Monday, August 3, 2015

#215 / Dear Presidential Candidates ...

[Photo From An Advertisement For Hampton Creek]
A rather pretentious full-page advertisement appeared on page 7 of the print version of the Sunday, July 26, 2015 edition of The New York Times. At least, I thought it was pretentious. Here is a copy of the text: 

You're missing an opportunity to solve an epic problem. 
It'll take your voice and little grit because this problem isn't mentioned alongside the economy and education and government in the weekly Gallup Poll of our most important problems. But polling data often ignores what's stressing out good folks from Birmingham to Boston. 
If Steve Jobs followed polling data, Apple would have shipped a Blackberry. Disney would be on the 293rd animated short of Steamboat Willie. And Sam Walton would have opened the first Walmart in New York City. Historic opportunities are missed because we fixate on what folks say they want. And what folks say they want in business (and politics) is limited by what they believe is possible. 
The problem exists in your daughter's lunch and even your Sunday family dinner. We need to fix how we feed ourselves. At Hampton Creek, we’ve built a movement—and the fastest-growing food company on earth—on that belief. 
Our outdated food system is the thread running through our most important problems, from diabetes and obesity (health care) to food deserts (race relations) to the decline of our family farms (economy). And before you solidify your stump speeches and code your website copy, ask yourself this question: what would it look like if we started over in food? Here's a thought: if we started over, good food -- for the body and our land -- would be 10x less expensive than crappy food. And if you figure out how to do that, you've just written your ticket to the conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia. 
Our country needs you, 
Josh, CEO and Founder

PS: You can always reach me at (415) 404-2372 
or at 

It looks to me like Mr. Tetrick, the founder of a tech-based food company called Hampton Creek, based in San Francisco, actually thinks the country needs HIM. But it's nice of him to say that the country needs those "Presidential Candidates" whom he is pretending to address. A blush of modesty from a "social entrepreneur" who had raised $90 million as of March this year, is always welcome. I am less sold on Mr. Tetrick's vision of the way to  "fix how we feed ourselves."

Oh, I agree that it's time to "start over" on our "food system," alright. And I actually think it would be wonderful if presidential candidates would talk about that, and about what's likely to be involved (and if they'd reject campaign contributions from Dow and Monsanto, too). 

MORE corporate influence, however, is not my idea of the right prescription for that "start over" effort on our food system. Let's not try, once more, to cast our fate to the corporations, as Mr. Tetrick implicitly suggests, in his effort to turn his company, Hampton Creek, into a new Walmart.

Locally-produced food, without chemicals or corporate involvement, is what I'd suggest. And if there is ever going to be a "start over" in this country, with reference to our "food system," or to our politics more generally, it is going to have to come from the bottom up, from us, not from the tech-based new corporations, or the "presidential candidates."

Want to "fix how we feed ourselves?" Subscribe to a local CSA. Get involved with a community garden

Grow your own!

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Sunday, August 2, 2015

#214 / Make Up Your Mind #2

On Saturday, July 25th, The Wall Street Journal ran an article that announced the exciting discovery of a new, posthumously discovered Dr. Seuss book, What Pet Should I Get? The illustration above is from that book. 

I like Dr. Seuss, of course, but the illustration put me in mind of The Lovin' Spoonful, an American rock band that rose to prominence in the 1960's. and about whom I have written before on this Two Worlds blog. 

I realize that by admitting to an admiration for the music of The Lovin' Spoonful I am carbon-dating my origins to a prehistoric musical period now remembered, mainly, by those who lived through it. I am not sure that many, today, would share my enthusiasm. To justify my interest in The Lovin' Spoonful, however, let me point out that the band did make it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so I am not alone in my musical judgment.

My love for The Lovin' Spoonful is mainly centered on one of the songs that appeared on their first album, Do You Believe in Magic. The song with the same name (Do You Believe in Magic) is really quite good, but my heart (and mind) was captured by another one, "Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?" Click the link for a YouTube audio rendition. Click on this link for the full lyrics.

In politics, in government, in land use decision making, and in life, the value of the advice provided by this Lovin' Spoonful song just can't be overrated. So many times, our self-inflicted problems would be reduced, and perhaps even eliminated, if we could just take this lesson to heart, and act accordingly:

Sometimes you really dig a girl the moment you kiss her
And then you get distracted by her older sister
When in walks her father and takes you in line
And says, "Better go home, son, and make up your mind."

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Saturday, August 1, 2015

#213 / Every Home Should Have One

Here is engineer Phil Hoover, with his compact, 12-foot long nuclear bomb that is three times more powerful than that "Little Boy" bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima some seventy years ago. Hey, it wasn't easy to get here. “I feel a real sense of accomplishment,” Hoover said.

Click that link above to find out more. For instance, taxpayers are financing the development of 400 of these little mini-nukes, at a cost of only $11 billion dollars. 

It's got to be worth it. Education and infrastructure may be collapsing (a flash flood recently knocked down a bridge, the failure of which closed Interstate 10 between California and Arizona), but I am definitely feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment, too, just like Phil Hoover, knowing that the pin-point precision of the guidance systems of these bombs will make it a lot more attractive actually to use them in real world conflicts. 

This is just what I've been hoping for. A nuclear bomb that we can actually use!

You have to admit that this is a fantastic accomplishment.

Every home should have one.

