January 29, 2013

It's In The DNA

An earlier post discussed synthetic biology, which is building new biological entities or redesigning existing ones. According to the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center, what makes synthetic biology different from the biology you learned in high school is "the focus on the design and construction of core components (parts of enzymes, genetic circuits, metabolic pathways, etc.) that can be modeled, understood, and tuned to meet specific performance criteria, and the assembly of these smaller parts and devices into larger integrated systems that solve specific problems."

How would this work? A recent story in Science News offers a glimpse into the possibilities that lie ahead. The article describes the successful efforts of a group of researchers from the European Bioinformatics Institute in England to store information on synthetic DNA. Without going into a lot of detail, they converted five files -- all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets (a text file), Watson and Crick’s classic 1953 paper describing the structure of DNA (a PDF), a color photograph (a JPEG) and a 26-second excerpt from Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech (an MP3) -- into bits of triplet code comprised of 0, 1,and 2. They then converted that code into a code using the four nucleotides that comprise all DNA.



Once they had their code, the researchers sent it the folks at Agilent Technologies in Santa Clara, Calif. They used the code to "build millions upon millions of DNA molecules, which they sent back to the researchers via FedEx in a test tube inside a cardboard box." When the researches in England received the test tube filled with DNA, they sequenced it and recreated their original files without any transcription errors.

I'm not going to pretend I understand all the ins and outs of this, but the implications are pretty clear. Consider that a single gram of DNA can hold about as much "information" as 1,000,000 CD's. As a form of data storage, DNA has a lot of potential. It lasts for 50 years and is a form of storage that is not likely to go obsolete, a continuing problem especially for archivists seeking to preserve historically significant material.

But let's allow our imagination to wander freely for a moment. DNA is what is inside every living cell. DNA is the ultimate in compatible storage mediums with the human brain. It is not to hard to envision this future scene unfolding in a doctor's office:
"Good morning. My name is Dr. Smith. You are here for some prenatal counseling?"

"Yes, doctor. My husband and I want our child to have the best chance he or she can in life."

"Well, folks, you've come to the right place. We have a variety of DNA memory tools that can give your child a big head start on life, if you'll pardon the pun."

"Tell us how this works, Dr. Smith. We've seen the ads on television., but it's still a bit confusing ... and maybe a little scary."

"There's nothing to be afraid of. The material we will be injecting into your fetus ... using techniques that have been around for decades ... is identical to the DNA he was endowed with at conception. We will just be adding a few snippets to augment his future talents."

"Could you be more specific?"

"Certainly. Suppose you pick our humanities package, a very popular choice from among the many we have available. The DNA we add will contain every major classic work in literature, music and art ... from the complete works of Shakespeare to all of Mozart to the complete works of the French impressionists."

"Will our child have all these works instantly memorized, is that how it works?"

"Well, of course, results vary with each child, but the idea isn't to give the child a photographic memory, although that has happened in some cases. The usual effect has been to enhance the learning process by a subtle but markedly increased ability to absorb information about these works because they will feel as if he was born knowing them. Which, in fact the child was."

"So if he takes piano lessons, he will still have to learn how to play the piano and he will still have to learn a particular piece, but it will come much more quickly?"

"Exactly."
 Is this a possible future? I don't know, and I doubt that anyone else does, either. What I do know is that researchers are busily opening a multitude of Pandora's Boxes and leaving it up to us to deal with whatever pops out. We have no processes designed to view the flow of discoveries as dots that are self-connecting, no way to collectively say "Whao, there, maybe we ought to slow down a bit," no ethical structures to help us figure out the line between "this is a good thing" and "just because we can do it doesn't mean we should do it."

Part of me wishes I could live long enough to see the amazing new future that is emerging from research facilities around the globe.  I have a feeling that Human 1.0 is about to meet  Human 2.0. At the same time, a part of me clings even harder to the memory of a much simpler past, even though that past was itself another generation's future of promise and disappointment waiting to unfold. Such is the human condition, at least as it stands for now.

January 27, 2013

English Muffin Bread

Okay, so this doesn't look like much ... the Moby Dick of bread. But slice it, toast it, and slather it with butter and it tastes just like an English Muffin, hence the name. The loaf shown below was done in the microwave. If you prefer a more classic looking loaf, then bake it. Either way, once you toast it, the result is the same ... delicious. The first time I made this, we ate an entire loaf in one sitting.


This is the recipe I got from my mother-in-law, faithfully transcribed onto a 3x5 card. Some systems just can't be improved, and a kitchen drawer filled with family recipes on 3x5 cards, along with recipes cut out from magazines and newspapers or the back of a box, is one of them.

