Sunday, April 29, 2012

What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us?

Most folks would likely agree that few support the concept of “Big Government”. But what exactly does that phrase really mean? To some, Big Government implies restrictions on free exercise of commerce. To others, Big Government may have more personal implications, such as dictating what a woman chooses to do with her body. But whether we recognize it or not, we all need government at some level.

I fully support the entrepreneurial spirit of this nation. However I note that many individuals who tout the values of “free markets” often forget that their success may not be entirely attributed to their ego-driven self-made assertions. The fact is much of the business success by smart, motivated, innovative people, was achieved by standing on the shoulders of others who laid the groundwork before them – this includes significant benefactions made possible through government investment.

It is a fact that many successful commercial enterprises would not exist today without the initial investment of government projects. Some undertakings were simply too large, excessively complex or otherwise beyond the scope, abilities or resources of the private sector. Government instigated projects have been essential in fostering many private commercial industries existing today. Let me offer a few examples:

The Railroad System
In 1862 President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act (1) authorizing congress to issue to the privately held Southern Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, 6,400 acres of FREE land (later doubled to 12,800) and $48,000 in government bonds for every mile of track built. The railroads then sold portions of their land to arriving settlers at huge profits.

Today Congress still authorizes funds to support Amtrak passenger service, funding the upgrade of track and infrastructure to private railroad companies which also benefits the railroad’s primary source of income: freight revenues.

Interstate Highway System
The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways otherwise known as the Interstate Highway system, was authorized by the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. The cost of construction has been estimated at $425 billion (in 2006 dollars), making it the largest public works project in history.(2) Interstate commerce, in the form of commercial trucking, depends almost entirely on the highway system.

Dams and Irrigation
The Federal Power Commission in 1920 enabled construction of federal dams on the Colorado and Columbia rivers, leading directly to public/private competition for production and sale of power.(3) The Columbia Basin Project of irrigation canals and aqueducts which directly supports commercial agriculture is estimated to have cost $1,687,000,000 alone.

Space program
Far too risky for most private companies to venture, the US Space program has resulted in monumental economic, scientific and technological returns, far exceeding the initial investment. The space program represents significant revenue for American corporations such as Honeywell, Northrup, Locheed, Douglass and a long list of other technical and engineering companies. It is estimated that for every dollar spent on the space program, the U.S. economy receives about $8 of economic benefit.(5)

The Internet
The Internet we know today (not invented by Al Gore) started out as The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET). The network was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the United States Department of Defense for use by its projects at universities and research laboratories in the US.(4) Today thousands of private companies, large and small, depend on the Internet for their existence.

Nuclear Power
Privately operated nuclear utility power plants would not have been able to develop the nuclear fuel in use today were it not for the Manhattan Project.

The list continues: the Panama Canal, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge as well as government agencies which directly support commerce such as the National Weather Service, the U. S. Postal Service and the Federal Aviation Administration.

So when we ask, what has the government ever done for us? Well, there's the aqueduct...

1. Wikipedia: Pacific Railroad Act
2. Wikipedia: Interstate Highway System
3. University of Washington Library: "Grand Coulee: Harnessing a Dream" (book excerpt)
4. Wikipedia: ARAPANET
5. "Is space exploration worth the cost?"

Monday, April 23, 2012

It's Broke

I heard on the news this week that the presidential and congressional candidates (and their unregulated PACs) will amass the most money ever in our electoral history... and we're talking in the BILLION$.

My recommendation for addressing your own personal survival during the trying times ahead: buy stock in media corporations.

In the mean time -

I am reevaluating my commitment to the futility continuing this blog. Added to that, I logged in today only to discover the "new and improved" blogger interface. They were nice enough to include a little "Send Feedback" link in the lower right-hand corner. My feedback essentially said: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". I have little doubt, though, that Google/Blogger will afford me the same level of concern and responsiveness as does the Representative Republic in which I supposedly live.

