Because We’re Special

the-martian-matt-damonScientists are now finding evidence that there are a lot of apparently habitable planets out there, in a temperate zone in relation to their suns, where water is likely to form.

So why in the world (pun intended) aren’t we hearing or seeing signs of alien life when we point our radio telescopes at other star systems?  Our ability to search for evidence of life elsewhere has developed to the point where the lack of any contact has to be considered in any scientific theory about how life develops — and scientists are, in fact, doing just that.

The new theories posit that the world — our world — in fact played a key role.  They envision a “Gaian Bottleneck”: a kind of choke point that most alien life doesn’t survive.  While early, microbial life forms may have developed on those wet, rocky planets scientists are identifying just about everywhere, more complex life forms require planets with weather systems and atmospheric that are relatively stable.  The Gaian Bottleneck posits that such stability is lacking on many planets, and that changes in temperature or atmosphere killed off the alien life when it was in its fragile, early stages and unable to defend itself through evolution.  Thus, both Venus and Mars may have had early life forms, but the developmental arc of those planets — toward a high-pressure hot house on Venus, and a frigid, barren desert on Mars — killed them off.

Earth, though, somehow threaded the needle.  So, we’re special.

Of course, Earth’s example means some planets make it past any Gaian Bottleneck, so there may be advanced life out there — just not as much as you might think.

Revenge Of The New

Last night we had dinner with a group of friends whose politics spanned the political spectrum from progressive to conservative, from card-carrying D to card-carrying R.  When the talk turned to politics — talk that was, incidentally, respectful and reasonable in tone, despite the different perspectives — the uniform reaction to the upcoming election and the national polls was one of wonder and astonishment.

On the Republican side, the continued success of Donald Trump has become something of a phenomenon.  On the Democratic side, the extraordinary spectre of Hillary Clinton, the presumptive nominee, struggling and locked in hand-to-hand combat with a would-be Socialist is only slightly less stunning.  We decided it would be interesting to have everyone at the party predict who would win each party’s nomination and ultimately the general election — and throw $10 into the pool for the winner — and I’m sure the guesses reflected radically different views of what will happen.  When was the last time that the nominees for both parties were so unpredictable?

2015-07-26t13-17-17-133z-1280x720-nbcnews-ux-1080-600Another interesting dynamic was that everybody seemed genuinely interested in what other people where thinking about why this is happening.  This is an election where the conventional wisdom and inside-the-Beltway punditry have utterly failed to capture the mood of the voters, so why not ask your friends what they think and hear what they have to say?  But it’s hard to understand — in fact, it’s mind-boggling — how Donald Trump continues to avoid the consequences of his (many) stupid statements and the fact that he has changed his position on virtually every position, and it’s equally hard to understand how the well-heeled Clinton campaign could be so inept and politically tone-deaf that Bernie Sanders, of all people, could mount a significant challenge.

If there was a consensus reached last night, it is that there is a deep wellspring of unhappiness and disappointment bubbling below the surface of the American populace that both Trump and Sanders have tapped.  These are people who have tried to vote for change in recent elections — including for the professed “Hope and Change” candidate in 2008 and 2012 — but the change hasn’t happened and now they have lost hope.  They think things are going to hell, they are afraid of losing their jobs and their livelihoods, they are fed up with the establishment candidates and the conventional power structures and they want things to change, no matter what.  They are confident that Donald Trump will shake things up, no matter whatever else he may do, and they think that Hillary Clinton, the ultimate insider candidate, will just bring more of the same.

If our consensus has accurately identified the mood that is supporting Trump and Sanders, it’s a mood that isn’t going to change in the next few weeks or even months.  Batten down the hatches!

 

Bulletin Board To The World

IMG_0138The telephone pole outside of Katzinger’s Deli, at the corner of Third and Livingston, has served as a public bulletin board for decades — and it shows in the extensive collection of staples, nails and thumbtacks that have been used to post announcements of musical performances, church socials, restaurant openings, and candidate appearances.

The completely random distribution of the staples, nails and tacks almost looks like art.

Mother Nature And The Storm

We think we’re pretty advanced, scientifically and technologically, but Mother Nature can still throw us a hard slider every now and then.

