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Archive for January, 2011

About ten years ago, inspired by the movie, Jurassic Park, I began to wonder whether it might be possible to clone a mammoth, an animal that has been extinct for about 10,000 years. I figured that because some of these animals have been preserved fairly well in the frozen lands of northern Siberia, some of the DNA might be intact. It seemed to me pretty clear that Michael Crichton’s idea of getting DNA from a preserved insect that had bitten a dinosaur was a little far-fetched. However, finding intact DNA in a well-preserved mammoth might be more likely. So – I decided to write a novel about the idea. I figured that would be easier than actually cloning a mammoth…

Well, it turned out  that writing one’s first novel is not so easy after all. While the first draft was completed in 2001, I found that I really needed to rewrite it – several times. Then, after I had written the best version of the novel that I could – I put it aside, because I didn’t think it was good enough. A few years later, while living in Ireland, I decided to take another crack at it. So, I rewrote the novel again with major changes. I liked it a lot better this time and only rewrote it two more times before I thought it was ready to publish. (Come to think of it, it might have been easier to just clone the mammoth.)

The basics of the story never changed: a Japanese professor decides to clone a perfectly preserved mammoth, and like in all good thrillers, things start to go wrong. Then they go very wrong. I won’t tell you the whole story, but if you are interested, you can buy the paperback version, or if you have a Kindle reader, you can download it from Amazon by clicking this link. Now, I’m not writing this just to call attention to my book – at least not entirely anyway. I decided to write this because something strange, perhaps even eerie is going on.

While reading yesterday’s Irish Independent newspaper online (I love this paper, they have so much world news that the U.S. press ignores), I came across an article about cloning mammoths. It seems there is this Japanese professor who thinks he knows how to do it and plans to do so by extracting the DNA from a well-preserved mammoth that was found in Siberia. He thinks he could have a cloned baby mammoth in about four years. I wonder if he has read my book? I mean the part about where things start to go wrong and then they go horribly wrong? Probably not, I’ll bet.

A few years ago, cloning was pretty controversial, but the idea seems to have become accepted now. Even so, I don’t think we are being served cloned lamb or beef yet, are we? And, I haven’t heard of any cloned babies being born yet – but they certainly could be, I suppose. I think we have the technology. But the idea of cloning an extinct animal – seriously – that should be considered very carefully. Now, if we are talking about an animal that went extinct in the recent past, like the Passenger Pigeon, because people hunted it to extinction – well, maybe that would be OK. But animals that became extinct eons ago may present dangers that we haven’t considered. These animals are no longer a part of our world and reintroducing them might cause unforeseen problems. I don’t think the professor in Japan that is referred to in the Irish Independent foresees any downside to his project – and that is what worries me because that is exactly like my novel. Really.

Perhaps, we need to have some sort of international body that considers certain types of advanced research and allows or disallows certain experiments. I can think of a couple of physics experiments that would fall in that category. I suppose there are several other biology experiments, medical experiments, chemistry experiments, and even computing experiments (like embedding computers in people) that might cry out for some oversight beyond that of the individual experimenter.

Mary Shelley implicitly warned us about this topic a century ago when she wrote her novel, Frankenstein. So far, no one has taken her warning seriously. You see, we only take warnings like that after the fact.

Someday, that strategy will prove to be too late.

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Anyway you look a the recent shooting in Tucson, it is a tragedy. I suppose all Americans can agree on that. However, as the nation gets over the shock and grief of the murders, I suppose we will soon begin pointing the finger of blame. I’m here to help.

In order to understand what happened in Tucson, it is necessary to recall a little U.S. history concerning the treatment of people with mental disorders. At one time, many years ago, the U.S. government was actively involved in providing care for people who had severe mental problems. There were mental hospitals in most states that were funded by the Federal government. It was a rare sight to see someone staggering along the sidewalk, mumbling to themselves. Today, that is commonplace. Why? Because of a fundamental difference in philosophy among Americans. We have, in this country, pretty much two camps. One camp sort of believes that we, as a society, should all work together for the common good. This group believes in high quality public education, government support of health care, and so forth. The other group is the rugged individualists whose philosophy is pretty much “you are on your own”. They believe that people should take care of themselves and they don’t want their tax dollars being used to help someone who did not provide for themselves.

At one time, the people who believed that government existed to help the people were in power. They created a system of mental hospitals to provide the type of care for the severely mentally disturbed that families just could not provide. This was the American way for many, many years. But all that changed in the late 20th century. A severe blow was dealt to this system when, under President Reagan, the Community Health Centers Act was repealed. This was the beginning of the end of Federal involvement in mental health care. Times and attitudes were changing. The people were voting more for States Rights than for a strong Federal government. Eventually, the responsibility for the care of mentally ill people transitioned to the individual states to handle as each state saw fit. The move has been a disaster.

When the Federally funded mental hospitals were closed and the Community Mental Health Centers were no longer funded we began seeing something new. There were homeless people wandering in the cities. They were obviously mentally ill. They were unable to care for themselves. It is that way today. Perhaps 30% of the homeless people are severely mentally ill, unable to care for themselves, unable to cope with the system or life on the streets. When winter comes some die on the streets of exposure. And we do nothing, except look away.

