Wednesday, October 02, 2013


Today is the Future

 

The background buzz had been increasing for months with articles in the papers and excited chatter among family and friends, but now the impending reality stood before me. The behemoth then-named brontosaurus rose up above me next to stegosaurus, and t-rex was still under construction in the nearby hanger. My fifth grade class was on a field trip to a fiberglass artisan’s workshop near Hudson, N.Y. where they were constructing full-sized dinosaurs for the Sinclair Petroleum exhibit at the New York World’s Fair which would be opening in a few short months.

We had all heard tales of the 1939 World’s Fair from our aunts and uncles, those hopes and dreams running into the harsh realities of the Second World War. The Cold War, the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Assassination of the President had followed, but now the Space Race and new electronic technologies were inspiring the global civilization, and the upcoming fair was due to showcase the changing world. Better Living Through Chemistry! Our Friend the Atom! Bringing Good Things to Light!

My class roamed among the life-sized saurians, touching their flanks and examining the exposed frameworks over which layers of fiberglass were laminated. Scattered boulders of volcanic pumice accented the statues while they waited transport to Flushing Meadows, and my teacher chastised me for chipping off a lava fragment as a souvenir. I may still have that bubbled lump in a box somewhere.

Then, to international fanfare, the 1964 World’s Fair opened, with the stainless-steel Unisphere the focal point about which a jetpack-wearing daredevil flew orbits! Every Sunday the New York Daily News color magazine section would print gorgeous full-page pictures that highlighted an exhibit, glowing colors splashing the sides of pavilions or illuminating the Fair’s many fountains. My brothers and I eagerly anticipated our families and our classes traveling to behold these wonders with our own eyes.

Finally the day came, and the parking lot looked like the rows of cars lined up at a drive-in theater, only bigger. The globe of the Unisphere gleamed in the sun and colorful flags fluttered in the breeze. The buildings were something out of science fiction, truly “The World of Tomorrow!” They lined great fountains into which visitors flung coins for luck and were composed of domes, planes, rotundas and turrets. The scents of exotic foods wafted on the breeze, and an international chatter of voices delighted the ear. America was the crossroads of the planet! Heroic sculptures depicted men flinging stars across the sky, and full-size replicas of spacecraft stood erect around rippling, glassy buildings.

I clicked away with my Kodak Brownie 127 camera which I had received for my First Holy Communion, winding on fresh rolls of film and dropping the exposed film into pre-paid mailers for development and printing. The resolution might not have been great, but the images would resurrect memories for decades to come. Then came nightfall, and alas that the price of color film was prohibitive! Fortunately bright postcards and Ektachrome slides were available by the rack full, because the Fair was transformed into a fairyland of colored lights and beams streaming up into the sky! The GE dome was an expanse of swirling colors and the panels of the Tower of Light were transformed into rearing planes of glowing crystals. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Commander Cody could not hold a candle to this exhibition, and I have only described the architecture! Let us discuss the wonders of science!


Drop a dime in the slot and out popped a neutron-irradiated coin to insert into a souvenir holder and carry in your pocket when you visited the Atomic Energy Commission! Nuclear power would be “Too Cheap to Meter!” Walk through jungle and mountaintop and desert environments and smell the indigenous odors sprayed into the air at the Coca-Cola exhibit! Walk through a sound-deadening corridor that made your ears pop in the Bell Telephone pavilion on your way to the videophone which would periodically take a call from Walt Disney across the continent in Anaheim, California! Watch lab-coated jugglers in the DuPont exhibit pull long polymer strands of nylon out of beakers, or combine flasks of colorless fluid that suddenly glowed yellow-green like the tail of a firefly! Miracles and Wonder! Period-piece android families complete with tail-wagging dogs told the tale of advancing home-convenience items as the audience rotated around GE’s Carousel of Progress. Cities of the future, undersea and on the moon, were practically close enough to touch in the GM and Ford exhibits, and their prototype automobiles looked like they could take off and fly, as one of them would periodically drive out into a lake before returning to dry land.

The news entertained us with stories of runaways who slept in the Coke pavilion, fishing the coins out of fountains on which to sustain themselves with hotdogs, hamburgers, Belgian waffles, and cola. The free economy was transforming the world!

No one was talking about Vietnam. Not loudly, yet.

