The NORT SPEWS News & Reviews
VOLUME I: The Early Years, 2005-2007
Collected from the blog of the same name by
A Word About the Nort Spews.............................3 Protesting the War in Iraq....................................7 Farewell to Robert Moog.....................................9 Katrina:No Such Thing as a Small Hurricane...13 The World of Wars.............................................17 Cosmic Perspectives, Part 1: Distant Light........20 Cosmic Perspectives, Part 2: Voyager................23 Another Space Race...........................................28 Let's All Evolve!................................................32 Takin' the A-Train..............................................38 Wilma: Hurricane No. 2.....................................40 Disasters are Good Practice...............................44 From Primordial Soup to Immemorial Nuts......46 My Father, the Veteran.......................................50 The Once and Future Draft................................55 A Day in the Life of the Book Fair....................61 Signs and Wonders.............................................70 Open Letter to My Representatives...................74 Unto Us a Child is Born.....................................79 Math and Magic.................................................82 Spiritual Machinery...........................................87 Time Capsule for the Real Millennium..............91
The NORT SPEWS News & Reviews
Volume I: The Early Years 2005-2007
A Word About the Nort Spews ...
When I started The Nort Spews back in 2005 I had the idea that producing a blog would encourage me to explore more fully the river of ideas and impressions that we are all immersed in (also knows as “life”), and which all too often floats by and is gone before we have had a chance to take it in.
Going against the popular wisdom that a blog must focus on a narrow range of topics, such as writing or technology or politics, I chose instead to give free reign to all my varied interests, and to let them lead me where they will. Accordingly, the topics quickly leaped from peace protests to the battle between evolution and creationism, from books and movies to philosophy and religion, from the threat of robotics to the promise of a better future. Over time the form has evolved from shorter, more journal-like entries, to longer ones resembling newspaper columns or essays. Increasingly, I value the way in which I have come to know myself better by taking the time to express fully ideas that would otherwise get only a passing glance in the course of the day's rush. Just because someone out there might read what I'm writing – and at least a few do on any given day – I have to take the time to explain what I mean, and even to do research to check my facts. (It's amazing how much you can learn by doing that – as Yogi Berra said, “You can see a lot just by looking.”) By now I think I can safely say that anyone who reads these pages will come to know me better than many people I have known and worked with for years. And I hope it is equally true that the careful reflections of a good reader will reveal as much richness within him- or
herself. The repackaging of the blog into digital book form was inspired by my friend Andrew, who said one day, “Your blog is not like a blog, it's more like something you'd read in a book.” Once I obtained an ebook reader and appreciated how comfortable it can be to read a digital text, it seemed a logical step to produce archives of the Nort Spews and to distribute them in this new form. Besides the page layout, the only difference from the original posts is that most of the photos have been removed to avoid copyright issues, and to produce a more compact file. Hyperlinks in the text will work if you are reading it on an Internet-connected device with a web browser – as long as the links still point to valid pages. Like all documents that live on the web, its immediacy is balanced by transience. Oh, and about the name … As the footnote at the bottom of the blog page says: Fans of the comic strip “Tank MacNamara” will recognize the fatal slip of the tongue that forever stigmatized the hapless sportscaster with the nickname, “Norts Pews.” I modified it as Nort Spews to get across the idea of issuing a torrent of words. The playful “spewing” elephant logo soon followed.
Little did I realize when I began how long that torrent would continue. Now I hope to put out new collections like this every year or two. Meanwhile you can visit me online at NortSpews.blogspot.com. Steve Donachie (AKA “The Nort”)
Copyright © 2005-2007 Steve Donachie This digital text may be freely duplicated and redistributed in whole or in part by print, email, Internet, or any other means. Thank you for sharing! However, you may not sell it, or include it as content in a larger body of work that is sold, without express written permission from the author. Any duplication or distribution must include this copyright notice and credit the author as the source of the document.
This document was edited and exported to PDF form with Open Office Writer.
Thursday, August 18, 2005
Protesting the War in Iraq
What a way to begin this journal--back to the barricades in protest over the war. Talk about 60's flashbacks ... Our local Friends Meeting (Quakers) has been maintaining a weekly peace vigil in front of the meeting house since before the invasion of Iraq began, back when we still hoped it could be averted. A small contingent, sometimes only two or three, have stood by the road with their signs and waved patiently at homeward bound motorists during the evening rush hour. Having been present myself in this small gathering, it was absolutely exhilarating to find ourselves suddenly joined by close to a hundred fellow activists organized through MoveOn to demonstrate in sympathy with Cindy Sheehan, still camped out in Crawford, Texas. Motorist response, as always, was overwhelmingly positive. For every shout of "you [bleeping] idiots!"
there were ten carloads of honking horns, waves, peace signs, thumbs up, and other expressions of glee and support. One young girl, of elementary school age, interviewed people for a school project, with Dad manning the videocam. Channel 7 was on the scene, too, and taped scenes and interviews for the late news. Typically, when we waited up to see ourselves, the news led with a story about animal cruelty and the usual litany of car accidents before delivering 15 seconds of video (no sound) on the protest. Well, if you have to watch the news to find out what's happening, then you just need to get out more.
Tuesday, August 23, 2005
Farewell to Robert Moog
The death of Robert Moog was announced today, causing many of us to reflect on the size of the contributions he made to electronic music. It's easy to forget now how primitive the equipment was and how difficult to work with prior to Moog's development of the first "synthesizer." Composition in those days (prior to 1967 or so) was a labor for lab technicians using oscilloscopes to study wave forms produced by oscillators, and modifying them with amplifiers and filter circuits. Much was also done by manipulating magnetic tape, physically splicing different tones together and altering the speed and direction of playback. Moog's packaged system created new possibilities which are still being explored today. By bundling an assortment of oscillators, amplifiers and filters together, and allowing them to be "patched" together in various ways (using "patch cords" that plugged into the panel
like an old telephone switchboard), and finally by allowing the whole thing to be controlled by a pianostyle keyboard, he created a truly playable instrument. Wendy (née Walter) Carlos arranged and played Bach on the thing, and the world was never the same. It's hard to remember now, with all the electronic tones in the air, what a revolution that "Switched-On Bach" sound was at the beginning. You actually had to learn how to hear it. One track in particular, the slow movement Carlos improvised for the Brandenburg Concerto, sounded at first like a bewildering mix of sound effects that had nothing to do with traditional scales and notes. Then one day when I was, shall we say, intoxicated (it was the 60's, after all!), I discovered that I could remember and "play back" in my mind the whole thing, with all the electronic bells and whistles. My brain had figured out how to listen, and had recorded it for me. Afterwards, when I played the record again, I could hear the traditional baroque-styled notes that underlay the sounds, and it seemed perfectly comprehensible. Like every great invention, the Moog synthesizer was rapidly imitated and improved upon by others. The machines became easier to "patch," using knobs and
buttons instead of cords. They became polyphonic (the early ones could only produce one note at a time, and recordings had to be made of many tracks put down in layers). The electronic modules that produced the sounds kept shrinking, riding the parallel wave of computer technology, until whole synthesizers were reduced to the size of chips. Finally, they have become purely digital, and hard to distinguish from computers themselves. It's a wonderful footnote to Moog's life that his early interest in electronic music dates back to his childhood when he built a theremin from instructions in an electronics magazine. The theremin, named after its 1919 inventor Leon Theremin, is a purely analog device played with a pair of antennas that respond to proximity. One antenna controls pitch while the other controls volume. Though simple in principle, the thing is darn hard to play. Anyone can make weird sci-fi UFO whistles, but few have had the patience to learn the control necessary to play real music, which is why it has remained a curiosity rather than developing into a mainstream instrument. Late in his life* Moog saw to it that one of the few theremin virtuosos, Clara Rockmore, was properly recorded for posterity. Her album very simply has no peer. In her hands (or maybe I should say, near her
hands) the instrument literally sings, sounding like a cross between a viola and a contralto voice. Her performance of the Rachmaninoff "Vocalise" deserves to be legendary. So in returning to the roots of his inspiration Moog left us with yet another gift. Thanks for everything, Bob!
* Erratum -- I have discovered that the Clara Rockmore recording actually dates back to 1977, and was later reissued on CD.
Monday, August 29, 2005
Katrina: No Such Thing as a "Small" Hurricane
As blasé Miamians, when we heard that a mere "tropical storm" that might just barely turn into a category one hurricane was approaching, and which furthermore would be passing some 50 miles to the north of us, we
figured we were in for no more than a couple of rainy evenings watching it all on TV. Bzzt! Wrong. At the last minute Katrina intensified further and made a sharp southerly turn, bringing the eye right through the city of Hialeah, only about 15 miles from our South Miami abode. Instead of the 30 to 50 mph winds that had been predicted we were getting gusts above 80. Time to start wishing I'd put up the shutters and bought more supplies. Around 8:30 the lights went out. Nothing out of the ordinary about that. But about an hour later came a tremendous BOOM--sounded like thunder crashing right overhead. This was followed by some strange noises that led us to look around the house, carrying flashlights like we were in an episode of the X-Files. In the back bedroom we discovered a hole in the ceiling with about six inches of wood sticking out. It was the end of a branch of the rather large tree that had fallen on the roof, punching its way through roof and ceiling. Luckily it also pretty much sealed up the hole it had made so we were able to catch the small amounts of water that ran down it in a waste basket. Around this time one of my cats, the least intelligent of
the three, who had disappeared prior to the storm, decided to turn up and request admittance, so I had to go out and carry her in to safety. While I was outside I went to look at the tree. One of its two trunks, a good sixteen to eighteen inches in diameter, had split right to the base and was resting on top of the roof. No wonder it had made a noise--the whole roof had acted like a soundbox to amplify it. The tree is still there, because so far we have failed to get any tree trimming company to actually show up. The morning after, we were able to patch the hole temporarily by sawing the branch off at roof level-leaving the rest of it inside--and covering it with tarpaper and caulking. The predictable aftermath has happened, with traffic lights out, stores closed, food and water and batteries in short supply, and lots of yard work to do. I now have a pile of debris the size of a small truck out by the road, with more to come. But we're more than grateful not to have worse damage or the kind of flooding that occurred further south from us. So here we are, only a few days later, with our power back on, A/C running again, no more cold showers or lukewarm bottles of water or suffocating heat, just in time to see what the same storm, vastly increased in size
and power, will do to poor old New Orleans. Having been through that with Hurricane Andrew in 1992, I can only wish them good luck. As low as we are, at least Miami is above sea level.
