Archive for June, 2011

The Horizon of Deepwater (a prose gusher)

June 28, 2011

In the fall of 2008, the Treasurer of the United States, Henry Paulson, convinced the President and the Congress to bail out the financial industry so that the whole damn system of passing money and electrons around would not fall apart.
So Mr. Bush, with legislative help from the Reps and the Senators, injected seven or eight hundred billion of public money into the big banks and the big crap-shooting insurer that backed up those banks, along with the two huge quasi-public mortgage underwriters. At least that’s the way this taxpayer remembers it. Help me out here if my facts are a little amiss.
At the time, those powers that be had convinced us, in the frenzied imminent panic of falling markets and a deflating housing industry, that the entire structure of the way we do business in America and even beyond America would fall apart at the seams if we didn’t meet Mr. Paulson’s recommendations.
Of course we’ll never know if that universal implosion of American business and international commerce would have happened or not. The banks got their money, and we are still in a big mess, although not a catastrophic one as big as it might have otherwise been haha. We’ll never know. Instead of the sky falling on us with incalculable damage, we have been  able to creep through a couple of lean years in which the ever-present spectre hound of the double-dip has been constantly at our heels, baying for blood or possibly just for red ink, which looks like blood. These days, who knows the difference between any real thing and its hyped-up digitized alter-ego.
Now we’ve come full circle, and have got the same situation over again, except this time its not Hank having fits, but the chicken-littles who warn us of that debt ceiling bogey beast that will devour our already-suspect financial stability and digest it, and then egest our fiscal credibility with overly-copious liquidity in turds not easily disposed of.

A little greece carefully applied will move things along nicely.

Meanwhile, the ratings agencies, the Moody, S&P and the Fitch, are making their obligatory noises of warning, walking their own wire of credibility while keeping fingers in the air to see which way the wind will blow.
Where were those rating agencies in 2008? What were they doing when they should have been sounding the alarms about derivatives and CDS and MBS and CDOs? Same as what they’re doing now–waiting to see which way the wind will blow to tip or not tip over our unwieldy bowl of  cards, 2011 version.
So now, if those stubborn, ole fashion Repubs in Congress relent and allow the Dems and themselves  to keep flushing paper and electronic dollars while running both the deficit and the debt ceiling into deepwater default–what will happen then, huh?
We’ll never know. When they’ve made their deal and then the Fed and Treasury have a new batch of paper and electrons to swish around  in the bowl of toil, we’ll never know what torrent of troublesome irresponsibility has have been flushed down into that great poseidon-adventure pipeline that dumps its dootee out who knows where, the ocean or somewhere, probably some unstoppable severed pipline a hundred miles off the gulf coast. We’ll never know. But at least we’ll still have money to play with, just like in 2008, and we can stay in the game with the blessings of the bondholders. Flush on!

Glass Chimera

Let the chips fall as they may.

June 24, 2011

So now Senator Cantor has withdrawn from the fiscal peacemaking committee, so-called gang of six. And I hear also that Senator Kyl is withdrawing as well. I also remember, it seems, that a few weeks ago Senator Coburn withdrew from those negotiations.

It appears that the Mr. Vice President Biden’s noble efforts to retrieve Congressional responsibility have smashed upon the rocks of stubborn politics and a hard place of arithmetical reality.

The Dems say that the Repubs are protecting their precious millionaires and billionaires. The Repubs say the buck has to stop somewhere.

There is no easy way out of this mess. We might as well default, and let the blue chips fall as they may. The red and the white chips too.Then we can pick up the pieces and start over.

Glass Chimera

The two types of stem cells

June 18, 2011

A couple of years ago, I delved into a personal research project,  in order to write my second novel,  Glass Chimera. From a layman’s perspective, I was learning about  genes, DNA, cloning, and other areas of scientific endeavor that pertain to the science of genetics.  I learned a lot about the human genome, more than I can ever understand or explain.

One particular area of genetics that is often discussed in our era is  the use of stem cells. My limited investigation into the subject has brought me to this observation about stem cells: there are basically two types of them.

Embryonic stem cells are those found in the fertilized egg, or the embryo, of a newly-conceived fetus in a female’s uterus. These are the controversial stem cells, because the harvesting of them for medical use will most likely alter or terminate the embryo’s fetal development.  Embryonic stems cells are pluripotent, insofar as they have potential to differentiate into many types of cells that are necessary for a fully developed body to, after birth, sustain life. These cells can be directed by the DNA genetic code to become, for instance,  blood cells,  skin cells,  muscle,  nerve, or whatever cells. My limited studies have  indicated that the  main value of embryonic stem cells is found in their use for medical research.

