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One Vote, One Person Does Matter

Sean Rayford for The New York Times

Were it not for Jannie Jones, it is possible that Joe Biden might not be President-Elect today. Who is Jannie Jones, you ask? She is not a pundit. She is not a powerful political operative. Jannie Jones is a 76-year-old church usher whose grandmother came to America aboard a slave ship.

To understand Ms. Jones’ role in elevating Biden to the White House, we must go back to the South Carolina primary election last February 29th. About a week before that vote, Jannie Jones attended a funeral in the small town of Hopkins, South Carolina, population 2,956, about 13 miles southeast of Columbia, the state capitol.

Democratic South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn, the House Majority Whip, also attend the funeral. As Ms. Jones tells the New York Times, “He didn’t know me from Adam’s house cat.” No matter. Seeing the Congressman leaning against a wall of the chuch, she got his attention. He walked over to the pew where she was sitting.

Clyburn remembers Jannie whispered in his ear, “I need to know who you are voting for.” This was no idle question, for at the time, Joe Biden’s candidacy was in serious doubt. In his acceptance speech, the President-Elect even said it was a time when his campaign “was at its lowest ebb.”

The Congressman, up until then, had made no public endorsement for Biden, nor any Democratic candidate. But he remembers whispering back to the woman he was voting for Joe Biden. As Clyburn recalls, Jennie Jones looked him and said, “I needed to hear that. And this country needs to hear that.”

That is when the Majority Whip, the third ranking Democrat in the United States House of Representatives, decided he did need to speak out. Five days later, he gave Biden a ringing public endorsment. Many credit Clyburn’s support for reviving the former Vice-President’s campaign, resulting in a South Carolina victory. The Times called the endorsement “seismic.” Biden’s primary win in the Palmetto State set up a cascade of political dominoes which fell, one after another, until this weekend, when Joe Biden was declared the next President of the United States.

He acknowledged as much in his acceptance speech. Speaking of that campaign’s lowest ebb, Biden said “The African American community stood up again for me. They always have my back, and I’ll have yours.”

So, don’t let anyone tell you one person, one vote, doesn’t matter. You don’t have to believe me. Just ask Jannie Jones.

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Our Nation Divided

As my friend, Chris Berry, reminds us, former CBS Anchoman Dan Rather had some choice words to describe past elections too close to call. These are just a few of them.

The race “is tick-tight right now.”
“This race is hotter than a Laredo parking lot.”
“This race is tighter than the lugnuts on a rusted ’56 Chevy.” “Are your fingernails starting to sweat?”

Fingernails are sweating all across the land on this day after November 3rd. As of this writing, we do not know yet who will be our next President. We may not know for days. But we do know some very important truths, no matter who wins.

Democrats expected a sweep. Republicans expected a landslide. Both were wrong. Oh, so wrong. Another Dan Rather-ism can be applied to what is happening in this already crazy, upside down year of 2020. “This race is as tight as a too-small bathing suit on a too-hot car ride back from the beach.”

What is happening? That question will be debated, studied, examined, probed and dissected for years to come. But as one early pundit put it, the Democrats hope of an overwhelming win by saying Donald Trump is bad did not work. The message of unity did not work. We are, simply, a nation too divided for those stratgies to be even close to successful.

Looking at the returns, which are still coming in at this hour, it could be argued that we are almost evenly divided. The numbers are nearly equal by every measure. That’s why it is taking so long to proclaim a winner. One half of the country cannot, for the life of them, understand why the other half supports Trump. The other half cannot understand how it is the anti-Trumpers don’t understand them.

What does this mean going forward? It means, among other things, niether half can claim to have the sole interest of the country at heart. Each has equal argument, equal say, about our nation’s future. Niether half is right. Niether half is wrong. That spells inertia, right? Maybe, but it doesn’t have to. It may be difficult, but stalement does not need to define what’s to come.

Whether Joe Biden is elected, or whether Donald Trump is reelected, it is abundantly clear that the next President will not have a national mandate to govern the country. Niether will Congress. Everyone, from the President on down to locally elected officials, will have the duty, the responsibility, to listen and pay attention to those who did not vote for them. Afterall, those voters make up half the nation.

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The Simulator

A Sci-Fi Flight of Fantasy for Anyone Who Believes Reality is Fake News

Somewhere in the Multi-Verse

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Oh man, you gotta see this!” said the young one in his native tongue.

“See what?” his older friend said.

“This new program I got! It is so freakin’ cool!”

The friend turned a full circle, looking at the large five dimensional hologram image that filled the room around them.

“It looks kinda like a universe, or something,” he said.

“Not just any universe,” said the first being. “My universe!”

“What do you mean, your universe?”

“This new algorithm lets me create any universe I want.”

“It sure doesn’t look like our universe.”

“Of course not. I made this one up. See all those planets and stars and galaxies and stuff? I created all of them with this program. Watch!”

The young one rubbed his appendages together in anticipation.

“Computer,” he commanded. “Make a planet and designate as Beta-8.”

Immediately a perfectly round, multi-dimensional object appeared in mid-air in front of the being.

“Computer, make Beta-8 light yellow-brown.”

The object changed color.

“Let’s see now,” he said. “I know! Computer, put pieces of ice and rocks in rings around Beta-8.”

In an instant, the pale yellow-brown object was surrounded by a series of rings made up of particles that varied in size from tiny to extremely large.

“Cool, huh?” the young one said to his friend.

“Yeah! Very cool. But what can you do with it beside make planets and stars?”

“Well, I can create systems. Watch.  Computer, place planet in solar system Alpha-2.”

The holographic universe changed shape, moving the planet to an obit around a medium large white-yellowish star that seem to be producing a tremendous amount of heat and light. Seven other planets of varying sizes were already orbiting the star.

“This solar system is part of a much larger group I also made. Wanna see?”

“Sure” the older being said.

“Computer, show me galaxy Alpha-1.”

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The hologram zoomed out to a great distance to reveal a spiral galaxy consisting of billions of stars, planets, comets and other objects spinning slowly in this simulated universe. Solar system Alpha-2 was embedded in one of the spiral arms about twenty-seven thousand light years from the center. The older friend was impressed.

“You created all this?”

“Yeah,” the younger one laughed. “It took me a little while, though. Pretty neat, doncha think?”

“Why did you put your solar system so far out on one of those arms? It seems kind of out of the way, doesn’t it?”

“Well, I had to put it some place. And I wanted it to seem, I don’t know, ordinary, I guess. Not at the center of my creation, anyway.”

“What else?“

“I’ll show you. Computer, return to solar system Alpha-2.”

The image zoomed back in to show the original system.

“First of all,” said the universe creator, “I think planet Beta-8 is too close to that star. Computer, place Beta-8 in the sixth planet position from the star.”

The planet moved away from the star and began an orbit between two other planets.

“It’s still not right,” said the young one. “I got it. Computer, make Beta-8 nine times as large as Beta-3.”

The planet quickly grew in size to become slightly smaller than another planet on one side and much larger than one on the other side.

“What’s Beta-3?” the friend asked.

“Computer, enlarge Beta-3.”

In a flash, another planet filled the area in front of the two beings. Beta-3 was much prettier than Beta-8. It looked like a blue marble floating in the star studded darkness. Large green areas were spread out on the globe and white mists of water vapor moved around the planet.

“That’s beautiful!” the friend said. “Why do you call it Beta-3?”

“Because it is the third planet from that star. Beta-3 is just code the computer recognizes. It’s real name is Earth.”

“Earth? Why did you call it that?”

“Oh, I didn’t call it that. The people did.”

“People? What are people?”

“The people are creatures who live on Earth.”

“Okay, now you’ve lost me. What are you talking about?”

“Oh, man, that is the coolest part of this version of the algorithm. You know the developers released the first version, oh, what…two million years ago? This is version  750,000.3 and it has the greatest features ever! It allows me to create creatures to populate the planet. People are the creatures I made to rule Earth. Here, I will show you. Computer, New York City.”

The image zoomed in fast to an overhead view of a metropolis teaming with creatures. Some appeared to be maneuvering with the use of bi-ped like appendages, others were encased in metal objects carrying them from place to place.

“Those are people,” the young one said. “They call themselves human beings or homo sapiens.  They call those metal box-like objects vehicles. They have other names for them depending on size and shape. Names like cars, trucks and trains. They call all those tall structures buildings.”

“Wait a friggin’ minute,” his friend said. “You keep saying the people named Earth, they call themselves humans, they named vehicles and buildings. So, I suppose they call that place New York City, too?”

“Yeah, they did.”

“C’mon, you’re pulling my appendage, right? How is it possible that creatures you created name anything? They are just computer animation, aren’t they. They can’t be or say or do….or name…anything unless you write a code for it, right?”

“That’s the real beauty of this new computer program. It places limits on what I can do with my creations. Now get this! The new software gives the Earth people in the program what they believe is free will! They think they are real entities. That is how brilliant this program is!”

“I don’t understand,” the friend said.

“It’s like this,” the young one said, pointing to the hologram with one of his six arms. “I set certain parameters and then activate the human reaction algorithm and watch what happens. Computer, show me the Middle East of Beta-3.”

The image changed to scenes of war and other violence in one section of the Earth.

“I set the parameters here so that various tribes of Earth people had different ideas about land and politics and religion. I set the start of those parameters two thousand years ago. With those parameters, the computer-created people begin to make decisions and take action. The algorithm analyzes those decisions, computes the intent, and produces the result. I may have made an error in my original parameters, but it appears these animated humans have not learned much in two thousand years. That’s how long this violence has been going on. Let me show you something else I just developed. Computer, United States of America.”

The scene changed to an overview of the USA.

“At the risk of being devious, I’ve created some challenges for the people-creatures in this part of Earth. I’ve programmed a virus that is unfamiliar to them to see how they would handle it.”

“How are they handling it?”

“So far, not so well. But to be fair, I have given them some other things to deal with, too.”

“Like what?”

“Well, over time these animated people have invented a form of government they call a democracy. They elect a new leader every four years. Call me crazy, but I wanted to see just how intelligent the computer program really is. So, I created a political creature who has really controversial and outlandish ideas to see how these creatures would react to him.”

“How did they react?”

“Much to my surprise, they elected him! And they may do so again. His efforts to stay their leader in the middle of the virus outbreak is really interesting to watch. He is really popular among some of the people-creatures. Others seem to hate him. These computer Earth people are not getting along well. That seems to be a commonality among so many people-creatures on that planet. I don’t why that is. Maybe its a programming glitch. Still, this computer simulation is amazing! I’ve even thrown in some weather problems, like wildfires and big storms to mix things up even more. I should be ashamed, I guess, but this is really fun.”

“And the creatures have no idea that they are just computer animations?”

“Oh, some suspect that. Some have even written papers about an imagined super intelligent race that has created a computer simulation of what they call reality. I’m letting that part of the program run, but I’m keeping a close eye on it. I’m not sure what will happen if the whole human race realizes they are nothing but electrical impulses.”

Both beings laughed so hard tears flowed from each of their three eyes.

“I can’t image,” the older one said. “I just can’t image what the program would do if those animated creatures discovered that their life is nothing but a game.”

The two friends continued laughing hysterically as they left the room, not realizing the tail of the older being had wrapped around the computer’s power cable, pulling it loose from the wall.

The hologram froze.

Then it went dark.

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Carolina in the Morning

“Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning.” Gus Kahn, Lyricist, 1922

Sitting in a rocking chair painted Charleston Green, making it appear almost black, I am at peace. I am on my front porch, realizing why this architectual feature is so fundamental here in the South. It makes me wonder if Gus Khan had been sitting in a similar setting when he wrote those lyrics nearly a centuary ago.

It is a glorious morning. It is just past eight o’clock and the thermometer reads a comfortable eighty-two degrees. We may reach another scorching upper nineties before the day is through but at the moment, comfort is king. I am facing west, so the sun is still relatively low in the eastern sky behind me. It is casting a shadow of my house across the front law, thus I am seated in the shade. A slight breeze whispers past from right to left and disappears around the corner of my home. I breathe in the gentle wind’s plesantries.

The sky is rich in its shades of azure. Sometimes the Carolina sky is so blue you can almost taste it. This is one of those times. The color is punctuated by a shelf of scattered white clouds drifting by lazily. I see a large hawk circling slowly high above, no doubt searching for its breakfast.

The sounds of this morning are orchestral. I can hear the rapid, rhythmic tick-tick noise katydids make by rubbing hind legs on their wings. It is a soothing sound, in a strange sort of way. Hundreds, if not thousands, of them are hidden in the trees surrounding our neighborhood. It is as if they are being led by a conductor for their performance seems unified. In reality, however, entomologists believe they are in competition. The males are after the ladies. They make the sound hoping to attract the females of the katydid world, each trying to out tick the others to be the first in the cadence, if only by milliseconds.

Beneath the rhythm of the katydids I can hear the slower, bass-like beat of tree frogs who are also in a romantic mood. The volume of these tiny green creatures is amazing, vastly louder than their diminutive appearance would indicate. Providing a melodic counterpoint to this musical bottom are the songs of a multitude of birds calling to each other. Chickadees, cardinals, Carolina wrens and more are all singing different tunes. A mocking bird sits high on the rooftop of a neighbor’s house doing his best to imitate his feathered brethren. He is, yes, mocking them.

In front of me, the resident lizard of our front porch makes his morning appearance. He is about five inches long and spectacularly green at this hour. He can turn brown, though, chameleon-like. But this particular little guy is called an anole, a species of lizard native to the southeast. I know he is a ‘he’ because his dewlap, or throat fan, is bright red. Female dewlaps tend to be more pinkish in color. The dewlap, under his chin, bulges out when he is courting lady anoles, feels threatened or when he challenges other males of his species. He, like those others, is very territorial. As such, he suddenly stops in mid-scurry, casting an eye in my direction. Apparently deciding I am no threat, he just as abruptly scampers away, disappearing under the porch steps. I like him.

In the yard, just beyond the porch, I see a bumble bee busily negotiating the blossoms of various flowers. He is frantic in his pace, as if he had a quota of nectar to collect, a deadline to meet, is afraid he will miss it and will be fired from his job by the Queen Bee. I watch as he zips from one flower to another and then zooms off, presumably to carry his collection back to the hive. I wish him good luck and I hope he makes it on time.

In the distance, I hear a mechanical sound growing gradually louder. It is the droning buzz of a small airplane. It appears in my line of vision, sedately moving right to left, along with the breeze. My guess is the single-engine craft is preparing to land at the little, local airport nearby. As it passes, the tone of the engine changes pitch, the Doppler effect kicking in. The sound is oddly satisfying.

The neighborhood is beginning to wake, now. Several of my neighbors have emerged for their daily exercise. Here comes a couple riding their bicycles at a leisurely pace. She is about fifteen yards in front of him. They are not speaking to each other. Maybe their morning got off to a rough start. Another neighbor speeds by on his ten-speed, pedaling hard and fast, his shirt damp with perspiration. I raise my coffee cup in a toast to his dedication, perfectly satisfied that I can sit here and observe his perseverance.

A few joggers pound past my house, lost in their world of flowing endorphins. Most of them keep their eyes straight ahead, as if searching for an imaginary finish line. It is a solitary existence, I wager. One woman, dressed in stylish jogging gear, makes a turn and passes directly in front of my house. She, apparently, is lost in a world of music, for she is wearing a pair of Apple ear-pods and her pace is steady and even, as if she is keeping time to some tune. As she passes, the women suddenly notices me out of the corner of her eye. She quickly turns her head and, without missing a beat, she gives me a little wave, a cheery “Good morning!” and continues on her way.

I lean back and raise the cup of coffee to my lips. I decide Gus Khan was right. Little, if anything, could be finer. I am at peace.

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Requiem for Beirut

assafinaonlione.com

Peter Jennings, I suspect, would be deeply saddened by what has happened to Beirut, in Lebanon. Peter, who passed away fifteen years ago this August month of 2020, was an expert in Middle East affairs. He was based in Beirut beginning in the late 1960’s at what was the first television news bureau in the Arab world. As such, he became thoroughly familiar with the complexities of the tangled politics in the region.

I first met Peter when I was assigned to bureau duty in Beirut in 1982. My charge, actually, was to spell Peter who was about to go on personal leave. The ABC News Bureau was enclosed in a tiny office off the lobby of the famed Commodore Hotel in the center of the city. When I arrived, one of the first things Peter said to me was, “What do you know about this story? This region?” My reply was “I know what have read, what I have researched.” Peter said, “You don’t know nearly enough.”

He led me to a back corner of the hotel restaurant where, for the next hour or so, Peter gave me the benefit of his knowledge. He instructed me in the underlying currents of Lebanon’s civil war. He told me who was important to know, and who wasn’t. He detailed the the political, cultural and religious divisions among the dizzying array of political factions, from Palestinians, to multiple Arab groups, to Syrians to the Isrealis. He taught me how to stay safe. Where to go. Where not to go. How to stay alive.

In short, Peter put me ahead, knowledge-wise, six or eight months in that quick hour of conversation. I will be forever indebted to him for his kindness, wisdom and professionalism. One thing I learned very well, Peter loved Beirut.

So did I. Despite the years of civil war and the terrible destruction it wrought, Beirut always seemed to remain a vibrant city. In the decades before the war, Beirut was known as The Paris of the Middle East with its fashion and intellectual culture. It had become a popular city for tourists. During the war, despite the bombs, death and destruction, Beirut appeared desperate to hang on to that sense of joie de vivre.

Of course, there was danger. It was in Beirut that I learned, first hand, the sound a bullet makes when its zips by, close to your ear. There was betrayal. There was deceit. There were atrocities. The massacre of Palestinian men, women and children in the Sabra-Shatilla refugees camps comes to mind. Hundreds, some say thousands, of civilians were gunned down by what was known then as the right-wing Christian Phalange militia in September of 1982.

The images of that slaughter remain in my mind today; the corpses of fathers lying motionless on top of their dead children as they tried fruitlessly to protect them from the onslaught; the mutilated bodies of several young men spread out on the ground, obviously executed, a concrete wall next to them splattered with their blood; the smell of death everywhere; the thick, black flies.

Yet with all the carnage that defined Beirut for years, there always seemed to be a sense of optimism, that the violence was finite, that it will eventually end and that the city would someday return to its glory days. Today, sadly, that optimism has become despair.

The awful, monstrous, August 4th explosion at the Port of Beirut could be a giant, ugly exclamation point for the conditions many Lebanese say they have been forced to endure in recent years. They suffer corruption in government, shortages in food and power, the worst economic crisis in recent memory, a failed currency. Rima Rantisi teaches english at the American University in Beirut. She writes, “We are all buckling under the pressure of hyperinflation, corruption, the loss of hope.”

That is something I never thought Lebanese would ever lose; hope. But in an eloquent soliloquy for her dying city for the online website Literary Hub, Ms. Rantisi says, “We are so embedded in the aftermath of our government’s crimes that we cannot handle any other concerns, any social media posts about webinars or readings in safe cute places across the world. We had those safe places. They are gone now. Memory and shock have replaced them.”

Lebanon had erupted into rebellion nearly a year before twenty-seven hundred tons of ammonium nitrate exploded into an obscene blood orange mushroom cloud; a blast so powerful it registered as a 3.3 earthquake. In October 2019, Lebanese took to the streets to protest rising taxes, a failing economy, shortages in such necessities as water and sanitation. Locals call it the October Revolution. That, as it turns out, may be hyberbole. As Rima Rantisi writes, “We were sure there would be a revolution; there was no way they could continue while gas and wheat became scarce, and the banks confiscated our money, and more and more people slept on the street or went hungry.”

But a split second altered the course of history. The explosion destroyed much of a once great city. It killed many and injured thousands. It killed dreams. “It was the moment that changed us all,” Ms. Rantisi says. “We would never live in the city we knew in the same way again.”

Hopefully Beirut can, like a pheonix, rise from the ashes. Still, Peter would be very sad.

Nuance: It is as Plain as Black and White

“Diversity doesn’t mean black and white only.” Henry Louis Gates, Historian

“Life isn’t black and white. It’s a million gray areas.” Ridley Scott, Filmmaker

If the title of this blog seems contradictory, it was meant to be. It is clear that nuance seems to be largely MIA in our polarized society today. If you are not with me, you must be against me. If you are opposed to President Trump, you have to be a left-wing, socialist snowflake. If you support him, you must be as stupid as he is. If you oppose Black Lives Matter, you certainly are a racist. If you protest along with Black Lives Matter, you are a dangerous revolutionary.

Gray areas, neutral turf, the middle-ground all seem to be non-existant. Trevor Noah agrees. The host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show says the idea that there are only two sides to every story is misguided. He told CBS Sunday Morning that “if you only have two choices, people are always going to make one of two choices, which means people are automatically always going to be against each other.”

CBS spent a good bit of its time on this Sunday morning program dealing with the concept of nuance. The profile of Noah included a clip from his program wherein the comedian delivered a deadly serious monologue about the racial turmoil in our country. As a man born and raised in South Africa, Noah knows a thing or two about racism. He said he launched the stern monologue hoping to “explain the nuance of the situation,” meaning the racial divide. “Nuance,” Noah says, “means we have to talk a little more.” Until we recognize and appreciate the nuance that is the fiber of the American experience, we will have “the false impression that there is either this or that; there is only racism or not racism.” Neither and both, of course, are true. That’s nuance.

Another segment of the CBS Sunday program featured a pastor in Shreveport, Louisiana who has been working hard to bring black and white residents in various neighborhoods together. He has created a non-profit with the slogan “We Care.” The pastor admits it takes a lot of work to get people to trust each other. It takes “intentional acts of connected caring.” He says the phrase ‘random acts of kindess’ makes for a great bumper sticker, but “it will not stop the disintegration of the community.” In other words, it lacks nuance.

CBS also gave us the story of Daylan McLee, a strapping young African American in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. By his own admission, Mr. McLee has “a lot of animosity” toward police. He has had several runs-ins with them. But when a white Uniontown cop became trapped in his smashed and burning patrol car after a major collision, McLee did not hesitate. He ran to the flaming vehicle, wrenched open the destroyed driver’s door and dragged the officer to safety. Despite his past problems with police, McLee instinctly knew what was important. The young man put it this way. “I want people to start looking at everybody as Americans,” he said. “Not, he’s white, he’s black, he’s Asian. We are people and when we start realizing that, things should get better.”

Daylan McClee understands nuance.

Communication Overload

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There is a famous line from the 1967 movie, Cool Hand Luke, which starred Paul Newman. The line is, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” What we’ve got in today’s world is not so much failure to communicate. What we’ve got is a superabudance in ways to communicate; a boundless magnitude of lightning fast methods to trade information, ideas, opinions, and, yes, insults, spite and hate. The speed at which we are able to convey our thoughts, some experts believe, is having an adverse affect on the way we think.

In 1964, Canadian philospher Marshall McLuhan wrote the oft repeated words, “The medium is the message.” Expanding on that thought he also wrote, “In the long run, a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act.” If you believe that is true, as I do, then you must believe that the light speed-like internet is degrading how we judge the content that pours into our social media accounts minute by minute.

Nicholas Carr has done a pretty good job in explaining how that works. Carr was a finalist for 2011 Pulitzer Prize with his book,. “The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains.” He proposes that the world wide web is altering our very thought process. Carr, in turn, was recently interviewed by Ezra Klein on his Vox Podcast. Carr says our dependence on the internet is a trade-off between getting lots of information very, very fast and the ability to organize that data inside our heads into a “rich base of knowledge.” We lost something with the internet, Carr says. “What was lost,” he continues, “was not only the ability to engage in deep reading and attentive thought and contemplation, but also when we come across new information, the ability to bring it into our mind and put it into a broader context. That takes time. That takes attention. That takes focus.”

It is the same line of reasoning I have about the pressures facing journalists in today’s world. Let’s take the example of the news coverage during the Vietnam war. When a TV correspondent and the film crew covered a battle or some other event, that film usually had to be shipped to New York for developing and editing. That often meant twenty-fours hours before the report would appear on television, giving the correspondent ample time to reflect on the event and give it some crucial context in the wider scheme of things. Not exactly the immediacy we are use to today, but it gave the correspondent an opportunity for some deeper thinking.

In today’s high-tech world, when so-called Breaking News occurs virtually every second, and is instantly transmitted by the internet and by satellite around the world reporters have lost the luxury of deep thinking. There is no time for proper attention. There is no time for focus. The result? To borrow Carr’s book title, The Shallows…in journalistic performances.

Carr agrees with McLuhan that advances in communication techology alter the way we use our gray matter, even the way we live. Before the printing press was invented, way before homo sapiens knew how to read, the main method of communication was vocal and other group related sounds. Thus, early societies were more social out of necessity. With the advent of the printing press writing and reading became the way to communicate. Societies became more individualistic. Reading, afterall, is mainly a one person job and leads to independent thinking.

Carr says modern technology has taken that idea even further. When the internet was developed, he explains “We were all concentrating on that great new bounty of information: the more information, the better — the faster it comes to me, the better.” Yes, but at a cost. Carr continues. “What we lost sight of was how we actually take that information into our mind. There’s all sorts of very good evidence that if you’re distracted — if your attention is shifting very quickly — you can gather lots of information in a very swift fashion, but you’re not going to assemble it very well into knowledge. It’s going to just remain bits of information. You’re not going to develop a rich store of personal knowledge, which is all about connections and associations.”

To me, it’s like staring at a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle all laid out on a table. We have all the information. It is all those irregularly shaped pieces, those “bits of information.” We just haven’t put those pieces together to see the big picture. We haven’t made the puzzle connections and associations, so we are not sure how the big picture even comes together.

We see this happening over and over again, leading to online anger, name calling, and retributions for perceived slights and accusations. We are seeing knee-jerk actions leading to knee-jerk reactions. All this outrage dispensed in a roar of information seemingly without a moment’s pause, without the thinking, deep or otherwise. Recently, for one example, a posting on social media purported to be a photo of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC that had been vandalized. The internet exploded with condemnation and many respondents blamed anti-racist protesters. The vandalism was despicable, to be sure. But it was not the DC Vietnam Memorial, nor was the vandalism recent. It was reported to be a replica in Los Angeles that had been hit by vandals in 2016.

What we’ve got here is communication overload.

Coping with Coronavirus

It seems odd that in the war against what the President calls the “invisible enemy,” the coronavirus, we – as a nation – are being asked to come together by staying apart. It is understandable, but peculiar nevertheless. From what is reported, that is what we are doing, coming together with recognition that we all are faced with a serious threat by this insidious foe. Most of us are convinced of that, at any rate.

Someone on Facebook suggested that “social distancing” is really not the proper term. “Physical distancing” is the more appropriate label, the Facebooker suggests. That makes sense. Physical distancing, self-isolation, limiting gatherings of no more than three, or ten, or whatever number you choose – those are physical acts. The “social” part is, actually, our coming together in cyberspace, online, in chat rooms, instant messaging, or video conferences by way of Facetime, Zoom, WebX or any other group conferencing app.

Online video get-togethers are not new, of course. Businesses, large and small, have been making use of them for years in our techno-savvy age. But video conferencing seems to have taken on new role as we battle the virus. Those of us who are old enough can remember the early telephone party-lines of our youth, when several people could talk to each other at once courtesy of Ma Bell. Of course, that was not always a convenient thing. Video conferencing is becoming a much more popular “party-line” as we remain apart together. Before the coronavirus became a thing, I met with a half dozen neighborhood guys for coffee at a local restaurant early every Thursday morning. Yes, we gossip. Retirement is good for that. But I digress. We now meet online, armed with a cup o’ joe from our own kitchens. It’s not quite the same, but it will do for now.

The point is, we all are doing what we always do – find ways to cope in times of distress. We are coping in countless different ways, from the homebound seamstresses to the company that makes underwear now producing protective face masks, to the thousands of retired medical professionals who have voluntarily gone back to work to care for the virus infected. They have literally jumped into the frontline trenches of this war. Some restaurants, whose business has been thunderstruck by the pandemic, still turn out meals for curbside service, or to provide sustance to children in need. In Chicago, a company called Closed Loop Farms has turned on a dime to meet the needs of people in these times. The company, which normally supplies the Windy City’s top rated restaurants with mircogreens, now runs what WLS-TV reports is “a virtual farmers market from its website.” They are delivering products to people who are self-isolating. The company’s founder tells WLS, “”It kind of represented an opportunity really just to be able to provide a useful service to people at a time that people are staying at home.”

Some have wondered if the rallying together as a nation is the same as it was after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. It is a rally, to be sure. But there is a difference. After 9/11, we were united by outrage. We had been attacked by terrorists, a tangible entity that we could grasp and at whom we could vent anger and vengence. With the coronavirus, we are united more by fear. This enemy, is indeed, invisible, sneaky, pervasive and, so far, unrelenting. It is hard to become angry at a virus. Being afraid of it? That’s easy. That’s what most of us have in common now.

It is okay to be afraid. However, fear need not be what rules us now. Courage is. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, during one of his coronavirus briefings, quoted President Franklin Roosvelt who said, “Courage is not the the absense of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.” Courage is more important. Coming together, even if it means staying apart, is more important.

The journalist and author, Maria Shriver, who is a colleague of mine from days gone by, writes a wonderfully thoughtful blog called Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper. She, too, has given serious thought to this perculiar time of our lives. Maria writes, “We each have our own fears and anxieties right now. We each have our own unknowns and uncertainties.” She has hers. Your have yours. I have mine. But Maria strikes just the right note. Age wise, she classifies herself, as do I, as one of “vulnerable ones” in the age of COVID-19. She says that means we are also among the “experienced ones.”

“I tell my kids,” Maria continues, “that most people my age have been through some stuff and seen some stuff. We have lived through enough hard times to be able to reassure them that there will be light at the end of this tunnel.” I like to think that light is the luminence of the collective courage we all have together.

The Covid War Within

There is a war raging within many of us. We are facing a formidable and, yes, invisible foe – the Coronavirus. Not only is this enemy redoubtable, it is cunning and crafty. To help us understand the virus, Scientific American Magazine’s July issue takes a crack at laying it all out with impressive illustrations and explanations.

This is not light reading, however. The medical jargon takes some study. You’ll have to navigate such terms such as endoplasmic reticulum, macrophage, glycan, and ribosome. The diagrams, on the the other hand are very clear. The magazine gives credit to its senior graphics editor, Jen Christiansen for that.

To me, Christiansen’s layout is akin to a battle map of a war taking place at a tiny, microscopic level. For example, picture the coronavirus as an invading army. Battalions of that army could be the virus particles called SARS-CoV-2. Those particles are armed with spear-like weapons, called spike proteins. Now, these are airborne battalions floating among us like cloaked Klingon warships. We can’t see them. But they see us and when they find an opening…our nose or mouth…they attack!

The invasion thus begins. The battalions close in on the positions that populate our lungs. As they do, the enemy looks for weak spots in our defensive line. Those weak spots are enzymes known as ACE2 receptors, which normally are supposed to help regulate our blood pressure. But, now, they seem like spies for the invading army. They allow the battalions to use their spears, their spike proteins, to latch onto and penetrate our positions, the cells of our lungs.

Here’s where the enemy gets very sneaky. The spear-like spikes pull the membranes of the virus particle and the lung cell together, like pirates once did when they attacked other ships on the high seas. In doing so, the spears tear a hole in our defensive line. Enemy soldiers, RNA molecules, pour into our territory. The battle for our lungs is on!

These enemy soldiers are like highly trained special forces units. They would be called Spetsnaz if they were Russian. Once they are inside our defensive perimeter, they really go to work. Equipped with sophisticated technology, the “Spetsnaz” RNA troops infiltrate what essentially are our cellular supply lines called ribosomes. Simply put, ribosomes make protein, which is crucial for cells to function.

How this infiltration mission is carried out would make the guy who invented James Bond’s weapons green with envy. The special forces RNA molecules distribute unique genes among the ribosomes. This is chemical warfare at the quantum level. The ribosomes are fooled into thinking the genes are friendly proteins, which they certainly are not. Like double-agents in a sophisticated spy network, these enemy provocateurs masquerading as squads of protein secretly begin to build storage sacs called vesicles.