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Friday, July 31, 2015

#212 / Sense8

I confess to having binged my way through Sense8, the new series by the Wachowskis, available as a streaming video on Netflix. Homemade popcorn helps to sustain the binge! Click right here to get a brief review

I definitely recommend Sense8, which seems to be classified as a "sci-fi thriller." That's not a genre that I usually appreciate very much, and I think that the Daily Fandom reviewer is correct that it isn't the "sci-fi" stuff that keeps viewers coming back for the next episode, and then the next, and then the next. It's the characters

The characters are engaging. They are inspiring. And they're diverse! But let me comment on the "meaning" of Sense8, which I found to be a metaphor for what is most important in our life. 

The concept is that the eight different characters, all from different countries, are somehow able to share in common their experience, and to assist and communicate with each other. Sense8, in other words, portrays a world in which the "me" becomes "we."

Even without recourse to the telepathic powers depicted in Sense8, that's a good way to start thinking about the diverse "others" to whom we truly are connected.

Right now.

In real life.

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Thursday, July 30, 2015

#211 / An Ounce Of Prevention

Ben Franklin gets the credit for that famous prescription: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Of course, to apply the correct "ounce of prevention" strategy does mean that we need to know the nature of the illness we are trying to prevent.

On Thursday, July 16, 2015, Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez, carrying several 30-round magazines, used an AK-47 type weapon to open fire on Marines at two military centers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, killing four Marines. His family noted his history of depression and mental illness. And, of course, he was obviously able to get the gun and the cartridges he needed to make his attack. One might think that the availability of military weaponry and mental illness were the key causative factors in the killings.

Retired General Wesley Clark, a one time Democratic Party candidate for President, doesn't appear to think that mental illness or access to military-style weaponry is really the issue. Clark scopes out the problem as "disloyal Americans," and he thinks he has the solution. Four days after the Chattanooga tragedy, Clark took to the airwaves to advocate preventative detention for "radicalized" and suspected disloyal Americans. He thinks they should be placed in "internment camps," prisons, in other word. Click right here for a YouTube video, showing Mr. Clark making his pitch. 

Personally, I am not convinced that there are significant numbers of "disloyal Americans" running around unconstrained, and that we can prevent tragedies like the one that occurred in Chattanooga by rounding up all such folks and imprisoning them. If "radicalized" and "disloyal" Americans are not really the main problem, then Clark's proposed solution is not likely going to work, either by way of prevention or cure. 

In the case of the Sandy Hook elementary school tragedy (a tragedy somewhat similar to what happened in Chattanooga, but without a "military" target, and without a perpetrator who was a young, Islamic man), the availability of guns and mental illness were both involved. In a retrospective on those Sandy Hook killings, in late 2013, CNN said this:

In the years leading up to the December 2012 massacre at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School, Adam Lanza went from a merely shy pre-teen to a mentally ill recluse obsessed with school shootings. But during that long descent, Lanza never gave anyone any indication that he would one day turn a gun on his mother and then storm his onetime grade school with a semiautomatic rifle, killing 20 first-graders and six adults ... The evidence clearly shows that the shooter planned his actions, including the taking of his own life, but there is no clear indication why he did so...

It seems unlikely to me that elementary school student Adam Lanza would have been rounded up as a "disloyal American," had the Clark program been in place in 2012. However, actions aimed at reducing access to military weaponry, and efforts to provide more mental health care, could have made a big difference in both the case of the Sandy Hook massacre and the recent killings in Chattanooga. 

Shortly after Sandy Hook, Liza Long, who calls herself the "Anarchist Soccer Mom," and who writes a blog with that title, penned a searing response to what had so recently happened in that elementary school in Connecticut. 

Declaring that "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother" (which she wasn't, of course), Long told her own story of dealing with a son with mental illness. Her passionate appeal "went viral." I recommend reading her full statement, and keeping up with her continuing appeals in her blog. I also think that Long has identified the "ounce of prevention" strategy we actually need to prevent future events of this type:

I don’t believe my son belongs in jail. The chaotic environment exacerbates Michael’s sensitivity to sensory stimuli and doesn’t deal with the underlying pathology. But it seems like the United States is using prison as the solution of choice for mentally ill people. According to Human Rights Watch, the number of mentally ill inmates in U.S. prisons quadrupled from 2000 to 2006, and it continues to rise -- in fact, the rate of inmate mental illness is five times greater (56 percent) than in the non-incarcerated population. 
With state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered, prison is now the last resort for the mentally ill -- Rikers Island, the LA County Jail and Cook County Jail in Illinois housed the nation’s largest treatment centers in 2011. 
No one wants to send a 13-year old genius who loves Harry Potter and his snuggle animal collection to jail. But our society, with its stigma on mental illness and its broken healthcare system, does not provide us with other options. Then another tortured soul shoots up a fast food restaurant. A mall. A kindergarten classroom. And we wring our hands and say, “Something must be done.” 
I agree that something must be done. It’s time for a meaningful, nation-wide conversation about mental health. That’s the only way our nation can ever truly heal. 
God help me. God help Michael. God help us all.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

#210 / We Are Hiring

In my quest to see if anyone had a good, succinct, and accurate definition of the "gig economy" (as mentioned yesterday), I ran across an article in The Economist, a generally conservative, business-oriented source of economic information, published in Great Britain. The article was titled, "The gig economy," and while it didn't really contain a "definition," it did discuss the "gig economy" phenomenon at length, and in what I thought was an intelligent way.

The Economist article quarreled with an assertion supposedly made by Douglas Rushkoff, who is identified by Wikipedia as an American media theorist. The Economist characterizes Rushkoff as claiming that "jobs are now obsolete." The following quote from Rushkoff does seem to be heading in that direction: 

The question we have to begin to ask ourselves is not how do we employ all the people who are rendered obsolete by technology, but how can we organize a society around something other than employment? Might the spirit of enterprise we currently associate with "career" be shifted to something entirely more collaborative, purposeful, and even meaningful?

