Sunday, March 29, 2015

Powering the Future: Funding for Basic Research in Science and Technology

CNN's Fareed Zakaria's GPS program
"Moonshots for 21st Century,"explores
an international collaboration (ITER)
to test nuclear fusion as a new energy source.
"Maybe we will one day have a conversation with souls in some high-tech library," mused  Dr. Michio Kakia, a theoretical physicist and futurist who works on mapping the human brain (interview with GPS's Fareed Zakahria, CNN, March 15, 2015).

I'm a died-in-the-wool Liberal Arts relic from the 1950s and 60s, but I was blown away by CNN's Fareed Zakaria's special GPS show, "Moonshots for the 21st Century."  It's a powerful reminder that what's going on beyond the headlines is as important, if not more important, than what the media chooses to cover.

The show explores all kinds of recent advances in science and technology: NASA's plans for sending astronauts to Mars. "Hypersonic flights."  The development of  the Bio-Assembly and Bio-printer to create a new human heart. Intel's work on the microchip and the ongoing computer revolution,  The human genome project. Harvesting the energy of nuclear fusion. The mappng of the human brain and the power of the mind.

These are just a few of the awesome scientific and technological innovations and solutions that will have amazing commercial and real-life applications. "These research and development projects will change our world," Fareed stresses.
This chart shows that funding for government
research has increased in dollars but declined
 as a percentage of Gross National Product
He interviews some fascinating people. Charles Bolden, NASA administrator; Dr. Stuart Williams ,Cardiovascular Institute at the University of Louisille; scientists Gunther Jameschitz, Mark Henderson, Robert Mercer and Michio Kakia. Their research, individually and collectively, is on the cutting edge of human knowledge. Amazing projects. Amazing discoveries. Amazing potential for real-life applications.

The show's message is obvious: The US government needs to increase funding for basic research and development in science and technology. It's not about profit; it's a matter of the well-being of planet earth and its inhabitants.

The Federal budget is incomprehensible to most of us, but it seems to come down to a matter of values.  War vs. peace; military funding vs. social services; tax breaks for the wealthy or opportunities for the poor, unemployed, marginalized;  billions for weapons of war vs. a pittance for Peace Corps.

I'm usually arguing for more funding for the arts and humanities, for public broadcasting, for artists and writers.  Fareed's investigation brings us to the science side of the equation, and it is compelling. "Moonshots for the 21st Century" provides a strong case for increased government support for basic research in science. And frankly, I think it's a better bet than increased corporate funding where the bottom line often trumps the well-being of humankind and the environment.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Culture Fixes

Prof. Tom Barden on WPA & Writers Program,
Lourdes Lifelong Learning, March 2015 
Whenever I hear about the WPA I become nostalgic and wistful.  The Works Progress Administration, headed by the indefatiquable Harry Hopkins, a close advisor to FDR to the very end, put millions of Americans to work during the Great Depression, including artists, writers, dramatists, musicians, folklorist.  I think it was one of the most successful New Deal programs. It's aim was work rather than relief. It shined a brilliant light on the resilence and strength of the American people in hard times.  And it strengthened our cultural fabric for future generations, up to the present.

WPA posters
Not only did the WPA result in wonderful buildings and great architecture, new roads, bridges, parks, zoos, libraries and post offices, but also fabulous public art, a series of State tour guides (still great resources), innovative folklife, folk music, and oral history projects, including the narratives of former slaves living in the South, wonderful theater, and a historical records survey. These programs were of, by and for the people, not just the elites; they touched the lives of millions of ordinary citizens.

Best of all, these extraordinary and varied projects have withstood the test of time. Close to home, I think of the Toledo Zoo. the Valentine Theater, the Toledo Public Library, and on a national level, the creation of the National Archives and Library of Congress. No matter what city or state you live in, I'm sure you can boast a WPA legacy, the program was that far-reaching and enduring.

WPA posters
Today, when the arts and humanities are undervalued and underfunded, it's good to remember what a little federal funding can do to enhance our social and cultural life.