Consider the blizzard that is battering that East Coast this morning.  New York City might get as much as 16 inches of snowfall, Philadelphia is canceling public transit, thousands of flights at the Charlotte and Raleigh airports were canceled, and motorists have been stranded on snow-covered roadways.  (Surprisingly, the storm bypassed those of us in the upper Midwest, which is the normal habitat of appalling winter storms.)

Storm RdpAnd Washington, D.C. — well, let’s just say that the Nation’s Capital freaks out when even a tiny bit of snow is forecast, so a big storm causes runs on stores, gas tank topping, and other over-the-top, panicky behavior.  That’s the way it was 30 years ago when Kish and I lived there, and according to news reports that’s the way it still is today, too.  It doesn’t exactly give you much confidence about how the citizens of D.C. would react in a real crisis.  The frightened, frantic crowd scenes when Godzilla appears above the Tokyo skyline probably would be an accurate depiction.

The storm also reminds us of our interconnectedness.  With some of the nation’s busiest airports affected, good luck traveling by air today.  Airlines are estimating that more than 7,500 flights will be scrubbed, which is like dropping a paralysis bomb into the nation’s transportation grid.  Even if you’re on a flight that is leaving from an unaffected city, you might learn that the earlier leg of the flight was coming in from, say, Philadelphia.  And trying to get anywhere by roadway if you’re in the snow-battered regions is foolhardy unless the trip is essential.  If there’s one thing I learned living in D.C., when the snow does fall in Washington it’s wise to not get into your car, because people who live in places where snow is rare just don’t know how to drive in it.  Why expose yourself to the possibility that the person trying to navigate a multi-ton missile on icy, snow-covered roadways doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing?

From the news stories, it looks like Mother Nature won this round.

10 DUIs, Then Life

In Texas, a man who pleaded guilty to his 10th DUI offense was sentenced to life in prison.  Is that sentence excessive?  After all, the driver wasn’t acting with the intent to harm anyone.

I don’t think such sentences are excessive.  There’s no doubt that driving while drunk is dangerous to the public at large.  Thousands die every year from accidents involving drunk drivers.  And while people might argue that an initial offense deserves some leniency — because the person might not be aware of their blood alcohol levels, or the degree of their impairment, or the risks — you simply cannot justify repeated offenses.

drunkdriverThe Texas man who pled guilty to his 10th offense, for example, was found swerving back and forth and driving on the wrong side of the road.  He had served time for his prior offenses, in both Texas and Colorado, and he nevertheless admitted to police officers that he had consumed most of a bottle of whiskey found in his car and then getting behind the wheel.  A person like that simply has no regard for the safety of the general public, and is engaging in recidivist conduct that exposes his fellow citizens to unreasonable risk.  Indeed, you might consider the repeat offenses to be a kind of perverse cry for help.

Drunk driving is one of those areas where society has seen a sea change in prevailing views.  People used to make jokes about drunk drivers, and police officers used to escort the over-the-limit driver home, rather than taking them to jail.  No longer — and for good reason.  Drunk drivers who are repeat offenders are dangerous to themselves and to the rest of us.  When someone has had nine prior offenses and still has not learned their lesson, I have no problem with saying that they deserve to spend their life behind bars.

An Ancient Perspective On War

Why do human beings make war on each other?  It’s a question that has intrigued philosophers and scientists, poets and peasants for centuries.

A more interesting question, though, might be not why, but when — because figuring out when the mass killings began might help us to isolate why the human species fights wars in the first place.

prehistoric-skull-discovered-nataruk-kenya-reuters-640x480A recent archaeological dig indicates that war is, unfortunately, much more ancient than we might have suspected.  The find at Nataruk, Kenya, on the east coast of Africa, reveals a horrific battle between two tribes of hunter-gatherers that happened 10,000 years ago.  One band captured the other, tied them up, and ruthlessly slaughtered every man, woman and child, including a woman whose pregnancy was far advanced.  The 12 victims of the attack were shot with arrows, beaten, and suffered crushed skulls and broken necks.  Their bodies were then shoved into a lagoon, where they sank into sediment and were preserved, to be found and studied by modern-day scientists.

