Friday, November 27, 2009


by Richard Crews
In a typical "Western" movie, the cowboy hero is whacked on the head with a pistol butt and falls unconscious. In a few minutes, as soon as it is dramatically appropriate, he recovers consciousness and immediately resumes his pursuit of the bad guys.

There are several things wrong with this picture. First, our hero has no post-concussive amnesia--immediately on awakening he recalls all the events leading up to the injury such as the appearance of the guy who hit him and the sounds of the attack. In real life, the memory banks of the concussed person are wiped clean for the minute or two prior to the concussion; someone, for example, driving down the street who is involved in a concussive head injury does not recall the last few blocks of driving before the accident.

Second, there are typically post-concussive symptoms of disorientation, confusion, and forgetfulness. The typical victim appears dazed; cannot identify the time, date, or place; and cannot respond appropriately to simple commands (such as "hold up two fingers"). General headache as well as pain associated with the local trauma (the painful lump on the head) are always present.

Third, there are usually symptoms of cognitive impairment hours to days after the injury. Even after the person is no longer confused or disoriented, the individual typically has headaches and experiences difficulty concentrating, learning, and solving simple problems for many hours, even days. (The memory loss is permanent--the lost memories for the events immediately preceding the head trauma are never recovered.)

Another important result of concussion which is missing from the typical cowboy picture is that the individual has increased susceptibility to receiving another concussion--the so-called "second-impact syndrome." This can persist for days--even weeks--during which even a milder blow to the head can cause a significant concussion.

It has also appeared in recent years that athletes who suffer repeated head trauma, for example in boxing or football, have an increased likelihood of brain deterioration later in life--for example, of Parkinson's Disease (like the boxer Muhammad Ali) or Alzheimer's (for example, the football Hall-of-Famer, Mike Webster)--even if there was apparent complete recovery from the original trauma.

Changes in equipment design, especially helmets, and in laws requiring their use have helped reduce traumatic brain injuries in athletes in recent years. There have also been useful changes in professional football rules--such as penalties against "spearing" or helmet-to-helmet contact. In boxing, the worldwide outrage at the violence (boxing is the only professional sport in which the official goal is to inflict injury) have spawned efforts to make boxing illegal, efforts that have been ongoing for decades, though they are met with considerable fan objections and monetary incentives for the boxers. Since there is now a law in the U.S. requiring that a doctor be present at every professional boxing match, the last best hope for outlawing the sport would be that all sports physicians agree to boycott boxing matches, perhaps under threat from medical associations of losing their medical licenses.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Modern Agriculture

by Richard Crews
In recent years there has been a "return" to some long-lost farming practices such as "no-till farming."

Tilling is used to remove weeds, mix in soil amendments like fertilizers, shape the soil into rows for crop plants and furrows for irrigation, and prepare the surface for seeding. This can lead to unfavorable effects, like soil compaction; loss of organic matter; degradation of soil aggregates; death or disruption of soil organisms including mycorrhiza, arthropods, and earthworms; and soil erosion where topsoil is blown or washed away.

Throughout the world not only numerous small farms but also vast agricultural tracts have been converted to no-till farming in the past couple of decades. It requires less financial input than tilling, can maintain profits, and reduces the strain and drain on the ecosystems in which the farming is embedded.

Beyond no-till farming is "conservation agriculture." Conservation agriculture has three general approaches:

The first is practicing minimum mechanical soil disturbance (no tilling) which is essential to maintaining minerals and diverse organisms within the soil and limiting water loss.

The second involves managing the topsoil to create a permanent organic soil-cover mulch that can allow for growth of organisms within the soil structure. This layer of organic matter prevents soil erosion, stabilizes moisture and temperature levels, and acts as a fertilizer for the soil surface.

The third is the practice of crop rotation (with more than two crops). This prevents insect and weed pests from getting established in a rotation with specific crops. Thus it acts as a natural insecticide against destructive pests, and herbicide against specific weeds. Crop rotation can also help build up the soil's infrastructure and the build up of rooting zones which allow for better water infiltration.