If, in fact, our economic system is never again going to provide any kind of stable and long-term employment to workers, the question Rushkoff raises is certainly pertinent. If stable and long term employment is just "over," Rushkoff's concept that we ought to look for a different foundation for our society certainly makes sense, at least at the theoretical level.

Practically speaking, however, I personally find it rather difficult to conceive of a suitable basis for our economic, social, and political society that does not include some sort of stable system of employment, some sort of system that provides reliable opportunities for members of the society to work on something meaningful. 

The Economist is also rather skeptical, which is where the "gig economy" comes in. The Economist article cites to a blog called Transparency Revolution, published by a Career Management Company called Zapoint, and to the following comment by contributor Phil Bowermaster

Increasingly, perhaps, a job is something that we each have to create. We can't count on someone else to create one for us. That model is disappearing. We have to carve something out for ourselves, something that the machines won't immediately grab.

A close reading of the suggestion being made here leads to the conclusion that what Bowermaster is advocating is not that work and employment be replaced as the foundation for our society, but that every individual, him or herself, should be individually responsible for creating and maintaining the job that will sustain that individual and any others whom the individual may need to support. This is, truly, the essence of the "gig economy." As Bowermaster says, with a great frisson of delight: 

Do we all become entrepreneurs? I think the answer to that question is yes ... Ultimately, it means we have to find something useful to do, something so useful that others are willing to pay for it. Difficult, yes. Dangerous, maybe. But also — isn’t it just a little exciting?

Call it the "gig economy" or call it the "Naked Economy," I think this vision of how to organize our society is definitely dangerous and difficult, and it's not a bit exciting for most of those forced into it (the most notable exception probably being persons who are going to find their personal "gig" by providing necessary services for those who are desperately scrambling to find their own). That just happens to be true for Bowermaster (the "career manager") and Ryan Coonerty and Jeremy Neuner, authors of The Rise of the Naked Economy ("shared office space providers"). Calls for a commitment to the "gig economy" by such persons is really a call for more customers for their business. That's exciting alright. For them!

Well, if Rushkoff's idea is not really satisfying, and the joys of the "gig economy" are being highly oversold, what is the solution?

I actually have a humble proposal: let's maintain a commitment to employment as the foundation for our social, economic, and political life. BUT: instead of suggesting that employment is something to be provided individualistically, let's all get together and agree that we will, collectively, hire ourselves, and provide a lifetime's worth of employment for anyone who wants to work for the group. 

Those who want to be "entrepreneurs" and live on their "gigs" would be absolutely free to do so, but those who didn't want to, or couldn't, find sufficient employment in the world of "gigs" could do the jobs that we all need done. Just like a Medicare system for employment, everyone would be enrolled. When you wanted or needed a job, we'd have jobs available: 

  • Street maintenance
  • Child care
  • Attendant care for the elderly
  • Teachers' aides
  • Artists
  • Tree planters
  • Environmental restorers 
  •  Etc.

You get the idea! There are lots of jobs that need to be done. Almost everyone can do some work that will be of benefit to society. So, instead of letting everyone scramble individually to find their next "gig," we collectively would say to any and all: Need a job? We're hiring!

Students of history will remember that Americans actually did this, with rather notable success, during the time that Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor Roosevelt were providing the leadership to make it happen.

Uncle Sam says, "We're Hiring!"

I like the concept!

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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

#209 / The Gig Economy

New York Times editorial, on July 19th, spoke out on the "Gig Economy." The Times editorial was stimulated by various recent legal decisions, many from California, indicating problems with how Uber does business. 

Uber is a highly-touted new way to arrange for one-time transportation. Uber calls it "your ride on demand." Presumably, making that driver-passenger connection would equal one "gig," and many think it's marvelous that the magic of a software application should be able, so easily, to connect up someone who wants to drive people around for money with persons needing a ride. 

There are, however, problems with this "gig" approach to work and employment. According to a July 15th news story, an administrative judge in California has found that Uber has not complied with state laws designed to ensure that drivers are doling out rides fairly to all passengers, regardless of where they live or who they are. This Public Utilities Commission official recommends a 7.3 million dollar fine against Uber, and that Uber's business be suspended. 

The Times editorial mentions another decision, by the California Labor Commissioner's Office, ruling that Uber had to pay one of its drivers $4,150 in business expenses, and interest, because the driver was actually an "employee" of Uber, not some sort of independent (gig) contractor. Uber is appealing.

The Times' bottom line is a reasonable statement, though perhaps hard to achieve in practice: 

Technology is making it possible for companies to do business in ways that can be good for consumers and workers. But this emerging field still needs to be governed by sensible regulations devised to protect workers.

In the meantime, I have been trying to get some sort of accepted definition for the "gig economy." I haven't found one. Not even in the Urban Dictionary, which is generally up to date on the latest slang sayings. 

The Urban Dictionary does have a definition for "gig" (a live performance, either musical, theatrical, or physical), but they don't have anything for the "gig economy." Same with the online dictionary published by Merriam-Webster. They have definitions for "gig," too, but not for the "gig economy." 

Whether it's called the "gig economy," or the "naked economy," I remain skeptical. That skepticism may be associated with the fact that I associate "gig" with a definition that that appears in the dictionary that comes as part of my Apple operating system: 

A harpoonlike device used for catching fish or frogs.

That definition definitely catches the flavor of what I think of as the "gig economy." Personally, I'm reluctant to be speared.

