Contemplations – 9

I'm incurably curious about many aspects of this journey of ours. Here are a few noteworthy items I've stumbled across that I'm making a note of so I can revisit them from time to time.

Quick links to this page's content ∨ 


"The struggle for American democracy is one made up of many different battles, from confusing court cases and cell phone records to tweets and the combatting of disinformation, but it is, ultimately, about us and our neighbors, and what we want our journey to be."
– Professor Heather Cox Richardson, Dec 30, 2019, Letters from an American⩘ . See also Contemplations: Letters from an American⩘ 


Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. – James Baldwin. #SayTheirNames⩘  · Their Names⩘ 


Rumble Strip: Surviving COVID, a Fever Dream

Image of an empty hospital bed

Daniel Kirk shares with Erica Heilman of Rumble Strip his powerful, frightening, and ultimately uplifting story⩘  of going through being severely ill with COVID-19, and how his life has been enriched by that near-death experience.

Daniel Kirk is a children's book author and illustrator and he lives with his wife in New Jersey, about twelve miles outside of Manhattan. They were both infected with COVID last March, before it had spread in the United States. They still don't know where they got it. By now we know a lot more about COVID. We know the symptoms. We can recite the symptoms. But what does it actually feel like to struggle to breathe? And for those who become deathly ill—who slip into some state between waking and dreaming—where do they go? As Daniel's wife recovered, Daniel's temperature climbed to 104, and eventually he ended up in the hospital. Here is his story.

Rumble Strip, hosted by Erica Heilman⩘ , is far and away my favorite podcast. Over the course of the past nine years that I've been writing these contemplations, I've listened to hundreds of episodes from scores of podcasts. Many have been excellent, even memorable, but I've rarely, if ever, written a contemplation about any given podcast more than once … with the exception of Rumble Strip. This is the sixth time I've been so touched by one of Erica's episodes that I've wanted to make some notes about it so I'll be able to remember and revisit it. Thank you, Erica! Here are the others:

Surviving COVID, a Fever Dream⩘ , Rumble Strip, hosted by Erica Heilman, Dec 15, 2020
Website: Daniel Kirk Children's Books⩘ 

As American as apple pie

Just heard a politician claim he was as "American as apple pie and rice and beans." While I'm guessing the politician was trying to make a sincere point, I immediately wondered just how American apple pie and rice and beans are.

From Food52:

A quick look at its history tells us that only through revisionism has this dish come to represent the United States; even more, in the process we may have ignored the historical and cultural influences that have shaped its place in our country's narrative. Which begs the question: Should we even consider apple pie a national symbol after all?
   Rather than the good old US-of-A, apple pie as we know it first originated in England, where it developed from culinary influences from France, the Netherlands, and even the Ottoman Empire. In fact, apples weren't even native to North America until the Europeans arrived. Only crab apples grew on the continent; shrunken and sour, they were barely used for eating, let alone for pastry.
   Indeed, many of the other ingredients necessary for apple pie also come from beyond America's borders. Wheat originated in the Middle East, while pastry fats like lard and butter arrived when Christopher Columbus brought domesticated pigs and cattle to the New World. Crucial spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, meanwhile, came from far-flung countries like Sri Lanka and Indonesia. And of course, the art of pastry stemmed from a melting pot of culinary traditions in mainland Europe, particularly French, Italian, and Arabic.
   As for the dish itself, the British and Dutch made their own versions of apple pie long before the Declaration of Independence or even the first Thanksgiving. Though most British pies were savory, apple and other fruit-based pies were common dishes, and one of the first recipes for apple pie appeared in England as early as 1390 in The Forme of Cury by Samuel Pegge.

From Wikipedia:

Rice and beans is type of dish made from a combination of staple foods in many cultures around the world.
   The Americas – Genetic analyses of the common bean Phaseolus shows that it originated in Mesoamerica, and subsequently spread southward, along with maize and squash, traditional companion crops. Asian rice was introduced to Mexico and Brasil during the colonial era by the Spanish and the Portuguese. However, it has recently been discovered that the indigenous peoples of the Amazon had already cultivated a distant relative of Asian rice of the same genus Oryza some 4,000 years ago, and were growing it alongside maize and squash, traditional companion crops of beans, which were also by that time present in South America. Some recent scholarship suggests that enslaved Africans may also have played an active role in the establishment of rice in the New World. It is also one of the most common foods in some Spanish speaking countries.

Rossi Anastopoulo, Why Apple Pie Isn't So American After All⩘ , Food52, 2019
Rice and beans⩘ , Wikipedia

Facebook Is a Doomsday Machine

There are some excellent insights in this article in The Atlantic by Adrienne LaFrance.

