For a limited time only, I am offering a free e-version of Requiem for Ahab. E-mail me at gjlau [at] hotmail.com to request a copy in your preferred e-reader format. It's my way of saying thanks for stopping by.

July 21, 2014

My Little Town

Not too long ago, I made a quick visit back to my hometown of Cohasset, located on the shoreline of Massachusetts Bay, about twenty miles south of Boston. The occasion was my older sister's birthday. I have three sisters, but my older sister and I are half a generation distant from my younger sisters, resulting in a tidal pool of memories unique to those years when it was just the two of us.

We spent our childhood on Stockbridge Street, a winding lane just barely wide enough for two cars to pass, dense-packed with houses perched on the rocky outcrops that define New England. Downtown Cohasset was a short walk from where we lived and the weather was free of the oppressive humidity that usually prevailed in early July, so it was natural that we would spend some time during my visit taking in the sights.

As we walked around our old haunts, it struck me that we weren't much concerned with the shops that lined South Main Street or the current residents of Stockbridge Street. Rather, our eyes were focused a half-century back, looking for the town we knew growing up. The present did not much hold our interest that day, other than as a reminder of what once was. We sought instead to locate the metes and bounds of a town no longer visible to the naked eye, a town that lived on only in memory.

Philosophers and scientists struggle to define reality and the passage of time which marks our progress through it.  Einstein wove time and space together into a single fabric -- all there, all the time ... so to speak. Some argue that reality is only a product of our perception. We see what we think we see. Others say that when we aren't looking, reality isn't there ... that the things we think of as real are only there when we perceive them.

Maybe that's how the past works. It's there when you look at it, waiting to be given form by our perception of it. Faulkner wrote that the past isn't dead; it isn't even past. It certainly felt that way as we walked the streets of Cohasset, clusters of memories assailing our senses like the fragrance from the honeysuckle that grew in the field across the street from the house on Stockbridge Street.

It may be true that time only moves in one direction ... forward. But I feel within me different drummers beating to different times. There are moments when I hear the distant beat of days gone by coming through more clearly than the present. Or maybe it's just that I have learned to listen for it, to linger in the moment when the orchestra conductor in my head taps his baton to get my attention and then begins to play a memory I once knew all the words to, but can now only recall the melody. It is enough.

May 29, 2014

Privacy

Two big stories -- Edward Snowden's release of government secrets and Elliot Rodger's deadly rampage in California -- raise serious questions about privacy. Where do we draw the line between our right as individuals to live free from undue governmental intrusion and the rights of the many -- acting through the agency of the government -- to protect themselves from the acts of an individual (or group) intent on doing harm to others?

Maybe the better question to ask is not how much freedom are we willing to give up to feel safe, but how much risk are we willing to take to feel free. That used to be an easier question when violence was mainly the result of criminal activity or crimes of passion. Most of us can live with that level of risk. It gets harder when you throw in cold-blooded attacks that have no basis other than hate, no purpose other than to inflict maximum casualties.

Edward Snowden came to see the electronic spying carried out by NSA as fundamentally unconstitutional. After his attempts to raise questions through channels proved fruitless, he loaded up a few thumb drives worth of sensitive documents and fled the country, where he began the selective release of information aimed at casting light on the extensive nature of NSA's data-gathering operations. Clearly he broke the law, but equally clearly he disclosed a range of activities that have provoked an intense national debate on just how far the government can and should go to gather information that might prevent another terrorist attack.

An equally intense debate has focused on the events leading up to Elliot Rodger's killing spree that resulted in six people dead and several more wounded. This young man was a walking time bomb, no question about it. His family knew it, as did his therapist. Both tried to warn police. But strict laws prevent the detention of an individual merely because he might do something bad. Prosecutors say their hands are tied by the law, which basically puts the decision to declare oneself a danger to society or oneself in the hands of the person under suspicion.

The need for some level of intelligence gathering, electronic or otherwise, seems obvious. And it would be nice to think that anyone mentally ill to the point of being dangerous would somehow be confined to a treatment facility until the danger passed. I remain conflicted on both issues.

Much as I am reluctant to admit it, Snowden's basic contention has merit. He argues that the NSA spying was and is profoundly unconstitutional and that it was his duty and his right to bring it to light. In this case, I think he was right to blow the whistle. That said, secrecy remains a vital part of intelligence work -- their right to privacy, if you will -- and we can't have people willy-nilly deciding that certain secrets shouldn't be kept.

As for the horrors of public mass shootings that seem to come almost daily now, other than the obvious issue of selling guns pretty much to anyone who walks through the door, I have no answers. The situations are as unique and as complicated as our humanity. I think we can all agree that sending cops to do a "welfare check" is clearly not adequate. Putting people in institutions just because we think they might be a danger to themselves or others is a civil liberties nightmare.  Singling out those who seek therapy doesn't seem the way to go, either. Maybe we just need to listen harder to what families have to say. If your own mother thinks you are a danger, then that should tell you something.

