Wednesday, September 4, 2013



Younger people do not think much beyond a few years ahead.  Yet we all see people who are much older when we are in the prime of our careers or lives.  I remember the first time I visited a nursing home for the elderly to visit one of Nedra’s relatives.  This was about 1970.  I was young (at least I think being 39 is young to me now).  The first response was the odor of urine that permeated the place.  The thought of incontinent old people horrified me and I can see why younger people blot out the thought of that future.  The second was the feeling of helplessness as I watched some people scooting about in wheel chairs, many leaning on canes, and lots walking corridors holding onto railing along the walls.  The thought crossed my mind that I would rather die a quick death from a heart attack than melt away cell by cell as I aged into oblivion. Today I am in the early phase of my 82rd year.  I use a cane occasionally to avoid falling if the weather is bad or if it is dark or I feel I will tire from walking too much.  I take tai chi classes with Nedra so we can exercise our arthritic joints. My brain feels like it is 30 years old and I can do lots of mental skills.  I can do Sudukos (even the hard ones and sometimes I use a pen instead of a pencil).  I still write books and have had five books published in the past ten years, the latest this year (2013).  These are not vanity press books.  They are scholarly books that must pass critical review by internal and outside referees of the publisher. I also have at least five books I wrote during the same time that have not been published.  I am a realist.  If I don’t get a book published, I try writing another book.  To me that is easier than to market myself.  That’s the same attitude I have for Sudukos.  Solve it and get an endorphin rush.  Goof it up and abandon it by trying another.  If I run out of puzzles to do, then I will erase and try again (and often succeed). So far I have not tried that with my rejected manuscripts. But unlike puzzles, writing books and articles is more fun.  I learn something every time I do the research for a book.  I still have the curiosity of a child and want to learn something new every day I waken.  I understand why many elderly people are depressed.  They have lost the capacity to do the physical things they loved. They may never have had an opportunity to develop their mental skills.  If they do not have dementia, they will see their lives fading away and lack the knowledge of how to cultivate their skills. For me retirement was never going to be shuffleboard, playing cards, and watching vintage movies.  It is the last phase of my life cycle, and as a biologist, I want to extract every moment of creativity I can summon and savor what I have wrought.

Sunday, September 1, 2013



The very likely use of Sarin gas by the Syrian military in an attack on rebel-held territory killed some 1400 people, many of them children and women who had no active role in the civil war.  The targeting of civilian populations, whether by conventional bombs, atomic bombs, or gas warfare is a crime against humanity, justified by the user with utilitarian ethics claiming it prevents an even greater loss of life if such a show of force is not used.  The one thing Churchill, Stalin, Hitler, and Roosevelt agreed on in WWII was the use of utilitarian ethics to justify their bombings of civilians in cities and rationalizing the losses as collateral damage. 

Why was chemical warfare singled out after WWI as a banned weapon system?  Gas attacks are difficult to target and wind shifts can cause them to shift to civilian sites They are relatively cheap to manufacture and they do not provide effective defense systems for civilians. This is particularly true for the nerve gases that have been stockpiled in violation of international law. Sarin gas is particularly gruesome in its convulsive effects on the neuromuscular system and many of the victims stop breathing or slowly strangle to death. 

A leading critic of gas warfare, Matthew Meselson, told me several years ago that chemical weapons would be used by smaller nations if their use was not made a war crime with surety of arrest and punishment.  His prediction has come true. They are easy to manufacture and their costs are miniscule compared to a nuclear weapons program. Ironically many of the people, who believe that an iron fist policy is the only one that their country’s enemy respects, also believe that their own civilians and soldiers are toughened in their spines if an enemy resorts to the use of such weapons.  This double standard ["we  will make them cry, Uncle" versus "we will fight to the last man"] exists for users of all weapons systems and goes back to antiquity but few people point out this contradiction in human belief.   

If neither the United States nor the United nations responds to Syria’s use of gas warfare by military response, what other options are there?  One policy is labeling such a nation as a pariah nation and imposing a blockade to its receiving military weapons by air, land, or sea.  A second policy would be a diplomatic offensive with sanctions on that nation’s overall economy, transfer of money in international trade, and freezing of assets around the world. It would include cutting off landing rights to its commercial aircraft. It would block travel by their civilians.  War may not be the answer to those who use chemical weapons, but doing nothing is a terrible response.