It’s That Time of Year

Christmas isn’t just a time for shopping!  In his thoughtful Christmas 2017 newsletter, a dear friend, A.D., reflects on moral foundations:  “There is still great danger in certainty, whether it is embodied by an ideology like Communism or in a fundamentalist faith… what we now hold as fundamental values and attitudes may look pretty silly in 200 years… even ‘Foundational’ beliefs change over time.”

Roy Moore’s senatorial candidacy in Alabama shows that the passage of 200 years is not required for things to start looking crazy.  Since the election of Donald Trump (heavens, only a year ago!), the moral foundations of the Republican party have morphed such that a credibly-accused pedophile, an Islamophobic racist who feels that America was last “great” during times of slavery, enjoys the full support of the Republican National Committee.  And, of course, Moore has the strong support of our Chaos President, himself a compulsive liar, misogynist, racist, xenophobic, white nationalist bully.  What in the world has happened to the Party of Lincoln?  The self-hypnosis and extreme moral rationalization necessary in order to sacrifice its traditional values for the sake of political expediency has the GOP either sleepwalking or tied in knots.

I’ve been reading Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne (highly recommended).  Michel Montaigne, a 16th-century writer whose influence remains powerful today, adopted several Hellenistic philosophies, particularly Skepticism.  He addressed life problems by saying, essentially, “I withhold judgment,” which freed him from having to find an answer to anything, including the endless unanswerable questions that plague us every day.  The Skeptics accepted everything provisionally, rather than try to confront a “real world” with absolute truths which could be known, categorized and arranged in an orderly fashion.  To be so supremely unassuming, as they saw it, was the path to relaxation, joy and ultimately the flourishing of humanity.

Montaigne’s essays were initially embraced by the Catholic Church as exemplary arguments in support of faith, and then, within a century, denounced as subtle works of the Devil.  The Essays remained on a list of banned books until their eventual rehabilitation in the eyes of the Church.  Back and forth went the interpretation:  even the Church, a purported source of moral “foundations” could not claim a firm grip on bedrock.  Bakewell suggests that Zen Buddhism, with its perplexing koans, may have been a better approach to the imponderables of Montaigne’s universe.

A.D. does not “affiliate with a particular catechism,” but nevertheless writes, “I may not be someone swayed by revealed truth, prophecy or miracles but I recognize that, in my attempt to live some sort of a ‘virtuous’ life, I function in a web of religious history and culture... without it, I would probably be paralyzed by a sense of relativity and by a cosmic complexity that is way beyond  my puny reasoning capacities.”  A.D. is being rightfully unassuming:  the only thing we know for sure is that we don’t know anything for sure, says the Skeptic, the Montaigne, in all of us.  Thankfully, faith of a more general (not necessarily religious) type and hope in goodness save us from living in a bleak, unknowable world.  I might also look into Zen…

Not a bad newsletter to get for Christmas!  With apologies to our friend A.D., even Fourth World Nation, the just-released second novel in my sci-fi trilogy, takes a stand.  Here’s a brief excerpt:

“They had so readily mistaken mindless mob behavior for unity, just as they were doing now, thought Benn.  And, according to Marc, the fact that their intolerance would only be assuaged by a tangible demonstration—such as a prophecy or a miracle—was the opposite of faith.  Benn could easily provide such a demonstration, but even then, he would either be seen as a messiah or a witch.”

On that cheerful but skeptical note, Happy Holidays to all those who follow this blog!

 

Advertisements

Sanity Clause II

Remember when the truth was important?  In a previous post (11/8/17), I bemoaned the fact that the country has been sliding into a collective delusional state, where there is a “new normal” and alternative facts can turn everything upside-down.  The truth becomes fluid (or is simply dismissed as inconsequential, as Sarah Huckabee Sanders has done); anything becomes possible; and history can be rewritten before it has even happened.  I had hoped that the Sanity Clause in our social contract would set things straight, but that appears increasingly to be a big pie in the sky.

Michelle Goldberg writes in her Opinion column today, “There is a debate over whether Trump is unaware of reality or merely indifferent to it.  He might be delusional, or he might simply be asserting the power to blithely override truth, which is the ultimate privilege of a despot.”  Hmm– delusional or overriding truth:  which is worse?

