May 28, 2013

In Plain Sight

Exploring the wilderness that is the Internet, I came across a video entitled "Secrets In Plain Sight," a nearly four hour marathon of images and icons. Anyone who has read Dan Brown will find the topics of this video familiar: Masons, Templars, Sacred Geography, and Sacred Diagrams. The idea is that certain figures, shapes, and relationships appear in many different and unexpected places, their presence no doubt due to some overarching mysterious group that oversees such things for its own purposes.

I don't find the idea behind this so crazy. I think that many of our commonplace activities as humans are expressions of inner truths that we didn't or don't quite see yet. For example, take words. Words are made up of letters. String words together and you get sentences. String sentences together and you get a book.

The meaning of a word is an emergent property, something that exists only in the whole rather than the parts. As individual letters, d or o or g mean nothing. Put them together and you get dog. Put words into a sentence and they mean something new. Put sentences together and you get a book, the meaning of which emerges out of the sentences but which cannot be found in any single sentence.

Clear as mud? Now think about DNA. It is composed of four nucleotides, commonly represented by the letters ATCG. These four nucleotides -- the letters of our genetic alphabet -- self-assemble into genes. Genes assemble together as chromosomes. The chromosomes in turn comprise the genome, which self-assembles into ... well, us. Letters to words to sentences to books.

My theory would be that we instinctively developed a system of letters and words and sentences and books as an unconscious outward expression of the genetic system inside out minds and bodies. We didn't know about DNA and genes when we created letters and words, but since we were built that way, it was perhaps natural that we would be predisposed to create replicas along those lines.

Anyway, it's a theory. To tie it back to the video, if there is some underlying principle of organization in life or the cosmos that we don't yet perceive, it would not be surprising to me to see those principles expressed in the things we make or think about. Sooner or later, we may figure it all out, but maybe there is more to this than meets the eye.

Now for the kicker. An earlier post of mine, A Frail Image, described this image I saw one day while walking along 14th Street:
Years ago, I worked in downtown D.C. right across the street from where the Holocaust Museum was being built. I would walk by the site during my lunch-time walks. Every so often, I would notice a very odd pattern of light on the north face of the building. It looked very much like script written in Hebrew, or at least what I would imagine such script to look like. I saw it maybe three times and thought to myself each time that there was something going on here and that I really ought to take a picture of it.
 So fast forward to this morning when I'm watching this video about secret symbols, and this appears:

Apologies for the quality, but this is a screen-shot from my monitor. This is called a Tetragrammaton, which literally means "four letters." The four letters are generally written as YHWH, a representation of the Hebrew name for God. Back to letters, again.

I saw this image in the video, and it just stopped me cold. Call me crazy, but what I saw on the side of the Holocaust Museum as it was being built was very similar to the above figure. You'll just have to take my word, but the moment I saw this in the video, I knew I had seen it before.

So, you tell me. What are the odds of reflected sunlight creating a pattern on a wall of a museum dedicated to commemorating the darkest hour in Jewish history, a pattern that in my mind anyway closely resembles the Hebrew letters used to name God?

Hidden in plain sight, indeed.

May 27, 2013

Memorial Day

“War: first, one hopes to win; then one expects the enemy to lose; then, one is satisfied that he too is suffering; in the end, one is surprised that everyone has lost.” —Karl Kraus

Mostly I think of Memorial Day and I conjure up images of marching in the high school band from the town square, where a small cluster of pine trees sheltered a glass-enclosed plaque listing the names of those who had served in World War II, down Elm Street to the American Legion, where we got those little paper cups of ice cream, magically divided into half chocolate and half vanilla, along with a little flat wooden spoon to scoop with.

The occasion was both somber and festive. We were there to honor the fallen. The town's veterans would dig out their old uniforms and lead the parade down streets lined with townspeople waving little flags. Taps would be played, our hands over our hearts as we were taught to do in grade school when each day began with the Pledge of Allegiance. At the same time, we were there to celebrate the enduring American experience, where all our wars were good and all our soldiers brave heroes.

Those simpler times have faded. Wars aren't what they used to be. Wars used to be fought to retain or regain territory. Then along came Vietnam, which stripped away all the pretenses and left us with body counts from battles fought for hills that were immediately abandoned. Wars used to be fought to defeat the enemy. Then along came nation-building, where it wasn't enough just to win, we had to remake the enemy in our own image. Wars used to end and soldiers would come home. Then came the never-ending deployments of Iraq and Afghanistan. Wars used to be fought by citizen-soldiers. Then along came the all-volunteer army and the crowd-sourced army, where people get each other wound up on social media until someone snaps and runs amok.

