Traveling By Rail

It seems to me….

The first trip I remember taking was on the train from Virginia up to New York City, watching the summertime countryside rolling past the window.  They used white linen tablecloths in the dining car in those days, and real silver.  I love trains to this day.  Maybe that was the beginning of my fixation with leisurely modes of travel.”  ~ Billy Campbell[1].

Passenger rail is admittedly only one type of population conveyance necessary in any modern transportation network.  While not denying the obvious importance of personal vehicle, air, or water transportation, this consideration will be more restricted.

The only way to adequately describe traveling by passenger train in the U.S. today in comparison to comparable rail travel throughout much of the rest of the world is that most of it is terrible.  The U.S. was once a leader in passenger rail but now lags far behind other developed nations.  The Boston-New York-Washington, D.C., corridor might be a possible exception, but I have not recently traveled by train in that area so am unable to objectively comment on it.

While U.S. freight railroads operate some of the safest, most efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally sound freight transportation systems in the world, that, unfortunately, is not also true for U.S. passenger service even though passenger rail system improvement would provide numerous economic and environmental benefits.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) awarded the U.S. rail network a grade of “B”, its highest grade in its most recent Report Card (2021)[2], which is released every four years.

The high marks for the U.S.’ privately funded freight rail system stand in stark contrast to the taxpayer-funded general transportation infrastructure.  Bridges and roads, for example, continue to age and suffer from overuse.  Reflecting their poor condition, ASCE gave these systems grades of C and D.

The first mechanical passenger train in the U.S. opened for service on Christmas Day in 1830.  Over the next century, both passenger and freight rail exploded, laying the tracks for westward expansion and an economic boom.  Passenger rail ridership began to decline following World War I due to competition with automobiles but rose again during World War II when gasoline and tires were rationed.

The U.S. has the largest rail transport network of any country in the world but passenger service in major cities is mainly mass transit and commuter rail.  Intercity passenger service, once a large and vital part of the nation’s passenger transportation network, now only plays a limited role in comparison to transportation options in many other countries.  There once was a time when the U.S. actually had relatively good passenger train service but rail transportation in the U.S. now consists primarily of freight shipments.

The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act enacted under President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 initiated construction of our current Interstate Highway System.  With the advent of automotive and air travel, ridership on the nation’s passenger services began to severely dwindle.  By that time railroads were beginning to see the writing on the wall and reduced passenger services with most giving it up altogether following creation of the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) in 1971.

I, like most people, have always enjoyed traveling by train.  My first train trip was with my mom to visit her parents during World War II.  It was a relatively short trip: from just outside Atlantic City, NJ, to West Hazelton, PA.  I only remember the cars seemed fairly dark with the only light coming mainly from the windows which to a young child were fascinating to look out.

Many kids are interested in trains when young and I was one of them.  When I discovered in 7th grade that I could ride a train without being questioned, I occasionally skipped school to take the train mostly to Camden, NJ, or Philadelphia, PA, about 60 miles from home but occasionally elsewhere as I became increasingly courageous and discovered what ticket transfer destinations were possible.  The only time I was stopped and questioned was by someone working in the freight yards in Camden.  He asked me what I was doing out there but when I asked him some questions about the train engines, he happily showed them to me and answered my questions.  If my parents had ever found out I had skipped school to wandering around freight yards and distant cities, I’m sure I would have been in serious trouble.

Having apparently satisfied my curiosity, my train excursions essentially stopped in 8th grade and I never ventured out again once in high school.

My first “long” official solo trip was from Philadelphia to Deland, FL, when heading off to college in 1955.  Though the Korean War had ended two years before, the train seemed crowded with servicemen, all of whom appeared to be in a celebratory mood.

I have had some extremely interesting experiences on trains.  When traveling from Harlingen, TX, to Philadelphia on Christmas leave in 1958, I had to change trains in Chicago, IL; the station was extremely crowded and I was prevented from boarding my train.  At the time, I was an Air Force aviation cadet in flight training, wearing my uniform; and being a cadet colonel, had multiple stripes which probably appeared somewhat impressive.

I marched into the station master’s office and complained.  To my surprise, he apologized and arranged for me to be on the next train – in a roomette.

Shortly after leaving Chicago, I exited my compartment and sat in an empty lounge car reading a magazine.  A gentleman in a full suit entered and sat down on the opposite side of the car.  A minute or two later, two additional men entered.  When passing me, one of the gentlemen stopped and asked if I was attending the Air Force Academy which was still quite new at the time.  I instinctively immediately jumped to a full-brace attention and answered that and several other questions with mostly a “Yes, Sir” or “No, Sir”.  Satisfied, the two of them continued on out the other end of the car.

After they left, the first gentleman who had been sitting somewhat opposite from me, got up, walked over asked if I knew to whom I had been speaking?  “No, Sir” (again at full attention).  He informed me prior to leaving that it was ex-President Harry Truman.

That evening while waiting to be seated in the dining car, the same gentleman approached me and inquired if I would be interested in joining the President and his wife, Beth, for dinner.  “Yes, Sir”.

Somewhat surprisingly, since my end of any conversation must have once again consisted primarily of “Yes, Sir” and “No, Sir”, I was once again asked to join them for breakfast the following morning.  I never was able to remember one word of either conversation.

Perhaps my most classic trip by train was in 1959 on the California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco (actually Oakland, CA).  The so-called “Silver Lady” was considered “The most talked-about train in America” as it traveled 2,532 miles through the heart of the Rockies and further west through the snow-capped Sierra Nevadas.  I have never met anyone who had ridden the California Zephyr who did not rave about it.

Passenger rail is dependent upon government investment but has been plagued by a lack of adequate federal support.  Heavy government subsidies are provided to roadways and airports; little, however, is given to passenger railroads which has resulted in a current repair backlog of an estimated $45.2 billion.

A primary reason for high ticket prices is use of privately owned freight rail tracks which Amtrak must pay a fee to operate over.  Amtrak operates almost exclusively over such private freight railroads other than in the Northeast where it owns the Pennsylvania Railroad’s former Northeast Corridor (NEC), a four-track main line operating between Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.  The most culturally notable and physically evident exception to the general lack of significant passenger rail ridership in the U.S. is in that same Northeast Corridor.

At one time, Amtrak serviced all major cities and many small towns across the U.S.  Today service is much more limited serving only about 500 destinations in 46 states and three Canadian provinces.  Even where available, service can be extremely limited.  E.g., the Amtrak “Coast Starlight” stops in my town only once each day heading both north and south at around 03:00am in the morning with the station, which is located in a less than desirable part of town, open only during the day.  It also is not unusual for it to arrive several hours late.

Though relatively expensive, rail travel has benefits unavailable in other modes of travel.  Unlike an airplane, trains do not restrict travelers to their seats.  All long-distance trains offer a dining car and lounge car, and many provide second-floor observation decks.  Sleeper cars are available for an additional fee.  The atmosphere on a train is laid-back and relaxed, and many riders make lasting friendships.  U.S. railroads provide spectacular views of the nation’s abundant scenery – but also its slums and the back of automotive junkyards.

Amtrak’s ambitious “Amtrak Connects Us” proposal, lays out a plan to expand its services to 47 of the top 50 metropolitan areas and connect up to 160 communities with new or improved rail corridors in over 25 states throughout the U.S.  While Amtrak ridership has slightly increased – primarily in the Northeast Corridor, it remains more dependent on subsidies than other modes of transportation.

Today, older passenger rail service elsewhere throughout the world is rapidly being replaced by high-speed rail (HSR) systems travelling in excess of 250 km/h (160 mph).  Over 15 countries now have operational HSR lines including some locations where it might not be expected such as Morocco or Malaysia – but not in the U.S. where most trains are limited to a top speed of only 95 km/h (59 mph)[3].  China alone has built more than 40,200 km (25,000 miles) of HSR in the last two decades.

The primary reason why the U.S. has not completed any HSR systems is the unlimited cost of privatizing land in the U.S. and resistance from the airline industry.  Privatization of land has made it impossible for the government to compulsorily acquire the land in question making it difficult to execute almost any type of public works projects in the U.S.

California has a HSR project but it has encountered difficulty due to rising costs, lawsuits, and political infighting.  Such projects are an important way to cut emissions from gas-powered vehicles and air travel but the U.S. has deep-seated structural issues that make building any large infrastructure projects extremely difficult[4].  Additionally, the federal government is always hesitant to fund massive infrastructure programs that disproportionately benefit only one state.

While it usually is passenger rail travel that comes to mind when travel by train is mentioned, other types of rail travel such as local rapid and mass transit systems also are available in many areas.

Many cities developed horse-drawn streetcar systems in the 19th century.  Most U.S. cities at that time were “walking” cities; most residents worked and shopped close to where they lived.

Around the beginning of the 1900s, electric streetcar (trolley) systems were built allowing cities to expand.  Streetcars made it easy to travel greater distances to work, shop, and socialize in town.  Real estate developers built streetcar lines to promote new suburban communities and many city dwellers (primarily White) moved to those new trolley suburbs.

Buses, which many commuters at the time considered to be a modern, comfortable, even luxurious replacement for rickety, uncomfortable trolleys soon began replacing streetcars.  Buses were more flexible and less expensive to operate than streetcars.  It also was a time when the personal automobile became commuters’ preferred mode of transportation.  Most cities had completely eliminated their trolley systems by the 1960s.

Suburban population increases, along with creation of the modern interstate highway system, resulted in significant corresponding increases in single-occupancy personal transportation vehicles which began to create gridlocks strangling most large urban centers.  Many cities began seeking ways to mitigate vehicle congestion.  A common remedy was to essentially reconstruct the rail-based streetcars they previously had scrapped.  Such systems are commonly called metros, subways, elevated railways, heavy rail, rapid rail, or underground railways.

U.S. public transportation is generally considered infamously underdeveloped compared to most other developed countries.

Washington, DC, began construction of the Washington Metro (or simply Metro) in 1969.  It is a rapid transit system serving the Washington metropolitan area with six lines stretching over 188 km (117 mi) serving 91 stations (with 7 more currently under construction).

The New York City subway is one of the busiest rail systems in the world.  Having opened in 1904, it is one of the world’s oldest public transit systems, one of the most used, and the one having the most stations with 472 stations in operation.  The system has 28 routes or “services” (some of which share track or “lines” with other services) operating over 399 km (248 miles) of routes.

Seattle is both expanding its rail system and improving its bus system at the same time while linking the two systems together to make a much more useful system overall.  It is one of the few U.S. cities where transit ridership is growing.  Seattle is also somewhat unique due to the variety of transportation options it accommodates including King County Metro buses, Link Light Rail, and Sound Transit, which is a larger regional bus system connecting to other nearby cities, along with an extensive ferry system to numerous other locations including Sidney, British Columbia.

Shortly after taking office as mayor (1971-1975) of San Jose, CA, Norman Mineta[5] created a Santa Clara County transportation committee, of which I was a member, to recommend policies to resolve the county’s deteriorating traffic-related problems.  We ran simulations for a wide range of scenarios.  It clearly showed that widening existing freeways or building additional ones would only move problems elsewhere in a perpetual whack-a-mole manner rather than ever being able to resolve them.  It quickly became apparent that the optimum strategy would be to connect to the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system under construction at the time completing the loop around San Francisco Bay and to build a county-wide mass transit feeder system connecting to BART.

Our proposal was approved as a ballot issue but we were dependent on donations to publicize it.  The auto industry ran a massive disinformation campaign discrediting the proposal and it was defeated.  Now, over 50 years later, BART still remains incomplete, considerably more has been spent than the funding necessary for our proposal, and, in spite of nearly constant road construction, traffic and gridlock has constantly gotten worse.  A minimal light rail system has recently been built and BART is being slowly extended into Santa Clara County (the so-called “Silicon Valley”) but not expected to fully connect into San Jose until 2034 at the earliest[6].  There still isn’t any projected date to complete the BART loop around the SF Bay.  The entire SF Bay Area has experienced higher than anticipated growth leading to auto congestion that now will be very difficult to relieve.

Numerous other urban centers are experiencing similar, or even worse, vehicle congestion and are either in the planning or development stage of regional transit systems.  All of them are experiencing problems similar to those attempting to build either HSR or regional light rail systems in other areas of the country.  Many such centers in the past developed bus-based systems due to their substantially lower cost than comparable rail systems.  Most now realized they must move beyond buses to meet environmental goals and substantially increase distances and number of passengers served.

An initial step should be to immediately terminate all highway expansion beyond three lanes in either direction without first adding mass rail transit in the road separator area as is being done on the Washington, DC, Metro so as to preclude even further congestion deterioration.

There is no easy or even affordable solution in most areas.  Major population centers are not able to totally tear down existing development and start over.  City and regional planners are in the politically untenable position of experiencing increasing voter dissatisfaction but also knowing essentially any recommendation sufficient to result in even minor improvement will not be approved if submitted as a voter ballot measure.

The only viable long-term solutions will be costly and result in urban centers much different than what currently exist.  At some point, it will have to done, there is no other answer.

That’s what I think, what about you?


[1] William Oliver Campbell is a U.S. film and television actor.