Arguing for the former, Dr. Bandy Lee, a forensic psychiatrist at Yale Medical School, represents thousands of mental health professionals when he writes:  “We are currently witnessing more than his usual state of instability– in fact a pattern of decompensation:  increasing loss of touch with reality, marked signs of volatility and unpredictable behavior, and an attraction to violence as a means of coping.  These characteristics place our country and the world at extreme risk of danger.”

Timothy Egan, in the NY Times, points out that our Chaos President still questions Barrack Obama’s birth certificate; does not believe his own words on the infamous “Access Hollywood” sexual assault videotape; still thinks (without any evidence) that three million fraudulent votes caused him to lose the popular vote; endorsed a website that says the Pope uses magic to mastermind world events; and “gave a thumbs up to a media outlet that claims NASA runs a child labor colony on Mars.”

No kidding.  For those unfamiliar with Alex Jones’s Infowars channel, he’s the apoplectic guy who claims that the Sandy Hook massacre of schoolchildren and teachers was a staged hoax.  A guest on his show claimed that NASA has secretly kidnapped children and is keeping them as sex slaves on Mars, forcing a NASA spokesperson to deny the existence of such a colony.  It’s just incredible, the kind of insanity that passes for conspiracy theory (already a very low bar)!

Here’s some Fake News from my sci-fi novel Fourth World:

“When had Tharsis One and Two dropped off the map?  Shortly after the Great War of Unification.  Mr. Otis Walker, Benn’s second-grade teacher, had explained it many times- often in heatedly emotional terms- to his young, impressionable students.  From the Martian (that is, Tharsis) viewpoint, the centralization of Earth’s government in 2096 marked the beginning of the end:  birth of the Pan-World Electorate.  What was it like, his teacher wondered, receiving the news that your home government no longer existed; that your country had been all but destroyed in a cataclysmic global war?  That NASA, an agency of the former United States of America and your lifeline to Earth, had suddenly vanished?”

What, no NASA?  It must have been brutal, hearing that there would no longer be any kidnapped sex slaves…

 

 

 

 

Yes, Virginia, There Is A Sanity Clause

Ha-ha-ha!  You can’t fool-a me, there ain’t no Sanity Clause!

    — Chico Marx, A Night at the Opera

 

Like so much of Marxism, Chico’s remark to Groucho as they examine a (social?) contract has been proven wrong.  Ralph Northam has just defeated Ed Gillespie in the Virginia governor’s race, giving us a glimmer of hope that sanity may yet make a major comeback in this country.  The election was widely viewed as a referendum on Trumpism or Bannonism, with Gillespie stirring up white racial hostility by appealing to the racially resentful Republican base in that state.  If he had won, the GOP would have taken a step closer to being Steve Bannon’s party, and candidates in other states would have feared the white nationalist vote as well.

Northam’s victory comes as a huge relief, providing perspective to those of us struggling to maintain a sense of what is normal.  In our society, the level of willful ignorance, incivility, racism, sexism, intolerance, misogyny and just plain hatred has climbed alarmingly since Trump’s election last year.  We have become so inured to the daily White House lies, recklessness, misdirection, coarseness of communication, nepotism, conflicts of interest and blatant corruption that we’re tired of protesting these things.  Congress is so strongly influenced by money that the coal industry and the NRA remain untouched despite ample evidence that their activities can cause harm.  Denial of science and history have allowed, in too many minds, the possibility of an alternate universe, an alt-society ruled by alt-facts.  Up can be down, neo-Nazis can be “very fine people,” and the air can be “too clean” for our own good.  Sounds like science fiction to me.

In this alt-society, there is a “new normal” compared to one year ago, a gross distortion of what we view as acceptable, and even what is real– never mind any vision for the future of America.  From overexposure and fatigue, we’ve slid into a collective delusional state, which by definition endangers our collective sanity.   But only to a certain degree, it turns out.  Tonight’s good news from Virginia shows that we’re not locked into an irreversible slide toward group insanity, but rather that we can, and should, continue to resist.  In the nick of time, Virginia has invoked the Sanity Clause!

Immediately after yet another tragic mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, TX two days ago, our Chaos President tweeted that this was not a gun issue, but rather a problem with mental health “at the highest level.”

If he’s referring to his Administration, we have reached a rare agreement:  there is indeed a mental health problem at the highest level, and the 25th Amendment may be the Sanity Clause we now need.

