Tuesday, October 26, 2021

#298 / The Best Way....



That little four-pointed star, pictured above, is not some sort of natural object, captured by an electron microscope. It is, rather,  a "microrobot." You can read all about it in an article in Scientific American, online, titled, "Tiny Robots Could Clean Up Microplastic Pollution."

Microplastic pollution is horrible, and a convincing proof that our human efforts to substitute in our own creations (plastic) for the materials that Nature has provided us has been a profound mistake. Of course, there is a problem with the World of Nature, which is why we so often try to reject it, and substitute in our own constructions. The Natural World works on the basis of life > death > life, and we humans are particularly unwilling to accept that middle term of the equation. 
 
Our human unwillingness to accept our actual status as creatures of Nature, instead of trying to act as if we are ultimately in charge of reality, is one of the main themes explored by C.S. Lewis in his "Space Trilogy" that began with Out of the Silent Planet, continued with Perelandra, and ended with That Hideous Strength. In that third volume, Lewis highlights our desire to live only in a world of our own creation. In the novel, the agency deputized to achieve this human preeminence is called the "National Institute of Coordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.)." It's aim is to "free humanity from nature."
 
Given my way of looking at the reality of our situation, in which we live "ultimately" in the World of Nature, and only "immediately" in a world of our own human construction, I was not all that delighted to learn about the idea that we might now deploy "microrobots" to clean up the mess we have already made. This does sound "nice," in exactly the same way that C.S. Lewis used the term. 
 
I was heartened, as I read the Scientific American article, to see the following statement in its concluding paragraph: 

For now ... the best way to remove microplastics from the environment is to stop them from getting there in the first place.
 
Surely, that is "the best way." I would suggest only one modification to this concluding statement. Preventing microplastics from getting into the natural environment is not only the best way "for now." It's the best way "forever!"


Image Credit:
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/tiny-robots-could-clean-up-microplastic-pollution/


Monday, October 25, 2021

#297 / What Lenin Said

 

If you want to get the facts on Vladimir Lenin, pictured above, just click that link. Wikipedia has the write-up. 
 
I recently read a novel, almost 1,000 pages long, that encompasses in a single narrative the entire history of Russia, beginning in A.D. 180 and continuing to 1945 (with a sixteen-page "Epilogue" that takes the reader to 1992, the year the book was published). Russka, by Edward Rutherfurd, is a pretty long book, but I found it absorbing. Lenin was featured in the next to last little segment, dated 1938.

Russka, however, is not where I found the following quote. I came across it several weeks after finishing the novel, and just by chance. As someone who has always liked to think about "time," I found what Lenin had to say compelling:

There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.
I am not only a history major, from my college days, but am also someone who has always been keenly interested in supersaturated solutions, particularly as seen as a metaphor for how history actually happens. To paraphrase what Lenin says, history happens "slowly, and then all at once."
 
Real change, in other words, can be unexpectedly precipitated out of what seems to be an unlikely environment.
 
I, for one, find that a hopeful thought!
 
 
Image Credit:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Lenin 

Sunday, October 24, 2021

#297 / Getting Out Of That Goldfish Bowl

 

Saul Jacobson, who denominates himself an "international mentor," has published some thoughts about "The Goldfish Bowl Effect." Jacobson defines this "effect" as what happens to a person who is trapped inside an isolated, individual perspective, and who thus doesn't have the perspectives of other people to provide a corrective. A goldfish, Jacobson says, "spends life swimming in circles thinking, 'Hey, there’s a castle. Oh look. Another castle. Wow, there’s another castle.'” 
 
Someone looking from outside the fishbowl "sees the entire picture." Jacobson suggests that he, as an "international mentor," would be a pretty good person to provide that alternative view. A price list is not included. 
 
Jacobson's self-promotion aside, he is providing us with a pretty good lesson. Diversity and plurality of viewpoints gets us closer to "the truth," or at least to a more accurate understanding of the reality in which we find ourselves.

I was thinking about goldfish in a bowl after reading the Maureen Dowd column published in the September 5, 2021, edition of The New York Times. Dowd's column is titled, "Drowning Our Future in the Past." She is pretty much talking about that same "Goldfish Bowl Effect" that Jacobson discusses, though Dowd is considering the problem as a "collective" one, not as an "individual" one:
 
With a memory like a goldfish, America circles its bowl, returning to where we have been, unable to move forward, condemned to repeat a past we should escape. 
 
Dowd is suggesting that we, as a nation, need new perspectives, and that without such new perspectives we will continue to be trapped in an unacceptable and outdated view of the world generated by our past history. 
 
I have no quarrel with this analysis, but I do have a suggestion. "The Goldfish Bowl Effect," whether considered from an individual perspective (Jacobson), or from a collective one (Dowd), focuses on the process of "observation," what we see, and how we see it, and from what perspective our view of the world is obtained. 
 
While questions about how and from where we observe the world are undoubtedly important, I would like to suggest that what is even more important is what we do. "Action," in other words, is even more important than "observation," and I think we need to be reminded that our ability to act, to do something that has never been thought about, or done before, is the essence of human freedom. 
 
If we think we need a new perspective, either individually or collectively, then we have to do something new, something different. Dowd and Jacobson both seem to imply that our ability to act is based on what we "see." Of course, it often is, but it doesn't have to be. 

The new and different perspectives that will get us out of the "Goldfish Bowl" will come only from some new and different action, action that can take place both individually and collectively. We don't, actually, need some sort of "mentor" to tell us this. Sometimes, of course, a "mentor" can help, but let us not discount our own ability to create a whole new reality, outside that "Goldfish Bowl" in which we seem to see ourselves, now and forever, always, entrapped.

Do something new. That's my suggestion. New perspectives will follow!
 
