Saturday, October 30, 2010

Musings on Natural Capital

Have you noticed this truth about life? We live in a hostile world.

From our studies of history, and from our common experience, we discover a truth that is quite unwelcome: we live constantly and seemingly forever in enmity with each other and with the earth.

In ancient times, homo sapiens encountered natural enemies that had evolved in the planetary ecosystem. Poisonous snakes slithered beneath our feet, requiring us to look down, even as predatory carnivores stalked us from above. Furthermore, even if such an environment were not perilous enough to keep the hair on the back of our necks regularly raised with alarm, we encountered craftier dangers from our fellow humans. Something about the species itself seems to have encoded enmity among men.

Some men/women managed to band together in tribes or bands in order to collectively resist the numerous threats presented by existence on this earth. By collaborating, people could gather more life-sustaining resources, producing a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Also by working in community, folks could more effectively overcome those beastly enemies lurking in the jungle, and those tribal ones in the next valley.

Your worldview may be defined by a revelation of Edenic origins, or maybe it is constructed around a principle of biologic evolution. I do not consider those two philosophies as necessarily contradictory. What some folks call irrationality, and some folks call heresy, I may call cognitive dissonance. Life is full of contradictions, and I can’t comprehend them all, so I’m willing to listen to what you have to say, even if I don’t agree with it.

Nevertheless, there has to be some basis of agreement, n’est ce pas? Otherwise we have no foundation for civilization itself. Folks have to agree on something, otherwise the tiger creeps from behind while we are trying to decide what to do, and he’ll pounce on us before we can say strategy—or if not the tiger, the lion or the dragon.

Or the tsunami, or the hurricane, or the toxic oilspill, or the toxic assets. Danger is all over the damned place. No way around it, no matter how much we civilize ourselves.

I suspect that in former times, people did a lot more acting than they did thinking, and that’s how they managed to get so much work done.

Or is it the other way around?

Oh, but I digress toward indeterminable speculations on the origins of our species, and the descent of man to whatever this is that we have on planet earth today. What I really want to write about is this phrase I heard a couple days ago: natural capital.

Our post-industrial revelation, or deduction--whatever you want to call it-- brings us to a juncture where we discover the absolute necessity of conserving the earth itself . (Call me a conservative if you like; I don’t care.) Even as we gathered its produce in the earliest times in order to sustain life and initiate civilization, we were being conservationists. Now, the global challenge of modern existence requires to get off our financial assets and start considering the earth itself as our most valuable capital--flora and fauna and elements and all of it.

The continuance of civilization itself will require conservancy (to use an appropriately contemporary word) and stewardship (the biblical word).

Can we rise to the task?

Yes, we can, if the North Koreans don’t nuke us to death, or the Iranians don’t jihad us to death, or the Israelis don’t irk us to death, or the Chinese don’t pollute us to death, or the Russians don’t vodka us to death, or Hugo doesn’t talk us to death, or rolling stone doesn’t amoralize us to death or tv doesn’t opiate us to death or the Americans don’t drone us to death.

Yes, we can!

Yes, I have my hand up. And I’d just like to say, Nuala, that the beginnings of civilization originate, parabolically speaking, in families—Adam, Eve, etc., when he looked at her and said woohoo! and nine months later out slithered little Cain. Later on Abel popped out, and there you have all in one family what you need to know about the origins of human bondage.

Oh there was a poisonous snake involved too.

Human experience has always been that way, always will. Many may say that concepts or ideologies of ethnic identity, nationhood, or the hope of world peace (it takes a village, you know) can supplant the family urge. But our DNA is strong and stubborn and built solidly upon the double helix of family procreation, and I like it that way.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Axworthy facts about Iran

Here a just a few knowledge points gathered from reading Michael Axworthy's A History of Iran (2008, Basic/Perseus):
~One hundred and four years ago this month, the first national assembly of Iran, the Majles, convened in Teheran with 156 members.
~The Majles was representing the Iranian people amidst conflicting British and Russian hegemonies in the Iranian/Turkish region.
~The Majles assembly adopted a constitution, the first such document to be successfully adopted and implemented (after an meager Turkish attempt)by any middle eastern country.
~Reza Khan,a young military commander of humble origins, emerged between British military oversight and growing Iranian populism, as commander of the Iranian army.
~The government of the reigning monarch Ahmad Shah had bungled an unpopular deal with the British. Commander Reza Khan, with the Iranian army and the Majles assembly, wrested control of government from Ahmad Shah in 1921, ending two millenia of royal Persian dynasties.
~Reza Khan took the name Pahlavi, an ancient Persian language of pre-Islamic times. The Majles crowned him as the new Shah of Iran in 1926.
~In the late 1920's Sha Reza Pahlavi negotitated a deal with the British for development of Iranian oil resources. The agreement provided that Iran would receive 16% of the oil profits.
~By popular demand, the Shah renegotiated the deal with the Brits a decade or so later. The Iranian share of profits was raised to 20%.
~After World War II, the Shah brandished his expanding authoritarian rule toward his people and his growing appetite for oil revenue. A newly-negotiated resolution of oil interests with the Brits produced a 50% deal for the Iranians.
~In 1954, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company changed its name to British Petroleum.

~After 54 years of increasingly opulent and oppressive rule by the Pahlavi dynasty, Reza Shah's son Mohammed Reza Shah was overthrown in the Islamic revolution of 1979. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini focused seething Shi'a discontent against the Shah's westernizing secularism and moral decadence. Under his remote leadership, the mullahs established a republic based on Islam and sharia law, instead of European/American machinations of governance, exploitation, and moral devolution. They ran the Brits and Americans out.

So I'm thinking that now the Iranians get, presumably, 100% of the profits from their oil production, along with the legalistic priveleges of living in an allahcracy. I think their ulemic leaders are convinced that the rest of the Muslim world should awaken to the superior wisdom of Shi'a leadership, along with Persian administration of precious hydrocarbon resources that should be kept out of infidel hands.
Imam Hosein, in his grave since 680 c.e., would be pleased, and may roll over with joyful anticipation of what is to happen next.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


Well, what needs to be done?
Take a look around.
You may be living in a house.
What needs to be done?
Perhaps you're in an apartment.
What needs to be done?
Or maybe you live in a cardboard box.
What needs to be done?
Your residence could be in a city,
or your domicile in a town.
You might be dwelling a village, in a hamlet, or a home.
What needs to be done?
Do it.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Thanks for tryin', Juan

Thanks to Juan Williams for attempting to stand in the gap for our nation. I appreciate your representing the left to right and the right to the left. It’s souls like you that Willie and Waylon were singing about when they belted out the old tune, Angels, flying too close the ground.
In this case it was truthspeaker, commenting too close to the disappearing middle ground. I will miss your voice, Juan, on NPR, and don’t know when I’ll ever hear it again, since I don’t have a tv. God bless you in whatever step you take next.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

God's two-party system

Most folks who found their faith in the Good Book don't realize that David, the second king of ancient Israel, lived and fought with the Philistines for a year and four months.

Saul, the first king, had started his reign pretty well, but had become quite obstinate and paranoid as time passed. Samuel the prophet,who had anointed him as Israelite leader, ultimately regretted that he had ever done so. Saul had failed to understand what was his true role as king.

Furthermore, the defeat of superbad dude Goliath by the young buck David ensured, in the people's eyes, the shepherd's destiny as future king. David's bold public beheading of the giant and subsequent enabling of Israelite victory had been accomplished through God's appointment. Samuel had already anointed him. Of course, David's own skill with a sling--that he had perfected while herding sheep and minding his own business--had something to do with that victorious event too.

So that's a chicken-or-egg conundrum that no one can fathom, although you can try to if you want to read about it in the book of 1Samuel. Israel had two anointed kings at the same time. Go figure that one out. We believers in the Bible know that "God knows what he's doing." And so he does. Could this situation have been a foreshadowing of the two-party system?, the advantages from which we now benefit?. Not like the current Chinese model with only one party calling all the shots.

Our lesson from biblical history is that God does not approve absolute authority among men. Saul's problems began, appropriately, when he had failed to acknowledge the limits of his own power; he had usurped the priestly (Samuel's) function when he should have stuck to politics and military affairs. So God raised up another leader--one who was more responsive to the people's needs. For years, Saul and David were contending with each other, even as they spoke in politically correct platitudes toward one another. Ultimately, David's unselfish humility won out.

Even after the whole Saul/David/Soloman era had passed, the Israelites ending up with feuding factions led by Jeroboam and Rehoboam.

Many folks of our religious persuasion these days support the Israeli regime unquestionably--"Israel, right or wrong." It's not unlike supporting the US in all its worldly ventures with claims of "my country, right or wrong." They should read their Bible a little more closely. If Saul's obstinate jealousy had driven David out of the Israelite camp, forcing him to side with the Philistines (Palestinians), then what does it mean that Israel's greatest king had to spend almost a year and a half in hiding? And hanging out with the other side, for God's sake!

In today's scenario, could those pacifist elements of Israeli society be forming, during their season as minority party, a future effective reconciliation with Palestinians while the old Likud warhorses grind their axes of apartheid, checkpoint-monitored, wall-building westbank/Gaza oppression?

We shall see. There's a lot to be said for this minority party/majority party setup that we adopted a couple centuries ago. We've been doing it here in the USA for about 230 years now, and it works. Or, it has until now anyway. I hope our system of built-in political cleansing is not degenerating into partisan bickery that ultimately lands us in a pile of fiscal shit.

And I hope the Israelis can work out their differences with the Palestinians whose ancestors had provided their real estate.

Shalom, y'all.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Mr. Mondale, Roosevelt and Reagan

Walter Mondale tells a story about FDR’s funeral that sharpens our understanding of what it means to be a liberal:
In the spring of 1945, President Roosevelt’s body was being taken from Georgia to Washington on a train. Thousands of Americans cherished the President’s legacy with expressions of respect and mourning as they stood in memoriam near the train tracks and in stations along the way.
Former Vice-president Mondale tells Diane that one such man was asked if he had known the deceased President. The man replied that no, he did not know Mr. Roosevelt, but, the man volunteered: “He knew me.”
A characteristic of great leadership is surely that those who are governed feel a respectful affection along with political and patriotic identification with the leader. Franklin Delano Roosevelt had served Americans in the oval office for twelve years, through a long economic depression and a world war. Americans’ love and fond recall of him were, no doubt, deeply heartfelt on a national magnitude, most acutely on that mournful day in 1945.
Mr. Mondale mentioned the mourner’s response to FDR’s last solemn journey to our capital city. Then he added an eloquent statement that Americans need to know that their President is looking out for them, and holding their best interests at the forefront of his mind, his actions and policies.

Therein, we catch a glimpse of the difference between a liberal and a conservative. Conservatives don’t generally have that need,
or they do not cultivate it, to view the President as some benevolent provider; they would rather do things on their own without the government’s meddling, thank you.
Most conservatives these days will tell you that the President’s job is to keep the government out of the way, so that enterprising, self-sufficient folks can exercise their freedoms without regulatory interference. It’s not the President’s job–not his government’s job either– to give us the warm fuzzies or make sure we are all well cared for. We have dads for that, and God, thank you very much.

So there you have the main difference between conservatives and liberals, aka Democrats and Republicans.
Nevertheless, I must disclose that this Republican would more likely be moved to tears at Mr. Roosevelt’s immense contribution toward our national well-being, than, say, anything that Mr. Reagan did.
Except when he told Mr. Gorbachev to tear down that wall.
That tearing down the wall thing really tears me up.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

RNA developments

Back in 1953, scientists James Watson and Francis Crick figured out that the DNA molecule was composed of millions of little paired chemical connections called nucleotides. The nucleotides were like rungs of a ladder that held together two vastly long strands of phosphate-sugar.
But the ladder of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is not straight and rigid like you would think of a ladder. It's a twisty, floppy thing that spirals ever onward as it develops. It's a kind of spiral staircase upon which life has ascended from one phase to another over the last few millions or billions of years.
As the DNA double-helix molecule evolves, it keeps flopping over on itself, like a pile of spaghetti, because that's the only thing it can do in its confined little nucleus world.
But I'm not here to tell you about a can of worms or a pile of spaghetti. What fascinates me at this moment is the article I just read in The Scientist magazine by Dr.Anna Maria Pyle.

Dr. Pyle wrote about RNA in the September issue. RNA is a complex molecule similar to DNA. It's only half as wide, so to speak, being a single strand instead of double. It lollygags around the nucleus and unzips DNA down the middle, to assist the DNA in its replication and its mutagenic experiments . So thanks to RNA, life goes on, and it keeps changing as it goes.
Or at least that's my understanding of it so far. Of course the whole dam thing is much more complicated than that. Like I said, it's a can of worms, or a pile of spaghetti.
Dr. Pyle, though, along with other chemists, microbiologists and God-knows-what-all-ists across the world, are conducting work beneath their electron microscopes to unravel those piles of nucleic material and make some sense of their workings. I say "make some sense," meaning that they seek to explain the intricate processes of life that take place within the genomes. The DNAs and RNAs already make sense, being endowed as they are by their creator with certain inalienable characteristics, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of chromosomes.

Her September report expands our understanding of how RNA (ribonucleic acid) folds, and how it serves as a scaffold and facilitator in the cell environment. Dr. Pyle writes: "...there is a time in the life of every cell when even the most important RNA has to be refolded, disassembled or recycled so that something new can happen."

So, its somewhat like human politics. In the microcosm and the microcosm, pretty much the same thing is going on everywhere.
But I digress. Getting back to the nuclear heart of the matter, Watson and Crick had discovered that DNA strands were held together by paired nucleotides, those rungs of the ladder I mentioned earlier. What scientists are finding now is that there are other ways (besides the G,A,T, and C ladder-rung links) that the DNAs and RNAs can hook up in new combinations; they can connect by crossings with the long vertical (sugar-phosphate) strands as well.

Dr. Pyle writes in her September report about "genetic elements that jump around, copying and inserting themselves into new genomic locations and new hosts. Through this process, they bring new genes with them, or they chop up long genes into multiple pieces that can be used in various combinations, potentially leading to great diversity of expressed protein types..."

A very expressive chain of events, is this thing we call Life.

In other news, I have been wondering for a while now about the so-called "junk DNA" that constitutes most of our human genome. Its all the genetic material that they haven't figured out yet what it does. Although Dr. Anna Maria Pyle does not mention junk DNA, she does make this curious statement at the end of her article:

"We now know from the human genome project and from studies of the "transcriptome" that the vast majority of our DNA does not encode proteins at all; rather, it encodes RNA. RNA is far more important in biology than any of us imagined even five years ago."

I thought so too.
I have fictionalized, and personified, some of these adventurous RNA expeditions in my new novel, Glass Chimera, a story that includes a subnucleic tale about Cap'n Dean Gene and his crew of amino-angling sailors aboard the HMS RuNAbout. In my episode, Cap'n Dean takes on a cocky new recruit named Henry Globin, as they're cruising around inside the antagonist's (a guy named Mick) body. Imagine that.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Liu Xiaobo, a great man

I'm hoping and praying that the Nobel committee will award this year's peace prize to Liu Xiaobo.

Born in 1955 in China, he is a man whose childhood fell within those tumultuous years now referred to, simplistically, as the Cultural Revolution.
In this very informative interview, he describes how Mao's intensely ideological manipulation of Chinese society had resulted, by the mid-70s, in a nation of hard-working people who were exhausted, and battle-weary of the decades-long, cadre-imposed struggle for equality. Not only that, but far too many folks were, by the time of that crossroads in CCP experimentation, pretty damn hungry.

Mao Zedong, with his cadres of revolutionary peasant devotees, had imposed a huge, bloody, traumatic Marxist rearrangement of the Middle Kingdom of Asia. His zealous communists had violently wrested the empire from a chaotic, prolonged civil war that had followed the downfall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. After the 1949 Revolution's first eighteen years of changes had been wrought, Mao the peasant-genius architect of the whole damn thing passed from this world.

In 1976, a master politician/statesman named Deng Xiaoping managed to get hold of the reins of power that the deceased revolutionary dictator had previously held. Deng was able to redirect the energy and resourcefulness of the Chinese people away from the logistical dead-ends upon which fanatical communist ideology had dropped them. He initiated reforms that have since lead to China's becoming the economic powerhouse that we see on the world stage today. China's painful nationwide imposition of communism had been revolutionary and violent. But from the time of Deng's reforms in the l970s, "gradualism," (a term used by Mr. Liu) has been the order of the day. The people of China needed a break from perpetual revolution. Deng lead them along a kinder, gentler path of prosperity-seeking.

Several years ago, we had a young Chinese student dining at our kitchen table. He told me "Deng Xiaoping was a great man." At the time I did not understand what he meant. How could any communist be great? But the impact of any man's life on his people and the wide world must be evaluated in the context of the society in which he was born and to which he devoted his life. My conclusion since that conversation has been that, yes, Deng Xiaoping was a great man. If it were not for him, China would not be in the position of strength, and greater freedom, that she enjoys today.

Now we see another great man of China on the world stage, Liu Xiaobo. He is also a reformer; he has taken on, along with many comrades, the next agenda item for Chinese improvement. It is a weighty burden--the injustices of one-party oligarchy and disregard for human rights. In that capacity, he is a co-author and signer of the Charter 08 manifesto, for which he was arrested, and is still imprisoned.

May the Nobel Committee have the courage to reward his life's work.
Invest some time in the cause of liberty by reading this transcript, provided by New River Media in 2005, of a Columbia University interviewer's discussion with Liu Xiaobo. You will gain, as I did, some fuller comprehension of those momentous, though quite tragic, events in the China of our lifetime.

Finally, I'm posing our Mystery Question of the Day: What was the "family contract plan, or family responsibility plan," which brought greater productivity to the Chinese enforced agricultural collectives of the late l950s-early '60s?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

the China Syndrome, 2010 version

I encountered Today's Mystery Question in a comment by Ken E. Zen, following the Economist's analysis and discussion of Paul Krugman's call for trade protectionism.

The Mystery Question is:

"How much of our Sovereign debt is being bought by China or simply reprocessed through the Federal Reserve?"

I must mention, though, that the runner up for Mystery profundity was signalled by an earlier commenter, rewt66, when he brought up the ages-old tragi-comic conundrum of human activity: Unintended Consequences?.