Monthly Archives: November 2011

Will Wishing Make it So?

We are all wishing that some American is, at this very moment, creating the next new thing and that it will send the American economy off on a new round of productivity and affluence. Not a bad thing to wish for, eh? However I don’t think we can just order up a plate of innovation. Perhaps innovation happens when it happens. You can try to create a climate that will percolate innovative thought. What qualities came together in Austria, Germany and other European nations just before World War II that accelerated the evolution of our understanding of physics? Was it a nexus of the right people and the right moment? Could it have happened at any moment given the right people or could it have been any people given the right moment? The same can be said for the huge innovations in personal computing that happened, mostly on the West Coast, in America.
Did a series of mini innovations produce an incredibly high level of potential energy in the field of information processing that would have coalesced into progress no matter who was involved or where it occurred? The availability of certain people, people who zero in on a problem and will not let it go, people who worry at a problem to the exclusion of almost all else in their lives, may be absolutely essential. If that is true, it is even more difficult to make a burning desire for an important innovation, cause an innovation to be called forth.
 Do the factors that make an incubator for creativity have to come together by chance or can a culture “build” an incubator? Maybe we can work on one approach, while we wait for the other. For example, will ending the space shuttle program and throwing space travel into the private sphere for a while bring about huge strides in astrophysics or will the space program simply loll around until we have enough money for government to renew its involvement? Time will tell.
I can’t wait though. Please hurry up.
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Governing Backwards

I am still finding it hard to believe that we are placing the nation’s business in a state of suspension while we wait for the 2012 election. It is one of the most astonishing things I have experienced in my lifetime and not in a good way; as if we can not walk and chew gum at the same time. We are leaving our economy to heal itself which it might just do but that process will be very slow. So, in other words, while the economy may improve in strength without intervention, it will do so at a glacial pace.
Economic growth could perhaps be goaded into a higher gear by taking some of the actions our experts have been talking about. In order to do what is required we need a spirit of cooperation which is sadly missing right now in America. Daily we are reminded that the situation is dire and needs to be addressed immediately, yet we are forced to adopt a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude. What can we do to get things moving?
 Meanwhile, we are not only dealing with the difficulties we are experiencing in the American economy; we are also suffering tangential damage from the economic instability in Europe. We are trying to compete with developing nations who are growing at faster rates than we are and who are rewriting global economic rules and realities.
I am ashamed that we now live in an American where getting elected has become more important than governing and I am afraid that by the time the election wraps up in 2012, we will be in a much tougher position relative to solving our economic issues. This is the most frustrating, most backward way to practice democracy and we are being a terrible role model for the emerging Arab nations who, we hope, will be forming new  democratic governments.

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To Tax or Not to Tax

To tax or not to tax, that is the question.  Well the question is about whether to raise taxes on the wealthy, you know, that question everyone has been going round and round about. It’s so awful that we would want to pick on the poor rich people. Actually I don’t think we did until they started to call us lazy, shiftless, parasites living off the rich and the federal government. That was uncalled for and a bit hard to take. Fairness is what we really want; at least most of us can accept the things that happen if they seem fair. But to ask all of us to give up our security by cutting back on our Social Security and our health care without asking the wealthy to pitch in does not strike us as fair, perhaps, because it isn’t. If we have to feel the pain, which I am not at all convinced we do, then all Americans should feel the pain.
Sunday a commentator suggested that seniors have an unfair advantage because we have AARP on our side. Excuse me – AARP equals Grover Norquist – I think not. Conscience tells us that we cannot suspend or drastically cut social security to current recipients, or at least it should. We do not really need AARP to tell us that cutting off old people is wrong. If you take a few more tax dollars from very rich people who made more money than they should have because of regulations and laws which have favored them, they will not be homeless and destitute. If you take social security from current recipients many will have their incomes fall to well below the poverty line. And please don’t even pretend that all these seniors can get jobs. Most got fired when they were 55 or 60 because someone felt they were too old or that they made too much money. I bet many of these employers missed the expertise of these seasoned and loyal workers.
I cannot believe that we are still even discussing who should feel the pain when it is obvious that if it is not everyone, it should be no one. Insisting that cutting taxes for the rich will produce jobs just does not fly. Keep your old stinky money, but hands off our benefits. We’ll just let American debt pile up until it buries us. Wish we were done with you; wish you had a change of heart and turned into human beings. I’d like to say bye-bye but I’m sure we’ll have to have this talk again.