Ingredients:
  • 5 1/2 to 6 cups all-purpose flour, divided
  • 2 packages active dry yeast
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 cups warm milk (120-130 degrees)
  • 1/2 cup warm water (120-130 degrees)
  • Cornmeal
Directions:
  • Grease two loaf pans and sprinkle with cornmeal.
  • In a large bowl, combine 3 cups flour, yeast, sugar, salt and baking soda. Add warm milk and water; beat on low speed until well mixed, scraping bowl as needed.
  • Stir in remaining flour (batter will be sticky). 
  • Spoon batter evenly into the pans. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled, about 45 minutes.
  • Bake at 400° for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from pans immediately and cool on wire racks. Slice and toast. 
  •  Microwave Version: Reduce flour by 1 cup. Follow above directions. Cook in microwave for 6 1/2 minutes on high. Finished bread will look pale and moist. Let cool for 5 minutes before removing, a process that will require some degree of patience.

January 26, 2013

A Matter of Choice

Forty years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States held in Roe v. Wade that a physician had the right to practice medicine freely absent a compelling state interest, a right that included the decision to terminate a pregnancy. The Court also ruled that under the 14th Amendment, a woman had the right to privacy to make the decision for herself, at least during the first trimester of pregnancy.

Throughout the forty years since Roe v. Wade, there has been a lot of debate over the right to life and the rights of the unborn. The Catholic Church has been an especially ardent advocate of the right to life of the unborn. Many anti-abortion advocates have urged passage of state laws providing that the fetus is a person with full legal rights, a position vigorously supported by the Catholic Church. So the headline in the CNN story -- Lawyers for Catholic hospital argue that a fetus is not a person -- was a bit jarring, to say the least.

The case involved a pregnant woman who went into cardiac arrest in the emergency room of St. Thomas More Hospital in Canyon City, Colorado. Lori Stodghill was 28 weeks pregnant with twin boys when she died on New Year's Day 2006. Her husband brought a wrongful death suit on behalf of Lori and the unborn twins.

Lawyers for the the hospital and its owner, Catholic Health Initiatives, argued that under Colorado state law, a fetus is not a person until it is born alive. The twins were dead when they were removed from their mother, thus they could not be included in the law suit. The court agreed with that argument and eventually decided against the husband on the wife's wrongful death, as well. Icing on the cake ... the hospital sued the husband for $118,000 in legal fees. They graciously offered to drop the claim if the husband would agree not to appeal. Again, sound legal procedure but maybe not such great ethics.

Just as Roe v. Wade centered around competing interests of the state and the physician and the mother, so too the case of Lori Stodghill centered around the competing interests of doctrinal purity and fiscal well-being. In Lori Stodghill's case, a Catholic hospital chose to cite Colorado law that supported its position, certainly a legally defensible choice. The fact that it was a morally indefensible position, at least by the standards of the Catholic Church, well, that was awkward but apparently not insurmountable.

At the end of the day, it really is all about the choices you make, and the hospital chose money over it's affiliation to the Catholic Church, a position that didn't sit too well with the Vatican, which is reviewing the case "to ensure fidelity and faithful witness to the teachings of the Catholic Church."

The issue of abortion is never going to be settled. As anyone who has taken the trouble to actually read Roe v. Wade will discover, the argument over when a fetus is viable -- what used to be called quickening -- and therefore deserving of an added measure of legal protection has been going on for thousands of years. The advent of modern medical imaging techniques has, frankly, made it impossible to deny that there is an argument to be made. But, to paraphrase Paul Harvey, that is not the end of the story.

The problem I have had with the right to life movement remains two-fold. First, there are two lives involved, that of the fetus and that of the mother. Becoming pregnant does not make a woman a mere vessel for the fetus with no rights of her own. In some cases, the right to life of the mother can and should take precedence over the fetus. Certainly it is fair to consider both, depending on the circumstances.

Second, if you believe in a right to life for the unborn, then how much more valuable does that right to life become after birth? Do we get to pick and choose who gets the inviolable right to life and who doesn't? If the fetus has an absolute right to life, does our enemy on the field of battle? After all, he or she was once a fetus. My point is if you argue the sanctity of life then you should extend that to all life. The reality is that we constantly balance competing interests. My personal comfort versus the life of that spider crawling up the wall. My right to bear arms versus the inevitability of accidental and intentional gun deaths.

This brings us back to Roe v. Wade. At the heart of that decision was the recognition of competing interests that would have to be weighed and balanced. There is no absolute answer, only a process whereby we can try and approach a just outcome, one that balances the rights of all concerned. I'll take that over moral certitude any day of the week.

