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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

On the beach

Summer has ended, school has started, it is early fall and I have the beach to myself and the dog. It is still warm enough to walk the beach without a shirt. Soaking the sun and almost feeling my body create serotonin, natural Prozac. With sundown the serotonin will be converted to melatonin and I will sleep well tonight. That is still hours away, for now the sun is up and the tide is coming in. Waves rolling further up the beach with seabirds dancing the receding water while pecking small meals out of the sand. A hundred feet offshore Pelicans are skimming the waves then climbing and circling before diving into the water, floating for a moment to empty their bill before taking to wing for another hunt.
A simple low effort walk down the Texas gulf coast beach at mid day, it is truly amazing how physically good this is for me. Before we domesticated the horse if you wanted to go somewhere you had to walk, for a quarter million years we walked. We adapted to walk and got really good at it. On a cool day I can walk for miles and never break a sweat. Moving those big leg muscles is enough to control my diabetes, maintain my heart and keep the weight down. On the beach it is such a pleasant activity, it even settles the mind. We hop in the car and rush from place to place, sitting still in the freeway traffic feels like rushing to nowhere. Playing computer games or watching cable we crave sensory input to satisfy ourselves, trying to fill some emptiness we don’t understand. Walking is satisfying and fulfilling and really cheap. It cost nothing.
Sand under my feet, sand on my sneakers, sand that started as mountain or hill, hard rock slowly eroded over eons. Rocks washed down streams to rivers, breaking against other rocks becoming pebbles, grinding smaller and smaller, eventually into the bay and into the Gulf Stream to end under my feet and on my sneakers as sand. Wind blows some inland to build dunes while the tide and current carries some further down the shore, making a living evolving landscape. Just one fall day in the perpetual movement of a beach. In time the sand will be subducted by tectonics and compressed back to rock, lifted as a mountain then wind and rain will continue the cycle. The quarter million years we have been walking is just a blink of Gods eye. On the beach I don’t feel a need to rush, a long measured walk is enough.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

What could have been?