Monday, April 16, 2012

It's In our DNA

Back when I was in taking high school Biology in mid 1960’s, the discovery of the role of DNA in heredity had just been confirmed a scant few years previously in 1953. Over the previous century Darwin’s Theory of Biological Evolution was already well documented and accepted by the scientific community – a marvelous advance for its time based fundamentally on the morphology of animal species. So when I learned that every species has its own unique and identifiable genetic DNA signature, I confidently thought that the precise genetic trail of DNA lineage would drive the final nail into the coffin of Creationist beliefs. I was wrong!

Over the intervening years the specific order of genes (genome) for a huge number of species, including Homo sapiens, has been mapped. Even within our own species, we can delineate the relationship and ancestry of specific individuals beyond 99% reliability; certainly no surprise if you’ve ever had to prove paternity for child support.

DNA mapping has actually gone back and corrected errors made in the taxonomy of many plant and animal species previously classified through morphology. Beyond a doubt, DNA PROVES Biological Evolution!

Yet still today in backward countries such as Turkey, Afghanistan, Somalia and the United States of America, a large percentage of their populations still tenaciously cling to the creation stories of their assorted Holy Books; tales written back in eras when the causes of weather, disease and the movement of planets were woefully beyond the technology of humans to explain.

But it is incorrect to ascribe these archaic beliefs in a deistic cause for the origins of life to ignorance or illiteracy; some very smart and highly educated people continue to hold Creationist views, though their justifications tend to be more elaborate.

For example, Dr. Francis Collins, physician and geneticist, currently director of the National Institutes of Health and formerly head of the Human Genome Project, believes that DNA itself is proof of the existence of god. In his book, “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief”, Collins asserts that the universe was created by god 14 million years ago specifically tuned to promote life on earth. Collins believes that the development of living organisms was part of god’s plan (through the divinely created mechanisms of DNA) and that humans are unique from all the other species in ways that defy evolutionary explanations.

I must give scholars such as Collins some credit for at least attempting to reconcile scientific evidence with their beliefs; most evangelical Christian, Jewish and Muslim believers are satisfied with merely dismissing DNA and Biological Evolution as a “lie”.

I spent some time a few years ago attempting to understand why some very smart and accomplished scientists hold biblical or deistic beliefs. My father-in-law, Melvin, for example, a highly published former university Horticulture professor, is among them. I have attended lectures, debates and read their works – but I find repeatedly that when I pare away the specific elements of their arguments, one underlying theme always seems to be revealed: these folks want very earnestly the reassurance and comfort one finds in belief.

Collins’ desire for there to be a god becomes quite evident in “The Language of God” and is typical of other scientists who I have heard or read. In his book Collins asserts that “God exists because we have an innate desire for him to exist". He goes on to explain: "A duck desires to swim, so water exists. A baby desires food so food exists".

The question comes to my mind: if I don’t have the desire for god, does he/she/it therefore not exist?

I began this post essentially acknowledging what a remarkable volume of human understanding about the workings of our world has accumulated during just my lifetime. In fact, far more knowledge has been discovered during my generation than in my father’s; exponentially even more his father’s. Within only the most recent decade we have acquired a tentative understanding of how this universe actually came to be and what was likely there before the Big Bang and it’s ultimate fate.

As a friend of mine once pointed out: Every day something new is added to the body of knowledge and our understanding of the workings and origins of our universe. Yet religion, for over two millennia, has added nothing.


“The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief”, Book review by Robert Neary

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Empty Space

When I created my blog, I chose a statement for the masthead: “A once-great nation being crushed under its own weight.” I have often written here that I believe that my generation has lived in the best times man has had, and ever will have, on this planet. I also believe that our nation, which has always been the beacon for the world in innovation and leadership, due to a combination complacency and hebetude, is poised for a headlong race to the bottom.

One symptom on which I base my pessimism about our future is that our nation’s self-vision of greatness appears to me mostly based on reminiscence. Our position in the global scheme as innovators and leaders in the advancement of humanity has been replaced by short term fixation on personal and individual material security. I fear this mindset will doom to failure our 200 year “experiment in democracy”.