In both cases, drawing the line is proving difficult, maybe impossible. Maybe that is as it should be. These are not easy questions, so it is unreasonable to expect easy answers. That won't stop the politicians and the pundits from looking for the perfect sound bite, especially in an election year.

May 4, 2014

Odd Jobs

I was thinking about some of the jobs I had as a kid. My first job was as a caddie. We would haul one or two bags under the hot sun for four hours, all for the princely sum of $2.50 for a single, $5 for a double. We had a caddy shack where the pro would come to assign us work. I'm sure he dreaded looking in there and seeing me as the only one left. Truth be told, I totally sucked at caddying. I could never see where the balls went. I wasn't really strong enough to carry two bags, not to mention that I had to ride my bike several miles to get to the golf course. This would be when I was maybe 12 or 13 years old.

My first real job was working at the local grocery store when I was 16. It started out as a Tedeschis's but was eventually bought out and became a Stop and Shop, at least that's how I remember it. I was paid something like $1.25 an hour to run a register that was little more than an adding machine with a few extra buttons to indicate the department--grocery, produce, meat, whatever. The prices were stamped on the cans, but a lot of them were missing, plus you had to know all the produce prices. Bar codes were not in common use back then. We cashiers just had to know the prices, and I'll tell you, we moved people through as fast or faster than today. Just saying. (I continued doing this in college, working at the Safeway on Connecticut Avenue, a wealthy part of town filled with eccentric people. Don't get me started.)

The summer after I graduated high school, I worked in Boston for an insurance company. My dad knew the Vice-President of the company -- he could have been the President or the Treasurer, I can't remember -- and he got me a job in the billing department, which consisted of a very big room filled on one end with large tables that held thousands of monthly payments from customers and on the other with huge punched card sorting machines presided over by a guy named Jerry. This was pretty high tech stuff for the day. Punched cards were the transitional technology between completely paper-based operations and today's computer-driven business world. The thinking behind the use of punched paper cards was what created today's modern programs.

By far my weirdest job--if you don't count Vietnam as a job--was between freshman and sophomore year of college when I worked as a night janitor for a hospital in Dorchester. For those of you not familiar with the Boston area, Dorchester is really not the kind of place you want to be wandering around alone at night, particularly if you are a white bread boy from Smallville. I took the subway to and from Quincy, getting to work around 6 o'clock and leaving at 11 o'clock.

Two memories stand out. First, I had to clean the rest rooms. I would go into the Men's Room and things would be pretty much okay, the normal results of a day of usage. Then I would do the Ladies' Room. The first time I opened the door, I had a total OMG moment. The place looked like the aftermath of a tornado, paper and trash everywhere. It was like that each time I cleaned it, a real eye-opener. Second, I had to master the buffer, a cantankerous device with a mind very much it's own, something akin to riding a bull. I would grasp the handles firmly, squeeze on the levers that activated it, and the next thing I knew I was bouncing it off the walls. Eventually, I became kinda sorta okay with it, which helped when I went into the Army. You definitely didn't want to be bouncing that puppy off the walls with a drill sergeant anywhere in the neighborhood.

What got me thinking was the casualness with which my parent's dispatched me on these jobs, especially the one in Dorchester. I mean that was a dangerous place, as you would have quickly grasped had you been with me the night I walked the wrong way and ended up on a very dark and very deserted street. I guess my parents had to do that and much more when they were growing up during the Depression. Maybe they were oblivious to the risk, or maybe they understood that without risk you don't grow as a person. I wonder if today's helicopter parents would make the same choice for their kids. I hope so.

May 2, 2014

A New Normal?

At some point, single events become a trend. The dots on a graph form an arrow when you connect them, an arrow pointing the way towards a new normal. You see that the future really is now.

Climate scientists are reluctant to say that we have reached a new normal, but you don't have to be a scientist to feel that our climate has changed, and not for the better. One of the hallmark predictions of climate change is extreme weather. I think we can safely put that one in the "TRUE" column. Epic rainfalls, massive fires, prolonged droughts, polar vortexes, tropical-intensity heat ... you name it, we've had it.

Suppose I'm right. Suppose this is the new normal. What does that mean? Well, the first thing you need to understand is that the climate isn't going to stop changing any time soon. A few decades from now, these will be the good old days. Today's new normal will give way to another new normal that very likely will be worse ... potentially much worse. Weather records have been falling at well, a record rate. That will continue.

And the costs will keep on rising. First, damage from increasingly intense weather events will continue to mount.  Second, at some point we will begin to actually deal with the problem. Coastal cities will get serious about holding the rising seas back. Governments will finally start forcing serious cutbacks of greenhouse gas emissions. New energy sources will need to be developed.