Modern wars have been blamed on religion, nationalism, ideology, and quests for political power and glory by ruthless leaders.  One school of thought — reflected in John Lennon’s Imagine — postulates that if those causes of conflict were somehow removed, people would live in peace.  But the find in Kenya undercuts that simple premise, because 10,000 years ago was before the development of towns and villages, much less nation states, before the development of agriculture that caused humans to settle and begin to accumulate wealth, before the development of any known organized religion, and before any of the other attributes of modern culture that are typically cited as the causes of war.

The slaughter on the banks of the lagoon long ago occurred between two roaming bands of hunter-gatherers on what must have been a fertile and sparsely populated plain, with plenty of food for everyone.  So, why the slaughter of an entire tribe, rather than the decision to reach an accord, share the land, and live in peace?  It may be that humans, as a species, are just predisposed to war — which is a sobering thought, indeed.

When Politicians And School Lunches Intersect

What a relief!  Senators in Washington, D.C. are working on legislation that will make school lunch tastier!

Can anyone imagine a more infernal combination than politicians and school lunches?  Each is supremely hellish in its own right; what depths of awfulness might be probed if they intersected?

20101025saladbarAnyone who has ever eaten a school lunch won’t forget the experience.  Hairy, fatty chicken, reheated “Johnny Marzetti,” hamburgers with the consistency of hockey pucks, flaccid, undercooked french fries — the painful mental images are still down there, lurking in the bleak, dark depths of your consciousness.  And yet, kids confronted with even those culinary catastrophes could choke them down.  Then, when Michelle Obama decided to strive to make school lunches healthier, the effort produced lunches so revolting that even hungry kids found them to be intolerable.  And now Senators, of all people, are going to try to make school lunches tastier?  Really?  We’re going to rely on Senators to decide what the burly, hairnetted lunch ladies are going to be ladling out to the unfortunate kids whose parents won’t pack them a lunch?

C’mon, people.  Give the school kids a break.  Feeding hungry kids a decent lunch is much too important to leave to members of the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body. Instead, why not have a responsible, representative body make the decision — like, say, the student council in every school that is going to have to eat this stuff?

 

Beards And Bacteria

Beards seem to be a source of endless fascination for medical researchers and health care reporters.  Ever since Peter Griffin grew a beard that served as home to a nest of birds on Family Guy, their prevailing view seems to be that male facial hair must be host to countless forms of microbial life and teeming with potential disease-causing agents.

bird-beard-peterSome stories contend that the coarser nature of beard hair makes it more likely to trap food particles, note that stroking beards can cause a transfer of germs, and offer helpful observations like “If someone [is] eating dairy products it can get stuck in their beard and become a bit rancid.”  In another recent incident, a microbiologist took swabbings from beards, pronounced himself appalled by the results, and provoked stories with leads like this one on the USA Today website:  “Beard hygiene is important unless you want to have the equivalent of a dirty toilet seat growing out of your face, according to a microbiologist who swabbed a bunch of beards and was shocked by the results.”

Makes you want to cringe any time you’re in the vicinity of some stranger with a rancid sour milk-scented hairy toilet seat on this face, doesn’t it?

So, speaking as a guy who’s had a beard for the last 20 years, it was refreshing to see a new bit of research that counters the notion that beards are germ-ridden potential public health disasters waiting to spread plague and illness throughout the population.  A study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection found that clean-shaven men are more than three times more likely to have a challenging form of infection-causing bacteria called MRSA (for methicillin-resistant staph aureus) on their cheeks than bearded guys, and also are more likely to have faces with staphylococcus aureus, which can cause skin and respiratory infections and food poisoning.

Why would this be true?  Researchers think that those two forms of bacteria might form colonies and breed in the microabrasions caused by men repeatedly scraping their faces with sharp objects (otherwise known as shaving).  And, even more intriguing, a separate analysis indicates that beards may be home to microbes that actually kill bacteria, which could lead to the development of new forms to antibiotics — which something that the world desperately needs because bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to the current array of antibiotics.

