Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Honeymoon Over

Something’s going on. Still ubiquitous only a month ago, Obama stickers are disappearing from the Volvos and Priuses around the very blue Portland, Maine metropolitan area. As I wrote last August, they seemed to be everywhere. People were still proud to identify themselves with President Obama and his policies. Now I have to look for them. Driving around my usual routes down there last week, I saw fewer than a dozen. What does it mean?
Yeah, the president’s poll numbers are tanking. Yeah, making fun of him on Saturday Night Live is getting to be a habit. Yeah, 53% of Americans don’t trust him now - but think of what it takes for all those bumper stickers to disappear. People who loved what Obama represented now want to sever their public identification with him. After listening to his 1000th speech, they walked to their vehicle, saw the stickers, and made a decision to peel them off. Some had been on since 2007 or 2008 and it’s not as easy to take those old ones off as it was to put them on. The adhesive hardens. The vinyl breaks up and your fingernails wear down trying to get purchase on remaining fragments. Then you need to rub off dirty old adhesive with a solvent.
These are actions akin to taking off a wedding ring and throwing it away. Or, in an age in which people tend to just live together without getting married, it’s more than just choosing to sleep on the couch. It’s like putting his clothes out on the sidewalk - or even throwing them out a second-story window if you’re’ really mad that your health insurance policy was cancelled after hearing him promise you thirty times that if you like your policy, you can keep it - period.
But, unless he’s impeached, Obama will still be your president for more than three more years. Considering that, it seems more like you bought a house with him and you both have to live in it together until the divorce is final and you can sell it. Then you can split up the the proceeds and move on, but that can take a long time. Meanwhile you treat him with silent contempt and try not to brush up against him when walking by.
But what if he keeps on talking? Should you tell him to just shut up because you don’t believe him any more? Why does he keep thinking he can make everything all right by giving another speech? For three more years you’ll think to yourself: “What did I ever see in him?” and “How could I ever have fallen in love with him?” and “Why didn’t I pay attention to those early warning signs?” and “He’s been lying about a lot of things. How could I have been so stupid?”

The media fell in love with him too and avoided looking into his relationships with friends like Bill Ayers - the left-wing terrorist, or Reverend Jeremiah Wright - the racist pastor, or Frank Marshal Davis - the communist pornographer who was his mentor. They never looked into his college transcripts either or whether he and his wife got into those prestigious universities through Affirmative Action, and not because they were smart, hard-working students in high school. He belonged to the “Choom Gang” in high school for cripe sakes. He was a stoner. But he made all of you feel good when he spoke. He gave you tingles up your leg. When he said he would bring Hope and Change, you thought he meant your hopes, the changes you wanted. He knew that. He kept it vague and you all swooned because he said it so well.
Yeah, the man sure could talk. But now you’re realizing, along with everyone else, that that’s all he knows how to do. And it isn’t enough anymore. Talk is cheap, but it’s all he’s got. You know he’s going to keep on talking, and you’re not sure you’ll be able to stand it for three whole years.

And you only have yourself to blame.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Brave New World Arriving

Jack London’s short story “The Law of Life” is about dying. A blind, old Indian man was near death, but the nomadic band he had lived with couldn’t wait for his end. They needed to hunt if they would survive, so, with his consent, they left him behind to die alone in the frigid Arctic north country. His son patted him on the head before leaving on his dogsled. He expected the cold would take him - a relatively peaceful death, if lonely. But, just as he ran out of firewood, a pack of wolves surrounded him.
We all have to die of something. Like most, I’d prefer to go in my sleep next to a beautiful woman after enjoying a good meal with good wine, and, you know. Truth be told, though, I don’t really want to know the how or when of it. It’s out of my control. And what happens after that? I believe the Catholic version of everlasting life, but that’s not the subject of this column. Death is.

I read a lot of Jack London as a boy. He was an atheist, a socialist, a eugenicist, and an alcoholic, but I didn’t know any of that while I was reading him. I have little doubt that if he were alive today, he’d be an Obama supporter. He’d support Obamacare and its death panels I suspect, but maybe not. In the story, London described the old Indian’s death as a mutual decision of both the clan and the individual. They were kin and would have nurtured him in his final hours or days out of respect, but they all understood that to delay the hunt would weaken the whole band. They cared for him, but their survival was more important. He cared enough for them to accept that. Government death panels, however, would be comprised of strangers, not family, and would not necessarily include input from the dying individual. The decision would be based on a cold, bureaucratic, cost/benefit analysis.
Then again, maybe the eugenicist in London would approve. It’s worth mentioning here that Nazis admired American eugenicists like Jack London and Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood and patron saint of gender feminists. The Nazi Holocaust began with the extermination of the weak and feeble-minded as a drain on German national resources, and then “progressed” to mass murder of “inferior” races.

While a young college student, I worked as an orderly on the 3-11 shift in a state, chronic-care hospital in Massachusetts where people didn’t get better and go home. They died there, and it was my job to put their toe tags on, wrap them up in a shroud, and bring them down to the morgue. Before they died, I fed them dinner, played cribbage with them, cleaned them up if they needed it, and talked to them about dying if they wanted to. Some died with dignity. Others didn’t. How they went wasn’t about external circumstances though. It was about how they were inside. After two-and-a-half years I got my undergrad degree and left that job. It taught me much about the end of life. I was a young man - twenty-four - but unlike others my age who thought themselves indestructible, I came away with a deep understanding that nobody lives forever. That awareness has enriched my life ever since.
Last year this time, my wife’s father lay dying. He was ninety and unless a feeding tube were surgically inserted, he wouldn’t last. The family gathered and conferred with his doctor in a nearby room. The decision was unanimous - make him as comfortable as possible and wait for the end. The doctor complimented everyone and said unanimity in family meetings like that was rare in his experience. The family meeting could have been called a death panel, I suppose, but it was one comprised of people who loved him, not disinterested government bureaucrats. Unless Obamacare is repealed, I don’t think it’s going to be like that for too many of you reading right now. Unless you go suddenly with a heart attack or something, which only 10-20% of us do, your end will be determined by a government death panel decision, not a family one.
Consider that when your health insurance company sends you a cancellation notice. Think about it when you shop on the exchanges and learn that you’re going to be paying much higher premiums for much less coverage under the “Affordable” Care Act. Your increased premiums will pay for abortions and death panels, or, as Obamacare euphemistically calls them: “Independent Payment Advisory Boards” or IPABs. Their job will be to decide if you’re worth spending money on.
Jack London’s old Indian faced a pack of wolves as his end. Tomorrow’s Americans will deal with government bureaucrats on their local IPAB. What will it be like dealing with them? Think how it is at your local Department of Motor Vehicles. Take a number and wait. Welcome to the brave new world of Obamacare.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Mindboggling Manufacture

My brain is still buzzing with what I saw at the “Digifab ’13 Expo” put on jointly by the University of Southern Maine together with SME - the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. This old cerebrum was pried open and pushed into a different dimension.
A 3D printer at the conference making something

Only recently have I wrapped my mind around how my digital inkjet printer works. It’s late 20th-century technology and it still amazes me, how it whirs and cranks out two-dimensional images I’ve captured with my digital SLR - that’s “Single Lens Reflex” - mid-20th-century optical technology merged with late-20th-century digital technology. The conference, however, featured “printers” that produced objects in three dimensions. Maybe I’ll stop putting the word in quotes when I get used to 3D printing - when I’m no longer stuck contemplating the process in only two dimensions.
Listening, thinking . . .

First I ever heard of 3D printing was when DHS (Department of Homeland Security) raised a concern that someone might smuggle a non-metallic handgun, produced by a 3D printer, past metal detectors. “What the heck is a 3D printer?” I wondered. Well, I saw some in action at Digifab ’13 Conference. A spray nozzle moved precisely around an object that slowly took shape. It was much like an inkjet printer except the nozzle moved robotically in several directions instead of just back and forth, and sprayed a kind of plastic instead of ink. Displayed around on the tables were objects made by these printers including an adjustable wrench and a bicycle chain. The chain looked just like the one on my bicycle except it was plastic, and the printer hadn’t made each individual link separately. It made the whole thing fully assembled!
My mind was whirring as fast as the nozzles. How could it make attached links? By squirting another, dissolvable material between them, then removing it. How many other materials could be sprayed by those nozzles? About a hundred. Could metals be sprayed like that? Yes. There were no printers with that capability on display, but they did exist I was told.
Talking to vendors in the lobby

It was a typical conference with scheduled workshops in function rooms and vendors in the lobby. Workshops were in two tracks: manufacturing and education. Having taught thirty-six years, one would think I’d be attracted to the education workshops, but I wasn’t. Engineers and entrepreneurs in the manufacturing workshops were vastly more interesting. So were the people attending. So were their questions asked and answered. I had a press pass so I was free to wander around with my camera, but I found myself caught up in the technical discussions. Engineers have their own dialect and unfamiliar acronyms flew around, but I was able to understand the flow of ideas. They were extremely stimulating. People described how 3D printing was changing how they worked, how they planned, and how they imagined the future. It was heady stuff.
Everyone was focused

One presenter pulled up an image of a complicated-looking, jet-engine part made by General Electric on a 3D printer. He described how it couldn’t have been made as quickly, as inexpensively, or even as well, if GE were forced to design and build it with traditional technology. When I asked what it was made of, he said, “titanium.” He saw my eyebrows go up and said that, yes, GE has printers that squirt titanium. Others asked how, but no one was sure. Was it molten? Powdered? The technology was proprietary and GE wasn’t saying.
The GE part

The most incredible thing I learned that day came in the form of a comment by a guy I later learned was a 9th-grade dropout. He was talking about a 3D printer producing a functioning human liver! He sat a few rows behind me and I didn’t think he could be serious. I turned around and said, “What?”
“Yes,” he said, nodding in understanding of my incredulity. Others reacted as I did, but still others were nodding along with him.

Kidneys too,” one of them said.

“Making them out of what?” I asked.


“A 3D printer squirting cells?
The first guy continued nodding. We broke for lunch shortly after and I ate with him while he let me pick his brain. That’s where I learned that he got bored with school at fourteen. Then 3D printing captured his imagination and he went back to bolster his math.
Lassiter at the conference

This technology is being made available to schools all over the world through programs like The Fab Foundation, based at MIT and run by one of Digifab Conference’s keynote speakers, Sherry Lassiter. She encourages the installation of Fablabs in STEM (Science Technology, Engineering, Math) schools everywhere.
Hope I’m wrong, but, knowing what a bureaucratic behemoth public education has become, I’m concerned this technology won’t be integrated quickly enough to stimulate brilliant minds like that of my new lunch acquaintance.