Thursday, August 27, 2020

Move Protests to the Ballot Box

 It's time for protests to move from the streets to the ballot box. While non-violent protests arise out of the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, in the current political climate a disturbing trend has developed. Overreaction of law enforcement with aggressive responses to peaceful protests has inflamed the process, resulting in escalation to more destructive activity. The underlying peaceful protests appear to be overshadowed by opportunists and other bad actors with conflicting motives, leading to a lack of clarity about the perpetrators of vandalism, looting, and other violence. Are these the actions of the protesters, of common criminals, or perhaps even of others who wish to cast the protesters in a negative light?

This plays into the hands of Donald Trump and his supporters as they push an agenda based on "anarchy in the streets." It has led to justification of further escalation of law enforcement response, of the criminalization of protesters, peaceful or not, and talking points in campaign speeches and rallies. The perversion of events is exemplified by VP Pence's statement during his RNC speech spotlighting the murders during the Kenosha protest, while conveniently omitting that it was the murder of two protesters by a presumptive right wing extremist.

The most effective intervention to address violence against minorities in our nation would be a resounding defeat of Donald Trump in the upcoming election. Continuing protests in the street risk jeopardizing the chances of that victory. With only nine weeks left until the November 3 election, a moratorium on demonstrations should be declared. The time and energy spent on demonstrations would better be deployed in constructive activities to ensure the integrity of the election and prevent voter suppression. This could include volunteering to staff the polls in place of the many elderly poll workers who are at the greatest risk from COVID-19 and are likely to opt out of election duty to protect their health.

Sunday, June 14, 2020


Hate isn’t about the need to suppress “bad apples.” Discrimination is too often justified on the basis of obnoxious behavior by a few members of a group. Hate and oppression is the result of “othering,” perceiving others as different from oneself in appearance, culture, or beliefs. Othering is the root of everything from genocide to religious persecution. It’s cultivated by despots in order to acquire and hold power. It’s embraced by individuals as a means of self-validation. When we “other,” we’re saying, “I’m good because you’re bad. I’m valuable because you’re not.”

Discriminatory and violent policing of African Americans has been justified by some with the observation that black people commit more crimes. That they are more often arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated for crimes is at least as much a result of this perception as of an actual increase in crime rate. And any real increase in crime rate among this population is a direct outgrowth of desperate economic circumstances. Poor people may be driven to steal to feed their families. Rich people steal for greed or sport.

Expelling Mexicans from our country has been justified by pointing out high profile crimes by immigrants or by naming high profile gangs. Their real offense, however, in the eyes of the haters is looking and sounding different. White males have committed many horrible crimes, including serial killings, domestic acts of terror, and many acts of sexual aggression. Heavily armed gangs of white males have created civil unrest that targets minorities with sometimes lethal results. White collar crime is a euphemism for stealing from others by gaming the system. Should we therefore propose to expel all white males in order to eliminate these threats?

Rwanda is an object lesson in othering. In the early part of the 20th century, Belgian colonialists taught half the population of Rwanda to hate the other half. They began by defining the physical characteristics that they claimed distinguished Hutus from Tutsis and assigned official racial identities to every Rwandan. No matter that these distinctions were so arbitrary that even members of the same family were often assigned different racial identities. They then set up a power structure based on these distinctions that bred such resentment that it resulted in two genocides within half a century. Epithets, such as “cockroach,” were one of the tools with which Hutus were encouraged to despise their Tutsi neighbors. And when the last genocide was over, the veil of hate lifted somewhat, and many of the perpetrators were horrified to realize what they’d done to their former neighbors, friends, and even family members.

Science fiction uses gruesome imagery to spotlight the threat of aliens from other worlds, a metaphor for the enduring othering pervading human culture. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is a particularly poignant example in which the enemy is an insect-like race designated the “buggers” and presumed to be bent on our destruction. The title character grows up to realize that he’s been instrumental in the genocide of a noble race of creatures that were just trying to defend themselves from us. And we can expect that sentient AIs risk becoming the next underclass to be oppressed upon the assumption that they mean harm to carbon-based humans.

Lest we go down the path of Rwanda and of Nazi Germany, we must call out othering for what it is and renounce it. It’s time we realized that we’re all more alike than different, right down to our genomes. It’s time to correct the inequities in circumstances and opportunities in our culture and the inequities in how we treat one another. It’s time to replace hate with compassion.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Arresting Aging: An Existential Threat

Scientists are closing in on the Holy Grail of aging research: the capacity to arrest aging and extend the lifespan to hundreds of years. Recent genetic studies have identified mutations in a pair of genes that humans share with roundworms, each of which modestly extends the lifespan of the roundworm, but which work synergistically to magnify the effect. Drugs are in the early stages of development to alter the cellular pathways governed by these genes. If successful, people could remain youthful and healthy for centuries, with reduction or elimination of a host of age-related diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and dementia. Among the benefits would be the capacity for long distance space travel and the ability to accumulate vast knowledge with extended lifelong learning.

But with noble pursuits often come unintended consequences with dark implications. An early effect could be a striking increase in the divide between the rich and the poor. Such treatments are likely to be costly and, at least at the beginning, available only to the wealthy. So added to differences in quality of life would be a priceless difference in longevity. This raises both moral issues and the likelihood of intensifying class warfare and social disorder.

Extending the lifespan of even a fraction of the population would eventually lead to unsustainable demands upon resources and the environment. Even with advances in food technology, feeding everyone would eventually become impossible. The poor would be the first to suffer, but eventually everyone would be at risk of starvation. And as we continue to consume all manner of goods, the mountains of waste we create will grow huge, even if we master the arts of recycling and creating biodegradable products. We will increasingly risk polluting our waters and food sources, impacting health in unforeseen ways that could introduce terrible new chronic diseases and disabilities that could last as long as we do.

Assuming that we don’t all agree to stop reproducing, an outcome with its own dreadful implications, the population will inevitably find ways to curb itself. One obvious outcome would be a drastic increase in violent conflict, including international warfare, civil wars, class wars, and genocide, perhaps inflicted by the privileged upon the poor in order to retain the resources to sustain their vastly extended lives. And if we fail to keep our numbers in control, the earth will inevitably develop an immune response to fight our infestation, perhaps in the form of more robust infectious diseases to which even the superhuman among us would succumb.

Even if we succeed, against all probability, in navigating the solutions to these problems, how would we adapt to life without end? Would there be some point for most of us, once we’ve run through our “bucket lists” to our satisfaction, that we would decide that enough is enough? Endless life might not be all that we would envision and could eventually become a burden that we would yearn to end. In the prescient 1973 science fiction film “Soylent Green,” teeming humanity has outgrown the limits of its resources, euthanasia has become the universal prescription for ending lives, and recycling human bodies as food has become a key strategy for preventing starvation.

Our capacity for innovation is increasing exponentially. Are we about to outsmart ourselves into oblivion or will we learn to predict the consequences of our discoveries and choose wisely what we pursue?

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Creating a Deadly State of Mind

Home grown killers with a diversity of motives have inflicted the overwhelming majority of casualties from mass attacks and terrorism over the last decade. A few have been radicalized by the influence of foreign entities. Others have been driven by mental illness. Some attacks were hate crimes against racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities. Still others were motivated by revenge or desperation. US Mass Shootings 1982-2016

Donald Trump has pledged to keep us safe by proposing increases in spending on the military and Homeland Security designed to protect us all from the Enemy at the Gate, while slashing funds to social programs.

The budget proposed by this administration threatens our security far more than any measures to stop the Enemy at the Gate protect it. Drastic reductions in access to health care, food, and housing for the most disadvantaged among us threaten to create a vast community of the desperate and will damage the health and development of a generation of children, who will be ill-equipped to rise from the poverty in which they are raised.

Desperate people do desperate things. How many will be driven to crime in order to survive and how many of those crimes will be violent? How many of us will die at the hands of the hungry? How many at the hands of the homeless or sick? How many will die at the hands of the disillusioned and enraged? And how many at the hands of the mentally ill who no longer have access to care that quiets the storm within?

Desperate people do desperate things and are drawn to desperate solutions. The hungry, homeless, and angry are most vulnerable to radicalization. They can be seduced by ideologies that appear to sympathize with their predicament and they have little to lose. Why not strike back at a society that seems to have forgotten them? How many of us will die at the hands of the radicalized poor? And how many at the hands of their children who grow up impoverished, uneducated, and even more desperate than their parents?

We are closing our borders and sending people back to war torn countries to suffer in squalor and chaos or to die. How many of those we turn back, who might have become loyal citizens, will become disillusioned, enraged, and radicalized. How many of us will die at the hands of the spurned and abandoned? And how many at the hands of their grieving and enraged friends and family who live among us?

When we deprive millions of our citizens of basic subsistence and close our borders to those fleeing war and chaos, how can we expect to be safe? How can we expect to be free? And how can we live with the shame of abandoning our needy neighbors in a nation that is supposed to be devoted to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness...for all?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Other Inheritance Tax

Repealing the estate tax has long been a dream of Republican lawmakers. This is a 40% tax on all assets exceeding $5.45 Million for an individual decedent or twice that exemption for a couple. Those who want to repeal it believe that our descendants are all entitled to the fruits of our labor and to live at least as well as their forebears.

I share the ideal that our descendants should enjoy a quality of life at least as good as ours, which makes it crucial to abolish the other inheritance tax: the quality of life taxed to future generations for every gallon of fossil fuel burned.

Global warming as a consequence of human activity has become an incontrovertible fact of science. The cost to future generations is incalculable. Effects include a rapidly increasing frequency of severe storms, floods, droughts, and other natural disasters, the accelerating loss of the polar ice caps accompanied by rising seas, acidification of the oceans with an accompanying decimation of marine biodiversity, and extinctions of species leading to a staggering loss of terrestrial biodiversity. A huge unanswerable question is whether or not we would be one of the surviving species.

Sweeping changes to the landscape of our planet will likely include coastal flooding and the reshaping of the boundaries of our land masses as well as regional climate changes that will threaten the food and water supplies of whole populations, leading to mass migrations and a refugee crisis of unprecedented proportions. Aside from the inherent suffering of these populations, such conditions become breeding grounds for violent conflict and recruitment to radical causes.

Since the process of global warming feeds itself, much has been said of the “tipping point,” the moment in time at which the process becomes irreversible and life on earth is eventually doomed. Some believe that we have already crossed it. Others suggest that it is close at hand. It is likely, in any case, that every year in which we contribute to the problem matters. Even the next four years could determine whether or not we step off the edge of the cliff.

It is time for those we elect to public office to put aside their differences and address the big problems that will shape the world to come. Ignoring or denying these problems gambles the survival of our species. Putting off the solutions in the interest of short-term gains may deprive future generations of a chance to live. And that’s the ultimate pro-life position.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Where Does Identity Reside?

Having spent recent months crafting a sequel to The Methuselarity Transformation, I have felt suspended between the reality of my everyday life and relationships and the lives of the characters in my fantasy world. Between stints at the laptop turning out words that portray the experience of my characters, I’ve found myself drawn inside their heads and points of view, experiencing their crises and working through their solutions to the conflicts they face as their stories unfold. In this way, my characters teach me what it’s like to be them, sometimes providing unexpected lessons about the nature of experience, of consciousness, and of identity.

In Brink of Life, a woman suddenly plunges into consciousness in the midst of what seems like someone else’s life, sending her on a quest to discover who she is and to craft an identity that makes sense within the context of her present circumstances. One of the lessons that emerged as I watched her life unfold through her eyes was that consciousness is more than a state of mind. It’s a state of being defined not only by the brain, but by the characteristics of the body that is the interface for perceiving the world and for acting upon it. And each of our bodies comprises a complex array of elements that color the way we understand our surroundings and ourselves.

Just a few of the ways our bodies are hardwired include the sensitivity of tuning of each of our senses (or even whether those senses are working at all), potential for muscle development and coordination, sexual preference and identification, our ability to taste salty or bitter things, our thresholds for pain and for pleasurable reward, and even the limits of our capacity to experience joy. Fold in a lifetime of sensorimotor experience within these bodies to round out the complexity of how we perceive our identities. Our adaptation to aging, to disease, and to recovery from disease further illustrates the fluid relationship between the body and the self.

Futuristic concepts of immortality have included models in which consciousness is uploaded to computers (Transcendence), embodied within digital avatars (The Matrix), or even linked to other physical entities (either biological or artificial) capable of interacting with the physical world (Avatar). These conceptions assume a model of consciousness and identity as something abstractly residing within the brain, apart from their physical incarnation. Perhaps our intelligence is separable from our bodies, but what would it take to maintain a persistent sense of self rather than just to create an authentic looking copy?

Friday, February 19, 2016

Sex on the Reef

When some people think of coral, they imagine chunks of rock resembling the human brain or delicately branching structures of exquisite detail and fragility. For others, coral brings to mind colorful jewelry, strung as beads of white and pink. These are all the calcified secretions of a vibrant community of microscopic animals that make their homes upon the structures that they create, animals that reproduce sexually in their struggle to survive. And struggle they must, our tiny heroes, because only one out of many thousands of fertilized eggs survives and may take hundreds of years to grow as big as the specimens that dazzle in a seaside souvenir shop.

In the best of circumstances, our reefs teem with life, supported by a luminous community of coral species responsible for both creating the structural backbone of the reef and mediating the cycle of life within it. Cyanobacteria living symbiotically with the corals extract nitrogen from seawater and convert it to a form that is nutritive to plants, and in turn moves up the food chain of the animal population.

While coral reefs cover less than 0.1% of the ocean floor, they support astounding biodiversity that accounts for at least a quarter of all marine species, including at least 4000 species of fish and possibly millions of distinct species ranging from microorganisms and plants to crustaceans and sponges. A quarter of all fish harvested for human consumption come from reef environments. Aside from their crucial contribution to our food source, reefs provide a physical barrier that protects coastlines from the erosive effects of waves and the destructive force of storms, buffering coastal communities against the threats posed by rising sea levels and increasingly turbulent weather. Corals have also been a source of naturally occurring medicinal compounds.

These aquatic colonies and the reefs that support them have come under pressure that now threatens their existence and ultimately ours. Much of this pressure arises from human activity, including coastal development, dredging, pollution, fishing, mining for building materials and...yes...souvenirs, oil spills, even sunscreen! And the effects of manmade global warming include rising temperatures and acidification, both of which cause coral bleaching, reducing reefs to lifeless stone. Even without the need to adapt to drastically changing conditions, the slow growth of these organisms makes it impossible for them to replenish themselves without help. And marine scientists have spent years trying to raise corals with which to reseed reefs.

* * *

Enter Mote Tropical Research Laboratory in the Florida Keys and Dr. David Vaughan, a weathered looking biologist with a bushy rust and salt beard that frames an animated smile underscoring his enthusiasm for educating visitors about corals. A pivotal moment of serendipity combined with mindful observation and inspiration led to a discovery that has accelerated the rate of coral growth in the laboratory by orders of magnitude. While corals tend to repair themselves by growing faster when broken, they grow many times faster when fractured into tiny fragments. Dr. Vaughan first observed this effect as the result of a laboratory accident and has since utilized it as a cultivating technique that has increased new colonies from tens to many thousands and is expected within the next several years to create hundreds of thousands of colonies that will be planted in the wild and are expected to rebuild reefs in a fraction of the time that nature once required.

Even more exciting is the assist that Dr. Vaughan and his team is giving to natural selection. By creating microenvironments with gradations of both pH and temperature, they have managed to simulate a range of possible conditions that might occur decades from now and select coral cultures best adapted to the most stressful conditions that we can predict, while still preserving biodiversity.

All life as we know it would be threatened by the extinction of the corals. While we may worry more about international conflict and terrorism as threats to our existence, the coral nurseries at Mote may well be ground zero for the survival of our species.