The Death Of “Ming”

It was just a clam, living peacefully in the briny deep off the coast of Iceland.  Its existence was simple and unremarkable.  It siphoned water in and filtered it for food and oxygen, as clams do.  It was content and as happy as, well, a clam.

But this clam was a bit different.  It had lived for centuries, capably performing the simple functions it needed to survive.  It first began its life sometime around the year 1500, when Henry VII was the King of England and Nicolaus Copernicus was getting ready to announce his theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun and not the other way around.  The clam lived in those cold Icelandic waters, not bothering a soul, as Shakespeare wrote his epic plays, as Newton developed the theory of gravity, as the American Revolution and the French Revolution changed the world, as wars were fought and genocides raged and fashions changed and railroads and motor cars and airplanes and rocket ships were invented.

Then, in 2006, the clam’s fortune changed.  “Researchers” found the clam and realized that it was incredibly old.  They called it “Ming,” after the Chinese dynasty in power when the clam first came into the world, even though the clam really didn’t have that name, or any name.  The researchers didn’t know precisely how old the clam was, however, and were of an inquisitive mindset — so they concluded that they should open the clam to try to precisely determine its true age.  The clam was not consulted in this decision.

In the process of opening the clam to satisfy their curiosity, the scientists killed the clam — which may have been the oldest living creature in the world.  Sometimes, science is just like that.  Sometimes, curiosity kills the clam.

The Incest Avoidance App

If you want to know whether you are dating your cousin, there’s an app for that — in Iceland, at least.

It turns out that Iceland, in addition to having the most affirmatively unappealing country name in the world, has an issue with inadvertent incest.  It is a small, isolated, sparsely populated land where the residents have lived for thousands of years.  As a result, the forces of nature dictate that most of the 330,000 citizens share some common ancestry.  But what if you want to make absolutely certain that you avoid consorting with someone with uncomfortably close degrees of sanguinity?  Fortunately, Google is offering an Android app that allows Icelanders to use their smart phones to access the Book of Icelander — an ancestry log that includes some 720,000 names — to determine their exact relations with that attractive person they met at work.

This is the kind of practical app that not only facilitates the avoidance of awkward social situations, but also could have changed the course of classical literature.  If only Oedipus had that helpful smartphone app!

No word yet on when the app will be rolled out in Appalachia.

Why I’m Voting For Mitt Romney And Paul Ryan

On Tuesday, I’ll walk in to the polling booth at the church in New Albany where we vote and touch the screen for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.  I recognize that that decision won’t come as much of a surprise for loyal readers of our family blog.  I think it’s only fair to explain why, if only to add one more person’s perspective to the national conversation about this election.

In my view, the most important issue confronting our country is our federal deficit and national debt — the latter of which has passed the $16 trillion mark.  I care about other issues, of course, but I view our debt as the most fundamental issue of all because it involves basic concepts of national sovereignty.  Our debt is so large, and has existed for so long, that we tend to think of it as a kind of abstraction . . . but every dollar of that debt is a real obligation of our country, reflected in an instrument sold by the U.S. treasury to a willing buyer who will be paid a specified interest rate.  With each additional bit of borrowing, we give those people from whom we are borrowing leverage that may allow them to dictate terms — at first, the terms of the debt instruments, by insisting on higher interest payments, and then eventually the terms of how our government operates, by dictating whether we need to adopt austerity measures in how our country operates if we hope to obtain additional loans.  At that point, our national sovereignty is at stake.

We know this to be the case, because over the past few years we have seen it occur in Iceland and Ireland, and in Greece and Portugal.  Those countries borrowed irresponsibly and saw the interest rates on their debt instruments rise as investors became increasingly concerned that the debts might not be repaid and demanded higher rates as the price for accepting that risk.  And, ultimately, outside forces — the International Monetary Fund, European Union bankers, and others — went to each of those formerly sovereign nations and told them what they needed to do if they hoped to continue to borrow money.  Those governments accepted the conditions and agreed to the austerity measures imposed by outsiders because they had no choice.

I don’t want to see that happen here — yet, over the last four years, we have seen the United States move down that very same path, with annual trillion-dollar deficits that have taken our total debt past the unimaginable sum of $16 trillion.  We also passed a significant milestone on that road to perdition when our national credit rating was downgraded.  I don’t think that downgrade has received the attention it deserves.  Imagine!  Credit rating agencies presuming to raise questions about the credit of the leader of the free world, a country so stable that its currency gave rise to the now-antiquated phrase “sound as a dollar.”  But the ratings agencies are so presumptuous, and we are kidding ourselves if we think our many lenders aren’t also carefully considering our credit-worthiness.

I don’t want to wake up one morning and see that our political leaders are having to dance to the tune called by teams of grey-suited bankers from the IMF, or China, or Germany.  If that happens — and if we continue to rack up trillion-dollar annual deficits, it inevitably will — we shouldn’t kid ourselves about what it would mean.  Does anyone think federal funding of NPR or contraceptives, to identify only two of the issues being discussed during this campaign, would survive under the austerity measures forced upon us by creditors?  Does anyone think the bankers would hesitate to require fundamental changes in entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare?  Does anyone think our country could continue to function as a world leader, and a force for good, as a debtor nation struggling to deal with its overwhelming credit problems?

I recognize this is a dire scenario, and some believe it just can’t happen here.  My response is to look at what has happened in Europe, to countries that have just been ahead of us on the irresponsible fiscal policy curve.  Their experience shows, I think, that it can happen here — and it will, if we don’t do something about it.  I’m too proud of this country and what it has accomplished to let that happen without trying to change course.

I don’t think President Obama places a high priority on grappling with our deficit and debt problems.  He’s talked about them, but his actions speak louder than his words.  He continues to propose budgets that would result in trillion-dollar debts for years into the future, and continues to propose the creation of new federal agencies and federal programs as the solution for every problem.  He hasn’t used the bully pulpit of the presidency to encourage Congress to act.  I’ve seen nothing from President Obama to indicate that his performance over the next four years on this crucial issue of national sovereignty would be any different than his performance over the past four years.

Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, on the other hand, do focus on the issue of our deficit and our debt and have proposed approaches.  I think they understand the fundamental nature of the problem and would make working with Congress to address the issues in a meaningful way their top priority.  I want someone in the White House who will tackle the debt problem, not let us drift into catastrophe.  That’s why I’m voting for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.