Now the mission turns deeply sinister. The enemy’s special forces units are also equipped with copy machines. The RNA troops makes copies of themselves inside those vesicles. Lots of copies. This part of the enemy’s arsenal is so clever, some of the specialized soldiers have the job of proof-reading, looking out for mutations in the copies and make sure genetics mistakes are destroyed. Some of those enemy copies are tasked with creating more weapons such as the spike proteins. Other copies are loaded into troop carriers. In the macro-world a troop carrier might called a “deuce and a half,” or a two and a half ton truck. Down here in the quantum world, those carriers are more vesicles. Their mission is to spread the coronavirus to other cells or to be exhaled into the air to become new invisible Klingon warships for more unsuspecting human victims. Those are the enemy troops for which all those masks we are supposed to wear are made.

While this invasion its underway, our immune systems are desperately trying to defeat the enemy. Invasion in this scenario is infection. When friendly immune system command centers detect an infection, messengers are sent out, Paul Revere-like, riding so-called interferon proteins to warn other cells that an attack is underway. Friendly troop-cells leap into action reminiscent of a what the military calls as QRF, or a Quick Reaction Force. Molecules are created to stop the virus. Other cells, such as macrophages, are called into play. The macrophages act like M1 Abrams Main Battle Tanks to roll over and crush or engulf the enemy virus particles.

But the enemy is wily. Some of the virus proteins seem to have just one job – block those warning message from even getting out. The enemy also uses camouflage to hide his intent. Those spear-like spikes can be concealed with sugar molecules, apparently making them seem way sweeter than they are. They also can swing and sway, blocking friendly antibodies like a hockey goalie, preventing them from counter attacking the virus.

Up here in the macro-world, scientists and medical experts are scrambling to come up with new weapons to defeat the coronavirus. They are testing drugs that might prevent the virus from entering a cell in the first place. Other drugs might interfere with enemy’s cell copying machine, or shut down the virus all together. At least six different vaccine strategies are also being tested, according to Scientific American.

Until proven anti-covid drugs and vaccines are developed, however, the war within continues and the battle ground grows larger every day.

Words Matter

In the stressed-out, overheated vortex we are experiencing, ideas, opinions, real pain, anguish and meanings are often “lost or misconstrued,” as Paul Simon sang. Incendiary rhetoric serves to inflame thought and decompose understanding. The father and founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, put it thusly: “There is a truth and beauty in rhetoric, but it oftener serves ill turns than good ones.”

One phrase emerging from the maelstrom now is “defund the police.” Some people mean that literally. Nine members of the Minneapolis City Council are pushing to dismantle the city’s police department. Minneapolis, of course, is where George Floyd died under the knee of a policeman, triggering the firestorm of protest from coast to coast. Announcing their intent, the council members used rhetoric that is impressive for its prose, but short on its meaning. By “ending the Minneapolis Police Department” they planned to create “a new transformative model for cultivating safety in our city.”

The council members, to their credit, admit they don’t know how that is possible. “We recognize that we don’t have all the answers about what a police-free future looks like,” they said. But the words “defund” or “dismantle,” when it comes to police, inflame the passions of people on both sides of the equation. What many supporters of defunding police really mean is reforming police. They visualize a realignment of law enforcement funds for such community programs as education, health care, and social services, relieving cops from the often awful responsibilities of resolving family disputes or the time-consuming task of finding shelter for homeless people.

In an op-ed piece for the Washington Post, Georgetown Law School professor, Christy Lopez, co-director of the school’s Innovative Policing Program, says ‘defunding the police is not as scary as it sounds.” Maybe not, but to a lot of people, “defunding the police” sounds very scary. And here is where William Penn’s warning about rhetoric serving “ill turns” comes to the fore. The phrase “defund the police,” has quickly become a political weapon. Democrats, especially those who are up for reelection this year, are looking for cover from the phrase. Joe Biden supports change in policing, but he does not believe police should be defunded, according to his campaign spokesman.

Republicans, meanwhile, are using the phrase to bludgeon Democrats. According to the online news service HuffPost, President Trump’s communications director engaged in some heated rhetoric himself. He told reporters Biden “is complicit” in the super-charged debate. “Biden does not have the strength to stand up to extremists now calling the shots in his party,” he reportedly said, claiming that the former Vice President would “contribute to the chaos” in America.

Some people also see red when they hear the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” To them, it is rhetoric that assaults white culture. Others, however, argue that perhaps those angry people would understand the phrase better if they added the word “too” at the end of it. Black Lives Matter, Too. The phrase, they say, does not mean that white lives don’t matter. It is a question of equality. We all matter. One protestor heatedly put it this way. “They are lucky,” she said, “that black people are looking for equality and not revenge.”

One more thought about rhetoric and I leave it to President Theodore Roosevelt, who said, “Rhetoric is a poor substitute for action, and we have trusted only to rhetoric. If we are really to be a great nation, we must not merely talk; we must act big.”