Jim Mastro

Writing, and all things in between


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The Missing Factor

Interesting things often happen to me in the transitional phase between sleep and wakefulness. In that twilight zone where I am neither fully asleep nor fully awake, it seems that the intuitive, creative side of my brain is most active. During that time, solutions to vexing problems (usually related to a writing project) come to me, seemingly out of the blue. Other thoughts also occur to me, often regarding subjects I wasn’t even aware I was thinking about.

That happened again just the other morning. But before I reveal it, a little background.

Whether or not life is inevitable, given the right circumstances, is a problem that has vexed biologists (and philosophers) for some time. Since we only have one example – Earth – it is impossible to draw any firm conclusions. That is one reason why so much effort continues to go into searching for evidence of life beyond our planet. Much of this effort is directed at Mars right now, but there is also considerable effort to identify Earth-like planets around other stars. In addition, the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project continues its decades-long search for signs of another civilization. If any hard evidence of extraterrestrial life were to be found, even simple, unicellular life, it would change the equation dramatically.

So far, however, there has been nothing firm. So scientists are forced to base their conjectures on what can be found here, on our own planet. That evidence is certainly suggestive. Bacterial and other unicellular life has been found thriving in such unlikely places as undersea thermal vents, near-boiling hot springs, within rocks in Antarctica, in perpetually dark and frigid Antarctic lakes, and even miles underground. If life can exist in those places, it seems it can exist anywhere.

Many of these places are proposed as the place where life may have originated, since many of them mirror conditions on our planet when it was very young, with its extremes of temperature and anoxic, even toxic, environments. Other scientists propose that life originated elsewhere and the Earth was seeded by bacteria hitching rides on comets and meteors. Recent evidence that some bacteria can survive prolonged exposure to the frigid airlessness of space gives credence to that view. However, that doesn’t solve the problem of how life originated. If it didn’t evolve here but was simply introduced here, it still had to evolve somewhere. Claiming that Earth was seeded just kicks the can down the road.

Nonetheless, based on the foregoing, it seems increasingly likely that life is indeed inevitable. If and when we do discover extraterrestrial life, that argument becomes much stronger. We may be forced to conclude that the physical laws that organize our universe make it impossible for life NOT to develop.

That’s where the “missing factor” mentioned in the title of this post comes in. It was this thought that suddenly occurred to me in my half-awake state: If the physical structure of our universe does indeed make life inevitable, then physicists must take that into account. No theory meant to describe our physical universe could be considered complete without factoring in its propensity to produce life. In other words, the inevitability of life might be as fundamental to the structure of our universe – and as fundamental to the equations that describe that structure – as the relationship between matter and energy or the existence of photons and neutrinos.

I encourage physicists to develop such a theory. Like any theory, for it to be valid it must make predictions that are testable. Equations could be developed that would predict under what conditions and how frequently life would form, based on the known physical structure of the universe. We will continue to search for extraterrestrial life, and sooner or later (if our civilization survives long enough), we will either discover enough of it to confirm the theory, or we will find nothing at all and the theory will be ruled invalid.

I predict the former.


Can America Be Saved?

I tend to avoid politics and religion in this blog, for obvious reasons. Both subjects seem to get peoples’ blood boiling. But it is an election year, so the temptation has become too strong to resist. Besides, reasonable people can discuss contentious issues in a reasonable and respectful manner, right? So here I go.

The title of this post might be considered a tad dramatic. But it is, nonetheless, not far from the truth. Sadly, our government is as corrupt as any third world banana republic. (In fact, elections in some of those third world countries are often much cleaner than ours. Just ask Jimmy Carter.)

So what makes our current system so corrupt? Two things:

1) Politicians require massive amounts of money to run for national office. The 2012 election cost over $7 billion. The 2014 midterm election was the most expensive midterm in history ($3.67 billion), and this upcoming election in 2016 will probably cost more than both of those previous elections combined.

Most of this money comes from large corporations and extremely rich people. When oil companies give a politician millions of dollars, whose interests do you think that politician will vote for? Simply put, campaign contributions are legal bribery, and the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision only made the problem worse. The idea that “money is speech” is a grotesque misrepresentation of the Constitution. The Koch brothers (or a union) just have to hand over a few million bucks to a campaign without saying a word and the politician is in their pocket. No actual speech required.

This situation is absolutely no different that handing a politician a briefcase full of cash in return for a political favor. In a word, it is corrupt. And it is legal.

2) Our election system itself is corrupt. All of the major electronic voting machine companies are owned by avowed republicans. That, in itself, is not a bad thing. I have good friends who are republicans. But my confidence is not inspired when the owner of one of the largest companies stated publicly in 2004 that he was committed to electing a republican president. Nor is my confidence inspired by clandestine, last minute changes to the voting software, the companies preventing government officials from inspecting their software, evidence that the software is easily hackable, thousands of votes that mysteriously appear and/or disappear, municipalities where the number of votes exceeds by a large margin the number of eligible voters, or the propensity of votes for one candidate to switch automatically to an opposing candidate — while a person is voting. All of these irregularities are well documented.