Sunday, September 04, 2005
The World of Wars
War of the Worlds, Peace, Power and Disaster Only about a dozen years ago news commentators were speculating about the arrival of a Pax Americana--a period of global peace and prosperity that would follow the Cold War as the United States of America, at last the only super-power, presided over a "new world order." Such a hopeful phrase ... in the words of performance artist Laurie Anderson, it may not have been very specific, "but at least it promised to be something new, and worldwide, and orderly." The reality has turned out to be something less than peaceful, all too familiar, and far from orderly, though certainly worldwide. America has emerged as an empire, and not a very nice one. Plagued like ancient Rome by "barbarians" at home and abroad, it has lashed out and in the process rediscovered the limits of military force. Perhaps this sense of inadequacy is haunting us as a
nation. That could explain the compelling nature of Steven Spielberg's remake of H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds. Though shrill (someone should explain to the Tom Cruise character that the best way to calm a hysterical child is NOT to yell at her), it is nevertheless a vivid portrayal of what happens when society breaks down in the face of something it cannot control. The aliens are as technologically superior to us as, let's say, a cruise missile is to a cavalry charge on camel back. In one stroke--a scientifically accurate electromagnetic pulse--all communication and transportation is knocked out, reducing us to the status of vermin ready to be symbolically stepped on by the strides of the towering alien machines. Instantly, it's everyone for themselves. This is an interesting contrast to what happened only a couple of years ago when our President visited Hollywood to get them to help whip up some war fever. There was a marked increase in the production of heroic new films, and an immediate abundance of old ones unearthed to be aired on television. A particular favorite of mine was Paul Verhoeven's take on Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, where the infantry heroes battle giant insects (the perfectly dehumanized enemy) in a landscape uncannily like that of Afghanistan. It didn't seem to bother anyone that the world government on
earth had the militaristic trappings of the Third Reich, or that citizenship was not universal but had to be earned by things like, well, military service for example. Legislation anyone? But it doesn't take a war or a superior enemy to deliver the nightmare of national impotence. Look what a handful of terrorists were able to do by redirecting the paths of a few airplanes. And see how we throw up our hands in helplessness when confronted with the wholesale destruction of a city by the natural forces of wind and water. Pulling triggers is easy compared to providing for the human needs of human beings. When we stop taking aim and start taking time to tend to the real needs of those at home and abroad, maybe then historians will be able to identify the Pax that emerged from this chaos, and to name a date when we finally outgrew our need to be powerful.
Saturday, September 24, 2005
Cosmic Perspectives, Part 1: Distant Light
During the course of my own brief lifetime, a mere half century or so, the universe has aged quite a bit. Of course, that is only in our perception of it, which has
also undergone quite a bit of revision in recent years. When I was a kid, the age of the earth had been pegged pretty accurately at around four billion years--quite a difference from the Biblical estimates of four thousand (only a small fraction of human history). The rest of the universe was thought to be somewhat older, but perhaps not more than double that figure, or around eight billion years. Gradually, astronomers refined the figure upward till it exceeded ten billion. But the aging process didn't stop there. Current estimates range from eleven to as high as twenty billion years. (To get some idea of how the calculations are done, check this out, or Google the age of the universe.) The estimates vary so widely because there is still so much we don't know, such as how much "dark" matter and energy is out there--the existence of which was only recently discovered. Normally most of us don't think about all this very much, except while watching an episode of Nova on PBS. But the other day something brought it all home to me in a new way. It was reported that astronomers had detected the explosion of a star twelve billion light-years distant--meaning, of course, that the explosion happened twelve billion years in the past, and the news of the event, traveling at the speed of light, has only now
arrived. It's one thing to consider millions of galaxies being that far away, but there was something peculiarly nostalgic and evocative about one particular individual star being singled out over such a huge distance. I felt as if a window to the past had suddenly opened, leaving me gazing across this vast stretch of space and time the way Gatsby stared across his lake at the dim beacon that marked the home of his lost and unattainable love. So, twelve billion years ... the place is at least that old-older, because the star had already formed and burned for at least some millions of years before it blew up. And it is at least that large in all directions from here. Does that mean it's twice twelve billion? Or even larger/older? Or is that just a trick of perspective, due to space itself being curved? Maybe, in the fullness of time, we will have lifted our heads high enough to see beyond the cosmic horizon, and know the answer. Until then, let this lonely beacon be a sign to us of all we have learned, and all we have yet to learn.
Tuesday, September 27, 2005
Cosmic Perspectives, Part 2: Voyager
The second thing that captured my imagination this week was the report that Voyager 1 has entered the next stage of its departure from our solar system by crossing the "termination shock" that marks the beginning of the "heliopause." It's wonderful the way we find these new structures wherever we look, and the edge of the solar system is no exception. You might have thought that waving bye-bye to Neptune and Pluto would mark the probe's entry into empty interstellar space, but it turns out there is a detectable bubble of particles blown out by the sun, and a form of shock wave where the particles slow down from millions of miles per hour to radically slower speeds--maybe even reversing direction back toward the sun like waves lapping on a cosmic beach. This fuzzy line marks the region where the pressure of particles blowing in from other stars becomes more powerful than
that of our own sun. Only when it travels beyond this region, which will take another few years, will Voyager enter true interstellar space and become our first probe to the stars. Voyager wasn't the first vehicle to officially leave the solar system. In 1983 Pioneer 10 first passed the orbit of Neptune while it was temporarily the most distant planet from the sun due to Pluto's eccentric orbit. At the time NASA broadcast its bleeping radio transmissions to mark the event. There was even a toll-free number you could call to hear it live, 24-hours a day. (Had there been an Internet at the time, it would have been online as well, but the Internet had yet to develop.) And yes, I dialed that number and listened. But Voyager is moving faster, and in 1998 it surpassed Pioneer 10 as the most distant man-made object. More years have passed, and Voyager is still in the process of leaving. The boundary is that wide. The mission is thirty years old, and the probe may continue to function for another ten or fifteen years. It is now over eight billion miles out--twice the distance to Pluto-and by the time it expires it will be out over ten billion miles. But that will be only two-tenths of one percent of a light year, and the nearest star is over four light years
away, and in a different direction. Even so, I find this more exciting than anything that has happened in space exploration since the manned moon landings. (More on them another time.) As someone who has grown up through the era of rocketry, I have followed it since I was a small child, when Werner Von Braun and his team of German scientists founded the US missile program, and later the space program. I used to have a scrapbook filled with every photo I could find of rockets and satellites. I even kept a log as each satellite and space probe was launched, giving it up as hopeless when the launches reached into the hundreds (now thousands). There have been many firsts over the years. Some of them were significant: the first satellite in orbit, the first human in space, first probes to the moon and other planets, first people to visit the moon. Others were merely of passing social interest, or of concern in the "space race" between the USA and the USSR: the first woman, first "space walk," first orbital rendezvous, or the first [insert your nationality here] in space. There will be other such firsts as we venture forth from our planetary home. And there may be other "space
races" in our future--are you watching the Chinese? But there will always be Voyager 1, this first tendril of human construction, a mere bucket of bolts, drifting out among the stars like a bottle in the ocean, bearing a message in case it ever washes up on some far shore, a message that says, "we were here," and which may be read when the human race is no more than an archaeological relic.
A footnote to this: I once read a science fiction novel about a family of colonists who traveled in the first spaceship to another star. Realistically, they had to travel close to the speed of light and also spend time in suspended animation in order to get there within the span of a human life. Somewhere near the end of the voyage they believed they encountered an alien spacecraft passing them at incredible speed. But when they arrived at their destination they found a thriving human civilization already in place. The ship that had passed them was one of many developed later that could travel faster than the
speed of light. It was as if the Pilgrims had set out for the New World in 1620 and sailed into New York harbor in 1920, where they were dwarfed by mammoth steamships and amazed by airplanes in the sky. The speed of light may never be broken, but even if it isn't we will certainly follow Voyager someday with faster probes aimed at specific stars. Maybe someday the people decoding Voyager's message will be our own far descendants, scattered around the galaxy.
