Sunlight Shining Through Cloud

Archive for March 2011

The beginning of my career could not have been more exciting.  I was off in a far place, doing what I’d prepared for since early childhood; I was doing a radio show, doing on-camera television news, directing TV news and programming a TV station.  Throw in the weekly snow machine ride on the frozen Yukon River and the occasional über-privileged visit to top-secret operations of this kind or that, and I had the stuff of gripping stories for the telling.

My adventure at Galena Air Force Base, Alaska, would be hard to beat, and I guess I arrived at Hill AFB, Utah, just a little full of myself.

Where Galena had the most basic Gates “Yard Board” for its radio console, and a black-and-white transmitter, two B&W cameras and two 16mm projectors for TV equipment, Detachment 8 at Hill was quite the fancy deal, indeed.  This television production facility had a darkened master control room with four comfortably-stuffed key position chairs and the very latest programmable switcher with myriad special effects, 3/4″, 1/2″ and 1″ tape record & playback units, three turret-lens color studio cameras on hydraulic pedestals, a cyc-strip, chroma-key screen, music library and innumerable other goodies.  I didn’t know how any of this stuff worked, but I knew I was in hog-heaven and couldn’t wait to touch it all.

Det.8 also had brass: Lieutenants, Captains and Majors all of whom were seasoned television production professionals.  To that were added a half-dozen civilians with resumes as long as their arms.  And to do the dirty work, there were a couple dozen Non-Commissioned Officers like me who got to yank cables around, set up dusty lights, build sets and do sundry other chores.

That kind of work didn’t much appeal to me…I’d done it all before.  I wanted to get into the sexy stuff: the script-writing, the camera work, the control room work, the remote work.

Senior Master Sergeant Mark Morris was in charge of the NCO’s.  He was every bit the stereotype of the brick-built, starched-shirt, not-a-hair-out-of-place, veins bleeding Air Force blue, authoritative, commanding figure.  SMSgt. Morris yanked me into his office at about the 30-day point in my tenure at Det.8.

Senior Master Sergeant Mark Morris:  “Marx, you’ve got an attitude problem…”

Airman First Class Fred Marx:  “I do not.”

SMSgt. Morris:  “…and I mean to break you of it.”

A1C Marx:  “You don’t have to do that.  Just watch; a month from now, you’ll be singing a new song.”

SMSgt. Morris:  (now red-faced)  “Okay.  But if I don’t see a marked improvement in that time, I’m gonna bust you down to slick-sleeve, and you’ll be diggin’ ditches somewhere along the flight line.”

A1C Marx:  (now huffy)  “Fine.  Watch me.”

SMSgt. Morris:  (beet-red)  “Dismissed!”

Galena Air Force Base was a tiny little outpost in the middle of nowhere.  I guess the rules were a bit relaxed there, and that’s how I’d come to believe the military was.  Hill Air Force Base, on the other hand, was a major Air Force metropolis just spittin’ distance from Salt Lake City.

Galena supported two F-4 Fighters.  Hill supported the gleaming new F-15C Eagle Fighters – lots of them – and provided support for many other major functions; among them, the production of the classic “Air Force – A Great Way Of Life” television commercials of the 1970’s and ’80’s.

These distinctions were lost on me.  What I had just done in Morris’ office was nothing short of hubris, insubordination, and idiocy of the highest order.  I was nothing short of protected by God Himself from having my legs cut off at the knees and left to die a most agonizing death.

I was true to my word, though.  With purpose and resolve, I yanked every cable, set every light, built every set, even cleaned toilets without a spoken syllable of complaint.  It was a different story between my ears, however: “Just you wait and see how bad my attitude is, Senior Master Sergeant Mark Morris.  I’ll show you.”

Thirty days later, I was summoned back to his office.

SMSgt. Morris:  “Okay, then.  You’re back on track.  Keep it up; I’ve got my eye on you.  Dismissed.”

The gall of that man!  But at least I’d learned how to do things the Air Force way.  I could build from that.

The cable-yanking, light-setting and set-building continued — but before too long, I was doing it on major projects; learning at the feet of the masters. After a while, I was placed on a team of people who operated a mobile unit (a full-size stretch van) equipped with over a million dollars worth of the finest remote television production equipment available.  Holy cats!  How did I get this lucky?

We traveled to the Tooele Army Depot deep in the Utah desert to capture bombing exercises; to Nellis AFB to chronicle training exercises at the Nevada Test & Training Range; and to Vandenberg AFB (CA) for missile launch tests.

All of the footage we shot had to be edited and produced back at home base: Det.8.  And because I had a proprietary interest in the outcome of these projects, I was given the privilege of working with a higher level of equipment and talent.

One of our many studio projects was about a huge, highly-mechanized supply operation, and I was selected to do the on-camera narration for the entire training film.  Another project was a series of short courses for entry-level 2nd Lieutenants teaching them how to be classy officers: how to eat; how to drink wine; how to dress; how to salute; how to address a superior officer.  This was a people-intensive effort and all of us NCO’s got to play the part of “Officer” here or there.  It was every non-com’s dream.

And let’s not forget the part Det.8 played in the early commissioning of and training for the new F-15C Eagles.  We shot the arrival of the very first F-15C to arrive in the USAF inventory at Hill AFB amidst a hangar full of dignitaries.  We got to crawl around these things on the ground, shooting footage of this piece of hardware which is used for that function until we had the entire beast covered.  We got to shoot footage of the fighters in flight, sun glinting from the shiny metal skin.

