View from the Edge

Peter Riva of Gila has offered his many years of columns for this online newspaper. His writings have been published in East Coast newspapers, and he decided to share them with the Beat and you, our readers.

Years ago – 37 to be exact – I first heard the terms “lungs of the earth” and “rainforest” applied to the Amazon. Both are dreadfully wrong. Well meaning, but wrong. Anyone who has stood in a tropical forest will tell you there is a distinct lack of oxygen available. Even at sea level, you can be out of breath just walking. Why? Because there is so much humidity pushing decomposition of the debris on the forest floor that oxygen is being consumed as part of that process. Now, do forest trees produce oxygen? You bet. But when you add in the heat and humidity of the Amazon forest, the net effect is that the so-called rainforest produce—at best according to NOAA scientists in a report in 1992—as much oxygen as carbon dioxide that they consume. In other words, tropical forests are a wash.

No, we’re not going to discuss the control and dissemination of Internet stuff on Google, Wikipedia, Yahoo and others. 99% of that material is based on consumer demand, research on something you forgot or wanted to know about—just a little, just enough. And, yes, Google and others are controlling those precis of information and access to products and your needs. And, yes, we should be concerned.

During the Middle Ages, language and the ability to have anything written down, were at the center of power in Catholic Europe. The common man (or woman) was powerless when faced with books they could neither read nor ever hope to afford – each book was original, hand inscribed and illustrated—treasured repositories of knowledge and laws. On top of that physical limitation, Latin was, for example, the language of the church which ruled Europe. Most people had no ability to learn Latin and that meant they were constrained from understanding the actual teachings of hand-inscribed bibles even if they ever got a look at one. Totally reliant on what the educated priests told them, their lives, laws, rules, moral code were all often subject to a clergy’s interpretation of what he could—at times—barely read himself. And, of course, with each new church official redefining what the “word of God” was written in these secret texts, one day’s rules and laws were often changed to suit a new direction the church states wanted to promote.

50 Years on, what’s the result since man set foot on the moon... who has been setting the agenda and where are we going? For a while, the whole idea was to take the technology of Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and make access to space easier, take bigger things into orbit, and then build a space station. Why? Experiments, new micro-gravity discoveries (already found in many industries) and, never least, learn how to live in space in preparation for long distance and long duration space exploration – these were the goals of the men and women devoting their lifetimes and intellect.

If you have a part of your body replaced—a knee, a shoulder, a hip socket—are you less human? Currently, no one thinks that. So let’s extend it a little: if you have an organ replaced from a donor, are you still you? Currently most people think so (with gratitude for your donor of course). Now, let’s ask this current medical possibility: if you have a heart valve replaced with a part from a pig or cow, are you still you, still all human? It’s a psychological question many heart patients have had to grapple with. Obviously, the answer is yes. Modified, but yes, you are still you.

Now comes the hard part. Let’s say that instead of that donor part, or replacement knee, you have the chance to have a tailor-made biologically grown or 3-d printed replica part, a replica made from your own DNA. That isn’t really you, but a clone of you, so is it really you? If that’s a new heart, lung, liver, kidney, pancreas... grown from your cells into a replacement part... is the new you really you? On the one hand, your brain and consciousness grew up with the old part, understood it, watched it fail, and need to be replaced. Then, suddenly, there’s a new, completely perfectly new part. How will your memory, your connection in the brain’s neurons deal with this replacement which has no evolutionary pathway to understanding. Sure, in thinking about it, you’ll be cool, but will your brain accept that it is really you/yours?

Many of my friends know I follow aviation closely and ask what happened to the 737Max planes that crashed, why did they crash, why did the FAA take so long, why don’t the pilots know what to do, etc.? All of those questions are being answered in the media every day. Sometimes accurately – a brief iPad coaching session to overcome a dramatic plane deviation downwards in time of severe stress is asking for trouble. Sometimes inaccurately – the pilots should have known what to do is a lame cover-up for mechanical controls over-riding pilot commands. And sometimes missing the real issue: The FAA hires ex-employees from or, when retiring, FAA directors are hired by the airlines or manufacturers. It is an incestuous industry, exactly the same as the Coast Guard directors and admirals who all seem to drift to the major oil tanker shipping companies on “retirement” with full government pensions.

This last week, the flow for profit of government employees reached an all-time high with the staunch pro-Constitution Conservative, good guy, Paul Ryan signing a multi-million dollar book deal and taking a board of director’s job at FOX TV. Gee, I wonder if that was pay back for his help keeping FOX from being scrutinized by the FCC for the past 10 years?

The answer lies in the soil. There is nothing like good, old fashioned, wormy, loam. Good, honest, clean, dirt. But you have to ask, where did the earth come from? Unless you know where it came from, where it originated and why, you can never properly plan for your garden. A long, long, time ago, the Hudson Valley was rock. That’s all, rock, scoured glacial rock. Everything that once was there was picked up 10,000 years ago and carried south, deposited only when the glaciers retreated. Long Island is one huge sandy and pebble glacial deposit. All across the Hudson Valley region the only thing left was smooth rock. Okay, the glaciers – thinner and thinner each year – came and went, often dropping rocks and debris, but mostly the top feet of topsoil went south.

Then the beavers, microbes, fungi, and seeds got to work, breaking up the rock over thousands of years. Most of the depth top soil in the Hudson Valley is thanks to beavers. Rain up-state washed down silt which the beaver damns retained and, when the dams were filled up, the animals went up or down stream, leaving a rich loam behind. Over the millennia – yes thousands of years – they piled up the rich soil of the region.

This is a simple discussion when it comes to education and a complicated one when it comes to the free and capitalist society our republic has chosen. Say, you have money and you wish to apply it to your kids’ education. What could be more American than buying your kid a mechanical pencil, a calculator, better basketball shoes, hiring a coach for swimming or a tutor to catch up in math? If you feel these are acceptable, then it is very possible—and a very short walk—to the other side of the ethical line.  

All schools engage in pandering to parents, to one degree or another. They need to justify your kids’ attendance. They need to justify the fees they charge, the school taxes you pay, the results they need to achieve to get more money. There is always a negotiation between what the school wants and what the tax payer wants to pay – whether it is public school or private. That negotiation, whether it be at a PTA meeting, or a taxpayers’ meeting of the school board, or a private school’s tuition hike notification—that negotiation (for that is what it is) pits your needs and desires for your child against the school’s need to continue that level of education you demand of them.