Thursday, May 5, 2016

#126 / The Abilene Paradox

Last night, in a meeting of the Pataphysical Broadcasting Foundation, Inc., which is a nonprofit corporation that is the official owner of radio station KUSP, the voting members of the Foundation were presented with an opportunity to shut down the station and sell the license. The Board of Directors, elected by the Foundation, was suggesting this course of action. One long time Foundation member sent me an email, before the meeting, suggesting that the "Abilene Paradox" seemed to be at work. 

Are you familiar with the Abilene Paradox? I wasn't! Here is a brief definition and then an illustrative story, from the often-queried Internet source of all information about anything, Wikipedia:

In an Abilene paradox a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many (or even all) of the individuals in the group. It involves a common breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that his or her own preferences are counter to the group's and, therefore, does not raise objections. A common phrase relating to the Abilene Paradox is a desire not to "rock the boat."

On a hot afternoon in Coleman, Texas, the family is comfortably playing dominoes on a porch, until the father-in-law suggests that they take a trip to Abilene [53 miles north] for dinner. The wife says, "Sounds like a great idea." The husband, despite having reservations because the drive is long and hot, thinks that his preferences must be out-of-step with the group and says, "Sounds good to me. I just hope your mother wants to go." The mother-in-law then says, "Of course I want to go. I haven't been to Abilene in a long time." 
The drive is hot, dusty, and long. When they arrive at the cafeteria, the food is as bad as the drive. They arrive back home four hours later, exhausted. 
One of them dishonestly says, "It was a great trip, wasn't it?" The mother-in-law says that, actually, she would rather have stayed home, but went along since the other three were so enthusiastic. The husband says, "I wasn't delighted to be doing what we were doing. I only went to satisfy the rest of you." The wife says, "I just went along to keep you happy. I would have had to be crazy to want to go out in the heat like that." The father-in-law then says that he only suggested it because he thought the others might be bored. 
The group sits back, perplexed that they together decided to take a trip which none of them wanted. They each would have preferred to sit comfortably, but did not admit to it when they still had time to enjoy the afternoon.

This story is a cautionary tale. Obviously, as group decisions are made, it is very important for each individual in the group to speak out honestly, and to state his or her own mind, including making known any hesitations or questions that he or she may have about what seems to be the "agreed upon" course of action. 

The process of group decision making is, actually, what we call "politics" when we practice it in a larger context, and "politics," in fact, may be the right word to use even in the case of non-governmental decision-making. The phrases "family politics," "academic politics," "Church politics," etc. are well known, and acknowledge that the "political" process is one that applies in any situation in which group decisions are being made. 

What has been happening at KUSP may well illustrate the Abilene Paradox, as my friend suggested. The Abilene Paradox might also be at work in the Democratic Party decision making about who the Party nominee should be for the Presidential election in November. 

Those who want Bernie Sanders to drop out, before all the state primary elections have concluded (including the California Primary Election on June 7th), may be espousing a "don't rock the boat" approach to politics that could send the Democratic Party off on a trip to Abilene that they might actually want to avoid.

Image Credit:

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

#125 / Seymour

I tend to think that Seymour Hersh has credibility. One commentator has suggested that he is aging, and is having "senior moments," and aging he certainly is. Full disclosure: I, also, am a member of the aging club! You, too? Wow! It's a big club.

At any rate, I recommend clicking this link to read a discussion between Seymour Hersh and Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! The ostensible focus of the discussion is the Hillary v. Bernie presidential competition, but here's the statement from Hersh that I found most compelling; it's found near the end: 

It’s a little bit like putting a couple hundred guys, and maybe a lot more that we don’t know about, into Syria now, and many more than that into Iraq, where the—God knows what’s going to happen in both places. It’s just—it’s done without consulting the Congress, which probably this Congress probably doesn’t want to be consulted, but that’s the—you know, the Constitution is not a nuisance, as many in the Republican Party, as Bush and Cheney, and now, in many areas, even Obama believes, it seems to be a nuisance. We don’t tell Congress anything. We don’t go and—we don’t tell the people anything. And the control—the control of the media that goes on now, the major media, is, I think, much more acute now. I can go days wondering, you know, why we don’t do more aggressive reporting on certain things.

Not the finest phrasing, but Hersh's comments are far from exemplifying a "senior moment," at least in my opinion. That is, unless we want to define "senior moment" as a moment when our older (and quite possibly wiser) elders give us some insight into truths that we may be forgetting. 

Here's the truth we shouldn't forget: If we care about self-government and democracy, a political arrangement in which "we the people" are in charge of the government, instead of the government being in charge of us, "we the people," and our elected representatives, have to have information about what "our" government is doing. 

Think we know?

I don't think so. 

I'd like to have a President who isn't going to forget this lesson from Seymour Hersh.

Image Credit:

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

#124 / A Two Million Dollar Life Lesson

I recently read a blog posting by James Altucher. The posting was an engaging account of a "day in the life" of James Altucher. 