January 22, 2013

Things My Father Taught Me

My father was an interesting guy with a lot of layers. He was a gifted craftsmen, a much better than average golfer, a decent amateur musician, and a backyard naturalist. He was very definitely old-school in his ways. This was a guy who always tipped his hat when he drove past the church and most often addressed a strange woman as "Madame."

Not that he was stand-offish. Quite the opposite. He could strike up a conversation with a stranger in any circumstance, a result of his fierce small-town egalitarianism. No one was better than he was. This was a guy who played with John F. Kennedy as a kid and who knew secrets about Humphrey Bogart. He treated people as equals and expected the same in return.

I absorbed much of this without really appreciating the gifts I was being given. We were very different people for most of the years we were together as father and son. After I got home from Vietnam, our relationship changed, but he died too soon for me to have much of chance to explore this new territory between us. Now that I have reached advanced adulthood, I can see that I have been influenced by him in many ways.

The most obvious legacy is golf. He taught me how to play in the field behind our house on Beechwood Street. I will never be as good as he was because I don't play as often as he did and I haven't spent the last 30 years hammering nails, as good a way to develop strong hands and wrists as any. But I love playing golf, and I still use the putter he gave me, a Louisville Lou #38 of uncertain vintage, but I would guess it has to be at least 50 years old, most likely more.

Another legacy central to my life is music. I don't play an instrument--he played jazz guitar and was a member of a local group that would meet once a month or so for "jam" sessions--but I was exposed to many different kinds of music, both from hearing him play and from listening to the records and tapes stored in his bedroom. Dad was as catholic in his music as in his religion.

Dixieland jazz was a favorite. I remember hearing the Dukes of Dixieland play "St. Louis Blues" or "Muskrat Ramble," music that always left me feeling happier. The world could use a bit more Dixieland jazz. He also loved big band music. Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians were a favorite, as was that mainstay of 1950s and 1960's popular culture, Lawrence Welk. Life on the planet came to a halt when it was time for The Lawrence Welk Show. "Champagne Music." "And a one and a two." These were phrases we knew all to well, along with the Lovely Lennon Sisters, Norma Zimmer, and  Myron Floren, although I kind of liked the Irish tenor, Joe Feeney.

But it was the classical music that left the most enduring impression. As I type this, I am listening to Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18, a concerto I first discovered in my father's collection. We also had Swan Lake and Enrico Caruso on ancient looking records. I never really wondered about how these made their way into my father's collection. I just listened to them, often without knowing what they were, just that I liked them.

I'd love to know more about his musical background. How it developed in a very traditional Italian household. When and why he learned to play guitar. None of this seemed important at the time, but that's how it is, I guess, growing up. We don't always know what matters until we reach a point where we can look back at ourselves and those days with a more informed eye.

I guess the other big thing I hope I absorbed from my father was his basic honesty. He was the kind of guy who was inflexibly and reflexively honest, even when no one was looking. If he found money and knew who it belonged to, it would be returned without hesitation. If he made a promise or quoted a price for a job, that was it. He would hold up his end of the bargain, and you were expected to do that same. Old school, you might say. I share that belief in the power of a promise made, a word given. I don't always measure up; few sons ever feel they do.

My father wasn't a saint, of that I am reasonably sure. He was aware of the opposite sex, and he would go on golfing trips to the Cape with his buddies, where I'm sure there was a fair amount of booze consumed and a bit of rough talk that would never be heard around the family. These were men of the world in their own way, but they drew a line between those private times and their public personas, one that seems nonexistent these days. Perhaps a necessity given that a small town beats Facebook any day in terms of knowing about people and their private lives. But also not that hard to do when your public and private personas were not all that far apart, as was the case with my father.

In recent years I have come to understand how good my father was at living his own life, even while living up to his responsibilities as a breadwinner and husband and father. He worked hard, was home every night, but there was always time for golf and jazz. He wasn't much of a reader, but he knew how things worked in ways you don't get from books but from taking things apart with your own hands. He rarely left Cohasset, but he understood the ways of the world. He was old world and old school in many of his ways, but he knew how to have a good time.

He died relatively young, when I was relatively young. That's too bad, because there are some pleasures in life that come only with age. Appreciating your parents as real people is one of those pleasures. I regret we never had time to talk more. But he lives on in ways expected and unexpected. My father may be dead, but I am still getting to know him.



January 21, 2013

Obama and Climate Change

 President Obama devoted a few sentences to climate change in his second Inaugural Address. The pundits have lumped them together with gay rights as being the controversial parts of his speech. Really? I suppose in some quarters that may be the case, but I might suggest that, like gay rights, climate change is another instance where the American people are ahead of the politicians and pundits.

Many people believe that climate change was never really that high on President Obama's political agenda. In all fairness, he had a lot on his plate, but at the end of the day, climate change received short shrift when it came to backing up talk of the need to change with bold proposals to effectuate change in an economy still totally dependent on fossil fuels.