 

Ready Or Not

Ever have that dream– you know, the one where you’re in a classroom, it’s the day of the final exam, and you suddenly realize you haven’t attended a single class all year long?  Or maybe the worse dream, where you find yourself naked at noon in the middle of the town square?

Both of these, in my experience, tend to come at challenging times (like the last day of medical school), when we feel insecure about being exposed as unprepared or incompetent.  Here’s an excerpt from the prologue to Fourth World, a dream sequence in which Benn Marr argues with the little voice of his subconscious mind:

“… there’s a clear impression that he’s acting a role, passively following a script in some holo-play.  In that context, the director, after yelling “Emote, Benn, emote!” has suddenly disappeared on his lunch break, leaving Benn completely unprepared.  You should have studied, Benn, the small voice scolds.  Should have been paying closer attention, it piles on needlessly.”

These are certainly challenging times; how prepared are the President and Congress?  Are they standing naked in the Mall (sorry for the image)?  When efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act came up, it turned out that they were totally unprepared and had no feasible alternative plan ready– despite seven years of yelling and posturing.  The only way to repeal Obamacare would be to deprive millions of their constituents of health coverage.  And, if not for a few brave Senators, they would have done just that, in order to pay for…

… their tax reform!  Republicans have been agitating about this for years too; cutting taxes for big business and the wealthy has always been the GOP’s top priority.  So when the time came, were they ready?  Well, Repeal and Replace failed, so paying for tax cuts required raising the nation’s debt by $1.5 trillion dollars, which I thought would go deeply against the grain, for Republicans– but apparently not.  Even after ballooning the federal deficit, they still have to cast about for other ways to save money:  including, you guessed it, safety-net and entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid, which are now threatened, along with child tax credits and other targets.   Bypassing public hearings and scrambling to pass their tax bill ASAP, the GOP wants the “win” that eluded them with healthcare.  Who says we lack the ability to compromise in such partisan times?  Between our Chaos President and a GOP majority lacking the courage to displease his voter base, the government has managed to severely compromise our collective vision of America, let alone our standing in the world and the well-being of future generations.

Speaking of compromise, Chief of Staff John Kelley has blamed the Civil War on the lack of compromise between North and South, whereas historians tell us precisely the opposite:  that it was decades of compromise over the treatment of slaves that led to the Civil War.  Middle-school students are taught this!  As Benn’s subconscious would say:  You should have studied, John Kelley.  Should have been paying closer attention.  His ignorance of history parallels the Administration’s willful ignorance– in fact, denial– of science.  When it comes to protecting human rights, the environment, and world peace, it is perilous to govern by individual, subjective beliefs about the truth rather than documented, demonstrable facts.

However, beliefs do seem to rule right now, rather than knowledge of the historical, scientific and geopolitical facts.  In that case, I wonder, how prepared are our leaders to face an immensely complex world?  The 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration brings to mind the enlarging crisis in the Middle East– connecting, at one end, Israel and the Palestinians to Iran, Syria and ISIS at the other end.  The belief that sending more military to kill terrorists will solve the problem is simplistic and dangerously naive.  It’s a bit like fighting global warming by turning up your air conditioner.  Is Trump ready for China’s One Belt, One Road expansion?  The re-emergence of Russia as a world power?  Brexit?  Population migration driven by climate change in central Africa?  Corrupt elections in South America?  We know by his Tweets that Trump doesn’t have a clue how to contain the nuclear threat from North Korea.  In fact:  Name the issue, and I doubt anyone in this Administration would be ready to deal with it effectively.

We’ll need to take better care of our own welfare, our own futures, and each other.  Heed the little voice:  study the issues.  Pay closer attention.  And above all, vote!

 

Shameless Commercial

Dear Friends,

The long wait is over!  It’s been just over a year since the release of Fourth World, and during that time the response to my first novel has been fantastic.  In addition to the usual suspects (e.g. immediate family), many friends-of-friends and distant acquaintances have expressed admiration for Fourth World.  For the numerologists out there, and those who love “objective” data:  out of 13 reviews, 11 gave the book five stars– and the other two, four stars.  The main complaint I’ve heard is that people are anxious to know what happens to the mysterious hero/anti-hero Benn Marr, and to his sometimes-befuddled friend Lora.