This was the sexy stuff.

I grew quite a bit older that year; wiser, too.  And that’s not to mention the wealth of training I’d received in the very techniques I had so desperately wanted to learn.

My new orders arrived about three months before the end: I was going back to Alaska, but to Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage, this time.  It, too, was a major Base, and this one also had a major television operation, if a bit smaller than Hill’s.

Senior Master Sergeant Mark Morris called me back into his office.  “Marx, you’ve done very well…very well.  I’m going to fast-track you for promotion.”  What he meant was that, by the time I arrived in Alaska, I’d be a full-blown Sergeant; ahead of schedule; three stripes on each sleeve instead of just two, and a commensurate increase in pay.  All of this, I then understood, for just knuckling down and doing the job.

My friends at Detachment 8 threw me a party just before I left.  It was heart-felt; even tear-filled.  Relationships were built there that endured for many years.  I’m Facebook friends today with as many of these good people as I can find.

I arrived at Elmendorf better able to serve my country; and better prepared for the adventures yet ahead.


Domino's Delivers

We’ve all seen it; the pimply-faced kid driving a beater with a lit-up Domino’s sign affixed to the roof.  The car spews thick clouds of smoke as it chugs up the street toward your driveway, and you wonder: “How does this kid make any money for all the gas and oil he must be pumping into that car?”

Today I saw the strangest thing.  A brand new dealer-tags-still-on-it white hybrid Toyota Prius with a Domino’s sign on top pulled up to the house across the street.  My first impulse was to fall on the floor laughing.  Then my better angel said, “Wait a minute.  This car probably travels only on local streets at 35mph or less.  So it’s burning no gas and, because it’s new, is emitting no particulate matter from its tailpipe.”  My darker angel said, “It’s probably his dad’s car.”  My better angel said, “This kid is a genius.  We should all learn from him.”


My good friend Steve Young-Burns wrote this story on his Facebook page today.  It speaks for itself.  [Reprinted with permission.]

Ray’s Indian Mini Restaurant.  Crabby American diner waitress, cramped plastic booths, long-haul drivers lingering at the counter over bad coffee in a 24-hour truck stop near Baldwin, WI…and the best Indian food we have had (“in the states,” says Julie).               Me: “We want to try the Indian food.”  Waitress: “Oh…you want THAT menu.”  They had Friday fish fry, potato latkes, and incredible Indian food.  This was the strangest eating experience since Twin Peaks.  “Damned fine plate of vegie korma, ma’am.”


Why do damp cloths pick up wet spills faster than dry cloths?


How do they make the baby talk on those commercials?  C’mon! Babies don’t talk.


Why do disgraced politicians, preachers (etc.) re-appear bigger than before?


Incongruity in pictures.  (Click to enlarge.)


Is it ironic that linguistics intellectuals cannot agree on the difference between irony and incongruity?

  • In: Perspective
  • Comments Off on How Close Is Too Close?

“Mrs. Smith, your dog just died.  How do you feel?”  That’s a brand of reporting I’m not going to talk about here.  But I’ll get close.

I want to consider photographic journalism because it involves three of my favorite subjects: journalism, photography, and ethics.  It doesn’t hurt that I’ve spent more than a little time hanging out of airplanes in-flight and crawling in the dirt and weeds in attempts to get the shot.

Certain iconic photographs in history are because they are.  I’m thinking of the heavily-burdened President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office.  I’m thinking of the swearing in of Lyndon Baines Johnson aboard Air Force One following the assassination of JFK.  I’m even thinking of the footprint on the surface of the moon.  There are professionals whose proprietary job is to chronicle such moments.  Each of these pictures are important, and they were captured because history demanded it.

[Note: additional text will be found by mousing over each picture.  Click to enlarge.]

" small step..." Photo credit: NASA - Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin

"The loneliest job in the world." Photo Credit: New York Times - George Tames

LBJ's Oath of Office. Photo credit: White House - Cecil W. Stoughton

There are at least two other kinds of photo-journalism; I’ll call them ‘journalism by opportunity’ and ‘enterprise journalism’.  The first is impactful if a bit easier to get, and the second is impactful and dangerous to get.  Both require being in the right place at the right time.

The subject came up last week when we were Skyping with Nick in Japan.  He, too, takes pictures; it was a large part of his college major.  But he told us that – given current events following the earthquake and tsunami – he was reluctant to get too close for fear of invading someone’s privacy; of interfering with their grief and loss.  These are people he lives with; works with; loves.  I understand completely.

I told him that we (outsiders) might never know the depth of the tragedy and of the mounting needs if he didn’t capture images that effectively conveyed those messages.  We might never be moved to help.

But I knew that there was a whole lot more to the issue.

There is a point in journalism when the question must be asked: “Is this necessary?”  Then, too: “For whom is this necessary?”  And, “Does the necessity outweigh the invasion of privacy?”  And even if the necessity does outweigh the invasion of privacy, “Should the story not be written or the shot not taken because privacy is sacrosanct?”

National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry found a 12-year-old girl in Afghanistan who, he believed, embodied the desolation of spirit experienced by the Afghan people in the mid-80’s.