That’s right:  in the space of a single article, beards go from filthy petri dishes of lurking disease to the potential salvations of the human race!  I think I’ll celebrate by guzzling some dairy products and letting a few drops find a whiskery home.

All Alone

I’ve been reading The Martian by Andy Weir   Made into an Oscar-nominated movie that I haven’t yet seen, the book tells the story of Mark Watney, an astronaut on a Mars expedition who is injured and lost in a blistering sandstorm and presumed dead by his crewmates.  They leave because the sandstorm threatens to wreck their exit vehicle and their ability to get home, and Watney then finds himself abandoned on Mars, with no means of communicating with Earth.

The book’s careful recounting of Watney’s efforts to use the remnants of the expedition supplies to create water, grow food, and stay alive long enough to be rescued — and later, the discovery of NASA that he is still alive and the efforts to get him home before he starves — is riveting.  I can’t attest to the engineering and practical science involved in Watney’s development of soil capable of growing potatoes or his cannibalization of rovers to create a vehicle capable of a long-distance journey, but they have the ring of authenticity, and you can’t help but applaud his ingenuity.

the-martian-matt-damonAll of this occurs, though, against the backdrop of a bigger human drama:  a person left all alone on an alien planet, with no means of communicating to fellow members of his species, and always on the ragged edge of death from starvation or the hostile Martian environment. How would any person cope with such absolute solitude?  Watney establishes a journal to maintain a conversation of sorts, and he goes through the music, book, and TV selections left behind by his former crewmates — and pays the price by enduring disco music and the complete episodes of Three’s Company.   But even the syncopated efforts of the Bee Gees and feeble comedic antics of Jack Tripper and his roommates Chrissy and Janet, and the human interaction they reflect, are preferable to complete isolation.  In effect, the journal, the songs, and the TV shows are Watney’s version of Wilson, the volleyball who became Tom Hanks’ only companion on Cast Away.

Watney’s got a great sense of humor and a never say die mentality that allows him to deal with his predicament, but as you read the book you can’t help but wonder how you would deal with total abandonment on a desolate, alien planet — assuming, of course, that you had the botanical and engineering training that would allow you to survive using the same steps Watney followed.  After the initial zeal for trying to survive, how would you react after weeks and weeks of drudgery, with no actual communication or direct human interaction of any kind?  It’s hard to imagine that even good TV, music, and reading material could fill that void and allow you to maintain the positive attitude that would be essential to survival.  Most of us, I suspect, would just stop caring and give up.

“Read It Again, Daddy!”

When your children are long grown and out of the house, as ours are, you tend to cherish the memories of the days when the entire family was together and under one roof.  One of my favorite recollections from those days was of reading to the kids when they were toddlers, right before their bedtime.

Of course, the child-rearing experts will tell you that reading aloud to your children is an important method of establishing a strong connection with your kids, as you spend time on a common activity, sitting close together on a sofa, with no TV noise in the background or other distractions.  And the educational experts would tell you that, by reading aloud, the parent was directly showing the importance of reading and incentivizing the child to learn for himself how to decipher those words on the page.  All of those are no doubt true, but in reality we did it because . . . well, it was fun, and it became a family ritual, and human beings of all ages tend to like rituals that are enjoyable, besides.

slobodkina_caps_for_saleIn our household, as I suspect is true in every household, there were perennial favorites as the kids grew up.  Goodnight Moon.  The Runaway Bunny.  Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.  Corduroy.  Caps for Sale.  Green Eggs and Ham.  Stone Soup.  Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.  And, when the holidays came, How The Grinch Stole Christmas and A Christmas Carol.  We sat side by side and slowly turned the pages, looked at the beautiful pictures, and heard, once again, the familiar stories.  And as we read, and reread, these books that are written to be read aloud, our inner thespians emerged, and Moms and Dads would give the characters different voices and act out the stories, too.

