Guessing (The End) Game

“What has happened down here is the wind done changed”
– Randy Newman, Louisiana 1927

The United States of America in January 2017 appears to be a madhouse. All the clichés being bandied about seem completely inadequate: unchartered territory. Terra incognita. Off the map. Never seen this before. The Twilight Zone.

Indeed. The sheer numbers of conflicting and absurd actions spewing out of the White House is enough to keep our collective heads spinning. Each new day brings a new craziness, and it seems impossible to discern any pattern. What in holy hell do Trump and Company have in mind? Where are they trying to take us?

What’s the end game?

Look, everyone knows by now that Steve Bannon is an avowed Leninist, bordering on anarchist. As recently as 2013, he said as much in an interview with the Daily Beast. He claimed he wanted to see the Establishment come crashing down, all of it. The chaos that has so rapidly become the norm, less than two weeks into this Presidency, certainly seems to bear out that strategy.

The Muslim Ban, in all its ineptitude, lack of prior dissemination to the very people required to implement it (Justice, State and ICE), and internal contradictions (eg, including green card holders and permanent residents), is a perfect example of orchestrated chaos. Trump issued the thing without prior discussion or even announcement, and ICE and Justice were suddenly faced with implementing a drastic action, while having absolutely no forewarning or direction. Of course, all hell broke loose. Meanwhile, the entire top echelon of the State Department had been fired only a few days before. So any possible nuanced international response was spayed from the gitgo.

Bannon must certainly be happy. Bannon almost certainly orchestrated the whole thing. God knows Trump doesn’t have the mental wherewithal to conceive, much less implement, such a long-term (ie, 2-3 days) tactic. Anything beyond 140 Tweet characters is quite beyond his ability to focus.

But even postulating Bannon as the mastermind (and, just to be totally Ian Fleming about it, we should include Vladimir Putin’s “invisible hand”), surely to God we can’t expect the entire entourage to buy in to such a “plan”. Pence, for all his abhorrent ideology, is the furthest thing from an anarchist. He requires an operational government in order to further his personal religious agenda against abortion and LGBT. Kelly Ann Conway is an attack dog with no detectable ethics, willing to lash out at anything that moves in the Opposition, but probably not interested in destroying the government. Priebus? Come on, he’s about as Establishment as you can get.

The cabinet nominations are also not noted for their anarchical tendencies. Jeff Sessions is a lap dog (and, please God, find some way to derail his confirmation; the Monday Night Massacre at Justice and ICE have revealed exactly how much regard the Trump administration has for an independent Justice Department. Answer: Zero). Besides, Sessions is incapable of even imagining the country under attack from within.

DeVos, Pruitt, Price all have ideologies, but they seem mainly constrained to dismantling the specific department for which they are targeted. Oddly enough, the one silver lining is perhaps Rick Perry, who, while obviously not the sharpest tool in the shed, seemed genuinely surprised to learn what useful things the Energy Department does, and even eager to do them. Not that he’d be given any leeway to act.

Because then we have Tillerson. It seems blatantly obvious that one critical move in the end game (or perhaps this is more in the opening gambit), is to reverse the sanctions on Russia due to their Crimean invasion, and thus open the way for Exxon to finally take advantage of its half a trillion-dollar investment in Artic drilling in Russia. Cleaning out the upper management at State, while putting the nation at a severe disadvantage in normal avenues of diplomacy, is nevertheless a perfect first step towards that goal. With no one to gainsay anything, no expertise left in house, getting the sanctions cancelled will be much easier. As for other potential barriers, one must at least wonder how many Congresspeople own Exxon stock. I’ll bet it’s popular. In fact, CNN Money reports that Exxon is among the Top Ten stocks owned by members of Congress.