"The Afghan Girl" - 1984. Photo credit: National Geographic - Steve McCurry

This picture was ‘journalism by opportunity’ in the sense that it was rare for an Afghan female to be photographed at all.  Many of us became aware of the Afghan conflict of the 1980’s and of the plight of refugees the world over through this girl’s eyes.  We could see deeply into her soul.  Was her privacy invaded?

How about this girl’s?

...a thousand words. Photo credit: AP - Asahi Shimbun, Toshiyuki Tsunenari

I used this picture in my other blog, ElderBlog, about a week ago. I even went so far as to zoom in closer so we could better see her agony.  Did the photographer (or I) invade her privacy?  I think not.  I think she was so far beyond caring about matters of self-concern that she gave not one moment’s thought to the camera to her left.

One could argue, however, that her privacy may have been violated anyway because she was unable (or too distant) to object.

And what of the value of this photograph?  Does it outweigh its cost?  I say yes.  This young lady’s face humanizes what could be perceived as an abstract situation half way around the world.  Who can look at her and not feel the pain?  The obviously-desired result would be compassion and the will to provide some kind of relief.

The ethics of news photography goes the other way, too.  There’s the producer (the photographer), and the consumer (you and me).  What about our sensitivities?  Are we being violated in some way by exposure to these images?  War photography can help to answer.

Body of victim being carried away from Soweto uprising in 1976. Photo credit: Sam Nzima

Vietcong man shot by S.Vietnamese police. Photo credit: AP - Eddie Adams

Kim Phuc, age 9, burning after napalm attack. Photo credit: AP - Nick Ut

Do we really need to see the bullet exiting the Vietcong man’s head?  Do we really need to see Kim Phuc’s body burning from napalm?  Do we really need to see the dead body of a 9-year-old boy being carried away from the Soweto uprising?

The answer to each question is ‘no.’  In your most vivid imagination, you could never experience what these people have experienced, and you shouldn’t want to.

And the answer to each question is ‘yes.’  Most of us know little of the horrors of war.  Seeing – and feeling – pictures like these helps to make real life real.

Another question of ethics, if not morality: should the journalist ever become involved in the subject’s situation?  At what point does the reporter put away the notebook, or the news photographer lay down the camera to render aid?

Nick Ut was shooting rapid fire during that scene in Trang Bang, and when he realized what he was looking at, quickly secured his cameras, helped Kim Phuc as best he could, and took her to the hospital.   She says he saved her

Nick Ut & Kim Phuc Photo credit: George Eastman House

life.  He says he just did what he should.  They remain close friends to this day.

This story highlights one of the most troubling challenges for journalists; while they are often hardened professionals doing their jobs, they are – at the same time – human.  Even then, I’m not suggesting that what Nick Ut did should stand as an example for all journalists.  A decision such as his can only be made in the moment.

We are witnesses to events in history through news photography.

A man stands up for freedom. Photo credit: Newsweek - Charlie Cole

Jack Ruby to Lee Harvey Oswald: 'You killed my president, you rat." Photo credit: Robert H. Jackson

"Soldiers are cutting us down." Photo credit: John Filo

This, perhaps, is the most difficult of pictures to see:

The end of a life. Photo credit: U.S. Marine Corps

Why is it necessary to see this?  Because it makes very personal the point that war is hell, and that real people die and are injured; people we love.  It’s necessary because – knowing this – we can question those who would send our loved ones to war.  And if we are satisfied that it is indeed necessary, at least we will have made our peace knowing the risks.

Not all of life is about conflict and peril, of course.  Yet, questions of journalistic ethics still arise.

The kiss seen 'round the world. V-J Day Photo credit: Life - Alfred Eisenstaedt

This famous photo circulated around the world.  It was taken on the day Japan surrendered, ending World War II.  In the frenzied celebration that followed, this nurse was embraced by a sailor who kissed her passionately.  The picture expressed the euphoria felt by so many, and became known as “The Times Square Kiss,” taking place amidst the New York City landmark on August 14, 1945.

Did the nurse object?  Were either the sailor or the nurse married?  Did their spouses find out?

Aww, heck.  It’s a happy picture.  Leave it alone.

I’m heavily medicated today and, therefore, will accept little to no responsibility for what follows.


I was playing catch with my 8-year-old son in the backyard way back when.  As I backed up to catch a fly ball, the heel of my right foot hit a serious divot in the grass causing a hyper-extension of the right knee.  In-so-doing, I broke a bone, loused up the ligaments, mangled  some menisci, pissed off the patella and tore up tendons.  In the three seconds it took to fall to the ground, I could only rasp to Jeremy, “Get your mother.”

For the next two hours, it was me and a small paper bag – used to keep me from hyperventilating.  I was in a state of wanting to scream and wanting to cry.  I was absolutely sure that I was experiencing pain worse than that of childbirth.  (I’ve since expressed that thought to many women who, upon hearing it, quietly shake their heads; knowing how very ignorant I am.)

When the good doctors had finished with me, I was sporting a full leg cast and looking forward to months of physical therapy.  I remember it all as if it happened yesterday.

You Decide !


Sometime last year, I passed a kidney stone.  Or was it a gall stone?; I can’t remember.  And the reason I can’t remember is because I’ve forgotten.  And the reason I’ve forgotten is that the pain was so incredibly excruciating that there’s no way I’d ever want to re-live it.  The pain, apparently, was worse – by a factor of ten – than the pain of the hyper-extension of my right knee, though I don’t know how that could possibly be; the memory of the hyper-extension being as fresh as it was.  The stone?  What stone?


