June 26, 2013
A New Take on ColumbusWhen I was in grade school in the Thirties, we celebrated the birthday of Christopher Columbus on the 12th of October and everyone regarded him as a hero for having "discovered" America after convincing the Spanish Monarchs to provide him with three ships, the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.
A few days ago, late night TV carried a recently made documentary on the fourth voyage Columbus made to the "new world" he'd discovered. While the film leaves us with little doubt that Columbus became the most famous European to sail to the Americas, it also portrays him as a person who would now be considered obsessive-compulsive, greedy, cruel, and driven by delusional ambition. In fact, I found that impression far more believable than the myth I'd been exposed to in childhood.
Columbus was certainly ahead of his time as navigator and seaman, but his greed and ambition undid him in the long run. He also shared the geographic ignorance of his time in that he had no idea that an even larger ocean (The Pacific) was just a few miles overland from where Taino Indians were describing it. He never did find the shortcut to Asia he was seeking and could not have known that a nation, named in honor of another Italian, cartographer Amerigo Vespucci, would eventually construct a canal that turned his dream into reality.
Perhaps the real message from Columbus' epic adventure is that individual humans; especially those driven by completely erroneous delusions, have had an enormous impact on history.
If we hope to improve the lot of modern humans, it probably behooves us to take a more accurate and unbiased look at our own times. In that respect, it's probably significant that the Panama Canal the global economy relies on so heavily is now too small for a majority of modern ships. If one takes the time to read the cited article in the Boston Globe, we are already committed to its expansion. Even worse; the work itself- to say nothing of the investment it entails- will inevitably result in the expenditure of increasing amounts of energy at the risk of further extreme climate change.
June 24, 2013
A Species With an Uncertain FutureIf one were to bet that our species will survive its current dilemma, the odds should be solidly against us. That's entirely speculative, of course. However, it's also true that we've never been in a tighter predicament than the one we now face: overpopulated, addicted to energy, and warming our planetary environment without a viable alternative we can even discuss.
In Medical parlance, the prognosis for human survival seems somewhere between "guarded" and "hopeless;" not news anyone wants to hear; precisely why we almost never hear it discussed publicly.
Ironically, our highly evolved brain, the crowning glory of human evolution, is the source of that dilemma. We have simply become too clever for our own good. In a real sense, the cause of our trouble is that our behavior has continued to be governed by competition and a perceived need to control, which throughout "recorded" history had always generated warfare between rival states. Just because we didn't discover literacy until relatively recently does not negate that assertion, the available evidence from prehistory (Archeology and Paleontology) simply confirms that the planet is old enough to have evolved along the lines suggested by Darwin and amply justify his notion that life is a struggle to survive.
Science also tells us we live in a Universe that's literally too large to measure (more galaxies than grains of sand on all the world's beaches) made up of components literally too small to see (subatomic particles) and obeying "laws" too complex to be understood (black holes).
In stark contrast to our modern command of information is the inexplicable fact that cannabis is still illegal under both US and international law.
Last night, CNN aired a special by Morgan Spurlock that I both watched and recorded. I've now seen it all (some parts twice) and plan to review it in the next entry.
June 15, 2013
History, the Brain, and Our FutureWe humans are intensely curious, especially about our origins. Modern evolutionary theory dates the emergence of Homo sapiens from Africa at approximately 200,000 years ago, but we were not the first hominids to leave the home continent. Neanderthals are known to have preceded us, and perhaps a third primate species, as well.
At the other extreme of time estimates, the biblical research of Anglo-Irish Bishop James Ussher persuaded him that Adam and Eve had been created about 4000 BC, an estimate that was widely accepted for over a Century until evolution of the scientific method fostered by the discoveries of Galileo, Newton, and others began casting serious doubt on long established religious beliefs. Even today, in a world driven by Scientific technology, it's probable that a majority of Western humans believe in an omnipotent Deity. In any event, it appears likely that it will be quite a while before an avowed atheist occupies the Oval Office.
Although Ussher's assertion about Creation may now seem ludicrous to many, the available evidence suggests he was a serious, if somewhat conservative, scholar who relied on the best information available to him that was also consistent with the accepted belief beliefs of his day.
When Columbus discovered two American continents roughly a hundred years following Europe's recovery from the Black Death, our species had sustained a serous setback and was still very ignorant of its global habitat. However, it was was soon launched on a trajectory of population growth that more than made up for the Plague by the discovery of two new continents.
Even as smallpox was decimating the "Indians" Columbus encountered in the Americas, his sailors were acquiring a reciprocal "pox" that would ravage Eurasia until the arrival Penicillin in the Twentieth Century.