The point is, it is almost impossible to detect a cohesive and structured end game for all the insane machinations being instigated by Trumpville. Is it a coup to gain autocratic control? Seems like the military would have to be involved down to the last battalion, and that seems absurdly unlikely. Even with Mattis as DoD. Is it just a blatant grab at self-enrichment on a colossal scale, via Russia and Exxon? Is it somehow possible that Bannon is orchestrating a way to destroy the Establishment, and by some trick, no one in the inner circle has noticed? I can imagine Mike Pence playing a waiting game, thinking that impeachment is inevitable (a good bet), and standing ready to step up and take the reins. Maybe Priebus and other minor players are simply intoxicated by being on “the inside”. The allure of proximity to power has corrupted many with far more integrity than this bunch has exhibited.

And maybe there simply is no end game. Maybe this Hieronymus Bosch landscape is simply the natural result when the “man in charge” has no policy nor agenda whatsoever, while the various factions that do have agendas are all playing their own games, and the result is a chess board that obeys no rules.

Whatever the case, rest assured that when checkmate does occur, the end result will not advance national harmony or prestige. In fact, the end game may simply be the board and all its players summarily thrown off the table.

Game over.

© 2017 Chuck Puckett



Flights of Infancy

It is not rare, when relating some exploit of my youth, to conclude with the statement, “It’s a miracle I’m still alive today!” This is an admission that many of those exploits were, to say the least, ill-advised. Life-threatening is neared the mark.

I have managed the feat of self-powered flight twice in my life. The first time was in the third grade, in the tiny Alabama town of Weaver, which is just outside of Anniston, over in the “mountainous” part of the state. Mt. Cheaha, the highest elevation in Alabama, is nearby. And no, I did not leap off Mt. Cheaha. I mention the place merely to point out that there are some distinct hills in the area.

In fact, the little subdivision in which we lived was built on a steep slope. It was a new subdivision, back in a time when the very word “subdivision” was a fairly new coinage. We lived in several “new subdivisions” while I was growing up. I am fond of telling people that I lived in 21 different houses by the time I graduated from high school. We moved a lot, and this often meant buying a house that either was brand new, or had only one or two previous owners. Not a lot of trees, the landscaping still sort of raw and in need of attention.

Our little home was at the top of the hill. The developers had carved each lot into the hillside, so that on the downslope side of our yard, there was a ten foot drop down to the next yard. The yards formed a set of “giant steps”, and it was eight or ten feet down to each successive step. This arrangement was not conducive to “playing”. If you threw the football to your brother, he could easily disappear over the parapet in his eagerness to catch it. Not saying I ever did such a thing, only that the dire possibility always existed.

But then one day… One day, we bought a new refrigerator. And after it was delivered and installed, suddenly we had one whole cardboard refrigerator box with which to do just about anything. A refrigerator box is like an electric stimulant to a kid’s imagination, at least it was in those days. The possibilities were infinite and magical.

The box was about six feet long, and maybe a foot and a half deep and a couple feet wide. For some reason, I collapsed the box so that it looked basically like a giant rectangle, with a little hump running down the middle of the long side. And I was suddenly struck with a brilliant inspiration!

I didn’t remember what it was called, but I had read enough science to know that the Bernoulli Principle was what gave an airplane the ability to fly. The wings just needed a little hump in the middle so that the air went faster over the top of the wing than it did on the bottom.

A little hump exactly like the one I was looking at in my refrigerator box.

With my brother’s help, and lots of tape, we secured some supports inside the box so that the hump would stay in place. Next, I added a couple of rope handles on the underside of the “wing”, just wide enough to reach with my arms extended. Then we dragged the device to the front yard, to the edge of the yard furthest away from that ten foot precipice.

The wonderful thing about the mind of a third grader is that the idea of mortality is completely absent from any consideration. It is instead capable of seeing pure imagination. It is capable of seeing one’s self in full flight.

I started running toward the edge of the yard, going as fast as I could possibly run. I felt the refrigerator box trying to lift me into the air. I hit the edge of the yard, and leaped out.

And I flew. I flew, almost to the middle of our neighbor’s yard. It was one of the greatest moments of my young life.

Before my brother could take his turn at glory, my mother came running out into the yard, yelling pretty loudly. And that was the end of Puckett Aviation. I guess someone had spied me floating by outside their window. I’m a little sorry nobody else got to experience that thrill, though it’s just as well. I imagine there was more than a little luck at work preventing broken bones or worse.