Friday, September 30, 2005
Another Space Race
So we're going back to the moon, maybe even Mars. How come we're not excited about it? Could be it has something to do with NASA's recently unveiled designs for the vehicles that will replace the shuttle and be able to do all this. Not that they won't work, or that they aren't a wonderful exercise in practicality and utility. It's just that they're not, well ... sexy. To a public jaded by the racy designs of Star Wars and other sci-fi epics, the new plans seem so pedestrian, with
a bit of a retro flare. The capsule on top--right, a capsule--harks back to the original designs of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, and those are up to forty years old. The lunar landing arrangement is merely a souped-up Apollo with LEM variation. And the basic earth-to-orbit design, a pencil with an eraser on top, most closely resembles the original Mercury/Redstone sub-orbital hardware. Even the landing method--parachutes and airbags--seems a let down after watching those shuttle landings that can only be termed, appropriately enough, "death defying." On one hand, we should be glad to see our tax dollars being spent in as economical a way as possible, given the task. On the other hand, it is an admission that the whole space-plane concept of the shuttle was a mistake, or at least an idea ahead of its time. But it feels as if, at the end of World War II, with the existence of buzzbombs and V-2 rockets well known, the government had announced its plan to build a new and improved biplane instead of trying to break the sound barrier. The very idea that we have not been back to the moon in thirty years is enough to make you wonder what we've been up to. If, instead of squandering all our money on shuttle development and two space stations of dubious
utility (letting the first one, Skylab, burn up in the atmosphere for lack of funding), suppose we had continued to fund the existing Apollo program for all that time. Plans had already been made to add an extra stage to the Saturn V through orbital rendezvous, which would have made it possible to land enormous payloads on the moon. We might have had a thriving lunar colony by the 1980's for a fraction of what it will cost us now. Instead, as soon as the "moon race" was won, we lost interest and shut the project down. Maybe a new space race is what we need to spur the technological development process. We already have plenty of competition from Europe and Japan when it comes to launching commercial satellites with disposable rockets. And Burt Rutan is showing us what private companies can do with a little financial incentive. (When he builds a space plane, it looks like one.) All that's missing is the kind of rivalry that put national prestige on the line during the Cold War, and it looks like the Chinese are about to provide that. By calmly following their own timetable, and pretty much ignoring what the US, Europe and Russia are up to in space, it won't be long before they provide us with the kind of
surprise that the first sputnik gave us. And if that gets us moving again, so much the better.
Thursday, October 06, 2005
Let's All Evolve!
All right, I've had enough. I've just read one too many news stories where the Christian myth of Creation is being compared against the scientific theory of evolution as if they are two competing products vying for market share. In reality (I do believe in that) they are as different as a ghost and a machine, spirit and flesh. One requires faith and a belief system to create a subjective experience of something immaterial, while the other examines physical evidence and attempts to propose logical and demonstrable explanations for what we see around us. The bullet points being hammered home by the "intelligent design" proponents are (1) "evolution is not a fact," (2) "life is too complex to be explained by evolution," and (3) "evolution has unexplained gaps it cannot account for." I beg to differ. First of all, evolution is a welldocumented phenomenon which can be observed in the
species alive today, and inferred from studying the remains of those now long extinct. I think what they really mean, though, is not evolution the observed phenomenon but the theory of evolution by natural selection, which is the current state of understanding how evolution happens. Basically, as Darwin proposed, populations of every species are composed of individuals with genetic variety and differing traits. When the population is subjected to stresses, such as the introduction of a new predator or parasite, loss of food supply, or a change in climate, some members of the population do better than others due to the set of traits they have. These members are the ones who survive and produce more offspring, so that their traits become prevalent in succeeding generations. The changes may be so minute they are unnoticeable, or they may be sudden and dramatic. Genetic variations may be as mild as the color of eyes or as drastic as mutations that make it impossible for the individual to survive. So over hundreds of millions of years since it arose, life has taken infinitely varying forms. The forms that didn't work or couldn't adapt died out, while others survived ... and here we are, the living continuation of this endless chain of flux.
While we can agree that a theory is not a fact (theories exist to explain the observable facts), many theories demonstrate their usefulness every day as we make use of the technologies that have been based on them. We can start our cars, turn on our lights, watch TV, and detonate nuclear weapons without anyone disputing the fact that they work. This is even true when the theories have "unexplained gaps." We were already sending telegrams and using electricity long before we knew what electrons were, or how atoms were composed. Theories take us as far as they can, then allow us to proceed from there on the basis of new knowledge. Complexity is certainly abundant in life, but there is no reason why simple fundamental processes cannot give rise to complexity. This can be demonstrated very simply through mathematical exercises like fractals and cellular automata, which can create "lifelike" forms from extremely basic rules. In fact it is the complexity of a population--its genetic diversity--that allows natural selection to operate effectively. It could be argued that the more complex life is, the better natural selection works. I assume the "gaps" they talk about in the theory of evolution (let's make an acronym: the Theory of
Evolution by Natural Selection, or TENS) are (1) it doesn't explain how life began in the first place, and (2) it doesn't explain why there is a universe for us to live in, or in other words answer the question of Why Are We Here? So in response to those issues: (1) "TENS" is not about the origin of life. There are other hypotheses (not theories yet) about how inanimate matter may have formed the first cellular organisms, but if Natural Selection played a part in it that would really be a separate issue. However, if and when there is a working theory that demonstrates how this transition can happen, then it, too, like the theory of natural selection, should obviously be included in the science curriculum of our schools. (2) Science is not about Why, it's about What and How. There are other forms of human inquiry that address the Why question. They are known as philosophy and religion. Far from being antagonistic to one another, all of these disciplines serve us best when they complement each other, when what we know of the world informs our speculation about what we do not know.
Personally, I believe that the universe around us is the body of the supreme, self-existent being we call God, and that our minds are tiny inklings of the vast intelligence of which we are small parts. But I don't believe that God sits on a cloud or in an office somewhere and micromanages all of creation. The divine power I imagine, glimpsed through the insights of physicists and cosmic theorists, is one that sparked a whole cosmos into being from a single point, that established from the instant of its beginning all the laws that would govern the behavior of everything from atoms to stars and galaxies, that built these laws into unimaginably small bits of energy (currently called "strings") which make up everything we see and everything we don't see. This is the power that made life in such a universe an inevitable, "natural" development. All we can do is study the details of how it has happened, and to marvel at its wonder. For me, science supports my religion, so I'm all the more amazed when others feel their beliefs are threatened by it. Relax, I want to tell them; we're all in this together. By all means, read your Bible stories to your children, teach them how to behave in moral ways, how to live with one another in peace. But for God's sake don't deny them their right to know as much as possible about the
world around them, even if--especially if--that knowledge forces them to wonder about what they know and how they know it.
October 12, 2005
Takin' the A-Train
I'm feeling the national energy shortage in my legs and arms, and especially my feet and ankles. Recently, in response to the rising cost of gasoline and the earnest imprecations of our Commander in Chief, I've begun taking the rapid transit system to and from work at least a couple of days a week. I figure if I can skip my car two days out of five I can save 40% of my personal energy consumption and make the petroleum available for those who need it more, like people on the Gulf coast who have to drive 50 miles to, well, fill up their tanks. It works pretty well. I'm part of a fortunate minority in our county who live and work within an easy walk of the rail system. It takes only 15 minutes to get to the train, about 15 minutes on the train, and another 10 or 15 minutes on the people mover and on foot to reach my office in downtown Miami. It takes the same 45 minutes, or longer, if I drive.
On the upside, there is no lingering in bumper-tobumper traffic, waiting for drawbridges, or narrowly avoiding collisions along the way. However, I do miss the luxuries of listening to the morning news on NPR while sipping coffee or tea as I wake up. Standing and hanging onto a metal stanchion (no seats available during the morning commute) is simply not the same. I'm thinking of getting one of those mini-radios you can plug into your ears to cover the NPR fix, but the coffee will just have to wait till I get to work--no food or beverages allowed on the train. Financially, the two days of public transport cost me six dollars. Even if I save only a third of the gas I would use otherwise, which would be about twelve dollars worth (4 gallons), I still come out ahead. And that's without factoring in the wear and tear on the car, which would be another four or five dollars a day. Then again, I wonder how much faster my shoes will wear out?
Wednesday, October 26, 2005
Wilma: Hurricane No. 2
The most amazing thing about our second hurricane in less than eight weeks was that somehow we had gotten from K for Katrina to W for Wilma in that brief time-that there were another ten storms that had missed us. In a way, Wilma was a mirror image of Katrina. It crossed the Florida peninsula in the opposite direction, as if it were completing a huge letter X that Katrina had started. And this time it was a second-hand storm, having done its worst already in Cancun, while Katrina had gone on to destroy the region around New Orleans. Nothing to do but put up the shutters (again) and wait it out. When I went to bed on Sunday night the wind was just gradually rising and the TV weather people were telling us it wouldn't make landfall till the next morning. I woke up around 5:00 hearing strong winds, watched TV till the power went out an hour later, then went back to bed. By the time I got up again it was daylight and the worst damage had already happened, though I didn't know it yet.
Looking out the front window I could see the tops of my neighbor's mango trees lying on his lawn. Out the back I saw several of my queen palms were down, one of them having smashed the chain link fence as it uprooted, the others having snapped in half like giant soda straws. The entire yard was filled with major branches from some other trees, but they seemed to be still standing. Luckily, nothing had landed on the house this time. (And our temporary roof patch, still there from Katrina, held up with no leaks!) I wondered, if it wasn't here yet, how much worse it was going to be. With the power out, there was nothing to do but listen to repetitions of the same information on the batterypowered radio while going stir-crazy in the dark. I decided to take advantage of the wind direction to get a first-hand experience of the storm. Our screened porch, facing east, was on the downwind side, so I could sit there perfectly safe and dry to watch the show, with a solid concrete house at my back. Thus began my aesthetic experience of the storm. This was much better than watching it on TV. A tall palm across the street served as a weather vane. By the flapping of its few remaining fronds I could track the
gradual shift in wind direction from west to southwest. Phrases better than my own came to mind as I watched: "Blow, winds! Crack your cheeks!" from King Lear. And from Patrick O'Brien's Captain Aubrey, on the deck of his tall-masted ship, this marvelous understatement in the teeth of a gale: "It's coming on to blow!" (He also said, "I love a good blow," a statement that will make us smile, but I must say I enjoyed this one.) My own observations tended toward the technical, the details. I remembered how the day before the storm arrived I had seen low clouds scudding overhead as if the whole sky were turning. Now they were merely shades of gray with no edges. The wind was not sustained but "lumpy." Turbulent from going over so many obstacles, it sometimes seemed to blow downward, as if invisible waves were rolling overhead and breaking on us. Sometimes in the lulls I could hear the next gust coming through the trees with a roar before it landed. Occasionally a really powerful one came along, as if to show how much stronger it could get. There was little rain, but when a squall came through it fell as a penetrating mist, fine as an aerosol spray. I didn't see any more trees come down. Once they had fallen, they lay there like casualties of war. Gravity had
taken them to an equilibrium from which they could not move. Perhaps the strangest things were the small moments of sudden calm, in which a single leaf might be seen falling from the air. Also incredible was the quick appearance of birds--the small green parrots that have gone native here, and little wrens only a few inches long, using the lulls to flit from one branch to another. It has always amazed me that these tiny creatures can survive the tremendous force of the winds. By early afternoon the winds were falling. I could release my cats again from captivity and join them in exploring the wreckage of the yard. Time to start sawing again, and piling up the debris. It almost seemed like normal.