Snippets 3

New Mars Rover
The new Mars Rover will launch today, Saturday, between 10:02 and 11:45 am. It will take the Rover 8 ½ months to get to the surface of Mars. This Rover, which cost $2.5 billion and is named “Curiosity”,  has six wheels and one arm. It is a mobile laboratory that will spend two years looking for evidence of whether Mars is or was suitable for microbial life. (this info is from Fox news) I am watching the lift off “into the wild blue yonder” as I write this.
The Next Space Telescope
The James Webb Telescope is being assembled as we speak and should be ready for launch in 2018. It is a large infrared-optimized space telescope and will be sent further into space than the Hubble telescope, or 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. NASA hopes to find the first galaxies that formed in the early universe connecting the Big Bang to our own Milky Way Galaxy. You can follow the telescope as it is built at http://www.jwst.nasa.gov/  The photo at the left is from the Hubble telescope. If you haven’t seen these pictures just type images from Hubble telescope in the search space and go see the beautiful results. Our universe is as dramatically gorgeous as it is monumentally enormous.
Pakistan Reacts
Pakistan says that NATO troops killed 26 Pakistani troops. Pakistan, in retaliation, has set up checkpoints along the Pakistan/Afghanistan border that prevent supplies from reaching our troops. We will see this situation unfolding today. NATO offered condolences.
NBA Reaches Tentative Agreement
It looks like the basketball fans among us will get a Christmas present because if the new agreement holds up the basketball season may start on Christmas Day.
Students Return Home
The three students  who attended the American University in Cairo and were arrested for allegedly throwing things from a rooftop into Tahrir Square in Egypt will leave Egypt today as ordered by an Egyptian court.

Capitalism Day

We should call this day Capitalism Day. This is the day we celebrate our economy. I understand today is called Black Friday because this is the day the businesses in America begin to register profits and their books go “in the black”. It’s kind of sad that merchants work all year until the end of November to pay their overhead costs and only profit for five weeks of the year, although these weeks usually represent a five week shopping bonanza for retail businesses. It is also probably not true that all businesses have to wait until the end of November to see profits. I’m guessing this is a number that involves the whole retail economy of the United States which includes a lot of failed businesses each year. This number may be more traditional these days than statistically accurate.
Regardless of whether or not this Friday is truly “Black”, it is our duty as good capitalists to begin to shop for the holiday season and to make our contribution to the Gross National Product. Some of us will be better capitalists than other. Those who have more should spend more. It’s patriotic. My tone may imply criticism of capitalism, but I am really not against capitalism. I am against unregulated capitalism, but I enjoy the great variety and vitality of shopping establishments available in a capitalist marketplace. I enjoy a productive shopping expedition and my serotonin levels jump appropriately during and immediately after shopping. It gives me the same thrill of the early hunter-gatherer without placing my life in mortal danger.
So today we think we are looking for great deals and finding the gifts we need to please family members over the holidays, but we are also being good citizens and propping up the American economy. Yay for us! Our economy really needs us this year.
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Egypt is on my Mind this Thanksgiving Day