According to WikipediaAltucher is "an American hedge fund manager, entrepreneur, bestselling author, and podcaster." Altucher has also "founded or cofounded more than twenty companies, including Reset, Inc. and StockPickr, and says he failed at seventeen of them. He has published eleven books, and he is a frequent contributor to publications including The Financial Times,, TechCrunch, Seeking Alpha, Thought Catalog, and The Huffington Post."

To continue just a bit more with the Altucher biography, Wikipedia reports that "USA Today named Altucher's book Choose Yourself one of the twelve best business books of all time." The subtitle to Choose Yourself is "Be Happy, Make Millions, Live The Dream." 

The picture above, purportedly depicting two million dollars, is the image that Altucher chose to illustrate his recent blog posting, which was titled, "How to Find Two Million Dollars In the Morning."

Considering Altucher's biography, the surprise is that it wasn't Altucher who found the two million. It was Altucher's friend Dave, who apparently made a "forgettable"  investment in a hedge fund in 1998 (not one of Altucher's, it seems), and then, indeed, forgot all about it. When the fund was liquidated, just this year, Dave ended up with the two million. He had just gotten the news of this unexpected capital gain when Altucher stopped by for a visit. 

After providing Altucher with his good news, Dave had to run off to the grand opening of a new building in South Street Seaport, owned by "a famous wealthy real estate family in New York." Abandoned by Dave, Altucher then had coffee with another friend, whose real name is apparently not "Ron," though that's what Altucher calls him. "Ron" is writing a novel, and he has to leave pretty soon, too, to get back to work, but Ron doesn't leave before Altucher tells him the story about Dave's good fortune. Hearing this report from Altucher, Ron said, “Man, how do you get into the flow like that. How can I make two million like that?”

I would have thought that Altucher's short answer might have been, "read my book," but Altucher doesn't try to make a new sale, and dispenses this wisdom instead: 

Every day we make the choice of who we are. And the choices today turn into your biography tomorrow.

So, if you want to make money, says Altucher, you need to think about that all the time. Ron leaves, back to work, and Altucher wants to play chess, which he does, winding up the day in the manner he describes below:

I walked over to Union Square and played chess with the hustlers there until it was dark and cold and everyone was shivering. But we were all bantering and laughing and dropping the pieces while the day closed it’s curtain and turned into night. If I must say, it was a really great day.

I am not sure that Altucher has any particular instructional ambitions, as he recounts his day, though one lesson from the story might obviously be to get rich early, so then you can "live the dream" and play chess to your heart's delight, if that is your heart's delight.

Besides that, and besides giving Altucher a chance to brag in a humble way about his own comfortable circumstances, I do think that the advice dispensed to Ron is worth thinking about. 

Every day we make the choice of who we are. And the choices today turn into your biography tomorrow.

I, personally, was very happy to learn that Ron didn't head off to South Street Seaport, to hook up with the rich and famous family, but went home to write his novel, proving, at least to me, that Ron had actually appreciated the good advice that Altucher gave him. 

Every day we make the choice of who we are. And the choices today turn into your biography tomorrow.

Image Credit:

Monday, May 2, 2016

#123 / The Warriors And Global Warming

Here's a posting for the sports fans out there.

The Golden State Warriors have been setting a lot of records, and the Warriors seem to be revolutionizing the way that professional basketball is played. That's what some experts and long time fans are saying, at least.

I haven't been a sports fan for years, but I am now trying to arrange my schedule to see every Warriors' game. In the case of the Warriors, as far as I am personally concerned:

New records=New interest=A change in behavior

For sports fans who may not have paid much attention to public policy for years (my polar opposites, in other words), may I make a suggestion? I suggest you start paying attention to some other records that are falling by the wayside.

According to a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Earth's hot streak continues for a record 11 months

That's the headline! There are a lot of facts to go along with the headline, and they are all quite compelling. Something revolutionary seems to be happening in this arena, too.

If people knew what was happening, they might get really excited. We could end up with this kind of equation:

New records=New interest=A change in behavior

That would not be a bad result, and just might be the first step towards saving human civilization and keeping the planet habitable for most living things (including ourselves)!

Image Credit: 

Sunday, May 1, 2016

#122 / Ceilings And Floors

Microlending has always sounded like a pretty good thing to me. Sometimes it is called "Peer to Peer" lending, or microcredit.

According to the Investopedia website, "Microloans are small loans that are issued by individuals rather than banks or credit unions. These loans can be issued by a single individual or aggregated across a number of individuals who each contribute a portion of the total amount. 

"Often, microloans are given to people in Third World countries, where traditional financing is not available, to help them start small businesses. Lenders receive interest on their loans and repayment of principal once the loan has matured. Because the credit of these borrowers may be quite low and the risk of default high, microloans command above market interest rates making them enticing for some investors." 