We knew that this marvelous world was coming to pass; my father brought home portable cassette recorders for his sons, then a color television. Party-line telephones were vanishing, and the newspapers printed pictures of the new, smaller computers that were only the size of bank desks! Cars were available in multiple hues, the roar of jet airliners thundered in the sky, and Polaroid cameras produced pictures virtually instantly – just don’t forget to apply the fixer! The Soviets and Americans competed to send men into orbit with eyes set on the Moon, and there was anticipation of satellites replacing the trans-Atlantic cable to carry conversations across the Big Puddle. In South Africa Dr. Christian Barnard transplanted a heart into an ailing patient. Oh, brave new world! Bi-planes would annually fly over our neighborhood, spraying DDT to eradicate those annoying mosquitos, and we waved to the pilots as the dust settles around us. Toy stores carried walkie-talkies, no longer the province of the military; and the robotic Great Garloo did your cable-controlled bidding. Colorful bug-like transistors were quickly replacing the tubes glowing within the radios, TVs, and “Hi-Fi” record players. AM radios could now be carried in your palm. Did anyone doubt that we teetered on the edge of Utopia?

How did we arrive at this pinnacle? The General Electric audio-animatronics told us about the last century, and Bell Telephones and International Business Machines displayed the evolution of electronic and calculating devices. Westinghouse encouraged visitors to inscribe their names in a register to be included in a time capsule that would be buried next to a similar container from 1939 to present the 20th Century to the world of the year 6939. The Traveler’s Insurance exhibit presented dioramas of “The Triumph of (White) Man,” from cave dwellers to the walls of Ur, the Roman Empire( subtly promoted Christianism), and the Renaissance thinkers observing and calculating the celestial realm. You could purchase the stirring soundtrack on a red vinyl 45 rpm record to remind yourself that you were a jewel on the crown of creation.

In two years the festivities concluded and visitors packed away their assorted souvenirs and pamphlets which that they might view with nostalgia in later years. Most of the exhibits were razed and Flushing Meadows was planted as a park, the Unisphere still gracing the center, a few sturdier constructions left to perhaps be utilized at some future date.

The Future did not come as advertised although the marvelous technology highlighted at the World’s Fair was, in retrospect, quaint, far outstripped by its future’s reality. As communication and transportation brought nations closer together, it brought them into fricative conflict. The marvels of chemistry and medicine have disturbed our environment and challenged our ethics. Poor policies were implemented and mistakes were made. Utopia has receded like the chimera it has always been. But the experience of walking the lanes and corridors of the World of the Future for these brief two years in the middle 60’s still gleams like a bright dream. We can erect tower in short years and send robots to the Outer Planets. We can do whatever we set our minds to do.

But grownups need to be mindful that the choices we make can turn our dreams into nightmares.



Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Baselines for
Bioethics

Imagine that you are running for your life.

Your body is trembling with adrenaline, your heart is thudding, panic-stricken, and your breath comes in hot, quick gulps. Suddenly your pursuer sinks sharp hooks into your flesh, bringing you up short. You are picked up and dashed to the ground, breaking your back. As you writhe helplessly, your assailant begins to rip chunks out of your body. Death cannot come soon enough.

Is this a scene from a horrific slasher movie? No, this is the daily experience of prey in “Nature, red in tooth and claw” as carnivores pursue their meal. When extremists among promoters of vegetarianism declare that “Meat is Murder!” we would do well to remember the natural background against which their arguments are made.

There are well over a million carnivorous species on our world, more if you include omnivores who eat both meat and vegetation. By their teeth and their alimentary tract will you know them. We ourselves are omnivores, eating venison as naturally as we do tubers and leaves. We do not need to eat meat, of course; but it is generally a richer source of protein than is easily found in the vegetable kingdom.

What about the ethical issues, though? If we are so superior to other species, aren’t we obligated to express ourselves in a kinder, gentler, more humane manner? Unfortunately, much of our “superiority” is just an expression of being one of the top predators in the food chain. Our self-reflective intelligence is only a very recent development in our evolution, and to argue that we are free of a few million years of instinctual behaviors is anything but self-reflective.

We have generally decided that one of the ideals of civilization is to minimize pain, suffering, and death, although we tend to be self-serving as to when and toward whom we apply this ethic. Just a surely as do our chimpanzee cousins and our domestic feline companions, we sometime enjoy cruelty as if it is an entertaining game, justified largely because tormenting other animals – including our own species – is simply something that we can do. Additionally, it serves as a signal to others: Beware! We can do this to you, too!

One of the primary reasons that we have domesticated animals is simply so that we don’t have to chase after them. They’re in a supervised pasture, a coop, a barn. They are protected from other predators until we decide that it is time to use them for their labor or kill them for our food. I would argue that this is not automatically any crueler than their natural, untamed lives would be. How we treat them during that captivity, and how they meet their end, however, can be.