Egypt is on my mind on this Thanksgiving Day. When my friend lived in Egypt for four years with her family she talked all the time about the great disparity between the way most Egyptians lived and the affluent lifestyle enjoyed by the privileged few. When we see how chaotic life has become for Egyptians since the end of the Mubarak regime, our first impulse is to wish there was never a movement to unseat him. When we think about the possibility that Egypt may fall into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood it makes this feeling even stronger. From our point of view Egypt seemed so stable and this stability seemed to make the lives of the Egyptian people peaceful and productive. But would we be happy living in earth floored dwellings, building high rise apartment towers and offices with our bare hands and scrabbling to make a living for our families. We experience disparities in America, but not at these levels.
I think we believe, and hopefully have not been misled in our belief, that the revolutionary movement in Egypt was and is a grassroots movement. It arose out of the injustices Mubarak allowed to remain in Egyptian society. The economy was not fluid. Those on the bottom stayed on the bottoms and vice versa. You lived basically without hope of climbing your way out of poverty. Although I am not saying upward mobility never happened, it was not common. When there were few opportunities to see how people in other cultures lived it was quite easy to imagine that life was the same everywhere and that most people lived with their noses to the grindstone in order to barely survive. Once the internet became available it was not so easy to ignore the fact that people’s fortunes are not the same throughout the world. It also became possible for Egyptians to speak to each other about their feelings about Egypt and their place within the Egyptian culture. People put their hopes and dreams into words and words are powerful. Continuing social injustices and heroic acts by those who could not accept their fate served as catalysts to the resulting protests.
Now Egypt is full of strife with the army, which once backed the people, now fighting the people. The elections are still in the future. The rest of the world looks on, shakes its collective head and wonders if the Egyptians made a terrible mistake getting rid of the stable, though repressive, Mubarak regime ending up with a military rule that they may not be able to break; or we worry that they will have to make a deal with a group who might be hostile to America. Of course, we must wait, and we must hope, that the Egyptian people find their way back to a stable and productive nation that is also more responsive to the needs of its people and is still America’s ally.
So on this Thanksgiving Day I’m not sure if we can be thankful for this year’s events in Egypt, and I am also not so sure we can be thankful about this year’s events in America. I am thankful, when I see the troubles of the Egyptian people, that Americans are still trying to work on our differences in mostly peaceful ways that stay within the boundaries of our current democracy which we all love and want to continue to revere. However, the Occupy movement shows that things could heat up and get messier even in America. Even so, we have much to be thankful for because America, in spite of deep divisions in ideology and in spite of economic challenges, is still a strong nation.

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Dreams of Joy by Lisa See – Book

Lisa See, a Chinese-American woman, living in Los Angeles, has written a number of books about the lives of women (and their men) in China and later, in America. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love are two of her books that I read and loved. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is being made as a film. Dreams of Joy, which I just completed, is the sequel to Shanghai Girls. Shanghai Girls describes the lives of two sisters, Pearl and May, who grow up in Shanghai, barely escape with their lives, and experience many hardships once they arrive in Los Angeles. Dreams of Joy continues with the lives of Pearl and May and their old Shanghai love, ZG. A family secret is revealed to Pearl’s daughter Joy who is in her first year of college. She is terribly upset when she learns this secret and because she had just lost her father, who she learned was not her real father. She is taking a college course about communism under Mao in China and about the communal movement which presents information that is far from the realities with which people in China are living.
Joy runs away to China to find her real father and to take her place in the transformation of the Chinese culture. Her journey through the Chinese countryside and into communal life parallels the developments of the Cultural Revolution. The problem Mao has, among many apparently, is that he is in too much of a hurry to prove to Western nations that the revolution has been a great success. Joy gets caught up in Mao’s Great Leap Forward which ends up being, as history will attest, a big leap off a very high cliff. He tries some techniques to boost production which go against centuries of folk wisdom and millions of people die of starvation. Joy almost dies too, and except for her mother’s tireless efforts to save her would have taken the hopes of her whole family with her.
The stories that document the insanity and chaos of the Mao years in China are still scarce and terrifying. I don’t think we are done learning about these times. Those who don’t know their history, they say, are doomed to repeat it. Lisa See does a good job of making the communal movement in Mao’s China personal and vivid.

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Grover Norquist

Grover Norquist was on my TV this morning. In fact he was on TV all day. I’m sure he was on yours too. He was calling the Democrats on the Super Committee liars. He was also on 60 Minutes last night. Grover Norquist is the head of Americans for Tax Reform. He is the “enforcer” of the Pledge that Republicans signed saying they will never raise taxes. He says the pledge was not made to him; it was made to the American people. At least he did not have his usual smarmy smirk on his face while he was saying this.

