Von Braun

The Book of the Week is “Von Braun, Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War” by Michael J. Neufeld, published in 2007.

Born in Prussia in March 1912, Wernher von Braun grew up in a wealthy, cultured, intellectual family who encouraged his interest in science. He played the cello and piano. At thirteen years old, he was sent to boarding school. Although he failed math and physics, he learned these subjects to the extent he needed to in pursuing his passion for rocketry and astronomy.

In 1932, von Braun’s father snagged a plum civil service position. As a result, the German army funded von Braun’s research into rocket-based weaponry. In summer 1933, he took flying lessons. He later completed his PhD at one of the most prestigious universities in Germany.

After Hitler’s purge of political dissidents in spring 1934, the German army and air force had a duopoly on top-secret ballistic missile research directed and supervised by von Braun.

In November 1937, von Braun was compelled to join the Nazi party, or be fired. Although ample evidence has emerged that he was aware of the evil purposes to which his projects were applied, he appeared to suppress his moral revulsion in connection therewith. His first love and loyalty was working toward his goal of creating vehicles that could explore outer space. But he was ordered to make weaponry first.

“After 1938, corporate and university researchers were also integrated in increasing numbers, further propelling funding in breakthroughs in liquid fuel propulsion, supersonic aerodynamics, and guidance control.” In spring 1940, von Braun was compelled to join the SS or be fired. He reluctantly did so.

Von Braun’s was a serious moral dilemma. It is unclear what the consequences would have been had he refused to willingly participate in operations involving slave labor (Resistance fighters, Communists, criminals, concentration camp internees) subjected to inhumane conditions (disease, torture, starvation) in making the instruments of war, and to willingly participate in the making itself.

The first successful ballistic missile (launched via a rocket), occurred in October 1942, after various trial-and-error failures (balls-of-fire explosions). This kind of experimentation at that time was, and still is, agonizingly slow and astronomically expensive. At the start of WWII, the weapons program had about twelve hundred employees. Wartime meant von Braun’s experimental resources of nitric acid, diesel oil and aluminum alloys were diverted to Hitler’s actual military usage, causing serious production problems.

In spring 1945, von Braun and his immediate boss were able to carry out their plan at war’s end of turning themselves over to the Americans, with whom they would share their rocketry expertise.

According to the author, in June 1945, the Americans liberating Germany persuaded about 350 skilled rocket-workers, and their relatives, numbering a few thousand, to emigrate to Alabama and New Mexico in the United States. The Soviets grabbed a few “brains” who traveled to East Germany, and then the Soviet Union. The author didn’t explicitly state which superpower acquired more talent.

In the 1950’s in the United States, von Braun published his writings, lectured, and literally broadcasted his opinion that the United States should engage in space exploration for the purpose of launching a satellite that would indicate weapons installations of surveilled regions on earth, among other purposes.

Read the book to learn of the political power struggles and trials and tribulations that von Braun and the German and U.S. governments underwent in aerospace research as matters of national pride and security; of why some historians might describe von Braun as an overrated attention whore; and how times have changed (hint– in the 1960’s, “…only nation-states had the resources to finance and direct huge guided-missile and space programs.”).

The Pioneering Odyssey of Freeman Dyson

The Book of the Week is “The Pioneering Odyssey of Freeman Dyson, Maverick Genius” by Phillip F. Schewe, published in 2013. This is a biography of the multi-disciplinary mathematician / scientist, theorist, professor, author and lecturer.

The author named nearly all of the most famous twentieth-century nuclear physicists (and provided historical backdrop that led to scientific advances in physics, war and astronomy), and briefly described their contributions– even a few of whom Dyson hardly knew; that is, except for two scientists, who happened to be female:  Marie Cure and Lise Meitner. This oversight might be due to the fact that the author encountered little or no literature on them (due to their gender) when researching this book. Ironically, the author did admit, however, that Dyson’s marital troubles were due to his sexist hypocrisy.

Anyway, born in Great Britain in 1923, Dyson grew up in a wealthy family in the London suburb of Winchester. His mother was already 43 at his birth. Pursuant to family tradition, he was sent to boarding school at eight years old. Due to WWII, in two years rather than four, he earned a degree in mathematics at Cambridge University.