Saturday night is date night, a dinner with the wife and maybe a movie, not a big deal but I do enjoy it. As usual I’m getting ready by taking a shower and then I will pick out one of my nicer pair of jeans. Washing my feet and thinking to myself,
A real shirt tonight instead of a T-shirt.
Then the lights dim then blink on and off. When I step out of the shower the bathroom is different. First I notice that the mirror is clean, indeed the entire bathroom is clean to the point of spotless, and the towel is softer and wicking water away with perfect efficiency. My mind feels foggy as I signal my clothes to cover me and assume an early fall setting. For a hesitant moment this seems different or new, that I had been about to do something else. Then the memories rush back as I engage my personal information interface, and restart my daily update of current events. Remembering that I take my responsibilities’ as a galactic citizen serious, submitting original research and engaging in debates, with careful consideration always voting for the best and most valid case. Our modern democracy was sparked by President Nixon. He ended gerrymandering and made private funding of public political causes illegal. I remember that at the time the general public little noticed the presidential decrees or the fight between the political elites, but these simple changes founded the next evolution of democracy. Today President Nixon is remembered as one of the greatest political thinkers in human history. Our current political system is a direct democracy, with no elected officials, Nixon called it the “wisdom of crowds” theory and now our societal decisions are much better than under the old system.
I have volunteered for another citizen group evaluating the power generation system and proposing improvements, while the system is solid there are always opportunities for improvement. After retirement at age 52 I moved to the orbital platform and returned to college to finish a PhD in mathematics, President Carter in his second term committed America to energy self sufficiency, adopting a plan by MIT professors for orbital solar collectors that beamed energy back to the earth’s surface, now we have cheap unlimited pollution free energy. There is a thriving orbital community with a population of about a half million politically independent galactic citizens. During my first career as a manufacturing engineer in a dying oil industry, I often dreamed of working in space, now I do work in space. With most people expecting to live 200 or more years, it has become common practice to change careers every 50 years or so, with free and universal education changing careers just requires a few years of study and preparation, a deep cultural commitment to second chances. I remember President Dylan in 1984 deciding to federally fund stem cell research that created a phenomenal burst of medical advances based on bioengineering.
I remember that the 1984 election was a real shocker when Ronald Regan lost to Bob Dylan by a landslide. Few expected a musician to be a successful politician and we were proven wrong. President Dylan used technology to create universal suffrage giving all equal political access in a level and honest playing field. Combined with President Nixon’s reforms this effectively ended political parties and privileged special interest power. Secrets died in the dark corners that secrets usually live in, the openness and free flow of ideas created an explosion of new ideas and scientific advances. On average each person created more than they used, the old arguments about sustainability became mute.
As the week progresses I work 12 hour days and love every minute of it. The health and energy of the population is great enough that 12 hour days can be highly productive. My regular 6 hour day job involves predictive statistical analysis of orbital mechanics; we still haven’t solved the n-bodies problem. After my day job I have volunteered for several societal review groups, like I said, I take my responsibilities as a galactic citizen serious.
When the work week ends on Thursday.
Thank God it’s Thursday.
I am looking forward to my weekly date night with my wife. I step into the hygiene unit, what we used to call a shower, even after years it still amazes me. The nano thread clothing and dry shower that automatically treats minor skin problems. I hear a distant siren, and …
I wake up. My head is dizzy and confused; I try to remember my phone number. Then I remember that I don’t have a phone. I don’t have anything. My leg hurts and I’m homeless. Sleeping under a highway overpass I am often awakened by sirens. I pretend to be asleep while I absorb the surrounding environment for any immediate danger, finding none I sit up for a better view. The group I share this illegal shelter with is on edge, many slipping away to the wooded area, while others prep their weapons.
Nothing really unusual happening this morning. I think to myself.
Something feels wrong; I have a brief thought about all this being out of place, as if things shouldn’t be like this.
What is wrong with me.
I rub my leg and the memories flood back, Just the old war wound, after 46 years the wound is mostly just an irritation, but my bitterness about the late 1960s still burns. I wasn’t old enough to vote or drink but I was old enough to draft and fight. Barry Goldwater had won the presidency by the smallest margin in history; Goldwater had campaigned against the civil rights legislation and our gutless handling of communism.
Goldwater was President? Why do I think otherwise? Goldwater was President!
Once in office he wiped civil rights clean and upped the ante in Vietnam. I was drafted to a war I didn’t understand. I still don’t understand why we got into a war or why we needed to nuke Hanoi. Getting wounded got me out of country before the Chinese retaliated with millions of soldiers overpowering the American army, we didn’t stand a chance. The whole world turned on American because we had used a nuke, Russia joined China making it clear that one more nuke and they would answer in full against the continental USA. Europe disbanded NATO. Civil strife became civil war and Goldwater was impeached then replaced by Vice-president Neal Reagan.
President Reagan initially seemed a good president; he united white American and ended the civil war with military force. I spent the entire period in a military hospital which sheltered me from the worst of it. President Reagan’s prestige was so great that he could do anything he wished. He disbanded congress, down sized government ending all regulatory agencies, ended Social Security and dismantled the entire social safety net. Today there is no middle class. America is now a few rich and many poor. I am an average old guy; I am one of the poor.
The memory is clear but ... in my gut it all feels false.
More memories pour into my consciousness, my home being foreclosed, my divorce, losing track of my children, the market crash that wiped out all but the very richest. I shake my head and refocus my vision.
I got things to do today.
I had joined up with a small group of vets last week and today we are taking down a bank. When you have nothing to lose, why not a bank? With enough money we can get into Mexico, the Mexican politicians have been passing laws to deport illegal American aliens but with enough money they look the other way.
I hobbled to our meeting place, a gas station on the interstate highway about 3 klicks north. I don’t need to hobble; it is an affectation that makes people under estimate my physical abilities. That half a heart beat advantage has saved my life several times. You have to take personal responsibility for yourself and any edge an old guy can get helps. Most of the guys had already arrived and we start reviewing the day’s plan and checking our weapons. Josh would be late, Josh was always late, Josh was a loose cannon and unbalanced.
Josh will be our cannon fodder, too stupid to see it coming.
Josh finally shows up and we start the first step in our plan, steal a fast car. A Mercedes pulls up to the gas pumps with an attractive well dressed woman driving. I go over and offer to clean her windshields for a few pennies, one of the other guys sneaks around the back. The carjacking is fast, quiet and efficient, not the first carjacking for any of us. Josh had grabbed the women and pushed her into the back seat,
the plan was no civilians Josh!
As usual Josh had lost his place in the playbook. I was in the back seat with Josh and the woman was between us. She didn’t seem scared and this bothered me This was too easy, she should be shaking and crying. I was still alive because I paid attention to the mental red flags. I asked her where she was going.
“Right here.” She replied.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
She reached in her shirt pocket and took out a small coupon, then handed it to me.
“We appreciate your help with our experiment Mr. Clark.” She smiled.
I look at the coupon, two free lattes at Starbucks, I look back up and … I’m standing outside my shower, soaking wet. The lights are blinking, casting a soft magnolia blue.
 What just happened? Have I gone crazy?
I dry, dress and head to Starbucks for date night with the wife.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Genetically modified organisims

On Sunday, February 24, 2008, a Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 flew 221 miles using biofuel in one engine. Over the next few months several additional commercial aircraft completed proof of concept flights using biofuels. The fuel was expensive (as much as $244 per gallon) and used a lot of coconuts, algae and babassu nuts as the production feedstock. The dream is cheaper low carbon petroleum to replace the current expensive nonrenewable petroleum. The thinking is that the best replacement for petroleum is petroleum (The corporate slogan of the biofuel company LS9). The promise of bioengineering is definitely science from the future. The early biofuels were produced using microbes found in the wild, now bioengineering is custom designing microbes by changing the DNA to achieve predefined specific results. The efficiency has increased and the costs are dropping. We are still in the infancy of bioengineering science and for now the promises exceed the reality. Genetically modified foods and genetically modified organisms are creating more scare tactics than benefits while the best money to be made in biofuels is by creating the propaganda against biofuels. Even at this early stage what can be imagined is stunning, magnificent, fearful and intimidating. Toxic waste dumps can be made to produce petroleum while generating electricity, medicines that make us immune to viruses, houses grown from a seed, thread stronger than a steel bar, cures for diabetes and cancer. As with all new science what can be imagined will only be exceeded by what actually is done, applications no one can imagine.
Some of the fears of bioengineering are justified, two examples of science gone wrong. Newton’s theory of gravity created the mathematics of ballistics that made army artillery lethal and the same mathematics allows us to maintain communication satellites in orbit. Einstein’s theories created nuclear weapons and laser bar codes. Knowledge doesn’t kill, people kill. Usually it is people using knowledge in the body politic that creates destruction. What can go wrong with intelligently designed life, what can the military do with a computer designed germ? In the future we will kill each other with green bullets and biodegradable land mines.
Human history would indicate that if we can do something we will. There is no international institution that can control scientific advances. The large corporations that will lose market value due to bioengineered products cannot stop bioengineering development. There is big money to be made in bioengineering and tomorrow's dawn can not be stopped or even slowed.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The male female dichotomy

