It has been awhile.....
B.B. King (May 14) - B.B. King (born Riley B. King; "B.B." was an early nickname, short for "Blues Boy", back when it was not as offensive to be referred to as "boy", maybe? Or maybe that's why it became just "B.B.") was the classic blues guitar performer of his generation, a critical link between the early greats of the Depression and post-WWII years (Sonny Boy Williamson, Son House, Robert Johnson, others) and the explosion of blues and blues-derived rock performers of the late 20th century (a compressed list could include Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Robert Cray, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, along with dozens of lesser-known talents). He was not the only one fitting that description (Howlin' Wolf, John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy), but he was the most famous and the most successful and long-lived in his career (Guy is still performing). He and his guitar "Lucille" got around, all right; he seems to have been a generous performer, and judging by his numerous collaborations, well-loved and highly respected in the music industry. Music fans loved him, as well. He drew upon the original Mississippi Delta sources (the ones from Mississippi) and played the blues straight: without excessive musical embellishment on his part, and a loud, clear singing voice which had a style influenced by gospel. He is equally known for his original pieces and his covers of blues classics. His place in the history of American music is about as secure as anyone's.
Tariq Aziz (June 5) - I am rather shocked to find no previous reference in this blog to the Iraqi who was Saddam Hussein's Foreign Minister and mouthpiece to the rest of the world. Aziz was a Saddam crony from all the way back: he didn't have the bluster and threatening manner of Saddam, but he was involved all the way up to his neck--which, unlike Saddam's, was somehow spared after the Iraq invasion (he was sentenced to life in prison, and died there). The fact that the invasion occurred, after all the filibustering and prevarication on all sides, was his own singular failure: his job was to keep the foreigners talking--with him, in particular--in order to prevent them from overrunning the country and throwing out the Baathists. I'm sure Saddam would have liquidated him for that failure if he'd had the chance. An interesting and somewhat ironic fact is that Aziz was a Christian; the Baathist regime was authentically secular, and that aspect of its governance seems to be lost forever from Iraq--now most of the Christians are, too.
Ed Gilligan (May 29) - He was President and Vice Chairman of American Express when he died suddenly, after becoming seriously ill on a domestic flight. At age 55, Gilligan was among the top candidates for the eventual succession to longtime American Express Chairman Ken Chenault. He had an unusual career in a couple of aspects: his entire career was with the company (that is not as common among that company's senior executives as you might think), and he built his career on an usual dimension of the company: Instead of working his way through the mainstream US Card operations or strategic direction, he built--from scratch--the company's strategy of partnering with other financial institutions and banks that wanted to issue their own cards with American Express' logo, i.e. the franchising business. This led to his taking on responsibilities such as developing the business-to-business capability and later to heading the international card business. He represented very well the entrepreneurial spirit that Chenault has championed for the company, as well as trying to develop value in the (not-quite-unique, but rare) proprietary card network.
Cynthia Lennon (April 1) - Beatles fans will recognize the name--Cynthia was the first wife of John Lennon, and the mother of their son Julian. John and Cynthia married in the early Sixties, and they were divorced one year before Yoko Ono came into (took over?) John's life. Yoko Ono wrote a very pleasant short obituary for Cynthia Lennon for Rolling Stone.
Peter Gay and William Zinsser (May 17) - Two Yale humanities professor colleagues who died (coincidentally) the same day. Gay was an expert on modern European cultural history, Zinsser a practitioner and teacher of the methods of clear expository writing. Clearly, I was not a recipient of the brilliance of either's teaching!
John F. Nash and Alicia Nash (May 23) - Their simultaneous deaths were not coincidental; they died together in an auto accident on the New Jersey Turnpike. Students of mathematics, and especially its branch called game theory (it has very little relation to today's video games, youngsters!) will be familiar with Nash's pioneering work. Film buffs will recognize them as the principal characters in the movie "A Beautiful Mind", which focused on the crisis which mental illness brought to John Nash's life, career, and marriage. (The movie won four Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Supporting Actress.) Alicia Nash (portrayed by Jennifer Connelly for her Oscar) is herself a fascinating story: her family immigrated from El Salvador, and she gave up a promising career in math herself to help John. The couple separated but reunited later in life; John Nash eventually regained control over the paranoid delusions which derailed him for decades.
Lennie Merullo and Beau Biden (May 30) - Unlike the previous two pairs of coterminous life endings, these two were very asymmetrical in their significance. (sorry, Prof. Zinsser!)
Chicago Cub baseball fans might rate Merullo as the more important; they are kind of fanatic in that way. Merullo was the last living member of the last Cubs team that played in a World Series, in 1945 (the last survivor to have actually seen the Cubs win a World Series may have died already: that event was in 1908). Merullo continued on in a baseball-related career as a scout and died at age 98.
Beau Biden, on the other hand, is one whose life clearly ended too soon (age 46). The son of Vice President Joe Biden, the highest office he held was Attorney General for the state of Delaware, but he seemed headed for greatness, perhaps on the national level. When people spoke of the possible next generation of leaders in the Democratic party, his name was among them, and President Obama himself came to deliver his eulogy. He had an outstanding military career in Iraq and served two terms as Delaware's Attorney General--he was said to be preparing to run for Governor when his illness, brain cancer, felled him.