In the novel that I wrote while studying this, I include a hypothetical conversation between two graduate students in microbiology. In chapter 24, Erik is explaining  stem cells to his friend Sam:

 “. . .these guys that are doing this type of work, they remove the stem cells from the ICM (inner cell mass) that has congregated inside the 5-or-6-day old blastocyst—“

“So they’re sacrificing the embryo?” Sam wondered.

“I guess you could call it that,”

“What do they do with the outer part?”

“Oh, the trophoblast, God only knows.  I suppose they use it for something or other in the lab, or maybe they culture those cells for some other developmental purpose. I don’t know.  Anyway,  they place the totipotent stem cells into culture and propogate them.”

“That’s what we call a stem cell line,” observed Sam.

“Uhhuh, but it’s tricky.  Those cells have a built-in tendency toward differentiation.  If they’re kept alive unto themselves, without chemical restraints, they’ll start to organize themselves into an embryo again.”

This “differentiation” potential of stem cells is their most useful attribute. At the same time, it is the very thing that makes them somewhat dangerous.

I mentioned above that there is another  type of stem cells: adult stem cell.  Their differentiation potential is quite limited, as compared to the embryonic type, but they are much safer for medical applications, mainly because they are obtained from a patient’s body, and then injected back into that same patient. So there’s no conflict between the genetic info in the medically modified stem cells and the genetic data resident in that patient’s other billions of cells.  This second type of stem cell, the “adult” type, exists in the body of every child and adult. They enable the growth of new bodily tissue, and they exist in every part of the body.

Yesterday, June 17 2011, I was fascinated as I listened to a very informative discussion  on the radio about new medical treatments  utilizing these adult stem cells to repair damaged tissue.

Ira Flatow was again demonstrating his customary excellence in science journalism. The depth and scope of  his NPR reporting  keeps  his show, Science Friday, on the cutting edge of popular science education. I always obtain galactical levels of new information and insight when I can listen to his Friday program, or catch it later online.

The spot I heard yesterday was SciFri 061711 Hour 1: Black Holes, Untested Cell Therapies, Solar Update, which I had clicked on at

http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/listen.

 

Ira was speaking to two medical doctors about Bartolo Colon, the great NY Yankees pitcher whose injured pitching arm required medical treatment. Ira explained that since the pitcher was in the latter years of his baseball career, surgery to correct his elbow problem might be too risky. So Bartolo had elected to have this relatively untested therapy performed on his arm by doctors  in Dominican Republic.  And guess what, it worked! Bartholo has made an impressive comeback in his pitching career, at the age of 37.

Dr. Rick Lehman, an orthopedic surgeon at the US  Center for Sports Medicine (in St. Louis), described how cells taken from Bartolo’s own body had been medically treated and then injected back into his injured shoulder and elbow. The immature stem cells, as the doc explained, act to recruit blood  supply, enhance healing of ligaments, and improve the natural healing mechanics inside the patient’s body.

Dr. Scott Rodeo, orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery (in New York City) contributed to their fleshing out of the subject with specific comments about Bartolo Colon’s surgery, but also with some interesting facts about the different kinds of stem cells.  For instance, risk of cancer is far lower with the use of these adult stem cells than the risk from using  more primitive stem cells, such as those pluripotent ones found in embryos.

As a writer whose research had skirted these areas pioneering medicine, I was fortunate to have heard their productive talk on NPR about the  minimally surgical restoration of a great pitcher’s arm.

And congratulations to Bartolo Colon, whose baseball career has been renewed.

Glass Chimera

4000 Holes in Blackburn, Lancashire

June 13, 2011

I was a high school student when the Beatles mystified the pop music world with their very unusual Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.  The collaborative musical opus therein was an exquisitely woven fabric of bizarre imagery and lyrical enigmas, along with some groundbreaking rock n’ roll.

Since those late 1960s days, I have often wondered about the meanings of so many of the band’s odd vocal references. One phrase in particular, sung by the master of modern musical mystery himself, John Lennon,  hollowed out a little question mark in my mind that has been unfilled all these years.

Until yesterday. Yesterday I picked up a clue about the possible meaning of the “four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire” about which John Lennon sang in the ablbum’s finale song, A Day In The Life.

