Wednesday, January 28, 2015

#28 / 3MT

Anyone can subscribe to Tomorrow's Professor, sponsored by the Stanford Center For Teaching and Learning. If you happen to be an educator, or if you live with one, as I do, it's an excellent resource.

In one of his recent postings, Professor Rick Reis talked about the "Three Minute Thesis," developed in Australia. 3MT, as it is called, is a kind of instant bakeoff for scientists. The idea is for scientists to develop and then to present, in a competitive setting, a three-minute talk that provides "a reasonably rigorous academic justification for their work, aimed at nonspecialists." The scientists are supposed to do that in a way that will convey the excitement involved in pursuing the specific scientific inquiry in which they are engaged.

I am not much of a scientist, but I get that three-minute thing.

If you care about something, you should be able to convey the essence of whatever that is in three minutes or less. As a practicing politician, I definitely learned that lesson.

Three minutes.

No more.

It's not that easy!

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

#27 / TPP

According to the Office of the United States Trade Representative, which is housed in the Executive Office of the President, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (or TPP) is "an ambitious, 21st century trade agreement that the United States is negotiating with 11 other countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region (Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam). When complete, TPP will unlock opportunities for American workers, families, businesses, farmers, and ranchers by providing increased access to some of the fastest growing markets in the world."

That sounds pretty good! And if you listened to the President's 2015 State of the Union speech, you will probably remember that the President is backing the TPP big time. The terms of the proposed treaty are not yet final,  and since the negotiations are taking place in secrecy, no one not corrected to the negotiating team actually knows exactly what is being suggested. Furthermore, if the President gets his way, there isn't going to be much real debate on the terms of the treaty once negotiations are concluded. The President wants "Fast Track" authority from Congress, so the Congress will have to cast a single up or down vote on the deal that the President delivers. If "Fast Track" authority is granted, Congress will not be able to demand changes to the treaty as part of the process of Congressional review.

Lots of individuals and organizations are not at all pleased with the TPP, and are specifically not pleased with the President's demand for "Fast Track" authority. Public Citizen has roundly denounced the process:

Although it is called a "free trade" agreement, the TPP is not mainly about trade. Of TPP's 29 draft chapters, only five deal with traditional trade issues. One chapter would provide incentives to offshore jobs to low-wage countries. Many would impose limits on government policies that we rely on in our daily lives for safe food, a clean environment, and more. Our domestic federal, state and local policies would be required to comply with TPP rules.

The TPP would even elevate individual foreign firms to equal status with sovereign nations, empowering them to privately enforce new rights and privileges, provided by the pact, by dragging governments to foreign tribunals to challenge public interest policies that they claim frustrate their expectations. The tribunals would be authorized to order taxpayer compensation to the foreign corporations for the "expected future profits" they surmise would be inhibited by the challenged policies.

Friends of the Earth, a group I mentioned yesterday, is also opposed: 

Every time the White House wants to get approval for a new trade deal, they first seek “Fast Track” trade negotiating authority from Congress. Fast Track legislation would strip Congress’ capacity to intervene on trade deals, and force the deals through both houses on a quick up-or-down vote, with no amendments, even when the U.S. trade representative ignores congressional negotiating objectives. Essentially, the Fast Track authority sidesteps the democratic safeguards the Constitution established, allowing the USTR to rush deals past our representatives. Despite the fact that new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Boehner, and U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman want to push Fast Track ... through Congress, many members from both the left and right do not support suspending their Constitutional rights and obligations. We must not trade away democracy and the future of the planet.

The TPP is of, by, and for business. That's what it is all about. As in so many other cases, the government is seeking to advance business opportunities as though that were the reason that government exists at all. 

Not true! In terms of national purpose, democracy trumps business every time. 

But business wins when the advocates of democracy don't fight. Here's another place where we are going to need to pick a side!