Dyson was then tapped to use his newly acquired knowledge as a tactical aviation consultant of sorts for the war effort, staying stateside. Postwar, as a graduate, he resumed his education, studying physics at Cambridge and Cornell universities. He never did finish his PhD.

Nevertheless, of all his lifetime’s workplaces, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton was where he spent the longest total time. In the late 1940’s, he was supervised by J. Robert Oppenheimer. He explained the missing link between Richard Feynman’s, Julian Schwinger’s and Shin’ichiro Tomonaga’s ideas about field theory in nuclear physics; more specifically, quantum electrodynamics.

Yes, Dyson did rocket science, too, at the dawn of the 1960’s. However, it was all theoretical. He actually wanted to go on a mission to Mars or Saturn or Jupiter. Dyson’s fluency in Russian allowed him to understand the Soviet mentality on the space and arms races.

Paradoxically, during the Cold War, an adverse consequence of the testing of nuclear weapons included cancer deaths due to radiation exposure; about a thousand of them annually. This was an acceptable sacrifice (in the name of saving the world)– as highway deaths numbered about fifty thousand annually. That changed of course, with nuclear accidents and seat belts in later decades.

In 1976, Dyson supervised a graduate student who wrote a term paper that generated much controversy.  “From non-classified government documents, freely available to anyone, Phillips [the student] proceeded to gather a primer of frightening specificity showing step by step how to build a nuclear bomb.” The student got an “A.”

Read the book to learn of Dyson’s views on extraterrestrials and extrasensory perception, on how religion and science can coexist; his fantasies about what humans could do in outer space in the future; his participation in a think tank named Jason, his take on global warming, the reversal of his beliefs on nuclear matters, and much more.

In Search of Memory – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “In Search of Memory” by Eric R. Kandel, published in 2006. This book was mostly about neurology and psychoanalysis. The autobiographical parts included descriptions of how and why the author’s family fled Austria for the United States in 1939, and his role in reconciling psychology and biology.

Kandel identified himself as Jewish. He explained that “racial anti-Semitism” is the idea perpetrated by the Catholic Church that the Jews killed Christ and therefore, they are members of “… a race so innately lacking in humanity that they must be genetically different, subhuman.” Such idea was used to justify genocide during the Spanish Inquisition and of course, the Holocaust. Gentiles in Germany, Poland and Austria especially, took up the cudgel of racial anti-Semitism during the Holocaust.

However, what is interesting is, that while the Catholic Church calls the Jews a “race” as a putdown, the Jews think of it as a point of pride.

When American Jews use the term”born Jewish” ironically, most are unaware of the belief that Jews as a group are thought by anti-Semites to have genes in common that bring out their stereotyped, negative traits. By born Jewish, they mean to say, they, like religious Jews, believe that Jews are automatically Jews regardless of their beliefs or observances, because their mothers were Jewish. Not in a derogatory way.

But wait. If people can convert to or from Judaism, it’s not genetic. Hindu people could actually call themselves a “race” because they allow no conversions. That’s the difference. The Hindus were a group of people who did all share the same genes up until the time they started marrying non-Hindus and having children.

By the way, read the book to learn about the progression of the fields of neurology and psychology in the twentieth century.

The World According to Monsanto – URGENT POST

The Book of the Decade is  “The World According to Monsanto– Pollution, Corruption, and the Control of Our Food Supply” by Marie-Monique Robin, published in 2010.

The author wrote, “When one dissects Monsanto’s activity reports (contained in 10-K forms [annual reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States]) since 1997, one is struck by the place taken up by litigation.”

There are no companies that can fairly be compared to Monsanto in terms of payments to victims for irreparable harm, permanent injury and wrongful deaths caused by the environmental damage done by Monsanto. They couldn’t possibly compete. But the following is a summary of recent expenses of the legal bullying of, and financial punishments handed down, to Monsanto.