A fourth practice that follows naturally from these three general approaches is the use of minimal or no chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These are expensive and unnecessary. But more than that they distort natural ecological processes and balances, and they run off fields to contaminate waterways.

Finally, in conjunction with no-till and conservation agriculture seed selection from year to year can produce increasing yields and increasingly drought- and pest-resistant strains. This has also been practiced for thousands of years since the dawn of agriculture, but modern knowledge of genetics and seed-incubation practices can enhance the effectiveness of selective breeding enormously.

Regarding GM: The process of genetic modification of seed stock has come into public focus in recent years. Lay pundits fear inadvertent poisoning and new waves of allergies, industrial market manipulations (e.g., by Monsanto) have distorted economic practices, and--until recently--there has been little good news to show for the expensive scientific efforts. I say "until recently" because of new reports that soybeans have been genetically altered to produce poly-unsaturated fatty acids. These are essential nutrients in the human diet and have previously only been available from fish oils--salmon have particularly taken a severe threat-of-extinction hit. GM is a new science; it has produced careless and overenthusiastic technologies. And GM has not thus far produced the miracles predicted for it, but with care and patience it may well make significant contributions to agriculture and to feeding the hungry of our increasingly overpopulated and farming-exhausted world.

Afghanistan--What's To Become of Us?

by Richard Crews
We can't put more troops into Afghanistan--the Afghans won't stand for it and the U.S. populace doesn't like it either. On the other hand we can't not do it, either. At least we can't let the country disintegrate into anarchy; that would be both a humanitarian disaster and an international political disaster.

The Afghans would be able to muster the soldiers and police--and the patriotic will--to provide for their own welfare and civil defense if they had access to training and equipment. So maybe that's what we should provide. But the widespread political corruption would make that very difficult to manage. We would have to accept the necessity of putting as much money and effort into administration and accounting for the training and equipment as into the people and goods themselves.

Afghanistan has significant untapped natural resources--gold, silver, copper, zinc, and iron ore in the Southeast; precious and semi-precious stones (such as lapis, emerald, and azure) in the Northeast; and potentially significant petroleum and natural gas reserves in the North. The country also has uranium, coal, chromite, talc, barites, sulfur, lead, and salt. Although the primitive political structure, the endemic corruption, and the frequent dangerous security issues make developing these resources difficult, helping the Afghans develop some of these with careful selectivity as to location and project type could be useful.

Finally, Afghanistan is not geographically a uniform problem. Some parts of the country are relatively accessible and tamable; some parts will surely remain wild and primitive despite any efforts.

If we withdraw our focus from some areas, providing the Taliban with safe havens for world-wide terrorism would not be a significant problem as I understand it. They simply cannot realistically be routed out of the harsh mountainous regions anyway, plus they already have safe havens in Somalia and elsewhere in Africa and Asia.

Providing the Taliban additional funding from expanded opium trade has also been a concern. But apparently that isn't a significant problem either. Efforts have been made to eradicate opium poppies and to substitute cultivation of rubber, tea, and deciduous fruit trees (apples, pears, apricots, peaches, and persimmons); in some areas the development of factories and mines has also been significant. With suitable government and NGO assistance a typical rural family can increase their annual income by a factor of 10x when they give up illicit opium growing.

Ultimately, the problem of illicit opium cultivation should be handled by undermining the criminalization of demand. This could be done by making opiates (including heroin) legal for use (though probably not for trade and transport) worldwide. In countries where this has been tried, it has generally led to both decreased criminal activity and decreased (not increased) drug use and related health issues.

So the gist of the solution to the problem of "what is the U.S. to do about Afghanistan?" seems to be:
(1) focusing not on providing U.S. military forces but on training and equipping indigenous security forces
(2) recognizing that different parts of the country are amenable to different levels of administrative support (some can be tamed; some must be left wild)
(3) selecting through careful analysis specific infrastructure resource development (e.g., certain mining, factory production, and cultivation of substitute crops)
(4) providing heavy administrative and accounting support wherever we put resources in including requiring reduction of corruption in the Afghan government
(5) revising our anti-narcotic laws to decriminalize non-prescription personal use of opiates in the U.S. and encouraging this worldwide.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

That Obama Quotation

by Richard Crews
Since someone asked me, here is my analysis of that Obama quote I sent around a few days ago.

