November 30, 2013

Black Friday

Another Black Friday has come and gone ... the great American potlatch where throngs of shoppers for one day find common cause in buying for others what they wouldn't want for themselves if you paid them. Millions of visitors from Planet Me, tight-faced in their grim pursuit of the Christmas spirit, will once again be sucked into the black hole of consumerism, most to emerge stripped of their money and their holiday cheer.

The term derives from the belief that Black Friday is the day that retailers go from being in the red to being in the black. The irony is that even Black Friday is being debased by greed. It used to be that Black Friday was the weekend to save big bucks, but store chains desperate to show improving bottom lines have expanded it beyond the original concept.

Walmart offered Black Friday savings a full week early on some items in an attempt to avoid the riots that have marred previous Black Fridays. Gray Thursday notes the emerging practice of opening stores on Thanksgiving Day, a sort of negative Miracle on 34th Street effect where if one store opens then all the stores feel they must open to avoid losing sales. Cyber Monday has been added to the list to entice those who prefer not to have to mingle with the hoi polloi.

Folks react differently when I tell them I work in retail. For some, there is a whiff of social stigma attached to it ... definitely a bit déclassé, don't you know. They won't say it, but you can tell they consider retail work to be something one does in high school, perhaps, but not the sort of thing a successful adult would be doing.

Then there are those who have worked retail. The word alone is enough to evoke an immediate connection ... a meeting of the eyes, a knowing nod, an unspoken band-of-brothers moment that is felt in few other occupations. I'm sure cops and ER workers experience the same feeling, the instant understanding that only shared tribulation brings.

The common denominator is working with the public. People can be wonderful or they can be a mess. Like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get. The only sure thing is that in the few minutes it takes to buy those shirts or shoes, a person's character will be revealed as fully as it is after weeks of therapy. I am continually astonished at the intimate details that people share about their lives. Some of it is heartbreaking to hear. At other times, you can't help but share a laugh. Either way, you are as affected by the transaction as is the customer.

I think every young person should do two things before they settle down: live alone in a big city and work retail. Life in the big city teaches you self-reliance. Working retail teaches you how to read people and control situations. Both experiences breed a self-confidence that will help them throughout their lives. If you can handle the invaders from Planet Me when they are having a bad day, well, you can pretty much handle most anything.

November 18, 2013

November 22, 1963

"Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?" How many of us have asked and answered that question over the years? I know I still remember. I was walking across the Main Campus at Georgetown University, where I was a freshman at the School of Foreign Service, part of a new generation inspired by the New Frontier. We were going to change the world. Instead, the world changed us.

History had been made just a few months before I arrived in D.C., when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have A Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. The deliberate but implacable cadence of Dr. King's speech matched the slow but steady progress towards racial equality that would be made over the next decade.

In contrast, the assassination of President Kennedy jolted history with an immediacy we all felt and understood. The black and white images of the funeral procession marked the beginning of the fade to black of the American Century. The bizarre shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald in a Texas jail -- I heard it over a transistor radio while I was standing in a crowd watching the arrival of Kennedy's coffin at the Capitol, Jackie and the two kids tiny figures on the Capitol steps -- left us wondering what could possibly happen next.

It got worse. Five years later, Dr King was killed in Memphis, the victim of one last attempt to stop the civil rights movement, and Robert F. Kennedy lay dying in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, the first American casualty of the Arab-Israeli conflict that would ultimately lead to 9/11.

Our generation is sometimes seen as soft and self-indulgent, but we must have been tougher than we looked. Few decades in American history have been as tumultuous as the one after Kennedy was assassinated. Three assassinations in five years. A war that divided a nation along lines as bitter as those of the Civil War. The resignation of a president. We lived through all that, and we did it without losing faith in ourselves or in our country. We went to work every day, raised our families, and, despite the occasional youthful indiscretion, we mostly ended up living pretty normal lives.

Today, the fashion in political dissent is largely negative: delay, deny, and denigrate. That wasn't our style. We wanted to take the world we inherited and make it a better place for everyone, not tear it down. We children of the 60s were portrayed as radicals, but we got things done the old-fashioned way. We pushed conservation, clean air, and equal rights to the top of the political agenda, turning slogans into the law of the land, all by working inside the system. How old-fashioned is that?

I look at what today's eighteen-year-old kids are seeing as their example to follow: a dysfunctional political system unable to deal with any issues in an honest or effective manner. Makes you wonder what they will carry forward to the next generation. We at least had Kennedy as a model of what was possible.

We will never know what a second term would have felt like under Kennedy. Most likely, he would have found his reputation slowly tarnished and dinged from the wear and tear of mistakes and personal failings. An untimely death has spared his legacy, although there is no denying that Camelot wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Still, the myth of Camelot has lasted longer than most, perhaps because nothing better has come along to replace it. What worse, no one is even trying.

November 13, 2013

Global Warming Is Not The Problem

Global warming is not the problem, at least not for Mother Earth. The planet will do just fine for the next billion and a half years or so, until the sun begins to nova. Then we got a global warming problem. No, global warming is more a symptom of a much more immediate problem, the rapid combustion within a couple of centuries of millions of years worth of stored carbon.

This quote from Fifty Years of Global Warming puts things in perspective: "In 1829, British coal production was 15 million tons. In 2006, world coal production was 6.2 billion tons. At the turn of the 20th century there were about 8,000 cars in use in the United States. At the turn of the 21st Century there were about 200 million cars in use in the United States, 450 million or so world-wide."

Global warming is the inevitable result of this intense burst of fossil fuel combustion. As such, it is a symptom of a larger problem. We are going through the readily available supply of fossil fuels at an alarming rate. The global economy runs on cheap energy from burning fossil fuels. Long before they run out, the high price we will have to pay for petroleum products will begin to put real pressure on how we live.

That being the case, what would be the appropriate response: (a) reduce the rate of consumption to stretch out supplies; or (b) accelerate the depletion of fossil fuel stocks? The answer the world has chosen is: (b) accelerate the depletion of fossil fuel stocks. As Plan B's go, it's not much.


In short, we are addicted to fossil fuels and, like any addict, we are powerless to control our desire for more, even when we know it is harming us. Going cold turkey is out of the question. But we could take the methadone approach, substituting a harmful substance with something less harmful. In the energy world, this would be alternative fuels such as solar or wind power.

This hasn't happened because the market does not price fossil fuels to include the damage they do or, more precisely, the cost of limiting or undoing that damage. We are just starting to do that with coal, accompanied by howls of despair from the coal mine owners. Meanwhile we have an addiction to feed, so we are jonesing on fracking, the crack cocaine of fossil fuels.

Let's review. We clearly have given the planet a fever. This is affecting the atmosphere and the biosphere, from sea to shining sea. The source of the fever is our addiction to fossil fuels. The cure is obvious: cut back on our intake of fossil fuels. This would be a twofer in that we would not only slow down the rate of global warming, but we would stretch out the supplies of fossil fuels, buying time to retool our societies to other forms of energy less damaging to the environment.

So far, the voices of denial and greed have enabled our addiction to fossil fuels. Don't worry. Global warming isn't real. You're not hurting anybody. Have another snort. It's okay. The task of weaning us off of fossil fuels is complicated by the undeniably high cost of change coupled with the still somewhat remote worst consequences of our current behavior. It is hard to get a politician to think much past the next election, never mind the next generation.

As the song says, "we never failed to fail, it was the easiest thing to do." That could be our anthem as we head into a future that should have been far brighter than it will likely be.

Below is a YouTube video that helps put the problem of carbon dioxide emissions into an alarming perspective.




November 10, 2013

What Did It All Mean?

In Vietnam, we reacted to the random weirdness of war by invoking the following call and response: "What does it all mean? It don't mean nothing." But, of course, it did mean something. For a time, it meant everything. The war shaped our hearts and minds in ways seen and unseen. Sometimes I wonder who or what I might have become if I had never been drafted, never gone to Vietnam. I wonder if the "me" who went through the war is just a distorted image of the "me" I might have been had I not been in a war.

Certainly, the two years I spent in the Army cost me in terms of promotions and who-knows-what opportunities that might have come my way. On the other hand, the career I resumed after the war led me into writing on a regular basis.  Is that something I would be prepared to give up in exchange for some other hypothetical life? I think not.

There are other things I have come to appreciate as I look backwards in the rearview mirror. Among these is a higher tolerance for the Class Insecta. We lived in primitive conditions, with nothing to buffer us from the rain and the mud or the heat and the dust, not to mention the abundance of creepy-crawlies both large and small, venomous and non-venomous who thrived in the tropics. J.B.S. Haldane remarked that "God has an inordinate fondness for beetles," and nowhere is that more evident than in the jungle. Compared to that lot, what are a few stink bugs or earwigs.

Generally speaking, my year in Vietnam left me indifferent to most forms of physical discomfort. After enduring months of rain, the odd shower or two doesn't make much of a dent. As for hot weather, well, let's just say I am ideally suited to a warming climate. The irony is that the coping mechanisms that work for hot weather also work for cold weather. It's a bit of a Zen kind of thing, finding the coolness on a hot day and the warmth on a cold day. Mostly it is just knowing I've been through worse. Cold comfort, indeed.