Monsanto’s 2017 annual report’s footnotes showed $33 million in expenses associated with “environmental and litigation matters.” The company’s 2015 Restructuring Plan included $167 million of the same kinds of aforementioned expenses and “a SEC settlement.” The cost of goods sold was $101 million. That means, its litigation expenses exceeded the costs of producing its products. Besides, annual reports don’t normally contain the exact phrase “environmental and litigation matters.”

Another item included $32 million of expenses related to “legacy environmental settlements.” Monsanto recorded the settlement of its polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) legal troubles for $280 million in fiscal 2016. Lastly (finally!), the “Long-Term Portion of Environmental and Litigation Liabilities” accounts for almost 1 1/2% of the company’s “Total Liabilities” for the year.

What makes Monsanto’s excessive litigation egregious is that it has so much worldwide hegemony that it wins its cases most of the time– the company itself sues everyone who gets in the way of its profit-making, and successfully defends itself against the countless plaintiffs who have legitimate causes of action against it.

Not to mention the fact that it had basically formed a public-private partnership (largely via political contributions and lobbying), with the American government as of the book’s writing. That is why whistleblowers and activists get crushed in its wake.

Sounds familiar… Unfortunately, the reason history repeats itself so often is that human nature doesn’t change. What makes Monsanto’s case so much scarier than the situations with other, similar monstrous entities is that Monsanto has the potential to permanently contaminate nearly the entire world’s food supply, and there have already been significant consequences of that nature due to its unbridled greed. Yes, it is that bad.

Founded as a chemical and plastics company in 1901 in Saint Louis, Missouri– Monsanto went public in 1929. It made DDT, dioxin, aspartame, (and inadvertently but knowingly and ruthlessly, PCBs), among other substances that have done permanent harm to a large number of people.

As of this book’s writing, Monsanto had a presence in 46 nations and owned 90% of the patents for all Genetically Modified Organisms internationally grown. It makes billions of dollars in profit annually.

The author traveled extensively to interview numerous people to gather a voluminous amount of data on Monsanto’s quest to make the maximum amount of money it possibly can, at the expense of humanity. The scientists she interviewed– including friends and foes of Monsanto– all said they wouldn’t eat the genetically modified foods borne of Monsanto products.

The author tells lots of anecdotes about people from all different geographic areas who have been adversely affected by the chemicals and genetically modified organisms sold by Monsanto, plus about several people previously affiliated with the company and U.S. government agencies, who were clearly still loyal to their former employers. One such interviewee displayed the body language of a liar: excessive blinking when answering her pressing questions. She also pored over declassified documents that indicate outrageous corporate wrongdoing.

Monsanto’s employees currently research, apply for patents to, and sell genetically modified seeds for growing soybeans, corn, cotton and rapeseed; plus a herbicide– Roundup, an insecticide– Bt toxin, and the bovine growth hormone rBST.

The author wrote that in 1983, the American federal government set aside funds called the Superfund Program to decontaminate toxic waste sites around the nation. When some of those funds were diverted to “… finance the electoral campaigns of Republican candidates, Congress discovered that documents that would compromise the companies[,] disappeared.”

As might be recalled, the Reagan administration had a reputation for being staunchly pro-business; so much so that it made EPA worker Anne Burford and her colleague Rita Lavelle the scapegoats of a scandal after pressuring them to shred documents (which would have implicated Monsanto) and commit other crimes in connection with the town of Times Beach, Missouri– a dioxin-and-PCBs-contaminated site.

That contamination resulted in the deaths of numerous animals, serious health problems for the people there, and forced permanent evacuation of the eight-hundred family resort town.

The author spoke with several whistleblowers. All were punished by their employers. One from the EPA distributed an inflammatory memo saying Monsanto published false research results on its products. Another from the FDA wrote a report on the flaws in Monsanto’s application for approval of the artificial growth hormone rBST. He was fired in 1989, sued, and years later, won a job back at the FDA, but not one for which he was suited.

Monsanto’s rBST (still currently used at some dairy farms), when injected into cows, causes them to produce more milk (translation: more money). With the hormone, other substances are also likely to get into the milk, such as pus and antibiotics. This is because the injection sites on the cows form abscesses, necessitating the administering of antibiotics to the cows. Further, with rBST, the cows develop serious health problems, like ovarian cysts, mastitis and uterine disorders. Never mind humans who drink their milk.