Here's the original clip (sorry about the 15-second advertisement--I don't know how to get it out of there).

Here is my analysis.

In the clip the interviewer (performing his "of shoes and ships and ceiling wax, of cabbages and kings" role, i.e., "news" is whatever gets people to tune in to my channel) turns from genocide or some global disaster to ask, "What do you think about Sarah Palin's criticism that your administration rates a 'four' ?"

Now, Sarah Palin has proven herself to be a deliciously sexy (which is her main appeal to men), quick-spoken (which I think may be her main appeal to women), poorly informed cartoon character. Rating something as complex and important as Obama's activities "as 4 on a scale of 10" is a third-grader's "Ring around the Rosy." But the interviewer has dutifully tossed it into the air and invited Obama to take a swing at it.

There are many things Obama could have said. One common approach would be to not answer the question at all, e.g., some variant of "I'm most concerned about the situation in the Middle East." Or even, ostensibly staying relevant to the question, "Palin [or "you"] should not distract us from...." But--point one--Obama actually answers the question.

Point two--there would be so many ways to be childish or patronizing; and it's free--the media would pick it up, etc. But he doesn't choose that route.

Point three--first he laughs--warmly, lightly, spontaneously. Utterly charming.

Point four (and more--I'll stop counting)--then he makes three points; all three are true and all are said in a grown-up way. "She's out selling books right now [so stirring a little blood in the water is par for the course]" and "I think [not "I hope" or "unfortunately," etc.] she'll do well at it." But "her 'political philosophy' [I'll come back to that phrase] is very different from my own so that I don't look to her for [useful] criticism."

I think his use of the phrase "political philosophy" is fascinating and problematic. She doesn't really have a "political philosophy" any more than any third-grader does. The Republicans do--sort of--"loyal opposition" converted to irrational obstructionism; it is in fact a functional activity in the "political" (with a small "p") arena and thus deserves the title "political philosophy" (using "philosophy"--perhaps also with a small "p"--to mean "an explanatory conceptual plan"). But puppies that pad along wagging their tails behind the Republican wagon train cannot be credited with even this small-p's level of intention. So Obama is mis-speaking to credit Palin with a "political philosophy" even on this trivial level.

Or is he? No! He is, rather, saying that Palin's shenanigans are on a level with the Republicans' "political philosophy." Again, true--but also sophisticated and even subtle. It is a comment, not on her, but on the Republicans.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

John McCain's Legacy (Palin)

by Richard Crews
John McCain is an honorable man--"a true American hero"--who has been courageous in the Senate, even at times defying party orthodoxy and political "wisdom" in favor of principled stands.

In the 1980s he shot himself in the foot by his participation in the Keating-Five Scandal. Many thought he had killed any serious political aspirations. But like Ted Kennedy after Chappaquiddick, John McCain, serving in the Senate, patiently and diligently climbed the mountain of dignity and moral stature to achieve a venerable place in U.S. history.

On the negative side his judgment sometimes seemed impetuous and his policy decisions poorly thought out (as in his response to the financial crisis during his presidential campaign) and his administrative and organizational skills were not of the highest order (viz the stops and starts of his presidential campaign).

But in my judgment his most terrible political/historical sin--one that has forever damned John McCain from an enduring place of honor in U.S. history--is his dredging Sarah Palin out of anonymity ("from the putrid tundra of Alaska") and foisting her--apparently tenaciously--onto the national political scene.

Please see (even if only briefly)--

Friday, November 13, 2009

Darwin's Interlude

by Richard Crews
A few years ago I read about three stages in the development of life on our planet. The first, called "abiogenesis" or "chemical evolution," was the fortuitous gathering together (perhaps with lightening sparking interactions) of more and more complex molecules, especially carbon molecules. This occupied the first couple of billion years of the Earth's existence.