Rant the First - Beau Biden's death from this disease, one of the most feared of all, because some forms of malignant brain tumors (glioblastoma) cause death so quickly, has occasioned a new discussion of its (generally unknown) causes. Here and here are links to two informative discussions on the topic: both mention that ionizing radiation, such as that from nuclear radiation treatment, can cause tumors later in life. Also worth noting is that previous brain injury or disease, or genetic predisposition--both Joe Biden and Beau Biden had strokes--may be associated with a higher risk. Then both reports go to the question of cellphones and their possible association with it, the subject of my ranting wrath.
Cellphones produce radio-emitted frequency--a non-ionizing radiation, of a form similar to microwaves, which once had suspicions of being associated with possible cancer. The microwave producers toned down the emissions (through better screens), and eventually we stopped receiving warnings about keeping our faces too close to the microwave (not something we were likely to do, anyway). The cellphone manufacturers have consistently said there is no danger--of course, they would say that--and have said that they have also reduced the radiation produced. (Which begs the question: Why would they reduce it, if there was no danger? And, what about those who used to use cellphones back in the primitive old days?)
The scientific community has not definitively concluded on this question: there is "conflicting evidence", though perhaps more weighted to the negative side in terms of statistically significant correlations. (The evidence is a bit complicated, as there are different types of tumors, some of which the statistical evidence argues are more likely with cellphone use, some actually less likely, and don't forget to consider the question of "reporting bias" from those who later fall ill.)
I have to say I really don't like the sound of this at all: we are producing hundreds of millions of cellphones each year, and we're not really sure if they contribute to brain cancer or not? Unlike the microwave, we do put these things up close to our brains every day--at least most people do, though the versatility of the phones for other purposes, and the improvement of the "speaker" phone and plug-in earphone/microphone attachments make this less of an exclusive manner of use. I don't want to say that this sounds like the debates that went on for decades about cigarette smoking and lung cancer, because I really hope it's not analogous, but....I find the unsettled nature of this question to be unacceptable. (Yes, I know, "climate change deniers", science is never settled.)
It seems like we will have to wait 15-20 years (who knows how long it takes for these cancers all to appear, if they are in fact "caused" by an external factor?) to see if the incidence of deadly brain cancer rises dramatically--or not.
In the meantime, Berkeley, California has passed an ordinance requiring warnings about use of cellphones too close to the body. The FCC has issued guidelines on the maximum-allowed Specific Absorption Rate (SAR), but research indicates that varies widely by the type of phone and the conditions under which the phone is operating (when it is working harder to receive transmission, it steps up the energy level!) Call me scurrilous, but I'm advising all to keep the phones at least a couple of inches away from any sensitive organs, such as, for example, your brains.
Rant the Second - A couple of weeks ago, we celebrated Memorial Day, in which we honor those Americans who have fallen in the service of our country in our wars. I certainly share in the serious remembrance of them, and I would suggest we consider as well those innocents of all nations who have suffered in them. Like any American, I honor our military's bravery, and I feel that our participants in those struggles have always had honorable intentions when they went to war. My only reservation is that I feel that, as a nation, we are sometimes too willing to go to war, to believe what we are told as the reasons that we are warring.
With regard to this topic, I heard a couple of times this year what I considered to be an offensive statement: that this is the first Memorial Day in 14 years in which the US is not at war. (Here's an example, from Newsweek.) There is arguably a shade of difference in the level of the US participation in conflict this year as compared to the last 14 years (the reference is to 2001, when we entered the conflict in Afghanistan after 9/11): our participation in the hostilities in Afghanistan, and in Iraq, may have "officially" ended, but that's neither here nor there as far as I am concerned. We haven't been in a declared war since 1945, and the conflicts go on, with our active participation, in both Iraq and Afghanistan (and in a couple other countries, like Yemen, Syria, and Somalia).
What those who would say we are not "at war" mean is that we do not have "boots on the ground" in "active combat roles"--though of course we do have them grounded in Iraq (and I don't care how far they are from the current "front", it is that changeable) and in Afghanistan (a variety of levels of on-the-ground participation in training, special operations, whatever else is needed on the day, and the trend is toward increasing it). As far as I can tell, we are "at war" with ISIS (or whatever you want to call them), even if proxies are doing the combat. I guess drones don't count, bombs don't count, special operations don't count, and cruise missiles won't count. Only dead American soldiers count.
Mind you, I am not saying that we should not consider ourselves in a state of active hostilities with regard to the Taliban, or with ISIS, or with al-Qaeda, for that matter: we have had reason to go after them, and we certainly have not made peace with them. I am saying, as a friend of mine had on his bumper sticker, "I am already against the next war"--the one that some want to start with Iran. I am saying, let's at least be honest with ourselves, on a day like Memorial Day, that we still have men and women in our military subject to danger from hostile forces in multiple countries. I am saying, in the next Presidential campaign, that when candidates start talking tough about what they want to do in our military campaigns, that we ask them how many American servicepeople's lives they are willing to commit--in the most permanent way--to those ends. That was the real problem with the Iraq war: you could call it "sticker shock" about how many lives were lost, but the real point was that there was no sticker.