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Monday, July 27, 2015

#208 / Cross Tabs

A few weeks ago, I saw this picture in the San Francisco Chronicle. It appeared on the editorial page, and I assumed that this photograph was illustrating an article about a "pro-choice" rally. In fact, the picture was associated with a letter to the editor about SB 277, a recently enacted bill that strengthens mandatory vaccination programs in schools, and that eliminates "personal exemptions."  

The picture, once I understood what it was supposed to mean, provoked a question in my mind. I hope some survey company will ask the correct questions, and then do the cross tabs, so they might be able to give me an answer to this inquiry: How many people who oppose mandatory vaccination also support a pro-choice position on abortion?

In polling, it is the "cross tabs" that count: "cross tabulations enable you to examine relationships within the data that might not be readily apparent when analyzing total survey responses."

It's my bet that many people who would cheer this photograph, in the context of the mandatory vaccination issue, would absolutely oppose the idea that a woman has a "right to choose" with respect to her body when abortion is the topic.

As I say, I'd be interested to know what actual polling data would show. If I'm right about my political hunch, this confirms how difficult it is to navigate our "politics," because people aren't, necessarily, internally consistent about their strongly-held beliefs.

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Sunday, July 26, 2015

#207 / Planetary Health

The Lancet publishes a weekly journal and nine monthly specialty journals in the fields of global health, diabetes and endocrinology, oncology, hematology, neurology, psychiatry, respiratory medicine, infectious diseases and HIV. 

Arguably, The Lancet is the world's leading independent general medical journal. On July 16, 2015, it published a report titled, "Safeguarding human health in the Anthropocene epoch: report of The Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Commission on planetary health." 

You can download the whole report by clicking here. An "infographic," making the report accessible to those who might be intimidated by the full text, can be read by clicking here.

What's the bottom line?

In short, human health is getting better, but planetary health is getting worse. 

And.... (here's why I especially liked the report) The Lancet concludes that our human fate depends on the Natural World. 

Human health depends on Planetary Health. I couldn't have said it better myself!

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Saturday, July 25, 2015

#206 / Frances

Frances Fox Piven, pictured above, is generally recognized as a provocative commentator on America’s social welfare system. Together with her long-time collaborator and husband, Richard Cloward, she wrote an article in the May 1966 issue of The Nation titled, "The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty." That article argued for a political strategy that was eventually called the "Cloward-Piven strategy." The strategy she urged was to work for an increased enrollment in social welfare programs, so that increased demand would ultimately collapse the social welfare system and force reforms, specifically including a guaranteed annual income for all members of society. Dr. Piven's 1971 book, Regulating the Poor: the Functions of Public Welfare, is considered to be a classic, and is still in print. 

In view of Dr. Piven's focus on social welfare issues, some might find it surprising that she appears in the August 2015 issue of In These Times as a commentator on global warming and the climate change movement. But so she does. 

"In Turning Up the Heat on Washington," Dr. Piven points out that we are ever less able to deal with the collective crises that confront us, and that this inability to act collectively has come about because we have given up on government. 

My posting in this blog on July 17th commented on a book review that highlighted this point, noting the agreement of both right-wing and left-wing commentators that our government is dysfunctional, and that some sort of genuine "revolution" is necessary. Neither the progressives nor the conservatives think much of government. 

Here is what Frances Fox Piven has to say about that topic. I think she's right: 

There is a confusion in the Left's disillusion with the state. For a long time, social democrats relied on the state as a powerful agency that could temper market forces and bring some equality to society. But now people are tremendously disappointed not with state power as such, but with the power groups that are behind the state....We have to democratize the state....The problem is not government. The problem is the corruption of government. American public opinion is not what is driving our policies to the right. It's organized interests and economic elites. We need government, but we need democratic government. That's the problem - not just for the climate change movement, but for all of us. 

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Friday, July 24, 2015

#205 / I'd Like To Kill Your Father

Pictured is Paul LePage, the Governor of Maine, and by all accounts a rather rightwing politician. On Wednesday, June 24th, LePage spoke to an audience of youth leaders at Dirigo Boys State, a youth leadership program held in Waterville, Maine. Nick Danby, the son of George Danby, who is a cartoonist for the Bangor Daily News, was in attendance at Dirigo Boys State. He asked the Governor a question, and in the exchange that followed, as LePage became aware of who Nick Danby was, the Governor said that he would "like to kill your father." 

On July 13th, it was reported that LePage has now apologized to Nick Danby, who has said he forgives the Governor for his remark. George Danby, incidentally, the cartoonist father, doesn't seem to be quite as forgiving himself, perhaps thinking of those cartoonists in Paris who were so recently killed by persons offended by their cartoons. Why should the Governor be inviting something comparable in Bangor?

I'd like to suggest that we should take very seriously the use of the word "kill" as a part of political dialogue. It shouldn't be acceptable, from either the right or the left wing!

On the left wing, the July 20/27, 2015 edition of The Nation has an article on Zephyr Teachout, an inspiring and "insurgent" progressive who challenged New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic Party nomination last August. Teachout is pictured below. 

I like Teachout, and the article is a great introduction to someone who really has been inspiring the kind of political involvement that can help rejuvenate our democracy. Still, I was distressed to find, in the next to the last paragraph of the article, the following statement: 

Teachout mentions last year’s sit-in protests in Hong Kong. “These people would kill to be able to just run for office and not get preapproved,” she says. “That’s what they were camping out for.”