If the benefits of these irregularities were equally divided across the political spectrum we could blame incompetence, but they’re not. In nearly every case, they benefited republican candidates. I believe it was Stalin who said, in effect, the voters don’t matter; what matters is the person who counts the votes.

On top of that are the myriad voter ID laws and voting rules passed recently in response to contrived fears of “voter fraud,” which is nonexistent (except for the institutional fraud noted above). The only purpose of these laws and rules is quite transparently to disenfranchise people of color, who overwhelmingly vote for democrats. (Example: Increasing the number of voting machines in affluent white neighborhoods and severely limiting them in minority neighborhoods, such that people in the latter must wait many hours to vote — or can’t vote at all because the polls close before they get off work.)

And then, of course, are all the stories of republican committees putting up billboards in minority neighborhoods or sending out flyers to minority voters that give the wrong voting date, or the wrong location, or contain a veiled threat that the voter will be arrested for some reason.

Honestly, I don’t understand how people get away with this stuff. But it’s all legal.

Obviously, the fix is in, as George Carlin once said. The idea that we live in a representative democracy is a pleasant fantasy, but no more than that. The question is: can it be repaired? Can the republic be returned to the people? (The government has only been “by the people” (mostly) for about half of our history, such as for several decades after the revolution, and for several decades after the depression.)

There are ways to fix our former republic. They won’t be easy to implement, because the moneyed interests are firmly against any such change. In theory, though, they are doable:

1) Get money out of politics. Period. Make it illegal for anyone, private citizen or corporation, to donate to a campaign. But then, how would candidates get their message out? Simple:
2) Free air time. Television and radio stations are given licenses by the government to use the public airwaves. Let me repeat that: public airwaves. The people of the U.S. own them, not the broadcast companies. Make it mandatory for each radio and TV station to donate an equal certain amount of air time to each candidate, as a condition of keeping their licenses. Make other aspects of a campaign publicly funded, and each candidate gets the same amount.
3) Limit actual campaigning to a maximum of three months before the election. No more of this ridiculous 18-month campaign. This will have the added benefit of reducing the media’s sophomoric tendency to treat the campaign like a horse race instead of a forum of ideas on the future direction of our country.
4) Go back to paper ballots, which can be recounted and are much more difficult to tamper with.
5) Repeal all those ridiculous voter ID laws, ensure that every person is given the opportunity to vote, and make voting day a holiday. Make it illegal to spread false information.
6) Finally, make it mandatory to vote. If you don’t vote and don’t have a reasonable, verifiable excuse, it’s a $100 fine.

Please note: there is absolutely nothing partisan about these suggestions. They benefit both parties equally. Nor do I mean to imply that democrats have never engaged in underhanded or even illegal activities, because they most certainly have (Daly’s Chicago comes to mind, as do the shady dealings of some unions in the past). But is it a sad fact that most of the shady stuff recently has come from the GOP and right-wing PACs.

I guarantee if these changes were made, this would once again become the republic it was designed to be. Benjamin Franklin, asked upon leaving the Constitutional Convention what form of government we had, famously replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

We lost it once before and regained it. Maybe we can do it again.


The Wages of Living in Fear

I don’t usually get too serious in this blog, but this subject has been bothering me for some time.

There seems to be an accelerating trend in the U.S., fomented with glee and abandon by republican presidential candidates and right-wing media. That trend is to believe that everyone lives in mortal danger at all times, from every conceivable avenue, and the only defense is to arm oneself to the teeth and be ready to shoot.

Well here are the wages of living in constant fear and paranoia (from ABC News):

Ohio Man Fatally Shoots Teen Son He Mistook for an Intruder
By Dan Sewell, associated press
CINCINNATI — Jan 12, 2016, 4:20 PM ET

An armed man who believed he was confronting an intruder in the basement of his home Tuesday morning instead fatally shot his 14-year-old son, who was supposed to be on his way to school, police said.

Police said the teen had headed to the bus stop but apparently came back home through a back door. The man said he heard a noise in the basement. Police said when the father opened a door within the basement, the boy appeared.

“He scared me!” the distraught father said in his 911 call shortly before 6:30 a.m. “I thought he was in school. I heard noise, so I went downstairs looking and he jumped out at me. …. Oh, God. Get here quick!”

The man told police he accidentally shot his son with a .45-caliber handgun. After initially telling the 911 dispatcher the boy was hit in the chest, he then said it was in the neck. The dispatcher told him to put the gun on the kitchen counter, then talked him through first aid steps and tried to calm him until police and emergency vehicles arrived.