That's not to say I am a tough guy. Far from it. One of the hardest lessons I had to accept was that I would not be John Wayne.  I would never be that guy who dominated through sheer physical presence. I would not be the hero. A survivor ... yes, that I could do ... mostly by relying on my wits. It wasn't always pretty or noble. I did what it took to get by. Like the poet  Robert Graves, I developed “a brutal persistence in seeing things through, somehow, anyhow, without finesse, satisfied with the main points of any situation.” Call it the "whatever" factor. That, coupled with a lot of luck, got me through the war.

After I came home, I did find I had a much deeper respect for life in all its forms. Yes, I am that guy who picks up the stink bug and carries it outside to set it free. I never had to kill anyone while I served, but I was part of the machine that killed thousands of soldiers and civilians. So much death for ... what? To this day, no one can really say. What does it all mean?

Taking life is easy; bringing it back, impossible. We shouldn't take any life, no matter how seemingly insignificant it might be in the scheme of things, except in extreme necessity, and when we do -- as the ancients did -- we should offer a prayer for the dead as well as for the living. It ought to mean something.

I don't say any of this to make myself look good or to portray war as some kind of an ennobling experience. It isn't. The wounds are not always easy to see, and they take a long time to heal. For many years, I tended to operate along the shadow line between virtue and vice. You can get too used to that. Maybe that's the worst thing a war does, that blurring of the lines. Over the years, I have tried to pull back from the front lines of my inner struggle. Maybe that's the best thing the war does, that acceptance of self as an imperfect work in progress, along with a brutal persistence to see things through.


November 5, 2013

Autumn Leaves

Ever wonder why autumn leaves have so many colors? We are taught that things evolve the way they do for a reason.That being the case, what is the reason for the colors of the fall leaves? What purpose do they serve?

A quick Google search reveals many theories. One is that the bright colors deter pests, signalling a healthy tree that will withstand attacks. Another theory suggests that the colors shield the leaves from damage from ultraviolet rays during a delicate time when nutrients are being shuttled from the leaves to the branches as part of getting ready for winter. Or perhaps the chemicals that make up the colors inhibit the destruction of chlorophyll, or maybe  they help prevent frost injury to leaf tissues or limit water loss during dry spells in autumn.

In the end, no scientific theory offers a single, compelling explanation for the purpose behind leaves having bright colors in the fall. I have my own theory. Maybe there is no purpose. Maybe whoever or whatever did the basic design work of the universe just likes bright colors and ornate patterns.

It reminds me of the master craftsmen who would etch intricate swirls on the inside plates of pocket watches where no one could see them. In similar fashion, 17th Century scientists using newly invented microscopes discovered a hitherto unseen world of intricately wrought designs in full technicolor, a world created millions of years before the advent of humans.


The watchmakers added their hidden flourishes partly to show off their skills but also because they had a desire to go beyond utility to art. The skills are the result of practice, but the eye for beauty came bundled with their DNA. In the same way, could beauty be in the DNA of the universe? If so, from who or what was it inherited?

My theory applies equally to the purposeless ugliness that afflicts all of us from time to time as well as to purposeless beauty. The bad things that happen for no apparent reason clearly signal a high tolerance for misfortune without regard to the individual virtues of the victims. Fate doesn't play favorites. If this is not outright indifference -- which even an old agnostic like myself would be reluctant to accept -- than these terrible events are, for whatever reason, just as much a part of the DNA of the universe as is the inclination towards beauty.

The possibility of purposelessness -- be it beauty or beast -- does not exclude meaning. Each in it own way gets us thinking about the creative processes that underpin the universe. Like it or not, randomness -- another word for changes that happen for no particular purpose or reason -- is built in to every facet of existence. Randomness will sometimes produce beauty, be it galaxies swirling in space or autumn leaves swirling in the wind. Sometimes, that randomness has an uglier outcome ... a tornado wipes out the house across the street and leaves yours alone ... or maybe it goes the other way and you are wiped out .. the tornado doesn't know or care.

Either way, randomness is an essential part of the destructive creation that drives life forward in a natural world that often seems indifferent to our survival. It's been said that we live in a purpose-driven world, but perhaps the purposeless moments might offer a clearer look at the processes embedded within the worlds we inhabit.

In the end, I choose to focus on the beauty of the universe. I like to think that no matter what happens, beauty will outlast ugliness. It is in the nature of things.

Anyway, it's a theory.

October 24, 2013

Decades Stun

Minutes trudge,
Hours run,
Years fly,
Decades stun

Ten years ago, my mother died following a small stroke. She went peacefully, in her sleep. Her life had been long and filled with events. The last child of a large family, she was born not that long after World War I but just at the right time to experience the Great Depression and World War II. 

The family got through it by sticking together, which perhaps explains the closeness of her family that has persisted through the decades and generations. It may also explain her role as peacemaker in my father's family, who sometimes feuded almost as fiercely as they loved each other.

Like many people from that generation, my mother was always busy doing something. An enduring memory I have is her braiding an enormous rug for the living room. Relatives would deliver paper bags filled with old clothes and neckties. She would cut them to size and weave them through the three metal braiding aids and then lace together the long strands into an oval pattern. Large pots of hot water would be placed on the finished rug to flatten it. 

All this would be accomplished in the scraps of time left over from when she wasn't cooking or refinishing an antique dresser or working in the garden or piecing together information about the latest check my father wrote. She also kept the books for Dad's business -- my mother was a very bright woman; she was good enough with numbers to keep the town school system's books for many years. Tracking down the checks my father would write often required convoluted discussions in small-town code before she could piece together enough information.
Lou, who'd you write that check too? Thing, you know his second cousin works over at the lumber yard. Who? You know ... thing ... he married so-and-so's third cousin twice removed. Oh, Dominic! Why'd you write the check? For the job we did on Main Street, you know the re-roofing because of the storm last winter, the one that knocked down the tree in so-and-so's backyard. Okay, how much was the check? Well, let me think.
For most folks, it was my mother's activities as a gardener that lingers most in the memory. You can still find pictures of it on the American Rhododendron Society of Massachusetts' web page.Her life in the garden was the perfect metaphor for a life of steady work combined with a natural sense of artistry, be it braiding rugs or weaving together displays of her beloved rhododendrons.

The effortless enterprise and hard-work of my mother's generation may be a thing of the past. I count myself lucky enough to have been exposed to it. The legacy we pass on to our children is not the lessons we teach them, but the lessons the children absorb from a life observed. My mother and my father gave us the best lesson a child could learn: the tenacity required to go out and do the needed work -- every day, rain or shine, hot or cold -- and then come home and be there for the family. Hopefully, that is a gift that has kept on giving.

October 21, 2013

Messenger Fish

Oarfish look like eels on steroids, reaching lengths of over 25 feet. They are a likely source of seafarers' tales of sea serpents and certainly look the part, with a long dorsal fin that shimmers as it swims through the water. Japanese folklore calls them messengers from the Sea God’s Palace, sent to warn of impending earthquakes. Scientists disparage such myths as old superstitions,  but well over a dozen oarfish washed up along the shores of Japan in the months before the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.

Rarely seen -- their normal habitat is in ocean waters up to 3,000 feet below the surface -- oarfish have been in the news after two washed up along the southern California coast in the last week. This is the same area of coastline that experienced a major upsurge in sea lion pups found washed ashore earlier this year, five times the normal number.

Scientists have been trying to get to the bottom of this, but so far have no specific answers, although the pups appeared to be starving. There is speculation that anchovies and sardines, a major source of food for sea lions, may have been killed off by cesium 137 from Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant, the one destroyed in the tsunami following the 2011 Tohoku earthqauke.

Does this mean that southern California is in for an earthquake? Or is this yet another man-made problem? Some say that the recent spate of oarfish deaths in southern California may be linked to offshore fracking operations. Fracking uses high pressure to crack rock formations to free up trapped oil. While the evidence is still far from all in, there have been suspicions that fracking can lead to earthquakes. At the very least, it sets up vibrations that may affect oarfish in the way an impending earthquake might.

Granted, this is all highly speculative, but this isn't: Unusual mass deaths of animals always raise a red flag, alerting scientists to previously undetected changes in the environment. And let's face it, man is changing the planet in a variety of known and unknown ways. These changes rattle the ecosystem, often leading to mass deaths of affected species that suddenly find there is no room for them in the biosphere. In fact, scientists warn we are approaching another era of mass extinctions, largely due to human activities, including global warming and habitat destroyed by an ever-expanding human footprint on the planet.

It's not like this hasn't happened before. There have been several mass extinctions in the past, and scientists assert that global warming is consistently associated with planet wide die-offs. Methane released from the oceans is seen as the tipping point, caused by warming ocean temperatures. This in turn leads to a runaway greenhouse effects, where methane heats the atmosphere, which in turn releases more methane. You get that deep into the curve and there is no turning back. Right now, we are only about 3 degrees of separation from that point on no return.

So as the dead sea-life piles up on our shores, think of them as messengers ... messengers bearing bad news ... messengers we are killing. My fear is that when we finally do get the message, it will be far too late.




October 2, 2013

217

There are currently 433 members of the House of Representatives. Thus, 217 constitutes a simple majority. There are 200 Democrats, which means that it would only take 17 Republicans to switch in order for the current stalemate to end. So what's the problem?

Turns out there is something called the Hastert Rule, named after former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, who took over after Newt Gingrich stepped down in 1998. In 2004, Hastert announced that he would not allow votes on bills unless the majority of the Republican majority supported the measure.