There are good reasons to minimize, if not eliminate, meat as part of our diet. Factory-style meat production certainly presents an ethical challenge: although it provides a cheap and easy assembly-line of meats, it depends on putting the animals in deliberately painful and unhealthy conditions and using medications and hormones to keep them alive and make them extra-productive. When we eat meats derived from this process some of these chemicals build up in our bodies, adding to the witch's brew of absorbed pollutants that may destabilize our own health. And, speaking of pollution, the lakes of animal waste from this sort of livestock productions present festering bodies of danger to the public health.

Also from the health perspective, an easily available supply of meats can provide too much of a tasty thing, ingesting excess calories and saturating ourselves in fats and related circulatory-clogging organics.

Domesticated meat-production is also a rather inefficient way to produce this choice protein. It requires up to 16 pounds of vegetable protein to produce one pound of beef and 3 to 6 to make one pound of fowl; 3 to 15 pounds of water to produce the same; and 78 calories of fossil fuel to produce on pound of beef, 35 calories for one pound of pork, and 22 calories for one pound of poultry. There is more protein-laden vegetative food to go around than there is of meats.

There is also the question as to just how primitive and predatory we personally wish to be. Disregarding "animal rights activists," most people accept the seasonal rituals of hunters who exercise observational patience, go for "quick, clean kills," and eat their quarry, but disdain those who hunt for sport or trophy. The personal administration of death-dealing can change one's perspective; we have recently heard how Facebook pioneer Mark Zuckerberg is experimenting with only eating meat that he has personally killed. I suspect that if we all had to live with such constraints our meat consumption would plummet. Could I kill a fish or a fowl? Probably with not too much difficulty if I were initially chaperoned in doing so. But a mammal like a cow, goat, deer, or pig? You mean, a member of the same Class to which we belong, mammalia? Not likely unless it was a survival scenario.

There are science-fiction procedures being developed today to grow meat without having to kill a living animal that would be more environmentally-benign and potentially healthier if the nutrients could be adjusted to add vitamins and reduce fats and glycerides. While some people might call this gross, it is much less so than slicing the throats and spilling the blood of a conscious animal before hacking its corpse apart; I would order a pound and a half of vat-grown fillet without batting an eye before touring a typical slaughter house.

Meat is tasty, and there is nothing unnatural about eating it. It may be a good decision to not eat it, or al least much less than we do. But for the nonce, I am at the top of the Food Chain; someday in the next forty years I expect that I will be at the bottom, food for the bugs and worms and microbes. I don't begrudge them their meal; so I will choose that upon which I myself dine, in full awareness of my choices.

Bon Appétit


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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Advance Directives


Eleven years ago an idiot doctor correctly diagnosed me with Lyme disease but incorrectly treated it. As a result, the spirochetes ate a piece of my heart, and I now require a battery and a microchip to help it keep pace. Without this device I am conscious, but not much good beyond that, as weak as a kitten. Thank Ifni for modern medical technologies!

I have also undergone a number of medical procedures in the last several years including an appendectomy, hernia repair, and pacemaker replacement, and one of the newer anesthetics that has been used functions rather like a light switch; you’re conscious, then you’re not, then you are once again, with no sensation of transition and never noticing that you vanished for the last hour.

The recent deaths of several people I've known and my advancing age got me to thinking about mortality. I don’t believe in a hereafter, and the contemplation of Death used to give me the willies. However, these medication experiences have alleviated that anxiety. If the “on” switch is never flipped after having been turned “off,” well, oblivion is not half bad. Don’t Fear the Reaper.

Ah, but the process of dying is a whole different issue. Tubes, wires, indignities, fear and pain; these are not so pleasant to contemplate. Falling asleep in an easy chair after a nice glass of wine and just never waking up would be fine. But we are not given a choice, are we? In fact, even in civilized circumstances, we are not allowed a choice. There are few places where voluntary euthanasia is permitted. There is supposedly something noble about terminal suffering.

Suppose I am in my end game and circling the drain; will my pacemaker delay my departure and prolong the agony? Do I get to point to that device in my chest and say “Turn it off, Doc!” if that will hasten my death? Do I need to document this with Advance Directives? I suppose I’d best do so and not leave it to chance, but it seems ludicrous that I might need to do this. If it is my life, why can’t it be my death as well?

I suspect that as do many things, it is something that discomforts others and is given a fig-leaf of cover by religious sensibilities. No, it’s not really my life, it belongs to a Deity. Never mind that I consider that superstition. One must jump through hoops to opt out of the traditional systems and beliefs.

One only need google Karen Ann Quinlan and Terry Schiavo to recognize that the real thing to fear is other people's beliefs. Be prepared, because there will always be someone who thinks that they are deputized to act in what they decide is your best interest. Be on guard, and lay your plans somewhat beyond a simple retirement. You may be reluctant now, but you may be powerless then.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010



A Serious Question Regarding Social Programs

for Small-Government Conservatives

Let me immediately identify myself as a sociopolitical Progressive, although do I try to be pragmatic about it. I believe that there should be various kinds and levels of “social safety nets” available to all people, recognize that the economic investment necessary to provide them is expensive, and yes, it requires a “redistribution of wealth” just as surely as does providing for “the common defense.”

Conservatives seem alright with that when it comes to maintaining overwhelming military might, but less so when it provides for social programs. They often give the impression that they believe these public services are being given to those who are for whatever reason, undeserving. When it comes to those less worthy, well, “It’s my money, and the government has no right to it without my express consent!” In addition, “The Government is inept, and I can better handle my money to provide for myself and my family!”

I agree that remedying waste, uncovering fraud, and maintaining a reasonable degree of efficiency are eternal battles when it comes to any bureaucratic functions, especially government. But government, in my perspective, is less about breaking even than it is about providing services and marshaling efforts that can only be achieved collectively.

I believe that cooperation is every bit as important as is competition in a healthy society despite the latter value being more heavily promoted. I believe in universal healthcare, although I recognize that the sky cannot be the limit – but that’s another discussion! I believe that in any solvent society healthcare is a human right, not a privilege, meaning that if an individual or other association cannot obtain it through their own reasonable efforts, it is the government’s duty to insure that it is accessible. If it is instead a privilege, a humane conservative – there are many such - may want to make legal and economic adjustments and offer incentives to maximize an individual’s opportunity to obtain healthcare, but ultimately, it is solely up to the individual to succeed or fail in that regard. Voluntary charities may provide some relief, but assistance is not required.

For the model to which I subscribe to be functional, everyone must participate otherwise we need to pick up the cost for “freeloaders” who could have contributed but did not. If you have no insurance, and you cannot afford private pay, clinics and hospitals are required to give you service nonetheless, and I agree that this is the maximally humane thing to do. But let’s just say that the financial viability of my preferred system is my problem, and consider you, the conservative individualist, who wants no part of it. Suppose I acknowledge our differences of opinion and of preference and agree that you may “opt out” of participation in such a network. All you have to do is foreswear utilization of its benefits.

Perhaps you have obtained employment that provides a good healthcare benefit; that’s excellent, and congratulations! Maybe you have made smart investments, receive regular dividends, and your family is healthy, and you can pay sufficient premiums for a private insurance plan, or have wealth enough to write out a check directly to your doctor, clinic, or hospital. Everybody’s happy, everybody is taken care of.

But you certainly know that there are reversals of fortune. No one is buying buggy-whips anymore and your company shuts down. A line of bad speculation distorts the stock market and your portfolio is now worth pennies. Your spouse contracts a disease that is expensive to treat, or you give birth to a child with a congenital defect. What do we do now? Humanity says that we take care of you regardless of your ability to pay; but you signed a waiver that you would not use public medical resources.

What do we do? Do you agree that, life is uncertain, you made your choice and “them’s the breaks,” and you, your child, or spouse should be turned away from lifesaving services and be allowed to perhaps die, comfortably or not? Really?

That is the way of life in nature, certainly, and in less complex societies. The strong, healthy, and wealthy dominate, and the rest… are less relevant.

This controversy is of course also germane to our other great socialized program, Social Security. Grandpa wasn’t clever enough, or didn’t plan ahead sufficiently for him and Gram, Dad died early, and Mom is living with us and we’re barely getting by. It was nice knowing you, Gramp, say hi to St. Pete, willya?

Sure I’m painting a caricature here to draw out the point. What do we do? If you listen to some over-the-top bombast, “Obamacare” is the most vile and unmitigated evil that has ever been visited upon the world, maybe worse than the Holocaust. Well, what’s your alternative? Tort reform and a $2000.- medical allowance are going to solve all of the problems of rising healthcare costs, of pre-existing conditions, of chronic catastrophic illness, and of access to care? Capitalism is the greatest good, and Government is the worst evil? Do you really believe that?

But I'd settle for people staking out a position so we know what we're arguing over: is it right, or a privilege? Let’s take it from there.

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