Contemplations – 5

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An appetizer:

"The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." – Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

2016

My new favorite animal!

"The thorny devil stays hydrated thanks to its skin, which pulls water away from moist grains, against gravity and into its mouth."

Crazy! Ed Yong writes in The Atlantic that this beautiful Australian lizard uses capillary action to suck up morning dew and other minute sources of moisture. It even rubs its belly in the sand and tosses more sand onto its back in order to increase the amount of water it harvests.

And while the "thorny" part of its name is accurate, the "devil" bit isn't:

Its fearsome appearance earned it sinister names—the thorny devil, or Moloch horridus. In truth, the creature eats only ants, and otherwise moves slowly and placidly. "They're like Swiss people—very relaxed," says Philippe Comanns, from RWTH Aachen University.

Ed Yong. "A Desert Lizard That Drinks From Sand⩘ ." The Atlantic, Nov 3, 2016.
Photo by Christopher Watson / Wikimedia

How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul

"In the 1970s, a new wave of post-Watergate liberals stopped fighting monopoly power. The result is an increasingly dangerous political system."

This excellent article by Matt Stoller in The Atlantic helps explain how we got into the current inequality mess we're in, and why so many of us are feeling increasingly apathetic towards our political process.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis:" We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."

Underpinning the political transformation of the New Deal was an intellectual revolution, a new understanding of property rights. In a 1932 campaign speech known as the Commonwealth Club Address, FDR defined private property as the savings of a family, a Jeffersonian yeoman-farmer notion updated for the 20th century. By contrast, the corporation was not property. Concentrated private economic power was "a public trust," with public obligations, and the continued "enjoyment of that power by any individual or group must depend upon the fulfillment of that trust." The titans of the day were not businessmen but "princes of property," and they had to accept responsibility for their power or be restrained by democratic forces. The corporation had to be fit into the constitutional order....

To constrain big business and protect democracy, Democrats used a raft of anti-monopoly, or pro-competition, policy to great effect, leading to vast changes: The Securities and Exchange Commission was created, the stock exchanges were regulated, the big banks were broken up, the giant utility holding companies were broken up, farmers gained government support for stable agricultural prices free from speculation, and the chain stores were restrained by laws that blocked them from using predatory pricing to undermine local competition....

By the late 1970s, the populist Brandeisian anti-monopoly tradition—protecting communities by breaking up concentrations of power—had been air-brushed out of the debate. And in doing so, America's fundamental political vision transformed: from protecting citizen sovereignty to maximizing consumer welfare....

For decades after World War II, preventing economic concentration was understood as a bulwark against tyranny. But since the 1970s, this rhetoric has seemed ridiculous. Now, the destabilization of political institutions suggests that it may not have been. Financial crises are a regular feature of the U.S. banking system, and prices for essential goods and services reflect monopoly power rather than free citizens buying and selling to each other. Americans, sullen and unmoored from community structures, are turning to rage, apathy, protest, and tribalism, like white supremacy.

In many ways, the picture of our society today as revealed in the article is pretty bleak. Fortunately, Stoller gives us a glimpse of a possible way to progress forward.

Ending the threat of authoritarianism is not a left-wing or right-wing problem, and the solution does not reside in building a bigger or a smaller government. Restoring political stability means structuring society's public and corporate institutions so they can be governed by human beings and communities. It means protecting the property rights of citizens and not confusing property with arbitrary tollbooths erected by tech billionaires. And it means understanding that protecting competitive markets and preventing concentrations of power are essential components of democracy....

Restoring America's anti-monopoly traditions does not mean rejecting what the Watergate Babies accomplished. It means merging their understanding of a multicultural democratic society with Brandeis's vision of an "industrial democracy." The United States must place democracy at the heart of its commercial sphere once again. That means competition policy, in force, all the time, at every level. The prevailing culture must be re-geared, so that the republic may be born anew.

It's beginning to look quite possible that Hillary Clinton will make history in a couple of weeks by becoming our first female president, a milestone I will strongly applaud. But if she also wants to make history as a great president, she'll need to tackle the issue of concentration of power and re-empower all of us who are citizens to reclaim our rightful place in our democracy.

Matt Stoller. "How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul⩘ ." The Atlantic, Oct 24, 2016. Article illustration by Pete Ryan⩘ .

Who is Dayani Cristal?

In our current ugly politically polluted environment, sweepingly vile generalizations are being made about migrants. Stepping back for just a moment can reveal the fallacy of the arguments being made. American citizens born into families who have been here for generations commit crimes. Does this make all of us who are citizens criminals? Of course not. The truth is that most of us are good people who care about our families, our loved ones, our friends.

This documentary reveals the same truth about migrants.

The film begins with sheriff's deputies finding an unidentified man who has died in the Sonora Desert in Arizona. The only identifying characteristic is a tattoo on the man's chest: "Dayani Cristal."