Teachout's use of the word "kill" in this statement is a lot less objectionable than LePage's remark, at least to my ears. Nonetheless, Teachout's use of the word "kill" suggests that politics and "killing" are compatible. I don't think that the protesters in Hong Kong, struggling for a more democratic government, actually had "killing" in mind. I don't actually think that they would have "killed" to get the better politics for which they were demonstrating. At least I hope not. "Killing for a better world" does not compute, and we should be careful about the language that we use.

If it is true, as I believe, that we walk across a "bridge of words," to get from where we are to where we end up, then we need build a bridge to a better politics without mobilizing the word "kill" as our route across the gap. 

If the bridge we build is based on "killing," we are walking in the wrong direction.

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Thursday, July 23, 2015

#204 / I Forgot To Mention ...

Yesterday, in this Two Worlds blog, I talked about an article that appeared in the July 12, 2015 edition of the San Jose Mercury News. I forgot to mention another article that appeared in that same edition, and that I ended up thinking was somewhat related. 

The article I discussed yesterday was about cloud producing machines, to be tested in Moss Landing, if the scientists involved get their way. The gist of the article was that human technology could quite possibly eliminate or significantly mitigate global warming, and this article was given front page treatment. On Page 18 of that same edition of the Mercury (on the Opinion page) was an article by Todd Dwyer, a high school economics teacher who lives in Santa Clara. Dwyer's article was a warning: "ARkStorm, not quake, may be next disaster."

This ArkStorm disaster warning is more or less California-specific. As Dwyer says, bad as our current drought is, the opposite could be even worse. A so-called "ARkStorm" is a cataclysmic flood event, and California did experience such a cataclysmic flood event in 1861 and 1862, when a storm that began on Christmas Eve in 1861 delivered torrential rains that continued for forty-three days. Click this link for more about ArkStorms.

If our forecasted El Nino actually does happen next Winter, as now predicted, Dwyer says that we "need to be careful for what we wish for." An event like that of 1861-1862 would mean that "the City of Fresno would be submerged. Homes in the Los Gatos mountains would overlook a San Francisco Bay that would engulf Menlo Park, much of Palo Alto, Mountain View, Milpitas, Sunnyvale, the City of Santa Clara, as well as large portions of downtown San Jose." I think we can reliably predict that the San Lorenzo River would put a good part of the City of Santa Cruz under water, too. 

For me, there was a kind of relationship between the two stories. On Page One, scientists are shown as working to bring a completely untested technology to bear on a problem of truly global proportions.  The impression created was that human technology will provide us a way to deal with even the most difficult problems in the World of Nature.

Further back in the paper, Dwyer's article documents a natural disaster that really did happen, and that scientists seem to agree will happen again, sometime in the future. You would think that such a California-specific disaster should be much more manageable than the worldwide disasters we know will be associated with global warming, but the impression created by Dwyer's article is that there really isn't very much that we can do to prevent the inevitable damage that will accompany an ARkStorm. The way Dwyer seems to tell it, Nature is just going to dwarf our efforts to control it.

It seems to me that Dwyer is conveying a more accurate idea of Nature than the cloud machine article. We're not in charge. Nature is. 

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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

#203 / Another "Bright" Idea

A couple of weeks back, the San Jose Mercury News ran an article on the front page of its Sunday, July 12th edition. In the print edition, the title of the article was "A Lofty Idea To Save The Planet." The title that the Mercury provided for the online version is a lot less grandiose. That title says, "Climate change: Controversial 'cloud brightening' project proposed for Moss Landing." Click the link to read all about it.

If it is true that human activity (mostly our combustion of hydrocarbon fuels) is now causing significant global warming, and that this human-induced temperature rise around the world is threatening not "the planet" so much as those human arrangements that we usually call "civilization," then the obvious solution is to follow that "First Rule of Holes," and to stop burning hydrocarbon fuels as quickly as we can. Actions that would accomplish that result are actions that can be taken within the "human" or "political" world over which we have dominion. To deal with the problem that we have caused, in other words, we would have to change our behavior.

The "bright idea" of the scientists who want to build machines like the ones pictured above is to deal with global warming by reprogramming Nature. The machines they propose would "hurl tiny seawater droplets into a graceful trajectory ... to boost the brightness of clouds to reflect rays of sunlight back into space." Presto Change-O! No need with this plan to reduce the atmospheric carbon that is heating up the planet because that carbon cover prevents the hot energy of sunlight, once it has hit the Earth, to escape back into space. Instead, we will just prevent a certain amount of that sunlight from ever hitting Earth in the first place. No sun; no heat. We're cool!

Well, tell it to the farmers. Tell it to the plankton. Tell to the trees. Tell it to "Mother Nature!" 

When the hell are we going to learn that we need to live within the constraints of the World of Nature, instead of thinking we can find some cute shortcut to avoid the laws that govern its operations? We are not in charge of the World Nature. In fact, it's in charge of us.

When we turn to that "human world," the world that we have created, we actually can change our own behavior. How about trying that out? 

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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

#202 / Trillions Of Tiny Machines

The July 9, 2015 edition of The New York Review of Books ran a review by Tim Flannery. Flannery's review is titled, "How You Consist of Trillions of Tiny Machines." Pictured above is one of the "machines" he is talking about. "It is a bacteria-infecting virus, or phage. According to National Geographic, phages ‘are the most abundant life-form on the planet, their number far exceeding that of stars in the universe. Trillions inhabit each of us.’"

Flannery comments in his review on the following two books: Life’s Engines: How Microbes Made Earth Habitable, by Paul G. Falkowski, and A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries About the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth, by Peter Ward and Joe Kirschvink. He calls these books "immensely rewarding."