War in the 21st Century will become more dehumanized as we deploy armies of robots and drones to fight our battles for us. We are perilously close to where we can just push the "Easy" button when we decide to go to war. Robert E. Lee observed after a great victory, "It is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it." I worry that we will grow too comfortable with war as the role of human soldiers diminishes. We had a dozen casualties in the Balkan war fought under President Clinton. Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in a tenth of the casualties in Vietnam. Of course, you can be sure that the cost for those caught up in the battle will continue to be high.

Even as the number of killed declines, the wounds, both visible and invisible, mount ever higher. The disturbing rates of suicides and sexual assaults among our soldiers are visible manifestations of the hidden wounds left untreated from the war. Fewer may die on the field of battle, but more are dying slowly in the aftermath.

Here is my Memorial Day message. There is no such thing as a good war. War is an unalloyed evil. War is never inevitable, rarely necessary, and almost certainly not worth it in terms of outcome versus expectation. Lewis Mumford wrote many years ago that war, like human sacrifice, will some day become extinct. That day still seems to be a long ways off.

May 17, 2013


This June I will be attending my 50th high school reunion. So, how do I feel about that? In some respects, it is a bit like returning to the scene of the crime to face a jury of your peers. High school is, after all, the ultimate youthful indiscretion, and a reunion brings together in one room the only people on the planet who collectively can piece together every one of those false steps (and giant leaps) we call growing up. Well, what could be better than that?

I don't actually remember a whole lot about high school. Unlike my son, who can recall details from third grade, I can only summon up vague images of long walls of lockers flanking linoleum-floored hallways, cramped wooden desks, the sharp smell of dried, sweat-stiffened socks and T-shirts in Evie Dorr's gym class, and the formaldehyde in Mr. Thompson's biology class, where man and frog met in equally unpleasant circumstances.

If you look at our yearbook, you will find me listed as "Most Likely to Succeed." Might as well just put a big ol' GEEK stamp right across my face. The earnest eyes peering out from behind heavy black-framed eyeglasses pretty much seal the deal. As for the rest of my fellow classmates, I just have this  general sense of everyone being well, okay. I'm sure there was ugliness. There always is. But mostly we were just normal kids. A lot of us had been together since kindergarten. We grew up together, creating a closeness that brings with it all the drama that you find in any family of teenagers.

Some of the teachers stand out in my mind. I certainly remember the cute French teacher who moved to Cohasset from California and once let it drop she would swim nude in her pool ... Mother of God! Mr. Peters was kind of cool, with a big city way about him. Mr. Guiliano, as good a teacher as any I ever had, made math almost interesting, if not exactly fun. Mrs. Phipps, the music teacher, was a true original, the master of the politically incorrect aphorism. The later passions in my life -- reading, science, and history -- those were first ignited in high school, even though the flame may have almost dimmed completely as I struggled to get through Mr. Franey's Physics class.

The one thing that really jumps out at me is how lucky we were to grow up in a small town that had big ideas about education. Our high school was one of the best in the area, a status that was achieved only through the commitment of the townspeople to giving their kids the best education possible. Sure the town had a lot of rich people, but the cost was borne willingly by rich and poor alike. We owe them all an enormous debt of gratitude. We were blessed with the opportunity to have a good start in life if we chose to take advantage of it. Most of us did.

A lot happened to me since then -- college, the Army, marriage, kids, a career, Medicare -- each milestone pushing high school further down the life list of significance. But, still, it's high school we're talking about. No matter who we are today, high school is where it all began. For me, this reunion will be more than a chance to compare notes with old classmates. It will be a time to give silent thanks to an entire town that chose to make educating it's kids Job One. That's the real story here.

May 11, 2013

Where Is the Global Warming of Yesteryear?

During the last decade, the rate of global warming has slowed ... for once, a fact about climate science that the deniers don't deny. Instead, they leap on it as proof that global warming is a hoax. What they do is take the chart below and look only at the last 10 years and not at the whole 100+ years that it covers. They also stop reading the articles on this after the lede paragraph describing the lack of warming over the last decade. They never get to the fourth paragraph down that says this does nothing to negate the science or the reality of climate change driven by global warming.

Why the rate of warming has slowed is something of a mystery. Some attribute it to emissions of sulfur dioxide from volcanic eruptions. These emissions reach the stratosphere some 20 miles up where they change into sulfuric acid and water that reflect sunlight, thereby cooling the planet. Others say the oceans are absorbing the excess heat. The science is complicated, something to do with wind patterns and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO), which act together to produce a see-sawing of ocean surface temperatures through warm and cold phases lasting several decades.