The boy died at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Police identified him as Georta Mack. They didn’t immediately release the name of the father, who’s heard in the tape repeatedly shouting, “Oh, God, please hurry! Oh, God!”

There was a similar story recently of a woman who shot and killed her daughter when the girl arrived home unexpectedly. The woman kept a loaded gun by her bed.

When are people going to wise up and stop listening to the fear mongers? Picture here Senator Lindsey Graham talking about ISIL, fluttering his hands and crying, “We have stop ISIS before we all get killed here at home!” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Ae7EXUSyhc)

Really? A few fanatics are going to cross the ocean and kill 300 million Americans? Just like that? What an idiot.

This kind of fear mongering benefits only the politicians who thrive on generating fear to get elected (with empty promises to make everyone safe) and weapons manufacturers who conveniently fund the campaigns of those very same politicians. See a connection?

When did Americans become so easy to scare? When did we all become so gullible and paranoid? Someone’s chance of dying in a home invasion is so small as to be negligible, but unintentional homicides like the one above are all too common, as are other accidental shootings, often by toddlers who get a hold of that same gun that someone believed was going to make him or her “safe.” Only a handful of Americans died at the hands of terrorists last year, but over 30,000 died as a result of firearm homicide, suicide, and accident. Few people seem to care about that, even though that really IS a scary statistic.

I’m not opposed to responsible gun ownership, but keeping loaded weapons at the ready as though you live in a war zone is a recipe for tragedy. Maybe it’s time Americans re-discovered their backbones and their senses and stopped listening to the spineless (or just cynical and opportunistic), frothing-at-the-mouth fear mongers in Congress and on TV.


What If You Won $400 Million?

Like so many other people this week, I’m indulging myself in the fantasy that I could win the biggest lottery jackpot in history. 800 million dollars! That’s $32 million every year for 25 years. Or, if you take the cash award, about $400 million after taxes.

Now, I realize that my chance of winning is so small as to be statistically zero, but if I don’t buy a ticket my chance of winning is definitely zero. So, what the heck? I bought a ticket. Just one. Buying hundreds of tickets, as I have seen some people do, only increases one’s chances by an incremental amount (they’re still so close to zero as to be negligible). I’m not going to waste that much money. I’m very fatalist about it. I figure, if I’m going to win, I’m going to win, whether I buy one ticket or a thousand.

So what if I do win? Well, I’ll admit I have indulged myself with a bit of fantasizing.

I would give most of it away. Let’s face it, who needs $400 million? Nobody. I confess I have zero respect for all those super-rich billionaires we’re always reading about, whose only purpose in life seems to be accumulating even more money, no matter who gets hurt or no matter how much the Earth is damaged. If you already have $40 BILLION, why would you want more? What could you possibly do with it? It just doesn’t make any sense to me to spend all one’s time accumulating more when you already have more than any sane person — or any sane thousand people, for that matter — could possibly need. There’s way more to life than that.

Anyway, back to the fantasy. First, if I won, I would use a very large chunk, perhaps as much as $100 million, to create a trust fund. The purpose of the trust would be to provide grants and low-cost loans to small farmers who want to convert to organic but can’t afford the cost. In this way, I would be able to increase dramatically the number of organic farms. People would be healthier, the Earth would be healthier, and the cost of organic would probably decline, perhaps even approaching the cost of “conventionally produced” food. (I love the use of the term “conventional” to describe the practice of dousing food with toxic chemicals, as though that’s how food has always been produced. In actual fact, until about 70 years ago, conventional food was all organic.)

Second, I would also provide hefty chunks of cash to a variety of environmental and social justice charities, because I believe we need to take better care of the Earth and because I think that people should be treated with dignity and respect. Sure, there are undesirable elements that don’t deserve respect (you know, like some of those avaricious billionaires I just mentioned, sitting in their fortified mansions, fondling their money). There are always going to be predators and parasites, in nature as well as in human society. But I believe most people just want to be treated fairly and live honorable, peaceful lives. If I can use some of this lottery windfall to help some of them do that, then so much the better.

Third, I would of course provide my extended family with enough money to erase their financial worries, for the rest of their lives if they manage it well.

And finally, yes, I would indulge myself. I’d like to have a nice house right by the beach so I could surf every morning without fighting traffic. I’d like to travel more. And I’d like to be able to charter a plane whenever I need to fly in the continental U.S. so I can avoid the hassle of flying commercial. And I’d like to have a Ferrari. Or maybe a Porche. I’d keep — and invest — just enough to allow me these things without having to worry about finances ever again. I don’t need much more than that.

What about you? What would you do if you won $400 million?

UPDATE: Now the jackpot is $1.5 billion. Holy smokes. I can barely conceive of that much money. But my priorities remain the same, just more for each. It’s fun to think about winning, of course, but there is a very real danger that winning that much money could completely destroy someone’s life. Perhaps that’s another reason why I would give most of it away.