 
Image Credit:
https://sauljacobson.wordpress.com/2015/12/16/the-goldfish-bowl-effect/ 
 
 

Saturday, October 23, 2021

#296 / Visualizing Growth


 
Bratton Online, which is Bruce Bratton's Santa Cruz County-specific blog, features lots of community gossip and commentary, political observations, cartoons, film reviews, and whatever else may come over the transom - and Bruce always includes some sort of historic photo at the very top of every issue. Bruce has been publishing Bratton Online since 2003. The photo above is from his October 20-26, 2021, edition. 
 
Those familiar with present-day Santa Cruz, and with West Cliff Drive in particular, will be able appreciate how much this little slice of our local shoreline has changed since 1960, which is when Bruce says this picture was taken. That's Bay Avenue intersecting West Cliff, to the left side of the photo. Where the hospital was, there is now a big parking lot, and there are lots of condominiums off to the left of Bay. The City Council has actually approved a major development where the parking lot is, but that proposed development (at the time I am writing this) is still on appeal to the California Coastal Commission. Thus, that proposed development hasn't been built yet. If it is built, it will put a big condominium project right on the corner of Bay and West Cliff. 
 
The big vacant area in the foreground of the photo that Bruce published is where the Dream Inn is now located. Here's what the Dream Inn looks like today, for those not familiar with Santa Cruz (you can see that parking lot I mentioned, in the background):
 
 
As I said earlier, things have changed a lot on that little slice of West Cliff Drive that was featured in that historic photo. More changes are coming to that area, too, if the developers get the go-ahead to fill in that parking lot with a six-story mixed use condominium-commercial development. 
 
Going back to the historic photo Bruce featured, see if you can picture how things look today, as you continue traveling on West Cliff, heading left off the edge of that photo. If you were to head down West Cliff Drive today, off to the left of that photo Bruce published, you would end up finding Lighthouse Field. Here's how Lighthouse Field looks today, in a photo published by TripAdvisor: 
 

That's quite a difference from what happened just a few blocks away at the Dream Inn site. In the early 1970's, after the Dream Inn had been built, the community fought to "Save Lighthouse Field," a thirty-seven acre piece of land, right on the coast. Lighthouse Field was slated to be developed into a high-rise hotel (just like the Dream Inn), a conference center, a shopping center, a lot of high-end condominiums, and a seven-acre parking lot. 
 
I was personally involved in the fight to "Save Lighthouse Field," as lots of people were, including Bruce Bratton - though Bruce was also, at just the same time, working with Operation Wilder, a community group fighting to stop a massive development proposal on the North Coast, just past the city limits, on what is now Wilder Ranch State Park. 
 
Two huge development projects were proceeding, simultaneously, right at the time that city residents were able to see just how much the construction of the Dream Inn had changed their community. Both the Lighthouse Field development proposal, and the proposal to develop Wilder Ranch with 10,000 new homes, were decisively rejected by the community, and the elected officials who had advocated for those developments were replaced by elected officials with a whole different point of view.
 
Looking at the photo of the Dream Inn site, as Bruce featured it in his recent Bratton Online column, made me remember, again, that people often have difficulty envisioning proposed land use changes - until after they happen, and when they can actually see something in the real world. I think it's fair to say that the Dream Inn, once built, did not get rave reviews from the community. Lots of people saw this as a big mistake. The fact that people could see it in real life helped the community to understand that this was not, in fact, the kind of development they wanted for their community, and that helped lead to the rejection of the proposed development on Lighthouse Field, and to the rejection of the proposed development on Wilder Ranch. 

Time has passed (a lot of time has passed), and now it seems, other people are having those development dreams. In that October 20-26, 2021, edition of Bratton Online, there is a picture of one pending proposal (six floors, on one of the main routes to the beach and West Cliff Drive). It's pictured below. The City's Planning Department website has provided renderings of a whole lot more proposed developments that look quite a bit like the one featured below.

The kind of development pictured just above, and highlighted in that recent edition of Bratton Online, is typical of developments now making their way through the city's planning process. Trying to "visualize growth," before it happens, is actually quite difficult, and the "renderings" provided by developers and their architects often fail to convey the reality of what really happens after developments are approved.
 
With particular reference to Lighthouse Field, I think that community involvement and concern, and opposition to the proposed Lighthouse Field development, was undoubtedly stimulated by the actual Dream Inn development as a model of what was being proposed for Lighthouse Field. I wouldn't be a bit surprised to find that the actual construction of some of the recently-proposed developments in the city (like the mixed-use development now under construction at the corner of Pacific and Front Street) will make lots of people a lot more wary of what those nice looking "renderings" actually mean, in real life.

If that turns out to be true, as I think happened in the case of the Dream Inn, a small group of committed individuals can make the political changes necessary to head the city in a different direction. It is my understanding that Margaret Mead said something like that. From my experience, as shown in the case of the Save Lighthouse Point Association, she was right on target.


Image Credits:
(1) - www.brattononline.com (October 20 – 26, 2021)
(2) - https://www.santacruzsentinel.com/2019/10/23/santa-cruz-approves-new-beach-area-condo-commercial-project/
(3) - https://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g33048-d7037510-i139404095-Lighthouse_Field_State_Beach-Santa_Cruz_California.html
(4) - www.brattononline.com (October 20 – 26, 2021 - "Greensite's Insights")


Friday, October 22, 2021

#295 / A Future Without Sex?

   

James Lee, writing in the September 1, 2021, edition of The Wall Street Journal, is suggesting that we may be heading for a "future without sex." Lee is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, and he specializes in behavior genetics. 
 