But like a see-saw, what goes up must come down. Right now the PDO is working in our favor. That won't last forever. Inevitably, the mixing that pushed the warmth to the bottom of the sea will reverse and bring it back up. So too, the volcanic emissions will eventually clear in about 10 years. The net effect will likely be a sharp rebound effect where temperature rises that were held down spring back with a vengeance.

Now consider the recent news that we have crossed the 400 parts per million (ppm) threshold in terms of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. When I first started reading about climate change and global warming, 350 ppm was considered a red line of sorts. Well, looks like that ship has sailed.

After decades of scientific research, reams of studies, and more promises made by governments than you care to count, the net result has been little or no effective action to counter the effects of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We have made our choice, and now we must live with it.

We can't prevent it. We can only adapt to it. Not much of a legacy for our children, but at least you can teach them well by doing the research and connecting the dots from carbon dioxide emissions to heat trapped in the atmosphere to rising global temperatures to changes in global weather patterns. We owe them at least that much.

May 9, 2013

A Visit to the Boneyard

True story. . . . 

I was visiting back home. The year was 19__ and the month was May. My mother wanted to go to the cemetery so she could check on some new plantings she had put in last fall. My father is buried there along with two of his children. My older brother, the first born, drowned. My younger sister died from an infection when she was still an infant.

There is room in the plot for my mother, myself and my three sisters, should we choose to do so. I am firmly committed to cremation, so I don't figure to be taking up any space. My mother isn't happy about that, but she has come to terms with it. She did ask me for a portion of my ashes so she could have them at the family plot. I figure, what the hell, I won't be in any position to object one way or the other, so I had no trouble agreeing to her request.

So anyway, we finished what we needed to do, and we just started walking around the cemetery, looking at the headstones. The cemetery is divided into an old part and a new part. Our plot is located in the older section, where the headstones go back into the 1800's. My mother knew just about every family name and gave me a running history of their fortunes and follies as we ambled past each generation.

Eventually, we wandered over to the new section, which is closer to the road, definitely a less desirable location. The grave sites had a rawness to them. There hadn't been time for weathering to soften the edges or dull the bright colors of the polished granite.

The chiseled letters of each name still stood out clear and crisp, not yet smoothed by the centuries of winters and nor' easters to come. Lichen had not yet had time to mottle the granite with the gray green concentric circles that would soon start spreading inexorably across the face of the rock, obscuring the names. Soon enough the wind and rain would eat slowly away at the stone like the cancer that doubtless brought many of the current residents to this, their final resting place. But for now, the flowers were still fresh, the earth not yet settled.

We were walking back to our car when I saw a couple off in the distance. I couldn't make them out but I could tell the man was much younger than the woman. As we got closer to where we were parked, I was surprised to hear my name called out. Turning to look, I saw that the couple were people I knew. It was David W. and his mother.

David and I had been next door neighbors until I moved away when I was 12 years old. He was the bold one, the first to smoke, the first to drink, the first to learn about girls. We went our separate ways after high school. I would see him from time to time when I came back home for visits. He had been married a couple of times that I knew of and had kids somewhere, although I wasn't sure how many.

Standing there talking to David and his mother, I couldn't help noticing his fingernails. They were black and brittle and curling. I remember thinking at the time that I had read somewhere that doctors could tell a great deal about your health just from examining your fingernails. I wondered what a doctor would have made of David's.

I asked if he and his mother had come by to visit his father's grave. No. They wouldn't drive across the street to visit the old bastard. I remembered that his father had been a drinker. My older sister told me that David's younger brothers had it pretty rough. So nobody was too broken up when he finally died.

Somehow we got to talking about what kind of funeral we wanted, and I stated my preference for cremation. David also wanted to be cremated. He loved the ocean and that is where he wanted his ashes scattered. Personally, I shudder at the idea of being buried at sea. I want to stay connected with the land. Get back into production right away. Maybe end up in a tree limb or as part of a rose petal.

The ocean was endless and dark and empty. Not my kind of place. But that is what David wanted.

We talked a little more and then said our good-byes. I asked my mother on the way home, what are the odds of me being home for a couple of days, of us going to the cemetery and me running in to my old boyhood friend David.

A couple of weeks later my mother called me. She told me that David had died. Liver cancer. I thought about those black fingernails. My mother and I were both a little freaked out by the whole thing.

I have come to believe that David and I were given a last chance to talk, to say good-bye, standing there amidst those tombstones. Call it coincidence if that makes you feel more comfortable. I think of it as just one more sign that there is a benevolence at work and that once in a while it arranges for us special moments of grace, moments that are meant just for us. I can live with that.