Today's social networks, Facebook chief among them, were built to encourage the things that make them so harmful. It is in their very architecture.

Adrienne LaFrance, Facebook Is a Doomsday Machine⩘ , The Atlantic, Dec 15, 2020


The never-ending mission of forming a more perfect union

James Fallows is an author I respect, whose books and articles I have often read over the years. However, when I saw the headline of this article when visiting the homepage of The Atlantic, I was initially turned off and skipped it for a couple of days. This morning, it again caught my eye and, keeping in mind that authors often don't write the headline of their own articles, I decided to give it a try. I'm glad I did; it's an excellent read. I typically use the headlines of articles to introduce my contemplations about them; in this case, I substituted a key line from the article itself that I think more accurately captures the tone of the article.

   Joe Biden has a set of decisions to make about the record of the Trump era. The record needs to be discovered—in part so that damage can be undone, and in part to ensure that the country faces its failures squarely and through a common lens. To which efforts should Biden personally, as the new president, devote his limited time and political influence? Which efforts should he place in the hands of others?
   Through the final months of the campaign, I asked historians, lawyers, and veterans of Republican and Democratic administrations how they would answer those two questions. The conversations, many of them lengthy, touched on a wide range of issues—vastly wider than I can encompass here. But the responses boiled down to an argument for triage.
   For Biden personally, as president, the best thing he can do for most of the needed inquiries is simply get out of the way. He has too many other things to contend with. Criminal proceedings require neither his instigation nor his help. There are two tasks, however, where his involvement is essential. One is stemming, and then beginning to reverse, the corrosion of the executive branch. The methodical destruction of the government's competence and integrity has been nearly invisible but is one of Trump's most consequential legacies. The second task is launching—but not running or controlling—independent investigations into three national catastrophes: the mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic, whose toll continues to rise; border policies under which U.S. officials intentionally separated children from their parents, and in more than 600 cases have not been able to reunite them; and purposeful or negligent destruction of the norms of government, the most important being the electoral process, pushing a diverse democracy close to the breaking point.

   There is one further thing Biden can do: frame all of the above in terms of the larger American narrative. The specific steps he should take are not about payback, whatever some will say. They are not even about Donald Trump as an individual. They are about the never-ending mission of forming a more perfect union.

James Fallows, How Biden Should Investigate Trump⩘ , The Atlantic, January/February 2020 Issue

Walk through walls!

 Maryam Tsegaye explains quantum tunneling

Some good news in an otherwise often bleak year. 17-year-old Maryam Tsegaye from Fort McMurray, Alberta has won the 2020 Breakthrough Junior Challenge by explaining quantum tunneling in a clear and entertaining video⩘ . I'm so happy for her! I'm also glad to have a better understanding of a physics principle I've encountered now and then, but previously hadn't understoofd.

There's also a fun and heartwarming video⩘  showing Maryam sitting in her classroom watching a video conference of Sal Khan of the Khan Academy and astronaut Scott Kelly talking about the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, and then surprising Maryam by telling her she's this year's winner.

The Breakthrough Junior Challenge⩘  is a "global science video competition, aiming to develop and demonstrate young people's knowledge of science and scientific principles":

You get it. You've grasped an important scientific theory, concept or principle. Now can you share your insight? An inventive video can get across complex material that would take pages of text to communicate.

The judging criteria are engagement, illumination, creativity, and difficulty.

COVID-19 vaccines: We still need to be smart!

Coronavirus, 2020 illustration by David S. Goodsell mRNA vaccine, 2020 illustration by David S. Goodsell
Left: Coronavirus, 2020 illustration by David S. Goodsell⩘ , RCSB Protein Data Bank; doi: 10.2210/rcsb_pdb/goodsell-gallery-019
Right: mRNA vaccine, 2020 illustration by David S. Goodsell⩘ , @goodsell⩘ , Dec 3, 2020

From Teagan Wall, PhD, @TeagWall⩘ , Dec 4, 2020⩘ :