So, unless the majority of Republicans -- which would be 117 members-- support a bill, the Speaker will not allow a vote by the full House, even if there are enough dissident Republicans to combine with Democrats to pass the measure. In this case, it didn't even take a majority of Republicans to get Speaker Boehner to pledge anew to follow the Hastert Rule. A letter signed by 80 of the most conservative Republican House members -- all of them in ultra-safe seats that taken together represent only about 18 percent of the American people -- precipitated the current crisis.

One way out of the mess is a discharge petition, which any House member can sign. If a majority signs it, then the vote must be taken. That means going against your party leadership, usually a very bad thing. Right now, it is the only way forward, but we could be a while getting there. And this is just the beginning. The debt ceiling must be raised in a couple of weeks, and conservatives in the House have vowed to go through this whole "let's get rid of Obamacare" thing again. Only this time, it would be the entire U.S. economy being held hostage.

The irony is that while some of the government is shut down, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is open for business and Americans are overwhelming the phone lines and computer networks trying to get signed up. I think this is what the Republicans are really worried about: once people get to understand what they gain from the ACA, they aren't going to want to give it up. If you are a moderate Republican forced into a suicide pact by a small group of conservatives, then the millions of Americans who are in essence voting for ACA can only be seen as a warning sign that maybe it's time to get off the Titanic.

September 20, 2013

The Mad Hatter Goes To Washington

 There is a place. Like no place on Earth. A land full of wonder, mystery, and danger! Some say to survive it: You need to be as mad as a hatter.

Welcome to the Washington Tea Party, complete with its own Mad Hatters in the guise of forty or so Republican/Tea Party members of the House of Representatives who have forced Speaker John Boehner to allow a vote on simultaneously providing funding to keep the government open, while stripping away money to implement portions of Obama’s health-care law. That is part of a one-two punch that may well knock out the government. The second blow will land in a few weeks when the House will put forth a similar proposal to delay Obamacare before granting expanded borrowing authority to the Treasury in the coming weeks.

The House has already voted forty times to defund all or part of the Affordable Care Act. Each time, the Senate has refused to go along, as it will this time. So why do they keep doing it? Wasn't it Einstein who said that madness is doing the same thing over and over and thinking you will get a different result?

Geesh. There is no way the Affordable Care Act is going to be defunded. Period. Leading Senate Republicans have already made that judgement. The language will be stripped from the Senate version and returned to the House for reconsideration. What happens then is when the real games begin. Some sort of deal will be cut. That's what politicians do. The Tea Party contingent says they won't accept another symbolic gesture. The smart money say they will. Once again, the political process will be a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.

If I believed that Obamacare was as bad as they say it is, then I would let it take effect and go to the people in the next election cycle and ask them if they are better off now than they were before health care reform. If the facts have made the case for you, then the Senate will fall to to the Republicans and the bargaining center of gravity will have shifted decisively.

Of course, Social Security and Medicare faced the same criticism. There were cries of socialism and the end of the American dream as we know it. Now they are third rails that politicians refuse to touch. Will the same thing be true of Obamacare twenty years from now?

No on can answer that question, but it will be interesting to see how it unfolds in a scenario where some states are 100 percent supporting the implementation of the law and some states states are 100 percent stymieing the implementation of the law. Could either Social Security or Medicare have survived the inevitable birth pains under such conditions?

The states are the laboratory of federalism. The fate of the Affordable Care Act in states such as California that are going all in and states such as Texas and Florida that are actively sabotaging the process will be fodder for many election cycles to come. As they would say in Las Vegas, "Place your bets and roll the dice."

September 12, 2013

The NSA

As we pass the 12th anniversary of 9/11, the debate intensifies over where to draw the line between safeguarding Constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms versus freedom from further attacks. New revelations about the extensive domestic spying capabilities of the National Security Agency (NSA) seem to come out every other day, along with reports of widespread abuse of the legal authorities granted to that agency.

The NSA has found the keys to unlock your e-mails, your banking records, or your medical records. They can track cell phone calls and monitor Internet traffic. It can begin with a conversation between two people you've never known, from a country you may never have heard of. A few degrees of separation later and you could be on the list to be monitored. Not that you would ever know. Any company official involved in granting access is forced to sign a document pledging secrecy under penalty of imprisonment.

Three issues relating to NSA's spying program should be of concern to every American. First, the standards whereby an individual can be swept up in NSA's dragnet. How connected do you have to be before you can be subject to investigation?  Second, the secrecy surrounding the opinions issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court that permits the NSA to conduct its eavesdropping. How can we the people exercise our consent to be governed if we can't learn anything about what is being done in our name? Third, the clampdown placed on corporations forced to hide their cooperation from their customers. How can an Internet business maintain the confidence of its customers if we don't know what is being done?

The Internet came into widespread use during the 1990s. Till now, the oversight of what has become an essential component to all aspects of society has been haphazard at best. It has been assumed that there is a level of privacy to our transactions on the Internet. This privacy is critical as we are forced to do more and more of our routine activities via the Internet. Think about voting, which, believe me, is coming soon to an Internet near you. How can we protect the sanctity of the private vote if the NSA can drop in and take a peak any time it wishes?

The Patriot Act and FISA were passed at the height of the post-9/11 trauma. A decade later, it is fair to ask if putting limits on the NSA makes us less safe from an attack by terrorists? In my view, not one bit. Theoretically, there is supposed to be concrete evidence before NSA undertakes any kind of domestic surveillance. What's at issue here is how concrete that evidence has to be and the width and breadth of the dragnet that stretches out to bring in ever more people with only a tenuous connection at best to the initial threat. Individuals found through normal intelligence processes to be directly connected to a suspected threat can be investigated thoroughly under any reasonable interpretation of the laws. It's the friend of a friend of a friend who is calling about getting his lawn mower back that is the issue here.

Sure, you can dismiss the whole NSA thing by saying that anyone using the Internet should not expect privacy. But the fact is we do expect privacy. And even if we don't necessarily expect it, we certainly would like to have as much privacy as possible. The policy should be to carry out needed investigations with an aim towards preserving our right to privacy guaranteed under the Constitution, not exploiting loopholes in hastily crafted laws to gain unfettered access to our on-line lives. We the people have a right to set limits. We have a right to say this is where we draw the line between giving up our hard-earned freedoms in the name of domestic tranquility. That is what is meant by the consent of the governed.

To me, the greater worry is what one person creates, another person can steal or replicate. Now that the whole world knows how it can be done and, more importantly, that it has been done, NSA's feat will eventually be replicated by other governments, not to mention some corporations that have resources equal to many governments.  It is only a matter of time.

September 5, 2013

What's Cooking?

A few weeks back, I saw this cooking show while I was tread-milling. Yeah, I know. How pathetic is that? Anyway, the show included this two-ingredient cake thing using a box chocolate cake mix and a 15-ounce can of pumpkin. Gee, I thought, how hard could that be? So when I saw a similar recipe posted by a friend on Facebook, this one using a yellow cake mix plus a glaze, I decided to give it a try. It's just two ingredients. Nothing for a seasoned veteran of the Food Channel like myself. Hah!

First I had to get the ingredients, so I went to the store. I hadn't bothered to write any of the ingredients down. I mean it's just a box cake and a can of pumpkin, right? Oh wait, there's the glaze. No problem. I'll just look it up on Facebook using my cell phone. No signal. Now we got a problem. But I had made glazes before, starting with an infamous episode involving a spice cake that we need not distract ourselves with here, so I shrugged it off as a minor glitch in an otherwise smoothly unfolding plan of action.

Back home, I quickly assembled the two ingredients with all the confidence of a master opener of cans and boxes. Into the stand mixer to blend while I looked to see what I would cook them in. I had assumed it be a 13"x 9" pan. No problem. Except this recipe called for a 7"x11" pan. Now we got a problem. Shit. I had no idea if we had one -- although my wife later found one immediately, buried under a stack of other baking pans that hadn't been used in a couple of decades. Undaunted, I selected a 10"x10" Corning ware casserole dish. Close enough would have to be good enough.

With the cake in the oven, I moved on to the glaze. No problem. Made a ton of those in my day. The recipe called for confectioner's sugar ... check ... pumpkin pie spice ... hmm, don't see any ... and apple cider ... wtf, who keeps apple cider around? Now we got a problem. Well, I'll just have to improvise.

Pumpkin pie spice. Hmm. I decided it must be a blend of existing spices, so I looked in the spice cupboard and pulled out some cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg. I blended them in equal measure and combined them with the confectioner's sugar. Problem solved. On to the glaze.

Now I was really stumped. We didn't have any apple cider -- although it turns out there were some small boxes of apple juice behind the cereal boxes left over from the last visit by the grandchildren -- but honestly, who would think to look there? Besides, that would actually require moving things, a distinctly un-guy activity.

In my search, I did find some unsweetened apple sauce, another holdover from the grandchildren. Not that I was desperate, but the cake was baking and a decision had to be made. So, I took a couple of spoonfuls of apple sauce and blended it with water, coming up with a rather insipid looking fluid that a designer would label dirty rainwater. I threw it into the confectioner's sugar and spice blend, ending up with a syrupy concoction reminiscent of a sewage overflow. I sampled it and well, let's just say I wasn't overcome with taste bud euphoria. But it was what it was.