I recently came across two videos; one an interview by Bill Moyers with author Isaac Asimov done in 1988. The other video; the testimony of scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson made before Senate Science Committee, March 7, 2012.

In the 1988 video interview with journalist, Bill Moyers, Asimov says:
"The decline in America's world power is, in part, brought about by our diminishing status as a world science leader.”

"Yes, we're still probably up there technologically... but what margins we do have are slimmer, narrower, and we're being overtaken."

"The most damaging statement the United States has ever been subjected to is the phrase 'Yankee Know-How". You get the feeling, somehow, that Americans, just by the fact they're Americans, are somehow more smarter and more ingenious than other people.

"… there is this feeling that somehow because we have a... decent economic system, freedom, free enterprise, which I am all in favor of, that alone will do it for us, and I admit that helps us out in some ways, [but] not if we're lazy about it. It’s not going to do it for us if we don't DO anything.”
In other words, even back in 1988 Asimov was warning that America’s decline in advancing science and technology was already noticeable. It was apparent, even back then, that we could not rely solely on our reputation in the past as innovators alone, to continue to carry us through to the future.

This year Neil deGrasse Tyson published his new book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier, in which he continues the point made by Asimov: that the engines that drive American innovation, and more importantly, stimulate and grow our ECONOMY, are founded in our ability to envision the future. Tyson points directly to the decline of the Space Program and diversion of funding from NASA and other scientific research.

In his testimony before the Senate committee, Tyson said:
“If all you do is coast, you slow down until others eventually catch up and pass you by. We have symptoms in society today; we’re going broke, we’re mired in debt, we don’t have as many scientists we want or need, and jobs are going overseas. I assert that these are not isolated problems; that they’re the collective consequence of the absence of ambition that consumes you when you stop having dreams."
Tyson was trying to promote the idea that increased funding for NASA has proven far greater benefits by driving a culture of innovation that is responsible for overall economic growth "…. innovations take place, patents are granted, products are developed. Everyone feels like tomorrow they want to invent and bring into the present."

Americans have often held a slightly myopic view of the basis for our Yankee Know-how. The truth is that much of our past brain power has been actually imported:
“The atomic bomb was invtned and brought to fruition by a bunch of European refugees; you go down the list of names, that's the [supposedly] 'Yankee know-how" - Asimov

… most of the principle scientists behind the Manhattan project… were foreign nationals. All educated in European countries… Once we developed that infrastructure here… we became the target for people to become educated from all around the world. That became a boon to our country because we were getting the smartest people in the world. My great fear is that we now educate them and they go back their home countries and we would lose the contributions they would have made had they stayed.” - Tyson
China, India and other countries which used to send almost all of their best students to the US for education are now building their own universities and research facilities at home.

Meanwhile in the US, the final Space Shuttle was hangared last year; there currently is no replacement program in place and we must now depend on our former enemy, Russia, for our meager manned program needs. The percentage of US citizens who believe in Biological Evolution show we are at the bottom of the list of developed countries, way down there with Turkey. The Tennessee legislature last month passed a law requiring that Creationism be taught in schools along with Evolution. We are in the process of selecting the leader of the Free World based on whether or not these men feel women should have access to birth control or not. These are not encouraging indicators of a strong nation retaining it's status on the globe as a champion of innovation, leadership and progress.

When asked what could be done to restore our nation’s national standing, Neil deGrasse Tyson suggested that merely increasing the money allocated to NASA by one-half-cent of the national budget would provide remarkable return on investment toward rebuilding our economy. Tyson went on to add:
“… without this we just move back to the caves because that is where we’re going to end up anyway as the rest of the world passes us by."
I would urge you to invest the time to watch both videos linked below:

1. Bill Moyers interview with Isaac Asimov. Originally aired in 1988 (runtime 5:57)
2. Neil deGrasse Tyson Testifies Before Senate Science Committee, March 7, 2012 (runtime 25:49) (Listen particularly to the question and answer period following Tyson's official testimony.)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Hang ‘Em High - A True Story

In the old Clint Eastwood western “Hang ‘Em High”, an innocent cowboy, accused of cattle rustling, is lynched by a posse of angry and powerful ranchers. In the film, Eastwood’s character is rescued from imminent death then sets about bringing the would-be vigilantes to justice… in typical Eastwood style, of course.