And then there was the time the truck ran over my foot.  It was an icy, snowy day in Wisconsin.  The truck got stuck.  But it wasn’t just any truck; it was a big truck…very big.  And it was fully loaded.  And it was on a slight downgrade.

I was doing what little I could to aid in the situation when I noticed that the truck had started moving – wheels locked – on the ice.  I foresaw all kinds of problems with this.  At the top of the list: my foot was being run over by a gigantic wheel.  I believe I said, “Ouch.”  No, that wasn’t it; it was something else, I’m sure.  But I don’t remember.


Many Christmases ago, we had a family gathering at my parents’ home in North Carolina.  We’d all traveled great distances and were quite happily assembled.

At some point, my little brother and I and our sons decided to play some touch football in the backyard.  Michael had always feared me because I was so much bigger than he was as we were growing up.  That would stand to reason; we were nine years apart in age.  But he eventually grew up, himself; only he grew up to be the size of a linebacker – a size I was decidedly not.

As the first play from scrimmage began, Michael apparently figured that full-contact football was a far better enterprise, and he tackled me…

I had hair, then. Oh yeah...and a sling.

…breaking my left shoulder.

Now, I knew it was broken…I heard and felt the clavicle snap.  But I was a man’s man and Michael was my little brother and our two young sons were there and I couldn’t not play football anymore so I continued to play with the broken shoulder and I didn’t say anything to anyone.

Even though I’m right-handed, my passes looked like they were being thrown by a girl.  (Sorry.)  I tried to tackle my brother (did I mention that he was about fifty pounds heavier?) with my right arm while doing everything possible to not fall on my left side as it was a certainty that I would.

We played the first half and went into the house for snacks.  By then, Michael was fully convinced that he’d been mistaken all these years — his big brother was a wuss. He couldn’t figure out how he had been so wrong for so long.


It might seem to you that I am accident prone, but I’m not.  You have read the sum total of my injuries over the duration of a very long life.  And besides the usual childhood chicken pox and mumps and other assorted illnesses conjured up to stay home from school, I’ve been as healthy as a horse.  I never get sick.

Except for this week.

I’ve got a cold.  I’ve been consumed by it.  It’s like – I don’t know how to act.  I’m off my game.  I’m three fries short of a ‘Happy Meal.’  (Sorry, again.)  I can’t think too much because a fever takes over.  I will soon need a trachea transplant due to the considerable damage done by a persistent cough.  I had my broker buy a thousand shares of Kleenex; that’s how many tissues I’m using.  My wife keeps pumping fluids and medications into me and that’s making me loopy.  It’s a wonder I can spel enything correcly.


All of which brings me to the central question of the day:  Honey, what’s in this Nyquil?

  • In: Reviews
  • Comments Off on Movie Review: Waste Land

From the outset, Waste Land has three things going against it:

  1. It’s a documentary
  2. It features an artiste who just might be a self-aggrandizing clown
  3. It’s about garbage

From the outset, Waste Land has three things going for it:

  1. It won Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, 2010
  2. It won several awards at the Berlin International Film Festival, 2010
  3. It was nominated for the Academy Award in the Best Feature Documentary category, 2011

It just shows to go ya that I can sometimes be wrong.

It seems, at first, that humility is not his strongest trait. Vik Muniz is a visual artist of world renown.  He throws himself and his considerable energies into the next project: the re-creation of famous paintings.  He will do this using people doing their jobs.  The catch is that the materials his subjects work with are also the materials with which his art will be created.

Just to make things more challenging for the viewer, Muniz selects the country of his birth, Brazil, as the location…meaning that we have to switch quite often between English and Portuguese.  And when the latter is spoken, we have to read those annoying subtitles.

About ten minutes into Waste Land, we begin to see almost another movie entirely; this one’s about people who work in one of the world’s largest dumps.  They’re called “Pickers,” and their job is to extract recyclables from the fetid waste being dumped day and night.  The Pickers – dozens of them – are at the backs of the trucks as garbage is tipped nearly on top of them.  The work is obviously hazardous, back-breaking, and pays dirt-for-wages.  But the work is done earnestly, and is extremely well-organized.

We begin to meet some of the individuals who do this work.  We find that they carry themselves with dignity and pride.  There’s nothing bad about what they do; they could, after all, be dealing drugs or prostituting themselves.  No, picking from the garbage is fine work.  There’s no shame here.

The concept of Muniz’ art must be explained to his subjects only in brief; they don’t need a drawn-out dissertation; let’s just do it.

What they do is pose for a photograph: a lot of the subject’s own character built into each shot.  Then the images are projected onto the floor of a large warehouse.  There, recycled garbage is carefully selected and placed to capture just the right shapes, colors, textures and shadings.  It’s really quite something to see how this all comes together.  The resulting images are astonishingly beautiful.

A specialized photograph is taken of these works of art, then framed and taken to Sotheby’s for auction to the élite.

There’s a scene in which Muniz and his team discuss the ethics of taking the subjects to London for the auction.  None of them have ever been on a plane, much less out of Brazil.  That debate isn’t shown till its end.  The subjects do go to London and it is there that we see how the experience impacts the lives of the Pickers.

When the credits rolled, I found that I was holding my breath…I feared that breathing would allow a deeply meaningful moment to pass.  I feared that breathing would open a floodgate of tears.