Thursday, October 27, 2005
Disasters are Good Practice
Seems like the last few years there have been plenty of disasters to go around. Between earthquakes, tsunamis, terrorist attacks, wars, and hurricanes we seem to be always on the recovery from one calamity or another. If there is an upside to all this I would suggest it might be in teaching us the tolerance, cooperation, and charity that we need if we are to continue prospering as a species and as a civilization. World conquest and destruction can be attempted unilaterally, but recovery and rebuilding is a process we have to undertake as a global community. Even locally, I feel we are stronger for having gone through a repetition of natural disasters. It's a good exercise to have to share resources with our neighbors, and to learn how to drive cooperatively instead of competitively. Amazingly enough, even major intersections with four lanes of traffic going both ways can operate pretty smoothly as four-way stops. Despite reports of the accidents that occur when dead traffic
lights are ignored, the rule is actually courtesy, with most motorists cheerfully waving in acknowledgment as they are granted the right of way by turns. Consider these times to be dry runs for really serious situations that could occur in the future. If, God forbid, the big earthquake finally hits California, or nuclear weapons are used again, or a large meteor suddenly strikes from the depths of space, we will need all our resources, both material and spiritual, to be able to cope with the aftermath. Practice, let's hope, makes perfect.
Wednesday, November 09, 2005
From Primordial Soup to Immemorial Nuts
I just picked up a couple more fragments of information on the "Intelligent Design" issue (is it only coincidence that the initials are ID, as in "unconscious mind?") and thought they deserve comment. It seems those "gaps" they talk about are gaps in the fossil record, as if the theory can be demonstrated only by uncovering the remains of every version of every animal that has ever existed--or at least enough of them so a smooth progression of forms can be laid out in a museum. Of course, that is asking the impossible. The conditions that produce good fossils are rare and random, and finding them can be quite a task in itself. It's a miracle we have found as many as we have and that careful study of them has revealed as much as it has. Even so, there is plenty of evidence from comparative anatomy of
both living and extinct animals to be able to chart their development and their relations to one another. That's not to say that we fully understand it all yet, or that there may not be surprises in store. It was a recent discovery that the dinosaurs may be more closely related to modern birds than to modern reptiles--that they may in fact have been warm blooded. But this is another example of how our knowledge of the present can help us shed light on the past. Rather than throwing up our hands at the "complexity" of it all and falling back on Divine powers to explain it, we are rewarded by pursuing careful observation and logical analysis. Another "gap" is the mystery of what happened in the Cambrian period when a tremendous proliferation of new forms of life appeared in the relatively short space of about five million years. Was this God fanning the flames? We don't have a definite answer yet, but there is a fascinating solution put forward by Andrew Parker in his book, In the Blink of an Eye (here's a review). Observing that the eyeball originated during that time, he proposes that it was the refinement of vision that explains the surge of evolution. Suddenly, geologically speaking, predators could see their prey better and prey
could see the predators coming. Mates could find mates by appearance. So issues of coloring, locomotion, speed, and reflexes all became dramatically more important than they had been. For the purposes of this discussion, it doesn't even matter if Parker is right. It's a wonderful and plausible example of how we can figure things out. The last "gap" is the supposed lack of evidence for the "primordial soup" of organic chemical compounds in which life, it is thought, first formed. This is admittedly a big missing piece, but we are not without clues. We know so much about the molecular structures of living things that we can begin to make educated guesses about what sort of conditions would be necessary for simpler chemical compounds to link up into something that can reproduce itself. One thought is that lightning may have played a part--how's that for Divine intervention! Dramatic enough for you? But the eventual proof of this will probably only happen if and when we can recreate it in a laboratory (wait till you hear the screams of protest over that) or if we find it taking place on another planet, which is far less likely to happen. We won't see it here on Earth, of course,
because the conditions have changed. The atmosphere we breathe has been created by living things, and is no longer the harsh mix of gases that must have existed In the Beginning. Maybe if we could just find the Primordial Can that the Primordial Soup came from ...
Friday, November 11, 2005
My Father, the Veteran
I tend to think of my dad at least once every Veteran's Day. He came of age after World War II had already started. His mother decided her boys were not going to wait to be drafted, so she drove him down to the recruiting office to sign up. Thus, at the tender age of 18, a dreamy student who wanted to be a classical pianist became part of the US 4th Armored Infantry Division. Of above average intelligence, he was offered a chance to go to Officer's Candidate School after basic training. By the time he came out as a new second lieutenant, the D-Day invasion had already happened. He crossed the Atlantic on a troop ship stuffed with soldiers. Years later he told me how seasick he'd been from the pitching of the ship, and how he finally found a perch high up where, hiding behind a metal wall, he couldn't see anything but the sky, which made it seem as if they weren't moving around so much. His unit went into France and Belgium, where they
ended up on the fringes of the famed Battle of the Bulge, the last great German offensive of the war. He lived through many horrible experiences during the short space of a few months of intensive action. Once he was nearly killed when an artillery shell landed right behind him, knocking him flat on his face and sending a piece of shrapnel through his backpack, belt, and overcoat, and stopping just short of his skin. Another time the convoy he was in, winding around hills in the dark, came under fire. They shot back for half an hour before discovering it was the head of their own column that had mistaken them for the enemy. Finally, one cold winter night while they were firing blindly into the dark in a snowstorm, a single bullet finally found him, punching him in the chest and knocking him down. Men around him shouted "medic!" and "the lieutenant's hit!" but all my dad said was, "Oh my God, my forty-dollar coat!" As an officer, he had to buy his own clothes, and he had just obtained a new overcoat for the winter. That was the end of his war. His lung had collapsed and he lost a lot of blood, but he pulled through okay. The rest of his time in Europe was spent convalescing. After
the war was over he even got to do some sightseeing on leave, visiting Switzerland and Italy as well as France and Germany. By the time I knew him, his wound was an old scar--a small one on his chest near the right shoulder, a larger one on his back from the exit. But there were other wounds. His faith had been shattered by seeing what supposedly Christian people were doing to each other in war. Combined with his study of philosophy when he went to college, the experience led him to leave the Catholic church and to become an agnostic, if not atheistic, seeker. He was also politically disillusioned. Aware that the US had committed atrocities every bit as abhorrent as those of its enemies (the fire bombings of Dresden, most cities in Japan, and the perhaps needless nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as prominent examples), he wondered what the war had accomplished. Fascism may have been defeated overseas, but he saw it rearing its ugly head here at home in the form of the Goldberg executions, the McCarthy hearings, and the increasing imperialism of American foreign policy. If the aim of the war had been to make our future safer, then it had failed. Instead we were living under a permanent threat of nuclear destruction more horrible than anything that had
gone before. His college education had been postponed, and even though he managed to pick up where he left off, attending Columbia University and the Julliard music school on the GI Bill, some degree of focus and drive had left him. He married his wartime sweetheart, started a family, and left New York to begin a new life in Miami. But the new life eluded him. It became a struggle of survival as he moved from one menial job to the next ... sales clerk, postal worker, milk delivery man, nurse's aide at the Veterans Hospital. My mom went to work to bring in more money. Things were always tough between them. When I was twelve they separated, then divorced. Eventually Dad found a career in botany through Fairchild Tropical Garden, where he worked until his death in 1974. He even went back to college at the University of Miami and got a degree in botany, graduating cum laude at the age of 38. It was never a lucrative thing to do, but he seemed to find some peace and contentment there among the lush tropical vegetation.
His old wound only hurt in certain kinds of weather, but he suffered from chronic bronchial infections for the rest of his life, and twice developed pneumonia. The second time the disease refused to respond to treatment. He died, you might say belatedly, from complications as a result of military service. He was 52 years old.
Monday, November 14, 2005
The Once and Future Draft
Let's think about the draft for a moment. Not the annual NFL draft, but the military one, and not the historical draft that ended in the 1970's with the Vietnam War, but the future draft, the one that may soon have to be reinstated to support the military adventures of the current administration in Washington. The Founding Fathers were so anti-military that they didn't want their new country to have a standing army at all, only state militias consisting of volunteer citizensoldiers who would defend the nation but not make war in the name of any king. The politicians who followed them, however, soon found themselves at odds with England again in the War of 1812 and with a need for a stronger navy. Then, in expansion mode, the army was used to annex Texas from Mexico (I don't think I've ever used three X's in one sentence before—make that four) and to virtually annihilate the Indians to make way for westward migration. In only a generation or two, what the Founding Fathers had tried to avoid had happened:
the United States had a powerful military arm that was being used for aggressive purposes. There was still a strong sentiment against military conscription, however. It took the Civil War, with its massive casualties, to make the first draft necessary. In spite of all the “volunteer” regiments that were raised, mandatory conscription was the only way to satisfy the insatiable need of both armies, North and South, for fresh “cannon fodder.” Even at its inception the draft was far from universal or egalitarian. It was possible to send someone to serve in your place, so many who found it inconvenient and could afford the option hired stand-ins for themselves. The pattern of exceptions for the well-to-do was established from the beginning. The draft was discontinued as soon as it was no longer needed. We never had a so-called “peacetime” draft until after the Second World War. Of course, calling that period of the Cold War “peacetime” is begging the issue, since it included two major undeclared wars—in Korea and Vietnam—and coincided with the largest buildup of weaponry in our history.