May 8, 2013

The Patient God

Carl Sagan said, "We are made of starstuff.” In fact, about 40 percent of our body is made up of atoms produced in stars, the rest being hydrogen atoms formed at the Big Bang. The stars are literally in our blood.

Hemoglobin is what makes blood red. At the center of each hemoglobin molecule is an atom of iron that draws oxygen to it like, well, a magnet. Hemoglobin transports oxygen to where its needed to produce a useful little molecule called ATP, the Energizer Bunny® of life. (The average person cranks out about 200,000,000,000 red cells per day. The human body, which contains about half a pound of ATP, turns over its own body weight equivalent in ATP each day.)

Like every other atom in the universe, iron comes from stars. Iron represents the most complex atom formed by fusion in a star --- the combination of hydrogen into helium and then into other atoms. The bigger the star, the heavier the atoms it produces. At the top end are red giants, which are the factories that forge all the iron in the universe.

Here's the thing ... the irony if you will. Iron is a star killer. Fusion produces heat except when iron is the result. The more iron, the less heat. Eventually the star runs out of gas, so to speak, and collapses. The implosion of a star is what provides the added energy needed to produce the elements heavier than iron, such as gold and uranium.

The iron that captures the oxygen that fuels all life came from a star in its death throes. We are here only because a star reached the end of the line. For us to live, a star had to die. Think about that for a moment. Stars take a long time to die. The largest stars may turn supernova in as short a time period as three million years, while a star the size of our own sun may burn for ten billion years before it becomes a red giant.

The Big Bang started things off. All the hydrogen in the universe was produced at that initial moment. Eventually the stars formed and began their life cycles. Only when the first star died and exploded were atoms other than hydrogen and helium available.

How many more stars over how many more billions of years had to die before enough atoms accumulated to make life a possibility? That's too much math for me, but you know it will be a big number. So God, the Creator, or whatever you wish to call it, set in motion a sequence of events that by definition would take billions of years before life could emerge. That's a mighty patient God, if you ask me. Certainly, for a species that fancies itself to be the apple of God's eye, the crown of creation, you'd have to say that God was in no great hurry to write us into the script.

Growing up Catholic, we were taught in Sunday school that God was defined by the three O's: omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. And yet here we have a process that takes from millions to billions of years to produce the stuff of life. No wave of the hand and there you have it ... life. Bada bing, bada Big Bang. Instead, a birthing process that unfolded over a very long time, deep inside the womb of the stars.

Maybe there are rules that even God has to play by, some processes that even God can't short-cut. I'm okay with that. Or maybe there are no rules. Maybe the stars are just a big fistful of dice rolled from God's hand and even (S)he doesn't know what numbers will come up. I'm okay with that, too.

May 3, 2013

Collateral Damage

Dawn Hochsprung was the principal at Sandy Hook. She was among the first to be gunned down by Adam Lanza. Her daughter, Erica Lafferty, recently traveled to a New Hampshire town hall meeting to confront New Hampshire Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who recently voted against expanded background checks. Lafferty asked Ayotte, "You had mentioned that day the burden on owners of gun stores that the expanded background checks would harm. I am just wondering why the burden of my mother being gunned down in the halls of her elementary school isn't more important than that." Good question.

Then we have the story of the 5-year old boy in Kentucky who accidentally shot his 2-year old sister with a Crickett rifle, a .22 caliber rifle manufactured by the Pennsylvania-based Keystone Sporting Arms, which specializes in firearms for children. Here is a poster advertising some of their products.

CHIPMUNK FIREARMS. Really? Call me crazy, but I don't think the Second Amendment right to bear arms extends to children. Maybe there was a time and a place in American history when giving your kid a rifle was a necessity. Those days are gone. We don't need to hunt for food. We don't need to arm our children to help defend the little house on the prairie. Some may want to do it, but they don't need to do it. No child needs his own rifle. But that's just my opinion.

Here is an undeniable fact. Dawn Hochsprung and that little 2-year old girl in Kentucky are both collateral damage, both of their deaths being directly due to some Americans' obsession with guns and gun rights. They weren't the first, and they won't be the last.

In looking around the Internet, I came across this graphic, which compares deaths from firearms with traffic deaths. This is somehow appropriate, given America's longstanding obsession with both.