By now, the cake was done. I let it cool and then flipped it out on to a rack. Miracle of miracles, it actually came out. I poured the glaze over it and stepped back to admire my creation. There was a distinct sag in the center, due, my wife informed me, to using a casserole with a rounded bottom as opposed to a cake pan with straight sides. Who knew?

Other than that, it looked more than passable, and when I tried some later, the damned thing actually tasted pretty good, although the cake part was a bit dense. The hallmark of a homemade cake, I was assured, even if it did come out of a box I thought but did not say. Whatever. I'm good with the homemade cake theory.

So there you have it. A simple two-ingredient cake ... the hard way. Maybe I should go on that Food Network star-search show. My theme would be cooking for the clueless. A natural fit if ever there was one.

Guess I should have included the recipe in the original post:

1 box of yellow cake  mix (chocolate or spice would work too)
1 15-oz can of pumpkin (not pie mix)
Combine in mixer and beat until smooth. Pour into a greased 7"x11"x2" pan and bake at 350 for 28 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let sit for 5 minutes and flip onto rack.

While the cake is cooking, combine 1 1/2 cups confectioner's sugar with 3/4 teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice. (Or blend your own.) Add 3 tablespoons of apple cider (or whatever you come up with) and stir. Consistency should be runny. Drizzle over cake when you flip it out of the pan. Poke holes with that toothpick to get the glaze into the center of the cake.

September 3, 2013

Syria: Deja Vu All Over Again

The country is caught up in a debate over how to react to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, a violation of an international ban on such weapons that dates back to 1925. The current crisis began when President Obama declared that the use of such banned chemical weapons would be a "red line" that would trigger a U.S. military response. The evidence of such attacks being incontrovertible, the President had to decide what to do in response.

When tasked to develop any sort of policy, especially one that involves military operations, the careful analyst will first look to see what was done in different times but under similar situations. The most cursory review of precedent would have stumbled upon the Iran-Iraq War fought throughout most of the 1980s. Midway during that war, Saddam Hussein deployed mustard gas and Sarin nerve gas against the Iranians. He did so with the full knowledge and silent acquiescence of a United States government determined to avoid an Iraqi defeat. In fact, the CIA provided Iraq with information about the deployment of Iranian troops, which shortly thereafter were subjected to nerve gas attacks.

This could not have been missed in the run-up to the current crisis, given that their use was common knowledge, as was our support for Iraq. The dots shouldn't have been all that hard to connect, especially since the intelligence community briefing the president would have been fully aware of what it did and did not do back then. Talk about the elephant in the room. I think it would have been better to take this head-on by stating the use of chemical weapons was wrong then and it is wrong now.

This is just one of many inexplicable aspects of our whole approach to the Syrian question. The indecision on which rebel groups to aid, the spectacle of being dragged across the red line by social media, the abrupt U-Turn on Congressional approval ... all this tells me that there is no great enthusiasm for a Syrian intervention.

But sometimes, history has a way of making itself heard in mysterious ways. We have just finished celebrating the March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man who speaks to the president as clearly as anyone living adviser. If President Obama has been reflecting on the life of Mr. King, he may have recalled such quotes as "The time is always right to do what’s right." Or perhaps this one: "I am not interested in power for power's sake, but I'm interested in power that is moral, that is right and that is good."

I have come to believe that at the root of this dilemma is a good man seeking to find a way through a very morally and politically difficult problem that no one else is particularly interested in solving. It's worth noting that back in the 1980s, Iran tried to drum up international outrage but had little success in rallying the world community to its side. The world turned a blind eye to Iraq's use of such weapons, just as the world is doing with Syria today.

And that is the ultimate elephant in the room ...  the cold, hard reality that President Obama confronts, which is that nobody really cares .. at least cares enough to seek retribution for the innocent victims of these illegal and immoral attacks.

International norms are only as good as the willingness of governments to enforce them, and, for reasons of realpolitik or ideology or memories of past mistakes, the vast majority of the world's governments are unwilling to go beyond protestations of outrage, not to mention the voices raised in opposition to any sort of military attack, some of whom make a compelling case. These same divisions will confront the president here in the United States once debate begins.

Being a good man in a bad world has never been easy. President Obama is finding out just how lonely a job that can be, even for the leader of the free world. But that having been said, we have all of us seen in our lifetimes instances where history has been bent to the will of a single individual. We may be in such a moment now. I hope so.

September 1, 2013

Another Golf Story

I had a busy day ahead, so I thought I would play a few holes of golf ... you know how it is, pleasure before business. Under a gray sky, the air heavy with moisture that condensed around every blade of grass, I headed out to the first tee. Rounding a corner, I startled a goldfinch into flight, the bright yellow wings flashing against the backdrop of drab clouds that clung to the mountains. I thought immediately of my father, the twin hits of golf and goldfinches bringing back memories from his dying days.

The first hole is a 140-yard par 3 with a slightly elevated tee and a huge willow tree guarding the right side of the approach to the green. About twenty yards in front of the green is a thick belt of weeds and tall grass, which is where I dumped my first shot. That is sort of a tradition for me, dumping that first ball into the rough, so I wasn't too upset. I think of it as tribute to the golf gods.

The next eight holes went pretty well. I'm actually playing the best golf of my life. That's not to claim I am a particularly good golfer, just that I am an improving golfer, which, in this game, is all you can hope for. The ninth hole, a par four, ended especially well ... a straight drive into the center of the fairway, followed by a crisp wedge with a leave just a few feet below the cup. I knew I should head home, but I wasn't quite ready to finish, so I went back to play the first three holes, which form a loop that ends near the first tee.

I rounded the same corner as I had earlier, but there was no goldfinch. Instead, I looked down and saw an old man standing motionless beside the tee box. I stopped, golf etiquette demanding that I not disturb his shot routine. But he just stood there, shoulders slumped, peering straight ahead. After a minute or so, an elderly Japanese lady spoke from behind me. "You go," she said. At once I understood. The man had been waiting for his wife, who had returned to their car to get something she forgot. I had seen them both before, two people who had grown old together as gracefully as the willow tree down by the green.

I thanked them and took out my 7-iron again. I was already warmed up, so I wasn't worried about hitting it into the rough. I stood over the ball and went through my current set of swing thoughts, mostly centered around my right arm action into the ball. I knew it was a good shot because I never felt the ball on the club face. I looked up and saw a high draw that arced over the willow tree and landed about ten feet short of the hole and rolled to within eight inches or so below the cup. That close to a hole in one.

The couple complimented me on my shot. I enjoyed a moment of quiet satisfaction made all the sweeter by having shared it with two people who embodied the gentle patience one learns both from golf and from growing old together into the twilight. The willow tree branches swayed gently in a breeze that broke open the sky and bathed us in steamy sunshine.

Walking to the green, I thought back on all that went into making the story that unfolded in my head. The precise timing to catch that goldfinch as it took flight ... a goldfinch being the only bird that would immediately trigger memories of my father. The decision to play a few extra holes. The image of the old man patiently waiting for his wife. The incredible luck of striking a perfect shot.

I had this feeling that something had just happened, something bigger than a golf shot. Was it some sort of message from my father? I can't bring myself to go quite that far, but there are moments when it does seem that nature is trying to catch my attention. Such moments are as evanescent as the flash of a bird's wings, a barely registered movement in the corner of the mind's eye. But I have come to understand that the more I look, the more I see.

I don't know what it is I am seeing, but I believe that I am seeing something ... an underlying current of kindness that persists in a world that seems at times to be drowning in malice. It's not much, but I'll take it.

August 27, 2013

A Sea of Troubles

I've been working on a story, so my blogging has fallen a bit behind, but a couple of items on ocean acidification caught my eye. For those not as obsessed with climate change as I am, here are two key points to understand. First, the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have risen by a quarter over the last 100 years, going from 290 to over 400 parts per million. (I think that's right. Maybe it's a third. I never could get that straight.) Second, the ocean absorbs a good chunk of that carbon dioxide, but not without a cost to that benefit, especially if you are one of the bazillions of critters swimming around in a shell.

Increased levels of carbon dioxide are lowering the ph level of seawater. Lower ph levels mean the seawater is more acidic. If you are wearing a shell made out of calcium carbonate, that is very bad news. Acid dissolves calcium carbonate. This affects a wide range of sea life, from coral reefs to starfishes to molluscs to any one of 5,000 species of marine phytoplankton that form the foundation of the oceanic food chain, and oh, by the way, produce half the oxygen on the planet. This is not good news for them or for us.

But wait, it gets better. Turns out all this carbon dioxide in the ocean disrupts another of those cycles of nature that make up the checks and balances of climate. The oceans produce something called marine sulfur component dimethylsulphide (DMS). When this stuff hits the atmosphere, it reacts with oxygen to form sulfuric acid, which can form new aerosol particles that impact cloud albedo and, hence, cool Earth's surface.

Well, guess what? Acidic oceans produce less of this DMS stuff.  This means that any cooling effect from ocean-derived sulfuric acid in the atmosphere is lessened. That means the affects of global warming are not slowed down as much as they could be. More global warming means less DMS which means more global warming.

The effects of global warming in the ocean are like a time bomb waiting to go off. It takes centuries to get there and more centuries to unwind the changes. So even if we reduced carbon emissions to near zero levels -- and we all know that ain't gonna happen, not even close -- we will be feeling the effects of current levels of carbon dioxide for centuries to come. How's that for a legacy?