From there, the film weaves the story of the search for the man's identity by the authorities in the U.S., Mexico, and Honduras, along with the story of the man himself as slowly revealed by his wife, Kenia Yadina Cruz Rivas, his mother, Rafaela Martinez, his father, Cristobal Sanders, and his brother, Delver Antonio Sandres-Turcios. We see glimpses of his life: his village, his daughter and two sons, the fields where he worked. We learn that he was a good, humble, hard-working man who faced a very difficult choice.

When their oldest son, Yohancito, was two, he was hospitalized with a high fever. It turned out to be leukemia, and he came so close to dying that his grandmother had already purchased a tiny coffin for him. Miraculously, he recovered, but his ongoing medical appointments drove the family into debt, and this drove this husband and father to make the painful decision to head for the U.S. to try to make enough money to get the family out of debt.

His wife didn't want him to go: "He said he was going to make money so we could live better. He didn't want me to suffer. But I told him it didn't matter. I would have gone hungry. I only wanted to be with him."

But he felt he had to go, so he set off from Honduras on June 7th, 2010, leaving behind his beloved extended family and many friends. Fifty-eight days later, his body was found in the desert, just short of Tucson.

We meet Dr. Bruce Anderson, the Forensic Anthropologist in the Tuscon, Arizona Medical Examiner's Office, where the man's body is taken.

In the year 2000, we averaged about 19 migrant deaths a year. Since 2000, we've averaged just under 200 cases a year, a 10-fold increase. That's 2,000 deaths in eleven years in Southern Arizona.

We also meet Robin Reineke, Coordinator of the Missing Migrant Project in the Tuscon, Arizona Medical Examiner's Office.

That's why we're getting the deaths; it's such a risky journey, and it was not that risky before. 2000 - 2001, that's when we really started to see the deaths in the Arizona deserts spike. Basically what shifted was the way that the border was policed. The Clinton administration in 94 - 95 launched a strategic border security plan to seal off the traditional and safe and urban routes of migration. The number of border patrol agents skyrocketed—I think it was like a five-fold increase in one or two years—in places like San Diego, Nogales, El Paso.

Dr. Anderson continues:

They calculated that if they could stem the flow of migration in California and Texas, that people would not risk their lives crossing the remote parts of Arizona. Well, clearly they were wrong. Migration is down, apprehensions are down, crossings are down, what's not down are deaths. How many deaths does it take to say enough is enough? We hit 200 one calendar year about ten years ago. That didn't do it. We're just about ready to hit 2,000, all believed to be foreign nationals. There's got to be some number where someone in Washington is going to say "We can't have this anymore." It upsets me and it galls me that some number is in some people's mind; we just haven't reached it yet.

Yet this isn't the story of an abstract number; it is, above all, the story of a single representative migrant, a single human being. Actor Gael García Bernal retraces his journey from Honduras, through Guatemala and Mexico, and across the wall into the Sonora Desert.

This re-created journey is woven into the rest of the narrative, helping us to better understand what the migrant journey is like, with all of its unknowns and extreme dangers. Along the way, we meet other migrants traveling northward and we hear fragments of their individual stories. At one point, we stop at the Brothers of the Road Shelter in Ixtepec, Mexico, one of over 50 such shelters along the railway lines through Mexico. There we meet Padre Alejandro Solalinde, the founder of the shelter, who helps us view the migrants with the clarity of his compassion.

Migrants are not a threat, they are an opportunity. They come with values and great things to offer. Poor people are the spiritual reserve of the world.

Migrants are heroes. They are like rays of light shining on the things we must change. They are heroes who fight not only for their families, they are fighting to change the story of the U.S. and Mexico.

The question of migration is a complicated one with no easy answers. But I think that among all the passions, blizzards of statistics, fears, and recriminations, it's important to understand that we're talking about fellow human beings. When he finally learns that his brother is dead, Delver Antonio Sandres-Turcios asks a powerful question, one worth thinking about:

As I understand, the Unites States is investing billions of dollars on that wall. Why invest in something inanimate? It's a dead investment. Why not invest in human beings?

In the end, we learn who this one man is—his name is Dilly Yohan Sandres Martinez—and then we learn, in what I found to be both the most devastating and touching moment in the entire film, why he has "Dayani Cristal" tattooed on his chest.

Film site: Who Is Dayani Cristal?⩘ 

Related article: "Migration Is Our History, Reality, And Future⩘ " by William Lacy Swing, Director General of the International Organization for Migration, The Huffington Post, September 19, 2016:

Anti-migrant sentiment has also brought with it another negative and false stereotype: the criminalization of migrants. Too many are too willing to criminalize human ambition, a parents' desire to rescue their family from danger, a families need to be reunited, a young person's drive to make their way out of extreme poverty and so on. When we criminalize these simple human responses to poverty, conflict and ambition, we condemn members of our own family to unspeakable punishment....
   When we speak of migrants, we are speaking of people. And our responses to migrants must place people at the centre. Honoring the dignity of the migrant should be seen as honoring human dignity. And destiny. This is a reaffirmation of our commitments in the new Sustainable Development Agenda, where we collectively agreed to "leave no one behind.qq We may not all look or speak the same but strip away the veneers of nationality, religion, language and race, and we are all human beings—each with the same basic dreams and hopes for the well-being of our families and communities.