You may recall the final paragraph of Fourth World (spoiler alert):

 

Walther Beame shook his head, overcome by a heady mixture of resentment, relief and triumph.  Stepping forward once again with the Dermamist squeezed tightly in his trembling hand, he uttered through gritted teeth, “Welcome home, son.  Welcome home.”

 

Is Benn returning home like Leopold Bloom, or Ulysses, or is he more the Prodigal Son?  The answer to that and other burning questions lies in the sequel, Fourth World Nation (this is the second part of a planned trilogy).

To quote my own blurb on the back cover:  “The year is 2197, and young Benn Marr has joined the Chimera Project.  To escape the clutches of a greedy pharmaceutical corporation and the Pan-World Electorate, Benn and Lora flee to Mars, where they encounter the cruel effects of colonialism:  shameless exploitation, political inequity and militaristic oppression.  They are swept into the deadly conflict erupting between the world government, the Resistance, and a mysterious, quasi-religious cult.  It is a conflict which turns all of Benn’s relationships, as well as his conception of his own uncanny abilities, upside-down.”

 

Fourth World Nation is available on Amazon, in paperback or as an eBook (you can download the Kindle app for free).  There are links to both books on this blog, but here’s the Amazon site:

 

https://www.amazon.com/Fourth-World-Nation/dp/1973142503/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1509379909&sr=8-1&keywords=Fourth+world+nation

 

For those who have yet to read Fourth World, the first book in the science fiction trilogy, it really is best to start at the beginning.  Fourth World is also available on Amazon, as a paperback or eBook.  Here’s a link to that site:

 

 

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01LWVNG6A/ref=cm_cr_ryp_prd_ttl_sol_0

 

 

My heartfelt gratitude to everyone for your generous comments, reviews and support!

 

All my best,

 

Chee Chow

 

 

Let’s Take A Closer Look

One evening in 1978, when I was in medical school, I described to a few dinner companions a fantasy/sci-fi machine for diagnosing illnesses.  CT scanners (which provide multiple computer-generated cross-sectional views, or tomographs, of the body using x-rays) had only recently been invented, and MRI (using NMR technology taught to us in physical chemistry classes at the time) was still a few years away.

My dream machine, I explained to my dinner mates– whose eyes I could see were beginning to glaze over– would compile all the tissue cross-sections to generate a 3-D picture, a hologram.  At that time, CT’s limited resolution showed us the organs and tissues, but what if we could greatly increase the resolution with a different type of energy beam, something other than x-rays?  Radar?  Microwaves?  Cosmic rays?  Who knew?  We would see not only tissues but cells, then drill down to the level of cell nuclei, mitochondria, chromosomes, even individual genes.  The resolution of the imaging technique was the rate-limiting step.

With my dream machine, abnormal cells would stand out right away; combine that information with indicators of tissue metabolism (PET scanners would come along later) and even images of gene sequences, and before you knew it, surgical biopsies of live tissue– for example, to diagnose cancer– would no longer be needed.  “You could examine the hologram from all different angles, then perform a virtual biopsy!” I exclaimed (stimulated by the excellent wine we had with dinner).  The computer, having obtained all necessary data from the high-resolution scan, could “biopsy” pieces of the 3-D image, then project them on a screen for the pathologist:  this could be repeated over and over, without any pain to the patient.

Well, the dream machine is one step closer.  This week– only 36 years later– a newsletter from the dean of Yale Medical School announced the arrival of a high-resolution cryoelectron microscope with tomographic capabilities, enabling researchers to view specimens in 3-D from multiple angles (unfortunately you still have to obtain a specimen, as nobody has figured out how to put a whole patient into the machine).  It can tell us the atomic structures of membrane proteins– now that is small!  By the way, the three scientists most responsible for developing cryo-EM received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry this month.

(Not making any claims to the Nobel Prize– just saying).  Here’s an excerpt from my science fiction novel, Fourth World:

Lora stepped out of the Pan-Bio Analyzer, commonly known as the Probot, and reached for her paper robe.  Her skin was flushed and tingling- it felt like a Sonicspray, she thought, only without the blowing sensation.  The Probot scan, which produced a detailed analysis of anatomy and organ function- it would have detected a gastric ulcer, sinus infection or brain tumor, for example- was the final part of the physical evaluation required of all students, and she had passed without a hitch.  So had Benn and Sool, who were already on their way to the first formal lecture for the incoming class of interns, scheduled to begin in Cushing Hall in just a few minutes.  After a week of organizational meetings and introductory talks, it was a much-anticipated moment.