But if talk is all we got from the government, at least some of it is worth listening to. The U.S. Global Change Research Program is a joint effort by 13 federal agencies tasked with coordinating and integrating federal research on changes in the global environment and their implications for society. They have just released for public comment a draft of their third National Climate Assessment. The report looks at the impact of a changing climate on each region of the country as well as each affected economic and social sector.

I have taken the findings below from the Executive Summary of the report. Taken together, they highlight as daunting a set of problems as any generation has ever faced. You can pick any section in the report and find plenty to worry about. From the water we drink to the food we eat, from the oceans to the plains, through wildfire and torrential rains, by drought and flood, all creatures great and small are threatened by a changing global climate.

The last finding on the list below is the most relevant political point. We are talking a good game about reducing emissions and reducing future impacts, but actions are not keeping up with our words. It goes back to a point I have raised many times over the years. To ask politicians to commit billions of scarce tax dollars today to avoid problems two or three decades from now is to ask for too much. It won't happen until the evidence of a looming crisis is immediate and unmistakable. Of course, then it will be too late.
1. Global climate is changing, and this is apparent across the U.S. in a wide range of observations. The climate change of the past 50 years is due primarily to human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuels.
2. Some extreme weather and climate events have increased in recent decades, and there is new and stronger evidence that many of these increases are related to human activities.
3. Human-induced climate change is projected to continue and accelerate significantly if emissions of heat-trapping gases continue to increase.
4. Impacts related to climate change are already evident in many sectors and are expected to become increasingly challenging across the nation throughout this century and beyond.
5. Climate change threatens human health and well-being in many ways, including impacts from increased extreme weather events, wildfire, decreased air quality, diseases transmitted by insects, food, and water, and threats to mental health.
6. Infrastructure across the U.S. is being adversely affected by phenomena associated with climate change, including sea level rise, storm surge, heavy downpours, and extreme heat.
7. Reliability of water supplies is being reduced by climate change in a variety of ways that affect ecosystems and livelihoods in many regions, particularly the Southwest, the Great Plains, the Southeast, and the islands of the Caribbean and the Pacific, including the state of Hawai`i.
8. Adverse impacts to crops and livestock over the next 100 years are expected. Over the next 25 years or so, the agriculture sector is projected to be relatively resilient, even though there will be increasing disruptions from extreme heat, drought, and heavy downpours. U.S. food security and farm incomes will also depend on how agricultural systems adapt to climate changes in other regions of the world.
9. Natural ecosystems are being directly affected by climate change, including changes in biodiversity and location of species. As a result, the capacity of ecosystems to moderate the consequences of disturbances such as droughts, floods, and severe storms is being diminished.
10. Life in the oceans is changing as ocean waters become warmer and more acidic.
11. Planning for adaptation (to address and prepare for impacts) and mitigation (to reduce emissions) is increasing, but progress with implementation is limited.

January 20, 2013

An Inaugural Address

Tomorrow, President Obama will make his second Inaugural Address. It would be nice if he borrowed a little from President Lincoln, who started of his second Inaugural Address with this: "Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented."

My guess is that, new or not, a lot will will be presented about where we've been and where we need to go during the next four years. If it was up to me, tomorrow's speech would focus on our Nation's past, specifically on three traditions that shaped this nation from its earliest days. A look back at our past may help guide us during the uncertain future that always seems to lie ahead. The three traditions would be these:
  • We are a nation that pays its debts. After the Revolutionary War, the willingness to pay our just war debts was crucial to gaining early international acceptance.
  • We are a nation that believes in compromise. We would not have our Constitution without it. At critical points in our history, compromise has been the solution, not the problem.
  • The Constitution is a living document, subject to interpretation. No sooner was it approved then we amended it, not once, but ten times. The agreement to consider the Bill of Rights after ratification was a compromise essential to passage of the Constitution.
The debates on debt ceilings, gun control, and spending that lie ahead will be better informed if these three guiding principles are kept at the forefront. The full faith and credit of the United States means something. We believe in the power of compromise. We govern under a Constitution that is read differently by each generation. Stick with those principles and we will get through the next four years. Abandon them and we will face four more years "on a darkling plain, Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night."

