anyway?

My disillusionment with humanity was first linked to Christmas back in 1969, when I was in Vietnam. On Christmas Day, we had a 24-hour truce, during which there was to be no fighting. That moment of peace illuminated the absurdity of war. We spend 364 days of the year killing the enemy and laying waste to the countryside, but on one day we can just stop the war and celebrate peace and joy? If we have it on our power to agree to stop fighting for one day, why can't we just leave it like that?

A part of me understands that I should be grateful for any 24-hour period when mankind can stop the madness and feel something akin to love and peace, when we can be our better selves. It won't last of course. It never does. The war resumes. The incoming tide of buying turns to an outgoing tide of returns.

Meanwhile, we few, we happy few, we band of retail brothers will sit around the lunch room table on Christmas Eve day and tell our war stories and celebrate our survival of another holiday buying frenzy. Then we will go home and open our presents. Oh well, what the hell, it's off to my shift, the power chords from Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" reverberating in my head. For now, comfortably numb is about as good as it gets.

December 19, 2012

Another New Year's List

Science fiction is becoming science fact much faster than you might think. Behind the closed doors of the world's laboratories and research facilities, a strange new world is taking shape. While science boldly goes where no man has gone before, the rest of us are just taken along for the ride. No one asks us if we wanted to go. No one tells us where the journey might lead. What emerges from Pandora's Box after the lid is pried open, well, that's our problem.

The folks at University of Notre Dame's John J. Reilly Center for Science, Technology and Values have seen the future, and they are worried. They recently issued a list of Emerging Ethical Dilemmas and Policy Issues in Science and Technology. Any one of the items is enough to change your life. Taken together, they will change your world. The original article contains links to further resources on each of these issues. Many have been discussed in this forum. As we approach another new year, perhaps we ought to consider what kind of brave new world our grandchildren will be force-marched into unless we ask some hard questions today.

Personal genetic tests/personalized medicine: It won't be long before you can order your own genetic sequencing for about $1,000. And there will be a lot of people lining up for it. But then the real questions begin. Who will tell you what it all means? Will your insurance company pay? What about privacy? Does your spouse (or your boss) have a right to know? Should everyone have access or just those with the money?

Hacking into medical devices: Medical devices such as insulin pumps and pacemakers contain computer chips that can be easily hacked. Like cell phones, not a whole lot of thought was given to securing the coding or the data stored on them. Many devices were designed to allow doctors to reprogram them in an emergency. A professional hacker recently reprogrammed a pacemaker to deliver an 830-volt shock.What is a boon for mystery writers in search of novel ways to murder people could be a real problem if a criminal or terrorist decides to throw a scare into people ... literally.

Driverless zipcars: Google cars can be operated hands-off and are legal in three states. Think about an elderly person who has been told he or she can no longer drive. Wouldn't they jump at the chance to own such a vehicle? Google wants to have fleets of hands-off cars that can be shared by a group of users who pay an annual fee. This is truly a game changer. But how long will it take the existing legal and political and insurance system to catch up? Roadways would be shared by traditional and Google vehicles for decades. How would that work?

3-D printing: I've been fascinated by this concept for some time. Starting next year, Staples will offer 3-D printing to customers in the Netherlands and Belgium. Coming soon to a Staples near you! The impact of this process on manufacturing and society will be enormous. How many jobs will be lost when I can go to a kiosk at Bed, Bath and Beyond and print out my dishes on demand? How will law enforcement cope with a criminal element that can use ever-cheaper 3-D printers to create weapons on demand?

Adaptation to climate change: No need to spend much time on this. Regular readers already know how I feel about this. The cost of dealing with climate change, the impact of rising sea levels and extreme weather events, changing agricultural patterns and the resultant mass migrations, the military implications, our obligation to help other life forms on the planet deal with the mess we created ... the list of ethical issues is as long as the list of reasons why we screwed up so badly in the first place.

Low-quality and counterfeit pharmaceuticals: Is it okay for drug companies to control the manufacture of life-saving drugs? India doesn't think so. They favor manufacturing life-saving drugs, even If it violates US patent law. What about cheap versions made in Mexico or imported from Canada? How do we know they are safe? How can we ever know for sure that any drug has been manufactured safely? What about off-label uses? Who is in charge, anyway?

Autonomous systems: Is it okay to ask robots to fight our wars for us? Do you want a robot to take out your ruptured spleen? Is it okay to have machines that can take action based on what they decide is the correct thing to do? Who is responsible when things go wrong? Machines are getting a mind of their own. Sometimes that's a good thing. But anyone who has seen the Terminator movies will be a little worried. We need to make up our own minds on how we feel about this.