The How Stuff Works website explains the concept this way: 

The concept behind microlending is a simple one: A $25 dollar loan in the U.S. translates into much more when exchanged for the local currency of a developing nation. On August 10, 2009, 25 U.S. dollars could be exchanged for 73.4 Peruvian soles. You can see how a loan of 1,000 U.S. dollars -- aggregated from a number of individual investors on a microlending Web site -- can really help an entrepreneur start or nurture a small business. 
The spirit of capitalism pervades the concept of microlending. With their loans, entrepreneurs can purchase the items they need to support their businesses until they're self-sufficient. Since microlending has taken off around the globe, it's helped make capitalism the standard economic system of an increasingly globalized world.

As you can see from the picture, microlending is often portrayed as if everything were just big smiles and handfuls of much appreciated cash (small amounts of cash, granted; amounts that can, in fact, be held in a hand). Everyone is happy, and "capitalism" flourishes.

Despite this friendly and positive vision of microlending, the  truth may be somewhat different, at least according to a recent posting in the Harper's Magazine blog. The posting, by Thomas Frank, is titled, "Nor A Lender Be." The article is subtitled, "Hillary Clinton, liberal virtue, and the cult of the microloan." 

On the topic of microlending, Frank is brutally negative, basing his opinions on the work of Milford Bateman, who is a Croatia-based freelance consultant specializing in sustainable community development strategies in the Western Balkans. Bateman has written a book called, Why Doesn't Microfinance Work? and here is what Bateman says, as channeled by Frank:

Microlending doesn’t work. As strategies for ending poverty go, microlending appears to be among the worst that has ever been tried, just one step up from doing nothing at all to help the poor... Milford Bateman debunks virtually every aspect of the microloan gospel. Microlending doesn’t empower women, Bateman writes — instead, it makes them into debtors. It encourages people to take up small, futile enterprises that have no chance of growing or employing others. Sometimes microborrowers don’t even start businesses at all; they just spend the loan on whatever. Even worse: the expert studies that originally sparked the microlending boom turn out, upon reexamination, to have been badly flawed. 
Nearly every country where microlending has been an important development strategy for the past few decades, Bateman writes, is now a disaster zone of indebtedness and economic backwardness. When he tells us that “the increasing dominance of the microfinance model in developing countries is causally associated with their progressive deindustrialization and infantilization,” he is being polite. The terrible implication of the facts he has uncovered is that microlending achieves the opposite of development. Even Soviet-style Communism, with its frequently mocked five-year plans, worked better than this strategy does, as Bateman shows in a tragic look at microloan-saturated Bosnia.

Bateman's views are not universally accepted. Click here for a refutation by the Center For Global Development. I am, however, less interested in trying to referee this dispute about microlending, and am writing to comment on what might seem to be a totally incidental observation in Frank's article. Frank's article is long, and I think well worth reading, but it ranges far beyond microlending itself, and really ends up being a critique of Hillary Clinton and the work of the Clinton Foundation

As Frank evaluates the Foundation's work, and Hillary's record as Secretary of State, he notes that the Foundation, and Hillary, end up trying to make sure that there is no "ceiling" to human achievement, and particularly for Hillary, no ceiling on what women can achieve. 

All to the good (as Frank recognizes), but more pertinent, Frank suggests, is whether or not there is any concern about a "floor."

This distinction, it seems to me, does define a difference worth noting. Are we more concerned about preserving an opportunity to rise, for those who may be able to seize that opportunity, or are we more concerned to set a basic floor beyond which no one should ever fall?

In a way, thinking about this particular question may be a good way to differentiate between the two candidates for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. 

Theorists purport that increased globalization through free market systems make friends out of potential enemies, for example, the U.S. and China.

Image Credit
(1) -
(2) -

Saturday, April 30, 2016

#131 / Baltimore And The Question

The idea that protest politics in Baltimore might lead to big political changes seems largely to have come to naught. That is pretty much what The New Yorker has told us, at any rate, in a report coming out of the elections held in Baltimore on Tuesday, April 26th

The New Yorker article talks about "protest" politics and "progressive" politics in the same breath, and documents the fact that both "protest" and "progressive" candidates lost big time in the primary elections. Hillary Clinton, for example, beat Bernie Sanders by about thirty percentage points in the State of Maryland. What does it all mean? Here is what Benjamin Wallace-Wells and The New Yorker think: 

Progressives have been left in a strange position this week, in Baltimore and everywhere else. In Maryland, the Democratic representative Donna Edwards ran an aggressive campaign for the U.S. Senate, thick with themes of racial and gender identity, and lost decisively to the more wonkish establishment candidate, Representative Chris Van Hollen. Nationally, the last hopes that Bernie Sanders might be the Democratic nominee are fading. And yet it seems strange to think that the progressive energies that have continually emerged in the protest movements will dissipate in the Democratic Party. It seems much likelier that the protest movements will continue than that they will simply give way to the Presidential election. But the immediate question for progressives is an anxious one: not whether their candidates can drive out the Democratic Party establishment—they haven’t—but how much the past few years of unrest have changed the atmosphere within it. Which Catherine Pugh they get, which Chris Van Hollen, which Hillary Clinton. Maybe that was always the question.

