Rowing Together, Global Province Letter, 30 May 2012

It is very expensive to achieve high unreliability. It is not uncommon to increase the cost of an item by a factor of ten for each factor of ten degradation accomplished----Norm Augustine.

Decoration Day. Decoration Day, now known as Memorial Day, got its start after the Civil War (1861-1865), as remembrance for all the Union soldiers who fell in battle or passed away from the ravages of disease or imprisonment. But it has since grown into a eulogy for all the nation's dead from all our wars, a clear proclamation that though many a soldier had his finest hour on the battlefield, war itself wrenches the soul out of almost any nation. If one peeks around the South today, it is clear even now that the seceding states have never recovered from the Civil War, with vast pockets of the Confederate region still afflicted by dense poverty, with large aspects of southern culture and knowledge lost forever such that, for instance, several interesting crop varieties have vanished, and with a diminished political class remaining that has not served its region well and is a tiresome burden rather than its hope.

We miss the ragtag proud Memorial Day Parades we used to see in small New England towns and in storybook vacation spots, which gaily saluted both the war dead and the soldiers living. There was pride in service to one's country without jingoism and without an excess of hoopla. These cobbled street gatherings and little rat-a-tat marches made clear that these petite towns had pride and unity. It bespoke of a populace that worshipped the pursuit of happiness.

Even today one can listen to a clutch of fine American composers who happily celebrate America's togetherness. One such is Charles Ives, whose Decoration Day adds both harmony and dignity to our national holiday.

Rowing Together. This collective unity and common purpose has a tremendous appeal right now when not only our country but also our world is riven by narrow interests and compulsive antagonism. We're wondering how to achieve enough harmony to get something, anything done. It is time, some may think, to realize that we of the earth are in the same boat and that we had best pull on the oars in unison and with a will to go in the same direction. This is the first of three letters where we will speculate on what kinds of things might inspire us to pull together.

Outrageous Acts of Collaboration. There's long been a tendency to idolize superstars and screech about the value of individualism. This hero worship, at the expense of the many, promotes isolation that is less than splendid. But what if we had more examples of the brightest and the best doing things in concert? It is wonderful to see the giants of opera climb up on the stage to do their virtuoso best. But we find ourselves, more and more, listening daily to The Three Tenors. You may remember that Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, and Luciano Pavarotti first sang as the Tenors at the Caracalla Baths in 1990, with encores for many years to come. Each was great. We were partial to Pavarotti. But all three soared when performing together. And they did much for the world of music through their togetherness. More than one artist saw the fun and the wisdom and the power and the financial rewards of working together, rather than going it alone. They make us feel like communing together.

At Peace with Mother Nature. We need to work and play and think together, because our isolation and desolation run yet deeper than we admit to ourselves. It is not just that we are so at war with each other by means of bombs or diatribe. We are at war with the planet on which we live, and Mother Nature is biting back. One does not have to be a dogmatist on either side of the global warming debate (and there are clear scientific ambiguities in this matter) to understand that we are messing up things pretty bad. We are piping loads of carbon into the atmosphere, making a bunch of places hard slogging for man or beast. The rates of breast cancer in our female population have doubled, mainly because the breast is a sponge that soaks up everything, including the stream of toxins infecting earth and stream and sky. We must ask of our scientists and engineers that they design processes that put us in alignment with the earth on which we live, that we learn how to collaborate with nature.

One promising line of invention in this regard is Daniel Nocera's Artificial Leaf. He's a MIT professor who is striving to end our energy crisis by aping photosynthesis through artificial means and subsequently splitting water molecules to produce hydrogen. The New Yorker just did an article on his work. We would refer you to MIT or Chemistry World to get a better grasp of the underlying science involved. While this approach to energy is not economically feasible yet, clearly the costs will be brought down. Morever, in contrast to carbon or atomic fuels, photosynthesis and water splitting don't produce egregious wastes. And this is only one of several interesting initiatives that would put man in alignment with nature rather than at odds with it. It's all for naught if we head down a metaphysical blind alley where we battle the cosmos.

Wind, Sand, and Stars. Technology run amuck is part and parcel of our era. In fact, the jury is still out on technology: is it our salvation or is it the end of us all? Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French aviator-writer, further explores both the need for unity amongst men and for a mastery of technology in his famous Wind, Sand, and Stars. Implicit is the notion that we must catch up with the technology of our age, must master what the inventors and engineers are throwing at us, or it will master us. He in no sense rejects new technology, but merely feels we must come to terms with it. This is food for thought, since it seems evident that we have become slaves to technology in the 21st century, be it cellphones, cable TV, computers, ATMs, over-centralized energy and power generation, automated customer service, and a host of other systems that divorce us from each other and from the intelligences that control our lives. To understand our predicament, one need only walk down Madison Avenue midday and contemplate the stream of ladies cackling into their cellphones, much too consumed by chatter to enjoy the day, the shop windows, or their fellow urbanites.

At this time there is no particular solution for the alienation that modern technology is producing. All we can do is acknowledge the dilemma. And occasionally construct firewalls around ourselves that shut out the digital alternative world. And begin to think through how technology can be mastered so as to become more an instrument of harmony. At the end of the day we must have enough self awareness and societal vision to understand the cleavage produced by Silicon Valleys gone hog wild. We should never lose the delight and wonder that modern technology inspires, but, in equal part, we must be conscious of the fear and trembling that it wreaks in man's soul.

P.S. Our healthcare sector, now consuming north of 15% of our Gross National Product, is sucking the life out of our economy. It is the best example of technology gone plumb loco. For instance x-ray and other scanning equipment has become ever more complicated and hugely expensive, even though in the underdeveloped world businesses have come up with equipment to do some of the job at a fraction of the cost. Moreover, there are countless examples of technology overkill where the medical fraternity orders procedures both expensive and borderline dangerous. Commonly, heavy-duty anesthesia is ordered where much less will do: colonoscopies now always seem to have an anesthesiologist in the room, over-injecting patients. We ourselves have seen patients gagging from such an approach and taking an inordinate amount of time to wake up. A light drugging will do. These procedures in general cost far more than they should.

We ourselves were ordered to have a high powered blood test by a New York internist (we have no history nor no signs of heart disease). A Boston heart specialist nixed the test, saying it not only was unwarranted but could have unpleasant side effects.


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