But I had flown. And I had used my mind to work out the whole thing, from principles of lift and what I understood about airplanes. I was kinda proud of that.

The other time I flew… but that’s another story, for another time. Suffice it to say that, rather than resulting in a bit of pride at the power of my mind, the next time I flew, I was much closer to actually being out of my mind.

But one thing’s for sure: It’s a miracle I’m still alive today!

© 2017 Chuck Puckett

Over the Rainbow

You know what’s hard these days? Obtaining any kind of perspective. The swamp that was not drained has instead managed to mire many of us in a deadly quicksand. Reach for a vine to pull yourself out, the vine turns out to be an anaconda.

It’s next to impossible to climb to the top of the jungle canopy and see any hopeful light. Everything is a gloomy pall, and behind every bush and thicket, it feels certain there lurks nothing but more pitfalls and predators.

But this constant depression is unhealthy. Unless we can at least envision an alternative to this current darkness, somewhere, sometime down the road, then we’ll never find the strength to pull ourselves out of the quicksand. We must at the very least keep the shining City On the Hill as a goal in mind.

Don’t confuse this notion with some sort of Pollyannaism. It’s going to be bad. It’s going to be awful. The effects of the losses and setbacks this nation is about to experience will be with us long after I have left this terrestrial vale, and our children will be dealing with it forever. Climate change alone will not recover from the deregulation and unconstrained excess that will be unleashed, and our offspring will certainly reap that whirlwind. Clean and healthy water, air, food and a host of common necessaries will be compromised, and only vigilant consumers will protect themselves. Education will be undermined even more than it currently is. The recent incredible advances in clean energy will be reversed, and the entire initiative scrapped. With Big Oil firmly in control, and nothing opposed, it’s katy bar the door. The party is ON, dudes! Grab it all now, it’s never gonna be easier.

The situation w.r.t. the intelligence community and the State Department is horrifying, and probably the greatest existential threat of all. Executive orders are, I think, all that is required when the FBI, CIA, NSA, etc. all report directly to the President. I don’t know what, if any, Congressional oversight applies in these areas, but I am pretty sure that we can expect essentially NO such oversight or interference from the current Congress. At least not until massive damage has already been done.

So, yes, it’s going to be terrible, awful, horrible. What effect will these changes have in our daily lives? That’s hard to say. At the very least, as wealth concentrates even more densely into an obscenely rich oligarchy at the tippy top, and no jobs of any consequence appear for the middle class, I expect greater economic hardship. Health care is about to take a nosedive, and that will certainly be felt in many households. But it will take time for the effects of deregulation to work their black magic on the environment, water and air. And if they actually succeed in privatizing Social Security and Medicare, it’s doubtful that those currently enjoying the benefits will be immediately affected, although new cohorts of retirees come flooding in every year, and they will certainly feel the pinch.

Whether the promised rollback and “restructuring” of intelligence agencies will affect the everyday American is a more subtle question. We can almost certainly expect even more Russian election (and commerce) hacking as our cyber protections are compromised. So the midterms could well be affected, as well as individual companies and industries

So how to best cope with the certainty of imminent darkness?

I am convinced that we must never lose sight of the goal, of the the world that will eventually replace this inevitable dystopia. What is upon us will be a passing storm. All things must pass, change is the only constant. But without a firm vision of the outcome we wish to take its place, it will be the easiest thing in the world to become hopelessly (the word is specific) mired in the Badness.

Yes, things will be irreversibly changed. Yes, those changes will not be pleasant, will even be dangerous. But then we will persevere and prevail and come through them. Unlike the apocalyptic view of the world favored by evangelicals, this will not happen because a Cosmic Judge descends from the heavens, and with lightning and cataclysm destroys the unrighteous and restores the kingdom of justice. It will happen because good people, with good intentions and a clear vision of hope, never failed to keep working for that vision.

And never failed, by all legitimate means, and at every step along the way, to oppose the Darkness.

© 2017 Chuck Puckett

The Telomeric Irony

[Reposted from 2011, a post that was lost when the Years Of Being blog was destroyed.]


The human telomere. A bit of material at the end of each chromosome. Some have likened a telomere to an aglet, that piece at the end of a shoelace that generally has a bit of plastic on it, making it easier to thread the holes when you lace up your shoes. And just as an aglet over time becomes somewhat frayed, and finally almost totally useless, the telomere sitting at the end of the chromosome “shoelace” gets a little shorter each time a cell divides. Until finally there is no telomere left. But whereas you can keep stuffing the frayed aglet into the eyelet of a shoe and lace it up one more time, when the telomere is consumed, the cell can no longer divide.

It’s “lifetime” is over. Kaput. Dead.

As you yourself will eventually be. Because when, say, the cells of the liver cease replicating, the liver is pretty much left with what it has at that time. And therefore it’s ability to repair itself becomes more and more compromised over time. No more new liver cells, and then when the old ones finally wear out, too bad. Just have to “do more with less”.

And so it goes with all the body’s organs and systems and bones and tissues. Over time, their ability to rejuvenate weakens and abates, and so the body gets less and less flexible and less and less adaptable. And weaker. And the hair grays. And the skin wrinkles.

You age.

And then you die. All because some arbitrary mechanism exists whereby DNA has a built in long-term self-destruct mechanism: the telomeres.

Among scientists who study such things, telomeres are the primary (and obvious) suspects as the agents of aging and death. Most of us consider aging and death pretty much as givens, like taxes. But unlike taxes, which are after all, a pure invention of the human mind, aging and death are inexorable. After all, we essentially have to agree, collectively, or be forced to agree, that such a thing as taxation will be enacted. Death stalks us whether we will or no. It is so ubiquitous, so universal, that the fact of its existence, its raison d’etre, is never questioned. We may substitute eternal spiritual afterlife as some sort of alternative. But the fact that we age and die? No, we fully expect that.

But why? I mean (without trying to be too tongue-in-cheek), what’s the benefit in death? Why should the primary replicative structure that subtends all life have a built-in mechanism that terminates that life after so many revolutions? A moment’s thought should reveal that there really is no particular, inherent, fundamental reason that even begins to make sense. If the telomeres did not get shorter on each replication, the world would be a very different place. Oh, death would still happen. Cut off the oxygen, slice off the head, drop the body off a cliff, death will occur. But not dying from old age, because there would be no old age.

Of course, one can argue that, without telomeres, without a built-in mechanism to kill an individual, then the species would have a much harder time adapting via natural selection. Only when individuals die off do they take their lousy genes with them. Telomeres are perfectly suited to enforce the mechanism of natural selection.

The problem is that this argument is itself a teleological argument. “Telos” is the Greek for “end”. Hence, telomeres are at the end of the chromosomes. A teleological argument is an argument that starts from the end, the “end justifying the beginning”. Natural selection may indeed require telomeres to operate. But need does not constitute cause. I need to make a car payment. That does not cause the money to appear in my back account. Natural selection is, at its root, a completely random process. Just because an animal in the desert would benefit from organs that conserve water will not produce a camel. But if a series of accidental mutations produces an animal that carries water bags in its humps, then natural selection will favor that animal in that environment, and thus we see more camels in the Sahara than hippopotami.

So the fact that natural selection itself “needs” telomeres is not a sufficent reason for them to exist. Furthermore, any mechanism that inherently kills the individual is not a good candiate for a trait that would likely be passed on. In fact, such a mechanism is absolutely counter to the existence of a particular individual. It is the opposite, as far as an individual is concerned.

And in any case, this is not a genetic trait that is “passed on”. It is an integral part of the genetic machine. It precedes and defines the generic machine. Oh, individuals may have longer or shorter telomeres (and the length itself seems to be an inherited genetic trait), but the basic fact of telomeres, and their operation, are part and parcel of the structure of the chromosome. Telomeric activity is inherent.