I agree with Wallace-Wells that there are two different ways that protest movements can achieve political success. First, such movements can change the elected officials who get to make the decisions - replacing current incumbents with different people with different ideas and different priorities. 

Second, political protest movements can force the existing elected officials to change the decisions they make. Wallace-Wells thinks that the second approach may still be achievable in Baltimore, and Maryland (and by extension, in the United States), even though the first approach failed last Tuesday.

In either case, organized political work is necessary. If the grassroots political movement for Bernie Sanders is just a movement aimed at electing Bernie Sanders President, it more and more looks, as Wells-Wallace says, that this is a hope that may not be realized. If that movement, however, is actually a "political revolution," as Bernie Sanders has proclaimed it, and if that movement is truly aimed at transforming the policies that govern the actions of the United States government, here and around the world, then the effort to make that change has just begun. 

I'm for Bernie for President, but I'm for that political revolution first and last, and I am not giving up!

Image Credit:

Friday, April 29, 2016

#120 / Snapchat Politics

Jim Rutenberg, writing in the April 25, 2016 edition of The New York Times, says that the 2016 presidential campaign may be a "Snapchat election." As the headline on Rutenberg's article says, "In This Snapchat Campaign, Election News Is Big and Then It’s Gone."

I am presuming that readers of this blog post know about the Snapchat app. As originally designed, Snapchat lets you send a picture to a friend, with the picture then disappearing within about ten seconds after it has been viewed. The program is being augmented, I understand, to do much more, but that is the original, and still the basic, concept. 

The point of Rutenberg's article is that the real "facts" of what politicians have either done or said are increasingly irrelevant, because they are more and more transitory. His article is worth reading. 

If nothing counts in politics but perception, and even perception disappears within hours, or within days at the most, then we can't really have a politics based on either facts or truth. 

What do you think? That could be a problem!

Image Credit:

Thursday, April 28, 2016

#119 / App Screens

The April 25, 2016 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle had an article in its Business Section that described a new company, Kamcord, that lets video gamers (and maybe you and me) go online with a continuous, live broadcast of whatever it is that we're doing. 

Kamcord will let you watch someone else play a video game. Would you find that fascinating? Well, millions of people apparently do, and we know, of course, that millions of people (correct that, probably hundreds of millions of people) enjoy watching live broadcasts of pornographic performances by rather ordinary young women, seated on their beds in the upstairs bedroom of the family home. I could give you a link or two for that, but that might take the fun out of exploring on your own. 

Here's the part of the Kamcord article that I thought worth highlighting: 

For many people, your phone screen is arguably more interesting than the world around you.... That’s why people stare at their phones for four to six hours a day. And now you’ll be able to share what is happening on your phone with the whole world.

If we are in danger of losing the "world around us" - that World of Nature that surrounds us, and that is ultimately the world upon which all life depends - part of the reason may be that we find "our" world so much more interesting. In other words, we want to have the "real" world beamed to us on a machine that humans have built, through a worldwide web of connections that humans have established. With that network, our human-built technologies tie real people to each other, but only through the medium of their "app screen."

I remember being really proud, when I was in college, when I learned what the esoteric word "disintermediate" meant. Look it up. The word actually has connotations beyond the strictly economic focus highlighted by Wikipedia.

My suggestion? Let's start disintermediating now. Back to the real world. Leave those "app screens" behind!

Image Credit:

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

#118 / WHEE!!!

Michael Lissack is the Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence. He is also President of the American Society for Cybernetics. In other words, Lissack is a "tech guy." It appears, however, that Lissack is also a "political guy," and he is predicting that Donald Trump will beat Hillary Clinton in November.

The headline on Lissack's blog posting on April 24, 2016 reads as follows: "What the media will never understand about Trump supporters."

I suspect the media will end up doing a better job of understanding Trump supporters than Lissack now predicts, but since Lissack is currently proclaiming that the media doesn't "get it," we are, of course, expecting Lissack to deliver the insights that he says the media won't, or can't.

Does Lissack deliver some important insight about Trump supporters? I think he does!