Related movie: I just watched Documented⩘ , a documentary film by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas.

The film explores his experience living as an undocumented American for more than 20 years, beginning when he was smuggled into America as a 12-year-old child who didn't understand what was happening, to his realization that he was undocumented when he was a high school student in Mountain View, CA, to his eventual decision to come out as an undocumented immigrant in a 2011 essay in The New York Times Magazine, My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant⩘ .

I found this a very valuable film to help me better understand the plight of undocumented immigrants, especially of the kids who have grown up here and feel fully American in every way … except for their lack of legal status. They live in a bizarre catch-22 situation. For the most part they know only America, they've grown up here, gone to school here, gotten jobs here, paid taxes here, but live under the uncertainty that they could be deported at any time to a "home" they do not know.

Vargas is the founder of the nonprofit organization Define American⩘ , and has been an advocate for the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), even though he is, ironically, now too old to qualify.

The Neuroscience Behind Bad Decisions

"The brain is a battleground where precision and efficiency are opponents."

It appears that the way our brains are wired to compare choices sometimes can make it difficult for us to make good choices (seems pretty obvious when you look around at our world). And it seems this may be due to how ravenously energy hungry our brains are, leading them to optimize for efficiency over precision, sometimes at the cost of good decisions.

At the core of the model [presented in a new working paper by Paul Glimcher, a neuroscientist at New York University, and his co-authors—Kenway Louie, also of NYU, and Ryan Webb of the University of Toronto] lies the brain's insatiable appetite. The brain is the most metabolically expensive tissue in the body. It consumes 20 percent of our energy despite taking up only 2 to 3 percent of our mass. Because neurons are so energy-hungry, the brain is a battleground where precision and efficiency are opponents. Glimcher argues that the costs of boosting our decision-making precision outweigh the benefits. Thus we're left to be confounded by the choices of the modern American cereal aisle.

Fortunately, there may be strategies we can employ to offset this bias in our brains.

For many of us, the main concern over decision-making is practical—how can we make better decisions? Glimcher said that his research has helped him develop specific strategies. "Rather than pick what I hope is the best, instead I now always start by eliminating the worst element from a choice set," he said, reducing the number of options to something manageable, like three. "I find that this really works, and it derives from our study of the math. Sometimes you learn something simple from the most complex stuff, and it really can improve your decision-making."

Emily Singer. "The Neuroscience Behind Bad Decisions⩘ ." Quanta Magazine, August 23, 2016
Photo by Pablo Alfieri for Quanta Magazine

Are we ready to wake up yet?

This confirms my personal experience here in the foothills of the Colorado Rocky Mountains:

July 2016 was the warmest July in 136 years of modern record-keeping, according to a monthly analysis of global temperatures by scientists at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York.
   Because the seasonal temperature cycle peaks in July, it means July 2016 also was warmer than any other month on record.

Article: NASA Analysis Finds July 2016 is Warmest on Record⩘ .
Heat map: GISS Surface Temperature Analysis⩘ .

From tree to shining tree

Photo by me of the forest at Buttonrock

This is a mind-blowing story from the Radiolab podcast⩘  about the organism that is a forest, an organism that may be intelligent in a way that is physically very similar to us.

Professor Suzanne Simard⩘ , Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences, University of British Columbia, first discovered that trees of different species in a forest share their food with each other. She mapped sharing networks of up to hundreds of trees, with the oldest trees having the largest number of connected nodes.

Jennifer Frazer, a science writer of the blog The Artful Amoeba at Scientific American⩘  talks about the tiny fungal tubes that grow amongst the root structures of trees (there can be as much as seven miles of these tubes in just a pinch of dirt). She also shares that the DNA analysis of fungi shows that they are actually closely related to animals; in fact, apparently they're one of our closest relatives.

The trees and the mycorrhizal fungi have a symbiotic relationship.

Via photosynthesis, the trees turn carbon dioxide into oxygen, which they excrete, and carbon in the form of sugars (carbohydrates), which they use for creating their own structure (trunk, roots, leaves). But carbon alone isn't sufficient. In order for a tree to stand taller than about one foot, it also needs minerals and nutrients from the soil like nitrogen, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, calcium, copper, and lignan.

That's what the fungus brings to the relationship. It sends its huge network of tubes out into the soil and, by mining and hunting, draws up water and mineral nutrients. For example, when a fungal tube reaches little soil particles, it secretes an acid that dissolves the rock, enabling the fungus to tunnel into the rock to reach the packets of minerals it contains. They also hunt for minerals contained in Springtails, tiny insects that eat leaves on the forest floor. The fungal tubes grow into the Springtails to extract their nitrogen.

The tubes also wrap themselves into place around the tinniest portions of the tree roots, which then soften, enabling the fungi and the tree to exchange sugar for water and minerals. The trees send between 20 - 80% of their sugar into the microbial community entangled amongst their roots.

In a way, the fungi acts like a bank, storing the excess sugar trees have in a good times and giving it back to the trees in harder times. These microbial "banks" also enable the trees to "loan" their sugars to each other, and to send chemical warnings to neighboring trees. For example, when a tree is under attack by beetles, it sends a chemical warning to neighboring trees via the fungi, enabling them to excrete chemicals that make them less palatable to the attack.

Trees that are dying due to the excessive heat of global warming appear to give up their food to the benefit of other trees in the neighborhood, often to trees that are new in the forest, even though they are from other species. The people studying this are not yet sure whether the trees or the fungi are acting as the broker, but it may be that this is a mechanism for the forest to attempt to survive global warming.

Professor Simard describes the forest as acting with intelligence:

We don't normally ascribe intelligence to plants, and plants are not thought to have brains. But when we look at the below-ground structure, it looks so much like a brain, physically, and now that we're starting to understand how it works, we're going, "Wow, there's so many parallels."

Jennifer Frazer sums it up this way:

I do find it magical. I think there is something like a nervous system in the forest, because it's the same sort of large network of nodes sending signals to one other. It's almost as if the forest is acting as an organism itself. You know, they talk about how honeybee colonies are sort of super-organisms because each individual bee is sort of acting like a cell in a larger body. Once you understand that the trees are all connected to each other, they're all signaling each other, sending food and resources to each other, it has the feel, the flavor of something very similar.

Radiolab podcast episode: From Tree to Shining Tree⩘ 
A gentle warning: This podcast contains a small amount of intense language at the 24:00 mark, a natural expression of very strong surprise. I didn't mind it myself, but I am puzzled that they didn't edit it out, as it might be offensive to some people, especially families with young children for whom this otherwise might be an amazing science lesson.

Related article by Jennifer Frazer in her The Artful Amoeba blog: The World's Largest Mining Operation Is Run by Fungi⩘ .

Related TedEd talk by Suzanne Simard: The networked beauty of forests⩘ .

BBC "Life in the Undergrowth" YouTube video: The Springtail⩘ .

There's no such thing as free will

It seems we may have made up the experience of free will as a way to explain our actions, but that the conscious decision to act comes after the action has been initiated.

The subtitle of this article is "But we're better off believing in it anyway." I'm not sure what surprised me more, the subject matter of this article or the implications of the subtitle, and that someone might be in favor of not revealing the findings of their studies to the general public for fear of unleashing unfavorable behaviors. It also surprises me, given how much I read, that I'm hearing about this only now.

Many scientists say that the American physiologist Benjamin Libet demonstrated in the 1980s that we have no free will. It was already known that electrical activity builds up in a person's brain before she, for example, moves her hand; Libet showed that this buildup occurs before the person consciously makes a decision to move. The conscious experience of deciding to act, which we usually associate with free will, appears to be an add-on, a post hoc reconstruction of events that occurs after the brain has already set the act in motion.…
   The contemporary scientific image of human behavior is one of neurons firing, causing other neurons to fire, causing our thoughts and deeds, in an unbroken chain that stretches back to our birth and beyond.

The consequences of this on our images of ourselves and on our organization as a society are staggering.

Further studies by Baumeister and colleagues have linked a diminished belief in free will to stress, unhappiness, and a lesser commitment to relationships. They found that when subjects were induced to believe that "all human actions follow from prior events and ultimately can be understood in terms of the movement of molecules," those subjects came away with a lower sense of life's meaningfulness.

As frightening as that may be, I totally disagree with the conclusion at least one professor has reached:

Saul Smilansky, a philosophy professor at the University of Haifa, in Israel, has wrestled with this dilemma throughout his career and come to a painful conclusion: "We cannot afford for people to internalize the truth" about free will.

I think we need to confront the truth as best we currently understand it—knowing full well that our understanding is evolving, is almost certainly incomplete, and might be incorrect—and figure out how to function well as individuals and as a society based on that truth.

Stephen Cave, "There's No Such Thing as Free Will⩘ ." The Atlantic, June 2016 Issue.

Lichen is even more magical than we thought

Photo by me of pale green lichen with peach interior at Buttonrock Preserve

Lichen is a good measure of how tuned in I am when I'm out walking. When I'm distracted, it's easy for me to not really notice it or to pass it by as something that's somewhat ordinary. But if I'm attuned to my surroundings—looking closely, really paying attention—it's subtle beauty can take my breath away.

When I'm walking with Garima, I learn a lot about the botanical world, so I learned that 150 years ago scientists discovered that lichen is actually the result of a symbiotic relationship between fungi and alga. They feast together, the alga harvesting the sun, and the fungi harvesting minerals and water, and providing their habitat.

Magical, right?! Turns out that it's even more magical. Recently, Dr. Toby Spribille has discovered that the relationship is actually a sort of ménage à trois, a relationship between an alga and two distinctly different fungi.

In the 150 years since Schwendener, biologists have tried in vain to grow lichens in laboratories. Whenever they artificially united the fungus and the alga, the two partners would never fully recreate their natural structures. It was as if something was missing—and Spribille might have discovered it.
   He has shown that largest and most species-rich group of lichens are not alliances between two organisms, as every scientist since Schwendener has claimed. Instead, they're alliances between three. All this time, a second type of fungus has been hiding in plain view.…
   Down a microscope, a lichen looks like a loaf of ciabatta: it has a stiff, dense crust surrounding a spongy, loose interior. The alga is embedded in the thick crust. The familiar ascomycete fungus is there too, but it branches inwards, creating the spongy interior. And the basidiomycetes? They're in the outermost part of the crust, surrounding the other two partners. "They're everywhere in that outer layer," says Spribille.

How wonderful it is that we're still discovering so much about the subtle magic of life.

Ed Yong. "How a Guy From a Montana Trailer Park Overturned 150 Years of Biology⩘ ." The Atlantic, Jul 21, 2016.
The photograph is from a walk Garima and I took at Buttonrock Preserve in late 2012: I love the way the pale green lichen opens to reveal the softest peach insides⩘ .

"Our city, our country is better than that!"

My heart goes out to the five Dallas police officers who were murdered last night and to the seven officers and two civilians who were wounded, as well as to the families and loved one who are grievously suffering because of these shattering losses.

I had been trying to come to grips with the deadly shootings by police of Philando Castile of St. Paul, MN and Alton Sterling of Baton Rouge, LA, the latest in such a long, sad train of such tragic events.

Trevor Noah of The Daily Show shared what I think is a healthy perspective about this in his commentary, The Fatal Shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile⩘ , which he made before the Dallas shooting occurred. He says something that I think can help us take necessary steps to start moving forward, because he points out that we can do something that is, in my opinion, very American: recognize that there is a problem and then work to solve it, while at the same time respecting each other.

You know the hardest part of having a conversation surrounding police shootings in America? It always feels like in America, it's like, if you take a stand for something, you automatically are against something else. It's such a strange world to be in. You shouldn't have to choose between the police and the citizens that they are sworn to protect....
   For instance, if you're pro Black Lives Matter you're assumed to be anti-police, and if you're pro-police, then you surely hate Black people. When in reality, you can be pro-cop and pro-Black, which is what we should all be.

In the same segment, Noah also shared this:

America has a problem within its police force. And although this a problem that disproportionately affects black people, it's not just a Black problem, this is an American problem, because just today, there was a third video, this time of a white kid getting shot by the police while he was lying down on the ground. This is an American problem, everyone is involved. And with all this evidence on video, surely the least America can expect from its police is for them to admit that there is a problem because you can't fix something until you admit that it's broken. And you're probably saying, "Oh but Trevor, what does it help, what does it help to just admit that you have a problem?" Well, the Las Vegas police department did just that. In 2011, they admitted that there was a potential for bias; they admitted that there was a better way for police to interact with suspects. And so just by acknowledging that and training their officers on how to assess and de-escalate a situation, they were able to decrease the amount of police shootings by 36%. 36% percent! Which is not perfect, I know it's not perfect, but at least they're doing something.

Then this morning I awoke to the horrifying news about the Dallas shooting. I feel just shattered. It seems like our country is being viciously torn apart. We must find a way to heal this terrible wound of escalating violence that is tearing families and communities apart.

I felt numbed by what I was reading and viewing this morning. Then I came across a statement by Dallas Police Chief David Brown about this tragedy. He expresses an attitude that I also think can help us begin to take the necessary steps to start moving forward, because he points out that the officers were working to protect the rights of the protestors, and that our freedoms and our democracy are worth risking our lives for.

Police officers are guardians of this great democracy: the freedom to protest, the freedom of speech, and the freedom of expression, all freedoms we fight for with our lives. It's what makes us who we are as Americans. And so we risk our lives for those rights. And so we won't militarize our policing standards, but we will do it in a much safer way, every time, like we chose to do it this time. We had an adequate amount of officers at this scene, and we were blocking traffic and doing all the things to protect the people's right to protest and their free speech. We are not going to let a coward who would ambush police officers change our democracy, we're not going to do it. Our city, our country is better than that!

"In the end, three things remain—faith, hope and love. We need all three today. We must have faith in each other, in our institutions, we must have hope that tomorrow will be better, and it will. And we must love one another." – Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings.

The Dallas Foundation⩘ , a community foundation serving North Texas, has created the Line of Duty fund to support those affected by the shootings. 100% of the funds collected will go to the officers and families affected by the shootings in Dallas on July 7th. To make a donation: Line of Duty Fund⩘ .

Note: According to BuzzFeed News, the Dallas Police Department also shifted its training to emphasize de-escalation and community policing, resulting in a 64% drop in excessive force complaints since 2009.

Video statement by Dallas Police Chief David Brown⩘ . The Washington Post, July 8, 2016.
"The Fatal Shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile⩘ ." The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, July 7, 2016.
"Dallas Officer-Involved Shootings Have Rapidly Declined In Recent Years⩘ ." BuzzFeed News, July 8, 2016.

Brexit: The failure of the western establishment

Glenn Greenwald has an excellent and hard-hitting article related to Brexit up on The Intercept.

Media elites, by virtue of their position, adore the status quo. It rewards them, vests them with prestige and position, welcomes them into exclusive circles, allows them to be close to (if not themselves wielding) great power while traveling their country and the world, provides them with a platform, fills them with esteem and purpose. The same is true of academic elites, and financial elites, and political elites. Elites love the status quo that has given them, and then protected, their elite position.

Because of how generally satisfied they are with their lot, they regard with affection and respect the internationalist institutions that safeguard the west's prevailing order: the World Bank and IMF, NATO and the west's military forces, the Federal Reserve, Wall Street, the EU. While they express some piecemeal criticisms of each, they literally cannot comprehend how anyone would be fundamentally disillusioned by and angry with these institutions, let alone want to break from them. They are far removed from the suffering that causes those anti-establishment sentiments. So they search and search in vain for some rationale that could explain something like Brexit, or the establishment-condemning movements on the right and left, and can find only one way to process it: these people are not motivated by any legitimate grievances or economic suffering, but instead they are just broken, ungrateful, immoral, hateful, racist and ignorant.

Glenn Greenwald. "Latest Proof of the Insularity and Failure of Western Establishment Institutions⩘ ." Intercept, Jun 25, 2016.

Love

My heart goes out to each person who was murdered in the mass shooting in Orlando, as well as to everyone who is left suffering such a terrible and senseless loss of their loved ones.

We must strive for more love and acceptance.

I'm heartened that within a few days more than 100,000 people have stepped forward to Support Victims of Pulse Shooting⩘ .

Here's a heartfelt post from a parent of LGBTQ kids: "When others talk about gay people, they are talking about our children⩘ ."

Here's what I want parents of straight kids (and others) to understand: Our gay kids are innocent. They were born this way. They did nothing to deserve being disliked, hated or bullied—yet so often they are. No matter how high their self-esteem, they often feel hurt.

We all must strive for more love and acceptance.

Rumble Strip Vermont hosted by Erica Heilman

Image from the Rumble Strip Vermont home page

One of the best things about my life right now is that I have time … time to go for walks with my sweetheart and other friends, time to read books, time to complete miscellaneous projects in my shop, time to sit quietly and contemplate, and even some time to listen to a few podcasts. I've tried a bunch over the past year and a half, but only remain subscribed to a small handful that really touch me. Rumble Strip Vermont is one on those few.

After being awakened by this rumble strip about a year ago, I binge listened to all of the existing episodes, and have since listened to almost every new show that has been released. Many of the stories are about neighbors. They happen to live in Vermont, but it feels like they could be any of our neighbors. And time and again, Heilman's deft touch as an interviewer—or maybe you could say as a neighbor who listens really well and asks some very good questions—reveals what extraordinary people are hiding in plain sight on their front porches and in their living rooms.

While many of the stories have left me appreciating life a bit more, the most recent show, "Last Chapter⩘ ," left me appreciating life a whole lot more. It's a story about Bill Morancy told by his neighbor and good friend Rob Mermin.

Bill lived with gusto, a great sense of humor, and a deep appreciation of life, and he approached his death in the same way. I sat quietly for a long time after this story finished, much richer for the experience.

Rumble Strip Vermont⩘  is another podcast I learned about via The Atlantic article, "The 50 Best Podcast Episodes of 2015⩘ ."

How technology hijacks people's minds

By Tristan Harris, Design Ethicist

We're being tricked into spending our attention in ways that don't benefit us. Understanding how this is being done is the first step toward breaking free of this trap. Knowing what both designers and we as consumers can strive for is the next step forward.

What does the future of technology look like when you're designing for the deepest questions and the deepest human values?

We have to demand this new kind of technology. Doing that would amount to shifting from a world that's driven and run entirely on "Time Spent" to a world that's driven by "Time Well Spent.

Article: Tristan Harris. "How Technology Hijacks People's Minds⩘ ." Medium, May 18, 2016.
TED Talk: Distracted? Let's make technology that helps us spend our time well⩘ .
Website: Design for Time Well Spent⩘ .

The insect portraits of Levon Biss

Levon Biss is a British photographer based in the UK.

Each image from the Microsculpture project is created from around 8000 individual photographs.... From start to finish, a final photograph will take around 3 weeks to shoot, process and retouch.

Website: Microsculpture – The Insect Portraits of Levon Biss⩘ .
Beetle: Jewel Longhorn Beetle⩘ . Sternotomis sp. (Coleoptera, Cerambycidae). From the collections of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History⩘ .

Funny thing about this reality we think we live in

Cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman claims it's all in the experience of tasting chocolate.

The article's introduction says it all: "The cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman uses evolutionary game theory to show that our perceptions of an independent reality must be illusions."

I'm emphasizing the larger lesson of quantum mechanics: Neurons, brains, space … these are just symbols we use, they're not real. It's not that there's a classical brain that does some quantum magic. It's that there's no brain! Quantum mechanics says that classical objects—including brains—don't exist. So this is a far more radical claim about the nature of reality and does not involve the brain pulling off some tricky quantum computation.… But most of us, you know, we're born realists. We're born physicalists. This is a really, really hard one to let go of.

The formal theory of conscious agents I've been developing is computationally universal—in that sense, it's a machine theory. And it's because the theory is computationally universal that I can get all of cognitive science and neural networks back out of it. Nevertheless, for now I don't think we are machines—in part because I distinguish between the mathematical representation and the thing being represented. As a conscious realist, I am postulating conscious experiences as ontological primitives, the most basic ingredients of the world. I'm claiming that experiences are the real coin of the realm. The experiences of everyday life—my real feeling of a headache, my real taste of chocolate—that really is the ultimate nature of reality.

I knew there must be a reason I love chocolate so much! And you know, maybe we shouldn't take it all so seriously.

Amanda Gefter. "The Evolutionary Argument Against Reality⩘ ." Quanta Magazine, April 21, 2016.

How the free internet is eating itself

Jesse Weaver—the Director of Product Design @ gaia.com⩘  and a member of the faculty @bdwcu⩘ —shares what I think is a brilliant insight about the state of affairs of the free internet. (Ironically, he shares this and I read it via the free internet, on Medium⩘ ).

Over the past few decades a significant portion of the economy has shifted. Once upon a time companies and services were geared toward enticing you out of your money. Today, the goal of many is to entice you out of your time. Which, in turn, is leveraged as collateral to attract money from advertisers.

Our current version of the internet lives and breathes off a currency of human attention. With the success and failure of many internet companies predicated on how much of a person's time they can capture.

This model has reshaped much of the internet into an "attention web," with companies fighting tooth and nail to own every possible moment of your time.

I think he really nails the crux of the issue: "leveraged as collateral to attract money from advertisers." And we are each complicit in this sorry state of affairs:

It's the Faustian bargain we've all struck. In exchange for a "free" web, we give you our time. Unfortunately, this structure is unsustainable and is compromising both our experience of the web and the quality of the things we consume.

Then he explains exactly why this is a problem for those of us consuming this content:

We aren't creating human-centered experiences. We are creating attention-centered experiences, which puts the needs of the business squarely ahead of the needs of the customer.

I don't think the alternative he envisions is probable, but it's certainly interesting to contemplate; after all, he's right about what is our most precious resource:

It's we, the people of the internet, who have set the rules of engagement. We want our web and we want it for free....

And so we sacrifice the magic. We devalue content and products by refusing to pay for the work it takes to create and maintain them. We are satisfied wading through poorly designed, ad-based experiences. And we allow our most precious resource, our time, to become a commodity to be traded, sold and manipulated. Our data is mined, our privacy discarded and our actions tracked all in the name of more targeted advertising.

Weaver goes on to argue that this situation isn't good for companies, either, positing that if Facebook and other major platforms charged users a bit more than its current per user monetization level, they could fund creative original content:

[W]hen users are the driver, companies will focus on adding value, not just grabbing our attention.

I think Weaver may be wrong when he concludes (my emphasis), "We are satisfied wading through poorly designed, ad-based experiences": Facebook morphs into a clickhole, at the expense of personal sharing⩘  (Boing Boing). In this post, Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow references an article by Erin Griffith in Fortune⩘  referencing a report published by The Information. Griffith writes: "Facebook has been struggling to reverse a 21% decline in “original sharing,” or personal updates, from its 1.6 billion monthly active users." That doesn't sound like an indication of satisfaction.

Jesse Weaver. Instagram and the Cult of the Attention Web: How The Free Internet Is Eating Itself⩘ . Medium, March 27, 2016.

Your brain sees things that you don't

Understanding the difference between awareness and attention might be the key to unlocking the mystery of human consciousness.

There are many things I find deeply disturbing about life these days, particularly the way we as a species are carelessly gambling with the precious and rare support system that makes our life itself possible. But I am thrilled with the questions about our minds and the universe we inhabit that currently are being explored at the frontiers of science. (Of course, other scientists are seriously debating whether our universe itself is a simulation⩘ .)

One thing I have been fascinated with almost since I first became aware that I was thinking is consciousness itself, that spark that illuminates our experience, and it seems that scientists are on the cusp of understanding what consciousness is.

For decades scientists used the terms "awareness" and "attention" more or less interchangeably, as though both referred to what happens when your mind takes hold of something.... We now know that we need a better theory of what they are and how they relate to each other.

One such theory is the Attention Schema Theory (AST), first proposed by my lab in 2011. In that theory, attention and awareness have a precise relationship to each other. Attention is a data-handling trick. It's the brain's way of focusing resources on some signals, boosting them and processing them at the expense of other signals. It's a mechanistic process. Awareness is different. It's more like the brain's explicit knowledge about what it's doing. The brain doesn't have information about the microscopic details of attention, the neurons and the electrochemical signals, but it can give you a general account. It can say, "Yeah, I've got hold of that dot. I'm processing it. I have a kind of mental possession of it." Awareness is the brain's schematic description of attention.

In AST, attention is a constant process like a factory stamping out parts, and awareness is a constantly updated account of what the factory is doing, for quality control purposes. If you want to control something carefully, monitor it. If you doubt that, here's a simple exercise and a favorite challenge for robotics experts. Balance a ruler vertically on your hand. It takes some practice, but you can get the hang of it. The skill depends on always watching the ruler. Your visual system registers what that stick is doing and computes what it's likely to do next. Close your eyes, and you shut off that constant information. No matter how hard you try, the stick wobbles and falls.

Michael Graziano. Your Brain Sees Things That You Don't⩘ . The Atlantic, April 6, 2016.

What is life? Is death real?

The Munich-based design studio Kurzgesagt ("In a Nutshell") makes videos that use colorful animations and approachable explanations to dissect complex things, from the deepest mysteries of the universe (black holes and the Fermi Paradox) to strange stuff in our nearby world (quantum computers and nuclear energy).

This is a quite interesting one, tackling one of the most fundamental questions we humans face: what is life? Their answer is thought-provoking and leaves me realizing that we really shouldn't be afraid of death. At the same time, we should treasure life with passionate delight.

YouTube video: What Is Life? Is Death Real?⩘ 
YouTube channel: Kurzgesagt - In a Nutshell⩘ 

Martin Molin's crazy wonderful music machine

Martin Molin has created a mind-boggling marble machine called Wintergatan, on which he plays quite catchy music. The Wintergatan—sort of a fusion between a Rube Goldberg machine and a player piano—uses 2,000 marbles to power a variety of musical instruments.

Website: Wintergatan⩘ 
YouTube: Wintergatan - Marble Machine⩘ 

Can you read my lips?

This really good short film from Little Moving Pictures directed by David Terry Fine features Rachel Kolb and is based on her article on the Stanford Alumni site, Seeing at the Speed of Sound⩘ .

The film helps make it possible for those of us who can hear to understand what the challenges are for deaf people who try to read our lips. As Kolb shares in her article:

Even the most skilled lipreaders in English, I have read, can discern an average of 30 percent of what is being said. I believe this figure to be true. There are people with whom I catch almost every word—people I know well, or who take care to speak at a reasonable rate, or whose faces are just easier on the eyes (for lack of a better phrase). But there are also people whom I cannot understand at all. On average, 30 percent is a reasonable number.

In certain sections of the film, this is made clear—or rather, what is being said is made less clear—by obfuscating the voice of the person speaking and by eliminating some of the letters or words from the captioning that is displayed.

Kolb gives this example in her article: "---- the ---- before --------- when ------------- the house not --- cre --------------------- even ---- m------" Some of us might recognize the opening words of a familiar holiday poem, but imagine if these were the words of a poem we aren't familiar with; the effort to come up with the 70% of missing words truly must be taxing.

With lipreading, each day brings a moment in which I literally cannot do it anymore. I grow too tired of the guessing game that I can never quite win. The muscles behind my eyes ache from the strain. (Hearing is very different from sight, in that it does not involve muscular tension. I think of ears as very passive, whereas eyes are continuously moving to focus and see.) Often my corneas go dry; my vision gets blurry. The words on people's lips melt away, sliding down their faces like condensation on glass. I am back in the blind spot again....

But despite its frustrations and misunderstandings, lipreading is sustenance for me.... When the connection clicks, when I can read the curve and flow of a person's face, my ebullience soars.

In the film, Kolb sums it up with this poignant observation:

I'm putting together a puzzle without all the pieces. I lock in on your mouth. I try to grasp with one sense information intended for another. There have been times when I question why I even try to lip-read, to wade through the swamp, when I could just use sign language. Some deaf people choose to do just that. It's like a different world. A world filled with rich expression and culture. When people sign, they come alive. But I know I want both worlds. Communication is never a given.

Vimeo: Can You Read My Lips?⩘ 
Article: Seeing at the Speed of Sound⩘ 

Snow Art by Simon Beck

Simon Beck etches stunning art in snow, like this still shot from his TEDxKlagenfurt talk, using only a compass and his snow shoes. His pieces—which include mandalas, fractal sets, and other patterns—can be the size of many football fields. Some take him days to complete. Then they disappear under fresh snow, melt away under the sun, or may even be wiped away by an avalanche.

YouTube: Simon Beck at TEDxKlagenfurt⩘ 
Book: Snow Art by Simon Beck⩘ 

The open-office trap

Although this article by Maria Konnokova in The New Yorker⩘  is nearly a year old, I just came across it this morning. It addresses many of the frustrations I felt working in open offices over the years.

The only thing it fails to address—and this is common to articles I've read discussing this issue—is that I think businesses don't care about all the negative effects of open offices on workers; I think companies primarily look at the bottom line: open offices are cheaper, so as long as the productivity hit doesn't outweigh the per-square-inch cost savings, I think they'll continue to cram as many workers into as little space as possible, worker well-being be damned.

The research quoted in the article indicates that "a growing body of evidence suggests that the open office undermines the very things that it was designed to achieve":

Maria Konnokova. The Open-Office Trap⩘ . The New Yorker, January 7, 2014. Creative Commons Zero (CC0) image via Pexels.com⩘ .

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