While reading English Journey, a travel journal published in 1934 by J.B. Priestley, I was quite moved by his reported impression of Blackburn, Lancashire, UK. The city had been for many years the very heart of British textile industry, most especially the enormous output of cotton fabrics and clothing. But in the 1920s and thirties, as new producers of cotton goods in India began to supply their own markets, the volume of exports from England’s textile belt (Lancashire) slipped into a period of serious decline, from which they never truly recovered. By the early 1930s, employmnet in Blackburn and other cities had decreased to “depression” levels.

Sound familiar? This economic scenario is quite similar to what has happened here in North Carolina about a half-century later, and in New England USA shortly before that.

Mr. Priestley’s poignant account of the Lancashire situation in 1934 includes his describing (page 214) a visit to a place called “Community House,” which was set up by local volunteers as a resource for unemployed folks to occupy themselves with productive projects. The volunteers had recovered a condemned school building, where people were cobbling–repairing and making shoes–and doing other helpful works. Most notable among the activities, as far as Mr. Priestley wrote, were woodworks being cranked out by the men there.

It was a great work happening in the decrepit old schoolhouse, built upon a good idea and the willingness of local folks to get busy and make good things happen in spite of the hard times that had shut down their factories and their prosperity.

Priestley described the goings-on at Community House:

“This instructor, paid by the volunteer society, was busy all day giving out wood and tools and showing his men what to do. The wood is supplied without charge to the men, and one of the instructor’s duties is to find quantities of it at the lowest possible price or at no price at all….He said that the men were not very good craftsmen, and tended to be imitative and careless, but that many of them were very keen and did their best.”

And Priestley wrote: “In the next and largest room of all, a public assistance class in woodwork was being held. The young men came here instead of breaking stones in the workhouse. At first, the instructor told me, they resented any attempt at discipline and tuition. They felt they had been dragooned into messing about with bits of wood in this ex-schoolroom. They would not do what they were told…and they were not going to be treated like kids by any bloody instructor. That was their attitude during the first weeks.  But after that, almost in spite of themselves, they gradually acquired an interest in their jobs at the benches; they began asking one another the best way to do this and that; and finally were glad of advice from the qualified instructor. There was something rather touching in this, the emergence of the natural craftsman that is buried somewhere in every man.”

These men were gradually filling “holes” in their unemployed days and times, with constructive projects–something to do instead of nothing to do.

But J.B. Priestley’s initial impression of the condemned schoolhouse, before witnessing the activity inside, had been this: “It was a dismal hole in a dark back street.”

One dismal “hole”, perhaps, among four thousand others in Blackburn, Lancashire? But the good folks of Blackburn had undertaken projects to fix the holes.

Now, moving right along…maybe you can help  me understand the second part of Lennon’s mysterious lyric:

“They had to count them all. Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.”

CR, with new novel, Smoke, in progress

Constructive public discourse

June 10, 2011

Today I listened to Diane Rehm’s Friday News Roundup on the radio.

At the end of the first hour, Diane apologized for a mildly contentious exchange that had briefly transpired between two of her well-informed guests. But Diane’s apology was unnecessary. The constructive discussion that had just transpired under her insightful leadership was actually a paragon of collaborative journalistic analysis. Her guests were talking about the unemployment versus budget-balancing dilemma that now confounds our nation’s forward fiscal progress.

Compared to the rhetorical traffic jams and indecipherable vocal train wrecks regularly occurring between talking heads on Fox and MSNBC, Diane’s presentation is a consistent example of well-moderated public discourse. I always learn gobs of stuff from listening to her panels.

Thank you, Diane. No apology necessary.

Glass Chimera

The Mistake of 1937 in 2011?

June 5, 2011

So Paul Krugman points out, along with many other economists these days, that our nation is in a tight spot. We are suspended, as it were, on a sort of  precarious ridge. On one side is a dangerous trough of unemployment into which millions of people are falling. On the other is chasm of fiscal irresponsibility because we’re spending more $$ than we gather. Mr. Krugman is of the Keynsian school which says that if we don’t put people to work we are in big trouble and will yet be in bigger trouble as more and more folks find themselves without a job.