While it was no longer possible to send someone else in your place, the wealthier members of society could find other ways to exempt themselves when they chose to do so. Doctors and lawyers could be employed to build cases for medical deferments or to find other loopholes, and local draft boards could be subject to persuasion by powerful members of small communities. If nothing else, easy duty could be obtained in the National Guard, which fulfilled the service requirement with a minimum sacrifice of time, and reduced active combat duty to a remote possibility. Even for the middle class, simply attending college could be enough to delay a draft notice until the age of enlistment had safely passed. Quite early, allowances were made for individuals who objected to warfare on religious or moral grounds. This made the unpopular system more palatable to some, though in practice the “Conscientious Objector” status was difficult to obtain and carried a stigma of antipatriotism which was undeserved and unjust. The situation changed during the Vietnam War, however. As the conflict became more obviously pointless and wrong, public opinion turned draft resistance into a mainstream option that was chosen by a large segment of the population. Thousands who would never have
thought of themselves as Conscientious Objectors participated in mass protests and draft card burnings. Eventually the draft, and the war itself, became untenable. Interestingly, and unfortunately, when President Nixon first instituted the draft lottery, which informed many that they were unlikely to be called up, and then abolished the draft altogether, it soon became apparent that he had knocked the legs out from under the resistance movement. The war had been forced to a close, but the return to an all-volunteer army set the stage for the eventual resurgence of militarism as a tool of foreign policy. Clearly, the general public no longer cared as much about what its army did as long as they themselves were not required to do anything more than pay for it. The peace making initiatives of President Carter in the middle east were soon replaced by Reagan's popular invasion of Grenada, new “advisory” missions in Central America, and vastly increased spending for new ballistic missiles and a “Star Wars” defense system of mythic proportions (and fictional capabilities). Then George H.W. Bush followed suit by sending in the troops to extract the intractable President Noriega (a
former CIA plant who had stopped playing ball), and ultimately to engage in the first Gulf War, most likely because his close family friends in Saudi Arabia were getting uncomfortable about Iraq. Even President Clinton was drawn into conducting poorly targeted military reprisals against “possible” terrorist targets in Africa, and an underfunded debacle of intervention in Somalia. Such is the momentum of militarism that it begins to make its own demands to be put to use. Now we are responding to the actions of terrorists by invading and occupying entire countries full of mostly innocent and law abiding citizens, and subjecting them to wholesale bombing campaigns. We should be asking many questions. Is this an appropriate or effective response? Does it protect us from terrorism? Does it make terrorist attacks less likely or more likely in the future? Where does it all end? Is Iraq the last country we will have to coerce into a “regime change,” or only the next in a series? Perhaps the best question of all is: how much longer can we maintain a policy of global military offensive with an army of volunteers? It seems clear from enlistment
statistics that the draft, so long abhorred by the country and so recently set aside, will soon have to be resurrected yet again. There will be many repercussions from this, but foremost among them will be that a new generation of Americans will look with new eyes at our national intentions. For better or worse, the prospect of war seems entirely different when it is an event for which your own participation is not requested, but required by law. By all means, let us look again. With luck and good judgment, we may find that we have better things to do.
Monday, November 21, 2005
A Day in the Life of the Book Fair
It's hard to believe, but I've been coming to the Miami Book Fair for 22 years, since it first began. During that time it rapidly matured from something that could have been a flash in the pan into the premier such event in the country. Maybe it has something to do with publishers living in New York, which is growing grayer and colder by midNovember, while Miami is usually waiting for its first cool spell of the fall. But if it were only the weather, then surely mid-winter would be the time to insure the biggest draw. Instead, what has insured the Fair's success is the maturing of community support. More than the existence of financial grants, it is the dedication of those who make it happen--people like Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books&Books, our favorite area book store--
and those who turn out in droves to attend the hundreds of readings it produces, not only on the weekend of the Street Fair but throughout the year. The Book Fair plays no small part in supporting the community of writers in the region. Writers, both successful and aspiring, have an annual fountain of inspiration in their midst, a chance to see and hear and hang out with some of the most notable figures in print. I long ago gave up trying to take it all in. It's not possible. The readings take place simultaneously in twelve different rooms ranging in size from the large auditorium that seats up to a thousand down to intimate classroom or gallery spaces--even, in the case of The Spoken Word Cafe, a tent. And they last from 10 am to past 5 pm. Even if you don't eat (and who can pass up the opportunity to purchase overpriced fair food washed down with a five-dollar lemonade?) and even if you try to limit yourself to the things that interest you most, there are still schedule conflicts that force you to make tough choices, or to duck out of the question session at the end of one reading and sneak into the middle of another one already in progress. On top of that, you have to find at least a little time to do some book shopping in the stalls on the street.
But then, that's the fun of it. For a reader, the chance to wallow in readings of this quality, so plentiful that you can't do them all, amid heaps and stacks and racks full of books, is a feast that naturally belongs where it is on the calendar, right before Thanksgiving. Just to give you a taste, here's how my own choices ran this year: Saturday We arrived late but still caught the second of two travelogues. Elliot Hester, a native Miamian who spent a year making his way around the world, has written Adventures of a Continental Drifter. He entertained us with a tale about the night he was nearly beaten to a pulp by the martial arts bouncers in a tourist trap in Bangkok, saved only by his remote resemblance to boxer Mike Tyson. A lot more fun to hear about than to live through! 11:30 found us basking in the warm rays of Caribbean culture. Robert Antoni took us through an all-night muddy bash during Carnival in Trinidad--enough to make you want a shower by the time he was done.
Then Pablo Medina shifted gears to the complete introspection of his cigar-maker invalid, a transplant from Cuba to Ybor City (near Tampa) where he was felled by a stroke and turned into a bed-ridden patient, unable to move. I've never heard such material so vividly portrayed since I read Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun, about a more horrifically afflicted veteran of World War I. Finally Marlon James captivated us with his gossiping old Jamaican ladies and an account of how the "Rum Preacher" came to a bad end. As they say in the islands, "soon come, mon." At 12:30 it was time to do politics. We sat in on George Packer's presentation on The Assassin's Gate, his study of how things are going in Iraq (the short version: not well). Hard to believe there has been enough time for him to research and write on this subject while it is still unfolding daily, but his interviews with people "on the ground," as opposed to those in high places, have yielded rich fruit. The other member of this panel (David Rieff had to cancel) was Jonathan Ralston Reid, a Canadian who has written The Collapse of Globalism. This is not
something he's predicting, but something which has already happened, according to his interpretation. All the promises of the "new world order" having failed, with the opposite results all around us, does make it look as if the emperor paid too much for those invisible clothes. I'm pleased to be able to count some of the authors as friends and mentors. After lunch we had poetry for dessert at the reading of James Brock (friend), Michael Hettich (maybe not quite friend but certainly acquaintance), and Campbell McGrath (closer to the mentor category since my workshop with him at the Seaside Writer's Conference). It was good to note how "friendly" these differing voices were with one another. And always a pleasure to listen to. [An example of schedule conflict here -- one of our friends was notably absent because she just HAD to see novelist Amy Tan, currently appearing in another building.] But we weren't done yet. At 4 pm. we heard Bruce Feiler on Where God Was Born. Feiler is personally exploring the historical landscape of the Bible, visiting such places as the Garden of Eden (currently paved). His earlier work, Walking the Bible, will soon make an appearance
as a Public TV documentary series. Consult your local listings. Also on this panel was former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, who has written a scholarly Life of David. Most memorable for me in his presentation was the description of what happened to the Israelites after they arrived in the Promised Land. Miffed at the way they behaved, the vindictive God that they had back then arranged for an army to come in and move them back out. The lesson in this was that the important, essential thing was not having a nation, or a temple, or even a rabbi or priest, but that every person would have their own relationship with God. It was a maturing of the concept of religion, and emphasized that religious experience was directly available to each individual. Sherwin B. Nuland was the final participant in this session, and introduced me to someone I was ignorant of: Maimonides, a Jewish philosopher of the 13th century who dared to correct the Talmud if it differed from the opinions of science. Where is he when we need him? By now you catch the drift--we're only at the end of day one, and worn out. Time to ride the people-mover down
to Pericone's Italian eatery, and to dine amid the outdoor foliage. Sunday We launched into Sunday with John Dufresne (both friend and mentor) who regaled us with more samples from Johnny Too Bad (which might have been titled The Further Adventures of Spot the Dog). I confess I have not yet finished this book, though I already own an autographed copy. The way things are going, John may have read it to me by then. He also gave us a new "found" story ("I no longer make things up, I just write them down.") about a green-card wedding and its aftermath. John's partner for this session was Richard McCann, a new discovery for me. McCann's careful, intimate prose cuts close to the emotional bone. And I was delighted to hear him relate how long he labors compulsively over his revisions. Interestingly, both authors had photographs to back up their tales, prompting me to think we should all have to prove the veracity of our fiction by presenting the evidence.
On the advice of my sister-in-law we hastened over to the auditorium at 1:00 to catch Jonathan Safran Foer reading from Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Mr. Foer is entirely too well poised and assured for someone of his tender years and has no right to be able to write as he does, with wonderful inventiveness and killingly accurate insight. Media hype has not obscured the scale of this talent which, if we're lucky, will be with us for quite awhile. Our time was well spent. At 3:00 we attended Science Matters, which was broadcast live on CSPAN. It seems a new publisher, Atlas Books, is bringing out a continuing series of science books written by novelists for the lay reader. The idea is to come up with eminently readable and interesting treatments on the lives and works of scientists. Judging by the three examples, the project is off to a great start. In The Discoveries, Alan Lightman has documented a number of scientific breakthroughs during the 20th century, ranging from Einstein's first theory to the discovery of the structure of DNA to measurements of the distance to the stars.
