Sunday, April 27, 2014

Good Morning Jack...

Letter to my Son
Sunday, 27 April

The cavalcade of news

Good Morning Jack…

News is an endless serial of interrelated events that offer no definitive conclusion.  We like our stories to be like Aesop’s Fables and have a clear, resolute finish.  The fox couldn’t reach the grapes he desired so he eventually walked away from them, defeated after much effort, and mumbled to himself, “They’re probably sour, anyway.”   Such endings give us the opportunity to draw conclusions about people, ourselves and the way of the world.  Stories make for neat packages that we can finish up with ribbon and put a bow on it.  The end of the Cold War brought the curtain down on Communism and proved the failure of Marxist ideas.  

News is the cavalcade of human events and, as such, is impossible to contain between ‘In the beginning’ and ‘The End’.  Sure, a world leader’s biography ends with their death but their impact reverberates with newsworthy significance long after they’ve stopped being a household word.  Those reverberations put new events into motion and inspire the minds of fresh people that, in turn, become world leaders with lasting impact on the human community.  How can we possibly make sense of it all if we don’t find an ending point around which we draw our conclusions? 

We write:  The Age of Roosevelt; The Soviet Union under Stalin; Twentieth Century China.  Roosevelt died.  His presidency ended.  But he inspired a generation of new politicians, including Lyndon Johnson, who’s Great Society was patterned after Roosevelt’s New Deal.  Roosevelt’s Social Security is ancestral to Johnson’s Medicare which, in turn, paved the way for Obamacare.  Stalin’s world view reflected the geopolitics of Russia under the Tsars as well as the catastrophe that was Napoleon’s 19th century invading army, culminating with the burning of Moscow and, more recently, Germany’s repeated 20th century attempts to make western Russia German.  In the space of a single century China overthrew its ancient Manchu Dynastic rule and attempted to create a republic based on Sun Yat-sen’s founding principles:  nationalism, democracy and people’s livelihood.  Years of turmoil followed – invasion by Japan, civil war, the Communist Revolution, Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward and the Red Guard, China becomes a nuclear power, and the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping whose impact continues to this day.  All this history, all this collision of human desire, ideas and collective action were compressed into a single demarcation of human time – a century of years. 

Today we have President Obama on a tour of Asian nations aimed at firming our economic and political ties in a region where our dominance is being contested by China, the new rival for power on the world stage.  While meeting with allied leaders in Japan and South Korea the President simultaneously has to defend his efforts to resolve a confrontation over the Ukraine with Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin.  As with most clashes between nations of the world the motivation driving confrontation has to do with wealth and economic resources.  In this instance Western Europe is vying with Russia over whose economic sphere the Ukraine will choose to become part.  Russia has historic, ethnic and geographic claims for influencing Ukrainian affairs while the nations of the European Union offer a track record of overall economic success.  Whose method of affiliation is more likely to improve the quality of life of Ukrainian citizens? 

The political norms of international affairs reflect the shifts in power among nations.  The dominance of any one nation, society or civilization over humanity hasn’t the permanence of natural law.  Power gravitates towards wealth and access to the resources that provide a nation’s wealth are dependent upon a complex interplay of factors that include, to no small degree, the foresight and wisdom demonstrated by a country’s leaders.  There is no act of God or world body that will protect us from our blunders.  The winning streak must inevitably end for every society at the forefront of human progress as it did for the Egyptians, the Romans and every one of history’s other empires.  Competition among civilizations is always rigorous, fast paced and limited to nations offering other societies something truly exceptional.


Sunday, April 20, 2014

Good Morning Jessicca...