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Monday, January 26, 2015

#26 / Food Fight

I do like Friends of the Earth. In its most recent Newsmagazine, Friends of the Earth has documented how genetic engineering is being used by corporations like Dow and Monsanto to design crops that actually promote the use of ever more toxic pesticides, and that make our food system dependent on synthetic chemicals. The federal government seems to be aiding and abetting. Organic agriculture is the alternative.

Organic agriculture is based on the idea that we can produce abundant and healthy food by learning about nature, and then conducting our agricultural operations to make use of nature and natural processes to provide the food we need to live and prosper.

Corporate, chemical, and non-organic agriculture is based on the idea that we should substitute our own creations for what Nature has provided, and that our food system should be based on human-created synthetics. 

My analysis convinces me that while we can create almost anything we want to, in the "human created world" in which we most immediately live, we live ultimately in the World of Nature, a world we don't create, and it is that World of Nature upon which we ultimately rely. That's the world from which we should be getting our food. 

I think Friends of the Earth is right. There is a fight going on for "the future of food." 

Read the article. See what you think. 

Pick a side!

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Sunday, January 25, 2015

#25 / War With Islam

You may have heard of Thomas Friedman. He writes columns for The New York Times. He is pictured above.

Friedman was all for the United States' invasion of Iraq, as proposed and implemented by the Bush/Chaney Administration. We were supposed to take his puffed up punditry seriously, and we were supposed to believe that Friedman was well informed - better than we were, anyway - and that therefore his judgments should be accepted. Many did accept his pronouncements on Iraq. Later on, when the results started coming in, Friedman's ardent advocacy for the War in Iraq became more tempered, even critical. He seemed to forget that he had promoted the invasion in the first place. I guess that is one of the prerogatives of the pundit; these opinion leaders are supposed to be able to change their minds. But until they do, you'd better take their opinions to heart, and not question their good judgment. When they do change their minds, you're not supposed to remember what they said before. 

According to Wikipedia, Friedman has won the Pulitzer Prize three times. Lots of people still take him quite seriously.

Since Iraq, I'm not one of them. 

Thomas Friedman's column in the January 21st edition of The Times is titled "Say It Like It Is." The column makes White House Spokesperson Josh Earnest an object of derision, with the real object of derision, of course, actually being the President of the United States. After all (Friedman wants us to believe), Friedman is much better able than the President to see what the United States should be doing, and how it should conduct itself. Friedman's judgments are sound! He is in a position to tell the President to "Say It Like It Is."

All pundits seem to have an elevated opinion of their own greatness, but Friedman, I think, leads the pack. Here is a fairly substantial excerpt from Friedman's column. My comments follow. 

When you don’t call things by their real name, you always get in trouble. And this administration, so fearful of being accused of Islamophobia, is refusing to make any link to radical Islam from the recent explosions of violence against civilians (most of them Muslims) by Boko Haram in Nigeria, by the Taliban in Pakistan, by Al Qaeda in Paris and by jihadists in Yemen and Iraq. We’ve entered the theater of the absurd. 
Last week the conservative columnist Rich Lowry wrote an essay in Politico Magazine that contained quotes from White House spokesman Josh Earnest that I could not believe. I was sure they were made up. But I checked the transcript: 100 percent correct. I can’t say it better than Lowry did: 
"The administration has lapsed into unselfconscious ridiculousness. Asked why the administration won’t say [after the Paris attacks] we are at war with radical Islam, Earnest on Tuesday explained the administration’s first concern ‘is accuracy. We want to describe exactly what happened. These are individuals who carried out an act of terrorism, and they later tried to justify that act of terrorism by invoking the religion of Islam and their own deviant view of it.'"

In other words, Friedman has adopted as his own the opinions of Rich Lowry, whom Friedman calls "a conservative columnist." Lowry is, in fact, the editor of The National Review, and Wikipedia says he "frequently speaks on the topics of American exceptionalism and the future of the Republican Party." For those not familiar with The National Review, it is something like the Fox News of magazine journalism. "Many of the magazine's commentators are affiliated with think-tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute. Prominent guest authors have included Newt GingrichMitt Romney, and Sarah Palin in the on-line and paper edition."

Allying himself with this "fair and balanced" commentator, Friedman faults President Obama for not being willing to say that "we are at war with radical Islam."

Oh, yes!! 

Let's promote another "war," and in this case we can go beyond that "war on terror" declared by former President Bush, and declare "war" on an entire religion. This takes me right back to the Thomas Friedman who advocated the Invasion of Iraq.

"War" is not really a good metaphor to guide our conduct as we seek to deal with violent extremism. For one thing, in a "war," you should expect the other side to fight back. Arguably, what happened in the offices of Charlie Hebdo might be seen as just one more battle in that existing "War on Terror" that was declared by President Bush. 

Personally, I'm happy that the President isn't anxious to escalate and widen that "war" further. I think Noam Chomsky's views are more reliable than those of pundit Friedman. Check out this video interview. According to Chomsky, this nation's conduct is a major cause of the violence and terrorism  spreading everywhere, and following Friedman's advice would only make it worse. 

I'd say, "point to Chomsky."

Chomsky did NOT advocate the War in Iraq. 

He's not pumping for a "War on Radical Islam," either. 

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

#24 / Bill

I regret that Bill Moyers is ending his television interview show, Moyers & Company, but I am happy that he will still maintain his effective website, and will be speaking out regularly on issues that matter to this nation and the world. 

In an interview published on the website on January 15th, Moyers commented on the recent film, Selma, and he said something important about voting: 

Back in the 1970s, in the early days of a resurging conservative movement, the late Paul Weyrich — godfather of the religious right and co-founder of the American Conservative Union, and of ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council, the powerful lobbying group for corporations and conservatives) – declared: 
I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people. They never have been from the beginning of the country, and they are not now. As a matter of fact our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.

I thought I should probably draw attention to these remarks as a kind of antidote to the comments I recently made about voting - saying that voting is necessary but not sufficient.

What I said is true, but it is also true that if all those persons eligible to vote actually did vote, the results of our elections would be quite different, and our democracy would better represent the ordinary people of this country. Where voting is concerned, more participation must be our ambition. More people voting is always better than fewer people voting, except, as Moyer's quotation above makes clear, unless your political objective is to advance the corporate interests that seek to turn our democracy into a political lapdog for the rich and powerful. 

Acknowledging that more people voting must be our aim, the way to get people to vote is by the kind of personal participation and involvement that can start with one of those "groups of five." Real politics is more than voting.

And real politics is lots of fun.

And real politics is life and death.

That, too!

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Friday, January 23, 2015

#23 / Dabble U

The Dabble U website goes along with a Dabble U blog, called (I gather) The Fledgling. As you can probably tell from the cup, there is a Dabble U Store, too.

I came upon Dabble U using some of those "Next Blog" tactics that I have promoted here on my own blog. The Dabble U website says that it has been "Proudly serving dabblers for (less than one) years!" Wendy Fambro, the lady who runs this enterprise, obviously has a good sense of humor. 

If you think you need support for your dabbling, consider enrolling in Dabble U. Note that it does cost money! 

Perhaps you don't think you really need to pay for a five week "Dive Into Dabbling" course. If you think you can pursue your various interests in a non-enrolled status, dabbling happily wherever your dabbling interests might take you, then ... 

Just go for it. 

No money needs to change hands!

PS: If you like the cup, or want to buy a sweatshirt, I don't think you actually have to enroll to make a purchase.

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

#22 / Groups Of Five

Our right to vote is really important, and our right to vote needs to be protected and expanded, but voting, while necessary, is not sufficient to make self-government work. Our representative form of government will work correctly only if we, the represented, are actually in contact, in some tangible way, with the elected officials we have chosen to represent us. We need to be "in touch" with our representatives, and I would like to suggest that this means that we need to be in a position where we could actually touch them physically. 