On the other hand, say the fiscal conservatives, if we don’t balance the budget, or at least move in that direction, we slide off into the irrecoverable condition of national default and larger levels of financial collapse than we’ve already inflicted upon ourselves.
Mr. Krugman, referencing Gauti Eggertsson, adroitly points out that this situation is similar to the dilemma we faced in an earlier era, 74 years ago, and he refers to that unfortunate chain of events as “the mistake of 1937.”

And that mistake was, as nearly as I can surmise without taking sufficient time to research the subject (because I don’t have the time and because I’m not an economist anyway but I am a citizen taxpayer so I’m qualified to have an opinion and this is it)– the mistake was that Congress chose to address the fiscal problem instead of the unemployment problem and thereby plunged our national condition into deeper trouble. That’s this  layman’s uninformed, oversimplified statement of an admittedly very complicated problem.

Anyway, as a result of Congress’ fiscal budget-cutting  back in ’37, the dreaded “double-dip” recession followed, says Mr. Krugman,  in ’38 instead of recovery. The historical lesson is that the same unfortunate outcome will happen now if we don’t learn from their 1937 bad decision and, instead,  spend some money to get the unemployed working again.
As if that could happen.
As if we could really get this nation working again by passing federal reserve notes around. Yes, maybe we can keep the monthly numbers juggled in mid-air for awhile.
But there is the supposition of  Keynsians– the unsustainable “mistake” of pump-priming deficit-riding economics–that the government can get the people working again.

No, it aint gonna happen, because it is not the government that fundamentally will put people back to work doing things like what they used to do back in the day. And maybe even corporate America can’t get the damn thing going again because they’re too busy investing in overseas stocks and BRIC ‘n mortar industries, and circulating credit default licenses among themselves.

So maybe the Dems are right about the self-absorbed condition of corporate America; and maybe the Repubs are right about gov being the problem. Maybe every contender in this national roller derby has a little chunk of truth somewhere.

But what are people doing?
Back in the day, our ancesters, our forefathers and foremothers, spent entire generations, entire decades, and yea, I say unto thee, entire centuries, extracting stuff from the ground and turning it into finished products and then selling those products to each other.  And we did it here in the USA in an exceptional way, with an unprecedented rapidity, because those enterprising European ancestors of ours had embarked on an undeveloped continent just shortly before the industrial revolution was dawning on mama England and her civilized  contintental neighbors .

Forthwith, all that industrializing force, enhanced exponentially with cutting-edge mechanical might and hence newfound productivity, was unleashed upon God’s green earth, America,  in a way that had never happened before and never will again.

There was an awful lot of work to be done, and a lot of folk did it and it was great while it lasted but then we figured out, and I believe correctly,  that the extractive demands on our planet were unsustainable at those previous levels of depletion, and so now we’re in a kind of shell shock and trying to figure out what direction to take. While meanwhile back at the ranch, and perched precariously on that previously-mentioned precipice, we find ourselves confounded the fallacious decision of with whether to put people to work or to balance the budget.
Remember this, Paul. In the really big picture, people make work, and governments make budgets. Sooner or later we’ve got to get back to that reality check–which is not an unemployment check , nor is it a paycheck– or we’ll make the mistake of 2011 and 2020.

And guess what. It is a mistake either way! No way around this problem. We’ve got to take a hit, bite the bullet, take the bull by the horns. Furthermor, Bubby, there will be sacrifices and belt-tightening and defeating of obesity and tossing out of rotten couch potatoes, and there will be folks out of work for a long time and there will be deficits, and one way or another there will be defaults somewhere or perhaps even everywhere.

Bottom line: People have got to find something to do. People, not their governments. Its up to us. Nanny State and Big Brother are hooked up to a federal I-Vee, presently incapacitated or headed toward that medicared condition, and folks will be required to once again, as has happened before in the history of the  world, find some work to do to keep themselves alive and functioning.
What are people doing?
What are you doing, you citizen of the United States of America?
Look around your home, your community, and see what needs to be done. Then do it. The unemployment checks cannot roll into your mailbox with a 44-cent stamp forever. Moreover, those weekly/monthly numbers that the gov and the media churn out don’t really solve anybody’s problems; they just give us something to wring our hands about, and a few excuses every now and then to explain our mounting dysfunction.

People solve problems. Are you a people? Are you hungry? Grow some food, even if its just a tomato or two in your window. Learn what is means to grow something from a seed, or what it means to build something from scratch.  Begin something. Get to work, y’all. We’re not going to move off this precipice without some blood, sweat and many tears.

Glass half-Full