In an unprecedented move, the FDA changed its own rules and approved rBST in November 1993 without forcing Monsanto to reply to its concerns and recommendations.

In the late 1980’s, a genetically modified dietary supplement sold by prescription only caused serious health problems, killing at least 37 and permanently disabling 1,500. If that kind of harm was done by a regulated item meant to be eaten that was genetically modified around the same time that Monsanto was testing rBST– a part of a product that millions of people would consume, shouldn’t the FDA have been more prudent in its approval process of rBST??

Monsanto sued the dairies that said on their milk-container labels that their milk contained no rBST. The defendants were forced to change their labeling.

In the late 1990’s, there was the TV-journalist-couple who were working on a show with negative coverage on Monsanto, when their employer was taken over by Fox News. They were fired because they refused to switch from telling the truth, to lying about Monsanto.

In 2003, after the couple suffered years of emotionally and bank-account draining litigation, “The [federal] judges considered that no law prohibited a television network or a newspaper company from lying to the public. To be sure, the rules established by the FCC prohibited it, but they did not have the force of law.” No wonder journalism is dead.

Conflicts of interest abounded in the 1990’s , when supposedly scholarly journal (peer-reviewed) articles (like Science, Nature and the Journal of the American Medical Association) declared that Monsanto’s products were safe; those articles were written by people paid by Monsanto.

Reputable scientists pointed out that Monsanto’s scientific testing involved non-standard procedures, and was statistically suspect as it was of too short a duration, and had too small a sample size.

Read the book to learn about:

  • horror stories resulting from Monsanto’s underhanded tactics regarding testing and use of its products, including the herbicide Roundup;
  • its victims in Anniston, Alabama who were subjected to PCBs;
  • which of Monsanto’s products was banned in 2000 in Canada and Europe;
  • how Monsanto is active in the United Nations;
  • how deregulation perpetuates Monsanto’s worldwide hegemony;
  • which ten or so individual American government officials acted on Monsanto’s behalf, but had undisclosed conflicts of interest [there was scant room in the book to list all those who were ethically challenged Monsanto affiliates— wait, that’s redundant];
  • the percentages of all foods genetically modified in specific categories in 2005;
  • how taxpayers footed the bill for Monsanto’s aggressive use of legal and political weaponry against American soybean farmers (whom it seriously harmed by taking away their livelihoods through duress and illegally spying on them in the late 1990’s) from 1999 into 2002;
  • why Monsanto dropped its initiative to introduce a transgenic wheat, even after spending hundreds of millions of dollars in connection therewith;
  • how Mexico has been harmed by Monsanto’s transgenic corn;
  • how Argentina and Paraguay have been harmed by Monsanto’s transgenic soybeans;
  • how India has been harmed by Monsanto’s transgenic cotton;
  • how Canadian farmers have been harmed by transgenic canola;
  • what transpired when, in January 2005, the Securities and Exchange Commission launched a legal proceeding against Monsanto for corruption in Indonesia;
  • why the World Trade Organization should share some blame for allowing the worldwide spread of Monsanto’s tentacles;
  • and much more.

Endnote:  Feel free to browse other posts for additional examples of entities behaving badly under the category “Business Ethics.”

50 Secrets of the World’s Longest Living People

The Book of the Week is “50 Secrets of the World’s Longest Living People” by Sally Beare, originally published in  2003. The author visited five places in the world where people are unusually long-lived. She argued that their lifestyles account for that phenomenon.

The residents of Okinawa, Symi, Campodimele, Huza and Bama all have insular cultures and an absence of pollution. Three of the above-named places are in Asia and two are in Europe.  The societies’ economies are self-sustaining agricultural and/or fishing and/or herding villages. They engage in rigorous manual labor– lots of exercise– and have the healthiest diets on the planet. Also, they don’t smoke.

