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Friday, April 25, 2008

American Squabbles

I've been watching the presidential race with much interest, especially this continuing battle for the Democratic nomination between Obama and Hillary. My dear friends, I won't discuss partisan politics in this blog, never fear; I just can't help being caught up in the drama of the whole spectacle.

No matter who wins, the Democratic nominee will be an historic first: either the first African-American, or the first woman candidate. He or she will be running against the oldest candidate ever, a 71 year old Republican veteran of the Vietnam war who was a POW for more than five years. Wow! If someone had been writing a screenplay, he couldn't have done much better with honorable thumbnail characterizations. These disparate candidates surely demonstrate that America is the land of opportunity.

Even so, I've been dismayed by the divisiveness of this race. It seems almost as if the presidential contest is presented as a sports event, with different camps -- the women, the "working class", the right wing Christians, the elites, the "people of color" -- supporting their team's representative (whoever that may be). We don't seem to be simply "Americans" anymore. Discussion of the ideas and philosophies for running the country doesn't seem to get nearly the coverage that it should.

I was interested to read JFK's inaugural address from 1961. You know, the one with the famous quote, "Ask not..." I've pasted the speech at the bottom of this entry. What strikes me is JFK's sense of the goodness and rightness of America, and that America should use its strength to make the world free. We as Americans should be looking at a goal greater than ourselves, greater than simply making sure that the country can take care of us.

These are inspiring, stirring words.

Yes, there were, and are problems with America, but I do wish we could remember what an incredible nation we have nevertheless. How fortunate we are to live in the United States! All of us who live here. Saying we have a great nation doesn't mean that we don't respect other nations, or that we are always right. But truly, just the fact that we can openly debate these issues says so much.

In my experience, people who cast themselves into groups, an "us versus them" mentality, don't tend to be happy. Jealousy is a great robber of the good essence in people, and really, isn't jealousy what this current political divisiveness encourages? "We want to get ours, from you." That way lies destruction. In my own life I've found it's essential to actively build upon what's good, and to help others when possible, not dwell on what is lost or was never present. Every day we all grow one day older, whether we have smiled or been bitter.

Please, let's acknowledge the rich and varied experience of different people. Let's debate, let's discuss the issues and problems, but let's do so with respect, not demonization. Let's build each other up, not tear down. Let's look for the good, not just the bad. We are Americans, after all. All of us.

I will continue to watch this election spectacle with great interest, but I will hope that the candidates can draw people together, not separate them. Idealistic, yes, but I relish JFK's vision of America.

But that's just me.


Inaugural Address by John F. Kennedy
January 20th 1961

Vice President Johnson, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chief Justice, President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, President Truman, reverend clergy, fellow citizens, we observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom - symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning - signifying renewal, as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.

The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe - the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans - born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage - and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

This much we pledge - and more.

To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do - for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.

To those new States whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But weshall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom - and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.

To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required - not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge - to convert our good words into good deeds - in a new alliance for progress - to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbours know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.

To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support - to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective - tostrengthen its shield of the new and the weak - and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run.

Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidentalself-destruction.

We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.

But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course - both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind's final war.

So let us begin anew - remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.

Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belabouring those problems which divide us.

Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms - and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.

Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.

Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah - to "undo the heavy burdens -. and to let the oppressed go free."

And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavour, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved.

All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.

In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.

Now the trumpet summons us again - not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are - but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation" - a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.

Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?

In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shank from this responsibility - I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavour will light our country and all who serve it -- and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Brave New NanoFuture

I just read a book by J. Storrs Hall, entitled Nanofuture: What's Next for Nanotechnology. The future Hall envisions is startling, the existence of a virtual fountain of perpetual youth where the nanomachines repair our aging cells, enhance our brain function, and might even allow the transference of consciousness to another body.

“Nano” means "one-billionth" or 10 -9, and refers to technology on the molecular level where molecules are used like tinkertoys to build tiny machines, maybe a micron across (one millionth of a meter, or 10 -6) compared to a red blood cell of about 7 microns. The developmental level of nanotechnology today is limited, with the main application being small nanoparticles that can be used, for example, to make self-cleaning glass or clothing. Another common application is the formation of “bucky tubes,” carbon tubes that can perform as supertiny conductors, semiconductors, or transformers.

Substances behave differently at such a small level. They tend to be smooth and thus slippery, since the only bumps are molecules. They also tend to be flimsy so that nanomachines must be built of a very stiff material. Carbon, as in diamonds, is the molecular
choice now. Eventually nanomachines may be able to harvest materials from the environment and reproduce themselves. Now scientists are simply learning how to deliberately manipulate the molecules to build a designed structure. The ultimate nanomachine and model for scientists is the animal cell with its vast assortment of machinery.

Some of the most interesting applications nanotechnology envisions are to do with biology. For example, Hall talks about artificial respirospheres, nanospheres that carry oxygen around the body to support or replace hemoglobin in red blood cells in case of disease or a heart attack. This was gratifying for me to read since I'd previously written about a similar nanotechnology in my novel to engineer a murder -- using respirospheres filled with carbon monoxide, of course. I was so proud of coming up with a credible way for my bad guy to attack someone in the secure and highly monitored environment of a prison without anyone being the wiser. But I digress.

Other nanobots called microbovores, that act like a type of white blood cell, might patrol the blood stream to destroy invading bacteria. Nanomachines might also prolong and enhance memory by linking directly into brain neurons. The storage and processing of data could allow someone to easily remember exactly what his friend said in a conversation on April 14th at 12:02 p.m., or look at a beam of wood and just “know” that it was 172.3 centimeters long. (Can you say "Borg -- resistance is futile"?)

Most interesting, perhaps, would be using nanomachines to prevent or even reverse aging by cleaning out cellular waste products and damaged cells, and assisting with perpetual cell division by preserving telomeres (a region of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that is necessary for replication). People might live perpetually young, and without disease.

This sounds so great, doesn't it? Yet I remain a firm believer in Murphy's law that says that anything that can go wrong, will. Science has made absolutely remarkable progress, but each advance leads to unintended consequences that can be problematic. We do not live in a perfect world, as much as we'd like to.

You'll notice I didn't even mention the potential problems of sinister intents or of overpopulation. Maybe we'll have to learn to colonize space...

More than this, though, I can't help wondering if I'd really, truly, want to live in this world "forever." I see problems within my own temperament that seem intractable, and know I'm not the only one. C.S. Lewis once said that as we live longer, we become more of what we are. You have a certain personality at 8 that becomes quite formed at 80. If you continued on to 800 the elements, bad as well as good, would become that much more fixed. In Ron Howard's movie Cocoon when the old people swam in the youth-giving water, one gentleman gained the energy to start having affairs again as he had twenty years before. We can't seem to eliminate our bad characteristics, at least not in this life.

My dear friends, I offer these thoughts as something interesting for you to ponder and then draw your own conclusions. It is, indeed, an exciting technology. One wonders where it might lead in one hundred years ...