The vaccines were ALL test[ed] for one thing: how well does this keep people from getting sick/dying of COVID-19. For the Pfizer and Moderna studies, this meant how well does it keep the person from having a positive test AND symptoms.
   Think of it like wearing gloves. The vaccine is preventing you from getting dirt and gunk on your hands. At the end of the day, your hands are clean inside the protective gloves. BUT, the gloves can still have dirt on them.
   The coronavirus seems to mostly get in through mucus membranes (nose, mouth, lungs, eyes) but the vaccine, ideally, creates antibodies in the blood. This means that if you're exposed to the virus, you don't get sick, but you may still have it in your nose, mouth, & lungs.
   You're less likely to be coughing (because you're not sick) but if you DO cough or sneeze on someone else, you could still spread the virus. Just like if you're wearing gloves, you can still spread dirt.
   This is how vaccines generally work, and if enough people get vaccinated the risk of being exposed goes down, so the risk of getting sick AND the risk of spreading it without being sick goes down.
   A vaccine is NOT a "get out of jail free" card for a pandemic. We so have to wear masks, distance, wash our hands, and avoid touching our faces.
   With no vaccine, if everyone got COVID, about 6 million people in the US would die.
With a vaccine 90% effective in preventing symptoms/mortality, if everyone got COVID, 600k people would die in the USA. That's A LOT OF PEOPLE!!!
   The hope is that a 90% effective vaccine, combined with our other efforts, prevents the virus from being able to spread at all.
   These vaccines are VERY GOOD NEWS. You can bet my family and I will be vaccinated as soon as it's our turn (we're comparatively low risk). BUT, these vaccines do NOT mean you can go party and then cough on grandma. We still need be smart.

COVID-19 vaccines: We still need to be smart!⩘ 

Global population density graphic

Closeup of global population density graphic by Alasdair Rae of Automatic Knowledge LTD

Alasdair Rae of Automatic Knowledge LTD created a stunning graphic of our world. Here's his About this print description:

This is a 3D representation of the world's population—approximately 7.8 billions people (as of 2020). No land is shown on the map, only the locations where people actually live. Each spike represents an area roughly 2km × 2km (about 1.25 × 1.25 miles). The height of the spikes highlights the population density of each area. The higher the spike, the more people live in an area. Where there are no spikes, there are no people (e.g. you can clearly identify the location of the Sahara Desert).

It's immediately obvious from the map where the major concentrations of the world's population are located—e.g. particularly in China, India, and Indonesia. Yet it is often also possible to pick out even quite small towns and cities, such as those in the south of New Zealand, or northern Russia.

The light and shadow effect on the map is intended to help highlight the areas of highest density, but it also allows us to identify some more isolated population centres, such as those in Hawaii, or central Australia.

Take some time to study the map and you'll begin to appreciate the old saying that 'where there is water, there is life'. We hope you enjoy it!

Global population density graphic by Alasdair Rae of Automatic Knowledge LTD


For a larger view of the full graphic, see the tweet about the project by Alasdair Rae @undertheraedar⩘ : Global population density graphic⩘ 

Ordering info and more about the making of the prints: Prints – Automatic Knowledge LTD⩘ 

Blog post by Alasdair Rae: How to make a 3D population density render for any country in the world⩘ 

Black Women Did That

In this episode of Silence Is Not an Option⩘ , LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter⩘ , explains to Don Lemon how Black women "are largely responsible for electing America's next president."

What would the American political landscape look like if we all just use this phrase: "for the love of humanity"? I'm going to make this vote based on "for the love of humanity." What would that look like, if we created policies for the love of humanity? And communities know you love them when you listen to them, communities know you love them when you are responsible and accountable to them, communities know you love them when you actually center them and you center what they need as they determine. I want to build a movement that is rooted—just as Dr. King and others before me—that is based on building power on the premise of love.

Black Women Did That⩘ , Silence Is Not an Option, hosted by Don Lemon, Nov 12, 2020

AlphaGo - The Movie

Still shot from AlphaGo - The Movie of the screen showing the Go board and some code

I'm not a game player in general, and am definitely not a Go player, yet like many people, I watched the development of DeepMind's AlphaGo computer program with interest. When it played Lee Sedol, the best human player in the world, I was somewhat surprised that it won four of the five games. While still in its infancy, Artificial Intelligence is obviously progressing rapidly.

Though I was curious about this documentary, I was again surprised by how engrossing and even suspenseful it is. I'm also very appreciative and respectful of the way Lee Sedol and other world class human Go players immediately began using the experience of those matches to broaden their own thinking about Go strategies and creativity. Fascinating.

AlphaGo - The Movie⩘ 

America Won

U.S. flag waving in a blue sky - photo by Element5 Digital
Photo by Element5 Digital⩘  from Pexels⩘ 

Feel more refreshed and invigorated than I have for a long time, like awakening to a new day. Had a strange dream, though, actually more of a frightening nightmare that seemed to go on for years. Sure am ready for this new day!

Voters stopped an authoritarian populist from destroying the country's democratic institutions.