Waste Land is an affirmation of life.  It shows that you don’t have to achieve some kind of status in order to be a meaningful contributor to the world.  It shows the souls of those who seem the unlikeliest of all…to have great beauty.


Waste Land is still showing at a small handful of art houses.  It can also be rented or streamed from Netflix, and purchased from

View the trailer here.

Be genki (GEHN-kee) is not just an expression; it isn’t just an exhortation.  Genki is an attitude, a mindset, a way of life.

Genki means ‘healthy.’  It is used when asking “How are you?” (ogenki desuka?).  You would respond, “I’m fine” (genki desu, or just genki).

But this is not a language lesson.  This is about the Japanese mindset; they exist in an almost spiritual state of genki.

Let’s use just one sad event in modern history to illustrate how this attitude was manifest.

The Nagasaki Peace Bell - now located at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Photo credit: unknown

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 were a crushing blow to the nation and to each of its people, as you can well imagine.  By 1950, fully 350,000 people had died either directly or subsequent to the fact.  Everyone knew someone who had died or was injured.

If you go today to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, you’ll find a country that accepts all responsibility for bringing this fate upon itself; a nation humbled.  This place is so moving to the visitor that it causes one to tear up.

These events brought about a time of soul-searching, of reclaiming purpose, of rebuilding.

Genki means ‘strong, positive.’  It is the foundation of the Japanese national spirit.  Now, as before, Genki is drawn upon for the strength to recover.  It was explained to me this way: “We’ve been through it before; we can recover again.  Be genki!”  This isn’t a superficial expression…they really mean it.

The Japanese are nothing if not a people that cares for its elderly and its young.  Examples of this are very visible parts of the national culture.  So, how do you explain the current-day problems at the Fukushima Nuclear power plant to grade school kids?  With strength and a positive attitude.  And with humor.

YouTube: Nuclear Boy (4:34) English subtitles

As you can see, Nuclear Boy explains the problem in a way children can understand.  It’s informative and funny: what kid doesn’t have a full appreciation for anything related to the subject of poop?  This video tries to tell the truth, and may be overly optimistic.  Nevertheless, someone thought it necessary to produce this explanation (a time-intensive job accomplished in just two days) to encourage the children.

That’s what the Japanese do.  When they’re not telling you to be genki, they’re saying “Ganbatte!” (gahn-BAH-tay) which means, “Give it all you’ve got.”  “Do the best with what you have.”  “We’re all in this together.”  “Press forward.”

The Japanese really liked Barack Obama’s campaign slogan: “Yes we can!”  It was right up their alley.  Obama posters were plastered everywhere in 2008.  The message fed their national spirit.

So, be genki.  And ganbatte!  Your response should be, “ganbatte-mas” (I’m giving it everything I can).

Somehow, I think the good people of Japan will get through their current problems.

It’s eight days now since the quake.  I wonder if we’re becoming fatigued by the constant, awful news.  One can only hope not.

The American Red Cross and it’s equivalents around the world quickly organized relief efforts which this blog has been proud to publicize.  But there’s another story I thought might interest you.

Relief efforts have been organized within Japan.  The country, itself, is renowned for its emergency management capability.  These national resources  have not been as stretched in seventy years.  The Japanese – as a people – are deeply in the middle of saving their countrymen and physical assets.  Their efforts take many forms: search and rescue, feeding and housing the displaced, medical, transportation of the injured, and a host of other needs – covered without anyone asking for the help.  You could call it human nature in the face of extraordinary circumstances.  But in tomorrow’s post, I will talk about the specific nature of the people of Japan.

College graduates from around the world live and work in Japan; some for a year, others for up to five years.  They teach their home languages and culture & customs.  Languages are exchanged.  Relationships are formed.  Over four thousand of these graduates work with one program, alone.  It’s called the JET Programme; JET being the acronym for Japan Exchange and Teaching.  These individuals call themselves “JET’s”, and have an association of their own called AJET.

As the title of this blog post is Man Up For Japan, a bit of language, cultural and monetary explanation is in order.  The Japanese word man is the romanized spelling of the word for 10,000 (  ). In monetary terms, for example, 10,000 yen = 1 man of yen.  In recent history, 1 man equaled about $100US and the reference remains intact today regardless of the actual exchange rate for the yen.

AJET’s have organized a relief fund of their own: Man Up For Japan.  Their idea is for JET’s to donate a man, $100, to the fund which will be used to support the work being done to help the Japanese people.  There’s a lot of love and appreciation among the JET’s for their hosts and, just today, thousands of them “manned up” for Japan.

I thought you’d like to know how our kids are doing over there.  There is much consideration and action revolved around the hazards of being in Japan just now.  But there’s more.  Our kids are pitching in as best they can, be it by helping their towns dig out from the rubble, or rendering aid in any number of ways, or “manning up” for the country that has treated them so well.

If you are moved to pitch in, the Man Up For Japan Facebook event page provides links to several ways you can give money.  Let’s surprise them and swell the fund beyond their wildest expectations.  Man Up For Japan, and then drop them a little note of support on their Facebook event page.  Your good wishes will go a long way toward helping the wonderful people of Japan.  Thanks.

Give to the Red Cross Japan Earthquake & Pacific Tsunami Relief Fund.

There’s an old saying in journalism circles: If a dog bites a man, that’s not news.  But if a man bites a dog, you’ve got a story.