And here’s a cosmic comic thought: Telomeres may be the most powerful argument ever encountered for some sort of “intelligent design”. But definitely not in the “let’s make man in our image” style of argument usually proposed. It’s more “let’s create this random generation mechanism involving DNA and mutations, and let ‘er rip, and see what it produces. But let’s make sure the life forms that arise will automatically die off, so that evolution will be forced to take place.” It’s not so much God walking through the Garden as it is a monolith descending from the cosmos, ordering the mechanism that subtends life itself to include this automatic “cash in your chips” activity, just so natural selection will operate correctly.

That’s a very spooky form of intelligent design. In fact, it’s almost diabolical, at least from the individual’s perspective. From my perspective, that telomere just downright sucks.

So that’s one aspect of what I call the Telomeric Irony. The fact that telomeres exist at all is cosmic irony of the first degree. The only reason I will die a natural death is not even a defensible reason, unless I postulate a cosmic engineer who arranged it that way. Not exactly the sort of deity I am prone to worship.

But let’s get past the primary irony, the ontological irony implied by their mere existence. Let’s just take that as a given, since there’s not much to do about it, and no profit in bemoaning it. It was Death and Taxes before we knew about telomeres, it’s Death and Taxes now that we do know. So we die. Okay.

Because, really, I don’t think infinite, conscious life is a particularly inviting prospect. Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way ready to cash it in, nor am I the despairing, despondent type. Far from it. I would run just as fast as I could away from that Far Country, I will not go quietly into that dark night. But face it: infinite life is an ego-crushing concept. Even heavenly, spiritual infinite life. My daughter once observed that the prospect of singing Hallelujahs forever was just unbelievably depressing. It’s that idea of our individual consciousness existing without end that is so numbingly oppressive. The idea that this internal monologue, the observer that is ME, would go on, commenting and assimilating and rearranging and THINKING without end, amen, that idea is just so overwhelming as to be horrific. How many times can you sing the Hallelujah Chorus, for God’s sake. Or for Whoever’s?

I think most of us, at an almost unconcious level, think in much more finite terms. “When we’ve been there, 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun”. So begins the final verse of Amazing Grace. “10,000 years.” Gosh, it seems so long. But what if it had said, “ten million years”. Or ten trillion. Or a google’s worth of years. That’s 1 followed by a 100 zeroes worth of years. Chew on that for a bit. Consider what that would really mean. Gad.

The second aspect of the Telomeric Irony is then this: why the hell were we given a mere three score and ten, on average? I mean, talk about arbitrary. Why not a couple of hundred, like a tortoise. Or even a thousand? After a thousand years, I think even the most creative soul that ever perceived and conceived would have exhausted all the possibilities. But seventy? Just seventy? I mean, most humans take five or six decades just to figure out how most of this crap really works. Then (to quote Dave Matthews), it’s “lights out, you up and die”. That is the really grating irony. Death is not that bad of a concept, it can even be deemed necessary, if for no other reason than to make room for everybody else. No, it’s the early exit that sucks. It’s just not commensurate with our consciousness, with the kinds of things we can conceive and invent and make and manipulate. This brief candle is probably the heart of greed and rapaciousness and gluttony and excess. Knowing you’re going to check out 3-4 decades from now doubtless motivates some personalities to start grabbing everthing in sight, and taste, touch, do, try, go: hurry, hurry, hurry!

It is especially pissy when juxtaposed against the thought that some architect put the damn telomeres in there in the first place. Hey, Grand Cosmic Designer! Yes, You. Why the heck didn’t you cut us some slack here? Seventy years might have seemed a decent choice in the Nelolithic when homo sapiens enjoyed 20 good years on average before saber teeth or bear claws or other cave dudes cut him down. Not such a good idea after the people start writing symphonies and invent literature and music and so forth. In fact, pretty much right after we managed to get enough spare time to look in the mirror and recognize that Self who is I, that was when the arbitrary time limit took on its truly tragic aspects.

Arthur C. Clark often wrote about the recurring theme that informed “Childhood’s End” and “2001: A Space Odyssesy”, the idea that humankind was on the cusp of the Next Great Step, symbolized by the enigmatic Star Child that appears at the end of the movie rendition of ”2001.” Perhaps this transition happens soon, perhaps it is happening now. Perhaps the 95% of our DNA currently classified as “junk”, since it does not seem to transcribe anything useful, will suddenly blossom into the Indigo Children of the near future, the Heroes, the Star Children. One can also consider oft-repeated fictional device of the Immortal, a person who, for whatever reasons, lives for millenia, watching the endless parade of history roll by, hiding his eternal nature from those who would be murderously envious. Perhaps there are individuals whose telomeres don’t slough off, and are therefore, for all intents and purposes, immortal.

Perhaps. And perhaps the Indigo Children, when they break out of their cocoons and morph into Destiny and Possibility, perhaps there will likewise be something in that genetic flowering that drastically lengthens those tender little telomeres, extends the neohuman lifetime and retains the vigor of youth. Or else they might interbreed with Immortals.

Because it would be a tragicomic pity to blossom into godlike consciousness and capabilities, and still be constrained to the three score and ten of your forefathers and mothers.

© 2011 Chuck Puckett

Another Election Mystery

The election that will result in the worst President that this country has ever seen (a confident prediction, even before he officially begins his term), has many mysteries. Why were the polls were so horribly wrong? What was the actual impact of the Russian hacking? Why did Comey and the FBI wait until the last minute to reveal information they had possessed for many weeks? And so on.

But one mystery that has been bothering me lately has to do with the voters that actually voted for Drumpf . That almost certainly were going to vote for Drumpf regardless of the various external forces. And I’m not talking about the idiots who didn’t have a freaking clue. Those incredibly stupid fools who got trotted out on The Daily Show (and other such outlets), being interviewed and revealing they had no idea what was wrong with their candidate: unconstitutional promises, lack of human decency, bigotry, a complete lack of ethical behavior, or even simple good manners. No idea, and even if they considered these offenses, simply didn’t care. See no evil, hear no evil.

No, there’s nothing to be done for those imbeciles. “Against stupidity, the gods themselves strive in vain.” It is the other component of the electorate that voted for Drumpf that have me completely mystified. I am talking about the significant numbers of intelligent, informed and even (generally) well-meaning votes who voted for Drumpf anyway. The men who have wives and daughters, yet who, despite his unbelievable crudeness with respect to women, voted for him. The wives and daughters themselves, who, knowing his misogynistic contempt, voted for him. People who voted for him, yet were fully cognizant of all the shortcomings I listed above: bigotry, lack of ethics, etc.

These are people who under normal circumstances would have never even considered a person of such despicable character. And I know some of these people, personally. Hell, I’d bet good money that several of them are related to me. People who, were they to meet Donald Drumpf in person, would almost certainly be repelled by his lack of decent behavior, his crass manners, his dishonesty, his immature, childish bullying. The man is so disgusting that his very presence would be an affront to these people. And every action he has taken, both before the election, but especially after, would be anathema to almost everything these people stood for.

Unless that thing was Change. Coupled with distaste bordering on outright hatred for Hillary Clinton.

But even given that motive, it is an unfathomable mystery to me that any of these otherwise decent, intelligent, educated and informed citizens actually brought themselves to vote for Donald Drumpf. There were alternatives. A third party candidate, or even simply abstaining (courteously). Anything besides pulling the lever for the most notoriously unqualifed and abhorrent person to ever seek, let alone win, the Presidency.

There is, as they say, no accounting for taste. But surely to God there must be an accounting for flagrant disregard of the every sign and portent he provided to his supporters.

I wish this could be explained. The vacuum of reasoning that allowed this result to happen is perhaps the most frightening aspect of this moment in time. It seems to signal a deeper wrongness, a cognitive dissonance between the obscenity in front of us and our better angels, a mental barrier that borders on cultural psychosis.

So, like Bob Seger sang, I’m working on a mystery without any clues. In the dark, with winter closing in.

© 2017 Chuck Puckett