I have not read either of the books that Flannery has reviewed. His review, in fact, reinforces my inclination to rely on the review alone, rather than to read the books themselves, since Flannery says that "neither Life’s Engines nor A New History of Life is an easy book for the nonscientist." I definitely fall into that category.

The review, though, which I have read, is extremely interesting, and I think it is pretty easy to understand, even for nonscientists like me. I recommend it. Ward and Kirschvink place the origin of life on Mars. Falkowski is not so sure about that, but the essence of the discussion in the "Trillions of Tiny Machines" review is not on the question "where" life came from. The review is focused, instead, on the discovery that our "large presence" in the world is in fact the result of work done by tiny, energy producing machines within our cells, which tiny machines have been able to get around the law of entropy. 

I particularly appreciated the following comments, included in Flannery's review: 

Falkowski argues that we can conceive of our world as a great, unitary electrical device, driven by the myriad tiny electric motors and the other electrochemical nanomachinery of cells. Viewing the world this way reveals hitherto unappreciated dangers in some modern science. 
Some molecular biologists are doing research on ways of inserting genes into microorganisms in order to create new kinds of life that have never previously existed. Others are busy working out whether the cellular nanomachinery itself might be improved. Falkowski recommends that rather than tinker with organisms that we can’t reverse engineer, a much better use of our intellectual abilities and technological capabilities would be to better understand how the core nanomachines evolved and how these machines spread across the planet to become the engines of life.

Falkowski, in other words, suggests that we approach the World of Nature in an attitude of "wonder," rather than by immediately seeking to utilize our own powers to become the creators of new forms of life.

That's a good approach, in my view. It is not only "precautionary," but it also recognizes the fundamental truth that we depend on the World of Nature, which has created us. Omitting to note this fact is, as Flannery says, "dangerous."

If we will apply our creative powers within the human world, which in fact is subject to our dominion, we will achieve a lot better results than by trying to substitute in for whatever Creator or Creative Force found out how to put those "trillions of tiny machines" in motion.

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Monday, July 20, 2015

#201 / Wash The Flag

A while back, I found a whole closet full of music CDs, forgotten but not gone.

I had never transferred any of this music from those CDs to my computer (or from my computer to that mystic "cloud," either, which can make my music available to me anywhere). Since I don't actually own a CD player anymore (except for the one in my car), I decided I should probably transfer all this music onto to my computer. And so I did!

In the course of this rather long and arduous process, I got a surprise. Slipped into the cover of a very weird but wonderful CD by Evanthia Reboutsika (now accessible to me anywhere, through that mystic "cloud"), I came upon a one-song CD by The Bullfrog Blues Band. That song is titled, Wash The Flag, and the label says it was copyrighted in 2007.

Now, I have no memory whatsoever of how I got that Bullfrog CD (or where I got the Evanthia Reboutsika CD, either, to tell the honest truth). A minimal amount of internet research convinced me that there IS a group (or was a group, anyway) called The Bullfrog Blues Band, based out of Santa Barbara. This CD may be a recording of one of their songs, though at least one of the voices sounds suspiciously to me like a neighbor of mine, who is pretty much of an expert in both Russian and American politics, and the Blues, and has actually published books about these subjects. Oh, and he also plays the electric guitar, too, and used to have a band!

At any rate, no matter who has the copyright, check out that flag at the top of today's posting, and then listen to the song. Just click the title to listen. I think you'll like it! I also think these Bullfrogs are on to something!

Wash the Flag 
Don't be burning it up 
Wash the Flag 
Somebody's dirtied it up 
Wash the Flag 
With all that lying and stuff 
Come on now people 
Gotta scrub, scrub, scrub
Wash the Flag!

This flag picture comes from a website that tells you "How to clean an American Flag."
I think it's going to take more than the "delicate laundry detergent" they recommend!

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Sunday, July 19, 2015

#200 / Watching Our Words


Shortly after I posted my July 6th entry into this Two Worlds blog, I had an occasion to think some more about that "bridge of words" metaphor that was my topic for that day. 

I have been struggling for months to get through Consciousness ExplainedDaniel Dennett's book, and I am not finding it an easy read. Picking it up once again, on July 6th, to struggle some more, I finally found a discussion I enjoyed. On page 301 of the edition I have been reading, Dennett affirms the efficacy of Dale Carnegie's "power of positive thinking," and then notes how a person, simply by "saying" words to him or herself, will actually cause that person to change internally, to conform his or her feelings and attitudes to the words that have been said. "Be careful," Dennett warns, "what you say to yourself." 

Ha Jin, a contemporary Chinese-American poet and novelist, is a lot more fun to read than Dennett. After slaving away with Dennett during the early evening, I decided I'd pop into bed with a book of stories by Ha Jin, Ocean of Words. I recommend his book, and the first story in that book, "A Report," went right along with Dennett's advice. 

The story Ha Jin tells (it is only three and a half pages long) is structured as a report from a soldier who is confessing an error to his superior in the Communist Party. As he marched his men, in formation, through the city, he told one of his subordinates to have the soldiers sing a song, "with an eye to impressing the pedestrians." Unfortunately, the song the subordinate chose was a sad one, beginning "Good-bye, mother, good-bye mother..." As they marched and sang, the Company all burst into tears, and gave exactly the wrong impression. "The words and music, suitable only for lamentation, melted the strength in the soldiers' feet. ... Some new soldiers burst out sobbing; even the experienced ones were overwhelmed with tears."

This is exactly as Dennett had predicted! "Be careful what you say to yourself." The words you tell yourself will create the reality they describe. 

I had to jump out of bed to see if I was right that Ha Jin and Dennett were describing the same phenomenon. I was convinced they were. 