Human-animal hybrids (chimeras): This was a new one for me. Mixing and matching humans and animals at the cellular level is something that would cause most of us to say, "Whoa, dude. What's up with that?" Indeed, what is up with that? Well, scientists are taking animal eggs and sucking out most but not quite all of the original DNA and replacing it with human DNA to generate human stem cells that can be used for a wide variety of useful and worthy purposes. But is this a road we want to go down? For a lot of scientists, the answer is "yes." Others worry it will inevitably lead to new life forms that combine human and animal shapes and characteristics. Given our track record, I would have to say this is a legitimate concern.

Ensuring access to wireless and spectrum: This issue has been around since the late 90s when it became apparent that the Internet was a truly transformative piece of technology. Like some of the other issues raised here, there is a question of social equity that needs to be addressed. Is it fair that information and assistance is to some extent controlled by one's ability to access the Internet? Is it fair that certain governmental functions are only available through the Internet? Given that radio spectrum is a finite resource, who gets to decide how it is sliced and diced? How to reconcile increasing security needs with a greater demand for universal access?

December 16, 2012

Controlling Guns

The tragic events of Sandy Hook have already sparked renewed outrage at what many perceive to be lax gun control laws in America. While I agree in principle, two stubborn facts dim any optimism on my part that we will ever be free of this problem. In a country that has more gun dealers than gas stations, the millions of weapons out there already are a permanent part of the landscape. And no reform you can think of will prevent a middle-aged, well-to-do lady from buying a handgun or two for personal protection. Still, there are possibilities. What follows are a few simple suggestions for ways in which to rethink the issue of what to do about gun violence in this country.
  • Ban the import of all firearms. Why not? Isn't "Buy American" a good thing. What could be wrong with that? In 2010, 3,252,404 firearms were imported to the United States, as compared to 5.5 million manufactured here. Surely we can squeak by on the 5.5 million domestically produced firearms. If we need those other 3 million firearms, they can be manufactured right here in the good ol' U.S. of A., providing good jobs for Americans.
  • If your child died from an improperly constructed crib, those cribs would be recalled. If a toy is dangerous or is made from dangerous substances, it is removed from the shelves. If your child falls ill from tainted medicine or food, the medicine or food disappears from the shelves of your grocery store overnight. If your child is killed by an assault weapon, then ... what? We make it easier to own such things? Does that make any sense to you?
  • If you fill out a medical history form, you will be asked if you smoke. Why? Because smoking is hazardous to your health and increases your likelihood of serious diseases that can cost insurance companies a lot of money. Well, owning a handgun is hazardous to your health and to the health of anyone you might come in contact with. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine noted that suicide was the second-leading cause of death among Americans 40 years of age or younger, and more than half of all suicides are gun suicides.Sounds hazardous to me. Everyone who owns a handgun should be required to note that as part of their medical and insurance history. Failure to do so would be insurance fraud.
  • While we are on the subject of insurance, let's think about changing homeowners insurance policies to require that handgun owners prove they are securely storing their handguns. Maybe require a safe bolted to the floor, with a sturdy combination lock. If you don't report the handgun on your policy, then it voids your homeowners insurance. If the handgun is stolen from your house, then it voids your homeowner's insurance.
  • Allow private citizens to buy all the handguns they want, provided they are revolvers. The West was won with six-shooters. If a six-gun was good enough for Wyatt Earp, a noted gun control advocate in his own day, then it ought to be good enough for you. Does anyone really need a semi-automatic anything?
  • Let's worry at least as much about a handgun as we do about a 1987 Dodge Dart. When you buy a car, you fill out a change of title and provide a copy to the State. This in turn gets you a registration certificate proving you own the car. No registration, no car. The same rule should apply to handguns. Document all changes of ownership of a handgun just like you do a car. If you break the chain of documentation, you go to jail. 
I know for a lot of folks, the discussion about firearms begins and ends with the Second Amendment. Well, that's just not good enough. We don't put up with this kind of crap for anything else, why should firearms be any different.

How about we look at firearms in the same way that we look at anything else that is potentially lethal to children or adults? We don't ban all medicines or toys or cribs when there is a problem, just like we didn't ban the sale of cigarettes. But we for damn sure hold manufacturers responsible for any injuries or deaths from their product and we for damn sure don't sit around holding constitutional debates while our children are dying because of an improperly constructed crib or a toy that contains lead paint. We get rid of the damn cribs or toys or whatever it is that might even look like it could harm our children. How hard is that?

December 14, 2012

Starry, Starry Night

Last night was the beginning of the Geminid meteor shower. I happened to be awake around 11:30 p.m., so I went out onto my back deck to see what there was to see. Our deck faces south, and Orion's Belt is easily found. Somewhere around the second star to the right was the Gemini constellation, from which the Geminid shower took its name.

For once, it was a crystal clear evening. Half the time you go out, and you can't see a damned thing. That night, the stars shimmered brightly against the darkness of the night sky. A steady point of light marked Jupiter, king of the planets, some say a star that never made it to the show.

I stared intently at the sky and stars, waiting for a meteor. It struck me that what I was seeing wasn't there any more. Rather, I was watching a tape-delayed presentation of events that unfolded millions of years in the past. I let my mind loose to wander in the immensity of a time and space in which we were less than the twinkle of a star.

My reverie was interrupted by a bright streak that arced across the sky, gone as quickly as it came. Falling stars, shooting stars, stars shooting, stars falling ... shooting ... falling ... bright ... shining .. beautiful ... gone.

The night sky watched, unmoved. What did it matter to them, timeless and old beyond our comprehension, these brief evanescent streaks? But they matter to us. Here in our time, our place, when the most we can hope for is a brief shining moment when we arc gracefully across the horizon before being lost in the darkness.

We are one with the shooting stars ... the falling stars ... bright ... shining ... beautiful ... gone.

December 12, 2012

Decades Stun

The title of this post is taken from a verse written by Richard Condon, author of The Manchurian Candidate. The verse was at the beginning of Winter Kills, which was about the Kennedy assassination: Minutes trudge, hours run, years fly, decades stun. The source was attributed to a non-existent tome called The Keener's Manual.

Why do I bring this up? No reason, really, except I had this odd moment the other day, thinking about decades. Why I was thinking about decades? Well, I've been working on a book about the 1950s, which was partially inspired by a couple of typewritten pages written by an aunt about growing up in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Somewhere in my head, that got cross-wired with a book I've been reading about the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

I know what you're thinking. 1919? Think of it this way. Every intractable geopolitical problem, every brutal war that haunted the 20th Century devolved from decisions made in Paris in 1919. So yeah, it's kind of important and interesting. Think of it as conducting a pre-mortem investigation on the bloodiest century in human history.

Anyway, in the course of mulling these disparate topics over, my subconscious came up with a 30-year pattern hidden in the decades. The 1930s were a decade filled with turmoil. So were the 1960s. The 1920s were a decade that spawned fundamental changes in American culture. So were the 1950s, or at least that's the thesis of my work in progress. The second decade saw a massive war, the war to end all wars. Three decades later came World War II. Three decades after that we were in Vietnam. Sixty years after the Great Depression, we saw another economic bubble collapse into a heap, leading to the mini-Depression we are still recovering from.

It's easy to carry this too far. Like democracy, history is messy, rarely pigeon-holing itself into neat little categories.Still, it does make you wonder. Mark Twain was on to something when he observed that history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes. Certainly, there seems to be pattern of enormous social and economic transition and growth, the boom, which is followed by the bust, then war.

So we have finally arrived at the big question lurking in the shadows of this essay. Is another world war possible? I have been thinking about that for many years. Likely? I hope not. Possible? For my money, yeah, it's possible. Why would such a thing happen? Other than the fact that we have lots of people who have a hair trigger thanks to religious and ethnic animosities that have festered for centuries? Can't think of anything, offhand, although you have to believe that an old world order that runs on petroleum and the products it creates--everything from gas to plastics to medicines--will find plenty of casus bellis as the pumps inevitably run dry. Add  to that the pressures of a changing climate, and, yeah, I can see plenty of trouble ahead.

Let's hope this doesn't happen ... again. Let's hope that for once, the past is not prologue to the future, that things don't rhyme, that the next generation can be the Walt Whitmans of the planet and come up with a new song of ourselves, one that celebrates "the common air that bathes the globe."

December 6, 2012

Autumn Leaves

God knows I'm all for saving the environment, but in doing so, some things have been lost that were truly a special part of the cycle of the seasons. I'm speaking of the autumn ritual of raking leaves into piles or neat rows along curbs and then setting them afire. The sweet smell of smoke, watching it curl lazily upwards through the trees, rekindles ancient memories of times when a fire was sometimes all that stood between life and death. There is a reason we are instinctively drawn to a camp fire.

I miss the aromatic tang in my nostrils, the dull haze from the smoke that blurred the divide between land and sky, the gentle crackling ... a sensory feast of sight, smell, and sound. It saddens me to think that my children and grandchildren will never know the simple pleasure of burning leaves. In today's world, where levels of man-made atmospheric pollutants have reached climate changing levels, even the smallest additional increment of carbon dioxide must be avoided. I get that. But still ...

What's worse, modern man, in his infinite quest to do less with less, has replaced one kind of pollution with another. Raking leaves used to be a Zen-like meditative experience, the repetitive back and forth motion freeing the mind to roam in the subconscious, where all great ideas are born. Then came the leaf blower, a noisy disturber of the peace that turns a ritual into a chore.

I'll be honest with you. Those friggin' leaf blowers drive me crazy. I'm out gathering up my leaves the old-fashioned way, with a hand-operated rake, and there's my neighbor with his electric or gas-operated leaf blower, making an almighty racket as he walks indolently back and forth across his lawn, letting the machine do the work, while I'm out here busting my ass.

On top of using electricity or gas to power the leaf blower, instead of putting the leaves in his flower beds where they will do some good, he, along with all my other neighbors, is putting them on the street, where they will be collected and taken to a landfill by trucks spewing anywhere from a half to a full pound of carbon dioxide into the air for every mile they travel.

Hmm. That gives me an idea. Maybe we should look at bringing back leaf burning as a way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While we're at it, let's ban those damned leaf blowers, too.

December 5, 2012

Obama Versus Boehner

When it comes to politics or anything else, my theory is that whoever frames the question will win the debate. Take the fiscal cliff. Republicans emphasize spending reductions, including immediate cuts for entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid and future restraints on Social Security. Democrats emphasize revenue increases, including asking the top 2 percent to pay higher taxes than they do now.

Republicans want Americans to focus on the economy and job creation, a reasonable enough proposition. Democrats want people to think about fairness and sharing the burden, something deeply ingrained in the American ethos. Republicans offer cuts on Medicare and Medicaid. Democrats say let the rich pay a bit more. If question becomes which Americans take the biggest hit, the old and the poor and the sick or the top 2 percent income earners, well, you tell me, who is going to win that argument?

Before we go any further let's look at how things stand as of the moment. Both President Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner have made preliminary offers, neither of which are intended as anything more than a sense of what chips are out there for bargaining.

President Obama:
  • Raise tax revenues by nearly $1.6 trillion ($960 billion over the coming decade by increasing tax rates and taxes on investment income on upper-bracket earners, and $600 billion in additional taxes).
  • Add $200 billion in economic stimulus from a combination of investments including infrastructure spending, extension of a payroll tax cut and jobless benefits.
  • Continue individual income tax cuts from the administration of former Republican President George W. Bush for all but the wealthiest earners.
  • Authority to raise the nation's borrowing limit unilaterally.
  • Delay across-the-board spending cuts for a year in exchange for future cuts of  $600 billion to entitlement programs.
Speaker Boehner
  • Raise tax revenues $800 billion through tax reform from unspecified closing of tax loopholes, unspecified eliminations of tax deductions, and reform of the tax code that would actually lower the current top tax rate, but with no higher taxes on the top 2 percent.
  • Unspecified healthcare program savings of $600 billion from health care cuts from Medicare and Medicaid;
  • Other savings from changes to unspecified mandatory spending programs of $300 billion;
  • Tying cost-of-living increases for federal benefit programs (i.e., Social Security) to the Consumer Price Index to get savings of $200 billion;
  • Further unspecified savings to domestic spending programs of $300 billion.
Republicans emphasize spending cuts over revenue increases. Democrats emphasize revenue increases over spending cuts. Both offer some suggestions as to what that might entail, but the words unspecified and future appear frequently in both proposals. The point here is not to come up with a final proposal. The goal is to frame the debate for the American people. What resonates with most voters: raising the tax rates for the top 2 percent wealthiest Americans or cutting entitlement programs that most Americans are entitled to?

If all of this sounds familiar, it should. We already had this exact debate during the presidential election. If I recall correctly, the president won that election convincingly, running on a specific program of keeping the Bush tax cuts for all but the top 2 percent. The president can fairly say that the American people have spoken on this issue.

Republican can insist that the idea is a bad one, that it will hurt the economy and stifle job creation. Who knows, they may even be right, although the idea that small business would be hit under Obama's plan is true only because many small businesses declare their income as personal income rather than as corporate income in order to get a tax break. Depending on which study you look at, only 3 percent to 7.5 percent of small business owners would be affected by Obama’s plan.

The real problem, as I see it, is not finding some common ground for compromise. That's what politicians do. Most of them, anyway. The House Republicans contain within them a highly fractious minority that refuses to go along with the plan, even if it is their own party's plan. If Boehner can't control them, then we are definitely headed over the cliff.

What's really dumb about this is that if we do go over the cliff, then everyone's taxes go up. Instead of worrying about the 2 percent, Republicans will have the 100 percent to contend with. If you want a sure-fire recipe for losing control of the House in 2014, this will do until a better one comes along.