When two cars crash, a mention might appear in the papers.  When a plane crashes, it’s front page above the fold.  Car crashes are common.  We’re used to them.  Planes crash much less frequently, but more casualties occur at once.  Add to that the fear of falling out of the sky.

Yet, planes are a far safer conveyance of people than cars.  The odds of death by plane crash: 1 in 20,000.  The odds of death by car crash: 1 in 100.  Full disclosure: air travel does have a greater environmental impact than road travel.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that 3,500 people died last month in car crashes.  The American Cancer Society estimates that cancer deaths number about 42,000 every month.  The American Heart Association says that a person dies from cardiovascular disease every 36 seconds.  None of this seems to matter much; we’re used to it.

But we get all tied up in knots with a tragedy of the scope now taking place in Japan.  This is fully justified…to a point.

Let me be absolutely clear: perhaps 10,000 brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, friends, relatives, co-workers and others will have been counted as dead when all is reconciled.  10,000 lives snuffed out by natural disaster within minutes.  Add to that the number of injured which could be many times 10,000.  And we shouldn’t forget the many who knew, loved, worked with, played with, did business with all of the affected souls who are now gone, or grossly disabled, homeless, without the necessities of life; in pain.

There’s a new, insidious dimension to this already horrible situation: the peril of death by nuclear radiation.  If the core of a nuclear reactor melts down, its potential deadly effects could last for a million years.  Who would it affect?  In which direction would the deadly cloud go?  What would you die of?  Would death occur swiftly or agonizingly slow?

Six days have now passed and there is hardly a detail about the earthquake and tsunami and their effects that we do not know.  But the answers to the questions about nuclear fallout remain – for the most part – unknowable.  A lot depends on the size of the radiation release(s) when it/they occur.  A lot depends on the wind velocity and direction from the ground to a mile up.  A lot depends on the direction of the prevailing winds; the winds above one mile up.  There are so many variables.  We can’t begin to know the result until the event occurs.

Nuclear fission demands our respect and, in the best of times, gets it.  Now, more than before, we watch and wait – wanting to learn the lessons that can be learned; hoping the feared cataclysm won’t happen.

American policymakers are acting with an abundance of caution, but no one is yet slamming shut the door to future nuclear power growth.  For our part, Americans are still holding a collective breath.  There have been no demonstrations; no campaigns for or against nuclear power.  Most of the countries of the European Union are behaving similarly.  In a few, however, there are large anti-nuclear demonstrations.

It should be noted that three of Fukushima’s nuclear generators were already down for routine maintenance when the quake hit.  The remaining three  were in operation.  All six were designed to shut themselves down automatically when an earthquake strikes.  Shutdown did take place, and some damage did occur as a result of the earthquake.  But the catastrophic damage occurred as a result of the punishing tsunami.

The structural stresses needed to withstand an earthquake are pretty much opposite those needed to handle a tsunami.  You can design for one or the other; but not for both.  Nuclear plants require a constant and abundant supply of water.  While that can be found at some rivers and lakes, an ocean’s waters (after desalinization) are more reliably abundant and cost-efficient.  Hence, locating the plants near the ocean.

The costs of conversion to wind, solar and/or biomass — not to mention the time it would take to accomplish the conversion, and not to mention the number and output of facilities needed to replace nuclear, and not to mention the cost/ROI equation — are almost too huge to calculate.  It all comes back to a debate between nuclear and fossil-fuels.

So, let’s do the math.

Fossil-fuels (i.e. coal) are far and away the largest source of fuel used in power-generation around the globe today.  Some countries are more dependent on nuclear than others; France, for example, gets 80% of its power from nuclear.  By comparison, the U.S. gets 20% of its power from nuclear.

All things being equal, what is the environmental impact of energy production using coal, oil and natural gas versus nuclear?  This is a table from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

Average emission levels in the production of 1 megawatt hour of electricity expressed in pounds of emissions per megawatt hour (lbs/MWh):



Natural Gas

Carbon Dioxide 2249




Sulfur Dioxide





Nitrogen Oxides






It’s plain to see that – in the normal course of the production of electricity – nuclear is by far the cleanest.

But CO2, SO2 and NO emissions not only impact our environment; they cause harm to life.  An EPA study…

…eliminated several factors that could confound the interpretation of data, such as temperature and other pollutants…and found that…60,000 deaths are caused each year by particulate matter in the air.

Particulate matter is the product of emissions thrown into the atmosphere.

The EPA’s assertion was vetted by the nonprofit Health Effects Institute in Cambridge, Mass., and was peer-reviewed by Science magazine.  60,000 deaths.  That number includes people you may know; it could include you or me.

What about the monetary cost of power generation?  If investors see that their product will be sold and that they will derive a profit, they’ll invest in it.  The cycle is completed when the consumer sees value and is willing to pay for it.  From Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy (levelized meaning all costs from conception to decommissioning and deconstruction of a power generation plant):

LCOE expressed in dollars per megawatt hour ($/MWh).

Coal 144
Clean Coal 141
Natural Gas 225
Nuclear 138

Source: Lazard – Levelized Cost of Energy June 2009   Link to study

It’s pretty close, but nuclear still comes out best.  Combining this factor with the emissions factor (including deaths), you may see that nuclear is not as horrible as we’re thinking it is today.

A couple notes: 1) I’m always skeptical of statistics.  I have analyzed the tables, above, and believe the data to be true.  2)  American pro-nuclear lobbyists poured $1.69B into favorable policy-making just last year.  Plant operators and their executives spent many times that number.  Today, operators and lobbyists are working even harder to keep their industry’s prospects from being crushed under the weight of negative public opinion and resulting policy-making.  Source: Bloomberg, 3/16/11

That said, until and unless cost-efficient alternatives to fossil-fuels are developed, our best power comes from nuclear.

What’s going on in Japan is frightening.  But fear should not guide our long-term policy decisions.

Give to the Red Cross Japan Earthquake & Pacific Tsunami Relief Fund.

Yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater is not okay.  Saying that the president is a socialist, yellow-bellied foreigner is okay.  In the first instance, the safety of the theater’s occupants is put in jeopardy.  In the second instance, mere bombast — while potentially slanderous — is protected free speech.  I would argue strenuously in favor of anyone who speaks ill of the president because curtailing your right to speak your mind — on this or any subject — would curtail my right to speak my own opinions; even if you’re right and I’m wrong.  It’s a two-way street.

This post is not about the exercise of the right to free speech; it’s about what is being spoken.

The tragic events in Japan seem to be getting worse by the day: earthquake, tsunami, death, injury, displacement, nuclear meltdown, Mount Fuji could blow.  What does tomorrow bring?  It’s almost too much for us to take in.  How much worse must it be for the people who are living it?

All manner of reporting has kept us abreast of events.  All manner of expert analyses have been rendered.  Now it’s apparently time for some opinionists to crawl out of their caves.

Glenn Beck inferred that God is punishing the Japanese.  Perhaps worse, he didn’t say what he said.  Confused?  Try this: on his radio show on Monday, Beck said,  “I’m not saying God is, you know, causing earthquakes.  I’m not not saying that either.  Whatever you call God, there’s a message being sent.  And that is, ‘Hey, you know that stuff we’re doing?  Not really working out real well.  Maybe we should stop doing some of it.’  I’m just saying.”

From a free speech point of view, I have no problem with Beck expressing an opinion.  From a bully-pulpit, “Fire!”-in-the-theater point of view, I have a right and (perhaps) an obligation to mitigate his vitriol.  His method of expression is a cowardly way of saying something without saying it, and it fits a profile of his own creation.

At least Beck’s political/religious forebears had the brass to say it outright.  Commenting just after 9/11, Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell said, “I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America. I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen.'”  Then Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson responded, “Well, I totally concur.”

I’m just one little ‘David’ taking on three political ‘Goliath’s’.  They have the right to speak with hubris.  I have the right to disagree.

The thesis put forth by Beck, Falwell, Robertson and others is that God is vindictive; hateful.  I say the opposite: God is love.  To prove this, I will explore the creation of the earth, the creation of God’s children, and His parenting practices through the ages.

Theology’s greatest mystery is when and how God, Himself, was created.  While that puzzle remains unsolvable, there is little argument (even among Christians) that the earth was created about 4.6 billion years ago.  You’ll recall from scripture that it was without form and void.  The creation story (Genesis) tells us that some animals were created on the fifth day and the remainder early on the sixth.

If a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years is as a day to God (2Peter3:8), what was the void and formless earth doing between its creation and the placement of animals upon it?  It was evolving into a form capable of sustaining the lives of animals.  In geological terms, land masses were slowly moving to where they are today.  This movement was manifest with great earthquakes and hurricanes and volcanoes and ice ages.  Mountains weren’t just plunked down upon the face of the planet; they were formed through the compression of land masses over a very long time.  Rivers weren’t placed into the landscape, they were etched into it over millennia.  Continental shelves and fault lines and the locations of the oceans are among the natural products of the process of earth’s growth.  And the big news is that earth continues to shift/contract/grow every single day.  Including last Friday.  Including today.

Earth’s natural law is the way in which the planet fulfills God’s plan for it and for the creations supported by it.  God won’t violate His own law to keep us from thinking that He hates us.  Thus, “catastrophic” events are not and cannot be inflictions from God.  They are, simply, the product of natural law.

So, why would a loving God put his children in an unsafe place?  We might question His parenting skills.

God created humans about 2.2 million years ago.  Scripture tells us that God created us to love Him.  Why would He do otherwise?  Of course, true love must be a decision made of our own free will, so God had to give us the freedom of choice.  If we couldn’t choose to love Him, we’d be robots in service to a master.  The part of us God’s most interested in is the spirit which was crafted to seek and find, fall in love with and eventually live alongside our Creator.  That’s His plan.  But it’s our choice.

We have not only choice, but a self-preservation instinct.  This serves to self-motivate continued good health, gives us defensive and offensive capability, and has kept us alive as individuals and as a species.  But our bodies can’t exist forever; they’re not supposed to.  The planet was intentionally not created with resources sufficient to sustain an accumulating population forever.  And God’s great plan isn’t satisfied by our continued physical existence.  There must be an end to physical life in order for the spirit to wind up where it will go.

Given these traits — choice and self-preservation — and the reality of a finite physical life, humans were problematic by nature from the very start.

Simplistically, there are two kinds of parenting: the “junior’s-going-to-grow-up-to-be-a-fine-young-man-someday” kind, and the tough-love kind.  The first kind lets the child find its own way without restriction.  Some say this is a lazy kind of parenting.  (Confession: I was one of these.)

The second way is motivated by love.  It sets boundaries as a means of protection, and sometimes finds it necessary to remind us when we’ve taken risks beyond the safety of the boundaries.