I’m confident that you could hand me a copy of Caps for Sale — one of my favorites — and I would immediately fall back into reading it with the same rhythm and cadence and voices that I did 25 years ago, with the brown caps, and the blue caps, and the red caps on the very top.  There was a lot opportunity for a Dad to ham it up, too, with the angry, foot-stomping, fist-shaking cap seller saying, “You monkeys, you!  You must give me back my caps!”  And the naughty monkeys high up in the tree that went “tsst, tsst, tsst.”  The actors among us got immediate gratification when the audience inevitably said, “Read it again, Daddy!”  Of course, whether that enthusiastic response was due to the quality of my performance or a desire to avoid going to bed for just a while longer was never entirely clear.

Glenn Frey

Glenn Frey died today, of complications from a number of ailments.  He was a founding member of the Eagles who was involved in writing, and singing, some of their finest songs.  He also had a solo career that featured some great songs, like The Heat Is On and Smuggler’s Blues.

img_7517_zps7d4a93e4But, of course, Glenn Frey will always be associated with the Eagles.  Why not?  It was a group that pretty much defined the country rock genre that came to prominence in the early ’70s, and the music the band produced was so great that, when I was in high school, you couldn’t go to a friend’s house without hearing the Eagles.  (My best friend in high school liked to quote Eagles’ lyrics at moments of stress; when he was debating whether to ask a girl out on a date, “take another shot of courage” was one of his favorite lines.)  Peaceful Easy Feeling, Take It Easy, Tequila Sunrise, and Desperado were all classic songs that have stood the test of time.

My favorite Eagles album, though, was On The Border, which had a bit of a harder edge and featured great songs like Already Gone, James Dean, Ol’ 55, On The Border, and Good Day In Hell and then closed with Best of My Love.  In the summer of 1976, when I worked at a resort in Lake George, New York, On The Border was the album of choice, constantly playing in the staff residence.  It was well suited to some beer-soaked crooning at the end of a long work day.  After On The Border, the Eagles music seemed to become a bit more commercialized, and it didn’t quite have the same appeal for me.

It’s strange that Glenn Frey’s death would follow so closely on the heels of David Bowie’s passing.  In their own ways, they epitomized different points on the wide spectrum of rock music during the early ’70s, with Bowie being the greatest practitioner of glam rock and the Eagles staking out their claim to the country rock territory.  Through the diversity of their music, both showed what rock music could be.

 

Small Talk, Big Talk

The New York Times recently published an interesting article pleading for an end to “small talk.”  Written by a man who is dealing with the end of an important relationship and a plunge back into the dating world, it tells of an experience in Costa Rica that convinced him that we should focus more on “big talk,” and his successful experiments in doing so on first dates and, most recently, in the workplace.

The thrust of the article is that small talk — talking about your commute, or the weather, or the local sports team — is a meaningless time-waster, and everyone knows it.  Why not move directly to the big stuff, and really learn something important about the person you are talking to?  So the writer has taken to asking first date questions like “What’s the most in love you’ve ever felt?” and “What place most inspired you and why?” and, during a business trip, asking a new colleague “Why did you fall in love with your wife?”

Businessteam at a meetingIf this is a new trend in social interaction in America, I’m glad I’m happily married.  I’m also glad I don’t work with this guy.

I happen to think that small talk serves an extremely useful social purpose.  Some people are eager to share intimate details about their lives with the world at large, and no doubt would welcome intrusive personal questions from somebody they just met, but most of us don’t.  If I were on a business trip with a brand new colleague and they asked me a question about how I fell in love with my wife, I would find such a question incredibly presumptuous and off-putting, and I wouldn’t answer it.  Sorry, but it’s going to take a while for me to decide whether a workplace colleague will end up a close personal friend.  And it’s hard for me to believe that at least some women who were asked “What’s the most in love you’ve ever felt?” on a first date wouldn’t groan inwardly, question whether they’ve been hooked up with a creepy potential stalker, and head for the exits as quickly and gracefully as possible.

Small talk allows you to get to know a person before you decide whether to broach weightier topics.  Sure, the substance of the small talk might be meaningless, but the nature of the small talk can tell you a lot about the person across the table.  Does the person have a sense of humor?  Does the person seem thoughtful or thoughtless, smart or dumb, well-mannered or crude?  Is the person so self-absorbed and egotistical that they end up talking entirely about himself?