Lee is not the only one advancing this hypothesis. He may, in fact, be significantly behind the curve. Way back in 2012, Chatelaine, an online website devoted to "food, style, living, news, health, horoscopes, and more," ran an article with the following headline: "In the future will women have babies at any age, without sex?" Chatelaine was pretty positive about the advantages, as indicated in the following excerpt from its article: 
 
Women wouldn’t be the sole beneficiaries of this kind of leap in reproductive technology writes The Guardian’s Kira Cochrane, “The same field of technology would enable gay couples to have children created from both their DNA, and make it just as easy for a man to become a single parent as a woman.” 
 
Before commenting further, let me indicate my own bias in favor of sex. From my limited personal experience, and from reading lots of novels, I am betting that sex will pull through, no matter how strongly challenged. Frankly, I hope so!

What both Chatelaine and Professor Lee are talking about is the idea that we have now advanced to the point that we can use genetic engineering techniques to produce children who are "better" than those children produced by the random couplings of sex-addled humans. Here is a quick look at Lee's thoughts on this topic: 
 
If you could raise your infant’s IQ by four points, would you? Many parents would, and it’s now technologically feasible. Geneticists can screen embryos for traits ranging from height to facial features to intelligence. The method builds upon the procedure of in vitro fertilization, which induces the release of several eggs by hormonal treatment and fertilizes them in a lab. Genetic testing of the resulting embryos can produce predictions of the traits that the offspring are likely to exhibit, even if those traits are “polygenic” (influenced by thousands of genes with tiny effects). The parents then choose an embryo to implant in the mother. IVF is common, accounting for 10% of births in some countries.

All this creates unprecedented ethical challenges in the immediate future. Consider the parents who use IVF to raise their children’s IQ. If the children repeat the process for another generation, taking advantage of scientific advances during the interim, they could bring the total average gain in the grandchildren north of 10 points—a huge gain. That advantage could be big enough to give the grandchildren radically disproportionate representation at the highest levels of science, finance, information technology, medicine, law and business.
 
Lee thinks that it's likely that humans will, indeed, want to "improve" their offspring, by using genetic engineering, and then suggests that the "end of sex" may be the result, because traits that are not really necessary are selected out over the generations. For instance, it has been shown that species that live in caves ultimately become blind. Why not? Who needs to see anything if you're living in the dark?

As I say, I am still betting on sex, but what interested me in this topic was not, actually, the question of whether or not our sexual urges would atrophy, and then tend "wither away" entirely, when we took direct charge of producing the next generation by using techniques in which sex plays no part. 

What interested me was the idea, seriously being considered by professors and the popular press, that human beings should assume direct responsibility for "engineering" the future of the human race by deciding what traits they want to promote, and then using their technological prowess to accomplish their goals. 

Frequent readers of this blog know that I continue to assert that the "World of Nature," a world that humans did not create, and upon which we are ultimately dependent, is more important, in the end, than the "Human World" that we do create, and that we most immediately inhabit. Again, frequent readers know that I am a great believer in "plurality," also known as "diversity," and that the differences that exist between us, as individuals, is a "feature, not a bug." Feel free to dip your intellectual toes into Hannah Arendt, if you haven't ever focused on that thought. 

Lee's column ends on a cautionary note. He is nervous about the proposition that we might seek to "engineer" future generations. This caution is very well-founded, in my opinion. As The Wall Street Journal puts it in a "pull quote" from Lee's column: 


Reproductive technology may lead us to realize too late that being human is better than playing God.
 
 
Image Credit:
https://www.chatelaine.com/living/in-the-future-will-women-have-babies-at-any-age-without-sex/
 
 

Thursday, October 21, 2021

#294 / What Good Am I?

 

That "prophetic voice" I mentioned yesterday is always calling out to us - and it is calling us to action, not to mere observation. I feel that keenly, as I continue posting these observations, day by day. The question asked in this song is for all of us, but it is for me, too, I know: "What Good Am I?"
 
In this song, Bob Dylan's question is specifically directed to us as we witness the poverty and pain of homeless people, so evident everywhere, and as we then "just turn away." The question, though, is actually more general, and is applicable in almost every circumstance. That next to the last verse helps make that clear. From homelessness, to global warming, to the continuing threat of nuclear annihilation, this question is posed, always and forever, for each one of us: "What Good Am I?"
 
You can listen to the song by clicking the title link: 


What Good Am I?

What good am I if I’m like all the rest
If I just turn away, when I see how you’re dressed
If I shut myself off so I can’t hear you cry
What good am I?

What good am I if I know and don’t do
If I see and don’t say, if I look right through you
If I turn a deaf ear to the thunderin’ sky
What good am I?

What good am I while you softly weep
And I hear in my head what you say in your sleep
And I freeze in the moment like the rest who don’t try
What good am I?

What good am I then to others and me
If I’ve had every chance and yet still fail to see
If my hands are tied must I not wonder within
Who tied them and why and where must I have been?


What good am I if I say foolish things
And I laugh in the face of what sorrow brings
And I just turn my back while you silently die
What good am I?
 
 
Image Credit:
https://www.captainstomp.com/vinyl/lp/bob-dylan-oh-mercy

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

#293 / The Prophetic Voice (God Knows)

 

In June 2020, Esquire Magazine published an interview with Bob Dylan. In an online summary of the longer interview, Esquire called him "always a prophet."

Walter Brueggemann, widely considered to be one of the most influential Old Testament scholars of the last several decades, defines the "prophetic voice" as an exhortation to "speak truth to a society that continues to live in illusions." I do think Dylan qualifies! 
 
I have been quite taken, in fact, by Dylan's song, God Knows. If you will click that title link, below, you can listen to the song. I am including the lyrics, and I have highlighted just a couple of Dylan's prophetic phrases. This is definitely an "exhortation." God knows we need to pay attention!


 
God knows you ain’t pretty
God knows it’s true
God knows there ain’t anybody
Ever gonna take the place of you

God knows it’s a struggle
God knows it’s a crime
God knows there’s gonna be no more water
But fire next time


God don’t call it treason
God don’t call it wrong
It was supposed to last a season
But it’s been so strong for so long

God knows it’s fragile
God knows everything
God knows it could snap apart right now
Just like putting scissors to a string


God knows it’s terrifying
God sees it all unfold
There’s a million reasons for you to be crying
You been so bold and so cold

God knows that when you see it
God knows you’ve got to weep
God knows the secrets of your heart
He’ll tell them to you when you’re asleep

God knows there’s a river
God knows how to make it flow
God knows you ain’t gonna be taking
Nothing with you when you go

God knows there’s a purpose
God knows there’s a chance
God knows you can rise above the darkest hour
Of any circumstance


God knows there’s a heaven
God knows it’s out of sight
God knows we can get all the way from here to there
Even if we’ve got to walk a million miles by candlelight 
 
 
Image Credit:
https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/music/a32851064/bob-dylan-interview-george-floyd-coronavirus/
 

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

#292 / Inundating The Planet

 

A New York Times opinion column, appearing in the paper on August 31, 2021, was titled, "Plastics Are Inundating the Planet." That is the hard-copy version of the headline. Online, The Times has titled its column as follows: "The Proliferation of Plastics and Toxic Chemicals Must End."
 
As authors Marty Mulvihill, Gretta Goldenman, and Arlene Blum explain, "the problem with fossil fuels extends beyond their use for energy." They further comment: "petrochemicals are ubiquitous in everyday products, and many of them are poisoning us and our children." Furthermore, "global chemical production is predicted to double by 2030, according to the United Nations." 

In January 2010, in one of my earliest blog postings, I headlined my commentary as follows: "Sin And Synthetics." 

The point of that blog posting, and I have made the point since, was that the development and proliferation of synthetic materials (we mostly know them as "plastics") represents - whether we realize it or not - an attempt to substitute a "human-created reality" for the realities given to us in the World of Nature. Living within the limits of the Natural World, which is the world on which we ultimately depend, means that we must cease trying to "replace" Nature by our own, synthetic creations. 

It is funny to think about it this way, perhaps, but our use of plastics raises profound theological questions. 

Ultimate questions, you might call them!
 
Will we ultimately rely on the Natural World into which we are born, or do we really think we can create a completely new and synthetic world of our own, and sustain our lives in that human-made reality? 
 
Take a look at what is happening with plastics, and I think you'll have the answer.

 
Image Credit:
https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/27/opinion/plastics-fossil-fuels.html

Monday, October 18, 2021

#291 / What You'll Need

 
 
The image above is of an advertisement from the August 30, 2021, edition of The Wall Street Journal. I paid no attention to it as I proceeded through the paper, but my wife, looking over my shoulder, expressed something that might have been a combination of alarm, astonishment, and outrage. 

"Do you see that?" she asked, pointing to the cellphone graphic. The advertisement is touting an online retirement calculator that is going to help you "find out if your asset allocations will allow you to retire comfortably." As I say, I hadn't paid any attention to the entire ad, which was a full page, but when I did look at the advertisement, and the figures my wife was pointing to, it became clear that Fisher Investments is aiming to serve a demographic cohort that does not include my own family.  
 
The advertisement postulates a family that is on target to have $2.62 million in retirement investments, but when it comes to "What You'll Need," Fisher Investments suggests that you will need $2.95 million. It's time for action, folks. I'd suggest some bigger bets on the stock market!
 
Normally, a benign bemusement would be my reaction to this advertisement. This ad is aimed at the wealthy end of the economic spectrum, and my family is just not in that category - probably proving that I am not a typical reader of The Wall Street Journal. Upon a moment's reflection, however, I decided that it might make sense to comment on that "What You'll Need" phrasing. 

What we "need," taking the word literally, is almost always a lot less than what we "want," or what we are trying to get a hold of. Looking ahead, it struck me, we should be focusing on the fact that we are living well beyond our means, collectively speaking, and that we are exhausting even the renewable resources of this very finite planet on which we all depend.

When we look at our overall, big picture, planetary "retirement calculator," we should not be trying to increase our assets, to meet what we so thoughtlessly call our "needs." Instead, we should collectively be seeking to reduce our "needs," to the lesser amounts that we will actually have available as we move into the future. 

Supply and demand do, ultimately, have to balance out, which means (since what this planet can "supply" is limited) that we are going to have to reduce our "demands." 

We need to plan for "less," not "more." Collectively. Individually. Anyway you look at it!

 
Image Credit:
http://ereader.wsj.net
 

Sunday, October 17, 2021

#290 / Welcome To The Metaverse: Watch Out!

 
 
Here's Mark Zuckerberg, in the picture above, welcoming us with open arms into a "virtual world" that he is inviting us to occupy. Rental payments for our occupancy will go to Zuckerberg, of course!
 
A couple of very different articles in the August 28-29 edition of The Wall Street Journal, including the one with Zuckerberg's picture, captured my attention. First, Dan Gallagher and Laura Forman, tech writers for The Journal, told us about Zuckerberg's efforts to get us to enter into the "Metaverse," a "virtual world" that many techies see as "the next big thing." In the hard copy version of the newspaper, their article was titled, "The Real Problems Of the Virtual World." Online, the article bore this title: "Big Tech Wants You to Live in a Virtual World. Prepare for Real Problems." The subheading summed up their advice as follows: "User discretion is advised."
 
The second article in The Journal, seemingly quite different, was an "Ask Ariely" advice column, covering the following topic: "Why We Ignore Friends to Look at Our Phones." Dan Ariely, who writes this column, is a Professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University.
 