I then also reread a section of Dennett's book called "Words, Pictures, And Thoughts," in which Dennett quotes the philosopher Justin Leiber. After many lines of semi-arcane observations on computer language and natural language, Leiber is quoted as saying this: 

Language isn't something we invented but something in which we created and recreated, ourselves.

Maybe I am just projecting my own thoughts, but that seems to say to me that our words (what we say) are the means by which we in fact create ourselves, and through our actions, based on words, all that pertains to our human world. We walk into the realities we make on that "bridge of words" that gets us from here to there. 

Words first. Realities to follow.

I am not absolutely certain that this is really what Dennett and Leiber think, but it is what I think. I was cheered to find a glimmer of some common thought in a book I otherwise have been finding too convoluted to enjoy, or even really to understand.

And because I started searching for images to accompany my latest speculations about the relationship of words and reality, I came upon that watermelon at the top of the page, with its very good advice.

Be careful, as Dennett says, what you say to yourself. 

And be careful, as that watermelon warns us, what you say to others!

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Saturday, July 18, 2015

#199 / Tech, Terrorism And That Open Back Door

The Wall Street Journal has opined, in a column by L. Gordon Crovitz, that "Terrorists Love Silicon Valley." Crovitz is an Executive Vice President of Dow Jones, which publishes The Journal, and he is President of its Consumer Media Group.

The column I am referencing appeared in the July 6, 2015 edition of The Journal, and the main basis for Crovitz' claim that the Silicon Valley is soft on terrorism seems to be the fact that Apple has now announced that its iPhone will encrypt data by default. Even Apple itself will not be able to "unlock" your data, and that means that Apple can't provide any of your data to the federal government, even if the government can produce a properly obtained search warrant.

Crovitz takes great exception to this new development, but I am thinking that this is, in fact, some rather "good news" for the ordinary citizen. Heretofore, the United States government has demanded that software manufacturers, and equipment manufacturers, always provide some sort of "backdoor," to allow the government to get access to private data, including encrypted data. As we have learned from Edward Snowden, and others, the government has seldom bothered to get a search warrant when it decides to make use of this open back door.

The practical problem, of course, is that any back door left open for the convenience of your lover may let burglars into the house. In fact, that is exactly what has been happening. The government's demand that all data, including encrypted data, be accessible to the federal government has led to massive data thefts by nefarious types who have figured how to get into that back door left open for the government. Maybe the data thefts are being orchestrated from China, or maybe from North Korea, or maybe from somewhere else.

It looks like Apple and other Silicon Valley high-tech companies have decided against leaving that back door open. As I say, I am not so sure that this is truly a bad thing!

It is true, clearly, that if encrypted data is now actually going to be "secure," then the government will not be able to browse through everyone's data to find potential terrorists. It does seem, based on Crovitz' article, that it should be possible to set up a system that would allow the government to get access to encrypted data through a "multiple key" system that would permit "reasonable searches and seizures" authorized by procedures that actually comply with the Fourth Amendment. Such procedures don't allow the government to search anyone and any place they want to, in the hope that maybe they will find some incriminating evidence. The Fourth Amendment requires the government to prove to a judge, before searching, that there is some "probable cause" to search. If the judge thinks there is, then a search warrant will issue and the search can proceed.

The Fourth Amendment is to protect all of us from general searches by government officials, based on nothing but the officials' decision to search.

Figure out a technology that lets the Fourth Amendment work the way it's supposed to, and I'm all for letting the government have access to private data, including encrypted data.

WITH a search warrant.

Until then, don't bother trying the back door. I keep it locked!

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Friday, July 17, 2015

#198 / Revolutionary Roads

Here I am, doing it again, writing about books I haven't read, based on a review. This is NOT the best practice, but why subscribe to the New York Times Sunday edition if you aren't prepared to rely on what you find there? I HAVE read the review, at least; in this case it's a review by George Packer (a staff writer for The New Yorker, and a reliable source, in my opinion).

In The New York Times Book Review on Sunday, July 5th, Packer writes about two books: By The People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission, by Charles Murray, and Wages of Rebellion, a book by Chris Hedges. Here is a link to Packer's review. It was titled "Revolutionary Roads" in the print edition I found on my front walkway on July 5th. 

Charles Murray is a scholar associated with the American Enterprise Institute, and Chris Hedges is a well-known left-wing, antiwar writer, famous in my world for his (unfortunately unsuccessful) lawsuit against President Obama, in Hedges v. Obama

In that lawsuit, Hedges challenged the constitutionality of the so-called, and still-extant, "Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF)." This law purports to permit the United States government to detain people, indefinitely, if the government decides such persons "are part of or substantially support Al Qaeda, the Taliban or associated forces engaged in hostilities against the United States." The government doesn't have to prove this proposition, and the detention is based on the idea that the United States is "at war" against terror. Indefinite detention, without any proof of wrongdoing, is the net result.

Given the background of the two authors, it might naturally be assumed that I would love the Hedges book and dislike the Murray book. Based on Packer's review, however (and I am here echoing Packer), there is a lot to like in what Murray has written, and not necessarily that much to admire in Hedges' book, except the rhetoric. Obviously, anyone interested in the topic of these books should read the books themselves. Or, at least, Packer's review. The topic discussed in both the books, I gather, might be characterized as "whither the American Revolution in today's world?"

Murray objects to the federal "administrative state," and I'm actually pretty sympathetic to his objections. Of course, I am also very sympathetic to Hedges' rhetoric, one bit of which is cited by Packer: "There will have to be a recovery of reverence for the sacred, the bedrock of premodern society, so we can see each other and the earth not as objects to exploit but as living beings to be revered and protected.”