Tom Barden, professor emeritus of English at the University of Toledo, did just that in his Lourdes University Livelong Learning lecture on the WPA Cultural Agencies.  Barden presented a good overview and historical context for the New Deal before focusing on the work of the WPA and the Federal Writers' Project.  Barden emphasized that Americans owe a debt of gratitude to Harry Hopkins and his Grinnell college colleagues, who created, managed and implemented the  pioneering cultural programs.

Barden especially lauded the Writers' Project's State guides, quoting from John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley: "The complete set comprises the most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together, and nothing since has even approached it."   Steinbeck's final road trip around America bears witness to the influence and significance of the WPA and its cultural programs

Just before attending Barden's lecture, I had finished reading William Giraldi's depressing New Republic article on "the destruction of America's creative class" (February 2015),  Giraldi bemoans the marginalization of artists and writers in a now-dominant cultural mindset that denigrates them and has pushed them from the middle-class into the starving classes.  They are barely surviving.  I was glad to be reminded of a time when our government employed them.

Oh sure, conservatives lambasted the whole idea from day one, screaming that the federal government should not be in the culture business, using the very same arguments against federal funding for the arts and humanities, for museums and public broadcasting, that we hear today.  Notable among the rabid detractors was Rep. Martin Dies (Texas), who railed against the "communist" programs and in 1938 created HUAC, the ignoble House on UnAmerican Activities Committee. Sen. Joseph McCarthy took it from there.

Professor Barden's lecture was informative and timely.  The arts and humanities add meaning and beauty to our lives.  The WPA offered real jobs to our "creative class" during the New Deal.   What a difference it made in the nation's quality of life! What a difference such large-scale and well-funded projects would make today, in a world shaken by ignorance and violence, at a time when critical thinking and creative endeavors are needed more than ever.

Some sources;
*William Giraldi, " Creative Destruction," The New Republic, , February 2015.
*Scott Timberg, Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class" (Yale U Press, 2007).
*On WPA history, documents and images, lots of online resources, including the Library of Congress (
*Jerre Mangione, The Dream and The Deal: The Federal Writers' Project, 1935-1943 (1977; Syracuse Uni.Press, 1996). A Google eBook. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Chasing the Years

At the pyramids with Jud, enjoying 70 years and eons more. 
I look at my youthful self, and marvel at the vitality.  I look at myself now, and wonder about mortality.  The pyramids loom on the desert horizon. We come full circle in more ways than one. Life goes on, and we go with it.  

Another birthday rolls around, the inexorable march of time.  Most of the time, I feel like I'm chasing my years, not the other way around.  Oh sure, there are days the years chase me.  I hunker down and let it happen. Afterall, I have the full force of 75 years behind me.  In front of me, who knows? What does it matter? In front of me, I have learned, is the best place to be, mindful.  I am surrounded by family, friends, bustling activities, new things to learn. 
Age has not diminished my interests or my outrage at injustice.  I rant with my brother in heaven, and my sister in Florida.   My mind overflows with memories. The computer is full. A click here, a click there, and I'm a young girl in Rochester, a mom at the beach in Nantucket, a worker bee, a grandmother, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine.  Sometimes I alight on a sense of loss or pain, but then, a field of daisies is a click away.  Mary Oliver comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, "Let it Be."  

"That's John Lennon, mom, you're thinking of the Beatles." 

Oh, right! A needed reminder. The memories flow together sometimes. But, look! I see a robin. My first sighting.  A sign of spring.  Soon I'll be digging in my garden, listening to the birds, watching small green buds pushing up the brown earth.  

Mindful by Mary Oliver 
Every day
I see or hear
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me,
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It is what I was born for--
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful
the very extravagant--
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab, 

the daily presentations. 
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these--
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean's shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?
Meeting friends on the Street in Starobelsk, 2011.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Black Sea: The Heart of the Matter

This view from Istanbul.

“In essence, the balance of power in the Black Sea has been tipping since the ‘little green men’ first moved into the Crimean Peninsula. Any country on the Black Sea is now a target along with any vessel deployed there.”
General Philip Breedlove

yahoo and wiki images
The Black Sea.  It’s on my mind.  It’s been on Putin’s mind even longer, beginning with his deliberate and vicious stealth campaign to take over Crimea (which he now brags about) to his invasion of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine (more gloating about destabilization).  The subterfuge, propaganda and lies are mind-boggling. It must have felt like this as Hitler took over Europe up to World War II.  So far nothing is standing in Putin's way.  