Here is what Lissack says about Trump supporters, his observations being presented by contrasting the Trump campaign with the presidential campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton: 

Traditional candidates such as Hillary Rodham Clinton run “I’m with her” campaigns. By “I’m with her” (which actually is HRC’s campaign slogan) the campaign defines the candidate using a set of archetypal stories, policy positions, and public appearances. That definition is presented to the public, and the candidate asks supporters to identify with the position. In effect, the definition of the candidate becomes a sorting mechanism — one either agrees with the prevailing definition or one does not. HRC, at this point in time, has similar negatives in terms of numbers as Donald Trump. But, HRC has nowhere near the fierce loyalty displayed by the Trump supporters. HRC is well defined — you are with her or you are not. 
Donald Trump is successfully running a “He’s with me” campaign... The difference between these two campaigns is what will make the 2016 election.
Politicians ... who seek to challenge the powers that be are not stuck running “I’m with her” campaigns. Indeed, HRC faced such a ... candidate in 2008. Barack Obama campaigned not on details but on the possibility of hope and change. Hope and change are and were vague. That vagueness allowed Obama supporters to see in the slogan whatever it was that they were hoping to have accomplished as a goal. Supporters’ hopes and dreams were the promise of candidate Obama. Not specifics. Not a definition. But the individual hopes and dreams of the individual supporters... In 2008, Barack Obama successfully ran a “He’s with me” campaign.
In 2016, it is Donald Trump who is running the “He’s with me” campaign. The vague promises to make America great again … I will make you feel good … I express your anger … I am your vehicle ... are all Donald-isms for “He’s with me,” [and] “He’s with me” will beat “I’m with her” every time. 

I do think that Lissack is making an important point, but I would argue that Trump and Hillary are more alike than different. Clinton is asking voters to give her, personally, the power of the Presidency. She promises to use that power to "fight for us." 

In the Clinton campaign, our job as voters is simply to pick the best candidate (Hillary), and she'll take over and do it all from there. Despite the fact that he promotes generalities rather than specifics, and mis leading voters to conclude that "He's with me," Trump is trying to sell us the same product. He, too, is urging the voters to "let him do it." He may be "vague" about what he is going to do, so that the voters can think that "he's with me," but Both Trump and Clinton are asking voters to elect them, so they, the elected officials, can take care of the problems, and realize our opportunities. Both Hillary and Trump are going to be "fighting for us," if elected. Both of these candidates tell us that they can take care of the challenges. All we have to do is give them a chance by voting them in. 

Lissack doesn't mention the OTHER major candidate still appealing to the voters for support. Bernie Sanders is that candidate. Unlike both Trump and Clinton, Sanders is not advertising what HE will do; he is calling on the voters to do it themselves! He has issued a call for a "political revolution," and what he is advertising is ongoing political participation.

So, I would draw the basic distinction differently from Lissack. I see the choice as being either "We," or "She" (or "He," if you like Trump). Is this campaign about picking someone to be in charge, or is the campaign about a collective effort to transform America?

Commentators have noted the incredible enthusiasm that Sanders has generated. I would call that the "Whee" factor. 

An appeal to our collective political engagement is incredibly energizing, because it is a call to return to what brought the nation into existence in the first place. Fundamentally, as long as there remains a commitment to democratic self-government, we are going to be less interested in the "I'm with her" or "he's with me" distinction than in the idea that WE are all in this together. 

Image Credit:
(1) -
(2) -
(3) -

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

#117 / King For King And Queen For Queen

Houston, Texas flooded in May 2015. It has flooded again in April 2016, with at least seven people dead this time around. 

This is just what I was talking about in the posting I made yesterday. 

We had better pay attention. 

Well, it's sugar for sugar 
And salt for salt 
If you go down in the flood 
It's gonna be your own fault

 Oh mama,
You gonna miss your best friend now 
You're gonna have to find yourself 
Another best friend, somehow

Image Credits: 
(1) (2) (3) (4) -
(5) -

Monday, April 25, 2016

#116 / Looming Dark

Our foundation of Earth knowledge, largely derived from historically observed patterns, has been central to society’s progress. Early cultures kept track of nature’s ebb and flow, passing improved knowledge about hunting and agriculture to each new generation. Science has accelerated this learning process through advanced observation methods and pattern discovery techniques. These allow us to anticipate the future with a consistency unimaginable to our ancestors.

The observation above is from William Gail, writing in The New York Times. Gail tells us that "A New Dark Age Looms." Gail's vision is less horrific, I suppose, than the vision of Frank P. Fenner, whose prognostications I mentioned in my posting yesterday. Fenner predicts  that the entire human race will become extinct within the next 100 years.

Fenner was an eminent scientist, a virologist, and a Professor of Microbiology at the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University, Canberra. Gail is a meteorologist, and his predictions about a looming "New Dark Age" derive from an observation that would come naturally to someone in his profession. Weird and unpredictable weather events, like the recent flooding in Houston, Texas, are one of the most noticeable results produced by the human-caused global warming that is putting human civilization at risk. 