All politicians lie, they just don’t call it lying; they call it “strategy”. Grover Norquist is a lobbyist. It is his job to “lie” and he does it very well. He gives a lie or a “strategic statement” exactly the same weight and tone you would give to the absolute truth. It’s his area of expertise. You cannot argue with this man. But this does not make him right. Not all American’s agree with holding taxes steady at current levels forever. We think taxes have to rise and fall with the economic realities in America. We don’t think it’s a good thing to freeze things with the Bush tax cuts in force. Only some Americans agree with this pledge, mostly Republicans, but we are all being bound by it. It’s extremely frustrating and it should be illegal. It is giving one group of Americans, who do not even hold the executive office, absolute power to control the dialogue about the finances of America. It spills over into giving this same small group of Americans absolute control over the ideology of America, of who we are and what we want to do with our money. It is against freedom and it is anti-American. However, it has very effectively allowed Republicans to basically control our federal government. It is appalling, but no one seems to know how to undo it. I continue to see it as a sort of coup.

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Alice

This weekend I went to Southampton, Long Island to attend a memorial service for the mom of one of my friends. My friend, Marie, is living in Germany right now and since she and her husband flew back for the service I got to see Marie and John and offer my condolences in person. Sometimes when I attend a memorial service, I learn things about someone I have known that I never knew before. These things may come from a different time in the life of this person. We do get to know our friend’s parents but, perhaps, not to the same depth that we know our friends.
I have my memories of Marie’s mother Alice. I visited Marie and her mom in Bowie, Maryland some years ago and they treated us to a day of museums and sightseeing and dining in Washington, DC. It was one of those perfect days where everyone gets to see just what they wanted to see. I loved the rock and mineral exhibit at the Smithsonian and the monumental, light-filled Bierstadt paintings at the National Gallery. I loved the crushed stone pathways used to get from place to place in Washington. We drove through Annapolis, all spit and polish, looking very nautical. We ate a really excellent Asian Fusion dinner in a tiny brick restaurant in Georgetown which had a tree growing up through the roof of the dining room. Throughout all of this, Alice who was probably in her 70’s, was energetic and cheerful company. She was indomitable, and had a wonderful smile on her face throughout the day.
Alice was, of course, not perfect, as none of us are. I spent another weekend at her home in New Jersey and I learned that Alice’s husband died when her two daughters were fairly young. She had to have the family home divided into two flats and rent out the top floor. She had to work hard to support her daughters and herself. I’m sure she despaired sometimes in her grief and as her new responsibilities piled up. She built their new life and did what she had to do. However I also learned that she paid a price for her strength. She became a little stern and critical because she wanted her daughters to grow up to be good, strong women. She succeeded. Marie and Jeannie have each taken charge of their own lives in very powerful ways that affect everyone around them positively. Although we don’t always enjoy sternness, a little bit of steel makes a strong person. So Alice sometimes forgot that her daughters were all grown up and continued to hector them from time to time. But there was something about Alice. She was way more than her flaws. She was also charming and never faded into the background. And she had a wonderful smile that it was well worth coaxing out of hiding.

At the memorial service I learned that Alice was even more than this. Alice was born in Luxembourg. When World War II came along and Hitler was putting Europe into a stranglehold one country at a time, Alice was a young woman living in the middle of this chaotic and frightening Europe. She could have sat demurely at home under the protection of her parents but she didn’t. She and a number of other young women joined the Resistance to work against the Germans. Since they moved about the countryside on their bicycles they were assigned to carry messages among Resistance members. This was a very dangerous activity for a young woman and required great courage. It also required a cool head because the Germans did stop Luxembourgers all the time to check papers and search people. Alice was stopped once when she was carrying a message, but since she was young and quite pretty, she flirted her way through the situation and was sent on about her business. She went on with her message and made it through to a safe delivery.

I loved learning this about my friend’s mom. There was very large roomful of people to celebrate the life of Alice even though she had only spent the last decade of her life in Southampton. Her excellent daughters were both present and we were wined and dined in the event center owned by one of her daughters. There were many speeches and they were all good. Alice was 90 and she died peacefully. What a great life! Now we will go on and live our lives in a world without Alice, but we still have her legacy, my lovely friend Marie and her family, her beautiful sister Jeannie and her family. It was a long trip to Southampton but it was worth it.