[2] Report Card For America’s Infrastructure: Overview Of Rail, American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), https://infrastructurereportcard.org/cat-item/rail/, 2022

[3] Passenger trains without a block signal system are federally limited to 95 km/h (59 mph).  Trains without an automatic cab signal, automatic train stop, or automatic train control system may not exceed 130 km/h (79 mph).  Since freight has priority on rail lines over passenger service, it now can take twice as long to travel on some routes as in the 1930s.

[4] Jones, Ryan Christopher.  California’s Ambitious High-Speed Rail At A Crossroads, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/13/us/california-high-speed-rail-newsom.html, 13 March 2022.

[5] Norman Yoshio Mineta was a U.S. politician who served as Mayor of San Jose, CA, and Secretary of Transportation as the only Democrat in President George W. Bush’s Cabinet.

[6] Kukura, Joe.  BART To San Jose ‘Likely’ Delayed Until 2034, If We Should Even Live That Long, SFist, https://sfist.com/2022/02/18/bart-to-san-jose-likely-delayed-until-2034-if-we-should-even-live-that-long/, February 2022.

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The U.S. Epicurean

It seems to me….

If you ask what people say what American cuisine is, they cannot really do it.  I don’t know what it is.”  ~ David Chang[1].

The U.S. is a melting pot of cultures as a result of the many immigrants that came here from various other countries around the globe.  When it comes to the food Americans eat, this combination of culinary traditions has resulted in a cuisine both greater and substantially less than the sum of its parts and is something definitely unique.  There are a number of dishes that many consider examples of an “American” food tradition though most of the best known of those are not what would be consider exemplary by most food connoisseurs.  Regrettably, it is not the commendable that are being exported around the world.

It is relatively easy to define most countries national cuisines as the food and recipes are frequently indigenous to specific regions within them, often originally derived out of necessity from available ingredients from the local land or sea.  However, since the U.S. is an amalgamation of cultures from many other countries and Indigenous peoples, it can be somewhat challenging to define its cuisine or what recipes are truly “American”.

In the past, American cuisine encompassed regional cooking practices, traditions, and food dishes that fused African American, East Asian, South American, and Pacific Islander cuisines along with those of indigenous peoples who lived on the land well before colonization reflecting the U.S.’ historic diversity.  Immigration expanded the range of foods the U.S. was able to produce by introducing new ingredients, cooking methods, and agricultural practices.  An influx of Italian, German, and Asian immigrants during the twentieth century resulted in a vastness and diversity reflected in food tastes with many of the country’s favorite dishes influenced by cuisines from all over the world.

The U.S. has many extremely good restaurants.  I have never left disappointed after having eaten at one of the excellent four- or five-star restaurants.  There also are many exceptional small, independent eateries featuring traditional comfort foods, regional, or ethnic specialties.  There additionally is very good street food but it requires careful selection.  These one-off establishments are sufficiently well-liked that a popular TV program is dedicated to reviewing them[2].

The country is sufficiently large that there are many regional favorites.  While somewhat banal, who can go to New Orleans without stopping at Cafe du Monde’s for beignets?  Paul Prudhomme’s K-Paul’s Creole and Cajun cuisines were always excellent along with other local restaurants such as Emeril’s or Brennan’s.  The list is long.

And the same is true almost anywhere throughout the country.  Those sufficiently venturesome to stray beyond venues favored by tourists and travelers are likely to be pleasantly surprised by the quality of local foods.

Excellent seafood is available almost everywhere but especially along the New England, northern Pacific, and Gulf coasts along with Hawaii.  Any visit to Seattle must include dining on fresh crab or salmon.  It isn’t difficult to find excellent examples in unexpected locations – but clam chowder in a polystyrene cup on Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey, CA!!!

Who has not stopped at a very ordinary looking restaurant in a small town for a late lunch after driving all day and received an exceptionally well-prepared sandwich or other light fare?  Such locations exist in most areas including small towns normally bypassed and totally unknown by everyone other than those living in that area.  While perhaps not technically in the U.S., the dining on large cruise ships is very good relative to what most Americans normally eat.

It is very true that regardless of quality, Americans like food – and plenty of it – as indicated by the number of people who are overweight, have diabetes, or have other food-related medical problems.  Basically, American’s love protein.  The first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of “American cuisine” are classics like hamburgers, fried chicken, hot dogs, and pancakes.  Steak is rated as the top meal preference with chicken a close second.  Bacon and corned beef are also highly rated.  Eggs are a food favorite of three out of four Americans.

Pizza is ubiquitous throughout the U.S and definitely one of the country’s favorite foods.  American’s food preferences can only be described as perhaps plebian mediocrity at best.  Fast, junk, processed — when it comes to American food, the country is best known for the stuff that’s described by words better suited to greasy, grinding industrial output.

Having so much to offer, it is unfortunate that the U.S.’ major epicurean contributions being exported around the world are what usually is considered to be either “fast food” or “junk food”.  Every major city, regardless of where in the world, now has its fast-food outlets including McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Carl’s Jr., Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, Domino’s, Subway, etc.  There unfortunately is an ongoing worldwide U.S. inspired homogenization of food.  Americans can travel anywhere they like and never sample region specialties.

Although fast food is often equated with junk food, it cannot be categorically considered as such.  Fast foods are ready-to-eat foods served promptly after ordering; items that are more highly processed usually are considered to be junk food.

Most junk foods are high sources of sugars, fats, seasonings, unpronounceable chemicals, and other questionable substances.  They generally lack or contain very little protein, fiber, vitamins, or minerals.  Some obvious junk food items are potato chips, soft drinks, donuts, candy….

Long-term effects of eating a poor-quality diet high in junk food is often linked to a higher risk of obesity, depression, digestive issues, heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and early death.  It normally is recommended to either totally avoid or have such items only in moderation.

Junk foods exist today for only one reason: they are highly profitable as they can be heavily marked up over the costs of production.  Natural and traditional foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds are rarely advertised since they cannot be given a brand name, identity by a manufacturer, and normally are the lowest-profit items in most grocery stores.

Most merchants consequently make little effort to discourage junk food sales.  Supermarkets generally have entire rows of various kinds of chips or sodas.  That also is true for highly processed breakfast cereals whose main ingredient is sugar and marketed primarily to children.  Though the shelves are stacked with different appearing boxes, 73 percent are produced by just three different companies (General Mills, Kellogg’s, and Post).

In 2020, the value of U.S. agricultural exports exceeded $145.7 billion.  The top commodities were soybeans, corn, tree nuts, pork, beef, prepared foods, dairy products, wheat, and cotton.  Junk food exports are not broken out as a separate category by the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service but it most likely was a substantial percentage of the $6.7 billion in prepared foods.

On a positive note, while the U.S. might not warrant even moderate epicurean acclaim, California wines are as good as any wine found elsewhere.  California winemakers have access to a large range of grape varieties and winemaking methods to make incredible wines and the wine regions of Napa and Sonoma, CA, have become synonymous with the very best red and white wines in the world.

It is unfortunate that much of the world desires to emulate a U.S. lifestyle including its dietary preferences.  While it is possible for a nation to modernize without loss of their traditional culture and customs, it is exceedingly rare and normally limits future economic opportunities.  So-called “modernization” has a homogenizing effect on local cultures but that appears preferable to residents given the alternative to change.  It means access to the same music, movies, and other entertainment available elsewhere and seemingly preferred over traditional culture.  It means analogous employment options.  Similarly, food alternatives become the same regardless of where one might be.  While some people will always prefer the “old ways” and lament their loss, youth normally select the opportunities afforded by globalization.

The natural environment cannot tolerate the substantial long-term increases projected in international beef and other high-impact consumption.  It would be equally unfortunate to see greater ubiquity of fast-food outlets or higher consumption of junk foods throughout the world.

It is said that we are what we eat.  If so, given the popularity of fast-food outlets and junk food sales, we are in trouble.  It does not have to be this way – the U.S. is as endowed with healthful natural ingredients as anywhere else in the world.

Perhaps the U.S. is still too young a nation to have developed its own distinctive national cuisine.  Perhaps in a couple hundred more years when its culinary development has had more time to become established, there will be a notable American cuisine.  Perhaps, given time, anything is theoretically possible….

That’s what I think, what about you?


[1] David Chang is a U.S. restaurateur, author, podcaster, and television personality.

[2] Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diners,_Drive-Ins_and_Dives, 26 March 2022.

Posted in African American, Asian, beignets, breakfast, Brennan's, Burger King, Cafe du Monde, Cajun, California, California, Carl’s Jr., cook, cooking, Creole, cuisine, culinary, culture, Domino’s, eat, Emeril’s, epicurean, Ethnic, fast food, Fisherman’s Wharf, Food, Food, fried chicken, General Mills, German, gourmet, Gulf Coast, Gulf States, hamburger, Hawaii, hot dogs, Immigrant, Italian, Kellogg’s, lifestyle, McDonald’s, Monterey, Napa, New England, New England, New Orleans, Pacific Islands, pancakes, Papa John’s, Paul Prudhomme, Pizza, Pizza Hut, Post, protein, recipe, recipes, Restaurants, Seattle, Sonoma, South American, Subway, supermarket, Taco Bell, Wendy’s, wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Complicity In Murder

It seems to me….

Yes, people pull the trigger – but guns are the instrument of death.  Gun control is necessary, and delay means more death and horror.”  ~ Eliot Spitzer[1].

Another senseless school shooting.  What will it take to end them?  How many times is it necessary to express our collective outrage in response?  How do we sufficiently and forcefully say to those who refuse to listen, that we have had enough of this scourge upon our nation and demand something adequate be done to stop it?

Twenty-one more innocent children are dead in a Texas grade school.  Many, like me, express their righteous moral outrage.  Flags are lowered to half-mast.  Politicians offer sympathy and prayers.  And then nothing happens….

Like other mass-casualty incidents in U.S. schools, the Uvalde massacre follows the now-familiar pattern of outrage, thoughts, prayers, and calls for reform of the nation’s gun laws.  And once again, nothing happens to change this scenario.  The victims do not need prayers or sympathy – their deaths cry out for the need of meaningful action.

While it is school shootings that receive the greatest press coverage, there were about 250 mass shootings this year prior to Memorial Day, according to the Gun Violence Archive.  This nonprofit organization tracks the number of gun violence incidents in the country and defines a mass shooting as an incident where at least four people are killed or injured.  There were more than a dozen mass shootings in the U.S. just over the Memorial Day weekend alone.  Shootings that kill multiple people have become so common they now are a regular feature of American life and often do not even make national news.

The majority of gun deaths in 2021 were suicides but nearly half were homicides not associated with mass shootings; they are more typical acts of the violence, mostly involving handguns, which occur every day on our streets and in our homes.  Mass shootings, by contrast, were responsible for less than 2 percent of last year’s gun deaths.

Following the end of World War II, the U.S. remained the sole surviving superpower and took it upon itself to police the world and has since engaged in near constant military action.  While mostly self-serving, most nations benefitted from the so-called Western International World Order it oversaw, including its primary adversaries.  While attempting to prevent violence elsewhere, however, it escalated at home.

On D-Day, 6 June 1944, the Allied death toll in World War II was 4,414.  In 2019, domestic gun violence had killed that many American men, women, and children just by the end of April[2].  By June of that year, guns in the hands of ordinary Americans had caused more casualties than the Allies suffered at Normandy in the first month of a campaign that consumed the military strength of five nations.

Since 2016, nearly 40,000 Americans have been killed each year by gun violence, a number which exceeds the number of people killed by car accidents (39,000) – despite the fact that in 2017 there were 221.7 million licensed drivers and only 72 million registered gun owners[3].  In 2018, the U.S. population was 327 million but there were 393 million guns in American homes – 120.5 guns for every 100 people; more guns than people.

Spineless Congressional members prostituting themselves to the gun industry need to accept their responsibility for these needless atrocities.  All those opposing meaningful gun legislation need to reassess their basic moral integrity.  Where is their compassion?  Their understanding?  Their sympathy?

Essentially no one serving in the government is interested in coming after someone’s guns.  To claim otherwise is paranoia.  What most sane people are interested in is sensible policies, including comprehensive background checks, that just MIGHT save one person’s life, perhaps a toddler’s, at the hand of someone who should not have access to a gun.

Just to be perfectly clear – yes, I do personally own guns: shotguns, rifles, handguns.  But I also understand this carnage has to end.  The only frontier we now are exploring is either in outer space or under the sea.  It is unlikely we will encounter hostile indigenous peoples in either location.

No one needs an assault-type weapon who’s only intended use is to kill people in armed conflict.  Who are those with such Rambo-like delusions they believe they need that type of weapon to save humanity from some foreign invasion?

I’m sure there are many who would also like to be able to “play” with grenade launchers or anti-tank weapons.  There are countless good reasons for sensible restrictions as to the types of weapons available to the general public, but that limit has been crossed and needs to be reset at a more reasonable level.

For most of us, the greatest source of discouragement is that there has been no progress in passing any federal gun control legislation since the Columbine High School tragedy made school shootings a part of U.S. life – more than two decades ago.