Hang ‘Em High was a fictional story; however, in 1889 a young woman and her husband, were actually lynched for cattle rustling in Sweetwater River Wyoming by a posse of angry and powerful ranchers. One of the men involved in the crime which has gone down in history as “The Lynching of Cattle Kate”, was my great, great uncle John Henry Durbin.

My cousin Nancy just recently uncovered this skeleton in the family closet during a trip she and her husband made a few years ago attempting to find the old Durbin family ranch in Wyoming. Cousin Nancy’s interest in family genealogy piqued one day while digging through some family archives; she discovered a letter written by a Mrs. Ordway, the wife of the foreman of a Wyoming cattle ranch. In this letter a worried wife revealed fear and dread regarding the fate of her husband apparently implicated with John Henry Durbin and rumors of some horrendous unmentioned deed.

Cousin Nancy and husband set off for Wyoming last fall to try to locate the old ranch property. Their quest brought them to the archives of the Casper College Western History Center. It was here that my cousin discovered the family secret; and the explanation for the source of fears mentioned in Mrs. Ordway’s old letter – historical documents revealed that indeed, our great, great uncle Durbin had been implicated in the lynching of homesteaders Ellen Watson and James Averell.

There are a number of internet sites and a book written about “The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate”. [1]

The story:
My great, great uncle, John Henry Durbin was a wealthy and influential Wyoming cattleman. In those days ranchers laid claim to anywhere their cattle grazed; paying little heed with regard for property lines and land ownership. Conflicts arose over grazing rights and access to water. To secure their own financial self interests, Durbin and other big ranches formed the Wyoming Stock Grower’s Association. The association wielded a powerful influence on the local business and political landscape.

Jim Averell and Ellen Watson homesteaded a plot of land in the Sweetwater River valley. The homestead had good grazing and access to water. However, prior to Jim and Ellen having homesteaded the land, another wealthy cattleman and member of the Stock Association, Albert Bothwell had used the property, considering it open range. Bothwell continued to run his cattle over Jim and Ellen’s homestead. When Jim and Ellen strung barbed wire to block Bothwell’s “free range” cattle, the enraged Bothwell took action.

Bothwell enlisted Durbin and four other cattlemen to confront the homesteaders, determined to intimidate them run them off the land. It didn’t’ go well: Bothwell and Durbin pulled guns on the pair of homesteaders. A scuffle ensued and Durbin ended up shot, wounded in the leg. The cattlemen tied up Ellen and Jim, throwing the two into the back of a wagon. Their courage bolstered by adequate amounts of alcohol, the cattlemen eventually threw a rope over a tree near the bank of the Sweetwater River where they hanged Jim Averell and Ellen Watson.

The bodies were discovered and cut down from the tree the following day. Word of the lynching quickly spread and the six cattlemen were soon arrested. However, being wealthy men, they were immediately released on bail. A month later a grand jury was convened, however, the indictment stalled as witnesses to the crime began to mysteriously disappear before they could testify. These suspicious events ,doubtlessly, was the probable source of the worries expressed by Mrs. Ordway in the letter discovered by my cousin.

No one was ever tried for the lynching of Averell and Watson. My great great uncle John Henry Durbin died a millionaire in 1907. His obituary reads: “Former cattle king and bonanza miner had [a] most romantic career”. His obituary makes no mention of his involvement in the Lynching of Cattle Kate.


Legends of America web site.

1. “The Wyoming Lynching of Cattle Kate, 1889” by George W. Hufsmith.