By the end of that period the developing carbon chemistry had become complex enough to be called "organic" and, with the curious advent of self-replicating carbon compounds, "biologic."

The following few billion years (until about 10,000 years ago) can be called the "Darwinian Interlude." During that period biological systems (that's us) developed--or we can legitimately say "evolved"--according to Darwin's profound insight: through natural variation and natural selection. (Darwin's breakthrough concept has been called "the most important idea anyone ever had.") Spencer provided the term "survival of the fittest"; Mendel, the necessary statistical mechanisms of "genetics"; Gould, the broken flow refinement of "punctuated equilibrium." All in all, the theory of "evolution" seems to explain neatly how the complex living world we see around us arose from that primordial organic soup.

That is, until about 10,000 years ago. At that time a new force began to sweep across the planet, increasingly diverting and overwhelming natural evolutionary processes: modern humans appeared on the scene with their hunting, agriculture, animal husbandry, and general determination to bend the environment (including the biological environment) to their wishes. (I pause here for a round of applause.)

Granted, shifting the patterns of the Earth is like turning a battleship--it occurs slowly. For many centuries the Grand Old Lady, Earth, continued to "Darwin" along on its way. But there was a rising tide (or perhaps I should say, "a gathering storm"). The use of land (and sea and air) were increasingly determined by totally unnatural variations and unnatural selections made by human beings.

These days our species rules the Earth. We decide which other species live (and which few flourish) and which ones die. We decide what land is to grow certain plants for our pleasure, and what land is to lie fallow or die from subversion of its water and exhaustion of its nutrients.

This is a heavy responsibility. Are we up to it? Are we mature enough to manage our sweet mother planet wisely? The jury is still out on this question, but leaks from the jury room suggest that the verdict will be "no."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Suicide by Train

by Richard Crews
On Tuesday (Nov. 10, 2009) Robert Enke, a German soccer goalie (widely acknowledged to be one of the best in the world), committed suicide by jumping in front of a speeding train.

It was a terrible tragedy, and I do not take it lightly. But I am intrigued by the psycho-dynamics of the event. The man must have spent his entire athletic career waiting to throw himself in front of (to try to stop) a soccer ball hurdling toward him. His every mental and physical reflex was honed to that instant. He must have gone to bed at night re-living in despair the ones that had gotten by him and calculating endlessly how he could have done a better job getting in front of them. He must have reveled in triumph at the feeling of that missile crashing into his body.

Very few people choose to commit suicide by jumping in front of a speeding train--but he did. After all, it was consistent with the mental and physical discipline he had trained in himself all his life.

The psycho-dynamics of death are not always so stark, but they are always there--and always strong--and always determinant. In fact, each of us is more than "flirting" with death, we are actively courting it. If we overeat or under-exercise or play "chicken" with known health and safety threats, we can acknowledge the craziness clearly, although the underlying psycho-dynamic struggles may be far from clear--they are deeply hidden in the recesses of our minds; they grow in tangled ways from past fears and frustrations.

There is a joke that you can tell a French firing squad because the riflemen stand in a circle with the condemned prisoner in the middle.

Psycho-dynamic "reasons" are like that: they seemed to make sense at one time (perhaps when we were very young or blinded by passion) but looked at with clear and reasonable adult vision, they are stupid and self-defeating.


Note: I learned today that Dr. Edwin Shneidman died a couple of months ago at the age of 91. He was the founding genius of a field called "suicidology." As a psychiatric resident in training 45 years ago, I attended a lecture he delivered on "Sub-Intentioned Death." His influence has stayed with me ever since.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Second Coming (of Civilization)

by Richard Crews
The point is sometimes made that even if civilization crumbles under the weight of the impending global food, water, and energy catastrophes--even if "we" are set back a thousand years or more--surely our descendants will rise again. It would just be a matter of time.