While European missionaries were busy converting the Indians to Christianity, other Europeans were expanding the African Slave Trade that had been initiated by the Portuguese in the Fifteenth Century. Thus did a surge in the demand for labor created by the introduction of two new diseases to vulnerable populations play a key role in the evolution of two modern problems, the legacies of which continue to haunt us in modern times: chattel slavery and colonialism.
There is little doubt that Science has greatly enhanced human knowledge, health, and material progress. However it has also encouraged the exploitation of poor populations and the profligate consumption of energy, especially since the Industrial Revolution; thus scientific "progress" has been a mixed bag that now threatens us with two unanticipated consequences: global overpopulation and rapid climate change.
For me, the message of the last five hundred years is that humans are all too prone make dangerous false assumptions; especially on behalf of new profits.
As much as I would like to believe the estimated 7 billion humans now creating problems that threaten our very existence can be persuaded to radically alter their behavior in time to prevent 2 looming catastrophes, there is considerable evidence suggesting the opposite.
Perhaps the most hopeful scenario would be that a series of disasters will depopulate the planet to a level that would persuade survivors to do what we should have started doing long ago: find a way to restrict population growth while embracing an energy conserving lifestyle. Hopefully it might happen in time to prevent the methane release that threatens to make all other efforts fruitless.
June 12, 2013
The Trial of Bradley ManningIn yesterday's entry, I said that Bradley Manning's trial (which began on Monday) would be an "important indicator," by which I meant it would give us an idea of just how much our federal system of "justice" has moved away from the principles of fair play and freedom we claim to endorse.
Based on my reading of the first reports of the trial, I must say that it wasn't as bad as I feared, but that one of the major issues of interest to me: Manning's cruel pre-trial treatment, was not addressed and apparently won't be.
I urge others not to lose interest in Manning or his ordeal. Just imagine what it must be like to be a young gay male targeted by a vengeful bureaucracy with almost nothing to fear from its own government.
June 11, 2013
Leaks in the News; Plumber Needed?At the top of today's news is the story that broke over the week-end about CIA contract employee Edward Snowden who confessed from his Hong Kong hotel room on Sunday that he deliberately leaked large amounts of classified information to the press while working- not for the Agency itself, but for one of its many contractors.
It thus recalls the famous Pentagon Papers that tied President Nixon’s “plumbers” to two failed break-ins in the 70s: the first was at the famous Watergate complex in Washington. The other was an earlier effort on the West Coast to obtain confidential medical records from the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist after the ex-Marine and Vietnam veteran- then an employee of the Rand Corporation, “leaked” massive amounts of data his Rand job had made him privy to and reinforced his doubts about America’s growing involvement in Vietnam to a level he could no longer ignore.
The furor created by the release and publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, was huge, but sadly, its significance has apparently been forgotten by many; including most of the media and the present administration.
Happily, Daniel Ellsberg is still alive and has been quick to praise Snowden's act of conscience as "more important" than his own. He also gives credit to Bradley Manning who, because he was on active duty when he defied the government, has been subject to the same level of punishment that became routine at Guantanamo.
When one listens to Snowden’s account, one also realizes that he, Manning, and Ellsberg faced exactly the same dilemma: at what point do you stop compromising with blatant dishonesty? The major differences between them are attributable to the internet, which has compressed time while increasing the ease with which "classified" information can be acquired and disseminated. It may not seem that long since the 70s, but digital technology has reshaped the world. Ellsberg's access to information was through Xerox copiers, while Snowden, a high school drop-out and typical "geek," has obviously mastered contemporary IT to a considerable degree.
In that sense he closely resembles another forgotten man: Bradley Manning, whose defiance while in uniform has undoubtedly made his pre-trial confinement more akin to the treatment of those unfortunate enough to disappear into the American gulag at Guantanamo.
Ellsberg's disclosure was against the law in 1971, but the Department of Justice declined to prosecute him because of federal misconduct by Nixon's "plumbers."
Thankfully Daniel Ellsberg is still alive and very much on top of current developments.
Eerily like the Seventies, we also have a lawyer in the Oval Office. Although Obama smoked pot in High School and is well versed in Constitutional law; he has also used drones against civilians in one undeclared war in Asia and waffled repeatedly on another; thus I'm not that optimistic about Snowden's chances of avoiding prosecution.
In the meantime, Bradley Manning's trial begins at Fort Meade this week. The intensity and tenor of its media coverage will be an important indicator.