According to Gail: 

As Earth warms, our historical understanding [the "Earth knowledge" cited by Gail above] will turn obsolete faster than we can replace it with new knowledge. Some patterns will change significantly; others will be largely unaffected, though it will be difficult to say what will change, by how much, and when. 
The list of possible disruptions is long and alarming. We could see changes to the prevalence of crop and human pests, like locust plagues set off by drought conditions; forest fire frequency; the dynamics of the predator-prey food chain; the identification and productivity of reliably arable land, and the predictability of agriculture output. 
Historians of the next century will grasp the importance of this decline in our ability to predict the future. They may mark the coming decades of this century as the period during which humanity, despite rapid technological and scientific advances, achieved “peak knowledge” about the planet it occupies. They will note that many decades may pass before society again attains the same level.

Fenner's point (and his prediction about the imminent extinction of the entire human race) is based on what he believes will be the inevitable consequence of human overpopulation and environmental destruction. Gail's somewhat less dramatic speculations are based on the fact that human activities have now altered the natural environment to such an extent that we can no longer rely on what used to be its predictable patterns of behavior. 

Both scientists are similarly noting that while humans have historically relied on the Earth to be the stable environment within which we can create a "human world," the extent of human activity within that human world has now grown to such a point, and has affected the natural environment to such an extent, that Nature can no longer be relied upon to sustain it (Fenner), or to provide it with a predicable environment upon which human beings can rely (Gail).

Humans have been acting as though "our" world is the only one that matters; yet, in fact, everything we do, and our very lives, depend upon the Earth, on the World of Nature that we did not create. 

Here's how Fenner would undoubtedly put it: "Learn that lesson or die."

Image Credit:

Sunday, April 24, 2016

#115 / Fenner Or Faulkner?

As the tides bring their tributes to the beach, so does the Internet deposit strange thoughts on the shores of my consciousness. 

Take that picture above, for instance, which accompanied an article claiming that "one of the world’s leading scientists, Professor Frank Fenner, has made a grim prediction: He says that humans will be completely WIPED OUT in 100 years, as overpopulation and environmental destruction will cause humans to become extinct in a matter of years." 

You can read the article for yourself by clicking this link.

While there is much truth in what the article says, and while I think we should pay heed to the warning it conveys, I have decided to pick Faulkner over Fenner. 

I say, with Faulkner: 

I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. 
I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. 
The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

This quote, from Faulkner's Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, is pinned inside my closet, as it was pinned inside the closet of my father. I got that quote from him. It is a prized possession.  It is in this spirit, each day, that I write to whoever might read this Two Worlds blog. 

Image Credit:

Saturday, April 23, 2016

#114 / Why Buddha Touched The Earth


John Stanley and David Loy have written an article titled, "Why the Buddha Touched the Earth." I came across the article in the April 2016 edition of Common Ground. Here's the passage that caught my attention:

In one of Buddhism’s iconic images, Gautama Buddha sits in meditation with his left palm upright on his lap, while his right hand touches the earth. Demonic forces have tried to unseat him, because their king, Mara, claims that place under the bodhi tree. As they proclaim their leader’s powers, Mara demands that Gautama produce a witness to confirm his spiritual awakening. The Buddha simply touches the earth with his right hand, and the Earth itself immediately responds: “I am your witness.” Mara and his minions vanish. The morning star appears in the sky. This moment of supreme enlightenment is the central experience from which the whole of the Buddhist tradition unfolds.

This story suggests to me that we realize our rightful place in existence when we acknowledge that we spring from, are connected to, and depend upon the Earth that sustains all life. 

When we forget our ultimate dependence on the Natural Environment, and act as though we can live in a world of our own creation, without conforming that world, and our behavior, to the requirements of the Earth, demonic and destructive powers will have their way. 

How can we doubt that? Just look around, today!

Image Credit:

Friday, April 22, 2016

#113 / Assisting Evolution

Elizabeth Kolbert has an article out in the April 18, 2016 edition of The New Yorker that Kolbert titles "Unnatural Selection." The article mainly tracks the work of Ruth Gates, a marine biologist who works at the Hawai'i Institute of Marine Biology, and who is trying to save coral, at a time when ocean acidification, caused by global warming, is threatening to kill all coral, everywhere. 

Gates is, according to Kolbert's report, "a glass half full sort of person." That characterization is meant to explain what keeps Gates going, in view of the incredibly powerful reasons to be pessimistic. The views of many scientists who study coral are summed up in this headline from The Guardian: "How global warming sealed the fate of the world's coral reefs." Note the past tense! 

Or, to pick another headline from The Guardian"I was shocked: most of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef is dead or dying."

The "half full" optimism that Gates is able to muster is based on her work to create human designed coral reefs that will be "capable of withstanding human influence." In short, Gates says, "I am a futurist. Our project is acknowledging that a future is coming where nature is no longer fully natural."

Gates is part of an effort to supplant the World of Nature with a world that we create. Such a world will be able, perhaps, to "withstand human influence" because it will be a world actually created by human beings.

It may be, given our current situation, that we now have nowhere else to go but to attempt this type of substitution, since our human civilization, and human lives, are are so utterly dependent on the Natural World, a world in which we appear as creatures, not creators.