Right on, Charles and Chris!

What intrigued me about Packer's review was actually its opening sentences: 

A few years ago, it wasn’t hard to find Americans who thought a revolution was coming. At the depths of the recession, in hard-hit places like the North Carolina tobacco country or the exurbs of Tampa Bay, I met plenty of people who believed we were one power blackout or gas shortage away from civil unrest, political violence, even martial law. The feeling didn’t conform to strictly partisan lines, and the objects of wrath included bĂȘtes noires of both the left and the right: banks, oil companies, federal and state governments, news media. At Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, a Tea Party couple visiting from rural Virginia was surprised to find a patch of common ground with Occupiers — at least until the discussion turned to actual policies. The anger was populist, which is ideologically capacious. The enemy was bigness, feathering its own nest and conspiring against the little guy. 
The revolution didn’t come — it never does in America, not since the first one, no matter how bad things get.

That last statement is what got me. The revolution "never comes" in America. So true, even when "everyone" knows we need to make some fundamental and (indeed) revolutionary changes. Everyone, in this case, includes both right-wing Murray and left-wing Hedges. Packer details the agreement of Murray and Hedges on all of the following:

  • That collusion between the federal government and the corporations is outrageous.
  • That our legal system is, essentially, "lawless."
  • That electoral politics is unable to make needed changes.
  • That the Constitution can't make a difference.
  • That American elites are despicable. 
  • That the two parties are hapless.

According to Packer (I think he is a reliable source) both Murray and Hedges "are willing, even eager to see Americans break the law, in nonviolent ways, to force change." Here's Murray's quote on that point (though, as Packer says, Hedges would say the same thing):

It is part of our national catechism that government is instituted to protect our unalienable rights, and that when it becomes destructive of those rights, the reason for our allegiance is gone. At that point, revolution is not treason, but the people’s right.

The kind of nonviolent revolution apparently advocated by both Murray and Hedges hasn't happened ... yet. Packer is certainly right about that. 

But it is a simple statement of logical truth to know that just because something hasn't happened (yet), that doesn't mean that it can't or won't happen (sometime).

Let's keep that thought in mind! I'm keeping my eyes peeled for one of those "revolutionary roads."

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Thursday, July 16, 2015

#197 / A World Without Work

The Atlantic has an article in its July/August 2015 issue titled "A World Without Work." I recommend that article. I also recommend (again) that anyone interested in thinking seriously about our world (and about what we might be able to do to change it, and to make it better reflect our hopes and aspirations) should consider subscribing to the Amor Mundi newsletter, published each Sunday by The Hannah Arendt Center. It's free to subscribe. Just click right here!

The Amor Mundi bulletin I received on Sunday, July 5th, alerted me to the article in The Atlantic. Amor Mundi pointed out that Arendt anticipated what has now become a kind of unspoken crisis:

Sixty years ago Hannah Arendt argued that the advent of automation was one of the two great events threatening the modern age. Against the Marxist hope that machines will free us from the need to labor so that we can pursue hobbies and nurture the soul, Arendt worried that freedom from labor would be soul crushing. We are a jobholding culture in which people find meaning in their employment. Without work, she argued, people will have little to nourish their sense of self. Most people will fall back on consumption, which requires them to labor to earn money to consume more, in a cycle of soul-crushing monotony. Today, many economists and social prophets are coming to see that Arendt had a point. Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic that the worries that machines will end the need for human labor are finally coming true: "After 300 years of people crying wolf, there are now three broad reasons to take seriously the argument that the beast is at the door: the ongoing triumph of capital over labor, the quiet demise of the working man, and the impressive dexterity of information technology." According to Thompson, "The share of U.S. economic output that's paid out in wages fell steadily in the 1980s, reversed some of its losses in the '90s, and then continued falling after 2000, accelerating during the Great Recession. It now stands at its lowest level since the government started keeping track in the mid-20th century."

I was pleased to see that The Atlantic article identifies a number of clearly achievable ways to address the "end of work" conundrum. That conundrum, which might best be described by saying that our economy depends upon people consuming, and as it becomes possible to produce goods for consumption without actually having to give people jobs to produce the goods, the number of potential consumers, and the capacity of consumers to consume, threatens to undermine the whole circular process of production and consumption:

In the 1950s, Henry Ford II, the CEO of Ford, and Walter Reuther, the head of the United Auto Workers union, were touring a new engine plant in Cleveland. Ford gestured to a fleet of machines and said, “Walter, how are you going to get these robots to pay union dues?” The union boss famously replied: “Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?” 
As Martin Ford (no relation) writes in his new book, The Rise of the Robots, this story might be apocryphal, but its message is instructive. We’re pretty good at noticing the immediate effects of technology’s substituting for workers, such as fewer people on the factory floor. What’s harder is anticipating the second-order effects of this transformation, such as what happens to the consumer economy when you take away the consumers.

Read that article in The Atlantic, to see what you think about the various solutions posited by the author, Derek Thompson, most of which require the application to our modern marketplaces of what he identifies as "the visible hand." 

Think about this, too: an economy that depends on ever greater consumption will ultimately destroy the integrity of the Natural World upon which our human civilization is inevitably based. 

Consuming less needs to be factored into the equation!

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Wednesday, July 15, 2015

#196 / All That You Have ...

Don't be tempted by the shiny apple 
Don't you eat of a bitter fruit 
Hunger only for a taste of justice 
Hunger only for a world of truth 
'Cause all that you have is your soul
        - Tracy Chapman 

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