June 08, 2013
Extreme Weather and Extreme DenialAfter the GOP's successful theft of the 2000 Presidential Election, Al Gore became an evangelist for the related causes of climate change and global warming, phenomena I’d first become aware of in the Eighties after reading that meteorologists were concerned about rising CO2 levels in air being sampled from above Hawaii's Mona Loa volcano. Their fears were vaguely disquieting, but I soon found other issues to replace them.
Gore’s post-presidential campaign changed all that. I bought Inconvenient Truth, watched the video, and read most of the book. Since then I've followed weather news with increasing interest as extreme weather events have proliferated, even as the media, politicians, and many others have refused to notice.
It didn't take long for me to become a believer in the reality of climate change; or to appreciate the ubiquity of denial as a technique for dealing with all kinds of unpleasant news.
To Al Gore's very appropriate concerns, I’ve added a few of my own, mostly related to my own consuming interest: the insanity of American drug policy and the needless damage it inflicts on innocent people everywhere. I’ve long since decided that support for our drug policy is a litmus test for intellectual honesty: speaking out against it is the only honorable course for concerned people. That many more people oppose it than believe in it is evident from the increasing (but anonymous) support for “medical” use of cannabis, but I fear that- like appreciation of the dangers of climate change- it’s occurring way too slowly to bring about effective change.
The main reason for that admittedly dreary judgement is the sheer size of the Earth's human population. Once one realizes how much inertia is built into our genome by behavioral traits that appear to be shared by a majority of humans, one realizes that the only “demand reduction” able to reduce our energy consumption enough to mitigate the weather damage already in our future may be rapid depopulation, a concept global political leaders are clearly unwilling to address- if they think about it at all. In the meantime, evidence that Gore is right keeps piling up. All one has to do is tune in to the weather channel fairly regularly. I have yet to hear any mention of a “Tornacane” season, but we have clearly entered one; whether or not (pun intended) it’s been given a name.
One way to spot denial is the absence of questions that should be generated by official claims or reported facts such as: if why cannabis is so dangerous, why is it still so popular?” More evidence of pot's appeal surfaced in affluent NY suburb when a single mom was unmasked as a very clever pot entrepreneur. What I also recognized from the article is that while her cleverness, botanical ability, and management skills seem outstanding, her childhood had been all-too similar to those experienced by many of my applicants of both genders: blighted by the emotional absence of their biological fathers.
Also typically: the absent daddy doesn't seem evil, simply unaware of the enormous impact of his physical absence (or lack of interest) on a vulnerable young psyche.
The nugget that remains buried in my study of pot use is the critical importance of the biological father to the future emotional health of their children. I'll be more specific in future entries
June 03, 2013
The Slow Evolution of a Social CatastropheOnce I understood that America’s Drug war is based almost entirely on the "expertise" claimed by Nixon and Mitchell in their 1970 Controlled Substances Act, my most pressing questions soon became: how could such foolish, untested criteria have been accepted so quickly both here and at the UN? Why is our marijuana policy still being vigorously asserted and rigorously enforced after 40+ years of grotesque failure? Finally, how can such "legal" nonsense be reversed?
Unfortunately, the only way the consequences of a prohibition policy can be studied scientifically is in retrospect and then only after a legal market has been in operation for a while. That's because truly unbiased studies of illegal markets are almost impossible because of the prejudice inflicted by years of having been officially "against federal law." Sound familiar?
Although studies of the gray markets produced by state "medical marijuana" laws are better than nothing (they at least have the potential to gather accurate information) but- as I've discovered- they are also plagued by the "illegality" stigma and dependent on the viewpoint of the physician gathering applicant information. In other words, the physician must be intellectually honest and convinced that cannabis offers real therapeutic benefits.
Until Proposition 215 was passed by California in 1996, all American studies of forbidden drugs had been severely handicapped because the Harrison Act of 1914 gave untrained policemen the power to not only define "addiction," but also to hold physicians criminally liable for any prescription law enforcement considered excessive. Once approved by the Supreme Court, Harrison, validated a dangerous principle: that the law enforcement establishment should have the power to enforce its (ignorant) medical judgements through the criminal code.
That "principle" has cost society dearly. The most obvious example to me as a physician, is denial of the great therapeutic benefits cannabis offers to people with serious symptoms, two realities that have been obscured by forty years of uninformed police propaganda in support of the Nixon-Mitchell drug war.
Needless to say, I have a low opinion of those police agencies now squandering scarce tax dollars in a futile attempt to turn back the clock on "marijuana" prohibition.
Don't the Modesto cops get it?
I guess not.