U.S. laws are the most lax of any country in the developed world.  Other countries typically require at least a license to own a gun – if they allow someone to have a firearm at all.  In the U.S., even a background check is not always required to buy a gun — a result of poor enforcement and legal loopholes.

Gun rights advocates frequently claim: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people”.  The fact is that where there are more guns, there are more gun deaths[4].  Studies have found this to be true at both the state and national level.  It is true for homicides, suicides, mass shootings, and even police shootings.  The obvious conclusion is that gun availability does lead to gun violence.

Stricter gun laws could also reduce the more common forms of gun deaths.  Where they have been enacted, stricter gun laws are associated with fewer gun deaths, in both a domestic and global context, while looser gun laws are linked with more gun deaths.  It all comes down to the same problem: more guns equal more gun deaths, whether a gang shootout in California, a suicide in Wyoming, or a school shooting in Texas.

Gun rights advocates also like to point out that Chicago, IL, has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the U.S. (though many have been overturned in recent years) but still has a high rate of gun violence.  In fact, over 60 percent of illegally used or possessed firearms recovered in Chicago come from out of state.  Private gun sales in Indiana, directly across the state border from Chicago, do not require background checks, a waiting period, or even a record of the transaction.  Local gun restrictions will essentially remain ineffective until uniform laws are enacted nationally.

The U.S. is always going to have more guns, and consequently more deaths, than other advanced countries.  Given the Second Amendment, mixed public opinion, and a closely divided federal government, lawmakers face sharp limits on how far they can go.  But since the U.S.’s gun laws are so weak, there is a considerable room for improvement that while unable to eliminate them, could at least reduce some gun-related deaths.

Even some moderate conservatives have indicated their willingness to consider some very limited measures to reduce the rampant gun violence.  More thorough background checks might stop some gunmen, like those in the church shootings in Charleston, SC, in 2015 and in Sutherland Springs, TX, in 2017.  “Red flag” laws allow law enforcement officials to confiscate guns from people who display warning signs of violence, like threatening their peers or family members.  The laws might have applied to the gunman in the Parkland, FL, school shooting in 2018.  Assault weapon bans would restrict or prohibit access to the kinds of rifles shooters often use.  A ban could at least make mass shootings less deadly by pushing gunmen toward less effective weapons.

The same is true for multi-round magazines.  If someone is unable to hit their target with only a couple of shots, they are unsafe to be around and need to spend more time on the practice range prior to being allowed out in public.

Any “would-be” gun owner should be required to have completed a certified weapons safety training course and be licensed prior to being able to purchase a weapon.

All weapons should be registered in a federal database so legal ownership of any firearm used illegally could be positively established.  Similarly, right-to-carry and concealed weapon laws need to be prohibited – get weapons off the streets.  There isn’t any way to justify weapons being in places they do not belong.

It speaks to their perversity when gun supporters recommend arming teachers rather than eliminating weapons.  There are appropriate locations for guns; e.g., on a firing range or hunting out in a field; never in a public location – and definitely NOT in a school, church, or entertainment setting.

It is impossible to say exactly how much impact these measures would have since little good research exists on the effects of gun policies on mass shootings.  One unanswered question is whether a determined gunman would find a way to bypass the laws.  If someone was unable to use an assault rifle, would they resort to a handgun or shotgun?  That could make the shooting less deadly, but not stop it altogether.

When someone is stockpiling weapons to prepare for some theoretical apocalyptic event or defend themselves against supposed government or UN tyranny, it’s difficult to pretend they are rational people with a legitimate point of view.

When private militias acquire and stockpile weapons, they’re turning guns from a public-health concern into a threat to national security.  These groups enjoy easy access to high-powered, high-capacity, small-caliber semiautomatic weapons — many of which can be converted to fully automatic.  They make mass-casualty attacks against political or cultural adversaries both easy to carry out and easy to frame as inspirational events of the kind that are able to mobilize insurrection.

Reframing the issue as a national security imperative could galvanize passive backers, now focused by the assault on the Capitol, as maintaining political stability in the U.S.  The symbol of militia volunteers carrying assault weapons and the reality of their using them lethally have historically been enormously powerful social forces.

The disproportionate use of lethal force by U.S. law enforcement relative to the rest of the world is most likely related to the ubiquity of weapons.  Police are human and, as unfortunate as it might be, prone to be wary and panic when in areas known to be violent; it is difficult to separate racism from our gun-obsessed culture.  Violence in all forms will not decrease until some semblance of gun control is achieved.  Police are frequently outgunned by adversaries with military-style assault weapons when all they are carrying are handguns.

Large-scale confiscation and deradicalization are not realistic prospects in the near future.  Right-wing extremists hold guns in vastly disproportionate numbers.  There is a perverse obsession with violence, militarism, and guns seemingly endemic to the U.S.’s ideology of exceptionalism and aggressive individualism.

Homicides perpetrated by strangers are much less common than those committed by a victim’s partner, family members, or friends.  People living in homes with guns have a three-times higher risk of fatal assault and die by homicide at twice the rate of their neighbors in gun-free homes.  Most notably, people living with handgun owners are seven times more likely to be shot by their spouse or intimate partner.  The vast majority of victims, 84 percent, in intimate partner shootings are female.  In many of these cases, instead of being protective, a household gun is an instrument of death.

The oft-deployed argument that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun”, as the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre phrased it, is not supported by facts, especially when the “good guy” is supposed to be a regular citizen, rather than a professionally armed police officer.

In the first reported school mass shooting, an ex-Marine climbed the University of Texas Tower in 1966 and fired from it killing 14 people.  Citizens brought their own weapons to campus and fired at the shooter likely making it more difficult for police officers to eventually kill him and end the crisis.  When police respond to an active shooter call, they normally are unable to differentiate between the actual shooter and an armed citizen.  Armed self-mobilized vigilantes are the last thing police should have to contend with in such situations.

As much more powerful and more-automatic weapons fall into the hands of the violently deranged, on-scene would be heroes, who do actually exist, can never react in time.  Even with extensive training, it is difficult to encounter an active shooter.  And if a shooter is in a crowded location, a nonprofessional becomes a threat to those attempting to flee the scene.

In a complete abandonment of the collective good, U.S. laws which define freedom as an individual’s inalienable right to own a personal arsenal of weaponry, a supposedly natural entitlement, exceeds even the safety of children.  In just the past decade, 346 American students and teachers have been shot on school grounds.

Conservative Supreme Court justices seem eager to shape U.S. law apparently believing it should be fashioned in accordance with their ideological beliefs, even when it means overturning longstanding court precedent or rejecting policies passed by Congress or state legislatures.

The first half of the Second Amendment, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” is largely ignored by gun-rights advocates[5].  The right to possess a weapon is directly tied to service in a “well-regulated Militia” – a view rejected in the Supreme Court’s District of Columbia vs. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008) majority decision.  The decision failed to consider the constitutional significance of what is necessary to maintain the “security of a free State”.  The majority decision written by associate justice Antonin Scalia was a political judgement failing to fully consider Constitutional precedence.

The 2nd Amendment empowers a free people to regulate weapons as necessary to maintain their security and to protect their freedoms from fear and violence.  We can be free but only if weapons are regulated just as the Second Amendment stipulates.

The Declaration of Independence states “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.  The 14th Amendment to the Constitution further emphasizes that right by disallowing the government from any infringement on the right(s) to pursue “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” with regard to any and all citizens.  That basic right is contravened when everyone must live in fear for their lives.

That June 2008 decision (District of Columbia v Heller[6])) was the only decision conferring all individuals the right to keep and bear arms – something rejected in all previous decisions.

In December 1879, the Court cited a previous decision stating that the Second Amendment only means that the federal government may not infringe on the rights of states to form their own militia (United States v. Cruikshanks[7]).  The Court in that decision specifically refuted the argument that the right to bear arms is a personal right of the people.

In May 1939, in a challenge to the National Firearms Act of 1934, the Court again ruled (United States v. Miller[8]) that the Second Amendment does not guarantee the right to own a firearm unless the possession or use of that firearm has “a reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia”.

The decision by the Supreme Court must be respected as the law even though it can hopefully be re-adjudicated again sometime in the future with a more favorable outcome.  For now, it still must be questioned where are the politicians voicing Constitutional rights for the victims of these attacks?

Americans can never be secure when they are told that more resources should be spent on arming teachers or training students to duck and cover and remain silent as if in an active war zone.  It is unfortunate that many Americans have internalized the use of force.  Those doing so are essentially telling us that once again “We have met the enemy and he is us[9]”.  All of us suffer the costs of the tyranny that living in a state of fear of mass gun violence creates.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 “Four Freedoms” speech placed freedom from fear as one of four essential human freedoms.  Translated to our modern gun crisis, this freedom can be realized only when individuals no longer have easy legal access to armaments that put them “in a position to commit an act of [mass] physical aggression against any neighbor”.

The majority of gun owners are responsible, use their weapons sanely, and for the purpose for which they were intended.  Unfortunately, there comes a time when the majority must suffer for the few who have misused that right.

I have gotten angry so many times in the past, hoping some recent incident would be sufficient for those opposing gun control to finally realize they are the ones responsible for those unneeded deaths and will finally do something about it.  Now, after all that has transpired, while I have not totally given up hope, I no long have any idea what it will take.

That’s what I think, what about you?


[1] Eliot Laurence Spitzer isa U.S. democratic politician, and attorneywho served as the 54th Governor of New York.

[2] Davis, Wade.  The Unraveling Of America, RollingStone, https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/political-commentary/covid-19-end-of-american-era-wade-davis-1038206/?fbclid=IwAR2g4crbtzGPQDBq-B72pq_Da8LiE8H7QhxI5zwXrTBcz-oKEHm3SWLILLw, 6 August 2020.

[3] Budgar, Laurie.  Gun Violence Statistics In The United States: 12 Charts You Need To See, Reader’s Digest, https://www.rd.com/article/gun-violence-statistics/#:~:text=The%20nearly%2040%2C000%20Americans%20killed%20each%20year%20since,and%20only%2072%20million%20registered%20gun%20owners.%20rd.com, 7 June 2022.

[4] Lopez, German.  The Morning, The New York Times, 26 May 2022.

[5] Crocker, Thomas P.  Don’t Forget The First Half Of The Second Amendment, The Atlantic, https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/don-t-forget-the-first-half-of-the-second-amendment/ar-AAYdmAo?bk=1&bk=1&ocid=msedgdhp&pc=U531&cvid=689c8a14a1114605a1882cee9d33dd34, 8 June 2022.

[6] District of Columbia v. Heller (No. 07-290) 478 F. 3d 370, affirmed, Wikipedia, https://www.bing.com/search?q=district+of+columbia+v.+heller+2008&qs=EP&pq=district+of+columbia+v.+heller+&sc=8-31&cvid=E373F3054B5749C48D2E3408B4F2575C&FORM=QBRE&sp=1,

[7] United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542, 23 L. Ed. 588 (1875), Wikipedia, https://www.bing.com/search?q=united+states+v.+cruikshank&qs=AS&pq=united+states+v.+cruikshank&sc=8-27&cvid=EDD094327B1747D2B63A5482E4C6D904&FORM=QBRE&sp=1, 1 March 2021.

[8] United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174, 59 S. Ct. 816, 83 L. Ed. 1206 (1939), Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_v._Miller, 4 February 2021.

[9] Kelly, Walt.  Pogo, 22 April 1971.

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Improving Medical Records

It seems to me….

The digital world has been in a separate orbit from our medical cocoon, and it’s time the boundaries be taken down.”  ~ Eric Topol[1].

Progress in the medical field has, in general, been considerable slower than in other fields though more is invested in medical research.  In some ways, there has been relatively little progress since the days of primitive shamans and medicine men – many medicinals are still derived from plants and other natural substances known to them.  Granted the complexity is significantly greater but where is the Dmitri Mendeleev, who developed the periodic table of elements, who can develop a corresponding table of medical effects?

Medical progress, as in all science, advances based on the work of predecessors.  Researchers publish experimental results in peer-reviewed scientific papers recording processes they have used which are then validated by still other independent researchers.  Much treatment is based on such replicability.  While effective in most fields, there are increasing reports of scientists being unable to replicate published results in biomedical research and their application to therapeutic intervention in the treatment of ailments.

In many ways, this is characteristic of progress indicating that medical science is advancing beyond more basic less complex research.  Biology is complex and processes work neither linearly nor independently but in tightly related interconnected networks.

The study of RNA interference, a mode of gene regulation, began only about ten years ago.  Little is yet known about the inner workings of human cells and given their complexity and uncertainty; it is obvious why identical experiments can produce differing results[2].

Much more data must be collected, retained, and made available to researchers.  Electronic health record (EHR) requirements, doctor’s records of patient’s visits, were intended to transform the practice of medicine.  But digitalization of medical data still remains limited and will require additional regulatory requirements further standardizing data formats and extending how long data must be retained.

The number of older medical practitioners is declining but there still are some who remember the beginning of medical record computer processing in the mid- to late-1960’s[3].  There were no display screens (only printer output), no direct keyboard input (only punched cards), fixed-length words and fields….  Possibilities were limited but the technology was new and required time, experience, and technological innovation to become viable.  While obvious to those then in the field that computing represented the future, it required considerable time, investment, and requisite technological advances to reach where it is today.