If I am right that personal involvement is a prerequisite for a healthy politics, and I am pretty sure I am, then going to meetings is actually a requirement to pass the course in democratic self-government. 

And courses in democracy aren't given online. Online participation won't do it. Sending off an email blast just isn't going to fulfill course expectations. Nothing wrong with the emails and the petitions, but you actually have to GO TO THE MEETINGS if you are serious about affecting the actions of government. You actually have to talk directly to your representatives, in person. 

I was one of those elected representatives, for a long time, and I am telling you, from my personal experience, that our in-person engagement with elected officials is what it takes to make democracy work.

Democracy is also not best advanced by individualistic gadflies. It's a team sport. If you care about anything within the realm of the political world I suggest a "Group of Five."

Five committed persons is the minimum requirement, I think, for effective political organizing.

Think about it.

It's lots of fun.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

#21 / It's Our Move

Adam Frank is an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester. In last Sunday's edition of The New York Times, Frank brought an astrobiological perspective to our public debate about global warming. His essay is titled, "Is a Climate Disaster Inevitable?"

I was gobsmacked by Frank's essay. His approach is unlike anything else I have read on the issue. Conventionally, scientists discuss what scientific research is telling us about conditions on Planet Earth. Almost always, in recent years, the news is bad. Take, for example, another article I saw on Sunday, though it was actually published several days earlier, on January 15th. Oliver Milman, writing in the US edition of The Guardian, tells us that the "Rate of environmental degradation puts life on Earth at risk." The Milman article is pretty compelling, as it marshals the scientific facts. It's pretty scary, too.

Frank's essay is even more so, at least to me. 

Foregoing any rehearsal of the damage being done to the vital systems that support our life on Earth, Frank looks at our situation from a cosmic perspective. Since we now know, he says, that there are "hundreds of billions" of planets, a powerful but simple question should come to mind: "Where is everybody?" In other words, why have we not been able to detect some other forms of intelligent life, somewhere in our cosmic neighborhood?

From a half-century of exploring our own solar system we’ve learned a lot about planets and how they work. We know that Mars was once a habitable world with water rushing across its surface. And Venus, a planet that might have been much like Earth, was instead transformed by a runaway greenhouse effect into a hellish world of 800-degree days.
By studying these nearby planets, we’ve discovered general rules for both climate and climate change. These rules, based in physics and chemistry, must apply to any species, anywhere, taking up energy-harvesting and civilization-building in a big way. For example, any species climbing up the technological ladder by harvesting energy through combustion must alter the chemical makeup of its atmosphere to some degree. Combustion always produces chemical byproducts, and those byproducts can’t just disappear. As astronomers at Penn State recently discovered, if planetary conditions are right (like the size of a planet’s orbit), even relatively small changes in atmospheric chemistry can have significant climate effects. That means that for some civilization-building species, the sustainability crises can hit earlier rather than later.

To move to the bottom line, Frank suggests that the reason we don't find intelligent life anywhere else in the Universe is that other intelligent species (there must have been plenty of those, he posits) have had to face their own "global crisis," as their means of energy production led to a destabilization of the conditions that made life possible on whatever planet they inhabited, and that all these other civilizations must have failed to meet the climate test that we are facing now.

In other words, Good Luck To Life On Planet Earth (the odds are not in our favor)!

Since nothing is "inevitable" in the world we create, the very fact that we can read and think about what Frank is saying may provide us an insight that could be of assistance. 

Milman has provided us with the "gauges" by which we can measure our current position, and from which we can learn our trajectory towards doom. Frank tells us that modifying what we are doing now is not only important, but that how we meet the challenges facing us (which he believes must have been faced by large numbers of other intelligent life forms, elsewhere in the Universe) will truly be of terminating significance for life on our planet.

Thanks, Mr. Astrophysicist! It's your move, Earthlings!