January 18, 2013

Living In Fear

Yesterday, I received an e-mail on my cell phone from a group claiming that the murder of twenty school children at Newtown's Sandy Hook Elementary School was a hoax perpetrated by President Obama and his minions in an effort to destroy the 2nd Amendment and take away all the guns. Sen. Paul Rand (R-Kentucky) thinks President Obama "may have this king complex," feeding into right-wing rhetoric that compares Obama to King George III. All this makes me think of Joseph Welch's famous rejoinder to Senator Joe McCarthy during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954: "Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

I will waste no words on the obvious falsehood of "truther" claims that Newtown was a hoax or the delusional fantasies feeding the idea that we are somehow living under a tyrannical monarchy rather than the greatest nation in the world, as we so often hear repeated from the same quarter. These people turn my stomach. They are liars and hypocrites, paranoids and parasites who rely on the very government they disparage to protect and support them while they mouth their nonsense. Besides, to paraphrase an old boss of mine, appealing to their sense of logic is like pouring water on a rock.

I am here today to speak toward a broader issue, why it is that some people feel it necessary to maintain a private arsenal of weapons while others don't. Some folks genuinely love guns as objects of craftsmanship and as pieces of history. I get that. Guns are cool to heft in your hand and to fire. I loved the little grenade launcher we had in Vietnam.  I found the experience of firing an M-16 largely unpleasant, but that's because the M-16 was not made with left-handed people in mind.

But here's my broader point. I don't own any pistols, shot guns, or rifles for personal protection. Why? Because I don't believe I am in any serious danger, a conviction backed up by statistics. The odds of being a victim of violent crime are fairly small. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that over the 10-year period between 2002 and 2011, the rate of violent crime declined 30% and the rate of serious violent crime declined 28%. Overall, the rate of violent crimes (rape, sexual assault, robbery, aggravated assault, and simple assault) is 22 victimizations per 1,000 persons over the age of 12. The odds of being a murder victim are just 1 in 18,690. Compare that to the odds of dying from some kind of cancer, which are about one in four.

This isn't about facts or figures, though. This is about something deeper, about how you see the world. I am not afraid of other people or of other cultures or other religions. I don't live life in constant fear of someone attacking me or taking something from me. I pretty much agree with the character in that old TV series Grizzly Adams: a stranger is a friend I haven't met yet. A lot of people think that's crazy, but it's gotten me this far.

Sure, that could change tomorrow. I'm not a fool. I'm not saying I don't sometimes worry about my personal safety or that of my loved ones. Of course I do. We all do. But I don't let those worries own me. I certainly don't feel a need to arm myself.

Others obviously do. In my view, these are people who live in fear. Why else would you arm yourself? To defend your life or property? That means you are afraid of someone taking them from you.  To defend your right to bear arms? That means you worry that someone will take your guns from you. To defend against tyranny? That means you are afraid of tyrants. The list goes on and on.

Some folks are afraid of anything and everything. They see danger lurking around every corner. What they rarely see is the danger they represent. The danger posed by the careless use of firearms. That danger posed by the easy access to firearms. The danger posed by a mindset that sees enemies everywhere.

Is there a middle ground in all this? Of course there is. Owning a handgun or hunting rifle for personal safety or recreational use is not the problem. Yes, there will be hunting accidents. Yes, there will be needless tragedies caused by loaded handguns left unsecured. As a society, we have accepted those as risks we can live with.

What we shouldn't have to live with is the mass shootings of men, women and children using semi-automatic rifles with large capacity ammunition clips. We need to be as firm about taking those away as we would taking a pack of matches away from a child. A child doesn't see the danger in matches. A handful of adults apparently don't see the danger in so-called assault weapons. Or they don't care. Either way, it's up to the responsible adults in the room to take action to remove the risk of something bad happening.


 ( David Horsey / Los Angeles Times )

January 13, 2013

Synthetic Biology

Wikipedia defines synthetic biology as "the design and construction of biological devices and systems for useful purposes." Not so simply put, our DNA is assembled from four base nucleotides that are paired together in millions of different combinations. Synthetic biology gives researchers and budding biological industrialists the ability to reshuffle those DNA nucleotides at a much faster rate than occurs in nature to produce combinations of genetic sequences that don't occur in nature. Better living things through chemistry. At least that's the theory.

The BioBrick Foundation offers standardized synthetic biological parts called biobricks that "constitute a free operating system for biotechnology." Think of this as Legos™ that you snap together to create life forms. If you want to see what's available, visit the BioRegistry site, a convenient one-stop shopping list of biological parts.

“We’re at the beginning of being able to design life in the way that we want.” This according to Pamela Silver, a biologist at Harvard Medical School and Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. I don't know about you, but given mankind's track record, I don't know if we are quite ready to put our hands on the wheel of Mother Nature's engine of life.

Tom Knight, considered to be the "father" of synthetic biology, offered this soothing reassurance in an interview with Slate magazine: "Nature has the capacity to produce things far more dangerous than we can for now." Note the "...for now" part. Keep in mind that nature takes plenty of time to tinker with and perfect its processes. With synthetic biology, we can roll out prototypes in days. The only things that evolve as fast in the natural world are lethal viruses, not a reassuring analogy.

Ready to start on that DIY project to create the next new life form? There are firms out there that will mail order you custom-built genes for a couple of thousand bucks. DNA2.0 has a web site that offers free gene designer software to ''design sequences de novo without being limited by what nature can provide."

Okay, so I'm pretty freaked out. Once again, science is busily creating a brave new world right under our noses. Maybe I missed the memo, but I don't recall anyone asking me if I thought mass-producing new life forms was a good idea. While politicians fill the airwaves arguing over questions we already know the answers to, scientists go virtually unnoticed as they convert Mother Nature from the corner grocery store into WalMart.

Science continues to operate on the principle that if we can do it, then we might as well do it. What happens next is not their problem. To their credit, the thinkers behind synthetic biology seem to be genuinely aware of the ethical issues and the potential for harm their research holds. But like 3-D printing and self-organizing robots and chimeras, we barge ahead anyway, knowing there are bad actors out there who will pervert these inventions to lethal ends.

Curiosity is just too powerful a lure to resist. Of course if you are a cat, you already know where curiosity can lead to.



January 9, 2013

Warming Up To Climate Change

Anyone interested in this topic should take a moment and download a free copy of my essay collection, Fifty Years of Global Warming. It's an easy, quick read that will at least get you thinking about the whole cluster of issues that surround this topic.

A major story in most of yesterday's network news was a report out of the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., that 2012 was the warmest year in U.S. history, smashing the previous record, set in 1998, by a full degree. The article in USA Today went on to note:
"Every state had a warmer-than-average year. A total of 19 states, stretching from Utah to Massachusetts, had record warmth in 2012 and an additional 26 states had a Top 10 warm year. 'These records do not occur like this in an unchanging climate,' said Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. 'And they are costing many billions of dollars.'"
A few years back, when I began blogging on climate change, the national news media was very reluctant to link short-term weather events to long-term climate change. Now the connection between weather extremes and a changing climate is hard to avoid.

We know why this is happening. Hell, we've known it for 150 years. John Tyndall identified carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas in 1859. By 1896, thanks to the work of Svante Arrhenius and Arvid Högbom, we knew that factories burning coal were adding what could potentially be a significant amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Of course, knowing about it is one thing; doing something about it is quite another.

It's pretty obvious that we still aren't ready to do much, if anything, about slowing climate change. We aren't ready to seriously reduce levels of greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. We aren't ready to spend the billions it will take to protect our shorelines against rising sea levels. We aren't ready to deal with the loss of entire sectors of our global agricultural economy. And we are definitely not ready to wrap our heads around the idea that climate change may already have reached the point of no return, past which there is nothing we can do to prevent major economic and social disruptions such as we have seen this year from becoming the new normal.

Based on what I have seen, our political system will not deal with this, so it's up to each of us to sit our kids down and tell them the truth. Every life choice they make will be overshadowed by the choices we made in our lifetime, choices that have left them with a depleted planet and a bankrupt economic and political system. Sucks, for sure. But we owe them at least that much.

January 7, 2013

Budget Cuts

Congress reminds me of an old married couple who spend most of their time harping at each other over every little thing. We all know couples like that. They seemingly can't stand being together, but they can't imagine living any other way. A similar malignant co-dependency has settled in over our political system. Like visitors sitting in the living room listening to the old couple squabble, we are uncomfortable watching our politicians and wish they would not act in such a self-absorbed and embarrassing way.

Yeah, right, like that's going to happen. Instead, Congress drags out the agony day after day, deadline after deadline. The next deadline in the saga over the Federal budget is February 28. The debt ceiling must be lifted and something must be done to modify the massive mandatory cuts to the federal budget that Congress imposed upon itself last year.

Before we go any further, take a look at a pie chart of the 2012 federal budget. It will tell you everything you need to know:

 Source: www.usbudgetalert.com

Simple math tells you that defense, Medicare and Medicaid, and Social Security account for two-thirds of the budget. For those of you, like me, who are unsure about the category "Other Mandatory Spending," here is a summary of what that includes, taken from www.usbudgetalert.com:
  • Federal Civilian Retirement: $87 billion
  • Food Stamps (now known as "SNAP"): $80 billion
  • Earned Income and Child Tax Credits: $79 billion (taxpayers receive "refunds" larger than their tax liabilities)
  • Unemployment Compensation: $77 billion (has increased dramatically due to high unemployment)
  • Veterans Benefits: $71 billion
  • Military Retirement: $49 billion
  • Supplement Security Income: $47 billion (minimum monthly benefit for aged, blind and disabled who are not covered by Social Security)
  • Family Support: $25 billion (includes the state-run Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program which replaced welfare in the 1990s, child support enforcement, and child care)
  • Child Nutrition: $19 billion (includes school lunches, school breakfasts, and other child and adult care food programs)
  • TARP (troubled asset relief program): $16 billion
  • Farm programs: $13 billion
  • Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP): $9 billion
The other big category, "Everything Else," is just that, everything else the federal government does, from USDA to NASA. What you and I think of as the federal government accounts for just 17 percent of the budget. Throw in food stamps and other mandatory programs and you still haven't gotten to a third of the spending. As a point of reference, the base budget for the Department of Defense in fiscal year 2012 is $707.5 billion. Another $300 billion goes to defense-related activities.