Rebecca Goldstein, a former mathematician herself, has written The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel--a proof, she insists, which is accessible in its outline to the lay reader, with little math or symbols required. I'll let you know after I read it. I took a class in statistics once, and a year later I could no longer read my own crib notes for the final exam. Finally, David Leavitt has written a new account of Alan Turing's invention of the computer. Titled The Man Who Knew Too Much, the book focuses equally on Turing's famous contribution to the breaking of the German Enigma code, his invention of all the key concepts used in computer design long before they could be built, and his persecution as a "security risk" due to his homosexuality. Having read the other Turing bio, Alan Turing, the Enigma, I look forward to this new insight into his life and work. Finally, it was 4:30 and time for poetic dessert again. Philip F. Deaver, Andrew Glaze (who I met while hosting the Butterfly Lightning readings), Jesse Milner (friend), and Susan Wheeler collaborated to bring a perfect end to a perfect weekend. Only 363 days until the next one. Book your rooms now.
Thursday, December 08, 2005
Signs and Wonders
I've just had my spiritual inspiration for the week from an unexpected source: Harper's Magazine. The December issue contains two articles I can highly recommend. First is the cover story, "Jesus Without the Miracles," in which Eric Reese draws a fascinating parallel between Thomas Jefferson's Bible and the recently unearthed Gospel According to Thomas. Jefferson, as a private amusement, literally took a pair of scissors to the Bible and over the course of "a few evenings" (amazing what there was time for before TV) extracted the actual teachings of Jesus from the encrustations of story and myth that grew up around them in later centuries. The result was something similar to the legendary source for the Gospels that was thought to have been lost. In it, according to Reese, "Jesus never performs a miracle and never claims that he will have to die for the sins of humankind." Instead we are left with the record of his teaching, a stream of exhortations for
us to love one another, to do no harm, to "become as passers-by," to live gently on the earth. Amazingly, even as Jefferson was working on his piece of clip-art, the actual source material was sleeping soundly in a clay jar beneath the sands of Egypt. When it was literally unearthed in the 20th century, after two thousand years, and the fragile scraps of papyrus were deciphered, the document revealed a remarkably similar teaching, full of parables and Zen koan-like puzzles, and equally devoid of any talk of miracles or salvation. Right off the bat, for example, one of the first of these "sayings of Jesus" goes like this: "Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds, and when he finds he will be troubled, and when he has been troubled he will marvel, and he will reign over the All." Heady stuff, seeming to describe the feelings of a modern reader trying to make sense of all this, as well as the condition of spiritual seekers of all ages, and pointing the way toward the eternal. The companion piece in the same issue of Harper's is a wonderful memoir by Scott Korb titled "All That I Have is Yours," which is what his stepfather told him on his death bed, and also a quotation from the story of the
prodigal son. That story is so well known it is easy to overlook its significance, but something about the immediacy of Korb's retelling brought it home to me in a new way. As you may recall, the whole thing began with the younger son insisting on having his share of the inheritance right away, so his father obliged by dividing the estate and giving him half, which he promptly went away to squander. When he reappears later, destitute, the father not only welcomes him in great joy but throws him a big party and even kills the fatted calf in his honor. Seeing this, the elder brother says, "Um, excuse me, but I'm still here, I've never asked for anything, I've stayed by your side as a dutiful son, and now he comes back and you kill the fatted calf for him?" The father replies that they have to celebrate their joy, that their son and brother who was as if dead has returned to them. But more than that, he reminds him, "everything I have is yours." In other words, you already have everything there is, what more could you want? In the larger context of the parable, in which God is the father, we are reminded that we already have everything there is, that we inherited it at birth--an entire world, a whole universe that grows in size and richness the more
we learn of it--and that all we have to do in return is to share it with one another. What more could we want than everything there is? The personal nature of this great gift appeals to the Quaker in me. It is something we all share simply by virtue of our humanity, with no need for salvation or the mediation of saints and priests on our behalf. Jesus was trying his best to tell us, "you're already saved, you already live in heaven, what more could you possibly want?" But, as he is also reported to have said, ruefully I suspect, "unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe." Personally, I think the survival of these words and the record of them is plenty in the way of miracles. And I'll be happy to take this day, this world, this one universe, as the plenty that it is, and say, "Thank you, thank you very much, this will do nicely."
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
Open Letter to My Representatives
To: Senators Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez, Representative Illeana Ros-Lehtinen I am writing to express my concern over the recent news that some members of a Quaker meeting in South Florida have been listed as a "threat" as a result of a domestic investigation by the military. (Story online at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/10454316/.) For several years now I have attended the Quaker meeting in Miami. During that time I have met and got to know many Quakers. I can tell you that it would be hard to find, and almost impossible to imagine, any group whose members are more honest, kind, well intentioned, and --above all--open about their activities. These are people who make a point of opening all their proceedings to the general public. The sign on the door always says, "All Are Welcome." Ironically, I am sure
that even government investigators, had their identities been made known, would have been equally welcome to attend, listen, and participate in whatever discussions took place regarding military enlistment or other topics. If there is any "threat" from such people, it is nothing other than the threat that truth always poses to lies and deceit. To subject any American citizens to covert investigation, and to stigmatize them for doing no more than exercising their Constitutional freedoms, would be shameful enough; but to do so to such a group of exemplary citizens, of exemplary human beings, goes beyond questions of legality, and should cause us to question the motives and intentions of those perpetrating the investigation. I sincerely hope that, as our elected representative in Congress, you will investigate what has taken place and make every effort to see to it that our freedoms are not infringed by the ill-advised and overreaching actions of any governmental agency, and especially of the military, which has no Constitutional jurisdiction in domestic law enforcement. We look to you to make the laws we live by, and likewise to see that they are upheld.
In accordance with the open nature of Quaker meetings, this letter is being published online at nortspews.blogspot.com so that nothing in it can be considered to be concealed. I would welcome the opportunity to publish your reply in the same spirit.
I received the following response from Senator Bill Nelson [D] on January 17: “Thank you for contacting me regarding the recent reports of domestic surveillance activity by the U.S. Government. The challenge of balancing America's national security needs with personal privacy rights has been made more complicated in recent years as technology has become more advanced and more intimately involved in American life. At the same time, our military and law enforcement agencies must have the tools they need to protect the country. “The Congress passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 1978 and created a special court, which operates in closed session, to consider government wiretap requests in national security cases.
Two Supreme Court cases had previously established that domestic wiretaps for national security purposes do not inherently violate the fourth amendment's protection against unreasonable searches, but do require judicial approval. Congress passed FISA to bring the law into conformity with those decisions. I am concerned about recent reports of potentially unlawful domestic surveillance activity without approval by the FISA court. There will be congressional hearings on this topic this year, and I will be looking very carefully at the circumstances of this program. “Please know that I take the security and privacy needs of the American people extremely seriously. I will keep your concerns in mind as this issue comes before the Senate.” This is apparently a prepackaged position statement, not specifically about the Quakers in question, but at least it relates to the wider issue of surveillance. Senator Martinez [R] belatedly sent a form letter that was not specific to the issue at all, just thanking me for writing. He also added me to his email list for periodic newsletters on all subjects. I received no reply from Representative.Ros-Lehtinen
[R], but I was also added to her email list for newsletters.
Saturday, December 24, 2005
Unto Us a Child is Born
At each holiday season for the past few years I've found myself thinking of the words, "for unto us a child is born," and of the wonderful musical setting given to them by Handel in his Messiah. First, the words lead me to muse on how this particular holiday has become a celebration of the child. Even though we adults give things to one another, we know it's really about that shower of presents we rain on our children (and in my case, grandchildren). And even though there was one particular child in the past whose birth this is meant to commemorate, we give our attention, appropriately, to those who are among us now. With wisdom, the birth of each child should be taken as the great gift that it is, the miraculous appearance on earth of a new being, a new consciousness. Each one is a new blank slate on which a future may be written, each one a new hope that the future will be an improvement
on the past as we grow toward a state of perfection that we glimpse as possible. It's as if any child might be our savior--or maybe all of them, maybe each one born is one six-billionth of a savior, each contributing to the construction of the new year, the new beginning, that is always upon us. And why not? If, as Quakers believe, "there is that of God in everyone," why should we not celebrate this universal divinity by worshiping our own children? In light of all this, the joy expressed in Handel's music, particularly in that one chorus, seems even more meaningful. I've been listening to the excellent recording of it by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, who, despite the antique aura of their name, manage to make each note breathe with fresh life. And if that one isn't exciting enough for you, try to find the Roche Sisters Christmas album, We Three Kings. Their version has all the vitality of their legendary a capella performance of the Halleluia Chorus, and adds the contemporary touch of tasteful electric bass and synthesizers, with voice doubling effects to sweeten their angelic sound even further. On top of that, they came up with an inspired concluding sequence of
descending tones that nails down the message with magnificent finality. Each time they arrive at the part that says, "His name shall be called," it gives me chills as they seem to add the exclamation points that the text cries out for. Let me leave you with this: And his name shall be called ... Wonderful! Counselor! The mighty God! The everlasting Father! The Prince of Peace.
Monday, December 26, 2005
Math and Magic
In my earlier blog on this year's Miami Book Fair, I promised to report back after I read Rebecca Goldstein's book, Incompleteness: the Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel, and let you know if it could actually be comprehended by a non-mathematician. Well, I've read it, and the answer is ... kind of. Even though my mind rebelled at the limited amount of logical notation that was included, I did grasp at least the general outline of what Gödel did. And even that was enough to amaze me with its wizardry, and to give me some small appreciation of the import of his accomplishment. The best way for me to present my take on it is to start with another author and another interesting mind. In his book, Hackers--Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Steven Levy quotes the early MIT pioneer of computer programming, Bill Gosper, as saying, "Data is just a
dumb kind of programming." This opaque proclamation, seeming to make pretensions of being deep, is really just a concise way of saying that there is no difference in a computer between a byte of program code or a byte of data, except for the context. A computer that attempts to "run" data, executing it as a series of instructions, will certainly "crash," since the data will not conform to the precise requirements of the codes and sequences which are the syntax of the logical language of the program. Equally, a program trying to read a stream of data will likely reach the same impasse if it suddenly encounters program codes instead--the codes would not conform to the expected type of data. Programmers know that both of these situations occur frequently as a result of logical glitches that cause the program to look in the wrong memory location for its next instruction or next piece of data. But now imagine a computer in which data is also programming, and vice versa. This analogy is as close as I can come to understanding the method that Kurt Gödel used in his proof of "incompleteness." He devised an ingenious system of formal logic in which the
statements are simultaneously logical and arithmetical-they have logical meanings and also numerical identities. Using this system, he proceeded to show how any logically provable statement in it had a certain mathematical characteristic. So he could mathematically analyze any statement and determine if it was provable or not. Finally, he was able to show that certain statements which are demonstrably true (because their arithmetic works) can also be proven to be unprovable (because they don't have that telltale mathematic signature of the provable ones). If this isn't enough to bend your mind, you must already have a mind with a mathematical bent (!) and be able to imagine this with greater perfection than I can. In fact, you may have studied Gödel himself, in which case you should write to explain how I have got it all wrong. But I think, because of what Gosper said about data and programming, that I can get a glimpse of how this would work. What it means is that Gödel created a logical system in
which numbers are simultaneously logic. Code and data are one and the same, and function together to measure what is true and what is provable. Note that truth and provability are two separate issues here. That is both the nature of the tool that Gödel used in his proof, and also what he set about to prove: that truths will always exist that we cannot logically prove. Like Plato, he believed that Truth exists quite apart from whether we can prove it, or whether we even know about it. Truth is a priori, before experience. Most amazing about all this is that the implications of his proof (which, not being mathematicians, we will have to take on their word) reach beyond the "sandbox" of the formal system he created, beyond mathematics and logic itself, into the realm of philosophy and metaphysics. It says, provably and conclusively, that no matter what we do there will always be truths that we cannot prove are true. This cuts to our most fundamental experience as living, conscious beings--the abundant obviousness that Something exists, that we are part of it, somehow identical with it, though we will be forever unable to prove the What and Why of it, or even that we did not imagine the whole thing.
Some trick, huh? The idea that mathematics can have something so profound to tell us about our lives is incredible and almost unprecedented. Near the end of the book, in a wonderful sidelight on Gödel's personality, Goldstein relates what happened as he was preparing for his U.S. citizenship examination. Ever the diligent student, Gödel made a thorough study of the Constitution and was startled to discover a logical flaw in it which, it seemed to him, would allow the democracy to degenerate into tyranny! Alas, the details of this insight, like the legendary Fermat's Proof, were never recorded even by the people who told the story, and so it has been lost to posterity. Since we will be unable to patch the error with legislation, it remains for us to live out the proof. Only time will tell if Gödel left us with one more evidence of his genius.
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
I've just read Ray Kurzweil's 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines. This follow-up to his earlier volume, The Age of Intelligent Machines, attempts to predict what will happen if current technological trends continue for at least another century. Even though I'm predisposed to look favorably on the prospects, I found his conclusions challenging, not to say breathtaking. And he's worth paying attention to. As an inventor who did seminal work on computer speech recognition, he knows what he's talking about. Many of his earlier predictions for the decade of the 1990's have turned out to be right on target. He begins by presenting his theory of accelerating returns. The gist of this is that, having taken a long time to evolve, life took a much shorter time to develop intelligence; in less time than that, intelligent humans developed technology; and in less time than that the technology developed into computation. He makes a
convincing case that evolution applies equally to social forms and to technology, and that once these things are set in motion they are destined to continue their development at ever increasing speed. But you don't have to accept that there will never be a slowdown in technological development. If the current exponential rate of progress continues for only another few decades, computers will have vastly exceeded the storage capacity and computational ability of not only the human mind, but of ALL human minds put together. By this time they will be designing and building their own successors, and their role in our interdependent world will be so critical that it will no longer matter if they take over the world from us or not--we will be unable to live in it without them. Those who doubt this have only to consider what would happen even now if all the computers in the world were suddenly absent or nonfunctional. Transportation, business, communication, government, weaponry, appliances, even the monetary system that supports our civilization in all its forms, all would collapse instantly. This was not true only 25 years ago; it will be vastly more true 25 years in the future.
Yet the picture Kurzweil paints is not bleak. Quite the contrary, the upside to this revolution/evolution could well be unprecedented prosperity, increased longevity and quality of life for all members of the human race, as well as their manufactured progeny. But perhaps the most interesting part of all this is the question of what constitutes a "human being." When you look at our physical forms, it seems clear that we are not the stuff of which we are made. Our cells, and the atoms that comprise them, are constantly churning, constantly replacing and remaking themselves. The "us" in there is just a pattern, like the shape of our faces, passing through the world like a wave across the ocean. How can we say that the pattern of consciousness must be limited to atoms arranged in a biological form and not a "manufactured" one? As we watch RNA molecules "manufacture" a new strand of DNA in our bodies, and as we contemplate building new structures at the molecular scale of nanotechnology, how can we define the difference, if there is one? How we will feel when confronted by "manufactured" beings who claim to be equally conscious, and how we will define our own "humanity" in that situation, is a
philosophical exercise we may as well start right now. It won't be long before we will need the answers.
Monday, December 31, 2007
Time Capsule for the Real Millennium
On the last day of 1999 I "planted" a time capsule on the Internet by emailing it to a bunch of people in my address book. That one has already gotten lost -- maybe if you have a copy you could dig it up and send it back to me. But a year later I did it again, and I'm unearthing it here for the first time. Even though it's only been seven years, it's already interesting to look back on. And if any of it seems too fantastic, you should check out what Chris Phoenix and his cohorts are up to at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. December 31, 2000. Last year (1999) I planted a time capsule to celebrate the millennium. But all year I've been nagged by that argument about when the millennium actually ends. Everyone who was just waiting for the big odometer to roll over has had all their
fun by now, but the purists insist that centuries and millenia end with zero and start with one, so it's only happening now, at the end of 2000. (People are already abandoning the habit of calling it "the year 2000," because when someone says "two thousand" we know what they mean by now.) This counting business is nonsense to many people, who know that zero comes before one, but the purists remind us there was never a year called "zero," only "one" CE (formerly Anno Domine, but now Common Era) and "one" BCE, or plus and minus one starting from the uncertain zero point of Christianity. It does no good to tell the purists that no one ever counted their dates backwards, nor did they count down with foreknowledge of when the big birthday would come. We all know the calendar is just an arbitrary construct laid on top of history like a piece of tracing paper with grids on it. Nevertheless, celebrating the end of something as it rolls over from zero to one rubs us the wrong way. My personal preference to resolving this debate is to go back and invent a year Zero, the year before Jesus is said to have been born, and to move all the BCE dates back one year. The beauty of this is that none of the CE dates
need to be revised in history books and newspapers, and we won't get confused when going through fifty years of back issues of Life magazine. As for the BCE dates, does anyone really care if the Trojan War started a year earlier than it is usually recorded? Let's face it, there's a reason they call this "ancient history." With this system in place, we could celebrate the next century and millennium at the moment they reach zero with a clear conscience, and the purists would have nothing to be pure about anymore. However, no one in a position of power has asked my opinion, so for now we're stuck with the current system, flawed though it may be. The only thing left to do is bury another time capsule so as to cover my bets. So here it is, in this box you've unearthed after a hundred or a thousand years. The first item is this newspaper clipping that inspired my time capsule last year. It tells how in 1995 they dug up a time capsule from 1895 that was buried by the ordinary people of a Midwestern town that was celebrating its centennial that year (coincidentally, the year before my own city of Miami was founded). What captured my attention was the letter inside that was addressed by one of the town's women to the people of
the miraculous future. She crowed a bit first, as you can see, about the marvels of her own century -- the invention of the steam engine, the transcontinental railroad, telegraph, telephone, electric light and the Victrola. But what got me was that last line: "And what have you done?" she asked. "Have you perhaps invented a flying machine?" See what I mean? That was the farthest her imagination could reach. But only eight years later, just three years into the twentieth century, the Wright brothers took off. The flying machine was the FIRST thing we did. Could she have imagined -- or indeed could anyone else, even the likes of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells -- that within twelve years after that airplanes would be used in warfare for the first time, that in another ten years Lindberg could fly across the Atlantic, that in another ten airline passengers would fly around the world with onboard meals and berths to sleep in, that in another ten massive air forces and bombardments would largely determine the course of all wars to come, that new propulsion systems would first break the sound barrier and then take pilots above the atmosphere into space, that in less than eighty years people would walk on the moon and contemplate the permanent colonization of other planets?