Yascha Mounk, America Won⩘ The Atlantic, Nov 7, 2020

What if a US presidential candidate refuses to concede after an election?

Van Jones presenting his talk

In an eye opening and somewhat shocking talk (yes, even after the last four years, shocking), attorney, political commentator, and former White House official Van Jones shares what he learned when he researched the legal fine points of U.S. presidential elections. Well worth a listen and careful consideration.

If you think that the American people's choice in a U.S. presidential election should actually be sworn in to become president of the United States, please pay attention to this talk. I'm going to teach you how to stop a coup.

One important message for we, the people: peaceful protests are more effective.

Van Jones, What if a US presidential candidate refuses to concede after an election?⩘ , TED Studio, Oct 26, 2020

How the coronavirus is spread through the air

Illustration of a gathering in a home

A timely article. Many locations are hitting a second or third wave of COVID-19 infections, in some cases the worst wave yet, just as the northern regions are beginning the winter months, a terrible situation to be in. The article presents an informative and dynamically illustrated look at three types of gatherings—in a room in a home, in a bar, and in a classroom—demonstrating how likely it is for COVID-19 to spread from a single infected person to others in that shared space, depending on a variety of factors:

Unsurprisingly—if you've been paying any attention to what the scientists are reporting based on their research since the beginning of the pandemic—a combination of maintaining social distance, wearing masks, good ventilation, and limiting time spent in a social setting can greatly reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Illustration of a gathering in a well ventilated, reduced capacity bar

A room, a bar and a classroom: how the coronavirus is spread through the air⩘ , El País, Oct 28, 2020, El País, Oct 28, 2020; videos by Luis Almodóvar; English version by Heather Galloway

We Should All Be Feminists

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shares a insightful, thought-provoking, and heartfelt view of what it means to be a feminist, breaking free of established negative definitions, and going well beyond established positive definitions.

My own definition is: A feminist is a man or a woman who says, "Yes, there is a problem with gender as it is today, and we must fix it, we must do better. All of us, women and men, must do better."

I came across this essay when perusing the New York Public Library Essential Reads on Feminism⩘  list.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a wonderful speaking voice. I wish she also narrated some of her novels.

Random House Audio, 2017,⩘ 
TED Talk: We Should All Be Feminists⩘ , TEDxEuston, Dec 2012

Inside the Fall of the CDC

Excellent longform article from ProPublica⩘  about how "the world's greatest public health organization was brought to its knees by a virus, the president and the capitulation of its own leaders, causing damage that could last much longer than the coronavirus."

The Trump administration is "appropriating a public enterprise and making it into an agent of propaganda for a political regime," one CDC scientist said in an interview as events unfolded. "It's mind-boggling in the totality of ambition to so deeply undermine what's so vitally important to the public."

"People's reaction now at other agencies, at state and local public health agencies, when the CDC comes out with a recommendation, they are going to ask: 'Is that the truth? Or is that what you were told to say?'"

So sad … and so incredibly infuriating.

James Bandler, Patricia Callahan, Sebastian Rotella and Kirsten Berg, Inside the Fall of the CDC⩘ , ProPublica, Oct. 15, 2020

Related: More than 1,000 current and former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemic intelligence officers have now signed the Open Letter by Epidemic Intelligence Service Officers – Past and Present – in Support of CDC⩘ :

We, the undersigned, are physicians, nurses, scientists, and other health professionals who are alumnae/i or current Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officers of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). We are proud of our training and service in the EIS, promoting CDC's vital mission to protect the health of the American people.
   We hereby express our concern about the ominous politicization and silencing of the nation's health protection agency during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In previous public health crises, CDC provided the best available information and straightforward recommendations directly to the public. It was widely respected for effectively synthesizing and applying scientific evidence from epidemiologists and biomedical researchers at CDC and worldwide. Its historic credibility was based on incomparable expertise and 70+ years of institutional memory. That focus and organization is hardly recognizable today.…

To Mend a Broken Internet, Create Online Parks

Excellent essay by Eli Pariser (@elipariser), codirector with Talia Stroud of Civic Signals⩘ , a project to support the creation of more flourishing and inclusive digital spaces.

Now, accelerated by the pandemic, we spend much of our time living and conversing with others in a different location: digital space. But social media and messaging platforms weren't designed to serve as public spaces. They were designed to monetize attention.

Community board meetings and governance processes can be slow, annoying, and very frictional. But—when they're working properly—they force designers to contend with and listen to the communities they ostensibly serve.

Eli Pariser, To Mend a Broken Internet, Create Online Parks⩘ , Wired, Oct 2020
Related TED talk: What obligation do social media platforms have to the greater good?⩘ , TEDSummit 2019

What Does LGBTQ+ Mean?

Straight Ally flagI'm a heterosexual cisgender male who strives to be respectful of the LGBTQ+ community. I'm also continually learning and sometimes get confused by the initialisms and definitions.

I did a search this morning and came across a good explanation on the⩘  website:

People often use LGBTQ+ to mean all of the communities included in the "LGBTTTQQIAA":
+ Pansexual
+ Agender
+ Gender Queer
+ Bigender
+ Gender Variant
+ Pangender

A lesbian is a female homosexual: a female who experiences romantic love or sexual attraction to other females.

Gay is a term that primarily refers to a homosexual person or the trait of being homosexual. Gay is often used to describe homosexual males but lesbians may also be referred to as gay.

Bisexuality is romantic attraction, sexual attraction or sexual behavior toward both males and females, or romantic or sexual attraction to people of any sex or gender identity; this latter aspect is sometimes termed pansexuality.

Transgender is an umbrella term for people whose gender identity differs from what is typically associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. It is sometimes abbreviated to trans.

Transsexuals experience a gender identity inconsistent or not culturally associated with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Two-Spirit is a modern umbrella term used by some indigenous North Americans to describe gender-variant individuals in their communities, specifically people within indigenous communities who are seen as having both male and female spirits within them.

Queer is an umbrella term for sexual and gender minorities that are not heterosexual or cisgender. Queer was originally used pejoratively against those with same-sex desires but, beginning in the late-1980s, queer scholars and activists began to reclaim the word.

The questioning of one's gender, sexual identity, sexual orientation, or all three is a process of exploration by people who may be unsure, still exploring, and concerned about applying a social label to themselves for various reasons.

Intersex is a variation in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, or genitals that do not allow an individual to be distinctly identified as male or female.

Asexuality (or nonsexuality) is the lack of sexual attraction to anyone, or low or absent interest in sexual activity. It may be considered the lack of a sexual orientation, or one of the variations thereof, alongside heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality.

An Ally is a person who considers themselves a friend to the LGBTQ+ community.

Pansexuality, or omnisexuality, is sexual attraction, romantic love, or emotional attraction toward people of any sex or gender identity. Pansexual people may refer to themselves as gender-blind, asserting that gender and sex are insignificant or irrelevant in determining whether they will be sexually attracted to others.

Agender people, also called genderless, genderfree, non-gendered, or ungendered people are those who identify as having no gender or being without any gender identity. This category includes a very broad range of identities which do not conform to traditional gender norms.

Gender Queer
Gender Queer is an umbrella term for gender identities that are not exclusively masculine or feminine—identities which are thus outside of the gender binary and cisnormativity.

Bigender is a gender identity where the person moves between feminine and masculine gender identities and behaviours, possibly depending on context. Some bigender individuals express two distinct “female” and “male” personas, feminine and masculine respectively; others find that they identify as two genders simultaneously.

Gender Variant
Gender variance, or gender nonconformity, is behaviour or gender expression by an individual that does not match masculine and feminine gender norms. People who exhibit gender variance may be called gender variant, gender non-conforming, gender diverse or gender atypical, and may be transgender, or otherwise variant in their gender expression. Some intersex people may also exhibit gender variance.

Pangender people are those who feel they identify as all genders. The term has a great deal of overlap with gender queer. Because of its all-encompassing nature, presentation and pronoun usage varies between different people who identify as pangender.

What Does LGBTQ+ Mean?⩘ 

This is my message to the western world

My name is Nemonte Nenquimo. I am a Waorani woman, a mother, and a leader of my people. The Amazon rainforest is my home. I am writing you this letter because the fires are raging still. Because the corporations are spilling oil in our rivers. Because the miners are stealing gold (as they have been for 500 years), and leaving behind open pits and toxins. Because the land grabbers are cutting down primary forest so that the cattle can graze, plantations can be grown and the white man can eat. Because our elders are dying from coronavirus, while you are planning your next moves to cut up our lands to stimulate an economy that has never benefited us. Because, as Indigenous peoples, we are fighting to protect what we love—our way of life, our rivers, the animals, our forests, life on Earth—and it's time that you listened to us.

Full message >

Nemonte Nenquimo, This is my message to the western world – your civilisation is killing life on Earth⩘ , The Guardian, Oct 12, 2020

Mi-chan's Sweets Factory

Mi-chan's Sweets Factory, images via Johnny, Spoon & Tamago

This story from Spoon & Tamago really touches my heart.

Whoever said architecture brings happiness, probably had something like this in mind. Mi-chan is a 13-year old girl living with a psychiatric disorder that makes it difficult for her to engage with others. But when she was 10 she discovered her love for baking pastries. So her parents built her a "Sweets Factory" designed to fulfill her dream to have her own store and bring joy to people through pastries.

Mi-chan's Sweets Factory⩘ , via Spoon & Tamago⩘ 

Shun Amazon!

A CNN exposé, Dozens of Amazon's own products have been reported as dangerous—melting, exploding or even bursting into flames⩘ , reveals shocking details about Amazon's own product line, called AmazonBasics, and the way they sell defective—dangerously defective—products, products that put their own customers at risk. This sort of attitude is why I so strongly dislike Amazon and try to avoid it as much as possible.

I feel the same way about the many subsidiaries Amazon has sunk its greedy fangs into. For example, I was an enthusiastic Audible customer before they were taken over by Amazon who, through their typical avarice, gained domination of 90% of the audiobook market. As much as I love listening to audiobooks, I avoid purchasing them from Audible anymore, even if it means missing books by interesting authors who have unfortunately allowed their works to be sucked into Amazon's monopolistic quagmire. I don't like the disrespectful way they treat authors and libraries, the way they morphed the Audible app from being user focused to being heavy handedly marketing focused, and their restrictive licensing. As Cory Doctorow puts it on the Kickstarter page for launching the DRM-free Attack Surface audiobook⩘  (which Audible refuses to allow): "The idea that a company gets to decide how you use your property, after you buy it from them? Fuck that."

As I've learned over the years just what a ruthless and unethical company Amazon can be, how badly they treat many of their employees and contractors⩘ , and how poorly they perform at protecting their customers from third-party vendors they allow on their site that sell bad and even dangerous goods⩘ , I now try to minimize my business dealings with Amazon and all of the companies they've swallowed up. If I want something and can find it elsewhere locally or online, I buy it elsewhere, even if it costs more and takes longer to arrive. If I can't find it elsewhere, I carefully ask myself if I really need it. If I don't, I pass.

How greedy can you get? It is a travesty to be one of the richest corporations in the world headed by one of the wealthiest men in the world, and still not be willing to spend a little bit more money to ensure the safety of your customers, and still not be willing to spend a little bit more money to ensure the safety and well-being of your frontline employees. What a disgraceful company. What a disgraceful CEO.

Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken, Dozens of Amazon's own products have been reported as dangerous—melting, exploding or even bursting into flames. Many are still on the market⩘ , CNN, Sep 10, 2020

Followup article: Sep 11, 2020: "Three senators are demanding the recall of any hazardous products branded with Amazon's name after a CNN investigation found that dozens of AmazonBasics electronics remained for sale despite customers reporting the products had melted, exploded or burst into flames."
Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken, Senators demand recalls after CNN report finds Amazon's own products are being flagged as fire hazards, CNN, Sep 11, 2020


In my opinion, Amazon deserves to be shunned and shamed as much as possible!

Just wanna make sure everyone understands

#ShowYourStripes: California

Cristi Proistosescu
@cristiproist · Sep 11
Climate Dynamicist.
Assistant professor of atmospheric sciences and geology at UIUC.

Just wanna make sure everyone understands what we're looking at here:

Don't think of it as the warmest month of August in California in the last century.

Think of it as one of the coolest months of August in California in the next century.

Via:⩘ . Heat map image: #ShowYourStripes: Warming Stripes for California from 1895-2019 ⩘ ; Licensor: Ed Hawkins (University of Reading); License: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License⩘ 

How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled

Close-Up Photo of Plastic Bottle by Catherine Sheila
Close-Up Photo of Plastic Bottle by Catherine Sheila from Pexels⩘ 

Excellent investigative piece. However, the title is inaccurate; it should read: How Big Oil Is Continuing to Mislead The Public Into Believing Plastic Will Be Recycled.

The industry's awareness that recycling wouldn't keep plastic out of landfills and the environment dates to the program's earliest days, we found. "There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis," one industry insider wrote in a 1974 speech.
   Yet the industry spent millions telling people to recycle, because, as one former top industry insider told NPR, selling recycling sold plastic, even if it wasn't true.

And as he thinks back to those years he spent in conference rooms with top executives from oil and plastic companies, what occurs to him now is something he says maybe should have been obvious all along.
   He says what he saw was an industry that didn't want recycling to work. Because if the job is to sell as much oil as you possibly can, any amount of recycled plastic is competition.

Analysts now expect plastic production to triple by 2050.

Laura Sullivan, How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled⩘ , NPR, Sep 11, 2020
Related TED Talk: The economic injustice of plastic⩘ , Van Jones, TEDxGreatPacificGarbagePatch, Jan 2011
Related video: If Recycling Were Honest⩘  with Roger Horton via Cracked
Related article: The False Promise of Plastic Recycling⩘  by Ula Chrobak, The Atlantic, Mar 5, 2022
Related article: Plastic Recycling Doesn't Work and Will Never Work⩘ , by Judith Enck and Jan Dell, The Atlantic, May 30, 2022 (Judith Enck is a former EPA regional administrator, the president of Beyond Plastics, and a visiting professor at Bennington College. Jan Dell is a chemical engineer and the founder of the Last Beach Cleanup.)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Thank you. Rest in peace.

The Colorado Orange Apple

1909 illustration of a Colorado Orange Apple

The Comeback Of The Endangered Colorado Orange, An Apple⩘  is an inspiring story.

It's about Paul Telck, an apple orchard owner in southwestern Colorado who identified that an old, dying tree in his orchard was an almost extinct heirloom called the Colorado Orange, and has been working to revive it. It sounds like a wonderful apple; I hope I have a chance to enjoy one someday.

It's also about Jude and Addie Schuenemeyer, who founded the Montezuma Orchard Restoration Project⩘ , which "works to preserve Colorado's fruit- growing heritage and restore an orchard culture and economy to the southwestern region."

Thank goodness for people like this!

Stephanie Paige Ogburn, The Comeback Of The Endangered Colorado Orange, An Apple⩘ , The Salt, NPR, Sep 10, 2014

Image: A U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Library illustration of a Colorado Orange from Fremont County, in 1909. Courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture

In the grand scale of things …

Jupiter and its moon Europa

Jupiter and its moon Europa

Sometimes it does the heart good to take a deep breath, look out into the depths of our universe, to contemplate for a moment the vastness and incredible beauty, and to understand that our problems and challenges, as immense as they may seem, are insignificant relative to the grand scale and grandeur we are surrounded by and immersed within.

Image of Jupiter taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope on 25 August 2020 when Jupiter was 653 million kilometers (~406 million miles) from Earth.

Larger version of image >

Hubble's Crisp New Image of Jupiter and Europa⩘ , Sep 17, 2020
Image credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (Goddard Space Flight Center), and M. H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley) and the OPAL team.
ESA/Hubble images, videos and web texts are released under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.⩘ 


My heart goes out to the two Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deputies who were ambushed and shot. I agree with Joe Biden's statement: "This cold-blooded shooting is unconscionable and the perpetrator must be brought to justice. Violence of any kind is wrong; those who commit it should be caught and punished. Jill and I are keeping the deputies and their loved ones in our hearts and praying for a full recovery."

Update: I'm grateful to read that the deputies have survived their initial surgeries and are in stable though critical condition. After being shot in the face, one of the deputies, a 31-year-old mother, saved the life of the other deputy by applying a tourniquet even as she bled from her own severe wound. What a hero!
Update 2: It's good to hear that there is a suspect in custody.

I'm also reminded of something John Lewis said, quoted in His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope by Jon Meacham:

"If Martin Luther King, Jr., were here today, he would still be saying we are all in this together," he said. "Maybe, just maybe he would say to us today that our forefathers and our foremothers all came here in a different ship to this land, to this great country, but we are all now in the same boat. Maybe in a different ship, but we are all now in the same boat. He would be saying that it doesn't matter whether we are black or white or Hispanic or Asian American or Native American, whether we are Democrats or Republicans or independent, that we are one people. We are one house. We are one family. It doesn't matter, we have to find a way to live together. We have to find a way to understand each other. We have to find a way to make peace with each other."

For the First Time, America May Have an Anti-Racist Majority

Adam Serwer delivers an insightful article about the state of our country relative to anti-racism, providing an excellent perspective of the promise of the current environment against the historical backdrop.

The conditions in America today do not much resemble those of 1968. In fact, the best analogue to the current moment is the first and most consequential such awakening—in 1868. The story of that awakening offers a guide, and a warning. In the 1860s, the rise of a racist demagogue to the presidency, the valor of Black soldiers and workers, and the stories of outrages against the emancipated in the South stunned white northerners into writing the equality of man into the Constitution. The triumphs and failures of this anti-racist coalition led America to the present moment. It is now up to their successors to fulfill the promises of democracy, to make a more perfect union, to complete the work of Reconstruction.