The Black Sea is the watery theater of an ancient, complicated and tumultuous history. This drama has many acts, from prehistory to the Greeks and Romans, to the Ottoman Turks and Constantinople, from the Crusades to the Crimean War and other 19th-century wars, from World Wars I and II to the rise of the Soviet Union and its dissolution in 1991. 

I’m not a Black Sea expert, but I wish I was. I remember thinking when I was in Yalta, in Yevpretoria, in Sevestopol, in Odessa, in Istanbul, that if I was starting graduate school all over again I’d explore Black Sea studies.  It is that impressive to see firsthand, that engrossing.  Just look at a map.

The Sea sparkles like a diamond in the rough, with its fishing meccas, historic sites and resorts. It’s surrounded by six countries, each with its own history and cultures: Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia, Russia, Ukraine and Turkey. The Black Sea receives water from the Don, the Dnieper, and the Danube rivers.  Imagine! It connects to the Mediterranian through the Aegean Sea.  The Turkish straits connect the Black Sea with the Aegean Sea and comprise the Bosphorous, the Sea of Marimara, and the Dardenelles. Istanbul is the only city in the world that straddles both Europe and Asia.  The Black sea connects the East and the West.
This map gives a hint of the Black Sea's
incredible history and potential.
Russia is now militarizing Crimea.  It is moving its anti-air and missile systems to the peninsula it stole from Ukraine, according to NATO Commander and Air Force General Philip Breedlove. “These weapon systems—from air defense systems that reach nearly half of the Black Sea to surface attack systems that reach almost all of the Black Sea area—have made Crimea a great platform for power projection into this area.” (quoted in Will Catheart, “Putin’s Plans,” the Daily Beast, 3/1/2015). I predict Russia is moving its nuclear missiles there, too. 

Thus Crimea’s geopolitical direction and complexity is changing again, drastically, and with it the fragile balance of relationships that characterizes the Black Sea.  The Sea’s history is like that.  It doesn’t move in a linear fashion into the future.  It is full of twists and turns, crises and tragedies, the pulls of the past, the push of the present.   

“In essence,” General Breedlove said, “the balance of power in the Black Sea has been tipping since the ‘little green men’ first moved into the Crimean Peninsula. Any country on the Black Sea is now a target along with any vessel deployed there.” 

The Black Sea is rich in petroleum resources as well, a critical strategic consideration.   Moreover, it’s a lot easier to get to them than the resources in the Arctic, although that far-northern region is being militarized by Russia, too.  The Soviet Union started drilling for petroleum in the Black Sea’s western portion in the 1980s.   Ukraine began drilling in the 1990s, within an "Exclusive Economic Zone," inviting major international oil companies for exploration.  Discovery of  new oil fields in the area stimulated an influx of foreign investments.  It also provoked a brief dispute with Romania, resolved in 2011 when an international court redefined the Exclusive Economic Zones.  I'm not sure of the present status, but the Black Sea is still up for grabs. 

Putin is trying to make his way there by hook and by crook, mostly by crook. He has Crimea, which I view as a tragedy of historic proportions, an illegal annexation that should not be tolerated.  His proxies are close to Mariupol and Berdyansk on the Azov.  I've been harping about this for a long time. I'm scared of what may happen. Look at the map again.  More Russian troops and weapons continue to pour into that area.  International observers are not allowed to watch. 

“Putin has the entire Black Sea to gain,” General Breedlove notes. “This is why the Kremlin is seeking economic dominance of the Black Sea corridor and energy transit routes and military dominance as well.”  The future of the Black Sea looks foreboding. 

Russian troops amassing in eastern Ukraine (yahoo).
Some sources: 
Charles King, The Black Sea: A History (Oxford, 2005).  An extraordinary Black Sea scholar, King has also written books about Odessa, Istanbul, the Caucusus, and other historic places in the region 

Neal Ascherson, Black Sea (Hills and Wang, 1995/2001 fifth edition). 

The Best News of 2018? Indivisible and Grassroots Resistance

"This time two years ago, we were lost, angry, and scared (okay, we were pissed. Really pissed). Republicans had taken the House, ...