May 2010 Archives

Lost Wonder

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My wife and I made our annual trek to Brunswick, Maine earlier this week. We spend the summer in an old cottage by the ocean. We have been coming here for almost 30 years, the last 10 for the whole summer, enabled by retirement for both of us. The place sits on a peninsula, called Mere Point, about 20 feet from Maquoit Bay. The bay is one of many such water bodies formed when the retreat of the Ice Age glaciers carved out the peninsulas. I can look out over the water and see the mainland which forms the horizon for the setting sun everyday. We are in one of the very rare places on the East Coast where you can witness the sun going down over the Atlantic.

After all these years of coming up to open in mid- to late-May, the scene was quite familiar. We cleaned out the shredded sheets that the mice used to keep warm during the winter. After a disastrous mice season a few years ago, I sealed up the linen closet, or at least thought I sealed it. But this year when I took off the tape around the bottom of the door, I noticed that some of the stuff stored on the shelves was on the floor. A few minutes later while I was going for the broom, I heard my wife shriek. As I arrived, she said, “Look it’s moving.” Sure enough, on closer attention, we found two very young squirrel babies amidst acorns and shredded bedsheets. I gathered up the sheet and carried the two outside, and left them for the parents to find. After a careful search, I found the quarter-sized space that they must have used to enter. I missed it when I sealed up everything else. Maybe the parents were the same ones that left all sorts of acorns and other debris in several cabinet drawers. They can find their way to the strangest places

The eiders are here as always with tiny ducklings that can’t be more than a few days old. They flock in the bay and entertain us with their antics and quacking. The white-plumed males are still hanging around, but they will soon go off somewhere, leaving the mothers to care for the young. It is truly a scene right out of Make Way for Ducklings with a straight line of about a dozen little ones trailing after a few of the females. A distant loon added to the sounds of early summer. The hummingbirds are back. It takes only a moment for them to find the freshly filled feeder. Our (note the possessiveness) chipmunk was back, begging at the kitchen door for the sunflower seeds that fill her mouth almost to bursting. She often sneaks in looking for the seed jar when we leave the screen ajar. I want to believe that it is the same one that got so tame last year. I do think so.

This is why I come back each summer flushed with the knowledge that some things never change even as they may be different on the surface. My pleasant thoughts have been disturbed by what has happened on another part of the oceans far from here, but still intimately connected. The phone rang this afternoon with a call from a dear friend who just wanted to talk about the blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. He, as I have been, was very sad, asking whether our incessant quest for oil and other fossil fuels is worth the risk to nature and humans. I know I am a beneficiary of this quest as I rely on gas and oil to get me to Maine, bring food to the table and just about everything I do. I am ramping up my work to reduce my energy footprint.

George, my friend, asked whether this was an apocalyptic event. Not quite, I think, but close. The world will not come to an end as a result of the spill, but it will irreversibly change the world in the region. The dissembling and misleading statements by just about everybody involved are inexcusable. Are they all afraid that we might finally wake up to the folly of playing around with nature, especially in situations where we are taking big risks?

The the reality of the loss of a massive habitat abounding with marine life was driven home today far from the scene of the disaster. On the way back from taking two of my grandchildren to the farmer’s market this morning, they asked if they could come to the cottage and jump in the bay. Too cold we said, so they settled for dangling their feet over the edge of the dock. As we walked down the ramp, we saw jellyfish, not the stinging kind, everywhere. They ran to get a couple of nets and pails, and went after the fish. They put a few in the pails to look at, including a very small one. Soon they became more curious and reached in and touched it, and, then, picked it up. I expected a sound of disgust, but I was wrong. The next thing I knew was that each held the slippery, slimy creature and studied it. It’s not easy to hold a jellyfish. All I could think about at that moment was how lucky we are not to have oil despoiling these waters that can create such wonder. Like my friend, I will be sad for some time to come.

Visualizing Sustainability

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One of my colleagues from the Marlboro College MBA in Managing Sustainability sent me this very interesting link. It’s a collection of visual presentations relating to sustainability or subjects closely tied to the basic concept by Samuel Mann, Associate Professor at Otago Polytechnic, in Dunedin, New Zealand. The collection at the link contains some 270 items. Mann continues to add to it and has issued an open request to send him more examples.

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The number of entries is a bit overwhelming in conveying a relatively concise, common picture of what sustainability means. Many spring from the triad of the UNCED (Brundtland) notion of sustainable development. I picked two at random to show what kind of objects Mann has collected. The source of each one is included as a link next to the diagram on his web page.

Ranging from the very simplest Venn diagrams to mazes of interconnected linkages, none seem to me to convey the the underlying meaning of sustainability. The word, sustainability, has been around long before our present concern with the state of the world showed up. It has no normative sense and refers to no values. Sustain, the root, springs from the Latin, sustenere, meaning to uphold or to hold up. That the upholding continues over time is implicit. If no time were implied, the object or quality being momentarily upheld could topple in the blink of an eye.

Sustainable, the adjective, refers then to something that can hold up something else. Sustainable development refers to development that can continue for some extended time. Sustainable business refers to a business that can continue to operate over time. Another implicit context for the adjectival form is that what is being upheld continues even in the face of changing conditions. The critical aspect of “sustainable” is that it only modifies a noun and it is the noun that is being upheld over time.

Sustainability is the ability to sustain something. Note that what is to be upheld is not a part of the definition. I am going on and on here to make the point that none of the 270 diagrams Mann has collected gets it right. We have to look to values or outputs that the something produces to make sustainability concrete. Sustainable development tacitly points to the values of standard economic development, almost always equivalent to growth in wealth. Sustainable business is harder to parse. What do businesses produce that we might want to uphold for a while? Disagreements about the social role of business require that the phrase sustainable business always be further defined. But it should be clear that “sustainable business” has nothing to do with the state of the world. Ironically, [sustainable] business as usual is invoked as a cause of planetary unsustainability, the opposite use of the root.

Sustainability, to have some meaning in terms of our desire to have some system produce something we want continue for a while, requires that we name two things: the system and the output. The world as a whole is the system we should be referring to as it is the ultimate source of life. The moment that sustainability is taken to refer to a subset of the Planet, we flirt with danger because we cannot predict the behavior of the entire system by our knowledge of any of its parts. The second need is to name what quality or material output we want the system to produce. Wealth alone is not enough. Environmental health is not enough as human being is defined by the presence of qualities like dignity, freedom, or the comprehensive term I use, flourishing. The proliferation of visual ways to portray sustainability shows our cleverness in using pictorial devices to convey meaning, but, in this case, the meaning is by no means clear, and, I believe, mystifying rather than clarifying.

Jung and Sustainability

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I’m back from California and about to head for Maine. The Conference on the Aesthetics of Change was terrific. I was surrounded by depth psychologists, mythology scholars, and Jungians. I went thinking Jungians were another species, but came back happy to find that they were humans just like me. Not only are they not aliens, but they think a lot like me when it comes to changing psyches whether in individuals (they) or whole cultures (me).

One of the speakers, Ernest Rossi, talked about how aesthetic experiences triggered neuronic evolution in the brain, creating learning. What I had thought to be pretty far out is now being found in many mainstream neuroscience laboratories. Aesthetic experiences might be defined as experiences that don’t fit into the normal, and cause us to stop and reflect or absorb the incoming signals differently from everyday encounters with reality. The brain is plastic in the sense that it can reconfigure itself in response to sensory signals coming in. What Rossi was saying is that when the brain gets signals that are distinct from the normal, some genes are turned on and release a form of messenger RNA that, in turn, induces the cells that turn into neurons to grow.

Maturana and Varela in the Tree of Knowledge and other works had developed a model of consciousness and cognition that is more or less the same, although lacking in the cell level mechanisms that neuroscientists are finding. Both these two and the those doing the work that Rossi cited would describe change as learning by doing. We learn as a result of our actions, including encountering an aesthetic experience. The same model applies to situations we call breakdowns: cases where the transparent, unconscious nervous system structure cannot cope. I’ve ordered a few of the papers Rossi cited and also some of his work so that I can learn more about this very important development. Normal, transparent behavior reinforces the existing structure, perhaps through the building of myelin sheathes around those neuronal pathways that are more frequently used.

The importance of these developments lies in building and strengthening the scientific basis for what we already know works in changing behaviors. Psychotherapy and psychoanalysis work through processes that bring beliefs and behavioral strategies that lie beyond the grasp of consciousness to a place where they can be recognized as determinants of patterns of behavior that do not serve the patient well. The well-known 12-step method for dealing with alcohol addiction in partly based on this principle.

Change can come (it doesn’t have to) once the actor is aware of the factors that are controlling what has become normal, but pathological or undesirable, behavior. The sociology of Anthony Giddens, who I have built my model for dealing with unsustainability, follows the same logical development. Routine, normal social action is determined by a set of beliefs and norms housed in the collective “cognitive structure” of the collective. Normal behavior reinforces this structure. Life goes on as usual until something happens to upset the system at which point it becomes possible to reveal the hitherto buried beliefs and norms and change them.

I’ve already gotten more abstruse than I intended. The point of all this is that there is lots to learn about culture change from the field of neurosciences and depth psychology. The connection between aesthetics and change is something that I will explore further. After all sustainability is shaped by what we want the world to produce: flourishing, beauty, truth, freedom. All of these are aesthetic in the sense that we experience them as a whole. We can describe them, but not break them down into analytic chunks, except only to help describe them. We can’t produce them on order from some sort of a machine. We have known this since antiquity and put aesthetics into a different category from science. Somehow we have lost the understanding of the power of art to change us, relying only on science and technology. Perhaps the link I saw between the neurosciences and the aesthetic experience can reverse this imbalance.

Sustainability and the Psyche

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Flying to Santa Barbara from Boston takes all day and two changes on the way. Except for the inevitable nervousness about missing connections, it was a pretty uneventful flight. I had gotten a window seat so I could spot the mountains as we got over the West and was not disappointed. The last remnants of snow were visible from my window as I peered over the wing.

I am on my way to speak about sustainability to a group who largely think of culture change in terms of personal transformation and enlightenment. But I thought as I kept my gaze focused on the beauty of the Rockies that we all, from my techie outlook to their psychological and anthropological stances, would have the same thoughts. How long are we going to be able to marvel at the world’s riches? The mountains alone would be enough, Dayenu. But the stark contrast of the glistening snow makes the scene even more awesome. And, if things go as they are today, the snow will disappear earlier and earlier, and maybe not come at all. A few of the world’s highest ski areas have closed because the snow has gone.

I’m waiting for the conference to start and worrying about how I will present my piece. I usually do it with the help of a Keynote (Mac’s improvement of Powerpoint) presentation, but the cavernous room has no curtains and the California sun is very bright. In thinking about it, I can recognize many crossover themes. Sustainability shows up as much the same idea, but in different words. I talk about it in terms of flourishing. The is the same word that runs through this community’s language. In this primarily Jungian crew, individuation is the process for getting to the state where all that one can be shows up.

Our means for achieving the transformation of values and action are different, but again our beliefs are very close. Without a shift in human consciousness towards caring and community, all we will ever do is to put Band-aids on the world and on our psyches. I don’t find many in the technocratic world I live in most of the time who understand the need for transformative change. I expect to find a more welcoming audience here. Transformation is a more deeply grounded idea in thinking about the human psyche or soul with roots deep into the mystic and the psychological. I hope to leave with more ideas about how to interweave what I know I will learn here into my own practices.

Away for a Few Days

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I’ll be away for the next few days and unsure of internet access. I am going to participate in a conference on The Aesthetic Nature of Change, sponsored by the Institute for Cultural Change. This is what they say about themselves.

ICC Mission

The Institute for Cultural Change seeks to promote individual, ecological, and cultural evolution through the development of educational models that foster curiosity, imagination, personal reflection, and cross-cultural dialogue.

ICC Vision

Our aim is to create and connect an impassioned global community committed to altering how we humans might relate to our self, each other and the natural world less destructively, to discover ways to interact in less violent, racist and sexist ways, and to work toward augmenting conscious change in a challenging world.

I suspect it will be a little like traveling in an exotic foreign land, as the people coming are largely from communities I rarely encounter. The dominant background is Jungian and depth psychology. I am looking forward to getting out of my box and into another, but concerned that I lack the language to interact fully. But with sustainability as a major theme, I shouldn’t fret overly much. I do share their vision and mission. Anyway, Ojai should be a pleasant interlude.

Changing Behavior Can Be Fun

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I stumbled on a fascinating project sponsored by Volkwagen called Fun Theory. The idea is simple but elegant. Design “games” that are fun to play and teach lessons about the importance of taking care of the world at the same time. It’s not too hard to design objects to contain hidden values that enter one’s consciousness when they are used. The challenge is to get people to use them. Some examples are built on making the objects impossible to avoid, like a speed bump or a two-button toilet.

When you encounter these artifacts they break into your consciousness and become present. After repeated encounters, you take away the lessons and embedded values they transmit. The speed bump teaches us that street crossings are dangerous places that motorists need to be aware of. The two-button toilet teaches us that there is no “away” to where the stuff goes and that we are responsible for our actions.

The Volkswagen projects enlarges this general concept through encounters with artifacts driven by “fun,” rather than by force. This link takes you to the site where you can see all the entries to the contest. I was particularly taken by the bottle recycling station shown in this video.

Another one aims to educate children about energy through a playground with interactive games that demonstrate how hydropower works for example.

The ideas are terrific all by themselves, but some of the videos are very clever and a pleasure to watch. The one above about playgrounds was submitted by a design class at the Olin College of Engineering, a relatively new school in suburban Boston. I gave a lecture to the class shown in the video. They are very serious at Olin about making sure every student gets an experience of learning through doing in the design courses. When these students and the others involved in all these clever designs get out into the world, I would expect to see a lot of change happening and a lot more fun in the process.

“The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” Carl Jung

Experts and Wimps

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The experts are ruining the world.

The technocrats we've counted on to run the machines, institutions and systems of our advanced civilization have not only failed to protect us from disasters, they now admit that they don't have a clue as to why they failed.

In just the past few weeks, we've seen top experts confess that they don't know what they are doing.

This lede taken from an article in MarketWatch has half the story right, but badly misses the most salient point. The news story driving the article is a set of exculpatory statements made recently by a diverse group of "experts" disclaiming their responsibility in each of a series of recent disasters. Here are a few of the cases they looked at:

  • Top securities regulators and the leaders of the exchanges confess to Congress that they don't know what caused the sudden drop in stock prices last Thursday, a market meltdown that destroyed about $1 trillion in wealth in a manner of minutes.

  • "Fabulous Fab," a clever trader at Goldman Sachs, confesses that he didn't understand the implications of his own financial creations, the kind of paper that forced the global economy to its knees.

  • Top executives from the world's largest car maker confess that they don't know why one of their best-selling vehicles sometimes accelerates out of control.

These stories are truly reported, but the writer's conclusion that these people have failed to keep the trust that the public has put in them is misplaced. The public should not have relied only on the experts that designed or built the systems that failed. All of these systems are technically complex, that is, their behavior cannot be predicted by the very design model that was used in creating them. The real culprit is our culturally rooted blind faith that the world is a machine that we know enough about to manipulate and control.

We should, by now, have begun to understand that the promise of gains in efficiency or technological prowess need to be taken with a grain of salt. It may take experts to design them, but it always take a different sort of competence to govern them. That's what is missing in this otherwise excellent article. The very set of traits that experts bring to the design of systems is exactly the opposite to those needed to keep them under control. Expertise is in part defined by a sense of infallibility. In most cases this quality is justified. As a result the public and those responsible for running its key institutions make the understandable, but erroneous, assumption that the experts are the right ones to both build and keep watch over the systems. Wrong.

As I have written in my book and on this blog, complex systems require different governance schemes than machines, however complicated the machines are. The critical rule for complex system is to assume that you do not know how these systems are going to behave, especially when stressed. This means that those running the show must always proceed cautiously, always carefully monitoring the current state. Controlling the extent of allowable behavioral variations will minimize the possibility that the system will collapse or undergo some sort of regime change. In most of the cases mentioned in the article this translates into the absolute need for some sort of regulation, that is controls that keep the system from moving too far from the region of known, as opposed to predicted, behavior.

What we don't need is what the writer wants, "smarter or more honest experts." Those we already have are smart and mostly honest enough. When they confess that they can't explain what has happened, they are finally being honest. They are only doing what we ask of them. We listen to them on the upside, but on the down side we're pretty deaf to them and to other "non-experts", who have learned much about how these systems tick by watching them perform. As long as the systems produce oil from the seabed or make money magically appear, those who call out warnings are seen as Pollyannas or, in the current lingo, wimps.

It's not too late to regain control of our world, and we need the experts to do that. After all, when the plane hits a flock of geese and the engines go out, you'd still rather have Captain Sullenberger in the cockpit than Ron Paul.

Yes, we still do need the experts, but we also need the wimps. Captain Sullenberger, in my sense, is much more the wimp that the expert. He got real good at doing what he does by learning through long experience, coupled with careful observation. The experts were those that designed the airplane and made some assumption that the probability of losing both engines to an errant flock of birds as too low to worry about. I'd rather have the wimps in the cockpit when I fly than the designers.

Jeremiah Without God in the Wings

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Again I turn to James Carroll for the source of a blog post. Carroll recalls the prophet Jeremiah in his weekly op-ed piece in the Boston Globe this week. Jeremiah railed at the Jews for breaking their covenant with God, warning them that great misfortunes would be the consequence. The destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians follows in the story.

Carroll begins by referring to a recent book by Tony Judt that rails against the way we live today, not so much as disobeying God, but not paying attention to our own moral ends. In, Ill Fares the Land, Judt points out the great disparities between wealth and other measures of societal health in the United States. In the short extract I cite, Judt provides data showing the the US is an outlier in every correlation between wealth inequality and something bad. We are the most unequal, not the richest, of all the nations included. and are off the chart in indicators of poor health, crime, mental illness and (shorter) life expectancy. I haven’t read Judt’s book; it’s on my summer reading list, but I did read carefully the article in the link above. Judt has been long-time critical of US culture and policy, but his recent writings are particularly evocative, as he is writing while anticipating his death from a form of Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS).

Carroll reminds us of other “Jeremiahs,”—Christopher Lasch, Jimmy Carter, John Kenneth Galbraith, C. Wright Mills—all critical of the way we, the larger society, have come to live. The list of such critics is much longer than Carroll chooses to include, but the point is still made by citing only a handful of authors/critics. He quotes President Carter on consumerism, as i also do in my book. “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption,’’ Carter warned. “But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.’’ I believe that Carter was only using the bully pulpit to cheer on the American people into a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that the evidence for restraint was illusory then as it is now.

Carroll ends on a positive note:

Irony abides in such a tradition of criticism, for the end of such negative reckoning is the supreme affirmation that this nation is most fully itself in honestly acknowledging the gulf between reality and ideal. The uplift, from Judt to Whitman, is in the clearly stated truth.

I find the paragraph hard to follow, but I think Carroll was extolling us for being able to voice our criticism, contrasting the reality of the culture to our basic idealistic goals. But the hard facts remain: not all of us are free—many are much less free than others—and we now know that pursuing happiness through consumption and materialism fails to do the job. It’s not enough to be a Jeremiah; our modern counterparts lack the influence that he had. The affluent society of Galbraith was not enough to trigger social action, except at the margins. Rachel Carson’s clarion call is quiescent as we are moving forward with all sorts of grand technological experiments that we suspect may have large unintended and unpredictable consequences. The situation has changed, a message missing from Carroll’s column, as we are facing stresses on our global system of unprecedented magnitude. It won’t be God that destroys our modern Jerusalem; it will be a combination of Mother Nature’s wrath and self-inflicted injuries.

[Jeremiah by Rembrandt]

Opening Up Our Maine Cottage

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It’s that time of year again. We celebrate the New Year three times. One is the opening up of our summer place in Brunswick early in May. It’s still too cold to enjoy fully, but the anticipation of the summer ahead makes up for any shivering. We will start staying in earnest towards the end of the month. In the meantime, I truly don’t know if I am coming or going .

We are never sure what we will encounter after leaving it unattended all winter. Well, not entirely unattended. Some years, the mice and other critters make a winter home of it, leaving us with by now abandoned nests full of half-eaten acorns to clean up. Nothing like the raccoon that invaded one of the cottages we rent out. What a mess! Somehow the animal had crawled down the flue of a unused chimney and pushed out the protective cover. I ended up having to cement up the hole.

I’ll be back after a few days.

Complexity (Again) Rears Its Ugly Head on Wall Street

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This week we saw a huge swing in the stock markets. Being an investor rather than a trader (my livelihood in retirement depends on the assets I hold), I saw my future flash in front of me. And the future was not so good. How could the markets drop a thousand points in an instant? At first, it seemed that it might have been caused by a trader mistakenly typing a “b” instead of an “m” multiplying an order by a thousand fold. The ‘b” key is only two away from the “m” key of a QWERTY keyboard.

Today the news is different, discounting this possible cause. The NYTimes reports on an ongoing investigation by several agencies charged with keeping the financial markets from exhibiting such erratic behavior—erratic as opposed to volatile which is a normal feature of these markets, especially in times when the economy of whole countries, like Greece, seem precarious.

The current explanation, still unconfirmed, is that the way the different computers that automatically match buyers and sellers started to interact in strange and unexpected ways. With deregulation, not only did banks depart from their historical norms, but new stocks markets were added to the old giants. Each now has its own computers. All of the computers are somehow linked so that when one get bogged down, action shifts to others. Rules to prevent runaway conditions, which have been around on the big, old exchanges for a while, don’t seem to be part of these newer systems.

The pressure in the less-liquid markets was amplified by the computer-driven trades, which led still other traders to pull back. Only when traders began to manually respond to the sharp drop did the market seem to turn around, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was not complete.

Now a few days later, answers are yet to come. To me that is not surprising, but to Wall Street it’s a source of frustration. It seems from the news story, that Wall Streeters expect answers right away.

But, maddeningly, the cause or causes of the market’s wild swing remained elusive, leaving what amounts to a $1 trillion question mark hanging over the world’s largest, and most celebrated, stock market.

The expectation that a quick answer should be forthcoming is another sign that the financial markets, including the humans that manage the system and the computers that do the work, are seriously misunderstood. The search for an unitary answer is an inappropriate response to a failure in complex systems, such as are these human and electronic systems that comprise the financial markets. Complex systems are, by their very nature, so intricately interconnected that it is generally impossible to isolate the one, single cause. As layer on later of interacting pieces are added to the system, as derivatives exemplify, the system becomes less and less amenable to analysis, eventually confounding all attempts to reduce the workings to a set of determinate rules. The more accurate way to discuss and govern these systems is not as in “too big to fail.” but, rather, as “so complex that they are bound to fail.”

In Wall Street’s drive to become more and more efficient and thereby more profitable, the needs of Main Street investors, like me, has, unfortunately, been submerged. I need a little less risk, knowing that this goal comes with less return. I have built my portfolio, accordingly, but my intentions are overwhelmingly dependent on the actions of the traders and bank presidents who have built this house of cards and who take no prisoners.

Too Much of a Good (?) Thing

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Credit to the Washington Post with a hat tip to Treehugger.

Informed consumers are a front line defense in the battle against unsustainability, but misinformed consumers are worse than random shoppers. At least with random choices you will get a smattering of both the better and the worse. The Washington Post reports on the 600 or so forms of environmental certifications that are now appearing on products from coffee to wood used in guitars.

Some are issued by the industry; others by consultants. The criteria used in awarding the certifications are not obvious in most cases. And there is a perverse effect when customers are pushed toward buying certified products, for example, fish with a Marine Stewardship Council seal of approval. Will these consumers put even more stress on the fishery or forest or coffee plantation? And will these buyers, as I have written earlier, feel satisfied that they are doing their bit for the Earth and slack off in other key areas.

The MSC has recently come under scrutiny for certifying what some claim are fisheries in bad shape. The London Times reported late last year:

An eco-labelling scheme intended to encourage people to eat fish from sustainable sources is being criticised by conservationists. The collaboration between the conservation group WWF and Unilever, until recently one of the world’s biggest seafood retailers, now gives its stamp of approval to $1.5 billion (£900 million) of business every year. There is concern, however, that the scheme’s blue label, which is put on packaging, is being awarded to fisheries whose stocks are not properly managed or where the ecosystem is being damaged.

The criteria used to certify the products are complicated and not easily understood by the customers, even sophisticated and concerned ones. Some, for example, the Cradle to Cradle Seal, are based on consultant’s proprietary analytic methods and databases. There is no means to verify independently the credibility or meaning of the seal. Others produced by a more public process are based on scientific models and data that are not universally accepted. Others, like GoodGuide. report the results of their scoring system to more precision than is justified. Is Dr. Bronner’s Magic Organic Citrus Hair Rinse with a score of 8.7 really better than Dr. Hauschka Shampoo With Nasturtium and Lemon with a score of 8.5? Yet on the home page the display rounds the first to 9 and the second to 8.

Back to the explosion of certification standards and seals of approval. The number of standards alone has begun to convey the impression that there is enough stuff out there that is “safe” to buy. Safety related to the health of the environment is certainly highly meritorious, but what is desperately needed is an independent warning that says, simply, we cannot keep the earth’s support system working if we continue to buy and dispose of so much stuff even if it is certified. Every label and seal now says very quietly, “It’s OK to buy this product.” That may be the right message for the economy, but not for sustainability.

War of the Worlds: The Sequel

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“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Albert Einstein

It was quite late last night when I finished the blog entry and I was getting a bit sleep deprived. I should have drilled down further into my search for the real Harrison Wyld. The whole story looks more and more like an extremely artful game, created by or for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, maybe the only real entity in the story. If Harrison Wyld does exist, there is no evidence of him beyond tidbits all connected to the new [virtual] reality game show I wrote about. I should have gone to the authoritative namer of rich people, Forbes, where there is no evidence of Wyld on their lists. The choice of his name should have put me straight.

I got fooled by the earlier interviews that seemed unconnected to the current tale. There was something strange in the air even then, but it being Australia, I suspended my skepticism and took in all in. So what’s the bottom line. The internet working with other media have immense power to create reality. The plot line here, a very rich man working in secret to “save” the world when the more legitimate institutions are failing to make progress, is plausible simply because those very institutions are not making much headway.

Could something like this happen? Technologically, it is not only possible, but the technique discussed has already been used in more limited circumstances. Australia has vast areas with little traffic, but it is unlikely that this project could have escaped notice, given the myriad eyes and ears that feed the Internet. We have had much difficulty discovering and confirming the existence of weapons facilities in Iraq and Iran.

Does it matter? This tale does have a reality underlying it, and that’s the main reason why the creators can get away with it. Global warming is real. Slow progress toward recognizing its threat is real. The reticence of “right” institutions to work on it is real. Billionaires, like Gates, devoting their immense wealth to solve social problems, more or less unilaterally, is real. Failure to get real about this and other issues underlying unsustainability has the potential to turn the world we live in to a vast virtual reality.

I came across a fascinating tale today. I am not sure whether it is a hoax, an programming experiment by an Australian television station, or a ominous foray into a private project to meddle with the Earth’s atmosphere. During my scan of today’s tidbits coming from cyberspace, I found one that begins with a story of a clandestine geo-engineering project, sponsored by an Australian billionaire, Harrison Wyld. Wyld does actually seem to exist, but little else about the story has the same ring of reality. But it may be and that’s the frightening part.

I found two parts of a 2009 interview with Wyld on an Australian website, Currents, that posts lots of outrageous stuff, for example this headlined story, “Man Dies After ‘Friends’ Insert Eel in His Rectum” Here they are.

Part 1

Part 2

It is not quite reassuring that Wyld believes (see Part 2) that in billionaires is the preservation of the earth. Henry David Thoreau would hardly agree. If I heard him right, he sees the Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and the other 1000 plus in this economic stratosphere as “living gods.”

The main story involves an Australian television show called BlueBird which is delving into virtual reality. Not having seen it, I can’t give all the gory details, but it is advertised with the acronym, NICCTW; now I can change the world. The scary part is that Wyld is alleged to be actually planning to do just that. For this, you have to look at another video, made just last week by the same interviewer that did the two of Wyld, above.

The claim is that Wyld is funding research on technology to change the reflectivity of the earth’s atmosphere such that more sunlight is sent back to space, resulting in lower temperatures at the earth’s surface. The method is claimed to be the injection of sulfate particles via some sort of rocket or device to disperse them into the stratosphere. This is not science fiction stuff. Cloud seeding is a variant of this using fine particles of silver iodide to seed raindrops in clouds. Back in 1957, I worked with a physicist, Bernord Vonnegut, who proposed to inject very fine carbon particles into the atmosphere to absorb more of the energy and change the thermal behavior of clouds. Vonnegut ran the first trials of cloud seeding with mixed results. The was some evidence that the experiment created some tornadoes.

The science fiction aspect is that of a living god taking on the salvation of the Earth, because, as he says in the interview, government and the bureaucrats are not up to the job. I hope the story is just part of the ballyhoo about this TV program. It’s hard to believe any of the materials I read, especially when they come from a website that looks a lot like the Onion and another one associated with the Australian Broadcasting Company that says that what’s coming is all part of a virtual reality. Wyld is certainly real and rich enough to do something like this. This all feels a lot like the 1976 movie, “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” starring David Bowie. As synchronicity would have it, I watched this at home just last week.

I hope some of you will follow this and comment. I need help in uncovering the real story. If this is true, then is Wyld a god, a terrestrial terrorist, an ultimate narcissistic personality, or a creature from outer space?

Creeping from Bullet Points to Bullets

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Many of my recent posts have addressed the loss of context and meaning through the use of social media. The very last one worried about the impact on kids’ texting for what seems to me an excessive amount. Today, the same subject is on the griddle, but with a different focus: how PowerPoint stultifies grownup audiences. My Mondays are usually graced by the regular appearance of James Carroll’s weekly column in the Boston Globe. Today Carroll wrote about how the practice of using Powerpoint overheads to present critical stories limits the understanding of the audience.

The setting is a bunch of military officers discussing the war in Afghanistan, but could be almost anywhere.

The ubiquitous use of PowerPoint slides in military briefings about Afghanistan and Iraq has been tagged as a problem. Breaking down battle reports into bullets and bites, as Brigadier General H.R. McMaster told The New York Times, “can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control.’’

It’s worse than that. Anyone who has ever sat through a PowerPoint presentation has seen how the speaker surrenders initiative to the machine, and how the prepared breakdown of information inhibits actual thinking.

It’s just about the same with Twitter. Marshall McLuhan’s famous quote “The medium is the message,” fits exactly. It’s the technology that is heard. The actual message lacks sufficient context to be fully understood. Twitter is limited by the technology and the 140 character limit on content. PowerPoint presentations, unless extraordinarily artful, compress the whole story into a series of bullet points. The PowerPoint technique gained favor to counteract the limited attention span of important people, exactly the folks that need to pay close attention. Carroll recognizes the broader implication:

But it’s worse than that, too. The degradation of rhetoric throughout contemporary culture, epitomized by PowerPoint, means that essential capacities for thought and communication are being lost. The sound-bite reduces experience to episodes shorn of context, when understanding what matters requires a honed feel precisely for the connection between episodes.

This, like so many of his columns, is not to be missed. He ends by noting that the context-free nature of communications technology leads to amoral, perhaps, immoral, actions, exemplified by the use of killing drones guided by images on a screen far from the scene. I have used this image many times. Carroll may have read the powerful book by Hans Jonas in preparing for this column. Jonas, in his book, The Imperative of Responsibility, argues that modern forms of technology have altered our forms of behavior, compared to earlier epochs when much of our understanding of ethics was developed. The book develops an intricate and well-reasoned argument that we need a new ethics to apply to collective and some private decisions that put powerful technologies into play. Simplifying Jonas’s conclusions, he calls for a form of the precautionary principle.

While Jonas stresses the power of large-scale technologies like nuclear weapons and would certainly include geo-engineering if he wrote today, he also is concerned about everyday things like texting, Twitter, or PowerPoint. All of these, large and small, hide the the real story behind a thin veneer, and disguise the ethical or moral consequences of their use. Carroll points to the amorality of drones and war stories told through bullet point lists. I write about the dulling of responsibility to other human beings that social media and networking tools creates. Carroll puts it together tersely near the end of his article, “The PowerPoint imagination, with the speaker causing death-by-droning, is perfectly suited to the new technology of the drone as an actual weapon.”

Thanks to 37signals for the cartoon.

What's a Friend Worth? (Continued)

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Two of my favorite subjects pop up today, at a time when I wonder whether my periodic rants about the failings of social networking technology are getting stale and overworked. But when two separate articles show up simultaneously with high visibility in the New York Times and the Boston Globe, I sense this subject is far from ready to be retired.

The themes of the two articles looked dissimilar at first glance, but both touched on a subject that has concerned me and about which I have written on numerous occasions. Is the huge traffic in text messaging among so-called friends diminishing the meaning of friendship for young users and about the nature of relationship in general. The Globe article noted that people failed to respond to face-to-face encounters with acquaintances, either because they were enchanted by the cellphone or iPod they carried, or, more interesting to me, because they used the device as an excuse for not acknowledging the person passing by. Some even employed fauxting, a new term for faking attention to avoid contact. The article, written by a college senior, mourns the loss of relationship expressed in this behavior:

But the tragic, isolating thing is that we reach for our devices because we don’t want to seem lonely — which is causing us to avoid our peers and actually be lonely.

She echoes the finding of a couple of recent research studies on the use of iPods, cellphones, and other screen-based devices by young people ranging across the two studies from 2 to 17. The data showed a correlation between hours in engaged with the devices and claims of sadness and boredom, conditions not far from loneliness. You can see more of the data from these reports in two of my past blogs. New data reported in the Times article from the Pew Research Center are shocking to my much older eyes.

  • Half of teens send 50 or more text messages a day, or 1,500 texts a month, and one in three send more than 100 texts a day, or more than 3,000 texts a month.
  • 15% of teens who are texters send more than 200 texts a day, or more than 6,000 texts a month.
  • Boys typically send and receive 30 texts a day; girls typically send and receive 80 messages per day.
  • Teen texters ages 12-13 typically send and receive 20 texts a day.
  • 14-17 year-old texters typically send and receive 60 text messages a day.
  • Older girls who text are the most active, with 14-17 year-old girls typically sending 100 or more messages a day or more than 3,000 texts a month.
  • However, while many teens are avid texters, a substantial minority are not. One-fifth of teen texters (22%) send and receive just one to 10 texts a day or 30 to 300 texts a month.

The earlier Kaiser report included data about the time spent by teenagers connected to their devices, and. unless you are the parents of a teenager, I imagine you will find these data hard to believe.

The number of hours per day are nearly the same as what goes for a day at the office, about 7 1/2 hours every day. Texting is in addition and adds another hour and a half per day.

Teachers and school administrators are taking a beating these days, but I wonder how much of the problems with our schools comes from inattention fostered by these devices.

It doesn’t take a sociologist or psychologist or survey researcher to see that something is very wrong with the almost straight upward trend in texting. I discovered it in conversations with teenagers about friendship and when I was writing about a Burger King promotion last year. I find it very difficult to understand why Burger King did this, but they offered a voucher for a free hamburger to anyone who would “sacrifice” 10 people from their Facebook list of friends. In a sense Burger King created a market for friends using hamburgers as the currency, thus enabling even an undergraduate economics student to calculate what a friend is worth. If you can’t do the math, it’s a tenth of a hamburger, about 37 cents at that time. Defriend or unfriend sounds a little less ominous than sacrifice. As an aside the Oxford Dictionary word of the year for 2009 was “unfriend.”

Even my youngest grandchild, now about six and a half, is an inveterate user of an iTouch or one of the several iPhones in the family whenever one lies idle. He has no friends to text with yet. I can easily imagine how easy and natural it will be for him to slide into communicating via the device without ever learning about the uniqueness of the spoken word and the meaningfulness of the context of a real conversation. Tis pity…

Would You Ever Ask Your Dentist to Drill, Baby, Drill?

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Most of the news about the blowout in the Gulf has turned to finger pointing. It’s taken only a few days to turn a technological and natural disaster into political fodder. Drilling for oil about a mile below the ocean’s surface is a technical tour de force and an accident waiting to happen at the same time. Although there have been many accidents associated with deep ocean drilling, blowouts this this one are very rare. The last one occurred in 1969 in the Santa Barbara channel. Most new wells are reaching deeper and deeper because the shallow reserves are largely already being tapped. The risk of failure increases with depth. As we have learned fail-safe is indeed an oxymoron under these circumstances.

The real wake-up call is not about off-shore oil production, but about the risk we are taking by putting our eggs almost exclusively in the fossil fuel basket and investing but a de minimis amount in renewable resources. The risk, measured in terms of the losses to one of the more productive and valuable habitats in North America, is huge. Not only is this area an invaluable wildlife habitat, but is the source of livelihood for a large part of the population living along the portions of the coast under threat. Reliance on oil is very risky in geopolitical terms, putting the US in a weak position as just another customer in the ever more competitive world oil market. The United States involvement in the Middle East is certainly driven to some extent by our interest in its oil riches. The cost of our involvement is approaching 3 trillion dollars, according to Joseph Stiglitz.

The opportunity cost of the Iraq and now Afghanistan wars can be measured in terms of the investment in alternative energy supplies and technology foregone. If this disaster is played out primarily as a partisan game, as it now seems to be the most likely course, it only distracts attention away from recognizing the risk of inaction. Perhaps President Obama might reconsider his support of more off-shore drilling. But not for the obvious avoidance of environmental damage. The more important reason is to turn away from “easy” technological fixes and take seriously the need to follow a course that does not subject the United States and much of the rest of the world and the environment to levels of risk that are imprudent and unsafe. The risks mentioned here are externalities, costs that are not recognized in private market transactions. Can we continue to rely on the private interests that control the energy supply to make the critical decisions that must be made now?