Perseverance

I was raking leaves in my front yard one day when I stopped to notice the bustle on my neighborhood street around me. Cars were driving by, and people waved at me as they passed my house. Kids on bicycles and skateboards drifted along, while others played basketball in the street, occasionally interrupted by a passing car. I started thinking about how idyllic the scene was, yet surely not everyone would share my joy for what I took as the perfect day. While I felt like there was hope, perhaps another felt despair. I relished in the simple joys of the perpetual struggle against the cycle of nature, while someone else might perceive it as eventual defeat. Nature always wins.

Must we always think of things in terms of being successful or failing? I thought of the saying, “slow and steady wins the race.” But what race? When shall we say, “I have won?” Naturally, there are moments when we do compete: when interviewing for a job, in a debate, or playing a sport. Of course you can be declared a winner in many situations, but oftentimes there is nothing to win. Take gardening, for instance. As I raked the leaves, or as I pulled weeds and grass out of flowerbeds today in preparation for planting, it occurred to me that it will never end. As long as I want to have a garden, I must work to keep nature from taking over. Year in and year out, I return to the flower beds, get down on my knees and toil. All summer, too, I struggle to keep the unwanted plants out, while fighting to maintain the ones I want. I clip and prune, mow, and mulch. Slow and steady, yes. But winning is not possible.

Some things don’t seem worth the trouble. When I see the results of my determination, however, I realize giving up was not an option. All summer I get to enjoy the flowers and watch the bees and butterflies hop from one to the next, rejoicing in the richness in the array of beauty.IMG_9251_lgIn a few months it would all fade away, and I would be faced with the task of preparing for the next season. The show was fantastic, and the denouement deflating. But I convince myself to start again from scratch each year, knowing I won’t “win”.

Looking at the picture above, I am inspired again. It amazes me what can result from simply planting seeds smaller than the tip of a pencil. But gardening is not an activity for the slacker. It requires dedication and perseverance. You must keep at it; otherwise your beds will be overrun by invasive roots, vines, weeds, and ants. Pretty soon, you have anarchy.

I often like to use this as an analogy for working hard in spite of the obstacles, but sometimes a flower bed is just a flower bed. And I’m losing daylight.

We Are Not Alone

Apparently, we have a lot more neighbors – by neighbors I mean planets 40 light years from earth – than was previously theorized. Scientists have estimated that there are millions upon millions of planets in our galaxy, and there are more galaxies than we can count. So it stands to reason that there is life out there, intelligent life. Perhaps there are people just like us on an earth-like planet around a distant star, wondering about whether there are people like them out there in the universe. And here we are.

But the problem is the space between us. Space, outer space, is immense, dark, cold, and unforgiving. And the vast distance between us and and our nearest stellar neighbor is expressed not in units of distance, like kilometers, but in the time it takes for light to travel between them. In the case of these seven new worlds, 40 light years indicates the time it takes light to travel from there to here, i.e., 40 years. It goes without saying that we don’t have the technology to travel at even one tenth the speed of light. For the sake of argument, however, let’s pretend we can; but even so, the trip would take 400 years! Our intrepid space traveler would not survive the trip.

Taking a step back from this conundrum, we find ourselves simply daydreaming of the possibility of reaching the stars. The prospect is the stuff of science fiction literature and movies. Some writers have imagined visitors to earth would be hostile, while others like to imagine the likes of “ET”, a curious traveler who means no harm. You have to consider that our first efforts in reaching out beyond our solar system have been with probe-type spacecraft.The Voyager and Pioneer missions  were launched with the hope of retrieving data from the farthest reaches of our solar system, as well as the space that separates the stars. After more than 40 years, it is still not possible to send humans into deep space. So we sent robots. I would expect our first encounter with extraterrestrials to be made in a similar way, by intercepting one of their probes and deciphering the cryptic, albeit rudimentary messages found with it.

More than distance would separate us. Consider that here on earth, cultures are divided by language and custom, and sometimes this is between neighboring countries. Here in Texas, there are people who speak only English, and those who speak only Spanish. Communication is not so easy, and we’re talking about people who live on the same street. Assuming alien beings from another planet even possess spoken language, the chances of being able to communicate effectively are very slim at best. (For more on this, I recommend seeing the movie “Arrival.”) But if we are somehow able to communicate, experience on earth tells us that that is not enough. Many people on this planet speak English, and that makes it easier for us to understand one another. But cultural difference abound, like the way we eat together, the way we greet each other, and the attitudes and customs of each group. For instance, people in Latin America tend to stand very close to the other person in a conversation. In other parts of the world this might make people very uncomfortable.

As much time and energy we have put into speculating about other worlds, perhaps they are doing the same. Or maybe not. It is possible that other worlds, even those capable of traveling to the stars, simply lack any curiosity when it comes to exploring the galaxy. It seems very unlikely. The others, the ones like us but not exactly, are probably exploring, just like us, but not for the purpose of making contact once a discovery is made. Perhaps they don’t care at all about their neighbors. Maybe we don’t matter that much, like our attitude toward the birds in the trees. We are aware of them, and we would miss them if they went away, but an individual bird is not important. It seems rather cold, but it’s possible our visitors are not emotionally invested in us. We’re simply a curiosity.

I like to think earth is special. But maybe we’re not remarkable in any way. Maybe there are millions of earths out there, much like this one, where “people”spend their days solving one problem at a time and raising their children and trying to make it one more day. Maybe all they want to do in their free time is to relax and enjoy their short lives, trying to forget how brief life is on their planet, and that it’s not worth their time to speculate about the vastness of space and the impossibility of reaching the stars, at least for the average person. Because space is huge, cold, dark, and inhospitable. Cue the song:

 

CUI BONO?

I’m fortunate that I am the recipient of a liberal arts education. This might seem like a contradiction in terms, since I did not receive specific job training from my university studies, aside from the credentials to teach literature, or having seemingly scattered reference points on the map of human history. Part of my career was in pursuit of the natural sciences, specifically human biology, at which I excelled. Ironically, I work in the field of information technology, which I came into purely by happy accident. So I am particularly blessed that I have a good job in spite of my area of study.

College may not be for everyone. There are many good-paying careers that do not require a college degree, not in the traditional sense. Electricians, plumbers, and welders, to name a few, while perhaps benefiting from study of a foreign language and some advanced maths, can find work after a one or two year course of study. Culinary arts and other fields promise the same results, with another year of study, possibly. But the traditional four year degree may not be necessary or economically feasible.

When I was an undergraduate back in the 1980’s, attending a school in the state university system, my tuition per semester amounted to about 8 weeks salary, based on minimum wage (then, $3.35 an hour) at 20 hours a week. Of course there was room and board, books, meals, and sundries. But I’m just talking about tuition. Here in 2017, that same state college tuition, based on minimum wage today of $7.25 an hour, will take you at least 60 weeks to pay off. It’s not unheard of for a college grad to be in hock for $100,000 or more in student debt. And if you are the parent of one of these students, you would pray that they have some career lined up, so they can start repaying their debt as soon as possible.

So I was fortunate. I did have to take out student loans, but not for too much. But I would gladly pay it all over again (provided I was paying 1980’s dollars). But reliving those years would offer no guarantee that things would work out the way they had. (Of course, things might have been better.) But was it worth it? Who benefited? (Cui Bono?) What did I really get with my degree? It didn’t provide any training germain to my current career. In fact, client-server software development didn’t really exist as we know it, not that anyone truly understands it now. (Incidentally, I met my wife at college). The skills needed to work in today’s IT world can be obtained from a local community college certificate program. But many companies still look for at least a bachelor’s degree (or equivalent work experience) from their candidates. Equivalent work experience? Abraham Lincoln was self-educated, and many people in their fields are self-taught.

But I would recommend the university experience for some. That experience is unique, and the memories last a lifetime. You may never apply your knowledge gained in that one semester of poli-sci, or remember the French you studied. But you will have benefitted from it. Will that experience be worth the thousands of dollars you will eventually have to pay? That may depend on what happens in the future. As I said, looking back, it seems worthwhile to me. But that was a different time, I suppose. It seems that colleges and universities are not what they used to be, academically speaking. Students may not wish to study literature, and they may see no value in analyzing Othello for hidden meaning.

It’s too bad you can’t simply certify yourself as self-taught. It worked for Lincoln. Why can’t a person study law and attempt the bar exam? What about medicine? Well, some areas of study really need to be at the university level. In the future, a four year degree might cost more than a house. I think we’re starting to see that now. It’s shocking how much tuition has increased over the years. As I mentioned above, calculated in terms of weeks worth of salary, it’s gone up by more than 7 times in 30 years. Is the answer in increasing the minimum wage? Should tuition be regulated? Is Bernie Sanders’ plan feasible? Could the US pay for anyone who wants a college education to receive one? In the meantime, certain skills are hard to come by. Even someone with a masters degree is not automatically qualified. On the other hand, I have a friend who has never set foot on a college campus and excels in the field of technology. But even then, education is the key. Education takes many forms. It can be through diligent observation of the world around us. It can be through books, extension of the great minds of the past. It may be through experience. Education is crucial.

And for you lawyers out there, cui bono does have a specific legal definition, but I am thinking of the broader meaning. Thanks for noticing.

An Arm and a Leg

A report published by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine this week has received less attention than perhaps it deserves. The report, titled “Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance” explores the emerging reality of the not-so-distant future of addressing certain human diseases by editing specific genes in human embryos, egg and sperm cells. This level of medicine has heretofore been left to the imaginations of science fiction writers. But now, it looks like we are peering over the edge of that boundary between imagination and what looks to be a stark reality, and our notions of what is ethical and “right” might get shaken up just a bit.

What’s truly significant here is not only the ethical consideration, but more so the vision we procure from our daydreams and projections of our own future, like the distorted albeit detailed view through the peephole in the front door. Predictions may or may not come to fruition but will surely fuel the debate about humanity’s path, if not solely for the benefit of fleshing out our nightmares. The first thing one might conjure up is basically the plot of the 1997 film Gattaca, in which we see a future where designer babies can be ordered like you would a pizza, customizing your offspring to be taller, smarter, and stronger. This is the primary concern of some who believe we are looking in the face of pure eugenics, a pseudo-scientific study intent on reshaping the human race, or segments of it, into an ideal species, one not only disease-free, but perhaps also free of any tendencies toward obesity or depression. A “perfect” human, if you will.

If scientists were to, say, focus their energy on eliminating AIDS and malaria, populations in Africa would be the first to benefit. But something tells me altruism will lose out to economics, and companies will work to attract the rich, who will be more than willing to pay any amount to “build” a new generation of super-humans. With the rich now being relatively free of diseases like cancer and Parkinson’s – which used to be more of an equalizer – now only the poor will get sick. Optimists among you might see possibilities, but this new world where you can guarantee your children and their children will never suffer from devastating diseases is sure to render a class society, where now you can identify the second-class by their raspy cough or their hair loss due to chemotherapy.

Because, you see, if only poor people are the ones to suffer from human frailty, then where is the incentive for drug companies to do anything about their plight? Indeed today even the wealthy can suffer from schizophrenia or rheumatoid arthritis. But pharma can make a pill for what ails you, and people like Martin Skreli can capitalize on the remedy, marking up the price for a life-saving drug by 5000%. Not only are the poor going to be further marginalized, but even non-GMO humans who are not sick could still be discriminated against. Since nearsightedness could be eliminated, the world might become harder to navigate for the normal-sighted as text becomes smaller, and sight requirements become more stringent. Could we design a dynasty of athletes? Is tweaking some genes that control memory like cheating on a test?

The gene or gene-cluster that is responsible for addictive tendencies might be switched off in a family with a history of alcoholism. That is not to say that no one would develop a drinking habit, but we don’t know enough at this stage. The medical ethics community strongly emphasized that genetic manipulation would only be okay for preventing devastating and untreatable illness, as a quality of life issue, or for humanitarian interests. The ability to pick and choose the attributes of future generations is strongly frowned upon, but who polices the world of genetic research?