Unless and until defense, Social Security, and Medicare and Medicaid are on the table, we are wasting our time talking about the budget. Right now, we have a stalemate because conservatives resist cuts to defense spending while liberals fight to maintain Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid.

Despite what the Tea Party will tell you, draconian cuts are not necessary to balance the budget, which isn't even a good idea, certainly not at the federal level. What is necessary is to change the arc of spending to slow the bleeding until a recovering economy can alter the scales.

When times are tough, tax revenues go down and social costs go up. An improving economy reverses that. Tax revenues go up and social costs go down. A few years of a strong economy and all that debt disappears. We had a surplus at the end of the Clinton administration. Then came the Bush tax cuts, a couple of unfunded wars, and a bursting bubble or two.

Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

But, hey, we need to get past the finger-pointing. We all know government spending has to slow down. It seems equally obvious that if we are to get anywhere, then we must all agree to give up something. I don't want to pay more for Medicare, but I don't want doctors refusing to treat me, either. My kids accept that they are screwed on Social Security, but surely we can throw them a small bone. And as far as I'm concerned, the defense budget could be chopped in half, but I know that won't happen.

I think the original idea behind sequestration was sound: proportional cuts. Whatever is done to non-defense spending would be done in equal measure to defense spending. Fair and balanced. I believe that's the mantra. Works for me.

January 6, 2013

A History of Man

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video can be worth a thousand times more. The video below, "Man," by Steve Cutts is not for the kiddies, but we adults can all learn a thing or two from it. Cutts portrays in sometimes graphic detail the damage we have done to the planet and the living things we share it with, damage that will take another 500,000 years to undo. The video is darkly humorous at points but definitely not fun to watch. You won't forget it.

Confession time. I found this link in a story in Fox News. Yes, I will check out Fox if the story is not political. This article was about fraudulent Turkish Internet security certificates. Fascinating stuff. Anyway, the link led me to a site called Fast Company, one which I will definitely bookmark. So, on with the show:



January 4, 2013

Casualties of War

Over 18,000 service men and women have been wounded, over 2,000 have died, fighting in Afghanistan. In 2012, 176 soldiers died; another 177 committed suicide.

Bad memories are a like a malarial parasite that reawakens at unexpected moments after lying dormant for months, even years. Like any other disease, they can sicken you, sometimes to death, unless the source is properly understood and treated.

Service in a war zone imprints memories that don't go away ... ever. Doesn't matter what you did. Cook or clerk, combat soldier or artillery gunner, officer or enlisted ... memories shaped during those months or years are gouged deeply into the brain, creating neural pathways the size of the Grand Canyon. You never leave the war zone. It follows you home, a secret sharer that remains mostly invisible to friends and family.

I came to understand that the war never stops trying to kill you. Most of us learn to live with it; a sad few can't. The war raging inside them overwhelms them, and they become casualties, just as surely as if they had been struck down by a bullet.

Let me be clear. My service in Vietnam was relatively tranquil. I wasn't in combat. For much of my tour, I lived in large base camps, albeit under pretty primitive conditions, but I had my three squares and a cot. For maybe four months, I was deployed in remote locations, some of which have no name, just a pair of coordinates on a map. I never fired my M-16 at anyone, and as far as I know, no one ever shot at me, if you don't count the hundreds of rockets and mortars that landed in my vicinity.

That said, the months and years after the war were ones of adjustment and reconnoitering a new inner terrain that the war had occupied inside my head. I lived and I learned. It helped that I was older when I went in, and maybe a little wiser after a couple of decades of letting the dust settle.

If that was me, I can't imagine the pressure that combat veterans felt. The pressure amped up a dozen times over? A hundred times? Countless adrenalin surges, too many close calls, too many shattered limbs, too many explosions, too much sudden death, the memories piling up like bodies on the battlefield. It isn't something you just walk way from. Everyone in a war zone returns home wounded in body and spirit. Everyone needs time to heal. Everyone needs help.

We know they want us out, friend and foe alike, and yet the war goes on. Why? Vietnam tore the country apart. It should have. Afghanistan and Iraq haven't. In my view, that is as much due to a purposeful decision to keep the war out of the public eye as it is to support for the troops. The war in Afghanistan has for the most part been an invisible one. It was years before we were even allowed to see flag-draped coffins. Out of sight, out of mind.

How to bring the war home? How to make us pause before rather than repent after sending children off to yet another war? If young men and women, even just a few thousand a year, were being drafted, do you think we would still fighting?

Perhaps that is the answer. Not a full-blown draft, but the random selection of a few thousand men and women to fight in any war we elect to wage. Just as the ancient Greeks and Romans chose champions to represent them on the field of battle, so maybe should we. Or hostages to fate. Either way, we the people would have to sign up for that choice. Maybe the knowledge that your child or grandchild might be one of those forced into wartime service would be a powerful inducement to think twice, maybe thrice, before rushing off to war.

January 2, 2013

National Defense

Well, they got it done. The politicians managed to lurch uncontrollably into common sense and avert the fiscal cliff ... for now. I say that because, as usual, they achieved the difficult by deferring the impossible to another day, the difficult being tax hikes, the impossible being the spending cuts mandated in a moment of legislative madness (or sanity, depending upon how you look at) last year in the wake of yet another legislative meltdown over the raising debt limit, which, by the way, is looming as we speak.

The battle lines on spending cuts were drawn early. Republicans agreed to mandatory sequestration then began backing away as soon as it looked like it might actually happen. For months we have been hearing cries of woe from national defense hawks Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S. Car.). And even I would have to say that cutting defense by half would be too much. Still, there clearly is room for cuts. Look at this pie chart, which shows where the money goes in the U. S. budget for 2012:


As you can see, the amount of discretionary funding allocated to defense is greater than the amount allocated to everything else in the federal government and about equal to what we spend on Social Security. So please, don't tell me we can't find ways to trim the defense budget. Certainly, the cuts ought to be proportional. Whatever percentage reduction is squeezed out of non-defense spending, a like percentage should be extracted from defense spending.

More interesting is a movement from within the Pentagon to redefine the notion of national defense. In 2011, the Woodrow Wilson Center released a paper authored by a Navy captain and a Marine colonel under the pseudonym  Mr. Y, an homage to a famous paper published by George Kennan in 1947, using the pen name Mr. X, to declare the policy of containment that guided American defense and foreign policy up to the demise of the Soviet Union.

Entitled "A National Strategic Narrative," the paper aims to lead us away from containment and towards a policy of sustainment, or in the authors' words, "from an emphasis on power and control to an emphasis on strength and influence; from a defensive posture of exclusion, to a proactive posture of engagement."

I won't go into the entire paper, which is not very long, but I thought one section was worth mentioning, given the upcoming debate on defense spending. The authors list three investment priorities. Want to guess what their top investment priority is for enhancing national security? Our nation's young people, more precisely their education.
"By investing energy, talent, and dollars now in the education and training of young Americans – the scientists, statesmen, industrialists, farmers, inventors, educators, clergy, artists, service members, and parents, of tomorrow – we are truly investing in our ability to successfully compete in, and influence, the strategic environment of the future. Our first investment priority, then, is intellectual capital and a sustainable infrastructure of education, health and social services to provide for the continuing development and growth of America’s youth."
I don't know about you, but that makes a lot of sense to me. Maybe if Senators McCain and Graham viewed the Department of Education as a vital adjunct the the Department of Defense, we might actually come up with some budget choices that make sense.

One other thing I want to quote. This is the authors' summary of the national security challenges facing us in the coming century:
"Among the trends that are already shaping a 'new normal' in our strategic environment are the decline of rural economies, joblessness, the dramatic increase in urbanization, an increasing demand for energy, migration of populations and shifting demographics, the rise of grey and black markets, the phenomenon of extremism and anti-modernism, the effects of global climate change, the spread of pandemics and lack of access to adequate health services, and an increasing dependency on cyber networks."
As the authors note, these are not things happening everywhere else. There are happening here in the United States as well. If there is a bottom-line message in this report, I believe it to be a simple one: we are all in this together. One final quote from the paper:
"We cannot isolate our own prosperity and security from the global system. ... As we pursue the growth of our own prosperity and security, the welfare of our citizens must be seen as part of a highly dynamic, and interconnected system that includes sovereign nations, world markets, natural and man-generated challenges and solutions – a system that demands adaptability and innovation."
Don't expect to hear this kind of rhetoric from anyone in Congress. Like many of the generals they defend, too many politicians are locked into fighting the last war. But not everyone thinks that way. Let's hope their voices are heard, because that "new normal" is coming at us fast.