Even today many of the available medical systems, that while functional, still remain somewhat developmental.  Numerous EHR systems are now operational and efforts continue to expanding them.  Unfortunately, most of these systems remain proprietary with only limited compatibility but there are incentives to enable additional pooling and interchange of information.

The current statutory retention period for EHRs was initially determined by the limitations of available electronic data gathering and storage available almost a half century ago and which today is much too brief for long-term care or desirable research.  Data retention needs to be lengthened to reflect the capabilities of new devices, compression, and security techniques.  There also is significantly increased knowledge and familiarity with electronic data gathering methods on the part of the public so additional information can now be entered by patients and other non-computer-professionals.

The amount of such data is anticipated to rapidly increase due to availability of personal electronic healthcare devices.  Wearable technologies enable continuous monitoring of human physical activities and behaviors as well as physiological and biochemical parameters during daily life.  The most commonly measured data include vital signs such as heartrate, blood pressure, blood sugar level, and body temperature, as well as blood oxygen saturation, sleep, posture, and physical activities through the use of electrocardiogram (ECG), ballistocardiogram (BCG), and other devices.

The 2009 Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act was primarily intended to force hospitals and clinics to transition from paper charts to EHRs.  A large number of private firms consequently contracted to provide medical providers with that service resulting in the development of a myriad of incompatible and proprietary forms and formats.  Standard formats and translation software are now being developed but there frequently is little incentive for a provider to develop compatibility with a rival company.

In addition to format incompatibility, additional issues which must be overcome in order to effect pooling and interchange of data include criteria for data access, use, and release; patient privacy protection; data security (hacker or unauthorized access security); local storage and transmission of data; etc.  Actual retention of all health-related data as well as basic medical records, while beneficial, would require preservation of significant amounts of additional data, some of which would be highly confidential.

Some of this is now being done.  The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) stores considerable patient data which due to the volume, is stored across several geographic sites.  Data can be accessed from anywhere but might take a day or more to obtain it.  Many health facilities provide patient access to their records through a patient portal over the Internet but facilities currently maintain their individuality rather than actually pooling data.  A common Continuity of Care Document (CCD), which is a patient-specific clinical summary document, has been adopted as a widely used industry standard to improve communication between healthcare providers during a transition of care such as when a patient is being referred to another provider or coming back to their normal provider after a hospital stay.

Today, over 85 percent of physicians have transitioned to EHRs.  While EHRs have the potential to produce insights and efficiencies, much of that has yet to be realized as some of the problems initially recognized back in the 1960s have yet to be addressed.  Many medical practitioners have limited computer familiarity and believe medical systems are not designed in a manner sufficiently close to standard practices.  The primary difficulty is related to system interfaces that are time-consuming and not user-friendly resulting in physician frustration, burnout, and all-too-frequent errors.  System designers implement data input techniques facilitating system operation but which are foreign to and often awkward for doctors to use.  The quality of medical record data could be improved by designing systems doctors like, accept, and willingly use.

Additionally, information does not easily flow between different system providers and remains one of the primary goals yet to be realized.  Beneficially, the majority of office-based primary care physicians believe EHRs provide a vast improvement over paper charts.

Over the next decade deep-learning neural networks will likely transform how we look for patterns in data and how research is conducted and applied to human health[4].  Availability of digitized patient data enables analysis using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to develop predictive models and improved understanding of various treatment options.  Application difficulties preventing wide-spread use involve dissimilar unstructured data necessitating extensive curation prior to being availability for use.

Possible solutions currently being developed include AI digital “scribes” that parse a doctor/patient conversation and fill in the relevant EHR information.  Using machine learning, voice recognition, and language processing, the system would be able to create notes, diagnoses, and orders along with appropriate billing and diagnostic codes.

There are many critical areas of current medical research where increased data availability is considered highly relevant.  One example is Immunosenescence which has acquired increased relevancy due to SARS-CoV-2 virus contagion (R0) in those over 65[5].

Immunosenescence is the gradual deterioration of the immune system brought on by natural age advancement involving both the capacity to respond to infections and the development of long-term immune memory, especially involving vaccinations.  It increases susceptibility to a variety of diseases that significantly contribute to morbidity and mortality in the elderly.

The reduced ability of the aging immune system to effectively detect and fight infections results in increased susceptibility of the elderly to respiratory tract infections (RTIs) negatively impacting patients’ overall health and quality of life.

RTIs are the fifth leading cause of death in people aged 85 and over and the seventh leading cause of death in people aged 65 and over.  7 percent of people aged 85 years and over go to the emergency room with RTIs each year, with two-thirds of those who go to the emergency room for infection-related reasons being hospitalized, and once hospitalized, one-third of those aged 85 and over are admitted to a nursing home.

The majority of RTIs are caused by viruses for which there are no approved therapies.  Despite this, antibiotics are often prescribed indiscriminately to treat RTIs which may cause side effects related to antibiotic use and contribute to the growing global problem of antibiotic resistance.

While there isn’t any treatment under development promising perpetual youth, some do show potential to not only bolster aging immune systems but also to reduce the negative effects of RTIs.  The current foremost candidate, known as RTB101, is under review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) primarily for treatment of RTIs[6].

EHR software collects, records, and maintains patient data including common patient demographic information, medical history, diagnoses, medications, prescriptions, allergies, documents, and lab results.  With older systems of physical file folders, health records were spread across several doctor’s offices.  When a patient moved to a different medical facility, files would need to be copied and sent or faxed from the old to the new provider.  The goal of EHRs is to digitize health records so that they are consistent across all healthcare providers.  Providers take notes within an EHR system so that other providers in the patient’s future can access them, easily read them, and add to them.

Better health information technology, particularly EHRs, would improve quality and efficiency of healthcare organizations from small practices to large groups as well as benefiting researchers.  A greater and more seamless flow of information within a digital healthcare infrastructure created by EHRs, encompasses and leverages digital progress and can transform the way care is delivered and compensated.  Given these potential benefits, the federal government has encouraged EHR adoption but more still needs to be done.

That’s what I think, what about you?


[1] Eric Jeffrey Topol is a U.S. cardiologist, scientist, and author.

[2] Kiermer, Veronique.  Eureka Once, Eureka Twice, Scientific American, May 2014, p13.

[3] Some descriptive information was provided by Richard Dale Yoder, MD, an anesthesiologist now retired, living in Redding, CA, https://www.vitals.com/doctors/Dr_Richard_Yoder.html.

[4] Willyard, Cassandra.  Can AI Fix Medical Records?, Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/electronic-health-records-need-a-shot-in-the-arm/, February 2020, ppS13-S16.

[5] Disclosure:  This is of personal relevance as I am over 85.

[6] Harrar, Sari.  Can A Single Pill Keep You Healthy To 100?, AARP Magazine, June/July 2019, pp54-62,76.

Posted in AI, AI, ailment, Artificial Intelligence, Biology, Biology, Biology, biomedical, Continuity of Care Document, Department of Veterans Affairs, Dmitri Mendeleev, FDA, Food and Drug Administration, Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, health record, Healthcare, Immunosenescence, medical, Medical, Medical Data, Medical Diagnosis, Medical Diagnosis, medical practitioner, Medical Records, Medical Research, medical science, medical system, Medication, medicinals, patient, Ribonucleic Acid, RNA, therapeutic, Therapy, VA, Veteran's Administration | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Political Dissatisfaction

It seems to me….

Something that confirms all fears and many conspiracy theories about government is finding out what our elected representatives would put into law if they could.”  ~ P. J. O’Rourke[1].

Rather than avoiding discussions involving politics, religion, or sex as generally recommended, I enjoy talking about them – as long as civility is maintained; especially with someone who does not share my opinions.  If someone agrees with me, we simply reinforce what each of us already believe and neither of us learns anything from the other.  One of the problems today is that too many people associate only within their own political tribe.  I am realistic in that I do not actually expect to change someone’s opinion.  I accept that and will never vilify them on that basis (regardless of what I might actually think).

There now is increasing political incivility – on both sides – and I, admittedly, tend to see it primarily from a more liberal-leaning perspective.  I consider myself an Independent, left-leaning but still an Independent, as there are issues – at least prior to Trump – where I definitely did not totally agree with liberal ideology: budget deficits, globalization….  Now, quite dated by my moderate Eisenhower-era Republican ideology which has remained essentially unchanged from when young, even though the political landscape has substantially shifted beneath me as the Republican Party has moved far to the right, which now philosophically possibly positions me as more of a moderate Democrat.

In today’s highly hyperpolarized political environment, my liberal leanings can be attributed to a fundamental belief that we should help take care of each other.  That there is too little compassion or empathy for what others are experiencing.  I support universal healthcare, free education from preschool through college, child and elderly care, increased immigration, universal voting, women’s and minority rights….  And do not attempt to claim any of that is socialism as I very much know the differences between social welfare and socialism.

While the U.S. has had social welfare policies since it was founded, it is not now nor ever has been socialistic.  Anyone claiming anything different has apparently forgotten what they should have learned in their first semester of ECON-101.  And we are not now and never have been a democracy: the U.S. is a republic.  People should be more careful when they throw labels around.

I sometimes get tired of being told what I should believe or what I should stand for.  No two people think exactly the same, though the majority of liberals I know do think approximately along similar lines.  Personally, I do not believe there is any scenario in which preventable suffering is an acceptable outcome just to further reduce taxes on the ultra-rich.  Politically, much is done to benefit the wealthy – healthcare, education, tax reduction… – not for those with little voice at lower-income levels.

Politicians, regardless of party affiliation, frequently are castigated for changing their views on issues.  Everyone’s stand on issues evolves over time – even President Reagan, a supposed champion of conservative values, at one time considered himself a Democrat.  There also are issues on which an elected official can have a personal opinion but cast his/her vote as a representative of their constituency.  It is only one of the many reasons why I would not be a good politician.

I basically am a pacifist (but believe in “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far[2].” but while opposed to the taking of a life and disagreeing with the death penalty, if elected, would vote to uphold it.  I, however, probably would not be able to support completely prohibiting abortions, though I personally do not approve of them, since I know how such total restrictions lead to desperation; a woman must be able to make decisions relevant to her own body and that sometimes results in circumstances having only mutually unacceptable alternatives.  Abortion is certainly such an issue.  “I am pro-choice with limitations, pro-life with exceptions[3]”.  Anyone thinking otherwise obviously hasn’t any idea what it was like pre-Roe vs. Wade.  I was there; I remember.

The U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights were written by and for the benefit of wealthy white male landowners  – no women, no minorities….  At the time, our nation had only 4 million people in 13 agrarian states along the Atlantic Coast.  There now are 325 million people stretched across the content from coast to coast in a rapidly evolving postindustrial society.  Distance between locations has effectively lessened since the framing of our Constitution and with a highly mobile citizenry, power can be less centralized with multiple different points of control and regulation.  Communications between distant locations, which at the time of our nation’s founding required weeks, is now instantaneous.

With time comes change and nations, laws, and political perspectives must change to remain relevant.  Legal interpretation of the Constitution must be considered in terms of today’s realities rather than being construed strictly literally as originally approved.  Originally only white male landowners were allowed to vote.  Now, every citizen is entitled to that right.  If necessary, citizens should be able to register any time prior to the close of balloting and to vote on line, by mail, or in person at any voting site regardless of where registered.  When it is possible to conduct online financial transactions with legally verifiable personal identification, failure to also acknowledge and accept someone’s right to vote is untenable.

The U.S. seldom even bothers to see if there is anything to learn from other nations as many people seem convinced the U.S. is such an exceptional case that Western European, Canadian, or other solutions could have nothing relevant to suggest to us.  That negative attitude deprives us of the options that so many individuals and countries have found useful in solving crises: learning from models of how others have already resolved similar crises – all the very antithesis of supposed basic U.S. beliefs.

Neofascism, with which we now are threatened by the political right, is just as violent in its hatred of democracy, liberalism, and parliamentary institutions as in its professed dislike of communism.  Censorship, political police, concentration camps, the rule of the bludgeon, the end of legal protection are common to both fascism and communism.  Unfortunately, many in the Republican Party appear to have as little respect for democratic norms or rule of law as Hungary’s Fidesz.

Thomas Hobbes believed human beings can only flourish if they participate in a “commonwealth” — a society in which government takes on much of the responsibility for making life secure.  The modern American right, however, rejects any policy that relies on social cooperation and instead wants to return to a Hobbes’s dystopian state of nature:  Do not try to keep guns out of the hands of potential criminals or murderers but instead arm and deputize citizen-vigilantes to shoot any malefactor if they illegally start shooting.  Do not try to limit the spread of infectious diseases but instead tell people to take drugs that are expensive, ineffective, or both after they get sick.

Law enforcement exists so individuals don’t have to go around armed to protect themselves against other people’s violence.  Individuals can and should take responsibility for their own health when they can, but; the nature of infectious disease is that there is an essential role for collective public health action whether it is public investment in clean water supplies or even mask and vaccine mandates during a pandemic.