Gallagher and Forman want us to know that the "Metaverse," a world inside a headset, is "hot, sweaty and even nauseating." Think twice, they advise, before strapping a device onto your face that then allows you to "interact with cartoon-versions of co-workers and friends." It's just not worth it; that's what they suggest. The "Ask Ariely" column tells us that people who "snub" their friends, to look at their phones, may well be "depressed and socially anxious." That's why they do it.

While I generally agree with the observations made in these articles, as just recounted, I have a different take on what's happening at the tech/human interface. 

In the last several years, I have come to believe that many of our real life problems derive from one, profoundly important fact. Human beings are always tempted to prefer their own creations and constructions - the human world that they create - to the world they didn't create, the "Natural World," or the world that religious people call the "World That God Created." 
 
Sitting on a sunny patio at the end of the day, not that long ago, chatting with several friends about all sorts of things, from politics to flower gardens, I found one of those friends repeatedly diverting his attention to his phone - just the phenomenon discussed by Ariely. Surely, most of us have had that experience. Real people, right there in front of you, in "real life," are not as compelling as those people with whom you can be in contact through your phone, or tablet, or laptop. The "Metaverse," as proposed, is a further step. The headset that Zuckerberg and other techies are promoting makes it impossible even to choose between "real life" and the life transmitted to the headset user online. As long as you wear that headset, the world inside the headset is the only world you know. 

These new technological gadgets, I think, represent a progressive next step in an ongoing human effort to substitute out the "Natural World" as the locus of the "reality" in which we live, and to attempt to live within a world that humans create, supposedly freed from any dependence on anything that humans have not created themselves. 

User discretion is certainly advised! The fact is, all of our human constructions are ultimately dependent on a world that we did not create. The more we forget this fact, the more we value "avatars" over real people, and the more we value our human creations over the "Creation," itself, the quicker we will undermine the conditions that make life in "our world" possible. 

This is a kind of "theological" perspective - a perspective more real than the "Metaverse" is what I'd claim!
 
 
Image Credit:
https://www.wsj.com/articles/big-tech-wants-you-to-live-in-a-virtual-world-prepare-for-real-problems-11630056626

Saturday, October 16, 2021

#289 / One Important "Fine Print" Item

A group of local activists is going to propose an initiative measure, to be effective within the City of Santa Cruz. If successful, the initiative will establish an "Empty Homes Tax." To be successful, the initiative measure must qualify for the ballot and then be enacted by the voters. If the initiative is successful, new funding will be generated for affordable housing. 
 
The activists proposing the Empty Homes Tax is having a launch party this afternoon (Saturday, October 16th, at 1:00 p.m. at Shanty Shack Brewing). 
 
If you are interested, you might want to attend! I am pretty sure that you're invited! There is also a website, with more information.  That is online right now. You can click this link to visit that website.

I have reviewed the text of the proposed initiative - filled with "legalese," as all legal enactments must necessarily be. Here is something I found in the "fine print" that makes me happy. It is the definition of "affordable housing." Monies raised by the "Empty Homes Tax" will be used for housing that meets the following criteria:
 
"Affordable housing" means housing intended to operate as affordable to low, very low, and extremely low incomes... in perpetuity....

All too often, what developers and city planners claim is "affordable" housing is housing that is not, in fact, directed to those most in need - individuals and families with low, very low, and extremely low incomes. In addition, all too often, the "affordable" housing that is given the planning go-ahead will be price-restricted, and thus "affordable," for only a relatively short time. Thirty years, for instance. That might sound like a "long time," but it speeds right by. It has been forty-three years, for instance, since the voters enacted Measure J, a countywide measure that requires that at least 15% of all new housing in unincorporated areas to be affordable to persons with average and below average incomes, with those housing units now required to be "permanently" price-restricted.

As you can see from the language in bold, quoted above, funds raised by the proposed Empty Homes Tax, to be used to support the production of affordable housing within the City of Santa Cruz, will be used for housing that will be price restricted to be affordable "in perpetuity." 

Those words, "in perpetuity," are the good news from the fine print. That's the way it ought to be!
 
Here is one shout out on behalf of this proposed initiative measure for getting this part of the "fine print" exactly right!
 
 
Image Credit:
https://emptyhometax.org 
 
 

Friday, October 15, 2021

#288 / Zoom Support For White Collar Criminals

 

Evan Osnos got to sit in on a Zoom Support Group meeting for white collar criminals. Click the following link to read Osnos' report in The New Yorker. Osnos' report is titled, "The Big House - Life after white-collar crime." It is a fascinating excursion into the world of those who are "detoxing from power." 

I am mentioning this article not only because it is interesting in and of itself, but particularly because of an observation made by Tom Hardin, one of the participants in the so-called "White Collar Support Group." 
 
Hardin is described as a "lean and taciturn man in his forties...known with some notoriety in Wall Street Circles [as] Tipper X." The F.B.I. caught Hardin making illegal stock trades, and gave him a choice. To avoid going to jail, Hardin became an undercover agent, gathering evidence "in more than twenty criminal cases." He now makes his living as a "Corporate Ethics Trainer." 

Here's what Hardin has to say about those who apologize for the wrongs they have done (these apologies almost always coming after they have been caught, of course). Hardin's observation is pertinent for all of us, even if we are not white collar criminals ourselves:
 
In his dealings with his peers, Hardin has learned to distinguish who is genuinely remorseful from who is not. “I’ll hear from white-collar felons who tell me, ‘I made a mistake,’ ” he told me. “I’ll say, ‘A mistake is something we do without intention. A bad decision was made intentionally.’ If you’re classifying your bad decisions as mistakes, you’re not accepting responsibility.”
 
I think Hardin is onto something - and it's something important. His observation has applicability in almost every situation in which we are compelled to admit that we did something wrong, and that we are sorry that we did. Oftentimes, to be totally honest, we are mostly sorry that someone noticed that we did something wrong, so that an apology has become necessary.
 
"I made a mistake; I'm sorry" is a common form of apology. This phrasing, though, and we are sometimes not aware of it, even as we utter the words, is actually an "excuse," not an "apology." Naturally, we are sorry we "made a mistake" - but, of course, who doesn't make a mistake, once in a while? This form of "apology," citing to our mistake, is really aimed at dodging responsibility for our own actions.

Individually and collectively, we need to take responsibility for what we do - and for what we have done.

And we need to do that before we get caught, not afterwards!
 
Image Credit: 
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/08/30/life-after-white-collar-crime
 

Thursday, October 14, 2021

#287 / Eating Bugs

 

On July 26, 2021, I read a story that told me that I should start eating bugs. That's right, bugs. Insects!  
 
The Mercury News version of the article indicated that the "global edible insect market is posed to boom." I guess that's what the research seems to say. Maybe it's a good time to invest. Tiziana di Costanzo, pictured above, is the co-founder of Horizon Insects. She makes pizza out of cricket powder. 

I learned, online, just how Horizon Insects lays out the case for bugs:

You’ve heard the statistics: Insects can provide three times more protein and 30 times as much vitamin B12 as beef, using a fraction of the arable land and water. Futurists are as tired of saying it as you’re reluctant to take their advice: The human diet of tomorrow should pivot to bugs if we’re to stymie the worst effects of climate change.


I have to confess that I am not very enthusiastic about having to eat bugs - even after that pitch from Horizon Insects. The New Yorker, one of my favorite magazines, has also proposed that we "Save The Planet, Eat a Bug." Still, I am just not that wild about the idea!
 
Global warming, and the climate changes it is creating, are a real problem, and I do care about that. It is more than an "inconvenience," too. Global warming is an end-of the-world challenge to the way we have been conducting ourselves for the last 150 years. Dramatic actions are absolutely called for. 
 
Maybe eating bugs should be on our dance card. Still, I am just not that enthusiastic!
 
How about we all agree to stop burning hydrocarbon fuels, right now - immediately, as soon as we possibly can? Then, after we have done that, we can rearrange our economy and society to deal with the changes that will necessarily eventuate.
 
Maybe that would mean eating bugs. In which case, I'll eat 'em. Some people say that bugs are really good, and good for you, too!
 
But here's my idea. Let's get rid of the hydrocarbon fuels first, rather than starting out on the bug diet to avoid having to do that!

 
Image Credit:
https://www.union-bulletin.com/what-pairs-with-beetle-startups-seek-to-make-bugs-tasty/image_9892c7f3-afd6-5445-b15d-89b3e27e8b68.html
 

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

#286 / Out With A Bang

 

Joseph C. Sternberg, who writes a "Political Economics" column for The Wall Street Journal, is joyously reporting that "The Climate-Change Agenda Goes Out With a Bang." By this he means that recently-announced plans by the EU and China to address our global warming crisis are likely to be defeated by "voter skepticism." I have already commented on these recently-announced proposals. I think they are inadequate, relying for the most part on "market incentives." Sternberg thinks that they are draconian, and should be rejected, and he is happy to predict that voter resistance will doom those plans.

Sternberg correctly notes that reducing greenhouse gas emissions (basically coming from the combustion of hydrocarbon fuels) will significantly change how we provide energy to our homes and factories. He also notes, correctly, and that making the changes needed will cost money. He points out that the "carbon intensity" of our overall economies has been reduced, which he then assumes will allow us to claim that victory has been achieved, and that further efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are not needed. Besides, any successful effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would be costly! Nobody wants to pay more for anything, so this "reduced carbon intensity" argument is a good excuse to reject changes that would cost us more money.

Unfortunately, Sternberg's less than trenchant analysis fails to note that the the amount of carbon dioxide produced per every dollar of gross domestic product (which is how that "carbon intensity" figure is derived) isn't a relevant measure of how well we are doing in our struggle to maintain conditions that will allow life on Earth to continue. It isn't the "carbon intensity" of our economy that matters. What matters is the actual increase (or not) of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. 

Those are going way up. Up, up, and away!

It is Sternberg's hope that citizen and voter resistance to efforts actually to reduce and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions will mean that such greenhouse gas emissions will not, in fact, be much reduced. If that hope is fulfilled, we will move ever faster into that "Green Sky" territory I wrote about not long ago.
 
Will it be costly to change what we're doing so that we can have at least some chance of avoiding the global warming/climate change catastrophe that we can see coming our way at breathtaking speed?
 
Yep! It will cost money. 
 
The alternative? It's not telling ourselves fairy tales about the reduced "carbon intensity" of our ever more wasteful civilization. 
 
The alternative is stopping the combustion of hydrocarbon fuels. Period! 
 
Hey, folks. It's our choice. Sternberg is certainly right about that. So, will citizens and voters vote to keep their individual costs low, as he predicts; or, will we all figure out that our "human world," which is mostly run on "economics," must ultimately confess its dependence on the "real world," the World of Nature, which operates on rules that have nothing to do with dollars and cents. 

It has been said that "Nature bats last." 

Actually, Nature bats "first, last, and always." We are either going to figure that out, and act accordingly, or....
 

We don't have too much time left to choose.
 
 
Image Credit:
https://www.wsj.com/articles/climate-change-summit-cop26-cost-esg-carbon-11626297240
 
 

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

#285 / Tipped?

 

That happy-looking guy, above, is Malcolm Gladwell. The photo was used in 2016, in connection with the announcement of Gladwell's podcast. According to the announcement, Gladwell was hoping that the podcast would make his listeners cry. Since I never listened to his podcast, I don't know whether it achieved this objective or not. I am more of a reader, I guess. 
 
Luckily, I have had lots of opportunities to read what Gladwell has to say. Gladwell describes himself as "the author of five New York Times bestsellers." The first book on his list is The Tipping Point - How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference.