Letter to my Daughter
Sunday, 20 April

Sunset Boulevard

Good Morning Jessicca…

Can it ever be argued one day that we have too much freedom, too much personal autonomy and that liberty and the pursuit of happiness has led to self-indulgence and a ruinous sense of entitlement?  It is an argument that is made by some now but not likely from someone trying to hold a family together on irregular work and minimum wage.  Who, then, is it that sees this nation as being one of individuals corrupted by wealth and whose vision of freedom no longer includes the responsibility of citizenship?  It sounds like a caricature of us made by someone on the outside of our national boundaries looking in.  We are the ever acquiring Yankee, manipulative, pushy – always seeking a new advantage under the soft empire of globalization.  If words and money won’t do then there’s always the military:  with actions in Panama, Grenada, Somalia, Sudan, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo, the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan; all since the end of the Cold War.

Of course, much of our almost continuous conflict of the past several years is the result of 9/11.  Al-Qaida and Osama bin-Laden needed to be destroyed.  Saddam Hussein was not to be trusted.  Iraq was a preemptive war.  Our initial military incursion went off with nary a hitch.  Unfortunately the Iraqi people didn’t follow the script we had for them.  Matters took an ugly turn.  Chaos erupted and casualties mounted.  With Iraq emasculated there wasn’t much left to check the growing influence of Iran in the region.  Troubles mounted.  Wars have a way of dislodging the foul detritus of unintended consequences. 

The good news is that only volunteers and their families were adversely affected by years of fighting overseas.  These people represented only a tiny portion of America.  Meanwhile the rest of us went on a spending spree.  The best way to thumb our nose at terrorists was to demonstrate the robust nature of our economy.  Taxes were cut as we decided to defer the cost of the war to some vague point further down the road.  Our purchasing power made for a marvelous time.  Jobs were plentiful.  New financing plans made it possible for most anyone to become a homeowner.  Home prices soared in response to overwhelming demand but that’s not a problem.  Forget the principle as you could now make payments solely on the interest you owed.  It didn't seem wise but if banks approved it then it must be OK.  Besides we were all enjoying ourselves so who’s to notice the drowned fly in the punchbowl. 

There were other little nagging indicators the party wasn’t quit what it claimed to be.  The easy availability of credit cards enabled us to spend beyond our wages and, if your debt got out of hand, you could always bail yourself out with a loan based on the soaring equity of your home.  Forget buying stocks on Wall Street.  What better return on your money was there than owning a home?  New car, new home, big screen TV and dinners out with the family at least twice a week – life is good.  We were all busy giving ourselves high-fives when, suddenly, the lights went out.  The Grinch pulled the plug and panic set in.  The national glut turned out to be just another Ponzi scheme that came due.  The emperor truly does have no clothes and we are in over our heads, simply losers after all.

Life has its ups and downs, even on a national level.  We dig out from the rubble and tend to our bruises.  Hopefully we’ve learned something from it all.  What that is we’re not exactly sure.  Democracy has many voices talking at once.  It’s hard to discern a clear message but what I’m getting is something to do with individual freedom tempered by responsibility and one’s compact with society includes recognition that personal success always requires the participation of many others.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Good Morning Justin...

Letter to my Son
Sunday, 13 April


Good Morning Justin…

The past few weeks I’ve been taking casual note of life’s return to full activity following its annual hiatus during the cold, brief days of winter.  First came the yellow bloom of Daffodils and the white petals of Bradford Pears, even though the tree remained bare of its leaves and it was only early March and the weather was still the chill blast from a lion’s roar.  The nights routinely dropped below freezing and occasionally dipped into the twenties.  It didn’t snow, though, as the sky on these coldest of nights would remain clear with crystalline stars and maybe a sliver of moon.  When evening clouds did roll in they would provide a thermal blanket over the atmosphere and what precipitated would be a pattering dance of rain on the roof above.  It was too warm for even the slightest dusting of snow.

Robins began the month of March in a communal spread across muddy neighborhood lawns, searching among dead strands of last year’s leftover leaves for the first squirming specks of life that over the course of the day might add up to some kind of meal, not tasty but enough to keep one going.  By mid-month they had paired off and were busy building their nests in mostly secretive places amidst the thick brush or in the stretched limbs of towering trees overhead, safely out of reach from snakes and prowling fox but not from the hungry crow, which was already busy marauding the still naked arboreal crowns for delectable eggs and possibly a precocious youngster, naively rearing up its tender head.  Then, too, the adult bird had to always be mindful of the ever watchful Cooper’s Hawk, whose swift fatal strike would leave but a brief stir of feathers where just an instant before Mom was collecting bits of grass to add to her growing nest.