It’s hard to run fast with children gripping your skirt. It is hard to fight with a babe in arms. Children are dependent, they feel entitled to food and all kinds of stuff plus they whine a lot. Thinking about this I wonder if the basic human response of fight or flight may not be as universal as it presented. A woman with a child would prefer a third option, something other than fight or flight, maybe not to be placed in the position to start with. Men welcome the fight or flight event, there lies honor and heroics, the chance to prove something. Women enjoy watching these heroics; my wife enjoys watching a football contest when she an emotional attachment to one of the teams. Women prefer to not engage directly in smash mouth activities. Women avoid fight or flight situations when possible while men will seek them out. Teenage boys will fight with even a flimsical excuse, I clearly remember that. Now I watch old men fight each other about things even they don’t even care about. Fight or flight is a male response, women prefer leave-now-before-something-happens. Men and women have fundamentally different out looks and priorities.
This difference is statistically observable between male/female stock traders and I perceive this in the powerful female CEOs currently running major corporations. As a group they are more thoughtful and cautious while still maintaining a lethal capitalism. This has given corporations of the advanced nations a significant advantage, by combining the male and female proclivities some institutions have moved to a new level. In retrospect it is hard to understand the battle from Susan B. Anthony to Gloria Steinem. Equality should have been apparent not a long hard struggle. This battle is not finished but the benefits to society are clear and incontestable. Men and women have fundamentally different out looks and priorities and those societies that are successfully integrating the male-female dichotomy are stronger societies.
The current list of issues that women are presenting to our political system seems to me to be equally obvious as beneficial to our society. Seeing child care or equal pay as a threat lacks any intellectual basis. Those societies that have already adopted some of these practices are reaping the benefits while we look like yesterday's story.
As a male I won’t be marching with you, I’m staying home to watch the football game. As the father of two daughters and two granddaughters you have my support ladies. Doesn’t that sound just like a man.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Lower Taxes and Smaller government

On November 6th 2012, we will settle the most important election of our lives, actually the most important in American history. We are literally at the crossroads of history. Media, politicians and public personalities repeat this theme endlessly. I thought I would write on this obviously false claim by reviewing the Presidential elections of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt. I do not know what history will write of President Obama but I have read the history of earlier Presidents. However, the validity of the “most important” claim is so flawed that the essay was too easy to write. As I was fact checking the actual history I was reminded of a question I asked years ago. Why have we been having the same argument since 1796? In 1800 Thomas Jefferson was elected on an anti-federalist platform. Jefferson feared an all powerful federal government and his administration reduced taxes to reduce the size of federal government and committed to reducing the national debt. President Jefferson was the first and only President to reduce the size of the federal government. President Jefferson was also the first to invade a Muslim country.
Like the Hatfields and McCoys we continue to fight an old feud that is no longer relevant. The late eighteenth century world of Thomas Jefferson has evolved, world politics has completely changed from mostly Monarchies to mostly Democracies and nationally America has changed from rural to urban. We have globalization where small governments are easy targets. In Jefferson’s time the very poor or slaves could starve to death, this was acceptable to the government but considered poor form to talk about. Today we have a safety net and anyone starving is unacceptable. Communications was so slow that the battle of New Orleans took place after the war ended. Major General Andrew Jackson and Sir Alexander Cochrane had not yet received dispatches informing them of the end of hostilities. The most advanced information system was the post office. America was not a major world power, no commodity exchange in Chicago (Chicago was founded in 1832) and there was no NFL.
The most notable difference is globalization. The increased speed of information and transportation has made the city of Washington closer to Singapore than Washington to New York in Jefferson's time. Whether you believe in hard (military) or soft (diplomatic) foreign policy neither can exist without a large, well funded and strong federal government. With globalization America needs a creditable foreign policy to be competitive. We directly compete with at least twenty nations. We need a world class educational system and that level of results will not be accomplished by a local PTA. In 2010 America was ranked somewhere between 13th to 17th place, all the nations that ranked higher had national educational systems.
Why are we still having the same argument as Jefferson and Adams in 1796? It is time to ask new questions and have new debates. To be a world power in the 21st century we need to leave the 18th century in the history book.