And of course, there are all those other questions she could not even have formulated. "Have you, perhaps, split the atom?" she might have inquired. Ten years later Einstein published his paper on relativity, and in another forty the desert lit up in Alamogordo with a force that is still beyond our comprehension. By century's end, the waste products of decades of cold war bomb production and ill-advised nuclear power plants have accumulated into a problem that we can only bequeath to you poor people of the future. Sorry! That one kind of got away from us. Or she might have said, "Have you invented a computing machine able to solve difficult mathematical problems?" Ha! Got you there, lady. You didn't even notice old man Hollerith and his punch cards right in your midst, nor could you imagine how these things could be coupled with electronics to do everything from code breaking to analyzing the weather. Not to mention the rest: that the machines would have no moving parts, that they would shrink to the size of dandruff flakes, that they would become part of nearly everything else we make, that our children would play with them as toys and grow bored. In the early years of computers even the people who worked with them doubted they would ever
do certain kinds of abstract thinking, such as playing chess. Now only Grand Masters of the game can hope to beat the best computers, and little ones make great stocking stuffers for kids at Christmas. It is thought to be only a matter of time before a computer can pass the Turing Test -- proving itself indistinguishable from a human in written conversation. Or how about this one: "Have you discovered the secrets of life itself?" (Now, don't get metaphysical on me, we know what she would have meant.) In 1895 "genetics" was no more than the statistical study of the results of cross-breeding experiments, and "medicine" meant primitive surgery with rudimentary anesthetics. Sixtyodd years later, after the elimination of most common childhood diseases and many adult ones, like polio and smallpox, the double helix of DNA stood revealed, that inner monument of ourselves that lives in every cell. Forty more years and we have organ transplants, birth control pills, cloning, human fertilization in lab equipment, and we've almost finished mapping what every gene is responsible for, with who knows what applications of this knowledge to follow. (I'm leaving out an interesting subplot here involving recreational drugs. Like the Dupont company used to say, "Better living through chemistry.")
At this point I'm going to stop making fun of that 1890's woman and praise her for her courage in trying to imagine what would come next. It's a daunting task even for people who make it their business. Think of how many science fiction writers imagined the first trip to the moon before it happened, and they all got one thing wrong: no one ever dared to imagine there would be live TV coverage of the event all over the world. Nor did any of them predict the advent of the personal computer or how ubiquitous microprocessors would change everything we do. No wonder people working in this field now tend to write about futures so far away that their predictions will never be matched to a reality, or about hypothetical "what-if" worlds other than our own, or about post-apocalyptic times in which things become more primitive. Not to be outdone, however, I'm going to venture a few guesses in the hopes that it might interest you in the future to know what we could or could not imagine, just as I found it interesting to measure the foresight of that 19th century mind. 1) Politics. I'm not going to bother you about our recent election, because you know the details, including the
next four years and their aftermath, better than I. No doubt our fiasco is no more than a historical footnote, illuminating how arcane our voting methods were. Enclosed is a photocopy of one of our ballots so you can see how it looked, and a sample punch card -- that's right, the same kind Hollerith was using in 1895. Some things change more slowly than others. So never mind about us. How about you? I assume that by a hundred years from now, not to mention a thousand, the USA will be on the wane. They called the twentieth century the American one, but it's over now. It's hard to imagine how six percent of the world's population can continue to hog most of its resources. Even though we're a polite empire -- allowing everyone to keep their own popularly elected governments, languages and cultures if they want to -- we're still an empire, wielding power in complex and subtle ways, and the thing about empires is they don't last forever. You don't have to look back as far as the Romans for evidence of this, or even Napoleon. Just ask the Russians. Or consider that in 1895 Britannia still ruled the waves, the sun never set on its empire, and Victoria was "Queen of England and Empress of India," a title that would seem funny now if it weren't so sad. Now the independent nation of India is a nuclear power and on track to become the most populous country on
earth. Good luck to little old England if they ever have a quarrel. Everything in my house -- and I mean everything -- is manufactured in China. Isn't this some writing on the wall? There's an old prophecy about what happens when they awaken over there. The only questions remaining are: a) How long have we got? and b) How will we handle it? I hope the answers are: A long time yet, and Gracefully. Thinking about this makes me want to go back and read more about the decline of Rome. There were a few interesting centuries when they shrank back from the barbarians and turned into the Holy Roman Empire before they became completely irrelevant. Even then, it was Italy that lit the fuse of the Renaissance, so you could say they had a good long run. Britain was at the top of the heap for at least a couple of centuries before its decline, and left a lot of good civilization behind all the way from the Magna Carta to ourselves. True, there have been empires with shorter runs -- take the Third Reich, for instance. But I've got to think we'll still have a role to play for quite a while. For one thing, we've still got a lot of money. I see us becoming a kind of gigantic Switzerland with banks and technology companies spinning off lots of trade. Maybe if we mellow out we could become decent diplomats in mediating the disputes of others --
something we're doing rather ham-handedly at the moment. Perhaps like Britain we will leave behind some social gifts to the rest of the world. Certain principles of individual freedom and basic human rights seem to have taken root. And our legacy of art, music, drama, literature and film is already enough to keep historians happy for a long time. Oh, one more thing: the future belongs to socialism. At the moment this seems crazy, right when capitalism and what we call "democracy" seem to have carried the day. But in the era of increasing population and dwindling resources it will not be possible to allow free enterprise to run amok. Governments will have to exert more restraining influence over the redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, and to do a better job of providing social services. Otherwise the political and economic system will collapse on a level that will make the Great Depression look like just another down day on Wall Street. Some people will see this as a loss of freedom, but it will be a necessary one and hopefully benign. I'm watching the newly unified Europeans, who already believe this and are managing to expand their economy without letting so many people sleep in the streets as we do here, or starve, or die from lack of medical attention. Then there's China again ...
2) Technology. My friends who are science fiction fans would never forgive me if I didn't say anything about the future of space exploration. Here's a photo I took myself at the Kennedy Space Center of one of our space station modules being prepared for launch. If you look carefully you can see me reflected in the glass, holding the camera. (I hope you remember that support for the space program in our time was spurred by tourism.) So, here goes, even though I think this is as predictable as the question about the flying machine. It seems obvious that space exploration is at the stage that world exploration was in about 500 years ago. Even after Columbus blundered into the New World, having mistaken the size of the globe, many years passed before the Europeans figured out that the real value of the place lay in colonization and the looting of resources -- not gold, but crops and timber. They didn't guess that the colonies would ever erupt into a world-changing social experiment and ultimately out pace them to become the dominant nation on the earth. So history will repeat itself, as it does so well. We may have gone to the moon prematurely and for the wrong reason -- to demonstrate publicly our technological
superiority to our adversary in the Cold War -- but we'll be back as soon as we figure out how to make money there. Our visionaries are already talking about habitats the size of small cities anchored in little gravitational balance points in translunar space, major colonies with mining and manufacturing operations on the moon and Mars, bringing asteroids to earth orbit as a source of raw materials, and eventually giant projects to alter the climates of Mars and Venus to make them amenable to human colonists. Having seen what's possible, given time, how can we doubt that ALL of these things will eventually come to pass? Not in a hundred years, but certainly within the five hundred that gave rise to ourselves, the population off the planet may surpass that still on it, and the more vital culture of the frontier will have plenty of time to grow to empire proportions, even time to decline, before the next millennium arrives. Eventually, probably sooner than we dare to think, we'll move on to some other star's planets. If we stay alive, you can't stop us. But space won't be the major story. The woman in 1895 bragged about railroads, little realizing how they would suffer economic collapse and become mere industrial commodities before another half-century had gone by. She bragged about the telegraph, but where was Western
Union when the fax machine and e-mail came along? I'm guessing that biotechnology is in a similar stage of its development now as electricity was in 1895. Back then, electricity was just beginning to be put to some interesting and far-reaching uses, but it would have been hard to imagine what was to come in the next century -first radio, then television ... from Victrola to hi-fi and stereo, tape recorders, VCR's, CD's and DVD's ... computers, automation, wireless communication networks, satellite links ... electricity everywhere, doing everything, impossible to live without. And more than the simple fact of these technological artifacts is the impact they have had on our way of life. Consider television alone and what it has done to us, for good or ill, irretrievably. So I figure biotech will go like that. We've got no idea where it leads yet, but it seems clear that we're about to start tinkering with those genes in a big way. It will probably take less time than we think before we're able to design organisms to do anything we can dream up. They've already got microbes that excrete the drugs we want, but that's just a beginning. If you live in the South, how about a variety of koala bear that lives exclusively on kudzu? Keep a few as pets and get rid of the
obnoxious weed forever. Plus, they'll be cute, domesticated and housebroken. The system of raising animals as food and slaughtering them will become a thing of the past. It will be possible to create "meat" protein, perfectly formulated for human needs, either hydroponically or as a crop in the fields. A few eccentric gourmets will still insist on real beef or lamb, but most people will feel it's abhorrent to eat a dead animal -- tantamount to cannibalism -- and will welcome the alternative. Look for it first on a bun in a fast food restaurant. What will it taste like? Chicken, of course! No, seriously, it will taste like anything you want. Words like "beef," "veal," "goat," and "turkey" will come to indicate flavors just as cherry, lemon, lime and grape have been applied to candy without any fruit being used. The irony of this is that by the time it comes to pass relatively few of the species of animal life on the planet will still exist. Public debates will take place about the feasibility and desirability of reconstituting extinct species for environmental and aesthetic purposes. Once these projects are under way, it will be a short step to making improvements on the animal being recreated: a toothless vegetarian alligator, a skunk that doesn't stink,
a crow with the voice of a canary. Design your own pets! Even long extinct examples like mammoths and dinosaurs would be possible, though the dangers and expenses of such large projects will make them unlikely. Anyway, it would be more fun to make something from a Dr. Seuss book. The big question, of course, is what we will do with ourselves. Certainly we'll grow replacement organs, either in our own bodies or outside, making donors unnecessary and eliminating the shortage. We'll do anything that becomes possible for medical reasons. But it seems clear that the ability to redesign ourselves will be an irresistible temptation. Sooner or later someone, somewhere will do it. This makes me think that whoever you are in the future you must look back on us as something rather different and primitive compared to yourselves. I only hope you have made wise choices. Admittedly, most of us could be improved upon when it comes to appearance, intelligence and behavior. I imagine you more handsome and beautiful, able to use more of your brains than the paltry percentage they say we use now, and manufactured to be kinder and more cooperative so you don't destroy yourselves the way we are nearly doing.
Of course, I could be entirely wrong about all this. But I'll make you a promise. If medical science is able to increase my life span to 153 years (certainly a paltry increase by your loftier standards), I'll revise this and plant another time capsule on the last day of 2099. Or is it the last day of 2100?