The latter is the relationship God had with His children at the beginning.  He’d hand down laws (boundaries) so we’d have necessary guidance.  We’d go another way and He’d have to reel us back in.  It is only the scale of God’s discipline that causes us today to think of Him as mean.  Meanness has never been His motivation.

Over time, things got bad enough that God decided to do something new and different.  He sent part of Himself to earth to wipe our slates clean and to be an example of how we should live.  Accomplishing that, God didn’t have any new laws to hand down; He didn’t have to mete out any disciplines.  It began a new era in His relationship with us.  This is the age we now live in.  Today, we have and need only this guidance:

“’Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.’  This is the first and most important commandment.  The second most important commandment is like this one. And it is, ‘Love others as much as you love yourself.’  All the Law of Moses and the Books of the Prophets are based on these two commandments.”

 —  Jesus       Matthew 22:37-40  (CEV)

There is an end to this age: Rapture, Armageddon, Revelation, Eternity.  Only God knows when and how these things will happen, and He counsels us not to speculate (Acts 1:7).  But until then — and after then — God gets to be what He is: pure, absolute love.

This is how I know that God isn’t bringing punishment upon anyone who suffers in any kind of abnormality:

  • His natural laws are working just as they should.
  • The traits of choice and self-preservation, and the reality of a finite life continue as intended.
  • His judgment of those present on earth doesn’t come till the end.

Only God is perfect.  We humans are inherently imperfect.  We have, therefore, no right to condemn anyone (Matt.7:3-5).  If Glenn Beck, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and others studied their Bibles without the overlay of their personal agendas, they would know that only God knows when the end is coming.  They would know that God reserves for Himself alone the right to judge.  They would know how very dangerous it is for them to act as if they were God.

The earthquake has been officially upgraded to a magnitude 9.0.  At this writing:

  • It is the fifth strongest earthquake in history.
  • It is the strongest earthquake ever recorded in Japan (measurements taken since 1891).
  • This event has produced at least 235 aftershocks recorded by the U.S. Geological Survey.  This list displays only those 5.0 or higher.
  • The earthquake produced a Tsunami approaching 40 feet in height.  Residents of the coastal regions of northeast Japan had less than an hour’s warning; 45 – 60 minutes to reach high ground.  The Tsunami roared inland as far as six miles.  A healthy human can run between 6 and 12mph.  The young and the old cannot.

33ft. Tsunami rips inland at Natori in northeastern Japan. Photo credit: Reuters. More incredible photography:

  • A Tsunami raced across the Pacific at 500mph inflicting damage to the western coastal regions of South America.
  • Honshu’s nuclear power facilities automatically shut down, causing the national power grid to collapse.  There will be rolling blackouts.
  • Three nuclear reactors were severely damaged by the quake and Tsunami.  The containment building at Fukushima #1 exploded and is still feared to be near meltdown – radiation leakage has occurred; #3 just now exploded and is feared to be close to meltdown – radiation leakage has occurred; Onagawa sustained damage, but has since been declared radiation-normal.
  • Radiation released from a meltdown would affect very little of Japan.  It may, instead, travel to Alaska, Canada and the U.S. west coast.
  • The main Japanese island of Honshu was shifted 8 feet to the east by the earthquake.  The earth’s axis was shifted nearly 4 inches.  The length of an earth day was shortened by 1.8 microseconds.
  • Preliminary structure and infrastructure damage estimates exceed $35B US.  The disruption to Japan’s economy is incalculable.  The effects on world markets is unknowable.
  • The death toll will number in the tens of thousands.  The injured are innumerable.
  • Japan’s renowned Earthquake Prediction Centre says there is a 70% chance of a magnitude 7+ “within the next three days.”

As much as is known, millions of Japanese are completely unaware of any of this.  They know only that something terrible has happened.

The cold hard facts above are alarming and upsetting.  But imagine the thoughts running through the minds of the survivors and injured who are homeless and without food, water, heat, medical care and transportation; much less information of any kind.  The scope of this tragedy boggles our minds.  The personal travails of the untold afflicted must be the more devastating.

I began to consider this in yesterday’s post.

Our son, Nick, teaches English to grade school kids and to adults in Hashikami-cho in the northeastern Honshu Prefecture of Aomori.  He had just finished fifth period class when the quake struck at 2:46pm Friday.  His

Akabonai Elementary School

students “dove under tables as (another teacher) and I held onto a large TV on a stand, in part to keep it from toppling and in part for our own stability.”  Other things fell and walls cracked.  The nightmare lasted for a “shocking” five minutes, but felt like an eternity.  The town’s seaside strip did not fare well,  as Nick’s photographs, below, illustrate.  Fortunately, his school is located considerably upland.

(To enlarge these pictures, press Ctrl+  several times.)

Hashikami: Tsunami damage to seaside strip. Photo credits: Nick Swanson

Nick’s experience likely mirrors that of many, but not all.

The Hashikami lighthouse - elevation: 79 feet

The elevation of the Hashikami Lighthouse is twice what it needed to be to avoid destruction by the Tsunami.  Only a stone’s throw away, the city of Hachinohe, elevation 0 feet – and with a population of 240,000 – was damaged extensively by the earthquake.  It was then pummeled by the Tsunami.

But for the grace of God, and 79 feet.

Give to the Red Cross Japan Earthquake & Pacific Tsunami Relief Fund.

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