That's the plan for the developed and emerging nations. The poor nations will just get poorer. Millions of subsistence farmers and fishermen will be displaced. God knows how many people will die from starvation an re-emergent diseases. Populations will be on the move. Local wars over ever-scarcer resources will escalate.

What can we do? Given that it's too late and we haven't even done too little, you'd have to believe that it would take a massive shift in attitudes and resources to forestall complete catastrophe in favor of severe dislocations. Scientists keep telling us there is still time to avoid the worst. I'd like to believe that. But ask yourself, is there any sign that governments and the governed are ready to do what it takes?

Policymakers talk of mitigation and adaptation. The mitigation ship has pretty much sailed. That leaves adaptation. This lede from a 2010 article in The Economist pretty much sums it up: "Global action is not going to stop climate change. The world needs to look harder at how to live with it." I would recommend this article to anyone interested in seeing what it will take on a global and local level to live with climate change. And remember, this was written in 2010. It's not like we didn't see this coming.

April 28, 2014

Déjà Vu All Over Again

One person who might benefit from the crisis in the Ukraine is Neville Chamberlain. He has been scorned for his "appeasement" of Germany after Hitler annexed Austria in March 1938. Hitler followed that by stirring up unrest in Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland, all in the name of protecting ethnic Germans, a process that culminated in the Munich Agreement in September of that year, after which Chamberlain declared "peace for our time." By March of 1939 Hitler was rolling through Prague, having taken control of all of Czechoslovakia. Well, it's déjà vu all over again, and the current crop of leaders isn't faring much better than Chamberlain, at least so far.

Chamberlain's big mistake was hoping that Hitler would be satisfied with the Sudetenland. Unfortunately for Chamberlain and the rest of Europe, Hitler had larger ambitions. He wanted to recreate Germany as it was before being sliced and diced by the victors after World War I. First came the annexation of Austria. Then came the seizure of the Sudetenland to protect ethnic Germans. Europe and Great Britain couldn't agree on what to do, their indecisiveness giving Hitler the green light to grab off the rest of Czechoslovakia.

Now we have Vladimir Putin, a man who says he is just looking for a little respect. He bristles at attempts to expand NATO and the European Union into countries that historically have served as a buffer between Russia and Europe. Like Chamberlain, who felt that some of Hitler's concerns in the Sudetenland were justified, I think a lot of people get that Russia doesn't like the expansion of Europe's sphere of influence into adjoining territories. And honestly, when trouble broke out in the Ukraine over just that issue, I don't think anyone was shocked when Putin grabbed off the very low hanging fruit of Crimea, given it's history and strategic importance to Russia.

The big question is whether that will satisfy Putin. Like Hitler, Putin has a grand vision for his country. He talks of rebuilding "historic Russia" and protecting the ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. You would think Ukrainians would have had enough of Mother Russia after Stalin starved seven million of them to death. But then again, the current crop of ethnic Russians came to the Ukraine to rebuild the population after Stalin's ethnic cleansing operations and the resulting famines.

So Putin plays a cagey game of lies and distortions, speaking out of both sides of his mouth with a fluency not seen since the days when Henry Kissinger ran the State Department. He treats the legitimate government of Ukraine as if it is an occupying force. He foments unrest while talking peace. In the meantime, caught up in the spirit of bringing back the good old days, pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists have been going after the Jews and the gypsies. I've always felt the typical middle European was just a half-step away from storming the streets with pitch forks and axes.

Like their fathers before them, today's American and European leaders wring their hands and issue stern denunciations. The main strategy seems to be to make Putin's rich friends suffer, in the hope that they will pressure him to ease up. Next will come a war of words on Twitter, no doubt. It's true, the world is in a different place today. We are more global. Russia is more vulnerable to economic sanctions. But history shows that people will eagerly drink the Kool-Aid if they feel they are on a mission to restore greatness. Maybe we should just "friend" Vlad on Facebook. If we give him enough "likes," then perhaps he'll stop being such a grumpy face.

While Putin moves pieces around on the chessboard, we sit and wait for ... what? World War III? Oh no, that could never happen. We are far too advanced for that. Surely, men of reason will surely find a way to appease ... check that ... negotiate a settlement. I'm sure Mr. Putin will not call our bluff and seize eastern Ukraine. And if he does, that surely will be the end of his ambitions. You folks in Poland and the Baltic Sea can go back to your homes. Nothing to worry about here. We will have peace in our time.

April 1, 2014

Climate: No Change

Back in 2009, there was a big UN-sponsored climate change conference held in Copenhagen. All the countries, great and small, would gather round and divvy up the globe into must-do, ought-to-do, and don't-have-to-do lists for reducing carbon emissions. To no one's surprise, the lists varied depending upon perceived national self-interest.

