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Thoughts Of America

Posted on September 11th, 2014 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Today is September the Eleventh; the thirteenth anniversary of one of the darkest days in modern history, certainly of my generation. Like December 7, 1941, and November 22, 1963, it remains imprinted upon the psyche of those who experienced it, almost certainly for life. However like all historical events, it is moving away in time. As amazing as it seems, post-9/11 children are starting to enter their early teens. Soon enough, the twentieth anniversary will be upon us, then the twenty-fifth. And so it goes. There will be a whole generation of Americans who will not recall that glorious, crisp blue morning when the last moments of innocence were swept away in a series of terrible events. A demographic who did not exist before that day.

So where are we now? The news this week is full of how Russia is poised on the border of Ukraine, determined to defy the West, whatever the cost, if it keeps NATO from the door. President Obama has just announced that he will pursue airstrikes in Syria to crush the threat of ISIS. In the future, how will these headlines have panned out? Will they be of interest years from now, or just footnotes in the long march of history across the pages of textbooks yet to be written?

Current events aside, what about America? The news I feel, is not good. After thirteen years, the wound of that fateful day continues to cause damage. America today is a true paper tiger, a shadow of its former self. A country once bold and beautiful is now cowardly and corrupt, terrified of any threat, real or imagined, and prepared to go to any lengths to protect itself from unseen enemies. It shames me to think of the Land of the Free able to use torture to wrench confessions from people held with total disregard for due process. A government that thinks nothing of spying not only on the phone conversations of its friends and allies, but intercepting and recording the chatter of millions of citizens, innocent of any crime, real or imagined.

Two years ago I was in a large international airport for the first time since November, 2001. I saw a ridiculously oversize flag hung overhead in a needless display of jingoism, while everywhere there were armed police and the bane of modern travelers, the tinpot dictators of the TSA, scurrying around in their quasi-official uniforms, with “Homeland Security” badges sewn to the shoulders. I felt depressed that Orwell’s horrific vision had indeed come to life. Maybe the reason for the large flag is so that when people like me blink hard and look back up at it, we can at least be slightly reassured that it’s not a Swastika. Maybe.

What has the TSA done, at any rate, other than harass and steal and humiliate honest American citizens? They have done nothing to make the skies safer. They are reactive, not proactive. Someone tries to sneak explosives on board in their shoes; only then do we have to take our shoes off. Not before. Same with belts. Wait until someone tries stuffing a bra with plastic explosives. Meanwhile the staff are rude, lazy and like any other bureaucracy, burdened with being underpaid, understaffed and overworked. A few times a year, some journalist manages to sneak a fake gun on an airliner; there’s an outcry, then nothing happens. If future terrorists take control of a plane with judo, will we all then need to be handcuffed before we can travel? Homeland Security is a joke, and a bigger threat to America than the phantom evils they claim to chase.

And then traveling in the area for a few weeks, I was struck by the huge number of large, gaudy and expensive churches I saw everywhere and what has apparently become the national mantra, Support Our Troops. In a country that for so long has led the world in science and technology, god has taken a firm hold, and anyone who dares voice dissent with the mission is also slandering the brave solders being sent to die for it. People are rejecting reason for blind faith in droves, and the line between poorly thought-out & executed foreign policy and the people trying to carry it out is subtly blurred.

All of it makes me sick. In Vietnam, it was clear to anyone outside the administration that the US policy was banal, pointless and ultimately destined to fail. But there was a clear separation between trying to prop up the discredited domino theory and the poor bastards being killed or maimed in its name. Not anymore. To be critical of what we’ve done in Iraq or Afghanistan is to also be critical of this current generation of poor bastards, also dying for an idea.

I understand why Edward Snowden did what he did, and I think that while he’s technically guilty of breaking the law, he will in time be considered a great patriot. Rather than pay lip service to what America used to legitimately stand for, he did what the Founding Fathers did: broke the law for the people of this (once) great nation. The events of 9/11 allowed agencies like the NSA to succumb to their worst paranoid fantasies. It saddens me to see the USA so terrified that the most heinous and illegal acts are sanctioned. More and more, the outside world sees America as a regime, not unlike Putin’s Russia, or the Chinese. Maybe it’s always been so, and the events of that crisp sunny day years ago just allowed it to come out into the light. But I’d like to think that was not the case. That we were a different people thirteen years and one day ago. I wish we were still the same people now.

It Would Suck To Be Superman

Posted on July 13th, 2013 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

Recently there was yet another new Superman movie, Man of Steel. It seems to have already died a quick death at the box office, just like the last Super-reboot (which I can’t even remember the name of now). People seem to not be able to get over Christopher Reeve, even though his Superman films got progressively worse as they went along. And the first one wasn’t all that great to begin with (80’s movies in general seem have been horrible).

However, the reason I’m even mentioning Supey is that I was thinking about M.o.S. and it struck me that it would suck to be Superman. Even with all the cool powers. Let me briefly mention how improbable his existence would be, then we can happily ignore all of that and I can discuss why it’s a good thing he doesn’t exist.

Firstly, the odds of a species beginning on another world and evolving to look exactly like humans is almost impossible. It’s often said that if you could rewind the history of life on Earth back to the beginning and start it again, it’s doubtful you’d wind up with homo sapiens. There are just too many variables to consider, and when you factor in random occurrences, like an asteroid wiping out the dinosaurs, allowing mammals to flourish in their wake, it’s damn near impossible. Even things we take for granted, like five fingers and toes is not assured. If something had dodged left instead of right during the Pre-Cambrian, we could all now have three fingers. Or seven. Even in recorded history, if my Great-Great-Grandmother’s first husband had not died young, I would not have been born. All of us today have always been only a whisker away from oblivion.

And even if a species had somehow developed on another world to look just like us, how could they send a baby to Earth? Our world is a grain of sand in a huge ocean, and there’s nothing special about it, or where it’s located that would give any sentient being a reason to consider it worth investigating. Many people see Earth as the obvious destination to any extra-terrestrial life that may exist; but that’s a myopic view because we happen to live on the planet. In a sort of corollary to the anthropic principle, anywhere you happen to be must be the place to be.

Plus, since it’s impossible to move faster than light (sci-fi and hopes of “advanced technology” notwithstanding), it would take tens of thousands of years to move between the stars. Any baby lobbed our way would need a very large ship to maintain it during its entire lifespan, never mind the centuries it would take this ship to ferry its long-dead passenger to us.

But as I’ve said, let’s put all this practical science and logic to one side. We will posit that a Superman has now appeared, by some means unknown to us. How would he fare, dwelling amongst us?

In the comics, Superman just sort of goes along, and if he happens upon crime, or some evil wrong-doer, he generally stops them in some way. Maybe he wraps a light pole around a group of bank robbers and leaves them for the police. Does he ever provide a written statement to the cops? What about appearing in court to testify? Or is the appearance of a group of thugs with an aluminum pole wrapped around them considered proof in a court of law that a crime has been committed? Could the crooks argue that their rights have been breached? Is this some sort of vigilante justice? Or does ‘might make right’ in cases involving Superman? When was he elected to decide what is right and what is wrong? Who unwraps these criminals anyway? What about replacing the pole? You can see that there’s a whole host of issues revolving around just a single isolated incident. Similar incidents might occur on a daily basis.

What if you’re driving along, and make an illegal turn? Are you in danger of having your entire car lifted up into the air and deposited at the nearest police station? What if you’re littering? Jaywalking? Where does the son of Krypton draw the line? Or is it just big crimes that he deals with? So Superman actively works to protect banks, but nuts to the little guy, eh? If punks break into your car and rip out your stereo, don’t expect any help to arrive faster than a speeding bullet. Isn’t crime ‘crime’, no matter how big or small?

At any rate, crime happens constantly around the country, and indeed the world. If Superman foils a bank heist in New York City, what about  Boston? Chicago? Seattle? Moscow? Canberra? Tehran? If they all were to happen simultaneously, by what criteria does he decide which to stop? Why doesn’t he stop global terrorism by finding those responsible, and flying them directly to the UN? Or the Hague? Or deliver them to the CIA? Is Superman concerned only with crimes committed within and against America? How would the Chinese view an invincible English-speaking Caucasian? What about the Iranians? The North Koreans? Or would he be spending all his time wrapping light poles around people he claims to have been robbing banks in America? In Superman IV, our hero makes a unilateral decision to remove nuclear weapons from every nation. Isn’t that really illegal? Does it respect the right of sovereign nations? Won’t they just make more? What if he destroyed the NSA computers? Or similar facilities in the UK, France or Russia? Is it right, then? If not, when does it become ‘right’ or ‘wrong’? Who decides?

Ultimately, Superman would not need a secret identity, as he’d have no time to use it. It would be a thankless 24/7 job, patrolling the entire globe, trying to stop a multitude of criminal activity going on simultaneously around the planet. Not even Superman would be able to keep up, or prioritize which ones to stop. The people who are not helped by him, or feel threatened by his obvious pro-US bias, would alternatively hate and fear him.  No matter how many people you may help, you’d never be able to help everyone, and this would breed resentment. What do you say to a grieving mother who wants to know why you stopped a robbery in Amsterdam, but allowed her teenage son to fall off a cliff in Montana? Why didn’t you help him? How could anyone respond to that? And it would be asked in different forms almost hourly by someone else, somewhere else. If your idea of right and wrong is different than his (perhaps for cultural reasons), who could overrule him? How would you appeal?

And if ultimately it pissed him off that the more he tries to do, the more complaints he receives, how would we stop him if he decided to lay waste to the world instead? Maybe he’d snuff out the sun, or throw the moon at us.

In the end, he’d be an object of scorn and derision. Unless he became ruler of the world, then it would just be billions of people having a seething resentment for him. What kind of super powers would make up for knowing that the people you wanted to help would wind up despising you for it? No thanks. It would really suck to be Superman.

The Headless Cow

Posted on June 18th, 2009 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

I was thinking today about the efforts to grow skin in the laboratory. It’s a worthwhile endeavour, mainly for things like burn victims, etc. It got me started wondering about growing animal skin as well. At some point in the future I imagine that we will have enough knowledge of the genome and cloning to really begin to design custom-made life. Imagine being able to grow leather in a petri dish. It might even eventually be cheaper to do than having to nurture and deal with the whole animal, only to kill it and strip it of its flesh for our belts and handbags and shoes.

Before going any further, I will state for the record that I do eat meat, and do not feel guilty about it. Other animals eat meat, humans are clearly omnivorous, end of story. However I do believe that most of us eat way too much meat, and animals should not be forced to suffer unduly or in a cruel manner. This post is not about animal testing, so I will refrain from offering an opinion one way or another about that subject.

At any rate, once I began ruminating about football fields of cowhide, growing without the cow, I took the next step. What about one day growing meat? Once we truly understand how to control the DNA of  complex creatures like cattle, why not focus on the parts we want, and turn off the things we don’t need? Eliminate the brain, the limbs (or at least the hooves), the horns, probably even the internal organs. We could just grow meat (with as few bones as required), in vats of nutrient solutions. And with cloning, there could be huge farms of steaks, chops, etc., all identical.

While this may conjure up bizarre images of grotesque bovine mutants, cared for by robots a la the human energy farms seen in The Matrix, it may be more effective than the current approach. No need for grazing land, no need to find use for the extra bits (yes, I know the hooves, horns and offal go into things like animal feed and hot dogs, but that’s probably more to do with having the raw material around to begin with).

And since so much of our resources and concerns, from food and water to global warming is currently tied up in grazing land, animal feed, shelter, etc., it would be important that the system used in creating and maintaining these new Animal-less farms be less demanding of resources, greener in output than our current models.

Of course, we’re a long way from having huge tanks of brainless, legless meat being grown to feed the masses, but it sounds like something that should be possible eventually. I’m wondering where people who take a stand on ethical rights and treatment for animals would feel about it. One of their arguments include the glib line, “never eat anything with a face”. Howabout with no head at all? Cloned meat is probably blurring the line of what an ‘animal’ is. But it wouldn’t be suffering, or exploited (at least not as an animal, the product certainly would be). Would people who oppose eating meat for these reasons be tempted back to hamburgers and sausages?

It’s a fascinating idea, and I don’t have a clue as to how they would respond. To my coldly logical thinking, it would be the best of both worlds – plenty of protein-laden food, and whole herds of beasts spared the chop. The question arises then, would we need so many cows and pigs and sheep? The answer would be no, but I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t just let their numbers dwindle naturally to a smaller representative population.

Still, in a world where people think GM crops are the work of the devil, who knows what kind of debates would rage regarding this.