Friday, May 21, 2010

Russian Roulette on the Laptop

Just got off the phone with a nice Indian man who has done his best to resuscitate my practically brand-new laptop which has been randomly shutting down pretty much since I bought it two months ago.
He had me drain the power from it, which involved pulling the battery and holding the power button down for about 20 seconds. It doesn't take much to drain power.
He walked me through a couple of simple steps to reset the machines bios -- whatever that means. Whenever I see "bios" I think "life." It does seem that this machine has a mind of its own, so why not a life of its own as well.
Which brings to mind the announcement yesterday that scientists have created a cell from whole clothe. Well, that's not exactly correct. The New York Times reports it this way:
The genome pioneer J. Craig Venter has taken another step in his quest to create synthetic life, by synthesizing an entire bacterial genome and using it to take over a cell.

According to the Times article, the environmental group Friends of the Earth (whose KSU chapter I was an officer in a long time ago and in a strange set of circumstances not worth going through here), condemned the achievement as "dangerous new technology," and urged an end to the research.
Of course that is unlikely. Technologies, once out of the scientific bag, seldom get put back in.
Those who pull them out of the bag, Venter in this case, almost always trumpet their discoveries or achievements with promises for valuable advances for humankind. Venter spoke of new energy and medical advances that might emerge from synthetic cells that could be invented in the future using the technologies he has pioneered.
Sometimes -- often? not so often? too often? -- the technological advances have profound unintended consequences that the scientists, in their drive to discover, overlook.
J. Robert Oppenheimer was almost an exception, or, at least was cognizant enough of the consequences of his scientific work to say, upon the detonation of the first atomic bomb, "I have become death, the destroyer of worlds."
The edge of science is often a kind of Russian Roulette, although some of the bullets really are magic while others are deadly.
I'm playing my own small blogging version right now. I have no idea whether or not the fixes my Indian friend recommended will work. If not the laptop will shut down with no warning and I'll lose whatever I'm working on. So I'm pausing regularly to save it -- not because it's worth any great effort, but because I'm spending the time so I might as well have some pixels to show for it at the end of the day.
I would hope that scientists working in Venter's field would likewise take enough time along the way -- pausing to save, as it were, the rest of us from unforeseen shut downs.
Wow! All the way through a brief post without a shutdown. I hope the work that Venter is pioneering does a whole lot better than that.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Honor and Lies

The sad, strange and silly saga of Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut's attorney general and Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, has prompted a lot of commentary. It seems that Blumenthal has claimed, falsely, that he served in the American military in Vietnam.
It's not the first time and probably not the last that someone who did not serve in that war has claimed to have done so.
In this morning's Post, former editor and reporter and Vietnam vet Henry Allen decided to answer the question of "why they lie about Vietnam."
Allen puts it this way: "The fact is that regardless of whether a war was moral, justified, won or meaningful, having served in one -- particularly in combat -- confers prestige."
I suspect that he is correct, but in a limited way.
Chris Hedges, in his brilliant War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, writes, "the rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug."
I doubt that Allen would put much stock in Hedges' opinions because Hedges only covered wars and never fought in one. After all, in this morning's piece, Allen also writes,
"Once I listened to a former war-zone correspondent who was eager to demonstrate that his time under fire was the same as a soldier's. He said, I'd get up in the morning and face the decision of whether I should head out where it was really dangerous.
But soldiers don't get to decide. They don't have choices. That's part of the hell of war."
Allen would likely have more respect for the observations of Tim O'Brien, whose towering work, The Things They Carried, includes this observation:
"A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil."
One wonders why participating in an addiction to obscenity and evil continues to confer prestige. That it does strikes me as incredibly sad. It's like the old drinking stories of recovering alcoholics -- they know that the drink could have, and maybe should have killed them, just as it did so many of their buddies, but they cannot let go of the irresistible feeling that the drink gave them.
There have been 6,492 coalition casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq as of May 20, including 37 this month in Afghanistan.
The prestige toll continues to rise every day.
As to Vietnam, well, I was 15 years old in April of 1975, when the last Americans left Vietnam. I organized and participated in my first protest against American militarism on Armed Forces Day in 1978.