And that last point is an important one.  People who immediately ask questions about “big talk” topics clearly want to share their own deeply personal experiences; they no doubt ask the pointed questions with the expectation that they will get the same question in return and then launch into their own stories.  There’s a fair amount of conceit in that; the lives of complete strangers just aren’t that compelling.  Small talk prevents me from being awkwardly inundated by the intimate affairs and feelings of people I don’t know.

I come down strongly in favor of small talk.

What If They Gave A Debate And Nobody Watched?

Tonight, at 9 p.m. on NBC, Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will square off in a primetime debate between the two leading contenders for the Democratic nomination for President.

Will you be watching?  If so, you might not have much company.

rtx1zf68-1024x696The ratings for the Democratic presidential candidate debates have, well, suffered by comparison to the ratings for the Republican contests.  The most recent Democratic debate, on ABC in December, attracted 6.7 million viewers.  The Republican debate in December on CNN, in contrast, got 18 million viewers, and earlier debates among the GOP field pulled in 25 million and 24 million viewers.  The most recent Republican debate, earlier this week on the Fox Business Network, was watched by 11 million Americans.

Why are the Democratic debates getting trounced?  Some simply attribute it to the Donald Trump factor, reasoning that his supporters watch the debates because they like what he has to say, his detractors watch hoping he puts his foot in his mouth, and non-political people watch because he’s entertaining.  Others think the Republican debates simply have more uncertainty and drama than the Democratic contests, where it was widely believed that the debates are just a formality on Hillary Clinton’s inevitable march to the nomination.

Still others (like the Sanders campaign) note that the Democratic debates have been scheduled on Saturday nights, traditionally not a heavy TV-watching period, and argue the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign may have made those arrangements specifically to keep people from hearing what Bernie Sanders has to say.  It is weird that the debates have been set for dates and times that aren’t exactly prime viewing periods, and it seems at least plausible that the Clinton campaign’s ultra-cautious, play-it-safe approach was a factor in the scheduling.  If so, that’s kind of strange, when you think about it.  Either the Clinton people think Hillary can’t out-debate a self-declared Socialist, or — perhaps more likely — they think the voters in Democratic primaries and caucuses are so liberal that Sander’s socialist positions will be attractive if the likely primary voters just find out what he is saying.

If that’s the Clinton camp’s strategy, is it working?  It’s not entirely clear.  Sanders apparently has closed the gap in Iowa and is doing well in New Hampshire, although Clinton has increased her lead in national polls. But the national polls really don’t mean a lot when it comes to primaries and caucuses, and if Sanders can pull upsets in Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s not hard to imagine Clinton’s big national lead, and the sense of inevitability that her supporters have tried to project, melting away in favor of the new guy.  In fact, the New York Times is reporting that some members of the Clinton campaign — including Bill Clinton — think it was a mistake to not come out swinging against Sanders at the outset.  Part of a more aggressive approach, of course, would have meant holding debates at times when people might actually be inclined to tune in.

So, will you be watching tonight, or not?  After all, a new episode of Downton Abbey is airing on PBS.

Chimes In The Foyer

IMG_0135Today I woke up early, for a Sunday, and went downstairs to make some coffee.  As I padded barefoot across the floor, thinking about how cold it is supposed to get, a familiar sound kept me company.  It was the gentle chimes of the wall clock in our foyer, letting me know that 6:30 had arrived.

We inherited this clock from Kish’s Mom, Faith.  It’s a beautiful piece of craftsmanship and design, inside and out.  I like the Roman numerals on the round clock face, the filigreed hands, and the cap on the top of the clock (called, technically, a bonnet), with the split pediment that looks like a bird’s wings and the round finial at the center.  The clock still functions perfectly and is wound with a key — a job that is reserved exclusively for Kish, who knows how to do it properly, because you don’t want to overwind an old clock.  But when the clock has been wound, and the hands are moving and the pendulum is swinging, you can see why “moving like clockwork” is synonymous with flawless functioning.

But what I like best about the clock is the sounds it makes.  The pendulum moves with a very audible tick-tock, and the chimes that mark the hour and half-hour are gentle and subdued.  Those are soothing sounds in the wee, dark hours of the early morning, as you sip your coffee and read your book and wait for the rest of the family to awaken.