Those who produced the most carbon emissions wanted to do the least. Those on the front lines of climate change -- usually poorer countries relying on the good will of others -- sought immediate action. Emerging nations wanted to avoid anything that might impede their emergence. The conference ended in disarray, with each group blaming the other groups for failing to agree on anything other than to disagree.

Nothing has changed since that conference. Zero progress has been made towards eliminating what scientists decry as the single most significant threat facing humanity. Here is what I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the failure at Copenhagen:
"So where does that leave the rest of us? Pretty much on our own, I’d say. It is every man, woman and child for himself or herself. That can mean ... thinking real hard about what it might be like to live with the kind of problems you get with climate change: people on the move, scarcities of food and water, extreme weather, rising rates of disease."

A recently released U.N. Report entitled "Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability" stresses these same problems, no longer potential but very real. A summary of the report in the New York Times states:
“Throughout the 21st century, climate-change impacts are projected to slow down economic growth, make poverty reduction more difficult, further erode food security, and prolong existing and create new poverty traps, the latter particularly in urban areas and emerging hot spots of hunger,” the report declared.
The report also cited the possibility of violent conflict over land, water or other resources, to which climate change might contribute indirectly “by exacerbating well-established drivers of these conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks.”
... climate change is not just a problem of the distant future, but is happening now.
We are in deep trouble. Nothing has happened to reduce carbon emissions. Nothing has been done to prepare for the human and natural catastrophes that are coming our way. By every measure, things have gotten palpably worse. What was unthinkable just a few short years ago is now looming on the horizon line of our lifetimes.

Governments have let one window of opportunity after another slam shut. At this point, it would take drastic measures to get us to the lesser zone of risk, and there is virtually no political will in sight to make this happen. Instead, governmental leaders at the national level continue to be incapable of dealing with this problem. Local governments are doing what they can, but a problem like global warming requires a global solution.

Meanwhile, we the people must face a hard truth. We are on our own. There really is nothing to do at this point but to begin building our Arks in whatever way seems to make the most sense.

March 13, 2014

Does the United States of America Still Make Sense?

I was listening to a show on NPR about education in Finland. Finland is about the size of Minnesota. Like Lake Wobegon, the Finnish children are all above average, even though they don't start school until the age of 7. Finland consistently outranks the United States in math, reading and science.

Krista Kiuru, Finland's minister of education, talks about the "Finnish way," which includes day care and  preschool for every child under 7. This isn't a goal; it is a right, guaranteed under Finnish law. And the preschool teachers are college graduates who teach a curriculum which meshes exactly with Finland's National Curriculum Guidelines. We are talking horizontal and vertical integration to a degree unknown in this country, where textbooks are still determined by what the Texas State Board of Ed deems to be suitable. Really?

Okay, so the Finnish people pony up a bundle in taxes to pay for this. That would turn off a lot of Americans. But I'll bet there are some folks out there, especially parents just starting their families, who think this looks pretty darned good.

Could it happen here in America? Not a chance. No way, no how is Congress ever going to pass such a national system. Free day care? Free preschool? Seriously? And you got this idea while listening to NPR? Okay, next!

This got me thinking. What if we weren't a United States of America? What if were were a union of several totally autonomous regions, countries, area, ... call it what you want? Don't you think that the folks up in New England might be interested in the Finnish way? Ar maybe the Left Coast?

Suppose were weren't one big tent of a country? Suppose we were a territory consisting of geopolitical divisions that reflected a much higher degree of consistency than we have today? To some degree we have this with our system of states. But we also have the supremacy clause, which says that the Federal government prevails in any clash between Federal and state policy.

Then there is the matter of scale. Some states are as big as countries, granted, but there are smaller states who would benefit from confederation with like-minded bigger states. Somewhere between E pluribus and unum, there has to be a sweet spot: just big enough to be able to support the wishes of the populace, but just small enough to ensure a high degree of homogeneity in terms of political philosophies.

I'm not saying we would eliminate entirely the concept of a Federal level of government. I think of it as more of a tweak to the system, which after all was created in vastly different times and circumstances. Remember, that the country envisioned by the founding Fathers was the thirteen colonies along the Eastern seaboard, not an empire that spread from sea to shining sea. So yeah, I could still see a role for the Federal government, but one perhaps more strictly limited to the original intent, defense and certain common issues that require cooperation across internal boundaries.

This begins a series of pieces exploring this thought to its logical or illogical conclusion. For now, just ask yourself this question: When you first got what I was driving at, was your reaction "Hell, no" or "Hmm." I'm betting that there are some aspects of this idea that have an appeal, be it education or the environment, or the  business of business.

Or maybe this is just another way of exploring the dysfunctional nation we have become, bacause that is exactly what we are. The good old U.S. of A., the country that got things done, has become gridlock central. If we don't do something about it soon, we will end up on the ash heap of history, just like other failed empires. Think it couldn't happen? Think again.