I don't know about you, but I was surprised to learn that the annual number of gun deaths and traffic deaths in 2010 were pretty much the same, about 32,000, give or take. This makes a crazy kind of sense given that in America there are nearly as many gun dealers as there are gas stations and gun stores outnumber grocery stores. In both cases -- cars and firearms -- we accept the fact that there will be collateral damage in terms of fatalities directly associated with their use. People die in traffic accidents every day. People die from guns every day.

Of course, there are a couple of significant differences. First, the ownership and sale of cars is strictly regulated. You need to pass a background check to get a driver's license, and you'd better have the license and registration when a cop pulls you over or you'll have some explaining to do. Not so much with guns, where not all sales are documented and background checks are not universal.

The other big difference is that in American society owning a car is for most people a necessity. Even people who don't like to drive still learn how to drive because we have built a society in which public transportation is spotty and distances between work and home are ever greater. While owning a gun may be seen as a necessity by some, the fact is that people who don't like guns can live quite nicely without them.

No doubt about it, we Americans love our cars and our guns. And it's absolutely true that millions of Americans drive cars and own guns without having a problem. But both regularly cause fatalities in connection with their use. Every day. We accept that driving a car is risky business and will invariably result in death for the driver or a bystander. We accept that there will be collateral damage in the form of traffic fatalities and injuries. The same is true for gun ownership. People will die every day from guns. There is just no getting around that.

If you are willing to live with that, so be it. A lot of us aren't. We tolerate it in cars because most of us have no choice but to own a car. Buying a handgun does not fall into the same category. Millions of unarmed Americans live side by side with those who have bought a weapon for personal protection. You don't have to own a gun. A lot of us don't understand why we have to be at risk because obtaining a handgun is so damned easy to do, easier than getting a car in many states, and just as transportable across state lines.

You feel like you have to own a gun to feel safe? You believe that the right to bear arms is inviolate? That further regulations of gun sales is an undue burden on your right as an American to own a handgun or a .22 rifle or a semi-automatic weapon? Fine, go ahead. Just know that there will be a cost to be paid for your beliefs. People will die. Every day. Hope it was worth it.

May 1, 2013

Crossing The Red Line

So today you are the President of These Here United States. Your job, and you have no choice but to accept it, is to decide -- because after all, you are the Decider -- what to do about Syria. The whole world is clamoring for you to take action. So what's it going to be?

A bit of background. There has been a civil war raging in Syria since March 2011. On one side are forces loyal to Syria's president Bashad al-Assar. On the other is a motley crew of rebel groups, some we kind of like, some we definitely don't. The UN estimates that somewhere around 70,000 people have died, but the exact number is anybody's guess. Over a million refugees have fled the fighting into nearby Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan.

As long as people were dying due to conventional weapons, you were content to monitor events, notwithstanding any covert activities that likely have been going on for some time. Then it was alleged that Syria had used sarin nerve gas. Back in August 0f 2102, you warned Syria that using chemical or biological weapons, otherwise known as weapons of mass destruction, would be crossing  "a red line ... that would change my calculus; that would change my equation." Then come reports that just that has happened. Or did it?

The reports originated out of France, Britain and Israel, but the proof to back up the claims has not been forthcoming although, unlike Iraq, the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Syria is not in dispute -- about a 1,000 tons of chemical weapons, stored in dozens of towns and cities throughout Syria.

You'd have to think that at least some sources claiming the use of sarin gas might be the very rebel groups who have a vested interest in drawing the United States directly into an armed intervention against the Syrian government. No independent body has verified the claims, nor is that likely to happen any time soon, and evidence of sarin use dissipates over time.

But let's suppose that it did happen. Or more likely, let's suppose it happens again. What do you do? A handful of conservative Republicans want a military response, but the public is overwhelmingly cool to any sort of military intervention. That sentiment is echoed at the Pentagon, where enthusiasm for yet another military operation is decidedly subdued. Caution is the watchword out of the Pentagon.

So what's left? Doing nothing is not an option. Those who want us to intervene will continue to throw your own words back at you. Even without weapons of mass destruction, the death toll is shockingly high. How many more deaths will it take till you decide that too many people have died?

What do you do? Arm the rebels? If so, which ones? Don't want those bad boy Muslim extremists getting their hands on them ... extremists, I might add, who are quite happy to make hay while you dither, Mr. President. Maybe you set up no-fly zones as was done in Serbia? But Syria is no Serbia. It has excellent air defenses which would have to be taken down first. Do you create safe havens for refugees? How many boots on the ground would that take. Do you try to forge some sort of international consensus? Did I mention that Russia and China will oppose any formal action by the UN Security Council?

The buck stops with you. What will you do? Not as easy as it looks is it, to be the most powerful person in the world?