Lora nodded to the technician seated at a control panel, hurriedly crossed the cold Probot Chamber to the adjacent dressing room, and exchanged the robe for her standard-issue orange bodysuit.  Almost everyone attending YaleConn Med- not only the lowly interns- wore those bodysuits to class, so Lora shrugged off their resemblance to the prison uniforms worn by PsySoc reformees back at Tharsis One.  In a way, Lora was disappointed that the computer hadn’t found anything wrong with her:  no explanation for the distracting noise, that persistent insect buzz that had kept her up for part of the night.  It was faint, but intermittently took on a pronounced throbbing pattern- quite annoying.  Neither Benn nor Sool seemed to hear that noise, whatever it was:  A blood clot?  Eustachian tube dysfunction?  Seizure activity?  The Probot said no, no and no.  Meaning that there wouldn’t be an easy remedy.

 

 

One Nation, Divisible

Our Chaos President has been at it again; he can’t seem to go 24 hours– or at least a news cycle– without attacking some person or institution in a way that causes dissention and outrage.  That’s his goal, obviously– we’ve seen this pattern when things are going poorly in his government.  The pattern is particularly strong when the GOP healthcare agenda, embodied in the zombie-like Repeal and Replace bills, threatens to collapse yet again.  Divisive declarations and insults, his stock-in-trade, come flying out of the White House (where is his Chief of Staff?) whenever public approval of Trump policies hits a low point– whenever he needs a jolt of energy from his unshakeable “base,” or something to distract everyone else with.

With a firm NO from Senators McCain and Paul, and Sen. Collins leaning against it (but bribes to Maine and Alaska apparently are still negotiable), and even Sen. Cruz saying he’s not convinced about the bill, the rushed vote desired by the GOP looks likely to be another embarrassing defeat for the party.  Meanwhile, the usual crises– you know the ones:  natural disasters, climate change, opioid addiction, threats of terrorism and nuclear war, etc.– continue to swirl about, without a “win” in sight.

What better time, then, for POTUS to condemn NFL players– especially the one who started it all, Colin Kaepernick– for taking a knee during the national anthem?  There’s no mention, of course, that this is a peaceful protest against racial inequality and police brutality toward African-Americans.  Ignoring history as usual (half a century ago, you recall, a peaceful march from Selma, Alabama met with a more violent reaction, but the attitude hasn’t changed), taking a knee is seen purely as an act of disrespect for “our” nation that should be punished, period.  And Charlottesville proved that the more divisive Trump’s statements, the more successful the diversion.  The place and the timing (at a rally in Alabama) was cynical but perfect:  1-2 days before NFL’s football Sunday, maximizing the predictable response from players.  The next day, over 250 athletes, trainers and team owners joined together in an impressive, moving show of solidarity.

It reminded me of the 1960 movie “Spartacus,” in which a Roman general demands that the defeated slave rebels turn over their leader.  Give me Spartacus, the general says, and I will let everyone else go.  One by one– beginning with Kirk Douglas himself– the rebels declare, “I am Spartacus,” resulting in the crucifixion of all.  Fortunately, incursions on Constitutional rights under this Administration have not yet involved capital punishment!

Here’s an excerpt from Fourth World Nation, the second in the trilogy, which will be published in the coming month:

“That is impressive, Martin:  the assassination of Ambassador Mauer, the co-ordination of demonstrations and sabotage, the recent bombing at City Hall.  Your Gang of Three has certainly been a busy group.”

“Thank you!  I appreciate that, truly,”  Martin blushed, all of a sudden feeling quite jovial.  “Ha!  We do make an excellent team, even if I say so myself!  It’s like that old saying:  ‘Strength in numbers,’ am I right?”

At the door there came a soft knocking sound, unsure.  The man frowned at the interruption, crossed the room in three strides, and opened the door just wide enough for Martin to see two guards and a badly bloodied prisoner standing in the corridor.  After a brief exchange of agitated murmurs and a quick glance in the direction of the doctor, the man swung his full attention back to Martin, who was awaiting him with bated breath.

Quite typically, the Superintendent did not miss a beat.  “‘Strength in numbers,’ you said?  No, that’s not quite right, Martin,” Khalmed Salman corrected him:  “What we say around these parts is ‘divided, they fall.’”