August 19, 2013

The Shoe Box

Leaving work and walking to my car, I hear a distant rumble in the night sky. At first I thought it might be thunder. Then I realize it is the fireworks show they put on at the local ball park after the game is over. The combination of the warm night air and the distant murmur of the fireworks transports me back in time to a place where the sound of fireworks meant something quite different.

First, let's set the stage. Think about the last time you went to see fireworks. The air fills with rockets and Roman candles, fountains and mines creating stars and comets and cascading showers of sparks that sizzle and whistle or end in a loud boom reverberating across the sky. Then comes the finale, an orgiastic explosion of light and sound that overwhelms the senses.

I want you to close your eyes and hear that finale in your mind's ear ... an incredibly rapid concatenation of explosions, one after the other, faster than you can count. Imagine it goes on for a couple of minutes with ear-shattering intensity, right over your head. Got it? Now imagine that instead of firecrackers, you are hearing 500 and 750 pound bombs, over a hundred of them, blanketing an area a third of mile wide by sightly over a half-mile long. Good morning, Vietnam!

We called them Arc Lights, based on the code name given by the military for such flights. As a radio operator, I would warn of impending B-52 strikes with the coded phrase, "Heavy Artillery Warning." Yeah, like that fooled anybody.

The use of such aerial bombardments began in World War I, but really came into its own in World War II. That said, it may surprise you to learn, as it did me, that more bombs were dropped by the United States during Vietnam than during all of World War II, including both the European and the Japanese fronts. Of course, the Vietnam War lasted much longer than our involvement in World War II, which accounts for some of the disparity. Still, that's a lot of ordinance.

In a final attempt to leverage the North Vietnamese into signing the Paris Peace Accords, the United States dropped 15,247 tons of ordnance during an 8-day stretch in December 1972. Mostly, though, the B-52 dropped their bombs on the jungle, hoping to disrupt infiltration routes. Joseph Conrad has a scene in "Heart of Darkness" where a French man-o-war sits off the African coast, her 8-inch guns firing round after round: "In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent." Most of the B-52 strikes had about the same effect.

That doesn't mean you weren't in some serious shit if you were unlucky enough to be in the vicinity. I talked to a guy who was under attack at a night defensive position, and they called in a B-52 strike nearby, only the triangulation was just a tad off. Next thing my guy knew, there were whole trees raining down from the sky in front of his position. Nothing above ground level survives a B-52 strike. Nothing.

I once saw a B-52 strike go in ... from a distance, mind you. The strike I saw gave truth to the name some gave to the B-52's: The silent death. Flying at 30,000 feet they were invisible and made no noise, although I once did see one flying high in the night sky, reflecting a sun that had long-since set but whose rays could still be reflected from such a high altitude.


On the day I saw a strike go in, I was standing just looking out over the jungle canopy from higher ground, where exactly I couldn't tell you. Without warning, a brown rectangle of dust and dirt -- we called such areas of impact the shoe box, because that's what it looked like, a brown shoe box -- rose suddenly from the ground. Ultimately, it would reach a height thousands of feet in the air.

For a moment, there was complete silence as I watched the shoe box grow higher. Then came wave after wave of rapid-fire concussive bursts, sounding just like a fireworks finale, except this was the grand finale for any living thing caught in the shoe box.

Truth be told, the whole thing was kind of cool.  There is something to the shock-and-awe theory. You listen to all those bombs detonating one right after another in a seemingly never-ending fusilade of death -- like listening to a mini-gun expend from a Cobra gun ship, sounding more like a chain saw than a weapon, the unbroken line of red tracers pissing death from the sky -- and you can't help but be held spellbound at the potency of all that ordnance. But after a few decades, looking back, it is hard to make sense of it all. All that money, all those bombs, all those lives, both civilian and military ... for what?

I keep coming back to Conrad, who captured the futility of it all as he continued on about the French man-o-war: "Pop, would go one of the eight-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech—and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding ..."

August 10, 2013

Who Am I? I Really Want To Know

Imagine a child, about seven or eight years old, going with his mother to Boston Children's Hospital. He  has done this many times before, so such a trip is not unusual. This visit is different. He is taken into a room and told to sit in a chair, the kind a dentist might use. The child sits quietly while the doctor prepares his instruments. Now imagine the doctor taking something that looks very much like a very thin knitting needle and inserting it slowly into the child's nostril, pushing it in for what seems to the child to be a very long time. This process is repeated in the second nostril. After a few minutes, the rods are removed. A pat on the head, and off you go.

Sounds like an experiment Dr. Mengele might have conducted in a concentration camp. In fact, it was considered to be cutting edge stuff at the time. The procedure is called Nasopharyngeal Radium Irradiation, or NRI. The rods were tipped with cylinders of radioactive radium sulfate, the purpose of which, in my case, was to shrink adenoidal tissues. In addition to treating anywhere from 0.5 million to 2.5 million children with various ear and nasal conditions, nearly 8,000 military personnel in the Navy and Army Air Force also received this treatment. According to one source, the "procedure was repeated three or four times, at two-week intervals, for a total radiation dosage equivalent to 10,000 dental X-rays."

This was in the late 40s and early 50s, right after the invention of the atomic and hydrogen bombs, when little was understood about the long-term dangers of exposure to high levels of radiation.  To fully understand the insouciance with which researchers undertook to explore the affects of radiation, consider the experiment where dozens of children at the notorious Fernald School in Waltham, Massachusetts, were fed radioactive oatmeal in an experiment sponsored by MIT. The goal of much of this research was to find ways to protect soldiers from the effects of radiation.

My mother told me the reason they used this procedure on children had to do with the polio epidemic, another poorly understood medical phenomenon at the time. The thinking was that surgery may be linked somehow to polio, so doctors looked for ways to treat medical conditions in non-surgical ways. Radiation was known to shrink tissues, so what better way to shrink adenoids that were blocking nasal passages.  Curiously, polio and radiation have been linked together for decades. There are some who believe that the polio epidemic was caused by radiation from nuclear tests in the 1950s and that the Salk vaccine was intended to prevent radiation poisoning as well as polio.

Much of the emphasis on possible side effects of this treatment has been on cancers that might have been caused by the high levels of radiation. How high? A few years back, I had surgery on my right ear. The surgeon was startled to find that my right ear drum was like a piece of burnt toast, no doubt from the NRI procedure. So, yeah, we're talking some serious radiation here.

What isn't discussed much is the impact this radiation could have had on nearby brain structures. If my ear drum was so severely affected, would it not be reasonable to suppose my brain would also be affected. Here's a quote I found in my research: "In the brain…different topographical regions may have varying susceptibility to ionizing radiation. …gamma nerve fibers are more sensitive…reflexes are more radioresistant than motor coordination..indicating that radiation mainly affects the functions of the subcortico-brainstem formations of the brain."

Two important elements of the subcortico brainstem are the hippocampus and the amygdala. The Wikipedia article on the hippocampus notes that this brain structure "plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory." The Wikipedia article on the amygdala notes that it has "a primary role in the processing of memory and emotional reactions."

Where am I going with this? Well, let's just say that as far as I am concerned, this explains a great deal. My inability to recall autobiographical events is well-documented. Just ask my wife. It's important to note that autobiographical memory is just one type of memory. The fact that I might correctly recall the capital of Bolivia with little difficulty has no bearing on my ability to remember what happened, say, in high school. At my recent 50th reunion, there were many there who had vivid and detailed memories from those years, whereas for me it was mostly just a single undifferentiated lump of memory called "high school."

It took me a few decades of adulthood to realize how starkly deficient I was in my ability to recall events in my life. The fact that some of the after-effects of Vietnam no doubt amplified the problem wasn't helpful. It was only after my ear surgery that I began thinking hard about the NRI treatment and wondering about possible damage to brain tissues. The only way to know for sure will be for someone to examine my brain after I die, just as the only conclusive diagnosis for Alzheimer's is post-mortem examination of brain tissues.

Am I saying that the radiation made me who I am? Possibly, but there really is no way to know. I came to see that my year in Vietnam did not transform me so much as take certain existing behaviors and make them dominant among the range of behaviors that made me ... well, me. The radiation treatment may have acted as an eraser, simply wiping away certain vital connections needed to transform short-term memories into long-term memories. The fact that I do have some memories, mostly of the snap-shot variety, makes it hard to define the extent to which I may have been affected, if at all.

In the end, it doesn't matter. This is who I am, or more to the point, who I have become. There is no point in complaining about it. I have learned to live with the good, the bad, and the ugly of me. In fact, some of these perceived weaknesses I have come to see as strengths.My mother once told me I have a knack for seeing things as they are. I think this is in part due to living in the present and not letting the past dictate how I judge the future. And partly as a result of Vietnam and maybe as a result of the NRI treatment, I find it easy to remain relatively calm in a crisis ... most of the time, anyway. We all have our moments.

We are all a cocktail, one part inheritance, two parts experience, shaken and stirred. Maybe I would be who I am if I had never had the NRI treatment. Maybe I would have been very different. Maybe I would have been that guy who remembers the names of every one's kids, their birthdays, and their favorite colors. I don't really need to be that guy, so it's okay. On the other hand, maybe the reason I don't need to be that guy is the NRI treatment. Oy! Either way, as Popeye would say, "I am what I am, and that's all what I am."