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

#20 / Among The Disrupted

An essay appearing in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, on January 18, 2015, ran under the illustration above.

iPhones, iPads, Nooks and similar digital devices are putting "books" to the test. How long will we even continue to have books? Technology is disrupting a world once taken for granted, and books might be displaced. Essayist Leon Wieseltier, who up until recently was the Editor of The New Republic, writes that "there is no more urgent task for American writers than to think critically about the salience, even the tyranny, of technology in individual and collective life."

Since I am teaching a course at the University of California, Santa Cruz called "Privacy, Technology And Freedom," I take heart from Wieseltier's comment. The Week online magazine has named Wieseltier "the last of the New York intellectuals," and his sentiments confirm my suspicion that I am not off base in proposing a critical view of technology and its impact on both privacy and freedom to the Legal Studies students in my class.

Actually, I was convinced to be critical of technology long ago. Does anyone remember reading  The Technological Society by Jacques Illul? That book, published in 1964, is still worth reading. So is Wieseltier's essay, "Among the Disrupted," published just last weekend.

Wieseltier portrays technology as the potential enemy of "humanism," which is somewhat puzzling, given that "humanism," historically, has battled with "religion," and is allied with a "secularist" approach to life. Technology is nothing if not human-created, and is thus part of the "secular" world; yet Wieseltier's fear is that technology is profoundly undermining what it means to be human. 

If that tension between technology and humanism is real, could that be because "technology" is a work of our own creation, and is thus inherently separated from the World of Nature we do not create ourselves?

In fact, to the extent we are separated from the demands of the Natural World, including its final demand that we die, in order that life may continue, don't we lose contact with what makes us human in the first place?

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Monday, January 19, 2015

#19 / Selma

I have not yet seen Selma, the movie. There is some debate about how well the movie tracks with the truth. I have read, in particular, complaints about the movie's treatment of President Lyndon Johnson, who is apparently made into a kind of villain in the movie, at least according to some reviews

There is no doubt about the truth of what happened in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965, on what has come to be called "Bloody Sunday," an event that President Johnson later compared to Lexington and Concord, calling it “a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom.”

The events of Bloody Sunday, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, are shown, above, in a photograph from 1965. The movie version is below. 

For those interested in getting at at the truth of what happened at this seminal moment in our history, I recommend a letter published in the January 19, 2015 edition of The New Yorker. The letter ran under the title "Remembering Selma," and was authored by Danny Lyon, now living in Bernalillo, New Mexico. At one time, Lyon was the college roommate of John Lewis, who is now a member of Congress, and who played a leading role in the Civil Rights Movement as one of the leaders of the S.N.C.C., the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

S.N.C.C. helped organize the Selma to Montgomery marches, and Lewis was there in Selma on "Bloody Sunday." After commenting on David Denby's review of the movie, which ran in a previous edition of The New Yorker, Lyon offers the following observation about the events of "Bloody Sunday":

The events depicted in "Selma" happened because of the incredible courage of Lewis and those who were with him when he stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in a raincoat, confronting the police. Recently, I was with Representative Lewis in his office when he held up an Associated Press photograph of himself being beaten on Bloody Sunday by an Alabama state trooper. The helmeted officer is pulling Lewis toward him as he raises his baton just before crashing it down onto Lewis's head. Lewis ... was then hospitalized with a fractured skull...."

I think that Lyndon Johnson got it right when he described "Bloody Sunday" as a "turning point," and the fact that they made a movie about these events, fifty years later, is a testimony to that.

What I think we need to see is that this "turning point" in history was achieved not by violence, but by nonviolence, by the incredible courage of those who confronted physical and death dealing violence in the way that Lyon so simply and clearly describes in his New Yorker letter.

It is when we have the courage to die for our cause that we turn history in a new direction.

Killing for our cause takes no courage at all, and makes no history that we will ever want to celebrate.

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