I don’t believe the government should regulate everything, but since greed is such a driving force in our country, we NEED regulations to prevent cut corners, environmental destruction, tainted food/water, unsafe materials in consumable goods or medical equipment, etc.  No one favors the government being involved in everything but it can be difficult to trust the people trying to make money to ensure that their products/practices/etc. are actually safe.  Not even the government is totally devoid of deceitfulness.  With adequate regulations, consumers have recourse if they’re harmed and companies are liable for medical bills, environmental cleanup, etc.  The only alternative to government regulation is letting companies bring their bottom line into every consideration.

There are political elements within every country that consider everything a competition; who tend to view life only as a win-lose contest.  Their only alternative is to win rather than accepting that the pie is sufficiently large for everyone to share – and that sharing normally results in an even larger pie and portion for all.

Everything said by anyone in either political party is analyzed repeatedly for any subtle nuance that can be used to opposition advantage.  Neither political candidates nor their party can state honest criticism of U.S. policies even though a review of prevalent beliefs such as complaints lodged with the World Trade Court would show the U.S. is as guilty of unfair trade practices, politically motivated statements, or deceptive news media comments as anyone else.  There are numerous other examples.

Politicians and political commentators make too many hyperpartisan statements that reinforce already sharply polarized political ideologies with both sides fiercely disagreeing with each other.  People no longer seek the truth but rather selectively filter information to fit their preconceived political perspective.  What is actually happening in the world is relatively unimportant; it is rather about reinforcing their core beliefs.

The U.S. has seemingly ossified and stopped producing anything but rules, restrictions, limits, obstacles, and possibly Internet companies.  Congress has not passed a regular budget in 25 years[4].  Hundreds of key administrative posts lie vacant with dozens of nominations held hostage by senators on unrelated issues.  And one of our two major parties is actively attempting to disrupt the set of institutions, laws, and norms that ensure free and fair elections setting the country up for a massive political crisis in 2024.  The U.S. has been dealt the world’s best hand of any country by far but as any poker player knows, if you play badly, you can still lose everything.

Racial anxiety can result from one’s fear of inferiority or loss of status.  Homophobia can result from doubts regarding one’s own sexual orientation.  Hatred of those deemed to be “different” can be motivated by inadequacy or perceived threat from personal insecurity.   There are so many deplorable things going on today that all we can say is “ENOUGH!  We are better than this”.

Freedom must never be compromised.  Selfish self-centered interests constantly challenge that freedom.  There always are those who willing would sacrifice their freedom to advance their personal views of bigotry, racism, xenophobia, misogyny….  Constant vigilance is always necessary to counter challenges not in the U.S.’ best national interests.  It is time for both parties to acknowledge that widely accepted overt racist policies are no longer acceptable.  Attempting to tightening the screws on the lid of social discontent eliminates neither the pressure nor the actual underlying cause.

Everything is interrelated in an ecological-like dependency.  Politics is directly related to economics, ecology, education, health, and welfare, etc.  – changes in any one area affects the others.  While aware of these dependencies, secondary or other order effects are rarely understood or even considered by politicians when proposing measures or expenditures.  Uninformed politicians, especially conservatives, are more inclined to not accept scientific facts inconsistent with their preferred political ideology.  Unfortunately, there are too many other people who agree with them.

There is considerable hope for the future.  With the exception of the current war in Ukraine, possibility of recession, and COVID pandemic, the international environment is in general defined by less violence, greater freedom and wealth, and more extraordinary advances in human development than at any previous point in history.  Global life expectancy and literacy are on the rise, poverty is falling, and diseases are being eliminated.  While U.S. world leadership still remains intact, there is a domestic decline as policymakers attempt to reduce access to healthcare and problems such as the opioid epidemic currently are overshadowed by COVID.  Life is steadily improving throughout most of the developing world but the U.S. seems in decline[5] as a result of internal political division.

Every nation fabricates the myths of its history but we must live in the present, not the past.  The U.S. faces numerous fundamental challenges and we appear unable to reach any agreement as to how they should be resolved.  Our widening ideological rift prevents compromise on any but the most basic of issues and instead frequently merely treats only the symptoms rather than the actual basic problems facing us.  It is time for elected representatives to begin acting like adults rather than small immature children.

That’s what I think, what about you?


[1] Patrick Jake O’Rourke was a U.S. libertarian political satirist, author, and journalist.

[2] Theodore Roosevelt was a U.S. politician, statesman, conservationist, naturalist, historian, and writer who served as the 26th President.

[3] Quote originally by John William Warner who was a U.S. lawyer and Republican politician who served as Secretary of the Navy and as a five-term Senator from Virginia.

[4] Zakaria, Fareed.  Fareed:  The US Plays A Strong Economic Hand Badly, Fareed’s Global Briefing, https://view.newsletters.cnn.com/messages/16331273530754b33db0a6a8c/raw?utm_term=16331273530754b33db0a6a8c&utm_source=cnn_Fareed%27s+Global+Briefing%2C+Oct.+1%2C+2021&utm_medium=email&bt_ee=SReW838hloY6bzz9NliYcfrCC%2F3CAqRIB4tP7NEGdHWLxHQEyqbsy9FYllq05L7c&bt_ts=1633127353078, 1 October 2021.

[5] Cohen, Michael A. and Micah Zenko.  The World Is Still Getting Better – Even Under Trump, Foreign Affairs, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2019-03-25/world-still-getting-better-even-under-trump, 25 March 2019.

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Progress In Space Exploitation

It seems to me….

“Space exploration is a force of nature unto itself that no other force in society can rival.”  ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson[1].

The U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act approved in 2015 confers on U.S. citizens the right to engage in commercial exploitation of outer space minerals.  The law was applauded by commercial space advocates in the U.S. as it removed a potential obstacle to capital investment in companies planning to mine resources on the Moon or elsewhere.

A possible problem is that the act might be in violation of the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty which says in part: “Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means”.  There wasn’t any possible imminence of attempted exploitation of outer space resources when the treaty was approved.  The treaty consequently does not clearly delineate as to what is allowed, what is proscribed, and what is subject to further review and clarification.

Space advocates have identified a number of possible opportunities for future commercial use of space[2].  Their economic feasibility depends on lowering the cost of transportation to space, an objective that though steadily improving has to date largely eluded both governments and private entrepreneurs.  Advances in reusable rockets, lowered per-launch costs, and miniaturization of satellites are now beginning to provide business opportunities well beyond aerospace and defense and into IT hardware and telecom.  The cost of launching a satellite has declined from $200 million to about $60 million because of reusable rockets.  When costs drop by about 60 to 80 percent in whatever industry, opportunities normally greatly improve.  Hopefully, current cost reductions will prove sufficient to encourage development.

The International Space Station (ISS) was originally expected to significantly accelerate commercially funded research and other activities as its laboratories became operational.  It was projected this would include both industry-funded microgravity research and less-conventional undertakings such as hosting fare-paying passengers, filming movies on the facility, and allowing commercial endorsements of items used onboard the station.  Commercial success for the ISS was predicted to lead to the development of new, privately financed facilities in low Earth orbit including research, manufacturing, residential outposts, and perhaps to privately financed transportation systems for access to those facilities.  Disappointingly, commercial demand for access to the station has so far failed to develop.

Space exploration and development have been stimulated by a complex mixture of motivations including scientific inquiry, intense competition between national governments and ideologies, and commercial profit.  Underlying them has been a vision of the outward movement of humans from Earth ultimately leading to permanent settlements in space and on other celestial bodies.

Outer space will hopefully become a much busier venue of human activity in the 21st century than it was in the 20th.  If other commercial ventures equal or surpass the success of the satellite communications sector, space could become a major center of business activity.

At some point, it even may become necessary to establish a space traffic-control system analogous to traffic-control systems on Earth.  Already, debris from exploding upper rocket stages, dead satellites, accidental collisions of space objects, and at least two antisatellite weapons tests constitute serious threats to use of the space environment; governments and private operators are taking steps to avoid creating additional space debris.

Until now, funding for space-related activities has primarily come from centralized government-led space programs focused on activities mostly in the public interest such as national security or basic science.  For space to become commercially relevant, the private sector must expand space-based development and production and then supply the demand it creates.  As decreasing launch costs enable companies to leverage economies of scale and put more people into space, growing private sector demand could turn limited initiatives into sustainable, large-scale industries.

There isn’t any shortage of hype surrounding commercial space industries but while tech leaders promise Moon bases and settlements on Mars, the space economy has thus far remained essentially all promise devoid of actual delivery[3].  In 2020, however, an important threshold was crossed when for the first-time humans accessed space via a vehicle built and owned not by any government but a private company.  This was a significant first step in building a commercially viable space-based industry.

Up to now, revenue earned from space has been entirely in goods or services produced in space for use on Earth including telecommunications and Internet infrastructure, Earth observation capabilities, national security satellites, and similar enterprises.  Decreasing costs for launch and space hardware in general have enticed new entrants into this market and companies in a variety of industries have already begun leveraging satellite technology and access to space to drive innovation and efficiency in their earthbound products and services.

Access to space sustainably and at scale hopefully represents the start of a new chapter of spaceflight led by private firms such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic.  While several of these companies are developing the capability to take private citizens into space as tourists, such enterprises will not financially sustain development of a long-term presence in space.  They might, however, encourage further development of space-based capabilities.

Development of production capabilities for goods and services produced in space for use in space has been slow to develop.  It most likely will require a permanent manned presence in space prior to development of the capability for mining on the Moon or asteroids for materials to construct habitats or supply refueling depots.  Space will most likely necessitate not just the handful of companies currently pursuing space-based endeavors – but hundreds to eventually thousands.

Many have dreamed for over half a century of using the vacuum and weightlessness of space to source or produce items infeasible to make on Earth but, until recently, the business case has never been financially viable.  Now might be the opportunity.  Space retains an undeniably speculative aspect, especially around business model development, but a number of factors are now coming together to suggest that the time for big business’ foray into space has finally arrived.  Once begun, a space-based economy should quickly develop able to support hundreds, thousands, even millions of humans living in space eventually exceeding the entire terrestrial economy.

Made In Space, Inc. is exploring products, such as high-quality fiberoptic cable, that terrestrial customers might be willing to pay to have manufactured in zero-gravity.  The company also recently received a $74 million contract to 3D-print large metal beams in space for use on NASA spacecraft.  Future private sector space enterprises will certainly have similar manufacturing needs which Made In Space hopes to be well-positioned to fulfill.

Axiom Space recently announced plans to build a module on the ISS.  Building and operating space infrastructures such as habitats, laboratories, and factories will become an additional opportunity for private companies.  Axiom Space has staked out plans to build the first international commercial space station with the goal of becoming a microgravity laboratory where educators, scientists, and researchers conduct life-improving research.

Demand for in-space mining of raw building material, metals, and water that can be supplied at lower cost than from Earth will rapidly increase once humans are living in space.  Such activities could be an initial step towards supporting a variety of private-sector manufacturing applications for which the costs of manufacturing on Earth and then transporting into space would be prohibitive.

As previously mentioned, another potential commercial application is the transport of fare-paying passengers into space, known as space tourism, but associated costs will prevent this from ever being sufficient to result in any significant return on investment.  The primary benefit will be to sustain public interest in space exploitation.

Suggestions have been made for space-based systems that capture large amounts of solar energy and transmit it to Earth in the form of microwaves or laser beams.  Achieving this objective would require the deployment of a number of large structures in space and development of an environmentally acceptable form of energy transmission to create cost-effective competition to Earth-based energy-supply systems.

Significant quantities of potentially valuable resources such as water, carbon, nitrogen, and rare metals may exist on some asteroids and space mining of those resources should be extremely profitable.  It has been postulated that the first trillionaire could result from asteroid mining.

Since 1976, technologies originally developed for space exploration but transferred to the private sector have led to more than two thousand spinoffs.  Some are obvious, such as communications satellites, but other transfers are less well known.  Many medical advances are derived from space technologies, such as refinements in artificial hearts, improved mammograms, and laser eye surgery.  Space exploration drove the development of new materials and industrial techniques, including thermoelectric coolers for microchips; high-temperature lubricants; and a means for mass-producing carbon nanotubes, a material with significant engineering potential.  Household products such as memory-foam mattresses, Bluetooth headphones, programmable ovens, vacuums, and ski apparel all trace their origins to NASA-funded programs.

Space exploration also directly inspires the generations of today and tomorrow to pursue space science disciplines.  Space exploration fosters innovation, pushes the limits of technology, and requires the collaboration of some of the brightest people across multiple disciplines[4].  A 2009 study in the journal Nature found that the Apollo program had inspired half of the scientists surveyed and almost 90 percent believed that manned space exploration motivated younger generations to study science.

The interdisciplinary nature and international cooperation innate to this field means that space exploration can no longer solely revolve around a country’s pride in its technological superiority such as during the great space race of the 20th century.  Rather, space exploration is a field in which measurable benefit to humanity is essential to sustainable political and economic support.

Space exploration is expensive but remains a relatively minor line item in the U.S. budget.  NASA is gradually handing off responsibility for certain functions in space and companies are increasingly assuming the risks of space exploration and development.  While still a subtle change, it’s indicative of a slow shift in how the industry will operate in the future.  While private enterprises are now capable of handling routine space flight, they are still not ready to bear the large and unknown risks of advancing the space frontier.

So far, commercial space exploration has been long on promise but short on delivery.  The need for further infrastructure development to support that future still remains.  Hopefully, this will be the time when that promise is finally fulfilled.

Commercialization of space is about transitioning the space industry from one propped up by the government to something self-sufficient; it’s about private enterprise investing in rockets, in equipment, in experiments in space.  It’s about NASA stepping aside after 60 years of building a basic space infrastructure.  It’s about the future – the future of space.

That’s what I think, what about you?


[1] Neil deGrasse Tyson is a U.S. astrophysicist, planetary scientist, author, science communicator, and director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City.

[2] Commercial Space Transportation, Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/science/space-exploration/Satellite-telecommunications.

[3] Sarang, Mehak.  The Commercial Space Age Is Here, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2021/02/the-commercial-space-age-is-here, 12 February 2021.

[4] Markovich, Steven J., Andrew Chatzky, and Anshu Siripurapu.  Space Exploration And U.S. Competitiveness, Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/space-exploration-and-us-competitiveness, 23 February 2021.

Posted in Apollo, Apollo program, asteroids, Axiom Space, Blue Origin, Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984, Earth, International Space Station, ISS, Made In Space, Mars, Moon, NASA, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Airspace System, Outer Space, Outer Space Treaty, Rocket, satellites, Space, Space, space exploration, Space Exploration Technology, Space Flight, space frontier, Space Launch System, spaceflight, SpaceX, Technology, Telecommunications, telecommunications, Virgin Galactic | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

I Am Me (Whoever That Is)

It seems to me….

Ninety per cent of the world’s woe comes from people not knowing themselves, their abilities, their frailties, and even their real virtues.  Most of us go almost all the way through life as complete strangers to ourselves – so how can we know anyone else?”  ~ Sydney J. Harris[1].

I occasionally think about just who I believe I actually am.  Different people obviously see me very differently.  My family, especially my children and grandchildren, see me differently than friends or those with whom I associate.  Students in my classes saw me differently than other faculty members or those outside the college.

All of us wear different hats as we transition through various roles in our lives.  I changed as I journeyed through those many various passages and no longer am quite the same person I once was at any previous stage in my life.  We constantly evolve into someone slightly different.

Child, adult, spouse, parent.  Employee, supervisor, manager, consultant.  Student, instructor, lecturer, professor.  Several years attending, speaking at, and organizing computing conferences.  Commercial fishing.  Horserace tracks (parking and medical).  Sang/danced on stage and live TV.  Military (Air Force).  It would be easy to add an additional dozen occupational hats worn over the years.

I ran ten miles or more almost every day for about 35 years.  Lived for at least one year in ten different states (have been in all 50 and 6 territories).  Traveled in a dozen other countries.  Is there any question as to why I am confused about my real identity?

When working, I mainly identified myself by the work I was doing.  Now that I have been retired for several years, it no longer is quite so apparent what my primary role is.  “Retired” is the absence of something rather than an active vocation.  All my children are now middle-aged adults and the grandkids are also no longer children so the parental role no longer seems appropriate.  Volunteering with the Red Cross definitely is work but is entirely optional.  I spend considerable time writing but that also is different than an occupational identity.  Regardless, I’m still active but not quite sure how to identify what it is I do.

Looking back, I realize I am a composite of all those roles that came before – I am all yet none of them.  Each served to shape me in some slight way.  Even now, there undeniably are times when I’m not totally sure who I really am.  Having lived with myself longer than anyone else has, I should know myself better than anyone else, yet admit there frequently are times when I definitely do not.  Perhaps it was best said by Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland:  “It’s no use to go back to yesterday because I was a different person then”.

I can be brash, impetuous, inconsiderate – and, unfortunately, immature, which is inexcusable at my age.  It can be difficult to remember what it once was to be me.  Especially, now being older, I have to admit there is much about my life, especially when young, that I do not like.  All of it, however, is part of my life story and therefore an inescapable aspect of my past, so while I must accept it – do not necessarily have to like it.

I have experienced the entire emotional gamut over the years: health, sickness.  There was friendship, love, heartbreak.  An introvert, I was somewhat diffident and reticent when young.  Had successes and failures.  Observed joy, celebration and tragedy, disaster.  Saw the natural beauty of the world and devastation.  Supported  numerous causes (and, yes, tilted with windmills).  All have left their mark in some perhaps vague indeterminate way.  Wind and water can shape rock but more subtle inexplicit forces incessantly act upon us.

Yes, I am me – but I realize I do not actually know who that is.  It isn’t that I do not have some idea but how do all those past roles combine into who I am now?  How did it happen?  Most of us only know ourselves on a superficial basis.  Most of us can name our favorite foods, books, or shows but not much that really matters.

It admittedly is a bit late to begin considering all this at my age.  It is not going to make any appreciable difference if I decide some of the paths I chose when younger were in error and never likely to take me where I really wanted to eventually be.  I do not believe I am that unusual in never having figured out what I really wanted or what my goals in life actually were.  Unfortunately, when young we fail to appreciate the importance of planning and consequently drift through life subject to wherever vagaries of currents and winds from the Fates push us.  If I ever set any long-term goals or objectives, they were at most somewhat nebulous merely taking advantage of occasional opportunities rather than actually seeking what I might have really wanted.

Yes, there is much I would do differently knowing what I do now if I could go back in time.  I did not like myself when young and always felt rejected by my peers: a short skinny kid with freckles and red hair, not athletic – the kid no one wanted on their team.  There was much time and energy in my childhood expended either trying too hard to fit in or to go unnoticed rather than just being myself.  While true, that still sounds more like an excuse than a reason.

There was so much about life that I never understood – and still really do not.  That does not help me understand why so many of my youthful decisions and behavior were so detrimental to my future.  It was not wisdom or insight that finally resulted in turning around where I was headed.  It was a combination of lack of future prospects, frustration, and sense of failure.

It would be difficult for me to take credit for any successes in my life when I was given so many opportunities.

I accept that I, just like everyone else, am not flawless and that everyone is going through something.  I was/am not the exception.  We always are told that understanding ourselves and our motivations can help us better appreciate the challenges others are facing.  Knowing something about ourselves affects our entire well-being and has immense value when trying to understand others.  Maybe so – but what if we never actually know ourselves?

There were prejudices with which I had to deal; with self-pity and negative thoughts.  While not normally conscious of some basic feelings, there still is residual anger, grief, shame, and other emotions remaining from my youth I never have been able to totally let go of and that occasionally come out unexpectedly.  It is obvious that better knowing and understanding myself would have helped me make healthier decisions and to have had a more fulfilling life.  Still, I cannot complain.  Regardless of the path taken, I am entirely satisfied with where my life has eventually led.

While it seems as if planning at every point in life would be extremely important, and highly recommended by every writer or authority on the subject, it actuality does not usually make that much difference.  Most of us cluelessly muddle through life primarily reacting to each crisis when it arrives, usually unforeseen and without prior warning.  There is considerable truth in Benjamin Franklin’s observation that “Every problem is an opportunity in disguise”.

Some of the best opportunities I had only came about as a result of what I had planned failing to work out.  Some might say this is rationalization since there isn’t any way to know what the result of my initial choice might have been.  True.  This also is definitely not a recommendation or excuse to never plan.  The alternative opportunity might have been recognized only as a result of the planning and preparation for what was my original preference.

The best approach to life is to always get back up whenever life knocks us down.  To not spend too much time regretting whatever it was that did not work as planned.  It always is best to look forward in life as that is our future – what happened in the past is over and no longer matters other than to learn any lessons it might have taught us.  By closing the door to what we might have wanted, life seems to not leave any option other than to make the best of whatever alternatives still remain.  By knowing ourselves, we are better able to judge which of those alternatives might be best for us.

I wish I could honestly say that this is what I always did.  Guess the advice is more what I have learned as a result of having not followed it.  But – that is life….

That’s what I think, what about you?


[1] Sydney J. Harris was a U.S. author and journalist for the Chicago Daily News and, later, the Chicago Sun-Times.

Posted in emotion, Emotions, Employment, experience, Identity, Jobs, Life, Opportunity, prejudice, self, Work | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Education Preparation

It seems to me….

The school is the last expenditure upon which America should be willing to economize.”  ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt[1].

The world has changed in too many ways to enumerate.  Education has become substantially more important not only for the individual but now has also become a national priority.  Though as late as the 1950s fewer than 50 percent of students graduated from high school, today a college degree is considered necessary for most positions providing more than a minimum income.  The importance of a college degree, especially in a technical or medical field, is anticipated to further increase in the future.

Over the next decade, the U.S. as a whole could face a shortage of about 765,000 needed workers with the skills that come from an associate degree or some college.  For workers needing a bachelor’s degree or higher, the figure is about 8.62 million.

Recent demographic and employment trends make understanding potential shortfalls in the labor force even more pressing.  A recent survey of employers found that about 83 percent of respondents are having difficulty finding suitable candidates to hire; about 75 percent of those respondents believed a skill shortage existed in their applicant pools.  The U.S. faces about $1.2 trillion in lost economic output if these shortages do indeed exist and are not quickly mitigated.  The lost output comes mostly from the shortage of workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The demand for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) professionals is rapidly growing as the U.S. economy transitions to one more technology-based rather than industrial-dependent.  STEM jobs are projected to increase 1.7 times faster than non-STEM jobs with top companies struggling to find professionals with the right skills to fill vacancies.

Educational institutions are unable to fulfil current demands.  Many students who begin their college studies in a science or engineering field transfer to a different major by the time they graduate.  Additionally, for every two students that U.S. colleges graduate with a STEM degree, only one remains in the field and hired into a STEM position.

Information technology (IT) workers, who make up 59 percent of the entire STEM workforce, are predominantly drawn from fields outside of computer science and mathematics – if they even have a college degree.

Current U.S. high-skill immigration policy, which includes the granting of work permits to foreign students and the issuance of a variety of nonimmigrant guestworker visas, provides employers with large numbers of STEM guestworkers, most of whom are in IT occupations.  Annual inflows of guestworkers amount to one-third to one-half of all new IT job holders and make up a large and increasing portion of the IT labor market.

Between 2020 and 2021, the number of immigrants arriving in the U.S. decreased substantially.  This is especially concerning as a recent study[2] showed that college-educated immigrants are likely to work in the innovative STEM sector.  While aiding in meeting existing demands, it is also somewhat problematic as immigration policies that facilitate large flows of guestworkers supply labor at wages insufficiently low to induce significant increases in supply from the domestic workforce.

High-skilled STEM jobs are additionally important as they create a job-multiplier effect at the local level: for each additional employed high-skilled worker, up to 2.5 additional jobs are created through local demand for goods and services.

Unfortunately, the shortage is likely to become even more acute in the future.  As an increasing number of students attempt to attend college, it is increasingly apparent that secondary schools are failing to adequately prepare students for college and that the U.S. educational system is falling behind equivalent systems in other nations.

A study conducted by the National Math and Science Initiative indicates that only 36 percent of high school graduates are adequately prepared to pursue a college-level science course.  68 percent of students starting at public 2-year institutions and 40 percent of those starting at public 4-year institutions needed to take at least one remedial course[3].  This weakness is further substantiated by U.S. student below norms preparedness in technical subject areas; the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) placed the U.S. as 17th out of 71 countries in reading, 38th in math, and 24th in science even though over $810 billion is spent annually on education.

While many attempts have been made to improve U.S. educational standards and outcome, little progress has resulted.  Two proposals advocated primarily by conservatives and lower-income families are school voucher programs and certificate programs.

The School Voucher Program is a system, typically enacted by a state statute, that allows students to credit the amount of public-school funding allocated per student toward payment of private school tuition permitting students to attend a school of their choice.

The results for school voucher programs are decidedly mixed at best.  While such programs have resulted in higher graduation rates[4], they also have resulted in lower math and reading scores.  The logic behind this premise is that competition between schools for a student’s dollars would enhance/improve the level of education being provided.

The concept was originally proposed in a 1955 essay by Milton Friedman, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics in 1976.  While Friedman was a very good economist, he might not deserve grades quite as high in fields not in his area of expertise.

School choice is about giving all parents the chance to be integral participants in their children’s education.  Power and choices make people feel more involved, more effective, and more satisfied as citizens.  Children whose parents can choose their best educational environment learn better and have a better chance to become productive American citizens.  It’s about improving public education and better preparing our kids for college and/or the workplace.  It’s about equality, it’s about empowerment, it’s about choices for our parents and chances for our children – ALL our children.”  ~ Milton and Rose Friedman.

While sounding persuasive, it is very likely that providing universal school choice siphons off needed funds from public schools resulting in a decline of the overall quality of U.S. public education.  In addition, such choice would likely undermine democratic values and additionally contribute to segregation and division.

The supposed economic justification for school vouchers is that increased competition among schools would lead to higher educational output but that has not been demonstrated where school voucher programs have been an option.  There always are varied conclusions from any innovative program and charter schools are not any different, especially when political ideology is involved.

Certificate programs are another proposed option for students not necessarily needing a college degree or who are unable to afford the cost of attending a college.

Certificate programs are often aimed at people who have tried to survive with just a high school diploma but have found only low-wage jobs making it impossible to support themselves[5].  Certificates typically take less time to earn than a degree and train students to be cosmetologists, truck drivers, and medical assistants, among other jobs.  For-profit schools have zeroed in on this market as each student can bring in thousands of dollars of federal grants and loans.  With millions of potential customers and a guaranteed stream of funding, it’s a business model that can pay significant dividends.

For-profit schools award nearly a third of all certificates but availability of better-paying middleclass opportunities do not often result for many of the students .  At the vast majority of for-profits that focus on certificates, most students who take on debt to attend end up earning less than the typical high school graduate according to federal data posted by the Department of Education and analyzed by The Hechinger Report[6].

Some certificate programs send students into meaningful, well-paying careers, but the for-profit sector’s outcomes are worse than those in the public sphere.  For-profit graduates are less likely to find work than comparable graduates of public certificate programs, and if they are able to get jobs, their earnings are normally less[7].

While everyone agrees as to the importance of a high-quality educational system, there is very little agreement as to what is necessary to bring it up to requisite levels.

Basically, the U.S. public education system has not kept up with the times and currently faces a number of significant structural issues[8].  The formal education system was designed to meet the changing needs of the industrial revolution but that system is no longer able to meet modern needs.  Unfortunately, both parents and teachers reject recommendations for change insisting children be taught in the same manner as they were.  Technology is slowly forcing change but not at the rate needed.

Funding is always an issue for schools but many states are still funding education at a level lower than prior to the 2009 recession.  The average salary for public elementary and secondary school teachers has dropped by nearly 5 percent between the 2009/10 school year and now.  Long-term retention is difficult as educators are under-paid relative to their earning potential in alternative career fields.  Currently, 33 percent of all beginning teachers leave the teaching profession within just three years of beginning their careers seriously contributing to the shortage in teacher availability.  About 18 percent of all teachers need to have a second job just to get by.

Educational institutions accept students rejected by other majors resulting in educational standards for teachers, in general, being lower than in most other countries where acceptance standards are higher.  Additionally, to meet the need for classroom teachers, a substantial percentage of teachers do not have any academic credentials or training.  Few teachers are academically qualified to teach STEM subjects.  Additionally, critical shortages of special education teachers and specialized instructional support personnel (SISP) exist in all regions of the country.  Schools are overcrowded even though smaller class sizes have been shown to improve student outcomes.

Teachers need to constantly upgrade their skill level.  While a touted benefit of teaching is having summers off, teachers should be required as a condition of employment to take a minimum number of continuing education classes at an accredited institution paid for by their school.  In many states, tenure is granted to public school teachers who have consistently received satisfactory evaluations guaranteeing a teacher employment even if he/she fails to remain current in their subject area or no longer is capable of contributing at an acceptable level.

One of the biggest issues constraining the U.S. public education system is a lack of teacher innovation partially due to enforcement of standardized testing and Common Core curriculum.  Unfortunately, the problem really needs to be addressed at the federal level with changes to policies that will result in transformation of the public education system.  The U.S. needs teachers who are better trained to meet the needs of their students and who are willing to advocate for and facilitate change.  Teachers are on the front lines and, without them speaking up, change is not possible.

Contrary to what many critics seem to believe, standardized testing and the Common Core curriculum are fundamentally beneficial but have suffered from poor implementation.  Neither teachers nor parents adequately understand the Common Core curriculum.  Standardized testing provides the only method for parents, educators, or legislatures to determine how different schools compare or provide a uniform basis for student selection by colleges.

The Common Core State Standards were developed by teachers, not the federal government, to specify exactly what students should know before graduating from high school.  It was developed in 2009 to promote educational equity across the country holding all students to the same minimum standardized testing requirements.

A long-standing problem is that parents are not sufficiently involved in their child’s education.  Many parents are tired at the end of their workday and fail to take an active interest in overseeing homework or class assignments.  Parents are frequently inclined to treat schools as a custodial service and hold teachers responsible for any poor grades their child might receive rather than accepting it might be them that is actually failing.

More than 50 percent of the public-school population in the U.S. consists of low-income students but low-income students tend to perform lower than affluent students and family income shows strong correlation with student achievement measured by standardized tests.  Much needs to be done to overcome financial and social inequality but any remedial action is constrained by political ideology.

While extremely difficult to require, college-level educators would highly benefit from educational certification.  Essentially none are certified and instructional quality is apparent.  Simply having attained an advanced degree does not bestow the ability to teach upon someone.

Education needs to be accepted as the national priority it has now become.  Too many students are either unable to afford the increasing costs of education or struggle beneath a heavy burden of student debt for years after leaving college.  It is time for both preschool and college to be public funded similar to elementary and secondary school.  Education is admittedly expensive but the alternative has become even more so.

That’s what I think, what about you?


[1] Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a U.S. politician and attorney who served as the 32nd President.  The only President elected to the office four times, he led the U.S. through two of the greatest crises of the 20th century: the Great Depression and World War II.

[2] Pevi, Giovanni, Kevin Shih, and Chad Sparber.  STEM Workers, H-1B Visas, and Productivity In U.S. Cities, The University of Chicago Press Journals, Shttps://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/679061?journalCode=jole, July 2015.

[3] Chen, Xianglei, and Sean Simone.  Remedial Coursetaking At U.S. Public 2- and 4-Year Institutions: Scope, Experiences, And Outcomes, National Center for Educational Statistics (IES), https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2016/2016405.pdf, September 2016.

[4] Tyre, Peg.  A Matter Of Choice, Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/trump-administration-advances-school-vouchers-despite-scant-evidence/, August 2017, pp48-53.

[5] Butrymowicz, Sarah, and Meredith Kolodner.  They Just Saw Me As A Dollar Sign: How Some Certificate Schools Profit From Vulnerable Students, The Hechinger Report, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/education/they-just-saw-me-dollar-sign-how-some-certificate-schools-n1018206?cid=eml_nbn_20190711, 11 July 2019.

[6] Yoder, Steven.  Despite Mediocre Records, For-Profit Online Charter Schools Are Selling Parents On Staying Virtual, The Hechinger Report, https://hechingerreport.org/despite-mediocre-records-for-profit-online-charter-schools-are-selling-parents-on-staying-virtual/?msclkid=b1a9dbcdbc4211ec990523deb8db2678, 24 September 2021.

[7] Cellini, Stephanie Riegg, and Kathryn J. Blanchard.  Quick College Credentials: Student Outcomes And Accountability Policy For Short-Term Programs, Brookings, https://www.brookings.edu/research/quick-college-credentials-student-outcomes-and-accountability-policy-for-short-term-programs/, 22 July 2021.

[8] Barrington, Kate.  The 15 Biggest Failures Of The American Public Education System, Public School Review, https://www.publicschoolreview.com/blog/the-15-biggest-failures-of-the-american-public-education-system#:~:text=%20The%2015%20Biggest%20Failures%20of%20the%20American,Changing%20classroom%20approaches%20like%20flipped%20learning.%0AThe…%20More%20, 6 February 2022.

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U.S. Business Startups

It seems to me….

Cultivating a global incubator network would help people from all backgrounds bring creative ideas to market and launch startups that generate more jobs – and would also align to the growing interest among youth for entrepreneurship.”  ~ Tae Yoo[1].

Contrary to Republican criticism of the supposed difficulty of starting a business in the U.S., the U.S. is consistently ranked among the best internationally for its overall competitiveness and ease of doing business.  Backed by a regulatory environment that is particularly conducive to starting and operating a business, the U.S. business culture encourages free enterprise and competition.

This is not to deny possibilities for improvement; there are numerous changes that would be highly beneficial.  Many laws are overly restrictive or contain now outdated requirements difficult to rescind or change.  Some, though beneficial, such as environmental regulations, increase costs and complexity.  Other factors shown to be highly helpful are considered ideologically objectionable by either conservative or liberal legislatures.

The U.S. unquestionably remains one of the largest and most dynamic economies in the world; its workforce ranks as one of the best educated, most productive, and most innovative.  As a place to do business, the U.S. offers a predictable and transparent legal system, outstanding infrastructure, and access to one of the world’s most lucrative consumer markets.  The U.S. economy is also one of the most technologically advanced and has a strong supply of venture capital.  The U.S. government welcomes foreign direct investments and many states and local jurisdictions actively compete to attract new business ventures.

While national rankings slightly vary from year to year, the U.S.is normally ranked from 6th to 8th among 190 economies in the World Bank’s[2] Ease of Doing Business annual report.  It typically ranks between 49th and 51st in the world for ease of starting a business according to the World Bank and International Finance Corporation (IFC) which weigh factors such as procedures, time, and costs.

New Zealand is considered the easiest country to start a business, registering property, and securing credit[3].  Rounding out the top five are Singapore, Denmark, South Korea, and Hong Kong.  Regardless, the five most valuable public companies in existence are Apple, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Meta (Facebook), and Amazon – all U.S. companies.

Starting and registering a new business in the U.S. takes an average of only four days according to the World Bank’s Doing Business report for 2020.  Business startups account for the majority of all new job creation and are the primary engine of economic growth.  The ease of starting a business is one reason entrepreneurship is the backbone of the U.S. economy.

Start-ups have been central to the U.S.’s economic health and new companies play a disproportionate role in boosting innovation, productivity, and job creation.  Unfortunately, entrepreneurial activity has been slowing down for about three decades, dropping sharply over the last 10 years.  The percentage of adults owning a business has been declining since the 1990s[4] and the start-up rate (the number of new companies as a percentage of all firms) has fallen by nearly half since 1978[5].

The cause of this decrease is unknown with everything from high tax rates, over regulation, and population demographics being blamed.  While the cause might be a combination of those factors, none are supported by statistical facts.  Looking back, the entrepreneurial boom years of the turbulent 1960s was characterized by a counterculture assault on the establishment and traditional values resulting in massive political and social upheavals; there was a corresponding erosion of law and order, trust in government, family structure, and deference to authority[6].

The process of starting a business can vary depending on what state, or even city, in which a company is incorporated in addition to how and where it intends to operate.  Since all fifty states have their own rules and regulations, it can be a challenge to ensure that a company’s operations remain compliant.  According to one study[7], company owners spend, on average, four hours a week dealing with government compliance.  The most beneficial measure to easing the difficulty in starting a business would be to standardize the process.  Unfortunately, when it comes to business regulations, the U.S. is more similar to fifty individual nations rather than just one country.  Any attempt to impose standard requirements would be strongly rejected by every state.

Immigrants are only 14 percent of the U.S. population but play a pivotal role in the economy being much more likely to start businesses than those U.S.-born.  The size, age, and skills of the population —all greatly impacted by immigration — help determine the U.S.’ ability to stay competitive with other countries, support critical programs like Social Security, and grow an economy that creates jobs.

Immigrants founded 18 percent of all small businesses, as well as 20 percent of businesses nationwide, and 51 percent of the country’s startup companies worth $1 billion or more – each of those companies employed an average of 760 people[8].  Immigrants created about 25 percent of new businesses in the nation (those five years old or less), while the immigrant share exceeds 40 percent of new firms in California, New York, New Jersey, and Florida.  Overall, nearly one-in-five businesses nationwide are owned by immigrants although that share rises to more than a quarter in New York, New Jersey, and Florida and roughly one-third in California and the District of Columbia.  Immigrant business owners accounted for 20.3 percent of all self-employed U.S. residents in 2015 and generated $72.3 billion in business income.  In 2015, immigrants accounted for 21.9 percent of all business owners in 50 of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas.

To encourage startups, immigration quotas need to be significantly increased.  The majority of recent immigrants have entered the U.S. on family-sponsored visas but increased emphasis should be given to those more highly skilled.  Any non-U.S. student completing a graduate degree, especially a PhD in a technical or medical field from a fully accredited university, should automatically receive a green card along with their degree certificate.  For every tech worker permitted to enter the U.S., an average of five jobs are created.

There are numerous considerations relative to a startup’s success, only some of which are dependent upon governmental regulation.  The five primary factors influencing a business startups’ success are the idea, team, business model, funding, and timing[9] but these are unique to each startup.

A variety of assistance is frequently available depending upon physical location including small business development centers and business incubators.  Each provides advice on starting and growing a business.  Both organizations attempt to assist startups and entrepreneurs by providing a range of services possibly including management training, office space, and venture capital financing.  The Small Business Administration was created by Congress in 1953 to “aid, counsel, assist and protect … the interests of small business concerns”.

There are many support issues relevant to small businesses that while of a more general nature, assist all business activity but are subject to political ideological constraints.  Improving national productivity is a key factor in determining any startup business’ success and while dependent upon the specific field, include, among other factors, human capital (employee productivity), work environment (infrastructure), and technology (research).

All businesses, especially startups, benefit from government assistance in the form of social welfare support including healthcare, education, and other forms of social safety net provisions; e.g., unemployment insurance, Social Security, or Medicare.  Relocating required healthcare and FICA payments from businesses and onto the standard tax base would not only reduce complexity for startups but also increase their competitiveness, especially when involving exports.

Many studies have found evidence of large private sector productivity gains from public infrastructure investments, in many cases with higher returns than from private capital investment.  Research has shown that well designed infrastructure investments can raise economic growth, productivity, and land values while also providing significant positive spillovers in areas such as economic development, energy efficiency, public health, and manufacturing.

Availability of good quality infrastructure raises productivity levels in the economy and reduces enterprise costs.  Availability of adequate infrastructure helps expand trade not only within a country by improving transport facilities but also promotes foreign trade through improvement of seaports and airports.  Public infrastructure reduces costs in most manufacturing industries and promotes resource productivity growth.  An efficient infrastructure supports economic growth, improves quality of life, and is important for national security.

Technological advances frequently provide opportunities to create entirely new businesses exploiting those developments.  Innovation fosters new ideas for products and services permitting organizations to find competitive advantages in the marketplace.  Many startups are spinoffs from university research laboratories or corporate development where product advances provide new opportunities.

Disruptive innovation is the introduction of a product or service into an established industry that performs better and, generally, at a lower cost than existing offerings thereby providing opportunities for startups to possibly displace market leaders and transform industry segments.  Everything begins with an idea.

One of the best places to begin encouraging startups is at the local community level.  Local elected leaders should provide access to small business incubators in cooperation with local colleges or community education programs to promote successful business growth.  Banks, community development corporations, and other local organizations should be encouraged to provide small business loans and/or grants.  Communities should work with research institutions to assist in creation of spinoffs from their basic development programs.

Startups represent one of the best sources of economic and social development, generate incomes and jobs, and enable individuals, local communities, and the nation.  Startups also contribute to economic dynamism by spurring innovation and beneficial competition.  There is much that can be done to support business startups at all levels from the local community to national assistance.  It is an area where everyone gains.

That’s what I think, what about you?


[1] Tae Yoo is Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Cisco Systems.

[2] Ease Of Doing Business Rankings, The World Bank, https://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings, May 2019.  (The World Bank has announced it was “discontinuing” its “Doing Business” reports due to data irregularities.)

[3] The World Bank.  Economy Rankings, Doing Business, http://www.doingbusiness.org/rankings?utm_source=Fareed%27s+Global+Briefing&utm_campaign=d8998d879a-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2017_11_02&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_6f2e93382a-d8998d879a-85658801, 2017.

[4] Fairlie, Robert W. Arnobio Morelix, E.J. Reedy, Joshua Russell.  2015 Startup Activity: National Trends, The Kauffman Index, http://www.kauffman.org/~/media/kauffman_org/research%20reports%20and%20covers/2015/05/kauffman_index_startup_activity_national_trends_2015.pdf, June 2015.

[5] Hathaway, Ian, and Robert Litan.  Declining Business Dynamism in the United States: A Look at States and Metros, Brookings Institution, http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2014/05/declining-business-dynamism-litan, 5 May 2014.

[6] Zakaria, Fareed.  The Winding Down Of The Start-Ups, Washington Post, https://fareedzakaria.com/2016/05/19/the-winding-down-of-the-start-ups/, 19 May 2016.

[7] Highlights Of Babson College Small Business In America Research, Babson College, https://smallbusiness.com/selling-to-small-business/small-business-in-america-research/, 22 June 2016.

[8] Ewing, Walter.  Immigrants Are Founding A Quarter Of New Businesses In The United States, National Bureau of Economic Research, https://immigrationimpact.com/2018/05/02/immigrants-founding-new-businesses/#.Yaq-fbnMJhE, 2 May 2018.

[9] Cuofano, Gennaro.  The Five Key Factors That Lead To Successful Tech Startups, FourWeekMBA, https://fourweekmba.com/startup-success-factors/, 5 September 2018.

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Genetic Progress

It seems to me….

“…many people say they are worried about the changes in our genetic instructions.  But these (genetic instructions) are merely a product of evolution, shaped so we can adapt to certain conditions which might no longer exist.  We all know how imperfect we are.  Why not become a little better apt to survive?”  ~ James Watson[1].

While genetics in the form of selective breeding has been practiced in agriculture since prior to recorded history, modern genetic analysis did not begin until the mid-1800s when research conducted by Gregor Mendel, known as the “father of modern genetics”, studied variations in plants.  Genetic information contained inside cells is stored using DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), a molecule composed of two polynucleotide chains that coil around each other to form a double helix carrying genetic instructions for the development, functioning, growth, and reproduction of all known organisms and many viruses.  DNA sequencing is the process used to determine the order of its nucleotide bases and is essential to genetic analysis applications[2].

Research has been able to identify the basic concepts of genetic mutations, fusion genes, and changes in DNA copy numbers significantly advancing the field.  Numerous practical developments are being made essentially every day in genetics and molecular biology through the processes of genetic analysis.

A genetic test can examine someone’s genetic information for changes, sometimes called mutations or variants, to determine if that person has or could develop certain diseases or might pass a disease to their children.  In today’s multiethnic society, some genetic disorders previously thought to be confined to specific ethnic groups are increasingly being found in broader population bases.  Genetic testing is beneficial in many areas of medicine including in determining the medical care someone receives.

The ability to make site-specific modifications to the human genome has been a medical objective since the recognition of the gene as the basic unit of heredity.  Gene therapy is genetic improvement through correction of altered (mutated) genes or site-specific modifications that are the target for therapeutic treatment.

With gene therapy, a normal gene is inserted into the genome to replace an abnormal gene responsible for causing a certain disease.  The gene therapy process, still being relatively new, remains complex and most current techniques require further development prior to routine use.

Genetic engineering (GE) is often termed gene manipulation or recombinant DNA technology with all three terms frequently used interchangeably implying the manipulation and alteration of the genetic make-up of an organism through insertion of desired changes.  It is a combination of techniques used for identification, replication, modification, and transfer of genetic material.

Until now, the primary application of genetic engineering has been in agriculture to produce transgenic plants with desirable traits such as herbicide tolerance, pest resistance, stress tolerance (biotic and abiotic), and enhanced nutritional value.  So-called genetically modified foods (GMF) is the use of substances engineered to be able to survive in conditions they normally would not be able to handle; genetically modified organisms are also used to study gene function and hormones, vaccines, and other life-saving drugs that are created through the practice.

Genetic engineering has its share of controversy.  In reality, genome editing is merely a faster and more accurate method than classical breeding though not fundamentally different.  The scientific consensus is that GM crops are just as healthy and pose no additional risks to health than food which has not been genetically modified.  The general public, through no fault of its own, largely remains relatively uneducated about GM food and simply does not actually understand the potential risks, lack thereof, or even what GM really means.

Prenatal screening tests currently are the most widely offered human genetic tests in North America.  Fragments of placental DNA drawn from maternal blood are sequenced for genetic abnormalities.  Patients also have the option of obtaining fee-based genotyping from private biotechnology companies.

Recent advances in the speed and rapidly declining costs of genetic sequencing have made it possible to screen for hundreds or even thousands of childhood-onset genetic diseases[3].  There are about 14,000 known human genetic diseases – only 35 of which can be detected by the blood tests used in most states while DNA can currently identify about 193.  Some hospitals have now begun offering the ability to sequence a newborn’s genome soon following birth to diagnose possible life-threatening conditions.

It remains debatable whether sequencing should be available to all newborns as part of standard health screening.  While it could provide earlier detection and treatment for urgent conditions, it additionally would significantly increase the number of genetic conditions all infants would be screened for at birth and to inform parents of their own risk of adult-onset conditions or conditions they could possibly pass on to future generations of their children.  It also could miss some diseases detected by current heel-stick testing, produce false-positives, raise issues of consent and privacy, or increase the possibility of genetic discrimination.

Cost remains a serious consideration.  While the cost of whole-genetic sequencing has dramatically declined in recent years, it still is between $500 and $800 with interpretation of results possibly being an additional $1000.  Whole-genomic sequencing is therefore not widely available for typical consumers outside of specific research circumstances.

It remains somewhat premature for genetic sequencing to totally replace current heel-stick testing but as costs continue to decline and condition identification continues to improve, its use will also increase.  Genomics definitely has its place in current medicine and its use is poised to vastly expand in the next decade.

Development of a technique called “CRISPR” (which is an acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) can be used to edit genes within organisms and has a wide variety of applications including basic biological research, development of biotechnological products, and treatment of diseases.

Genome editing capabilities are being widely broadened potentially providing relief for those with various genetic disorders not previously curable.  CRISPR could be used to easily edit out undesirable genes in embryos likely to cause illness and enhance traits considered more desirable potentially making people smarter, stronger, and more attractive.  Much like prospective parents who choose the eggs they want implanted when using in vitro fertilization (IVF) to avoid genetic disorders (such as Huntington’s disease), CRISPR could potentially be extended to the genetic components for complex human attributes such as height, intelligence, and appearance.  While such enhancement is currently prohibited, the problem with CRISPR is such procedures have become so simple and inexpensive that preventing such experiments can be difficult.

The first ever genetically modified animal (a mouse) was created at MIT by Rudolf Jaenisch, PhD, in 1974.  The success of the experiment raised the issue of whether human cloning would soon be possible[4] and most geneticists considered this to be an extremely important ethical question.  There has been substantial progress since then making the question much more relevant.

The first gene-edited human embryo allowed to develop until birth was performed by Chinese Researcher Dr. He Jiankui at the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTech) in Shenzhen, China, in 2018.  Gene-edited cells in an adult are not passed down to future generations (unless they are reproductive cells) and medical treatments that target these genes are considered preliminary but promising.

Edits to an embryo, however, change the genetic code of most of its cells and are passed down to future generations.  It raises questions as to whether the editing performed by He will affect the two Chinese girls and another embryo whose genes He edited but whose birth was never publicly announced.  It is unclear whether He succeeded in mutating both copies of the gene in one of the girls; the editing was not successful in the second girl, and it is not known what happened with the third edited embryo.

On a more fun side, in addition to uncovering important health information, genetic analysis can also provide information useful in determining one’s ancestry.  Numerous commercially available ancestry tests have become available allowing someone to trace their family history back much farther than through traditional genealogy records; even possibly identifying geographic areas from where one’s family originated.  Many discover relatives they never knew they had.

A difficulty in searching for one’s ancestors is lack of diversity in current genetic data samples: 96 percent of current data samples are from people of European ancestry[5].  Anyone interested, especially those with non-European backgrounds, can participate by subscribing to an online service[6] or enrollment sites at local hospitals and health centers.  Respondents can also supplement their medical records, answer research surveys regarding their health and lifestyles, and participate in other activities (e.g., syncing their fitness tracker data) not necessarily related to genetic information.

Although DNA is relatively simple and well understood chemically, the human genome’s structure is extraordinarily complex and many of its functions remain poorly understood.  Only 1-2 percent of its bases encode proteins and the full complement of protein-coding sequences still remains to be established.  A roughly equivalent amount of the non-coding portion of the genome is under active selection suggesting that it also is functionally important but even less is known about the role of roughly half of the genome that consists of highly repetitive sequences or of the remaining non-coding, non-repetitive DNA.  They probably contain the bulk of the regulatory information controlling the expression of the approximately 30,000 protein-coding genes and myriad other functional elements, such as non-protein-coding genes, and the sequence determinants of chromosome dynamics.

Healthcare is rapidly moving towards precision medicine which offers a deeper understanding of human physiology using genetic insights and advances in technology.  This is pivotal in alleviating unnecessary suffering related to medical care due to unintended side effects which can result from the current one-size-fits-all approach.  It could also reduce the cost of treatment by eliminating ineffective treatment options.

Much of the potential for gene therapy is dependent upon significantly increasing the number of whole-genomic sequences available for research.  This will require both decreased sequencing costs and, most likely, a federal health database containing not only complete individual lifetime health records but whole-genomic sequences corresponding to those health records.  Increased consideration will need to be given to ensure the safety and privacy of such information so it is available only for individual health treatment and approved research.

In some ways the medical field still remains relatively primitive with the initial source of many medications originating with aboriginal medicine men.  In the future, medical practitioners will be able to look at the root genetic cause of an illness rather than simply addressing symptoms.  For that to consistently happen, we still have a long way to go with much to still learn.

That’s what I think, what about you?


[1] James Dewey Watson KBE is a U.S. molecular biologist, geneticist, and zoologist who co-authored with Francis Crick the academic paper in 1953 proposing the double helix structure of the DNA molecule.  Watson, Crick, and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

[2] The basis for some of this writeup is based on information from multiple sources.

[3] Lewis, Tanya.  23 And Baby, Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/23-and-baby/, January 2020, ppS9-S12.

[4] A sheep called “Dolly” was successfully cloned in 1996 by British developmental biologist Ian Wilmut and colleagues of the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh, Scotland.

[5] Devaney, Stephanie.  All Of Us, Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/all-of-us/, January 2020, ppS15-S17.

[6] Additional information is available from Join All of Us at http://www.joinallofus.org.

Posted in Agriculture, Agriculture, Ancestry, China, China, CRISPR, CRISPR, Deoxyribonucleic Acid, DNA, DNA, Embryo, Gene Therapy, Genes, Genetic Analysis, Genetic Engineering, Genetic Sequencing, Genetics, Gregor Mendel, Healthcare, healthcare, Proteins | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment