The Music of Life

Moose Fight – Kincaid Park

Boys will be boys.

Happy Wife captured this recently while at work. She leads bike tours for tourists. They’d just descended a long hill when all of a sudden a startled cow moose crosses the trail, and then further into the woods here comes two would-be suitors. Considerable head-butting and gnashing of antlers ensued. All the while the cow looked on from a cautious distance to see which bull would emerge victorious.

It It doesn’t have to be this way you say? Well, no, I suppose not. But there it is. So I presume the boys fight because, well…how else are they to work out their differences? And the girl? She will prefer to mate the winner because nobody wants to fck a Loser.

That’s the layman’s explanation of what’s going on.

Ask an evolutionary biologist for an explanation, and you’ll hear that moose just want to make more moose. Pushed to say more, the biologist might grudgingly say that if you insist on imputing “wants” and “desires” to a moose, or any organism for that matter, from mold to man, then there is really only one desire, one “as-if” goal* of every organism, and that is to reproduce successfully. Hence, all the traits and behaviors an organism expresses are in service to that one, simple goal, period. Further, if Theodious Dobzhansky is to be believed, as I assume most biologists do, nothing in biology makes sense outside the viewpoint of evolution.

And yet, for our two uni-goal warriors up there, there’s a problem; there are not enough girls to go around. And they’re picky. And so the deeper explanation in biology for why the boys fight, is to exhibit to the on-looking girl his superior constitution, essentially, “mate with me, honey, and our brood will be large and fecund!” And that second feature of the would-be children is important – fecund. Because evolution “cares” about sustainability, merely having lots of children isn’t what makes an organism the winner in the game of life, having lots of grand kids does.

OK, all that is boilerplate evolutionary biology. But there’s one more thing to get to, something called the modern synthesis. It’s basically an update to Darwin’s original theory of evolution to include the discovery of DNA (genes) as the particle of inheritance. Darwin proposed that organisms evolved over time into new forms, but he had no idea how that worked. Now we do. In sexual reproduction, roughly equal portions of seed DNA are contributed by mom and dad, then variably mixed (recombined) to constitute the genome of the child. This is now proven molecular biology, the stuff of modern genetics. Nothing importantly controversial about it. Until…until! Along comes selfish gene theory. On this view, it’s not the organism whose only goal in life is to reproduce, no, it’s actually the DNA itself! Stay with me.

There are, to say the very least, some chinks in this theory. For starters – DNA that makes a boy a good fighter makes him a good dad? It’s not the least bit obvious to me why that would be. Even assuming biologists knew which parts of the DNA (genes) those were – and take my word for it they don’t – DNA is invisible to the girl moose, just as it is to every other organism on earth. I can’t read the sequence of your genes, nor you mine. Moose can’t do it either. DNA is tightly packed away in the nucleus of the cells. Invisible to organisms and natural selection. So the belief that our fainting princess, whose only goal in life is to make babies, is off trembling in the woods, “selecting” the victor who will get to lay her based on her measure of his superior genes, is not only wrong, it’s ridiculous. It’s simply not possible for an organism to asses the quality of another’s genome. It’s this kind of silliness far too many biologists engage in when they forget metaphors are not science. Worse is when science writers and others who should know better believe it’s true. Tell me you haven’t read articles or books where the author goes on and on saying something to the effect of “This is of course what our genes want us to do, which may or may not be what we want to do.” For a theory that purports organisms are nothing more than a bag of genes, it’s hard for me to understand how the two could be different?

Or take for instance this article reporting on a study of moose behavior during rut in Alaska (emphasis mine)

The biologists spent four autumns tracking and observing moose in Denali, listening to grunts and moans and recording behavior, including fights. They concluded that the females actually foment male-male aggression.

“It’s indirect control,” Bowyer said. “They’re manipulating a mating system in which you think they didn’t really have choice.”

Finding the right mate at the right time is critical for successful reproduction, the study points out, because of the “extremely synchronized manner” in which cows give birth in May and a restricted growing season, which limits young moose’s opportunities to eat enough food to survive the harsh winters.

The “right” mate? Not just any mate, no, the boy moose with the best genes for reproducing more re-productively successful moose, of course! And turns out the girls instigate the fights! The boys don’t by nature want to fight, no, they’re goaded into it by girls in estrus. Why on earth would girl moose do that? Duh. So she can see which one is the best fighter. But why is victory in fight a proxy for superior reproductive genes again? Couldn’t it be the Loser who has better genes for reproduction?

Are you a creationist?

I am not.

Oh, you just don’t believe DNA is inherited by the child?

Of course DNA (genes) is the particle of inheritance. But it’s not the particle of selection as proposed by selfish gene theory.

But you believe moose have an innate desire to reproduce, right?

Of course.

Then what’s your problem?

The problem is that metaphors are not science. The theory that every organism is under the spell of natural selection, where the ultimate “as-if” goal of life is to get one’s genes into the next generation, and everything an organism is, is in service to that single goal, is nonsense. Selfish gene theory, is bullshit. There are countless examples in nature that contradict the theory metaphor. You need only to make good observations, be skeptical, and challenge prevailing assumptions.

*The word “goal” is used here in a metaphorical sense (thus the “as-if” part), merely as a way to talk about the outcomes of natural selection, even as everyone agrees there is no goal in the usual sense attributable to evolution. At least, for the evolutionary biologist there isn’t.

Forgiveness

So, student loan forgiveness. A curious choice of words, forgiveness – makes it sound like the borrower committed a moral error. I read an interesting take on this. The opinionator, himself a student loan recipient, leads off with a bit of virtue signalling, assuring readers that he is in fact paying off his considerable student loan debt but nevertheless believes there’s no reason to resent Biden’s latest act of grace.

As often happens I found certain comments more insightful than the piece itself, wherein the author opined

In order to have a shot at the American dream, my generation is paying – in the form of very, very large student loans – an American dream tax. This tax has led many Americans and thousands of Mainers to be so burdened with student loan debt that we cannot move forward in other areas of life. This is something previous generations did not face.

One commenter disputed this one-size-fits-all notion of the “American Dream” calling it instead a nightmare that is (or ought to be) avoided by many. And then replied to her (?) own comment with a more nuanced view

One other comment: The “American Dream” is defined differently by different people. For many where I live it’s a cookie cutter colonial in an upscale neighborhood with two cars (SUVs), kids, Carnival cruise vacations and a chemically “perfect” green lawn that is killing off our pollinators and wildlife.

Snarky! Especially the alliterative flourish “cookie cutter colonial.” But also the “perfect green lawn” belying an ecological disaster wrought by chemicals. This conjured in my mind the opening scene of David Lynch’s very fine film, Blue Velvet. That kind of wit is hard to pull off in writing and not something I expect to see in the comment section to an opinion piece in a local newspaper, but I’m always pleased when I do.

I don’t feel like I have anything important to add to either the pro or con side of the various arguments out there. And I’m not one of the eligible recipients of $10K of debt relief, someone making $75K/year working a job I didn’t go to school for, living with two kids and a non-working spouse in a two-bedroom apartment with one used car in need of repair and no prospect of saving enough to buy a starter house. Even if one were available in a place where I could afford to live and work. If I were that person I might feel no shame looking a taxpayer in the eye and saying $10K is the least this government can give me to help me get over the hump.

On the other hand, once upon a time I was a Pell grant government-backed loan recipient. At the time I gambled I’d be able to pay it off someday. How, I really had no idea. Things worked out for me, I graduated, got a good job and paid off the loan in seven (?) years. Every one of those years I got a new coupon book in the mail with twelve payment slips, one for each month the next payment was due. Postage not included – which only added to my debt burden! It never occurred to me the government would (or should) payoff that loan for me, or that anyone else would for that matter. I was a grown-up, I’d borrowed the money, it was on me to pay it back. But again, I was fortunate to get and keep a good paying job, so I could afford the monthly payment and have some salary left over for other stuff. It wasn’t a lot of leftover money, even in 1985 dollars. At the time I lived in a modest one bedroom apartment in north Texas with a working spouse. We owned a beater Pontiac and new VW GTI, 90% financed. Another coupon book! I recall it took us six months to save for a washer and dryer. But we were DINKS. After putting away a bit in savings, we’d dispose of leftover salary at clubs and pool parties. Open-house style parties sponsored by the apartment management looking to lure new renters. Most every weekend we’d look forward to all you could drink frozen daiquiris, Texas-sized beers, and bottomless helpings of sloppy joes and potato chips. Dinner and drinks at someone else’s expense! One less trip to the grocery store. That’s how we saw it back then. Life was good. I suppose to us it felt like the American Dream, or a feature of it anyway.

Yeah, but those were different times, right? Yes and no. Getting a government loan to pay for four years of college isn’t very different today than it was in 1980. It is still the case that a lot of academically aimless kids enter college with no clue what they’ll major in. And less than two in five freshman who matriculate a public college will graduate with a four-year degree (much worse at for-profit colleges). There’s been some improvement in two decades but it’s still pretty dismal. Point is, there is a real risk of default by the borrower if she drops out early or graduates with a degree for which there is little or no market demand. This is the cohort of recipients eligible for student loan forgiveness I feel the least sympathy for, the one least worthy of it, yet for all I know may need it the most.

A Whitehouse analysis claims the lion’s share of forgiveness will go to borrowers earning $75K a year or less. In 1985, my starting salary in Texas was ~ $31K/year. That’s roughly $88K in 2022 dollars. Eligibility-wise, that would’ve put me in the 13% category (below) had there been an equivalent program in 1985. But you know, sitting around the pool soaking up rays, partying like it was our birthright, didn’t feel like hardship to me. So I wonder how many of those 87% – or certainly the 13% – are really in hardship with no foreseeable chance of getting above water with their finances anytime soon in order that they might enjoy The American Dream. Versus how many have been living well beyond their means, where a $10K jolt of forgiveness is going to suddenly right them into fiscal austerity, and set them on a course to enjoy the American Dream, like they imagine their fellow Americans must be enjoying. The former class of recipients I have some sympathy for, the latter, not so much.

This leaves unanswered the question of whether or not the government should use taxpayer dollars to relieve some or all the debt of a certain class of borrowers, deserving or not. On the one hand we’re talking about a government that recently spent over what, four trillion dollars to keep us at home? And trillions more to fight pointless wars abroad. In that light, a couple hundred billion to make the lives of a few tens of millions of Americans a little better off doesn’t exactly get my back hairs up. On the other hand, we should not want a government overeager to help people avoid having to overcome the consequences of poor judgment, more or less by their own lights. At the very least we should want the government to be very selective about who gets help; yes to the no-fault-of-our-own cohort; no to the where’s-my-American-Dream complainers. I am not holding my breath.

Live In The Present, Care For The Future

What does any human being alive today owe to future generations? I can’t pinpoint what set me to thinking about this question, probably there was no single thing. I’m fairly certain though I’ve been thinking about it more in the past two years. Well before that I might have said living a long and virtuous life is the best outcome a human being can strive for, and the future will just have to take care of itself. Live your life the best you can, then swipe your hands, call it a wrap, it’s all good, you’re done. If after the check clears for the cremation service and there are leftovers in your account, by all means make sure you’ve bequeathed the excess to loved ones. If there’s still more, OK, gift as many head of cattle to impoverished strangers living in rural Africa as the largess of the estate will bear. But surely nobody owes anything to the future peoples of the world, right? That about describes my attitude toward this more than two years ago.

Related to this I’ve returned to thinking more deeply about what it means to be virtuous. There are antipodes of thought on this. Egoists believe that the fulfillment of one’s own values is to be prioritized over that of others, and not subordinate to them. How one keeps those values, i.e. the associated intentions, are the virtues. Example: Marriage is a value, fidelity is its companion virtue. Altruists believe pretty much the opposite. For them, the sacrifice of one’s own values to improve the lot of others is the height of virtuous behavior (although to be fair, not all altruists really care about the virtue part, I’ll get to that). I don’t mean to suggest marital infidelity is rampant among altruists. Only that when it comes to improving values, the altruist’s focus is outward, directed toward improving others’ values. By contrast the egoist’s productive efforts are inward-directed, in service to so-called selfish values. Ayn Rand went Full Monty on this with her audacious theory of ethics: The Virtue of Selfishness (VoS). The reception to which was roughly: “What heresy is this?! You claim that to behave in one’s own rational self interest is…a virtue? Are you daft, woman!” Thus spake the Russian Radical. (Curious side note : No book in my library has more marginalia and dog-eared pages than VoS). The takeaway here is that values and virtues are two sides of the same person. Values are things a person wants for herself (physical or psychological), and the virtues are the companion behaviors – how you fulfill the values. Pro tip: Human beings are not mere cash registers. The canard often leveled at Rand that she was nothing more than an apologist for unbridled capitalism, or ethical hedonism, is super unfair. Disagree with her conclusions on how a human being ought to live his life all you want, but on the evidence of her writing, especially (but not only) VoS, she pretty clearly understood quite a lot about the nuance of human psychology.

Avatars of moral altruism may include Mother Teresa, although certain cynics claim she is undeserving of the title. Also, Bill Gates handing a five spot to a beggar on Market Street in San Francisco is not an example of altruistic behavior. Economists will complain it is, since to Bill Gates there is real marginal value to the five spot. By giving it away he’s sacrificing his own value and simultaneously raising that of another person. Isn’t that in keeping with the definition of altruism? Not necessarily. Because the true intention for any other-directed human action is always suspicious. While Bill may be sacrificing $5, he’s doing it in public, and so he could just be virtue signalling, which imputes as a value to his ego – “Look everyone, I’m a good person!” Remember we said values can be psychological. So who’s to say the psychological value of virtue signalling to Bill isn’t greater than the marginal value of $5? If you’re as rich as Bill Gates it almost certainly is! Another example is people who give to charity but don’t wish to be anonymous – “Look everyone, I sacrificed $500 to cancer research!” 🤨 Now, I’m sure there are sincere, committed altruists among us, don’t get me wrong. Point is, you can never completely rule out egoism as the intention for any human behavior.

A more modern take on altruism is the movement known as Effective Altruism (EA). Cynics claim EA is an expression of white guilt, thus members of EA are not true altruists given their disguised psychological intent (see above). But after reading around a bit, insofar as it’s a smear against all members of the EA community, I think that’s unfair. Even though it does seem to me that many of the loudest advocates for EA are white people with deep pockets, online, loudly signalling, “I support EA!” Maybe some camels really can pass through the eye of a needle? Whatever.

Getting back to my opening question, if you’re a committed altruist, then sacrificing your time and money to help future peoples of the world, many of whom haven’t been born yet, is kind of a no brainier. And in fact campaigns to reduce human suffering, even animal suffering, seem to be popular among EA advocates, where the only real question is how much time/money should one sacrifice? In fact, if you’re an effective altruist, not only is sacrificing your values now to help people in the future have a better life something to consider doing, it’s something your fellow altruists will say you ought to do. Acting selflessly can become kind of a shame campaign. Whereas if your ethics are egoistic, you feel no such compulsion or shame. To the extent you care at all about future peoples’ welfare, you probably believe that their well-being will naturally improve, simply by more and more egoists improving their own individual well being. This is the old libertarian mantra: “A rising tide floats all boats.” Or, you’re an imposter altruist, an egoist who’s indifferent to the welfare of others, present and future, who merely virtue signals to salve his ego. This person gives half her fortune to stop malaria in Africa and makes sure everyone knows she did it. Which raises suspicion in others that she’s not a true egoist. But the true egoist won’t care what others think – she really only cares about her own values! One of which just happens to be accumulating the approval of others. Of course, it is also entirely consistent with true egoism to not care about future peoples one wit, and sacrifice zero present value. This is your cold-hearted Mr. Scrooge writ large – “Bah humbug! Child welfare you say? Why, ’tis a poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket once a year. Besides, are the orphanages full?” Many years ago I felt a quiet solidarity with Ebeneezer.

How do I feel about it now? Overwhelmed. I’m still demonstrably an egoist, although I’ve become just altruisty enough to not want to leave the planet worse off than when I arrived. If that means doing fewer things I value or doing them less often, or donating a portion of our money to effective charities, we (HW & I) are willing to do that much. I meditate now, and sometimes while doing so I try to summon feelings of compassion toward others. My progress there has been uneven at best. Besides, achieving a better headspace doesn’t directly translate to a reduction in human suffering, or even appease my ego. One goal of mindful meditation after all is to dissolve the ego, not salve it. The bulk of our charity is geographically local (I have yet to purchase a dairy cow for an Afrikaner). Will this in anyway improve the lives of people and animals two or three hundred years hence? Only if the people helped in the near term pay it forward I suppose. Because for effective altruism or its future variants to be a durable strategy, those coming up behind us will need to do the same, otherwise it seems unlikely the problem of human suffering will ever be solved in any meaningful sense. And for people alive now, please reconsider having more babies. The simplest way to reduce human suffering on net is to have fewer humans. It’s something within everyone’s power to do.

Rabbit Holes

A tempestuous sky over Missoula, MT. July, 2022.

As a young boy I wanted to understand how things worked. Not in a precocious way, I had average intelligence (my sister would say below average). One of the first things I did with the first radio I got as a gift was to turn it over on my desktop, slide off the battery door, remove the batteries and unscrew the plastic back to reveal the inner workings. Which at the time were a complete mystery to me. Inside there was a green, hard plastic board with what seemed like a random series of silver “bumps” on it, connected here and there to wires by a drop of solder. Then I wanted to know what the wires were connected to on the other end. I couldn’t tell because the green board was in the way. So I thought if I could remove the green board (the circuit board, duh – again, not precocious) I could glimpse what the wires were connected to. But from what I could tell, to do that I’d have to pull the control knobs off and remove the face plate of the radio. Except on close inspection the face plate wasn’t screwed to the plastic body like the back was, it looked like it was glued. Hmm? So failing that I got a flashlight and a small screwdriver to poke and probe the inner workings a little bit more, looking for what I didn’t know. Eventually I gave up. In the end, I surmised that somehow the invisible waves in the air that my father had told me were all around us (a bigger mystery still) “bumped” into the antennae, traveled down the antennae into the green board, through the silver bumps (somehow), and then out via the wires to the speaker? OK, maybe, but how did turning the volume dial to the right make the waves “bigger.” Surely that’s what made the sound louder, or so I thought. And for that matter what about the speaker, what was that magnet for? (It had pulled the screwdriver from my fingers more than once as I probed the inner workings). It would be about ten years later, in a college physics class, before I had my answer to how it all worked. At least to a first level approximation.

I’ve never really stopped wondering how things work. It’s why I went back to school, to learn how drugs work. You have a pill in your hand. You swallow it. You wait fifteen minutes (or so). Pain leaves the body. Whaat? At forty years old that was no less a mystery to me than were those invisible waves all around us that caused MacArthur’s Park to play through my radio speaker (What’s that? Or for heaven’s sake I was ten years old. Tell me with a straight face you didn’t sing out loud to the “cake out in the rain” line! 🤨).

To understand how something really works often requires science. Don’t panic! With a desire to learn, patience, and a good teacher or two, you can learn the basics (at least) of how almost anything in the real world works. And, if you ask me, wading into it with a sprinkle of humility doesn’t hurt. Beware though, the learning experience can feel like tripping down a seemingly endless network of rabbit holes. For instance, back to my example, that pill in your hand – what’s it made of? In the case of a pain reliever (say Ibuprofen), it’s a specific chemical (and a bit of “binder” – to hold the pill together) formulated by scientists called medicinal chemists, who typically (not only) work for large pharmaceutical companies. How do the scientists know what specific chemical to make, one that will relive pain? Ah, that requires an understanding of what pain is, what makes us feel pain. Down a rabbit hole we go. A human is a monolith of complex of cells, trillions and trillions of cells. Shake hands with a bread knife and you’ll feel pain, guaranteed. How? Inside every cell exist certain bio-molecules, proteins called enzymes. Enzymes are active, they transform one kind of chemical molecule into another. By the time blood is pooling in your palm from that handshake, millions of bio-molecules, racing along the bloodstream highway, will have already arrived at the site of injury, sirens blaring. Some enter the afflicted cells and bind with an enzyme called COX. COX, being an enzyme, transforms its bound partner into another bio-molecule, which in turn binds with yet other bio-molecules and, in a kind of coordinated group dance, triggers a cascade of other activities in the cell. Think fans in a football stadium doing “The Wave.” These cascades we refer to as pathways. (There are thousands of kinds of enzymes, each with its own unique and complicated activity on distinct pathways. Certain scientists devote their lives to the study of enzymes. They’re called enzymologists. They occupy dark and shadowy rabbit holes all their own. Don’t worry, I won’t escort you along each pathway. Mostly because I can’t. You’re welcome). In the case of the pain pathway, it nears its end with specific enzymatic product molecules binding with their partners in the central nervous system, triggering yet another pathway that eventually terminates in the brain with the experience – “Hey, I’m hurting down here!” All this happens in milliseconds, thousandths of a second.

OK, but who was the first person(s) to figure this all out? I mean, all of us stand on the shoulders of giants, right? It’s one thing for a modern to follow a recipe for Mexican Mole, quite another for the person who made it from scratch the very first time, possibly armed with an atomic-level understanding of food chemistry (a book with that title I actually have in my library because, as I’m sure you’ve surmised by now, that level of detail interests me. You wanna talk about your rabbit holes!). OK, maybe that’s not the right analogy. Surely it’s possible (in fact likely) that many of the recipes we now enjoy originated from brute force trial and error, and not an atomic-level understanding by the chef of the precise way specific sugar molecules interact with fat molecules, and in what quantities, to elicit that wondrous flavor sensation at the taste receptors on our tongues that only an exquisitely executed mole can deliver. (By the way, guess what? Taste receptors are yet another kind of protein that activate other cellular pathways that end in the brain: “Wow, that tastes fabulous!”) On the other hand, trial ‘n error does roughly describe the approach many kinds of modern scientific experiments take to elucidate how something works. At a conference I spoke at many years ago in Sweden, an instructor at a short course I attended on cell mechanics wisely said in his intro: “I can’t understand something unless I can break it.” Even with my jet-lag addled brain I thought, yeah, that’s exactly right.

Thinking back on the radio mystery, I’m sure it had dawned on me that even if I could disassemble all the inner workings of the radio into its constituent parts, lay them out on the desktop, that alone wouldn’t explain how the invisible waves all around us were transformed into Paul Harvey’s voice in my brain. The experience of a voice from a radio cannot be understood merely by a thorough understanding of how the individual parts themselves work. Nor is it revealed by how the parts interconnect. You also need to understand the nature of the invisible waves, how a wave is created and stores information, the nature of electricity and magnetism. And then how the sonic waves generated by a vibrating speaker cone impinge on the receptors in the human ear that activate pathways that eventually end in the brain rendering the experience: “Good Day.”

To gain that detail of understanding then would require “experiments.” Breaking certain connections or removing parts from the system and observing what happens. Just like that instructor at the conference said about cells and understanding molecular pathways, same with radios, or any other electro-mechanical device for that matter. They all fascinated me. Although I’m sure my father & mother back then would not have been pleased to know I deliberately broke my radio, budding scientist or not. Radios in 1970 were not inexpensive. And while I really was uber-curious how it worked, I too didn’t want to break it

So, the moral of the story is that in order to really understand how things work, at least to a first level approximation… well, before I get to that, may I suggest not being like me (a “reductionist”) in the first place? There’s a lot of merit in not concerning yourself with how things work, but instead just being content with wanting stuff to work properly. I claim this is why most people buy iPhones. And I don’t mean that in derogatory way. To the contrary, actually. Reductionists like me are prone to discontent if we can’t “fiddle” with the operating system (OS) like you can on an Android phone. The desire (or addiction) to perform endless configurations, or experiment with switch settings to gain some understanding of how the OS works, can be seen as a bug of human psychology rather than a feature. I get that. Or wanting to remove the operating system altogether and replace it with a custom one some dude on the Internet made. Now we’re cooking! (I’ve personally done that more than once. And of course that doesn’t surprise you!). But if you are like me, then yeah, the moral here is that you need to show up equipped with some basic science chops (you don’t need to be a prodigy) and be willing to break systems (run experiments) of the kind you wish to understand.

And then lean back and get ready because once you start down that path it’s gonna be rabbit holes the rest of the way!

Nothing’s Inevitable

I give you at least three reasons to wear a condom, men.

In fact, these three outcomes were so horrible it wouldn’t hurt to double sheath.

Nothing in the universe is inevitable. It’s not like if Putin were never born there necessarily would’ve been another maniacal asshole to come along to fill his shoes. Same for tRump and Kim Jong-un. So while the images are funny they’re also true. On the other hand, if nothing in the universe is inevitable then it wasn’t inevitable that tRump would turn into a horrible human being. And that much is also true, and not just for tRump but every being who reaches adulthood. Who knows, given much better guidance coming up tRump may have turned out differently, he may have become a revered businessman and the wisest most effective leader of the free world we’ve ever known. Or, more likely, something in between those two extremes. The point here is that the kind of person each of us becomes is not strictly predetermined by our DNA. That may seem obvious to you, but you’d be surprised how many otherwise smart people would take exception. Still, it’s also true that if none of these three assholes had been born, millions of people today would not be suffering the fallout of their collective actions. So I guess the takeaway here is that we should want fewer people being born. Statistically, anyway, that will lower the chance of assholes appearing among us, and reduce human suffering overall. That much has to be something we can all agree on.

Big Sky Country

Your’s Truly w/Montana Friends

There they are, as if time stood still. They haven’t changed a bit, and they said as much of us as well. All the goats, except Clark, are named after powerful women. One sheep, Gary (not shown), later came out of the barn, curious as to who these two mangy Alaskans were. She (yes, She) was recently fleeced. Once she got over her wariness of us she moved close and enjoyed being petted. On Saturday the four of us went to the Montana folk festival where we ate, drank, and danced the day away. My personal favorite was Sugaray Rayford letting loose with a mesmerizing rendition of Comfortably Numb (Pink Floyd).

It was a beautiful thing seeing all those folks in the mosh pit, bodies swaying, arms waiving. And not just Boomers! If Butte, Montana’s best days are behind it you wouldn’t know it to experience this festival. What a great time we had.

Sugaray Rayford @ Montana Folk Festival

On Monday we visited the Lewis & Clark caverns state park. Why L&C are the namesake of the caverns is a little odd. They were actually first discovered in 1892 by two hunters long after L&C passed through (ca. 1807). During the New Deal era the caverns were made accessible to the public largely through the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Don’t visit here if you’re claustrophobic. After you enter the cave (a hole in the side of the mountain) you descend a few hundred steps pretty deep into the bowels of the cavern network. Crawling on all fours is sometimes required to passage from one cavern to the next. There are now a few lights to guide the way, but absent those it’d be pitch black like you’ve never experienced. At one point on the hour long tour our guide, Ranger Shane, told the story of a CCC employee who’d gone into the cave alone with only a primitive flashlight and twelve matches to light a candle he’d taken along. At the very spot we stood, Ranger Shane said this guy’s flashlight died and shortly thereafter he’d used up all his matches. He was found several days later by a team that had gone in looking for him, cold and curled up in a ball on the brink of madness. A state of mental anguish guaranteed to any human held hostage to permanent dark. To drive home the point, Ranger Shane clicked off all the lights. It wasn’t more than fifteen seconds and we were all like, “OK, got it. Lights back on please.”

Stalactites

Ranger Shane
Before The Lights Went Out!
So-called “Cave Bacon.” Everything’s better with bacon, even caves!

Summer Breeze

We’re going to Montana soon. Not to become dental floss tycoons. But rather to visit friends we haven’t seen since the Before Times.

We’d first met them when we were all in Cleveland. They lived just up the block from us. Wendy became a medical doctor, I didn’t. One time, at their house where everyone was in a celebratory mood after I’d passed my dissertation defense, her husband admonished me, “You’re a PhD now, start behaving like one.” This, in reply to my musing out loud if I should take an academic position or an industrial one. What he meant to say was, do both. I can hardly wait to see these two. If you happen to be here, seek us out and say hi!

It has been exceptionally warm and dry this year, unlike anything I’ve experienced in Anchorage in thirty plus years. A mere 0.07″ inches of rain in the past six weeks. And it was above 70 degrees all that time. With no end in sight. The grass is suffering (as is HW) but the fuchsias and lobelia are loving it. This was on our back porch around 10:00 PM near summer solstice. Maybe it’ll return to normal by the time we return from Montana, we’ll see.

Captured recently on the ice cream cam. Black Dog with his nose smushed against an empty pint of ice cream. Or so we thought. That six-inch long primitive tongue of his scours the bottom and sides until he’s certain not a molecule remains. His favorite lately is sea salt and caramel.

Don’t Forget To Turn Your Clocks Back Fifty Years

Oh, and France called. They want their statue back.

I wonder how long we will have to wait to see a far right-wing republican legislator from Missouri giving comfort to a fifteen year old girl as she delivers her uncle’s child.

And if the thought of that isn’t enough to make your blood run cold, Mr. Thomas at least would have the court consider other liberties, legal precedents to Roe v Wade, which he believes also may enjoy no support in federal law. Such as? Such as contraception. Maybe even same-sex relationships! Imagine waking up one day in a deep red state in America and learning that overnight, not only is it suddenly out of law to abort a fetus – no exceptions – but so is contraception, merely to avoid becoming pregnant in the first place! Or worse, any and all non-reproductive sex! You know, like sex for fun. Remember that? All of it, out of law. Overnight. Just try to imagine that. I mean WTF is next, swipe left on a dating app and go to jail? 🖕

Alaska, thankfully, has not turned back to the dark ages (yet). Another reason to come visit the Last Frontier. We’re open late.

Paddlers

Happy Wife & the Merry Mermaids in Aialik Bay, AK recently. Just chillin’ on their annual sea kayaking extravaganza. That be Aialik Glacier doing the chillin. A day earlier they spotted a couple Orcas moving about in this bay. 😯

When Good People Make Bad Arguments

A new look and feel here at Alter Ego! What do you think? I like reading in dark mode, I hope you do too.

And now for something completely different.

In most circumstances killing a post-natal human being is wrong. Everyone knows this. With notable exceptions, if you kill someone you’re in a lot of trouble under common law. Legally speaking, it’s called homicide. Here’s something else: If you assault a pregnant woman, say she’s 20-weeks pregnant, and cause the death of the fetus you’re guilty of a separate crime, though not necessarily homicide. In Connecticut, for example, as I understand it you would not be charged with homicide of the fetus. However, you may be charged (barring unusual circumstances) with a class A felony punishable by up to 25 years in prison. I don’t know the relevant law well enough to say if the same assault on a woman would get you the same charge in every state. I do, however, think it’s safe to say that regardless of where the assault occurred, very few people would argue the assailant should be found guilty of anything less than a class A felony for causing the death of the fetus. And I wouldn’t expect an ideological divide on this matter, between men and women or between pro-choice versus pro-life people. If I were on a state grand jury (as I once was) and the DA brought this indictment for felony A crime, I’d vote True Bill.

Accepting all this as true, why is it that otherwise smart and reasonable people who decry the imminent overturn of Roe v. Wade continue to assert that what this is really about is the government wanting to control women’s bodies? Trying to demonize your adversaries as conspiratorial misogynists usually doesn’t work to win arguments. Again, if you accept that the fetus deserves the protection of the law in cases where the mother is assaulted, then why not when the assailant is the mother herself? One could try to squirm out of this logic, equivocate on the definition of “assailant,” but I don’t think that would get you very far with the justices of the court. After all, even when it comes to your own person, if another person kills you he may be guilty of homicide. But he is also criminal when you try to kill you with his help; assisted suicide is illegal in most states. Tyrannical maybe. But this is the world we live in.

My point is this: If you accept the premise that the law does and should protect human life, including the protection of you from yourself, then don’t become indignant when the SCOTUS concludes there is no support in law for abortion. Which is what the current decision actually entails. It does not make abortion illegal, it kicks that can down the road to the state legislatures so far as I can tell. Rather, it removes federal protection for abortion, arguing (rather persuasively I thought) that the legal arguments for Roe v. Wade in 1971 were flawed, and thus so was the decision. This isn’t about old white men trying to animate the nightmare of the Handmaids Tale. No, this is just what the SCOTUS does, it tries to get law right. Surely even the most permissive pro-choice advocates understand this.

Of course all this leaves the obvious question unanswered: when is the fetus a human life? Clearly the law can only protect a real life. Unfortunately, opinions here vary widely. Given what I know about human developmental biology, I would call life starting sometime after eight weeks, certainly after twelve weeks. Prior to that, the incipient fetus is a mass of largely disorganized, rapidly dividing cells. I know many people cringe to hear a “baby” referred to as merely a mass or “clump” of cells. But it is what it is, fetuses don’t suddenly appear in the womb fully formed. So terminating a pregnancy during this time is not killing a human life if you ask me. Which is why, in part, I consider myself pro-choice. The other part is because I think that the vast majority of woman who have an abortion don’t make the choice lightly. Even when and where it’s lawful. But then, the difficult choice is her’s to make. As a political matter it seems to me a majority of my fellow citizens are roughly of the same opinion. For women’s sake, I hope most state legislatures are too. Time will tell.