Male Cardinals were seen in twos and threes squabbling among themselves as to who would get rights to which choice piece of land.  There wasn’t room for everyone and less dominate males would be constantly kept on the move until they successfully fought off rivals for a stake of their own or were pushed beyond their desired habitat of thicket or woodlands edge.  Defeated and dispossessed, the outcast Cardinal would become weak from lack of food and would fall prey to any one of a number of predators or natural calamities.  By April the ants had once again broken through to the surface of the land and they could be counted upon to pick clean the bones of any animal that had failed to sustain the careful internal chemical equilibrium required of the living. 

April would also find Northern Flickers and Red-Headed Woodpeckers busy swooping from tree to tree and doing their rapid rat-tat-tat to break through the rough, cork-like outer crust of oak and other forest trees in order to use its long, sticky tongue to nab insects that had burrowed beneath the bark.  Black Carpenter Bees were also out in number, swarming about the now flowering Dogwood and the showy, dangling violet blooms of Wisteria – not the native kind but the exotic Chinese Wisteria that can quickly infest an area with its many runners that course the ground and use the framework of sturdier vegetation for climbing, giving it height. 

Still missing are the many hummingbirds and butterflies.  Presumably they wait in the wings for a more generous supply of nectar provided by the mature bloom of summer flowers.  Swallows from the Amazon basin probably aren’t due until May.  They’re expert at vacuuming insects from the air and, to date, there just aren’t that many around.  They’re coming, though.  Temperatures are now flirting with daytime 80s.  New kinds of walking, crawling and flying insects are making their appearance each day.  Yesterday, it was young, female flying ants.  This morning it was a small praying mantis.  The insects awaken and they will soon be here in waves – grand, fat morsels ready to feed a whole new generation of mockingbirds, robin, wrens, possum, frogs, lizards and the like.


Monday, April 7, 2014

Characteristics key to Vertebrate Evolutionary Advance

Vertebrate of more than 500 million years ago

The Earth is weighted down by insects so, on the basis of mass, one could make the case that these invertebrates are the most successful life forms on the planet.  By this metric plants and microscopic organisms would also have to be considered.  The weight of such numbers disregards the achievement of vertebrates in developing ingenious measures to overcome material constraints on body size, degree of activity, mobility, adaptability and awareness.  There are no organisms to equal vertebrates in complexity and sophistication of organization. 

Internal skeleton grows as animal enlarges

Invertebrate external skeleton constrains animal's size

Fundamental to the vertebrate’s ability to range in size from an insect-like shrew to the sea-going monster that is the blue whale is its internal framework or skeleton.  The cartilage or bone of these animals is a living tissue that grows internally as the animal itself enlarges, enabling size to be an issue governed only by gravity.  Invertebrates, like insects, have a nonliving skeleton external to the body that is worn like a suit of armor.  The constraint of being contained by a non-growing capsule places a severe limit on the animal’s potential size.  Marine arthropods such as crabs and lobsters do achieve greater size than insects but nothing comparable to many fish and their fixed exoskeleton plates leave them slow and clumsy in comparison to the darting sinuous nature of fish swimming about their environment.  The internal vertebral skeleton, endoskeleton, is an even bigger advantage for terrestrial animals, providing great structural strength with an economy of material.

Vertebrate paired limbs were very adaptive to new niches

Related to the internal skeleton are the paired appendages of vertebrates, providing them with an extraordinary means of mobility.  These appendages originated as swim stabilizers among creatures similar to the ostracoderms around five hundred million years ago.  They developed into distinguishable pectoral and pelvic appendages.  Later they would refine into the fins used by modern day fish.  A separate line of evolution would provide the jointed limbs of terrestrial animals. 

Sharks have an external slit for each gill

Paired limbs provided animals with the speed necessary to chase down and feed on other animals.  Active predation of this intensity requires a much higher metabolism than is capable of the filter feeding diet of early ostracoderms.  A muscular pharynx improved water circulation through the pharyngeal slits while a web of capillary beds in the region enabled efficient respiration – the exchange of gases between the water and the animal’s steadily evolving gills.  Muscular aortic arches and a ventral heart all added to the animal’s ability to provide the oxygen levels necessary for a high metabolic rate. 

Vertebrates have evolved an elaborate nervous system

Undoubtedly the most critical adaptation for vertebrate development was the rare evolutionary event of a new cell type that resulted in the formation of an advanced nervous system.  This involves cells lying near the embryonic notochord being transformed from the outer layer ectodermal cells into neural crest cells and epidermal placodes.  Together they vastly improved upon the animal’s sensory ability as well as its motor skills and its capacity to integrate input stimuli with the fine-tuned muscle response necessary to capture its prey. 

Natural selection shapes common bones for separate needs

It’s always important to keep in mind that five hundred million years of vertebrate evolution was the result of two separate forces, neither of which could be characterized as a preconceived design.  First, were the random events played out over the eons that occurred within the constraints of the genetic DNA process.  The product of those events would result from the many environmental factors that contributed to shaping the nature of the animal population contemporary to the time.  The animals we see today display the effects of this ongoing process of environmental selection.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Good Morning Jacob...

Letter to my Son
Sunday, 6 April

Spring is all about the birds and bees

Good Morning Jacob…

It all seems to happen at once.  Sure there are some trees that blossom early like the Bradford Pear and some birds that get an early start on housekeeping like maybe the robins but, on the whole, spring waits till April to bloom.  Nearly every tree in the area has leafed-out over the course of this week.  Various insects are taking wing and the ants are digging out from their winter haven underground.  Large black carpenter bees are busy buzzing amidst the blossoms of the Bradford Pear, which are now rapidly losing their petals, having precociously first come to bloom during the early days of March.  Over the past few days it has been the turn of the dogwood to flower forth.  Other trees of the forest must also be in blossom right now as a fine yellow film of pollen is beginning to coat all the cars of the neighborhood that sit outside.  This flurry of airborne pollen will steadily build in intensity, aggravating the sales manager of Classic Chevrolet and other dealerships in the area as their gleaming new cars are transformed into the look of musty items that have set neglected on the shelf too long.  It means good employment for lot boys over the next few weeks as they start fresh each morning washing down all those rows of car to return them to their dazzling, spanking fresh, gleaming new car look. 

Of course, if you have an allergy to all this pollen you needn’t look outside to know that the air is congested with the cause of your annual sinus misery.  Isn’t this a fine howdy do, you must be saying, as the Earth once again reawakens from winter hibernation – your eyes watering, your head choking in all this grand celebration of sex among the foliage.  April becomes a rousing, stiff 5 a.m. for all the flowery stamen of male plants in the forest.  Why can’t they just leave it to the bees to deliver the goods?

Speaking of bees, I am surprised at the number of carpenter bees I have already seen crapped-out dead about the ground from overwork.  Clearly there are too few of them to handle the load right now.  I’m sure the queen is feeling the heat, as well, spending long exhausting hours laying eggs one after another.  There is no more demanding task master than Mother Nature.  I kid you not.  The enterprise that is life makes for a very stressful industrial environment.  Think about it.  From our relatively coddled human status as being top dog over the animal kingdom we can afford our Olympian view of nature as being a pastoral nursery, filled with life-rendering bounty.  Look about you more closely and you see all the animals, great and small, involved in a day to day struggle for survival.  Every creature is locked in competition for the basic necessities of life.  They are ever wary because a moment’s inattention may quickly result in being someone else’s meal.  Your fatal error was to become too absorbed in the sensual pleasure of feeding or napping or whatever it is that makes life special for you and not just an endless grinding process.  Your last vision of this world is that of your killer’s eyes registering its cold starring satisfaction at once again being able to momentarily curb its insistent hunger.  Make yourself over into an animal with four legs and fur or one with feathers and wings and you soon come to realize you survive by using your wits, surrounded and bedeviled by other equally cunning animals, ruthless addicts, driven by the fiercest of all instincts, that of survival.   