August 8, 2013

Future Shock

Do you think your kids will have it better than you? I already know how I would answer that question; I'll save that for the end. Right now I'm interested in your reaction. I'm willing to bet that the first thought that flashed through your mind was somewhere between probably not and a flat-out no.

I first started thinking about this when I began taking the issue of global warming seriously. Leaving aside the whole question of living on a planet that will be altered for centuries to come thanks to climate change driven by the massive use of fossil fuels since the 1870s, consider this. If we are living in an economy where growth has been driven by fossil fuels, then what happens when we start running out of those fossil fuels?

People smarter than I am have been thinking about the future of the global economy for a long time. I recently read an essay posted in John Mauldin's blog arguing that future growth will be much less than the growth we have experienced over the last 50 years -- 1 % versus 3% -- because of the 3-D's: debt, deficits, and demographics. Some see a deeper problem at the root of the changes we are about to see, chief among them Dr. Robert Gordon, a professor of economics at Northwestern University who was profiled in a long article in New York magazine by Benjamin Wallace-Wells.

Gordon makes two fundamental points. First, the days of rapid growth are over. He predicts the economy will grow at half the normal rate due to "the aging of the American population; the stagnation in educational achievement; the fiscal tightening to fix our public and private debt; the costs of health care and energy; the pressures of globalization and growing inequality." It's hard to argue with that laundry list of troubling factors, all of which are compounded in the U.S. by the political gridlock that has afflicted Washington since Obama took office, a gridlock that shows no signs of easing.

Oh, wait, here's the really bad news. Gordon's second point is that the Industrial Revolution is a one-of-a-kind event in history, one for which there will be no second act. "Some things," he says, "can only happen once." It's worth noting that the entire lifespan of American history coincides with the tremendous burst of growth that began in the 1750s. But that was then. In Gordon's opinion, we have seen all the big, new things we are going to see. Mankind's giant leap is over. The future will be mostly tinkering with and amplifying on what we already know.

If that is indeed the case, Wallace-Wells asks, "How much do we owe, culturally and politically, to this singular experience of economic growth, and what will happen if it goes away?" Good question, one for which there are few good answers and lots of bad possibilities. The rise in dystopic fiction may be the subconscious bow wave of the coming new reality of more people chasing after less.

The resistance to Gordon's thinking comes from those who believe that technology still has the capacity to transform the economy. Robotics and 3-D printing are cited as examples, to which I would add bio-engineering.I agree that these three things alone will create a society which will make today's way of living as distant a memory as is the era prior to World War II, when the world was still mostly unplugged.

The problem as I see it is that robotics and 3-D printing are both potential job killers for humans. Sure it's great for the people who build them, but for everyone else, the finished product represents human work no longer to be done by humans. Who needs a parts factories if you can print them on demand? Who needs human workers if you can have a robot do it? As for bioengineering, that's not exactly blue collar work. So what is it going to take to find a good job thirty years from now? Some suggest you'll either need to be doing something that requires hands-on people work like landscaping or you'll need a PhD.

The way I see it, the future our children's children will face will be uniquely different in this respect: mankind will no longer be the sole placeholder at the top of the evolutionary heap. A new generation of laboratory created life forms -- be it robots, cyborgs, or God knows what combination of DNA that someone creates from scratch using spare parts bought from the Internet -- will be seriously competing with us for a place in the sun.

These changes are already here. Like any new technology, it takes a few decades before you really begin to see and understand exactly how society will be transformed. Modern computers have been around since the 50s, but only recently have they transformed the way we live, from smart phones to the Internet.

As I have argued with global warming, the future belongs to those who can most quickly adapt to the new reality, a reality that poses opportunities as well as challenges, if you can figure out how to be in the right place at the right time. Like global warming, the full impact of these emerging technologies is still a few decades away, plenty of time to prepare. My generation still can make a difference, by teaching our children well, by forcing them to look ahead to the world they will have to live in rather than trying to cling to the world we lived in, a world that has already slipped through our fingers.

July 26, 2013

The Blue Wave of Death


Somewhere along the line in Vietnam, I heard a guy say, "Dead is as old as you can get." It's not like we sat around obsessing about dying, but the topic would come up, often after a particularly nasty rocket or mortar attack. The idea of reaching a ripe old age was not something we worried about. No young person ever does. But when you get to my age, the topic assumes a degree of relevance.

Like most, I hope to die in my sleep. But how, exactly, does one die a peaceful death? Turns out science really doesn't really understand much about how an organism ... well, dies. They know a lot about how individual cells die, but the process by which death moves through the entire body is still something of a mystery. Enter the lowly worm.


Scientists at the University College London have reported that when a worm dies, a wave of blue fluorescence spreads rapidly along the intestinal gut. Doesn't matter how old the worm is. Doesn't matter if it is a peaceful or violent death. The same blue wave is detected in a "striking and rapid burst" at death.

This blue wave of death -- the authors call it a death wave that accompanies the cell death cascade ... ouch! -- is composed of anthranilic acid glucosyl esters derived from tryptophan. Don't ask what that means, because I haven't got a clue, although I have heard of tryptophan. I recall hearing about how that's the stuff that makes you so sleepy after that big Thanksgiving turkey dinner. Hmm.

Not to worry. It turns out he linkage between tryptophan and post-turkey dinner drowsiness has been disproven, but tryptophan is a key ingredient of serotonin, a brain chemical that promotes feelings of feelings of calm, relaxation ... and sleepiness. So now I have this image of the death of a worm as a beautiful blue wave of calm and peaceful feelings carrying it out on the last tide. I could live with that.

If this much care is taken with worms, can we expect anything less? I hope not. It may be that death does have mercy after all.

The Last Wave

July 23, 2013

Nuked

So a year or two back, my grandson Christopher and I loaded up some brush and headed for the landfill. We arrived at the check-in point, but instead of being waved through I was asked to present my driver's license and then ordered to drive back around and through the the entry gate again. I was then told to proceed to a waiting area where someone would assist me. About five minutes later, a county truck pulled up in a cloud of dust and a hearty hi-ho Silverado. A man dressed in jeans and a county work-shirt stepped out. He was holding a clipboard. A man with a clipboard is a man who means business.

In his other hand he held a device that he identified as a Geiger counter. The landfill has radiation detectors at the entry point -- presumably to detect illicit medical waste -- and my load had triggered an alert. I notice then that the form was some kind of log mandated by Homeland Security. Wonderful. I'm gong to be on the landfill terrorist watch list.

I explain that my load is just tree branches and brush. I open the back of the Sorento, and the guy sweeps the interior. Nothing. Then he walks by me. The needle jumps up, and he jumps back. Even standing several feet away from me, the counter is showing radiation. I try to approach and he waves me back, telling me that he can't get any closer than he is. I'm thinking, shit, what about Christopher, who has been with me all morning? What the heck is going on here?

Suddenly, the light bulb goes off. A couple of days before, I had been to my cardiologist for a nuclear stress test. This is where they insert an IV, run radioactive dye through it, and then strap a bunch of electrodes on you and put you on a treadmill until you either reach a heart rate over 120 or have cardiac arrest, whichever comes first.

What I didn't understand was how long it takes for the radiation to clear my system. Even two weeks after the initial alert and I went back to the landfill with another load, I still triggered the landfill's radiation detectors. By now, me and Geiger counter guy were on a first name basis. He explained that a lot of truckers of a certain age, shall we say, trigger the alert for the same reason that I did.

All this came to mind yesterday, when I had another nuclear stress test. I found several sources on the Internet questioning the safety of this procedure. I remember as a child I was given radiation therapy to shrink my adenoids, using a procedure you don't want to hear about. The effects of radiation were not as well understood then as they are now. I can tell you that my right ear drum was burnt like toast, something I found out after surgery to repair it.

Risk is a part of life. So is dying. The efforts to forestall the latter can sometimes increase the former. The older you get, the more of these trade-offs you encounter. Modern medicine is getting better every day, but there is still a long way to go before we get to the level envisioned in Star Trek, where Bones can wave a gadget over you and cure a rainy day.

For now, I'm doing what I can to maintain. It's not about living forever. It's about being as healthy, mentally and physically, as deep into the curve as you are able. So, I exercise regularly and eat a reasonably sensible diet. I take the stairs, use a push mower, and walk when I play golf. I eat a bit less and almost never take seconds unless it's Thanksgiving.

None of this will forestall the inevitable ... just delay it a bit. I've already lived longer than my father did, something that may not have happened if I hadn't made some changes. As I used to say in an old blog, it's something to think about.

July 21, 2013

Illumination

It's 4 a.m. You are in a shallow fox hole just deep enough to keep your head below the sight-line as you half-sit, half-lie, with your rifle resting on the edge. Behind you is the wire, which marks the perimeter of the base camp. Ahead of you, across a couple of hundred yards of cleared ground lies the tree line, which marks the perimeter of the unknown.

The heat, the darkness, and the silence close in around you, a smothering weight of sensory deprivation that soon has your mind playing tricks with itself. You raise a hand and hold it a foot from your eyes. Nothing. Just true darkness. Dawn's early light is still a long hour away. And a lot can happen in an hour.

