Paul And Ringo, Together Again

On February 9, 1964, the British musical group The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. The buzz about the four lads from Liverpool was tremendous, and a record TV audience — 73 million people — tuned in to watch. For many people, watching that show, and then going out to buy their first Beatles album the next day, is something they’ll never forget. Some people think “the ’60s” really began with that one broadcast.

On Sunday, February 9, CBS will air a show commemorating the 50th anniversary of that broadcast. The show will feature a bunch of performances of Beatles songs by other artists — including Stevie Wonder, a reunited Eurythmics, Joe Walsh, Imagine Dragons, Maroon 5, Katy Perry, and George Harrison’s son Dhani Harrison, among others — followed by performances by the two surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. The show closes with the two on stage together, performing A Little Help From My Friends from the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album and finally Hey Jude. I’ll be watching — in fact, I’d watch just to hear those two songs performed live by those two musicians.

When I read about the show, and noticed that the family members of John Lennon and George Harrison were in attendance, I found myself wondering what kinds of memories were reawakened in Starr and McCartney as they performed. A lot of water has passed under the bridge in the past 50 years. What was it like to remember that show half a century ago, when you were one of the four young men from England who suddenly and amazingly took America by storm?

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Assignment in Punxsutawney

Here’s something cool: Richard, who is in the midst of an internship at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, will be covering the annual Groundhog Day ceremony in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for the newspaper. He’s already tweeted about getting ready for the assignment by watching the classic film Groundhog Day for the 200th time.

It will be hard for Richard to rise to the level of deeply moving rhetorical brilliance displayed by Bill Murray’s weatherman Phil in his last live broadcast after he lived through Groundhog Day, over and over and over again, for countless years. (The initial script for the movie had Phil trapped in the Groundhog Day time loop for 10,000 years, and Phil spent enough time reliving the day to learn how to play some killer piano, speak fluent French, and mature from a selfish, self-absorbed jerk into a sensitive guy who really cared about the citizens of Punxsutawney.)

However, the movie does offer some helpful tips about surviving Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney. Be on guard for an insurance sales pitch from Needle Nose Ned Ryerson. Watch out that a kid in a tree doesn’t fall on you. And when you walk across the main street next to the Punxsutawney town square, be sure not to step into the puddle — it’s a doozy!

The Biology Of Conscience

Scientists at Oxford have made a fascinating discovery about the human brain. They have identified an area called the lateral frontal pole that focuses on considering alternative courses of action and comparing them to what we’ve actually done. Even more intriguing, their work shows that there is no similar area in the brains of monkeys.

The study used MRI scanning techniques to map neural pathways within the brain and determine which areas are connected to the ventrolateral frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain involved with language and cognitive flexibility. The studies allowed the scientists to identify the location and function of the lateral frontal pole, a bundle of neurons described as the size and shape of a Brussels sprout.

What really makes us human? One essential characteristic is comparing what we actually did to what we could have done — and then pondering endlessly about what we should have done. The concept of choice, and the identification, evaluation, and comparison of choices by the lateral frontal pole, lies at the root of many of the higher attributes of humans, because the concept of choice and causation leads inevitably to the concept of right and wrong. Philosophy, morals, ethics, and religious beliefs all argue about which choices are right and which are wrong and what considerations should go into how we make those choices. Should we pursue individual pleasure? Should we always try to act in furtherance of the greatest societal good?

These notions are all wrapped up in what we broadly call a conscience — which apparently lurks in the lateral frontal pole. It’s what makes us feel guilty and second-guess ourselves. It’s why Scrooge dreamed of Marley’s ghost. And it’s fascinating that monkeys, which have brains that are generally similar to the human brain, lack the section of the brain that engages in such activity. They apparently can steal a piece of fruit, happily gobble it down, and sleep soundly that night without a second thought or pang of guilt.

The next time you toss and turn at night, unable to sleep because you wonder whether you did the right thing, you can be sure the neurons in your lateral frontal pole are firing and churning away. We’ve got choice, and the lateral frontal pole ensures that we must live with the consequences.

SOTU, So What

Last night was the State of the Union address. We didn’t watch it, because we just can’t bear the pomp and scripted ovations. The trappings of the State of the Union address seem as phony and forced as the broadcasts of the Oscars, the Grammys, or the Golden Globes.