So, what does this have to do with the shooting in Tucson? During the past 40 to 50 years many of the Republican dominated states of the American West have clamored for states rights – and they still do. During this time they have obtained more and more authority and become more independent of the Federal government. They make their own rules now. However, with this new-found authority comes new-found responsibility. The State of Arizona has its own policies on how to deal with the mentally ill.  It has its own policies on who can own a gun. It has its own policies on how much ammunition one can buy. The State of Arizona also has the responsibility to keep its citizens safe. It has the obligation to ensure that it is not negligent in allowing dangerous people to have the opportunity to commit murder and mayhem.

The State of Arizona failed, not because it couldn’t protect it people; it failed because it didn’t. If Arizona had a system of mental hospitals for the severely mentally ill the young man who caused so much harm would have never had the opportunity to do so. All the signs were there, but there was no system in place in Arizona to take action. The mental hospitals don’t exist anymore. Mentally ill people are now integrated into society. Why? Because it is less expensive than caring for them. It was a business decision by President Reagan and many other Republican leaders. Ultimately, it is a question of philosophy. What kind of country are we and what are our values? The truth is we are a divided nation. So we leave these questions to the individual states.

The court case will probably go on for a long time. There will be endless analysis of who said what and who did what. Even the parents will be called in and interrogated. Why didn’t they stop their son, they will be asked. As if they could imagine this would happen.  The finger-pointing will begin, as it always does. Some will say it is Sarah Palin’s fault. Some may blame Glenn Beck for inciting hatred on his TV show. Some will blame Rep. Giffords for not taking sufficient precautions. Some will blame the young man’s school and teacher for not taking stronger action. And everyone will be heading for cover, trying to avoid blame. However, the blame belongs to none of these because they didn’t have the knowledge or the power or the duty to prevent the disaster. There is only one entity that can be rightly and legally blamed because it failed in its duty to its citizens in so many ways.

Blame Arizona.

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Or should I have entitled this, “The Insane Right Has Guns”?

The recent events in Tucson, Arizona will be argued – they are already being argued – by both sides of the gun issue. Nevertheless, all must agree that this event should not have happened. Was it the fault of Sarah Palin just because she labeled Representative Gabrielle Gifford’s district with a gunsight? Let’s not be silly, right Sarah? After all, just because Gabrielle complained about the gunsight  imagery and that it would have consequences does that really mean that anyone would have somehow been inspired by that? Does it? Surely no crazy person would have been influenced by that, right Sarah? Sleep well, Sarah. It was just a horrible coincidence – wasn’t it?

It would be easy to talk about the current political climate and how ever since the Tea Party spun itself up that politics have become ugly. There is a lot of nastiness in general, untrue accusations about the birth of our President, untrue accusations about health care and “Death Panels”, and untrue accusations about the disastrous state of the economy being due to President Obama instead of the insane economics of George Bush. It goes on and on. Gross lies and misrepresentations from the extreme right. Its proper name is propaganda. The question we must ask now is this: have they finally gone too far?

However, before we go there, we need to take a look at one of America’s sacred rights (it seems to have the same quality as a religious belief), the right to bear arms. The Second Amendment to the Constitution (apparently the writers of the Constitution had forgotten about this, so they had to put it in as an amendment). The entire extent of the Second Amendment reads simply, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” That’s it. A couple of years ago the U.S. Supreme Court demonstrated its knowledge of the English language by ruling that the right to bear arms has nothing to do with being in a Militia. This is the same Supreme Court that recently ruled that corporations have the same free speech rights as living people. Our Supreme Court is undoubtedly inspired by Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, where he says, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – nothing more nor less”.

Speaking of the Constitution, would it be possible to talk about it rationally for a moment? Let’s face it. It is a document written by people who lived in the U.S. over 200 years ago and it was written to address their needs. They were intelligent people, these writers of the Constitution, and they knew that times change and needs change. So, they put in the ability to amend the Constitution by their successors. The people who wrote the Constitution did not believe they were writing as religious document that could not be questioned, modified, or improved. That is the whole reason they built in the capability to write amendments. They were sensible people. Unlike a lot of people we hear on far-right-wing television and radio today. You know who I mean.

We seem to have reached a point where we are unable to conduct intelligent discourse amongst ourselves. Everything is presented as a life or death decision. I guess that’s how you sell “news”. The problem is that this is poisonous news and it is poisoning our country. A case in point is the recent mass murder that took place in Tucson. The killer, by all accounts, is nuts. His classmates in school were afraid of him. One of them even said they thought he might bring a gun to class. He was, by all accounts, nearly incoherent. He couldn’t say a complete, meaningful sentence. Oh, and another thing – he had a gun. And he used it. Now, any sensible person would say that crazy people should not have guns – but not the gun lobby and the far extreme right. For these people guns are a sacred right enshrined in a sacred document – the Constitution.

“The time has come,” the walrus said, “to talk of other things”. Indeed. We Americans need to begin a sensible discussion about this subject, the subject of guns. I don’t want insane people to have guns. I also don’t want insane people to be brain surgeons or airline pilots. The airlines have figured out how to keep the insanity out of the cockpit. Same for the hospitals – there’s no insanity in the operating room. So why can’t we keep guns out of the hands of the criminally insane? And please, don’t tell me because it is our God-given right for all Americans to bear arms. The more we, as a people, persist in deluding ourselves about issues that only require common sense solutions, the more we will find that we are building an insane culture that can’t even make sense of the English language (sort of like the Supreme Court). It’s time for the ranting fanatics like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and the rest of the Fox mob to just back off – they are stirring up the crazies – and I suspect they know it. It is time for a little civilization in America.

As Lewis Carroll said, “If you drink much from a bottle marked ‘poison’ it is certain to disagree with you sooner or later”.

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