A soft pop is followed by a spluttering arc of illumination. The flare casts an uneven greenish light over the landscape, shadows dancing under the flickering light. You jump from vigilance to hyper-vigilance. Your eyes scan the open ground looking for movement, real or imagined. Too soon, the light from the illumination flare gutters out. Darkness settles back around you. The watching and waiting go on.

In my time, I have come to understand that certain events act as a flare in the night, illuminating the darkling plain upon which we struggle to live our lives. In those moments when the darkness lifts, we catch fleeting glimpses of hidden motives, unseen actors. A different truth emerges from the shadows playing across our eyes. Knowledge is gained. And sometimes innocence is lost.

July 3, 2013

G-Man


I worked most of my adult life as an employee of the Department of Agriculture. In 1968, a friend of mine got me a job there right out of college. A few months later, I was drafted. When I got out two years later there there was a recession on, but I was guaranteed a job back at Ag, which I promptly took.

I worked about 10 years in a very large agency, where I was initially assigned to the Records Management Office, where we organized the files of documents created during the course of official business. This was in the day when everything was on paper and the sheer volume of material generated was enormous. But we knew where everything was, unlike today's e-mail dominated world.

Partly because I had just been in the Army and had a Secret clearance and mostly because no one else wanted to do it, they made me the Classified Material Control Officer (CMCO), a job that required a Top Secret Cosmic clearance. (The Cosmic part referred to access to NATO material.) I obtained the clearance despite listing the wrong place of birth on the forms. Kind of makes you wonder, doesn't it?

The job required reading classified State Department cables and re-directing them to the appropriate interested parties within the Agency. USDA had vast international operations -- in most countries we handed out more money than did the Defense Department -- so any cable traffic pertaining to our commercial interests abroad crossed my desk. I'd love to tell you about it, but then you would have to be bored to death.

Fast forward to the last few years of my career. I was working in a different agency within USDA and had stumbled into a new career as a web applications designer. It was the mid-90s, and computers and the Internet were coming into their own. I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time -- a newly formed office with a lot of horsepower and a boss who gave me free rein -- and I was able to work mostly on designing web-based data entry and retrieval systems, the kind that are commonplace today but were still something of a novelty in those days. Eventually I became part of the regular computer staff, which was where I finished out my career.

I retired not too long after 9/11. Things were changing. The grown-ups in the computer facility were nervous about the three servers I had running in my office.  Cowboys like me were being roped in with security clearances and tighter access to servers. I could see the writing on the wall and was happy to leave the coming brave new world to the next crew.

Which brings us finally to the main topic of this post, the rash of security violations that have shaken the intelligence community, our allies, and ordinary citizens concerned about their privacy. The two most spectacular examples -- Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden -- are the result of changes that occurred during the years I worked in the government: the paperless office, the rise in contracting out, and the after-effects of 9/11.

What Manning and Snowden did would have been impossible back when I first started working in the government. Paper records take up a lot of space, and it requires boxes and a truck if you are going to move significant quantities. The documents that Manning and Snowden stole would have required a tractor trailer to haul away in paper form. As electronic records, a CD was all that was needed.

Contracting out began under the Reagan years. The theory was that contractors were a short-term resource that could be hired more cheaply because they received no health care or pension benefits and could be let go without all the  red tape involved in firing a career employee. But as Bob Dylan pointed out, "When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose."

Contractors went from job to job, their allegiance owed not to the government but to the firm that hired them. Those of us who chose to make a career out of Federal service had a lot to lose. We were in it for the duration. This was how were were going to raise our families, send our kids to college, and support ourselves in our old age.

As Federal employees, we signed an oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic ... faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter." For most of us, those weren't just words on a piece of paper. We knew we were following in the footsteps of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, who pledged "their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor."

One of he more surprising things that came out of the Snowden affair is the extent to which intelligence operations are contracted out. According to one source I found, "As of last October [2102], nearly five million people held government security clearances. Of that, 1.4 million held top-secret clearances. More than a third of those with top-secret clearances are contractors."

And all those clearances add up to a bucket of spit when you have a guy like Snowden, who purposely sought out the job at Booz-Allen-Hamilton so he could have access to the information he had already decided to make public. The insider is always the biggest threat, but security clearances are not the ultimate defense. Being vested in the system, having a career as opposed to a job, swearing allegiance to the Constitution as opposed to going to the highest bidder ... that's what breeds loyalty.

June 26, 2013

Fifty Years

A friend of mine used to say the long-distance trucker never travels the same road twice. He also liked Kurt Vonnegut's quote about strange travel suggestions being dancing lessons from God. I think a 50th high school reunion amply qualifies under both injunctions. Maybe we should be wary about repeating history, but at the same time we shouldn't be afraid to face the future ... or the past.

Fifty years is a lot of water under the bridge. That's how long it had been since I had seen most of the folks in that room. Facebook helped some of us become reacquainted in the months leading up to the reunion, but for the most part, it was what sales people refer to as a cold call ... you just show up and hope for the best.

I was prepared for just about anything. What I found were a lot of people who were very comfortable to be around. Comfortable. That would be the word I would use to describe both the evening and my classmates. Like opening an old book you used to love as a kid and starting to re-read it and finding it brings you just as much pleasure as it did when you were first read it. At the same time, you see things you missed the first time around, new layers of meaning, new pleasures from young words re-read with old eyes.

I told someone before the reunion that the overarching memory of my classmates was that they were nice kids. That impression remains unchanged fifty years down the road. Sure, we've all had our labors and sorrows, but we seem to have held steady in the prop wash of some pretty turbulent times. That says something about each person, but it also says something about the legacy we shared from growing up during simpler times in a small town that cared about its kids and about its schools.

Ultimately, reunions are about more than the people who attend them. They are about a time and a place when we were young and very much a work in progress. Walking the ground, seeing the changes that time has wrought, remembering the old dreams, you discover that the ultimate reunion is with yourself. You look across time, comparing the person you've become to the person you thought you would be. Both are reflected in the looking glass, neither perhaps quite as the other expected it would be.

The tension eases with the welcoming smiles and warm embraces of old friends you didn't even remember you had from fifty years back. Like the song from Cheers, everybody knows your name and they are glad you came. The Germans have a word for it -- gemütlichkeit -- which conveys a communal sense of belonging and acceptance. Now, I have a word for it, too: reunion.

June 17, 2013

Golf Lessons


This weekend was Father's Day, which is also the traditional weekend for the U.S. Open, one of golf's four major tournaments. This is a perfect match because my love of golf is but one of the many things I learned from my father.

Our practice range was the half-acre field behind the house on Beechwood Street. This would have been in the early 1960s. There was 120 or so yards of open ground, perfect for practicing with a pitching wedge or a 9-iron. After dinner, he would grab a couple of clubs and maybe six golf balls, which we would hit back and forth the length of the field ... or not, depending on who was doing the hitting.

At that time of day, we often found ourselves sharing the field with bats looking for an evening repast. My father would point them out and then throw a golf ball into the air. We would watch them swoop down and then just as quickly veer away, seeming to instantly realize that this wasn't what they were looking for. One of many moving parts of the natural world that I first saw through his eyes.

I was left-handed; golf clubs in those days were almost entirely right-handed. Custom clubs were out of the question. It was play right-handed or not play at all. I bowed to the inevitable and learned to play right-handed, a choice which, surprisingly enough, seemed natural right from the start. That was maybe my first lesson learned, that you can do more than you think you can.

Next was the swing itself. I won't bore you with mechanics, but I will say that my father had a very natural swing. It didn't hurt that he had spent decades hammering nails, resulting in hands and wrists of exceptional strength. He would take a pitching wedge and send it effortlessly on its way 100 yards down-range. I would swing with all my might and maybe get 50 yards if I was lucky. And don't even ask about direction.

After a wayward shot I might try to shift the blame to the club, pointing out this or that perceived imperfection on the club face. My father would take the club from my hand, set it behind a golf ball, and send it flying upwards in a beautiful right to left arc to its appointed resting place at the other end of the field. Then he would turn to me and say something like, "I don't think it's the club." As a carpenter and cabinet-maker, my father well understood the meaning of the phrase, "It's the poor workman who blames his tools."

He also taught me that it wasn't so much about how far you could hit the ball with a particular club. Sure, he could hit any given club much farther than I could, but the secret was in knowing your distance for each club and then picking the right club for the right distance. The goal was to perform consistently time after time. If I could do that, I could compete with anyone. Later in life, I translated this into my own definition of consistency: show up every day and do a workmanlike job, even on the bad days.

A lot of parenting occurs by proximity. We see what our parents do day in and day out, and we absorb it, whether we want to or not. My father never spent much time lecturing me. His lessons were from the doing of a thing. Going to work every day, rain or shine. Loving music, even if that meant listening to Lawrence Welk. Showing me the proper way to saw a piece of wood. Teaching me the basics of the golf swing. Being honest in all things big and small. Treating people as equals. Appreciating the natural world.

The legacy from him is still growing in that I continue to learn about him and from him. But maybe the the most important thing my father did is what he didn't do. He didn't try to remake me into his own image. Instead, he let me be who I am while he stayed who he was. What more can you do for a child than let them grow into themselves? The irony is that I find myself to be more like him than I would have imagined. At least I hope so.