Kolbert's latest article on "Unnatural Selection" is, like all her writings, well worth reading. She definitely gives Gates' "half-full" approach a more than fair hearing. Between the lines, however, I think I sense on Kolbert's part a significant doubt that we can really substitute a human-created world for the World of Nature that our actions are destroying.

The coral reefs in the oceans of the globe are only one example of what we are doing to the World of Nature upon which we ultimately depend for everything.

Image Credit:

Thursday, April 21, 2016

#112 / Precision Medicine

This Spring, a major conference on Precision Medicine will take place at the University of California at Santa Cruz. If you are unclear on what "Precision Medicine" is all about (I certainly was), just click the link, to see what the National Institutes of Health have to say about it. Or, to cut to the chase, you can read this very short summary of the longer NIH statement:

Precision medicine is an emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that takes into account individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle for each person. While some advances in precision medicine have been made, the practice is not currently in use for most diseases. 

We, as biologically determined creatures, are more and more delving into the intricate mechanisms that have encoded and implement the "laws" or "rules" that govern our biological existence. We are starting to tinker! The more we learn, the more we will do that, manipulating the genetic codes that determine so much about us as living beings, so we can write our own rules. 

Lots of positive benefits may be on the horizon. 

But dangers, too. 

Heads up!

Image Credit:

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

#111 / Time Out Of Mind

I read The Wall Street Journal every morning, except on Sunday, when they don't publish. Last Friday, I learned that Amazon and Lions Gate Entertainment are going to collaborate on a new television series, based on songs by Bob Dylan

Apparently, the series will be titled "Time Out Of Mind," which is the title of one of Dylan's albums, released in 1997 and the recipient of three Grammy Awards. While the Time Out Of Mind album will provide the television series its overall title, I guess the individual episodes can reflect and refer to any of the 600-plus songs that Dylan has authored.

The Journal was mostly interested in the business aspects. I'll mainly be interested in how well the series conveys the insights and contents of the songs. I consider myself privileged to have been alive during the time that Bob Dylan has written and performed. He's up there with Shakespeare, in my opinion. I have a signed "Time Out Of Mind" poster in my home office, and I'm heading off to see Dylan when he next appears in the Bay Area, in June

I may even have to start watching TV!

Image Credit:
(1) -
(2) - Gary Patton personal photo

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

#110 / Callus

Today, a presidential primary election is taking place in the state of New York. Who will win those New York delegates? It's a consequential question. 

Last week, there was a debate between the candidates for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, characterized by Reuters as a "Brooklyn brawl." A significant amount of news coverage about the debate and its aftermath focused on the "tone" of the exchanges between the candidates, and there was a lot of concern about the vituperative nature of the comments made by Sanders' partisans, or by those supporting Clinton.

Having been a political candidate myself, on six different occasions, I am well aware that political contests are often anything but "polite." Unlike some, I do not deplore this, though I am willing to observe that unconstrained negativity against one's opponent is often the opposite of effective, as a political strategy. 

My belief is that "politics" is supposed to be a contest. We, collectively, create a human world based on our collective decisions about what we should do, how we should allocate our resources, what kind of behavior we should encourage, and what sort of behavior we should discourage, or outright prohibit. 

Our "laws," which result from our political decisions, are essentially prescriptive. They tell us not what we have to do, but what we have decided we "ought" to do, and there is no "right" answer. There are usually at least two good arguments for any particular position or policy, and we need to have a spirited debate to illuminate the differences, so we can ultimately decide. Since the choices we will ultimately make are so charged with consequence, it is obvious that spirits are bound to run high, as the debate progresses. 

I do not deplore this. I think that spirited political exchanges are actually what we want, not what we should be attempting to avoid. From conflict and controversy, debate and division, will ultimately come the political decisions that will shape our collective future. That's what "politics" is supposed to be all about. 

That said, and remembering my comment that an unrestrained attack on one's opponent, or on his or her positions, is often contraindicated as a matter of good political strategy, our politics can only be successful in doing what it is supposed to do if the candidates, their supporters, and the public at large will "toughen up," and learn to endure and tolerate uncomfortable argumentation, which we sometimes find distasteful, as the way to get to good decisions.

I think we all need to develop a kind of "political callus," a toughening up of our "political thin skin," to absorb repeated and abrasive contacts that threaten to disturb and injure us. 

Nature provides a remedy when repeated abrasive contact threatens to injure our bodily skin. Candidates, their supporters, and the public at large need a comparable defense mechanism, so that we can bear the sometimes abrasive nature of political discourse, and then shake our callused hands at the end, and move on to implement our chosen decisions, to transform and change our world. 

Image Credit:

Monday, April 18, 2016

#109 / Facebook Tells Me What I Need To Know

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Jeffrey Herbst tells us that "the algorithm is an editor." Click the link to read his article. Herbst believes that social media, such as Facebook, are now effectively picking what news items we see, and thus defining the reality we experience. Herbst calls this new role "editorial," but the editorial aspects of the process he outlines go far beyond what has typically been thought of as the role played by a newspaper editor. 