I have read that book, and I enjoyed it. One of those online booksellers whose name I avoid mentioning describes The Tipping Point this way:

The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. Just as a single sick person can start an epidemic of the flu, so too can a small but precisely targeted push cause a fashion trend, the popularity of a new product, or a drop in the crime rate.
 
There is another kind of "tipping point," too. This is a tipping point related to physical behaviors and physical processes, not social behaviors or social processes.
 
For those who are willing to contemplate what our continued combustion of hydrocarbon fuels is doing to Planet Earth, and to the living species that inhabit Planet Earth (including our own species, of course), the possibility that we may soon reach a global warming "tipping point" is of overwhelming concern. A November 2019 article in Nature presents the possibilities:

Politicians, economists and even some natural scientists have tended to assume that tipping points1 in the Earth system — such as the loss of the Amazon rainforest or the West Antarctic ice sheet — are of low probability and little understood. Yet evidence is mounting that these events could be more likely than was thought, have high impacts and are interconnected across different biophysical systems, potentially committing the world to long-term irreversible changes.

Here we summarize evidence on the threat of exceeding tipping points, identify knowledge gaps and suggest how these should be plugged. We explore the effects of such large-scale changes, how quickly they might unfold and whether we still have any control over them.

In our view, the consideration of tipping points helps to define that we are in a climate emergency and strengthens this year’s chorus of calls for urgent climate action — from schoolchildren to scientists, cities and countries.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) introduced the idea of tipping points two decades ago. At that time, these ‘large-scale discontinuities’ in the climate system were considered likely only if global warming exceeded 5 °C above pre-industrial levels. Information summarized in the two most recent IPCC Special Reports (published in 2018 and in September this year) suggests that tipping points could be exceeded even between 1 and 2 °C of warming (emphasis added).
 
The latest IPCC report, released in early August 2021, indicates that we are definitely going to experience global warming that will exceed 1°C of warming. The report was summarized this way by The New York Times
 
 
I am a worrier, I must admit, but I really wonder if we might have already "tipped." The news of those physical behaviors and processes now underway, as reported daily in our newspapers, are not really encouraging. There are unusually dramatic fires and floods, around the globe. And then there was the news article below, published shortly after the most recent IPCC Report was made public: 

Rain has fallen on the summit of Greenland's ice sheet for the first time in recorded history, heightening concerns about the already precarious condition of its ice.

An unprecedented 7 billion tons (6.3 billion metric tons) of water pelted the ice sheet last Saturday (Aug. 14), falling as rain and not snow for several hours. This was the third time temperatures at the summit had risen above freezing in less than a decade, according to recordings taken by the National Science Foundation's Summit Station

The rain, which occurred over two days from Aug. 14 to Aug. 15, was also accompanied by the melting of up to 337,000 square miles (872,000 square kilometers) of ice, according to the U.S. National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC).

"There is no previous report of rainfall at this location, which reaches 3,216 meters (10,551 feet) in elevation," NSIDC researchers said in a statement, adding that the amount of ice lost in one day was the same as the average ice lost across a typical week for the same time of year (emphasis added).

 
I don't know whether we have "tipped," or not. If we have truly "tipped," gone past a global tipping point, then "irreversible" changes with dramatically adverse consequences for all living things are inevitable. Finding out that we have already "tipped," gone past that point, is what would make me cry. 

But until we know that's true (and we don't really know that now), there is one thing that we do know: 
 
Whatever we are doing now, we can change.

But will we change? 
 
That, you know, is the real question!

Remember Gladwell's point. It's true. "Little Things Can Make A Big Difference."
 
 
Image Credit:
https://www.vox.com/2016/6/16/11934370/malcolm-gladwell-podcast-revisionist-history-mass-shootings

Monday, October 11, 2021

#284 / Political Rage? We're All Foxed Up

 

The September-October 2021, issue of Mother Jones asks a pertinent question: "What's fueling America's political rage?" The Mother Jones' article addressing that question, by Kevin Drum, is worth reading. Drum first establishes that we are, as Americans, mad at each other. REALLY mad at each other. The article then further argues, pretty convincingly, that it's not because: (1) America has gone crazy over conspiracy theories; (2) Social Media has caused all the problems; or (3) Things have just gotten worse. 
 
Drum concludes that Fox News is the cause of the problem, toute simple. As he puts it: "It's All About Fox News." 
 
Fox News stokes a constant sense of outrage among its base of viewers, largely by highlighting narratives of white resentment and threats to Christianity. This in turn forces Republican politicians to follow suit. It’s a positive feedback loop that has no obvious braking system, and it’s already radicalized the conservative base so much that most Republicans literally believe that elections are being stolen and democracy is all but dead if they don’t take extreme action.

I understand that this is not an exciting conclusion. Liberals have been fighting Fox News for years with little to show for it. It’s more interesting to go after something new, like social media or lunatic conspiracy theories. But the evidence is pretty clear: Those things act as fuel on the fire—and they deserve our opposition—but it’s Fox News that’s set the country ablaze.

For the past 20 years the fight between liberals and conservatives has been razor close, with neither side making more than minor and temporary progress in what’s been essentially trench warfare. We can only break free of this by staying clear-eyed about what really sustains this war. It is Fox News that has torched the American political system over the past two decades, and it is Fox News that we have to continue to fight.

I don't ever watch Fox News (or any other television news, for that matter), so I am not in a good position either to agree or disagree with Drum's conclusion. While I am pretty convinced, just from reading about Fox News, that it is a malign force within our body politic - and intentionally so - I do tend to be skeptical of simple explanations for what are often rather complex human realities. Still, I am definitely willing to believe that corporate media platforms (Fox News may well be the industry leader) use time-tested propaganda techniques to advance their corporate and political agendas. 
 