June 13, 2013

Of Elephants and Children


For several centuries, folks ate in what was called service à la française, or service in the French style. All the food for all the courses would be arranged on a table, and guests would simply take what portions they desired of each. Think of all those banquet scenes set in medieval castles, where boisterous noblemen quaff tankards of ale while reaching for enormous cuts of beef from the center of the table and you pretty much get the idea.

Over time, this evolved into what we think of today as the buffet, mostly to solve the one big problem with service à la française, namely keeping all the various foods at the correct temperature throughout the meal. In  the 1830s, a more refined solution was introduced into the salons of Paris by the Russian ambassador, Prince Alexander Kurakin. He preferred to have each course served in sequence, an innovation that was quickly labeled service à la russse. This rapidly gained favor in Paris and spread to England. It remains the dominant style in the Western world.

One consequence of this change in dining styles was the need for a much greater variety of knives, forks, and spoons, as well as other specialized implements to accompany each course. Suddenly, no fine dining experience was complete without lemon knives, sweet meat forks, marrow spoons, ham bone holders, cucumber snips, grape saws, or bon bon tongs. Handles for these dining implements -- a service for twelve required up to 96 spoons -- created an enormous demand for ivory, the most desirable source. One company maintained an annual stock of 26 tons of high-grade ivory to meet demand. That's about 1900 elephants worth of tusks. (England alone imported 500 tons of ivory per year in the late 19th Century. You do the math.)

So there you have it. In order to consume lavish feasts, thousands of elephants had to die. But we are better than that now, right? Most civilized people react in horror at the very idea of killing elephants for any reason, let alone to make toothpicks or knife handles. But we are somehow able to live with the idea that children spend 12 to 14 hours a day sewing our clothes for about 6 1/2/ cents an hour. We are able to live with unsafe factories that collapse or ignite in massive fires, like the one that killed 112 garment workers in Bangladesh working for about $2 a day.

Don't get me wrong. I'm no better than the next guy. I wear the same clothes made in Asian factories that most of us do. The answer isn't to stop buying from those countries, thereby plunging already desperate people into utter destitution. I don't want to trade child labor for child prostitution. I do want to see better working conditions and better safety laws and better pay.

Of course, the United States has been through this already. Thanks to organized labor -- yes, those awful unions conservatives love to hate -- the abuses of the sweatshops eventually ended. Workplaces got safer, working conditions improved, and pay got better. But like water, greed seeks its own level. First it was the movement of industry to southern states with strong anti-union laws and weak environmental laws. Then someone figured out that the whole world was one big sweatshop ready for exploitation. The scramble for cheap Asian labor began. When it comes to the glories of capitalism, you might call that the elephant in the room.

June 7, 2013

Rain

It's been raining all day. It still is when I finally go to bed. My wife loves the sound of rain. Says it soothes her as she tries to get to sleep. Me, not so much. I tend to worry about what damage the water might be doing from leaks or flooding. Then there's the whole monsoon thing, long stretches of heavy rain, hour after hour, day after day.

I lie in bed trying to get to sleep. The steady drum beat of rain on the roof rattles around in my head, a loose cannon banging into neurons, triggering random associations. The musty smell of canvas from the tent I slept in for a year creeps out from my brain and into my nostrils. For some reason I flash on Doc, the company medic. Yes, we called him Doc. Among other things, he dispensed amphetamines to keep us awake at night when we had guard duty. You'd be out there at 3:30 in the morning, eyes open and senses alert in an unnatural sort of wakefulness, things that aren't there catching the corner of your eye under a full moon that bathes the landscape in a false light.

During the rainy season we all got fungi. Doc treated them with some sort of dilute acid. Yeah, that burned. They don't really go away, though. They just blend in with the crowd of parasites and bacteria inside us and make themselves right at home. A few years later, they let you know they smuggled a ride home. Surprise! Like when they tell you not to give blood for several years because you might have malaria floating around in your bloodstream.

I get out of bed and go downstairs, trying to break the rhythm of my thoughts, but the past isn't done with me yet. Memories are a lot like malaria. They lie dormant for months or years, then all of a sudden you are running a fever. Hard to say what triggers it. Maybe it's because I borrowed this book from the library today, a collection of short stories written by vets from Iraq and Afghanistan. Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War. I was too tired to read it tonight, but I'm anxious to get into it. I can tell from the titles of the stories that it will be familiar territory: Tips for a Smooth Transition, Play the Game, The New Me.

I've come to understand that no matter what you did, no matter what war you fought in, the worst of it doesn't come until you are back home and you realize that things have changed, that you have changed, that coming home isn't possible because the home you remember, the person who remembers it ... they are gone with the wind. Worse yet, you realize that the war followed you home, stuck inside your head. If you are lucky, like me, the roar recedes and you live a relatively normal life. If not, then the roar inside your head builds, like the rain pounding on a roof, drowning everything else out. The silent rain, the secret rain.

Back to bed. I toss and turn and doze on and off. I jump out of a dream and roll over to look at the clock. 12:08 a.m. A new day. A lyric from an Eagle's song emerges from the background music of the rain: It's another tequila sunrise, this old world still looks the same, another frame.

June 5, 2013

Bradley Manning

I went into the Bradley Manning case -- he is the young soldier accused of leaking a massive amount of diplomatic cables and Army reports to a group called Wikileaks -- thinking it was black and white. After reading up on it, I decided that perhaps this was not quite as clear-cut as I had thought, or maybe hoped, it would be. Don't get me wrong. He's guilty as hell. Manning will serve time, but I hope it isn't life in prison. How did I get there from here?

Let's start with the fact that this guy should never have been in the military, let alone given a job where he had pretty much unrestrained access to Top Secret materials. Coming out of a bad Basic Training experience during which Manning was teased and bullied, Manning's superiors wrote that he could be "a risk to himself and possibly others". While he was still in training as an intelligence analyst, Manning was reprimanded for posting a YouTube video bragging about his access to classified materials. Hello! So let's take that guy and and send him to Iraq where he can spend "14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months" looking at classified material. And they say military intelligence is an oxymoron.

On top of that, the Army seems to be engaging in over-kill. Manning has already confessed to 10 counts of misusing classified material. Not satisfied with that, Manning is being charged with aiding the enemy, a charge that comes with a life sentence. The charge is based on the discovery that Osama bin Laden personally requested a copy of the materials coming out of Wikileaks. Some might think that Wikileaks should be the ones to be held accountable, but the prosecution argues that it makes no difference who actually leaked the materials to the public, Manning is responsible because he was the source. Well, yeah, but consideration could have been given to the fact that the kid was a mess, the Army knew he was a mess, and they still put him in a position where he could do incredible damage.

We used to say, "War is hell, but combat's a motherfucker." To which I would add, "and occupation is a soul-killer." Manning -- a ''ferociously smart, computer-addicted and psychologically fraught" kid who had "humanist" stamped on his dog tags -- was plunged into a nightmarish world populated by the inevitable percentage of cover-your-ass officers and morally-eroded soldiers who had long ago lost sight of whatever sense of mission and purpose their might have been to the Iraq War. For months on end, he read reports and saw videos that documented indifference to collateral damage and willful attempts to cover up the worst of the abuses under the veil of military secrecy. He was right to be shocked and appalled. Anyone should have been. Revulsion hardened into resolution, and Manning vowed to "do something to make a difference in this world."

Does that mean he should have done what he did? Not in my book. If you sign up to be part of a war that everyone knows is a mess, you have to accept moral responsibility for that choice. If you sign an oath pledging your secrecy, you need to honor that oath. If you see things you don't like -- and God knows, Manning saw more than his share of the terrible things that happen in a war -- do something about it, but do so in a legal way. At the very least, be smart about it. Don't do something that will land you in jail. Get out, file FOIA requests based on what you know, became a background source, write a book, get the story out. But don't just take hundreds of thousands of documents and throw them out there for everyone to peruse and then claim that you never meant to hurt anyone. How could you possibly know?

I said earlier that the government was perhaps engaging in over-kill in its pursuit of more serious charges against Manning. But it could also be argued that the government is playing a long game here, using Manning to catch a much bigger fish -- Julian Assange, the mastermind behind Wikileaks. The government prosecutors may use Manning's trial to lay the basis for charges that Assange actively assisted Manning in deciding which files to leak and that Assange gave Manning advice on how to access secure databases without getting caught. Assange is currently in hiding at the Ecaudorean Embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden on charges of assaulting two women. Assange rightfully worries that once in Sweden he will be extradited to the United States to face charges.

It's hard to know what to make of all this. On one level, I feel bad for Manning. He was a kid who probably should have been washed out of the Army during Basic Training and who almost certainly should never have been allowed to complete training as an intelligence analyst. On the other hand, you have to be accountable for what you do. When you sign an oath, that should mean something. On the third hand, the war in Iraq is inevitably on trial here as an unindicted co-conspirator. It is hard to separate the cause from the effect.

For a lot of people that's what this is really all about, a chance to find a symbol for all the anger and disappointment so many of us feel about this war. Bradly Manning has become that symbol. For me, he was a symbol of broken trust. For others, he was a whistle-blowing truth teller. Lost in the shuffle was his personal struggle to come to terms with himself and with the things he encountered in Iraq.

Maybe Manning's biggest mistake was in thinking that we the people were somehow being duped and that he could wake us up to what was happening in Iraq with his shocking revelations. The sad truth is that we knew or could easily find out what was going on but chose to turn a blind eye to it. In that sense, we are all part of the Bradley Manning story.