A newspaper editor has the power to define the reality that will be experienced by the readers of the newspaper. All readers will see the world through the same window. When an "algorithm" makes editorial decisions, the algorithm does not do so on a "collective" basis, as in the case of a newspaper editor. The social media algorithm that will determine what news you see will present you with news packaged up for you on an "individual" basis. Each one of us will be presented with a view into reality that is crafted for our own, personal consumption. We will, in other words, no longer be able to be confident that we are living in a "common" world. 

There are lots of implications, as new technologies rearrange reality for us. One lesson: get out of the house more! Experience "the news" firsthand. The best way to do that is by "making" the news!

Image Credit:

Sunday, April 17, 2016

#108 / David Brooks Does Tip O'Neill

David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, has lots of self-confidence. Brooks regularly issues his rather Pontifical statements with a great deal of downbeat panache, and gives the impression that he knows more about whatever topic he's discussing than most other mortals ever could or will. Actually, I'm kidding about the "most."

Brooks' column on Tuesday, April 12, 2016, was modestly titled, "How To Fix Politics."

Brooks calls the current presidential campaign "depressing" (let's agree with him there, at least insofar as he is referring to the Republican Party proceedings, unless the word "scary" might seem a better fit). Brooks also deplores the loss of "middle ring" relationships, by which he means real relationships with real people whom one knows personally. These would be the people who live and/or work in the same general geographical, township level area that you do. 

I'll give a nod to David Brooks on that observation, too. I think that the failings of our politics are connected, as Brooks suggests, with a deterioration in our "civic life." This is a deterioration that Brooks bemoans.

Brooks ends his column with thoughts about how politics can be transformed by a "cultural shift," as we seek "the highest level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs." This is where I somewhat lose patience with Brooks' presentation, and remember my typical annoyed reaction to the almost always patronizing tone of Brooks' pronouncements.

In essence, Brooks argues, we are "asking too much" of politics, and we can only "salvage politics" by the "nurture [of] the thick local membership web that politics rests within."

I have a bit of a quarrel with the grammar of that sentence. Ending a sentence with a preposition, the preposition in this case being the word "within," is not what I was taught is grammatically proper. That criticism aside, I also have a rather negative reaction to the substance of what Brooks is saying, at the very end of this column. After all the "wind up," the characteristic, high-falutin' tone that Brooks employs boils down to this advice:

All politics is local.

Tip O'Neill said that, long before David Brooks pontificated, and I think O'Neill was right. 

Brooks is right, too, but basically because he agrees with O'Neill. He could just as well have referred us to O'Neill's book. Let me do that right here. If you want to help "fix politics," you'd be wise to take some tips from Tip O'Neill.

Image Credit:

Saturday, April 16, 2016

#107 / Agency

The Merriam Webster Dictionary (online) has several definitions of the word "agency" that seem quite familiar. These definitions capture what the word "agency" meant to me as I progressed in my education from elementary school, to junior high school, to high school, to the university, and then on to law school: 

1a: the office or function of an agent; b: the relationship between a principal and that person's agent 
2: a person or thing through which power is exerted or an end is achieved: instrumentality  
3: an establishment engaged in doing business for another  
4: an administrative division (as of a government)

"Agency" has most traditionally meant either a company of some kind that works for another, as an insurance agency, for instance; or as an advertising agency. The same sense of the word applies with respect to governmental "agencies" of various kinds, denoting an institution that works for another.

Alternatively, and this is the more specifically "legal" definition, the word "agency" speaks of an arrangement by which one person (the agent) is officially commissioned by another, who is called the "principal," to act on behalf of the principal. There was a whole course on this kind of "agency" in my law school curriculum. Key questions included the responsibility of the principal for the acts of the agent, in various circumstances.

When I hear or see the word "agency" being used today, however, and particularly as I have listened to how the word is used by the students I teach in the Legal Studies program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I am struck by the fact that the word "agency" is now often employed in a rather different way from the way I remember it being used in the past. A recent article on sex and teenage girls provides a good example: "In a prevailing view, girls have no agency of their own..."

The Wikipedia definition captures this different usage in its listing titled, Agency (sociology):

In social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices ... One's agency is one's independent capability or ability to act on one's will. 

Traditionally, "agency" referred to a situation in which an "agent," or an "agency," worked for someone else. Two people, or two entities, were always involved. Now, "agency" means my own, personal ability to act independently. That seems to be a completely different thing.

I haven't taken the time to research exactly how, when, or why this transition in word usage occurred, but I do find myself being surprised at what this expression has come to mean, as I hear students talking about their "agency," or some other person's "agency."

To my ear, "agency" in this more current usage sounds something like "personal freedom," or "my ability to take action."

Whatever word you want to use, I'm in favor of that!

Image Credit: