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Maybe the Sky IS Falling!

Sky FallingThe advent of the internet is in a league with the development of nuclear weapons. Both changed the world. And hand-in-hand, they may shepherd humanity to its ultimate end. The threat of nuclear holocaust has hung over the human race since the Enola Gay laid waste to Hiroshima seventy years ago. As these weapons spread to ever more parts of the world, the threat only increases.

But the internet? How can it be the atom bomb’s bride and carry the bouquet of humanity’s doom?

As with any marriage, some things are best left unsaid or at least, not spoken until they have been thought through thoroughly. The internet has removed a set of checks-and-balances that has served humanity for eons. The instantaneous communication of the internet acts as the midwife of our doom.

When I was a child, a postage stamp (there was no such thing as email) cost three cents. A letter took about a week to go from Michigan to my cousins in Tennessee. However, for an extra penny, you could buy an “Air Mail” stamp. Your letter actually got to fly on an airplane to get to its destination. It cut delivery time down to about three days, a modern miracle of efficiency.

Today, with the internet and programs like Skype, I can converse with voice and video in real time with friends in Australia for free. Through social networks of all types from Facebook to Twitter, I can share thoughts with literally tens of thousands of people all over the world in an instant. In some respects, that is nothing short of fabulous. But so are a few other things that would quickly bring an end to civilized society, for example, unrestricted sex, free euphoria inducing drugs and x-ray goggles. Too much of a good thing can be quite bad. Unrestricted, instantaneous communication is one of those things. Continue reading

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Corruption – It Couldn’t Happen Here

San Miguel de Allende (73 of 1220)“There’s too much corruption” said the cab driver. “It’s everywhere. People like me don’t stand a chance.”

We conversed in Spanish as Lalo wound his way through the narrow streets of San Miguel de Allende in the mountains of Central Mexico. Between heavy traffic and an excess of tourist for the holiday weekend, it was apparent we’d have plenty of time for our discussion of the life of a small business person in this beautiful city.

A cab driver in this and other cities in the area rents the cab. He has to put his own gas in the car, wash it and do the minor maintenance. The company takes care of any major repairs. Depending upon the demand for cabs on any given day, Lalo might or might not clear enough to pay the company. It’s in his last hours of work that he gets enough business to feed himself and his family. Lalo works twelve hours per day, six days per week.

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Global Climate Change and the Future of the Domesticated Turkey

pollutionThere’s an old wives’ tale that turkeys are so stupid that when it rains, they’ll look up in fascination with their mouths open and drown. Much to the dismay of old wives everywhere, this is false. The turkey has been given a bad rap in the folk tale channel. The truth is the domesticated turkey isn’t the brightest bird in the barnyard, but it’s not that stupid. You’ve never seen one watching Fox News have you? Case closed.

Unlike the turkey, other animals have been awarded a falsely elevated status where it comes to intelligence. It’s unfair, but once rumor turns into avalanche, there’s just no stopping it. There is no question in my mind that the single animal with the most overrated brain is your common, run-of-the-mill, garden variety homo sapien. Mankind has spent much of its history trying to exterminate itself. If it hasn’t been through warfare, it has been through soiling its own nest. A common house cat has the innate smarts to use kitty-litter and bury its waste. Mankind’s not that smart. The fact is the species isn’t bright enough to save itself.

Looking for evidence for my claim that humans are grossly overrated in the intelligence department? This one seems to be incontrovertible – there are still people who don’t believe we have a serious problem with global climate change. As a scientist, I find this beyond stunning. It amounts to an indictment of the human mental machinery that is without defense. The mere fact that there remains one person on the planet who hasn’t spent the past quarter century living in a cave in Borneo that doesn’t have at least some grasp of the problem proves, “Mankind is too dumb to save himself from his own self-induced calamity.”

The scientific evidence keeps piling up and up and up. But even if someone’s not “scientifically inclined”, how sharp does he have to be to conclude that if a half dozen kids spend an afternoon in a swimming pool, there’s a good chance there’s an element of “pollution” in the mix? With the obvious in every corner, there are those who still cite the claims of their preachers and Foxite talking heads to deny the phenomena exists.

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Election Time

With that season of insanity upon us, with Rick Santorum flitting about uttering some of the most diabolical and divisive rhetoric imaginable, with Romney floundering about trying to  guess what his listeners want to hear (without much success), with Gingrich doing his politcal immitation of Don Rickles, with Ron Paul wandering about like the Mad Hatter, with Super Pacs undermining the strength of a once great nation, maybe it’s time just to look at a pretty picture. After all, there was a dance band on the Titanic.

Sucker Words – Wealth Redistribution

In the grand tradition of famed propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, talking heads in pulpits across the nation corral the great American sheep with their invisible staffs of fear. Preachers like Limbaugh and his clones cart their millions to the banks with glee on their faces and profits in their hearts. They delight every time they see Americans react to their rhetoric like a school of lemming turning in unison to every little source of fear, real or imagined.

American propagandists constantly take otherwise innocent, benign words and phrases and paint them with dark, insidious overtones and watch as society’s shallow thinkers, such as members of the Tea Party, turn them into weapons and unwittingly do the bidding of the propagandists themselves. Is it any wonder Limbaugh, Hannity, Palin and others of their ilk are often seen with the smirk of a prankster? Consider these evil terms, “liberal”, “socialist”, “gay”, “atheist”, and “illegal immigrant”. The list is lengthy, but you get the point. All are words or terms that have been vilified by the talking heads. Reactionaries reflexively recoil in horror when they hear them.

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Farewell to Mom – the toughest lady ever known

Light snow was falling. Driving conditions were becoming dangerous more than 9,000 feet high in the Rockies. She’d been on the road for more than sixteen hours. Her lifelong friend sat quietly in the passenger seat as she drove from Show Low, Arizona to Bellvue, Colorado. Her cello would sing with its deep, dark, haunting voice soon enough when they finally arrived at the Pingree Park Campus of Colorado State University where they attended a weeklong music camp every year. What eighty-one year old woman would drive nearly 1,700 miles round trip with her cello to play music? My mother was the only one I know tough enough to tackle such an unlikely challenge when many her age believed rocking in a chair was an adventure. No one could match her determination and drive. When she set her mind to it, no task was outside her reach. Those that had the pleasure and joy of knowing her know that she was one of the toughest women on earth. She was a quiet, diminutive, soft-spoken, “Katie-bar-the-door”, alpha-female. She never quit. She never gave up. She may have suffered a setback from time-to-time, but it only increased her determination.

She suffered a setback on February 14th. She died. I have no doubt she’ll regroup and pursue new challenges for a long time to come. This time, however, she’ll reach new heights through her sons and her many friends who look to her memory for strength and inspiration. As we go through life, we meet a select few people with an indomitable spirit that through their example help guide us through difficult and challenging times. My mother was one of those rare individuals.

Jean “Elizabeth” Schenk was the third of four daughters born to William Clarence and Tella Jane Radcliffe. When she arrived on July 25, 1924, the family had recently moved to Detroit, Michigan from Cleveland, Tennessee where work was hard to find in the aftermath of World War I. It was in Detroit she went to grade school and high school. It was there also that she met her first and only true love, her cello. Her older sisters played other instruments. Her father had played clarinet with John Philip Sousa’s famous military band. Her mother was the pianist and vocalist in the family band. They needed a cello to fill in the bottom and her courtship with music began. One of her proudest memories was of playing with the renowned Detroit Symphony Orchestra. She played her cello until well into her eighties when her fingers became too weak to manage the strings. The world’s most famous cellist, Yo Yo Ma had smiled when he instructed me to make certain I stopped by my mother’s house regularly to tune her cello after it had become difficult for her. And of course I did it lest I incur the wrath of both my mother and her “sweetheart”, Yo Yo Ma. A picture of my mother in the arms of Yo Yo Ma hung by her door until the day she died.

She was truly one of the toughest women I’ve ever known. She hadn’t a hint of “quit” in her character. On three occasions, I have been called to her bedside by doctors who told me, “There is little hope for survival.” Once in the mid-1970’s, I received a late night phone call from a doctor at a hospital in Detroit. My mother had been hit head-on by a drunken motorcyclist doing approximately 100 mile per hour. “It is unlikely she’ll survive until morning,” he said. I quickly dressed and drove from East Lansing to Detroit. Somehow, the tenacious lady miraculously pulled through.

On another occasion, she began to experience an organ failure as a result of an incurable disease she’d unknowingly contracted from the blood transfusions given in the previous incident. She lapsed into a coma and laid unresponsive for seven days in the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. My brother and I got the word late on Thanksgiving Day 2006. Brian immediately caught a flight from Detroit and I left San Diego for Phoenix. We met at the airport and drove together to Mayo. For seven days, we sat vigil as hope of my mother’s survival diminished. The doctors said that if there was any significant chance of recovery, her coma would end in three days or less. By the seventh day, we knew hope was gone. I was to meet with the doctors on the morning of the eighth day to discuss letting her finally die. That evening, Brian went alone to my mother’s room and said his painful, tearful and final goodbye to the woman who had brought him into the world. He then flew home to deal with another urgent matter in Michigan.

The next morning, Liz and I walked out the door for our last trip to the hospital. For some inexplicable reason, I picked up my mandolin, an instrument tuned just like a cello. I snuck it into the hospital room and quietly played music at my mother’s bedside. I wistfully played some of her cello favorites for more than an hour before the team of doctors arrived for our meeting. I doubted my mother could hear, let alone process, the music, but something spurred me on. We met with the doctors and listened to their rather grim outline of the state of affairs. “There is no reasonable hope for her recovery,” one said. “It’s probably time to honor her wishes, remove her from all support systems and let her die peaceably.”

I agreed, but said I’d like to call my brother and let him know before I gave them the go ahead. Liz and I went to lunch and I called Brian. He was in sad agreement and I returned to the hospital to give my consent. We rounded the corner and walked into her room. She was sitting upright, eyes wide open. She greeted us. “Hi! How are you?” she said. “Would you keep playing?” I played on until my fingers bled. She had again defied nature and done the impossible. She was super-human.

As the ravages of time waged war on all of us, she was given no quarter. In August, she fell and broke a hip. She underwent major surgery and those of us close by worried about her ability to defeat such adversity at eighty-six years of age. But again, like the tide, she came back. She worked, she struggled and she fought her way back. Although she kept her house in San Diego, she took an apartment in Scottsdale. One evening after a dinner at a local restaurant, she came home. When she started to fall backward, she instantly thought of avoiding injury to her tender hip. She landed on her other hip and broke it. The following day, she again underwent major surgery. The battle back from this setback proved to be too great even for this magnificent fighter. She died a month after her oldest and only remaining sister had died.

A couple of hours before she died, she asked for a taste of ice cream. She had her sense of humor right up to the end. She then laid back and asked me to play the mandolin again. This time she knew it was only for comfort. The last song I played for her was the first song she ever played for me on her cello – Ashokan Farewell. Some will know this as the theme music from the series on the Civil War, but to me it will always be Mom’s Song.

For eighty-six years, she made it a habit of doing things that couldn’t be done. She sailed her boat on the Great Lakes. She even defied gravity as she piloted her planes high above the clouds. She traveled the world. She met people easily and loved learning about them. She was a tom-boy, a lady, a tough guy, a soft embrace, a gentle song. In the years past when I used to travel the world climbing the big mountains, it was my mother that by her example had shown me that the summit was an attainable goal. It was her hand that led me up the icy walls. It was in her arms and with her proud gaze upon me that I arrived at the mountain top. From this time forward, whenever I look up toward the lofty peaks, I will see her standing there smiling. I will hear her beautiful music. I will feel her gentle touch.

She leaves three sons, seven grandchildren, four great-grandchildren, a cat and a long list of friends around the globe.

The American Experiment – Condition: Critical

What is it about the human animal that makes us so often oblivious to the obvious? If it’s not hurting us at the moment, we have an uncanny knack for putting off the treatment. I can live with a little toothache. I’ll get it taken care of next week when I’ve got the time.

I recently noticed that one of the tiles on our roof had come loose and moved a bit exposing the waterproof paper below. “I’m going to have to get that taken care of before it turns into a roof leak,” I’d say to myself. Out of sight – out of mind. We had more rain than normal last month. One morning, Liz went into the closest to get dressed for the day. We’d been out to dinner the night before, but didn’t think we had partied too hardy. Yet for some reason, her clothes were wet. She walked out of the closet and asked me if I knew why her clothes were dripping wet. She wondered if I’d lost my way to the bathroom during the night. It was about that time the ceiling came down. I could no longer postpone the replacement of the errant roof tile.

I use myself as the foil in this case, but I know I’m not the only one inclined to see something that will clearly have to be addressed and yet delay the easy fix as disaster builds. My favorite Gary Larson cartoon depicts someone standing on a sidewalk as a piano bench comes crashing to the ground in front of him. The quizzical look on his face betrays his thoughts. He’s trying to figure out the significance of a piano bench falling from the sky. Directly above him in mid-flight is a grand piano about to flatten him.

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