I fear for a future where someone like me, myopic with a slight attention problem, would be shunned by society, now having to exist in this Island of Misfit Toys we call “normal”. But if you were to eliminate aberrations in the future gene pool, the Stephen Hawkingses and Franklin Roosevelts of the world might never materialize. Some of the greatest examples of humanity have been flawed, frail individuals. Should we abandon that possibility for the hope of eliminating those frailties? Doesn’t my nearsightedness and my ADHD make me a better person because of those flaws? What sort of character would I possess if I never had to struggle?

Editing genes might look very attractive when you are faced with the seemingly insurmountable hurdle of finding a cure for cancer. Don’t get me wrong; I would be the first to congratulate the scientist who announces that he or she has accomplished that. Get rid of heart disease and diabetes, by all means. But take it one step at a time. Once we have “cured” something, let us take stock of it and all its ramifications. Maybe start with AIDS. Then cancer, followed by heart disease. (Some would argue that heart disease kills more people, but it is preventable in most cases.) It worries me that gene editing to prevent something might make a super-infectious pathogen possible. I expect there have been many lab trials, and any human trials might be quarantined just to be safe. In any case, it’s scary as hell, but people are dying. And this is not so far in our future. I predict within the next ten years a child will be born who possesses altered genes. This person will look like any one of us, maybe a little closer to perfect. Then it begins.

Read the NPR story for more

 

The Middle of … Everywhere

I get a little bummed sometimes when I think about where I live. It’s not that I dislike my home, here in North Texas. It’s just that there are so many cool places, but they are several days driving distance. I hate having to pay outrageous fees to fly. My friends in Europe tell me about great airline deals there, and the trains. Travelling from Fort Worth, Texas to Houston only takes 35 minutes by air, and it’s only 3 1/2 hours by car. But it’s Houston, so yeah.

I was looking for some good hikes without having to travel very far. North Texas is remarkably flat, so you do have to drive at least two hours, depending on where you start. Palo Duro Canyon is a great place for hiking and mountain biking. But it’s 7 hours away, and there’s not a lot to see along the way. By contrast, there are a number of historic places and national parks within a few hours of Washington, DC. The nearest mountains to my location are in Arkansas, and I wouldn’t call them mountains. Mountains or decent beaches are 12 hours by car, 2 hours in the air. Now, I know it sounds like I’m complaining. I am, so you’re pretty observant. But I do have some things to be thankful for.

For one, it’s sunny about 80% of the time. Tomorrow, 1 February, is expected to be mostly sunny and 22ºC. Perfect, in other words. This is not to say it doesn’t get cold. Just the other day it rained. But the sun came out later the same day. And we haven’t seen snow in a while, like 2014. And it gets very hot in the middle part of summer, July-September. The rest of summer is actually nice. I have family in Southern California. I’d live there, too, but the house I own in Texas would be worth millions there, and I couldn’t afford the taxes.

I do like my home. I can’t really imagine living anywhere else, despite every street corner looking like any other one, or a proliferation of BBQ joints. It’s not so bad. But you really have to see it, this place. So flat, so hot, so dry. A dear friend of mine from Oslo loves it here. I suppose it’s the opposite of Norway, so that must be refreshing in it’s own way. But where else could you get sunburned in January? (Sydney, perhaps). Therefore, tomorrow, I will wake up to a mild February morning – I don’t think I’ll need a jacket. Then I’ll drive for 17 minutes to work. I barely have time to listen to the radio. I guess it’s worth being in the middle of everywhere. That’s the deal. The middle is equidistant from any point.

Did I mention the cloudless skies?
crescent_moon

Do Animals Have Language?

To us modern folks it seems perfectly natural that we, the highly evolved primates that we are, would eventually develop a sophisticated means of communication (beyond throwing feces). Linguists, scholars, and language experts will tell you that humans have a monopoly on language, and that no other creature uses it. That is not to say that other animals do not communicate. On the contrary, practically every organism on earth communicates in some form, even plants. But do crickets have a language in their dulcet chirping sounds? Are howler monkeys speaking to one another, or are they just signalling danger or mating calls? How would we ever know?

In 1971, Penny Patterson began working with a gorilla named Koko, and communication was established when Koko learned sign language. Over the years, Koko has learned over 1000 signs and appears to have about 2,000 words in her vocabulary, according to the Gorilla Foundation website. Koko can apparently tell someone when she is tired or hungry, but also that her favorite color is red, and how she felt when she lost All Ball, her first kitten. We humans have, in our arrogance, assumed that only we have true emotions or the means to express them. But it appeared that Koko was entirely capable of expressing her grief. Decades later, the project still manages to amaze the world.

During an episode of “A Way With Words” that aired in October 2016, a listener called to ask whether his parrot really understood language, or was it simply imitating it. Host Grant Barrett, after listening to the caller’s story, maintained his view that animals, at least parrots, do not use language even though they may be capable of communicating. So what is a word, as the caller put it? What is the difference between a sound and a word? Huh? Meh. Ack! These are all sounds you can make, but do they mean anything? Of course they do, within some context. For instance, “huh” in the States usually means, “can you repeat that?” “Meh” is more modern, and I believe it is used to convey ambivalence. “Ack!” is from Bloom County, and I think it means “ack!” You’d have to ask Bill the Cat.

Perhaps we are unique. It is possible that even though Koko can communicate with her human handlers, she may not truly understand the meaning of the words she uses. For now, we cannot know either way. The only means of understanding what is going on in her brain is through her language. But that’s true for any human as well. We struggle with our words. They’re on the tip of our tongue. The mind usually works a lot faster than the connection to the muscles in the face and tongue that allow us to form words. Speech and writing can only transmit a finite amount of information, even with the massive collection of text we have at our disposal. Most of what has been written by humanity has been abridged by the limitations of our ability to focus our thoughts and transmit that information to the page or elsewhere.

This brings me to music. Music has been referred to as a language. Indeed it has its own “alphabet”, musical notation. Like any language, many aspects of it have evolved over the centuries, seeing changes in style, notation, and the use of polyphony – more than one voice or instrument at a time. In the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, writer Steven Spielberg explored the notion that extraterrestrial life might be able to communicate with other intelligent life by using tones in sequence and patterns. Music. The ships arrived at various times around the globe and delivered a “message” in the form of a unique and now familiar melody. In the film’s climax, there ensued a lively exchange of musical notes in seemingly random patterns. (Randomness is in the ear of the beholder.)

Spielberg’s concept of how two very different species might communicate was probably the first of its kind. Others would follow. If we are ever visited by aliens, I like to think we’d have a chance at not being completely annihilated. How will we understand them when we have so much trouble understanding one another? Hopefully whoever has the ability to travel from the stars to get here has also listened to our broadcasts over the decades. If they have, they will have heard everything, or almost all of our vast catalog of recordings, everything from elation to heartache. I’m guessing the music might have spoken to them far beyond the words’ ability to do so.

But Koko doesn’t sing. She signs. Sign language might bridge the gap, assuming the extraterrestrials have hands or appendages of some sort. For all we know, jellyfish are from space, and they have been trying to tell us something important all along. From where we stand, come to think of it, how could we ever hope to understand? We need to reach out, pushing against the boundary of what we think we know about the universe, blundering into the unknown in hopes of the happy accident of a breakthrough. How long did we wait before we made contact with our nearest neighbors? Is it as simple as Spielberg made it look? Is it just a matter of making the right sounds in the correct order, hoping to make some sense? Isn’t that exactly what language is?

What’s in Your Wallet?

I don’t wish to alarm anyone, but our economy is a bit of an illusion. Goods and services are being exchanged for currency, which is mostly held in bank accounts as electronic records, instead of a proper certificates and legal tender. Many of us have abandoned cash, opting instead in favor of credit and debit for monetary exchanges. Putting aside the astounding amount of consumer household debt in the US for another time, I want to talk about the economy of everyday life.

A very long time ago, people exchanged one good or service for another in a bartering-type system. For example, a farmer grows cabbage and potatoes, but he needs other commodities, like rice and wheat, milk, cooking oil, and fuel. So he goes to the market and exchanges his goods for the things he needs. This works well until he decides to hire someone to help him pick his crops. The farm hand cannot realistically be paid in cabbages, so a form of currency is needed. The various precious metals, copper, silver, and gold, are established as acceptable remuneration for any debt or fee, and would eventually be codified to a standard we accept as legal tender.

Fast-forward a little, and we find ourselves in our current state where money is held in accounts, not in safes or mattresses. When we pay for something, we whip out a debit card (if there’s money in that account) or credit card and authorize payment. We don’t really think about it, but what’s keeping all this going? Maybe it’s just my mind being manipulated by watching Mr. Robot,  and I do get a little anxious with each episode, but I’m bothered by the way our modern banking system seems to control everything. And what’s stopping the whole thing from falling apart? (I’m searching for a specific passage in a science fiction novel where I read that the end of the world was not caused by plague or war, but by cascading failures of electronic banking computers. The entire world economy was in memory somewhere, and something went wrong, horribly, catastrophically wrong. I was sure it was Arthur C Clarke, but I haven’t found the reference.)

My point is that the economy is extremely vulnerable. If you recall 2008 when the housing market crashed, the whole thing was caused by bad loans and greedy investors. If it happened once (and it has repeatedly) it can, and will, happen again. Except this time maybe it will be caused by hackers like the ones in Mr. Robot. What will happen if money is useless? What is money, really? Like I said, that legal tender concept is nice, but it’s just paper. And coins are not worth much. They contain very little precious metal, and no silver or gold. Pennies aren’t even made from copper anymore. Money is only worth something if the authority backing it says so.

So, let’s imagine what the world would look like if banks stopped working. You couldn’t use a debit card, and there’s no electronic “wallet” or other e-payment. Online bill payment is not an option, and no one accepts checks. The little cash there is might be accepted, but it’s only paper, like I said. In post-WWI Germany, inflation was so high that people used bank notes as fuel to keep warm. Eventually, a new economy would appear. Food and firewood are the new currency. Maybe you can trade some commodity for either. If you have a particular skill like making soap or metalworking, that is definitely worth something. If you’re thinking Fight Club you’re following me.

This vision of the future frightens me. It should frighten everyone, because not many people will thrive in this environment, and those who can are dangerous. This is why the governments of the world are working hard to keep economies flourishing. They will even go so far as to artificially prop up currency valuation or offer bailouts to prevent the unthinkable. By 2009, the US had spent $700 billion from taxpayers to prevent catastrophe (according to the Forbes article, it’s much more). And I think we were closer than is generally known.

When I go to the supermarket to buy coffee or potatoes or strawberries, I am participating in global trade with many different players. Coffee plants do not grow in the continental US. They require a specific climate that is best found in mountain regions in the tropics (high altitude, lots of sun and moisture). Strawberries in February come from Chile. We have to assume that people are getting paid all along the way. But if we paid what is fair – and whose definition of “fair” are we going by – that coffee would cost five times more. And strawberries in February would be cost-prohibitive. But through a careful balance of trade deals and other machinations, we can get what we want, and we don’t worry about what we can’t see, right?

Now I don’t recommend hoarding cash. And I am not condoning a policy of austerity and self-deprivation. That said, I am not the consumerism fan-boy. Capitalism is highly susceptible to greed and corruption. Marxism is also deeply flawed. Wherever there is a monetary system, it seems that people tend to fuck it up. We could theoretically live in a society where everything is traded; no one takes advantage, and there is trust. Borrowing and lending are simplified yet rarely implemented, but everyone buys only what they can afford. In this utopian economy, would money exist? I guess if that world could exist, maybe not. But unfortunately, we live in the real world, and that world must get paid.