A brilliant cardinal makes its presence known perched on a limb near to where I am enjoying my first fresh brewed cup of coffee.  How wonderful is its merry song of greeting to the morning sun.  That’s what I’m thinking as I marmalade my biscuit.  In fact, the fellow over there in his red plumage is doing his earnest best to warn intruders not to steal from his family’s farm.  While the wife tends to the nest this home-owner actually spends considerable time squabbling with other male cardinals over property rights.  This is raising your young without the rule of law.  There is no benefit of arbitration.  There is no court of appeal.  Stay young.  Be fit.  Be always healthy or lose wife, family and home.  Eviction is just one cramped muscle away.

But relax.  We’re human and its spring.  Flowers everywhere will soon be in bloom.


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

No Purity in Politics

No Compromise

I can appreciate, with certain caveats, the philosophical basis for Republican ideology which places a premium on protection of private property, the encouragement of the entrepreneurial spirit and sanctifying individual self-reliance as a way of life.  The belief is that unleashing the energies of self-interest is the best way to grow the economy and raise the standards of society as a whole.  Our constitutional government makes the rule of law the bedrock of all government decisions.  Our historical philosophy has always been to hold the power of governance with suspicion.  This has served us well.  No one individual, no matter his office or station in life, is above the law.

I cannot fault any of these ideas as they are expressed.  Similarly, were I to examine the key underpinnings of Marxism I would also find them worthy of merit.  I am inclined, though, to have greater regard for the strivings of the individual.  I believe honest work should be rewarded in kind.  I am personally willing to put up with a certain degree of greed, corruption and unfairness that comes with our economic and political model because I believe it to be the best possible solution available to us, despite its many drawbacks.  This is because I view myself as being pragmatic.  I love noble philosophical outlooks but they serve only as guidelines and I think they quickly break down when implemented as policy by their true believers, left or right.

Government is not well suited to make decisions for industry but the results are worse for society as a whole when government relinquishes its role entirely to the mechanisms of free enterprise.  The fundamental problem I have with unrestrained capitalism is that power follows money.  Taking just the economic history of this nation since the mid-nineteenth century provides substantial evidence to support this conclusion.  The problem is not just the unfairness that results from a concentration of power and wealth that is limited to a relative privileged few. 
The resulting oligarchy does not well serve either economic growth nor is it faithful to the democratic process.  This is because large centers of financial power resist any changes that might undermine their own self-interest no matter the consequences to the greater good. 

We believe that we are best protected from the tyranny of government power through a system of built-in checks and balances.  The President has veto over congressional legislation.  The Supreme Court has veto over any law counter to the Constitution and the President appoints Supreme Court justices with confirmation by the Senate.  It has worked fairly well for two hundred years.  I believe our economic system also works best when there are similar mechanisms of balance.  One example is that there are laws against monopolistic practices because competition encourages innovation and better quality products for the consumer.  Government has a role in the economy that private enterprise cannot supply.  One example is the setting of monetary policy that is provided by the Federal Reserve.  Another example is implementation of regulations that ensure the safety of the food we eat, our water supply and control over the busy airways that link our cities.  All these systems are for the good of society as a whole but their integrity could be jeopardized if powerful money interests had undue influence over the workings of government. 

I’m making just a general argument here for the role government must play if there is to be a healthy equilibrium within our society.  Our economic and political welfare hinges upon a well educated population.  We should always keep in mind that our number one resource as a nation is our people.  Our policies should reflect this conviction.