Given Drum's suggestion that "it is Fox News that has torched the American political system over the past two decades, and [that] it is Fox News that we have to continue to fight," I would have liked to hear some positive suggestions on how we might carry on that "fight" in the years upcoming. Diagnosis is important, of course, but remedies are ultimately more important. Past efforts haven't seemed to work. 
 
As I said in a recent blog posting, I am not convinced that any "governmental bureau of honest news" is going to solve the problem - which may mean that we are back to that "talking to strangers" idea I have mentioned before. Dialogue and discussion, outside the mass media, is perhaps the most effective remedy we have, close at hand, to deal with the "political rage" that Drum identifies. 
 
Talking to strangers, though, as a way to offset some of the political rage that is poisoning our politics, would necessarily mean that would would have to lay down our anger long enough to talk to those with whom we expect to disagree.

And to listen to them, too. Let's not forget that part!
 
 
Image Credits:
https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2021/07/american-anger-polarization-fox-news/ 
 
 

Sunday, October 10, 2021

#283 / Politics And Precedent

 

Former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is quoted above, with the quotation taken from a blog posting about the case of South Dakota v. Wayfair, Inc.  In Wayfair, the Court overturned a longstanding Supreme Court precedent that held that states could not require a business that had no physical presence in the state to collect the state's sales tax. 
 
If you want to understand the implications of the Wayfair precedent, you might think about Amazon. Particularly in its early days, Amazon sold hundreds of millions of dollars worth of goods in states where it had no physical presence (in California, for instance). Based on the Supreme Court's pre-Wayfair precedents, Amazon took the position that it should not be forced to collect and remit state sales taxes. Naturally, this gave Amazon a huge advantage over in-state businesses that did have to collect and remit the state sales tax. The pre-Wayfair precedent helped Amazon establish its retail dominance. 
 
Scalia was no longer on the Court when Wayfair was decided in 2018 (Scalia died in 2016). However, Scalia was in the majority in the case of Quill Corp. v. North Dakota, a 1992 case that furnished the pre-Wayfair precedent upon which Amazon (and other businesses) relied. In Quill, the Supreme Court refused to make a corporation without a significant physical presence in the state collect and remit the state's sale tax for goods sold to customers in the state. In backing corporations like Amazon against the claims of state governments, Scalia said that maintaining "stability in the law" was a main reason to demand that courts follow earlier decisions. Citizens have a "reliance interest" that demands that courts follow their own precedents.

Surely, there is a reason to acknowledge the importance of maintaining precedent as people bring their disputes to the courts. Following precedent not only provides "stability in the law," and supports the "reliance interest" that people have in earlier decisions, it also provides some guarantee to citizens that the Supreme Court - and the courts in general - are not just another "political" branch of government, and an "unelected" branch, at that, not accountable to the people. 

Given his support of precedent, how was Justice Scalia on Roe v. Wade, the famous Supreme Court decision that give women the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion? Where business privilege was involved, Scalia was in favor of precedent. Not so much in the case of a woman's right to choose. Here's a quote from a law review article on "judicial activism." 

While Scalia did not join the Court until 13 years after Roe v. Wade was decided, it was the focal target for his attacks on the judicial activism which created a constitutionally protected right to abortion.
 
I was thinking about the Supreme Court's devotion to precedent (or not) when I read an exceptionally thoughtful commentary in the September 27, 2021, edition of The New Yorker. Writing in "The Talk Of The Town," Margaret Talbot made the following observation about a case from Mississippi, now pending before the Court. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, she notes, is "widely viewed as an opportunity for the Justices, if they so choose, to overturn the nearly fifty-year-old precedent set by Roe v. Wade."
 
Mississippi claims that no “legitimate reliance interests call for retaining Roe and Casey,” the 1992 Supreme Court ruling that upheld a constitutional right to abortion while allowing states to impose limits before the stage of fetal viability. The state also says that Justices needn’t worry about stare decisis—the principle that would encourage them to respect legal precedent—or about the impact on people’s lives if Roe is tossed out. Abortion-law jurisprudence, the petitioners write, has always been “fractured and unsettled,” and the “Court is not in a position to gauge” how reliant society is on abortion. But, as the lawyers representing the lead respondent—the only remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi—point out, the Court has heard multiple abortion cases since Roe and, while it has allowed states to chip away at the constitutional right to abortion, it has also clearly upheld the core finding.
 
I would like to think that when the Court files its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization the Court will, in fact, follow the precedent established in Roe v. Wade. How the Court will actually come down remains to be seen. 

Thinking about the subject of "precedent" more generally, though, it seems clear to me that "precedent" can never completely preempt the need for courts to examine each case individually, and to consider what a decision that follows "precedent" would mean in real life. In the case of Roe v. Wade, Talbot's article makes a strong argument that the "stability of the law," and our "reliance interest" on precedent should count towards upholding the essential holding of Roe v. Wade. As I say, I agree, and am hoping that the Supreme Court will not upset the precedent set by that historic case, giving women the right to make their own choices about abortion during the first trimester of a pregnancy.

But consider the Wayfair case. I also believe that the Court was right, in Wayfair, to demand that corporations like Amazon collect and remit sales taxes with respect to online sales made to customers in any state that levies a sales tax. "Precedent," in other words, is important - very important, actually - but it is not the only thing that is!

That conclusion suggests that in the realm of human affairs there is no escaping "politics." We do "live in a political world," and what I sometimes call an "equation" states how that world works: 

Politics > Law > Government
 
We govern ourselves through the laws we enact and enforce, but our political decisions will, and should, be understood to shape the law. In other words, if we want self-government (if we want good government), we are going to have to get involved in "politics" ourselves.

 
Image Credit:
https://priorprobability.com/2018/06/22/is-stare-decisis-dead/