Their diets consist mostly of raw or lightly cooked leafy greens, whole grains, seafood, soy products and other legumes, and fresh fruit; plus, hundreds of different herbs, locally grown. They might flavor their food with extra virgin olive oil, capers, garlic and onions. If they have alcohol, it is rice wine, in moderation. Daily beverages include green tea and calcium-rich water.

The author claimed that the farming societies used no pesticides, artificial fertilizers or genetic modification that generate higher crop yields. Yet the societies had adequate food, insects and birds in the food chain that eliminated pests that would harm the crops.

“Most genetically modified crops grown in the United States are corn, canola, and soybeans, as well as cotton, papaya and squash… Genetically modified crops have nothing to do with feeding the world and everything to do with the billions of dollars they are worth annually.”

The author mentioned Monsanto as just one monster-sized corporation that creates substances that contaminate America’s food supply. Disclosure of the data collected by various entities on carcinogens and other harmful food additives created by Monsanto, has been suppressed with cooperation by the U.S. government, just like with the tobacco companies in previous decades.

Read the book to learn which specific foods cut the risk of cancer, and why they do so; and the specific foods, exercises and activities that can help retard aging.

Rat Island

The Book of the Week is “Rat Island” by William Stolzenburg, published in 2011. This series of anecdotes described what frequently happens when some humans observe that a particular species is in danger, and with the best of intentions, attempt to counteract the perceived adverse effects of the situation.

Such campaigns have been repeated for centuries, always with unintended consequences and mixed results. For, the people involved have impure motives, and the manipulation of nature over the course of decades inevitably results in a “pox on everyone’s house.”

In the 1800’s, for instance, explorers introduced cats to eliminate an excess of rats in Oceania. Unsurprisingly, the food chain was disrupted, and the rabbit population increased. Rabbits killed the sheep in New Zealand, upsetting the people there. The latter took action by bringing in ferrets, weasels and stoats. The duck and parrot numbers were negatively affected.

Sometimes people are the predators. Other causes of the near-extinction of a species include statistically unusual weather, oil spills or disease. In New Zealand, people almost eliminated green parrots, poaching and smuggling them for their looks.

In another instance, the kakapo (another bird) was endangered by other animals. In the mid-1890’s, some sympathetic New Zealanders therefore sequestered the birds on an isolated island so they could multiply in peace. However, weasels found their way into the protected habitat, anyway.

Some tools of the trade among supposed “friends” of the environment who are only trying to prevent extinctions, include:  poison, guns, traps, hunting dogs, and ammunition shot from helicopters. And on at least one occasion:  hormonally-juiced Judas pigs that led to a spike in the number of eagles and drop in foxes on one island. Moreover, there are people who derive pleasure from cruelty to animals in the name of saving endangered species.

Read the book to learn of the checkered fortunes of the birds of the Aleutian Islands and Anacapa Island, the wildlife around Bering Island and other regions, and the constant tug-of-war among government agencies (such as Fish and Wildlife) responsible for those regions, conservationists and animal-rights activists.

Sandy Koufax

The Book of the Week is “Sandy Koufax, A Lefty’s Legacy” by Jane Leavy, published in 2002.  This is a biography of a legendary Major League Baseball pitcher who played for the Dodgers from the mid 1950’s to the mid 1960’s.

SIDENOTE:  The nature of this short paperback’s structure makes it repetitive and disorganized. It appears that the author is trying to build suspense by providing an entire one-chapter-per-inning description of a historic game pitched by Koufax in September 1965,  interspersed with chapters on other subjects. It doesn’t work. Perhaps the author thought the reader has the attention span of a fly, and wouldn’t be able to handle the whole game in one go. Too bad, because the content of the book is full of facts, figures and what seems to be thorough research.

Born in December 1935, Koufax’s full first name was Sanford. His initial dream was to play for the New York Knicks basketball team.  He was an excellent all-around athlete. However, in college, he got the chance to pitch.

The then-New York Dodgers scout who observed Koufax saw exceptional potential, although others thought his pitching was wild and inconsistent. Even thought he had almost no experience, the Dodgers extended an offer to him, to which he committed. Koufax played his first season of professional ball in 1955.  The next four seasons, he was benched most of the time, but his pitching was improving. He became a starter in 1962.

The year 1963 was the first in which the media revealed tabloid gossip on the private lives of professional athletes, including that of Koufax. Prior to that, the media merely reported on sports-related information. One nosy news outlet had a field day when it found out that Koufax  was adopted. That opened the floodgates on asking personal questions of players.

Read the book to learn about the sad state of affairs in sports medicine– during Koufax’s generation– that made top athletes’  careers all too short, the painkillers used at that time, how biomechanics and arthroscopic surgery have evolved since then, a vast quantity of other information on Koufax, including how, after retirement from baseball, “He became a serious runner, a marathoner who smoked, competing in Europe, where he was least likely to be recognized.”

20 Things You Didn’t Know

The Book of the Week is “20 Things You Didn’t Know About Everything” by the editors of Discovery Magazine and Dean Christopher, published in 2008.  This book briefly covers a range of topics, regaling the reader with trivia and interesting factoids.

One topic covered was airport security. As might be recalled, at this book’s writing, “The U.S. government continues to spend untold billions developing technology designed to detect weapons [which were never found in Iraq]– but extremely little on techniques and training to ferret out troublemakers at our airports.”

There are at least sixteen thousand classified species of bees. On average, bees fly at fifteen miles per hour. The honey they make can be used as an antibacterial wound-healer, because it contains certain infection-fighting substances. The chapter on mosquitoes lamented that people must learn to live with the blood-sucking bugs; however, it completely failed to mention that there exist fish that eat mosquito eggs, thus keeping the pest’s population down in certain places in the world, such as Florida and Australia.

At the book’s writing, there was a museum on the history of contraceptives in Toronto, Canada. Read the book to learn additional fun information.

Brain Rules

[SIDENOTE: Strangely, anytime, but only when this blogger writes something controversial, or about Donald Trump, WordPress crashes. Just an observation.]

The Book of the Week is “Brain Rules” by John Medina, published in 2008.

The author wrote about various factors that affect brain function, and how the brain can function better with regard to exercise, evolutionary developments, memory, driving, sleep, stress, the senses and gender.

The author claimed that studies have shown that any amount of exercise is better for the brain and body as a whole than no exercise at all. Intelligence can be maximized in work and school environments when people have a knowledge-base plus creativity. Other research showed that a simple experience of magazine-reading changed the neurons in the brain of one identical twin but not the other twin who hadn’t done magazine-reading.

Medina related a few anecdotes from his personal life to illustrate his points. A memorable incident for him occurred when a dog came out of a lake and shook water all over him. During those ten seconds, a normal human brain would “…recruit[s] hundreds of different brain regions and coordinate[s] the electrical activity of millions of neurons.”

The author cited blind gender studies in which subjects were asked their opinions of a person’s behavior; subjects held negative opinions of the person they were told was female, and positive opinions when told the person was male.

Medina crowed about how awesome retention was when research subjects were subjected to multi-sensory presentations (such as academic lectures, as when visuals, written text and verbal communication were used) as opposed to any of these alone.  He advocated minimizing the reading by subjects of large chunks of text because tests showed that it was not as effective at getting subjects to retain information as was multi-media.

It appeared that the author was promoting dumbed-down education in general; perhaps because it is in the best interest of any university professor to tow his employer’s line (and possibly the government’s) in order to continue to receive research grants and further his or her career.

Read the book to learn of more neurological studies and the author’s ideas (which he admits are fantasies) that might improve cognitive functioning at work or school.

Unsolved Science

The Book of the Week is “Unsolved Science” by Bill Price, published in 2016.

This book is a compilation of articles discussing the various areas of science that humans have still to decipher.

One reason scientific mysteries remain is that they lie in regions difficult and expensive to study, such as the deep oceans and outer space.

Although it is known that humans have roughly half of the same DNA as bananas and 99% of chimpanzees, it is unclear what accounts for the differences in intelligence and linguistics between humans and the latter.

Read the book to learn why it is so difficult to find a cure for cancer; the causes of long-term global temperature changes; the pros and cons of nuclear power; and many other mysteries of the universe.