The Constitution, in Article II, section 3, requires the President to “give to the Congress information on the State of the Union.” It’s a worthwhile concept as well as a constitutional requirement, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be done in person. In fact, after the first two Presidents gave their reports on the State of the Union in person, Thomas Jefferson decided to send a written report instead — and no President gave a State of the Union speech in person again for more than 100 years, until Woodrow Wilson did so in 1913. That means that colossal American historical figures like Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt never gave a live State of the Union speech. The country survived nevertheless.

Now Presidents give the speech in person as a matter of course. It’s a chance for some free air time and an opportunity to display the majesty of the presidency and its role in our system of government. And supposedly it allows the President to set the agenda, although that really isn’t the case any more and hasn’t been so for a long time. If you were to review the legislative initiatives, policy proposals, and promises made in the SOTU speeches given over the last 25 years, you would find that only a tiny fraction ever are realized. President Obama undoubtedly added to that list with his speech last night.

What is the State of the Union? I don’t need a speech to know: divided, and troubled. The economy remains a source of deep concern for most Americans. Our administrative state seems to be too large, too intrusive, and too uncontrolled. The President’s popularity has fallen dramatically, and neither political party is trusted to change things for the better. It tells you something about the splintered State of the Union when the opposition party has three different representatives, representing three different factions, give responses.

Comma In The Snow

IMG_5817We had several days of heavy snow, then strong winds that created some interesting snow formations, then frigid conditions that froze those formations in place. And, because only those foolhardy souls with cabin fever — like yours truly — are venturing outside into the subzero world, the formations have been left largely undisturbed and pristine.

They are beautiful, gleaming and ghostly in the early morning hours, with the frozen snow crystals shimmering and glowing in the light of a street lamp. This one reminded me of a comma writ large.

Fourteen Below

Today the outside thermometer on my car registered 14 below zero. It’s a ridiculous temperature — so ridiculous, in fact, that prose cannot capture how ludicrous it is to try to walk several blocks to work under such conditions. Only a very bad attempt at Dr. Suess-like rhyming can suffice:

Fourteen Below

IMG_1744How low is low?
I think I know
‘Cause I’ve lived through
Fourteen below.

Your legs don’t go
Your blood won’t flow
When outside it’s
Fourteen below.

Please! No more snow!
And wind, don’t blow!
Winter sucks at
Fourteen below.

Bitcoins, Bubbles, And Beanie Babies

Yesterday the U.S. Department of Justice announced the arrest of two individuals affiliated with “bitcoin” exchanges. The two men are charged with using the bitcoin exchanges — which allow people to trade bitcoins for currency like U.S. dollars — to obtain bitcoins that could then be sold to users of another on-line exchange, called Silk Road, where the bitcoins could be used to buy drugs anonymously, in violation of the Bank Secrecy Act.

Bitcoins are a kind of token to which some people have assigned value. Each bitcoin is represented by a supposedly unique online registration number, created when a computer solves a difficult mathematical problem with a 64-digit solution. There are supposed to be a finite number of such 64-digit solutions and therefore a finite number of bitcoins, which is why bitcoin investors believe they will only appreciate in value. Users receive bitcoins at unregistered, anonymous addresses, which means the bitcoins themselves can be used to conduct anonymous transactions, as a kind of on-line currency. And, as the announcement yesterday reflects, bitcoins can be traded for real money.

I don’t pretend to fully understand bitcoins and how they are supposed to work — but I wonder how many people who have them and use them really do, either. It’s hard to understand how real value could be created simply because a random computer solves a complex math problem, and I expect that many bitcoin investors don’t have the mathematical and computer capabilities to really understand whether bitcoins are truly unique and just how limited their supply really is. And the anonymity of bitcoins means there is plenty of opportunity for mischief in how they may be used.

People who trade in bitcoins and are banking on their appreciation in value are taking a lot on faith. Of course, at a certain level you can argue that every form of currency involves a similar act of faith, but at least there are public, functioning markets for U.S. dollars, Treasury bills, stocks, and bonds and they are backed by functioning, publicly known entities. Bitcoins remind me of subprime mortgage bundles, or for that matter Beanie Babies. For a time, each of them was a hot commodity. Everyone seemed to be buying them and the word on the street was that their value was only going up. Then one day the frenzy ended, people stopped buying, and the investors were left with pieces of paper or a pile of children’s toys — and a big hole in their balance sheets and bank accounts.

Maybe bitcoins will be different . . . or maybe they won’t.