But the rise of civilization over the past 10,000 years--with its accompanying plodding advance of justice and human dignity, and at last even reverence for life and respect for our mothering Earth and its ecosystems--has depended on readily available natural resources. The oil, iron, and copper that lay on the surface were essential in advancing our forebears from the Stone Age into the Bronze Age and then the Iron Age. It was only with the development of further technologies which these readily available resources allowed that our ancestors learned to dig and drill for more of them.

These have been used up--along with phosphates, radioactive ores, and a dozen other commodities that are essential for advancing technologies. If and when our civilization is driven back into barbarism (where looting ones neighbors was a major source of wealth) and slavery (which was a major pre-industrial source of energy), our descendants will not have access to many of the raw materials that were essential for our ancestors to advance.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Pale-Green Jobs

by Richard Crews
Do you know the difference between a "recession" and a "depression"? A "recession" is when your neighbor is out of work; but when you lose your job, that's a "depression."

The present economic downturn (charmingly dubbed the "Great Recession") is reshuffling the business deck in interesting--subtle but profound--ways. As previous downturns have up-turned, factories reopen, workers are rehired, and things get back to "normal."

Not so this time. The massive but sometimes gradual shift to high-tech services of the past few decades has been accelerated dramatically by the current, in many ways unprecedented, bubble cycle. A lot of the "old jobs" simply won't be returning. Yes, some factories can be retooled, for example from SUVs to hybrids; some occupations can be reoriented, for example from new construction to energy-efficient retrofitting; some financial and big-business strategies can evolve, for example from excesses and amoral greed to pan-regulation. But a lot of the "old ways" are fading and, in the current economic turmoil, fading fast.

We are in the throes of a social (occupational, educational--even cultural, philosophical, and--yes--political) upheaval. The "Good Old Days" simply won't be coming back--some would say "thank heavens!" The 2020s are going to look and feel very different from the 1980s and '90s.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Evolution of Consciousness

by Richard Crews
Have you seen how computer programs can evolve? For example, one can take a program that draws a stick figure on a screen and then redraws it several times a second. This does not require a particularly long and complicated program--perhaps a few hundred lines of code. Someone skilled in the programming arts could write this program in a couple of hours.

Then you write a program that throws a small error into the first program and runs the new, screwed-up version for one minute. And you arrange for this process to be repeated over and over again. For each run the computer goes back to the starting program and inserts a random error. Usually the error (we'll call it a "mutation") simply "kills" the starting program--it just won't run at all. But now and then the mutation causes the stick figure to jiggle or jump.

Every hour or so you choose a few of the "best" mutations--the ones that have caused some interesting twitch or movement in the figure it draws (one that looks a little like walking)--and you use each of those as a new starting point. Then you go through this process over and over again; actually you write another control program so the computer will make the choices and re-runs and re-re-runs by itself and you go have dinner and go to a movie or something.

The next morning if you have told the computer to pick twitches and jumps that look more and more like walking, when you get to your lab and look in on the process, the computer is drawing one figure after another that walks across the screen. Overnight it has gone through hundreds of trial runs and gradually selected programs that look more and more like real, live walking.

You can look in on this process at--

It is fun to watch "evolution" and "survival of the fittest" in action like this. In fact, it's more than fun--it's downright mindboggling.

One of the ways one can boggle ones mind is to speculate that in the biological world primitive people-like creatures might evolve quite complex predator-evasion skills (like watching out, running for it, hiding, and climbing trees) or skills for hunting, foraging, resting, procreating, etc. in only a few hundred generations of "evolution."

I like to imagine that solving problems--especially complicated human problems such as when to eat, fight, or run away--might be done by drawing up in ones mind a series of little scenarios as to what events might take place and what the outcome of each might be, and then choosing among them to decide on a course of action. Moreover, why couldn't one evolve a process like this for solving daily problems, that is, for dealing with the variations of daily life? Of course one would have to imagine oneself in the scene, getting clawed or getting food, etc.

Voila! The evolution of consciousness, including self-awareness.