Still convinced that most of the country was on his side, Johnson sank into paranoia, grandeur, and self-pity. In his "Swing Around the Circle" tour, Johnson gave angry speeches before raucous crowds, comparing himself to Lincoln, calling for some Radical Republicans to be hanged as traitors, and blaming the New Orleans riot on those who had called for Black suffrage in the first place, saying, "Every drop of blood that was shed is upon their skirts and they are responsible." He blocked the measures that Congress took up to protect the rights of the emancipated, describing them as racist against white people. He told Black leaders that he was their "Moses," even as he denied their aspirations to full citizenship.
   Johnson had reason to believe, in a country that had only just abolished slavery, that the Radicals' attempt to create a multiracial democracy would be rejected by the electorate. What he did not expect was that in his incompetence, coarseness, and vanity, he would end up discrediting his own racist crusade, and press the North into pursuing a program of racial justice that it had wanted to avoid.

Still, like Andrew Johnson, Trump bet his political fortunes on his assumption that the majority of white Americans shared his fears and beliefs about Black Americans. Like Johnson, Trump did not anticipate how his own behavior, and the behavior he enabled and encouraged, would discredit the cause he backed. He did not anticipate that the activists might succeed in convincing so many white Americans to see the protests as righteous and justified, that so many white Americans would understand police violence as an extension of his own cruelty, that the pandemic would open their eyes to deep-seated racial inequities.
   "I think this country is at a turning point and has been for a little while. We went from celebrating the election of the first Black president in history to bemoaning a white nationalist in the White House," Alicia Garza told me. "People are grappling with the fact that we're not actually in a post-racial society."

Believing in racial equality in the abstract and supporting policies that would make it a reality are two different things. Most white Americans have long professed the former, and pointedly declined to do the latter. This paradox has shown up so many times in American history that social scientists have a name for it: the principle-implementation gap. This gap is what ultimately doomed the Reconstruction project.

Adam Serwer, For the First Time, America May Have an Anti-Racist Majority⩘ , The Atlantic, Sep 8, 2020

Anger Can Build a Better World

"Black Lives Matter protests are not anti-American, but as American as one can get."

Excellent essay by Myisha Cherry, Assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, about what is being expressed by the anger and rage being expressed at Black Lives Matter protests, and how it is a catalyst for change.

Racism is alive in our society. It lives in store aisles, discriminatory 911 calls, policing, the racial wealth gap, and asymmetrical government responses to communities afflicted by COVID-19. Through protest, diverse voices are boldly standing up to racial injustice. And they are expressing anger while doing it. This rage is not a distraction, nor is it destructive to American ideals. It is playing a crucial role, politically and morally, in helping us build a better country.
   The purpose of rage is not to make white people feel guilty. Rather, it communicates the value of Black lives and egalitarian principles. Anger, in this way, is not antithetical to love. It expresses compassion for the downtrodden and the desire for a better world. Anger at racial injustice makes people eager to do something about it. We cannot suppress anger, nor should we dress it up in the garments of respectability politics.

Myisha Cherry, Anger Can Build a Better World⩘ , The Atlantic, Aug 25, 2020

We're Doing Elections Wrong

Still of Hasan Minhaj in front of the U.S. Constitution in We're Doing Elections Wrong from the video of his show Patriot Act

The brilliant and funny Hasan Minaj explains how we're doing elections wrong. We actually have a plurality rather than a majority wins system, which results in the screwed up, dysfunctional government we have these days. He also explains how we could fix things relatively easily with ranked-choice voting, which actually was implemented in Maine recently. Several other countries have been successfully using it to one degree or another for some time now.

With ranked-choice voting, you rank the candidates running for office. If one gets a majority, they win, but if no one gets a majority, the candidate who received the least amount of votes is dropped from the tally, and the votes for that candidate are then distributed based on who those voters cast their second rank votes for. This goes on until a majority winner emerges.

The advantage of a ranked-choice voting system is that candidates benefit from reaching out to more voters because it can be advantageous to receive not only first-rank votes, but also second- or third-rank votes. This changes the gestalt of campaigning from the broken system of "vote for me because I'm not the other person" to "vote for me because I support these positions, some of which may appeal to you to one degree or another."

One thing is for sure, we need to do something to fix our broken system. For most of my voting life, I have voted against rather than for a candidate. How refreshing it would be to be able to vote for candidates based on how well they address the issues I'm most concerned about.

YouTube video: We're Doing Elections Wrong⩘ , from Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, Jun 22, 2020

Bisa Butler, Storyteller

Wangari Maathai quilt story by Bisa Butler
Wangari Maathai quilt story by Bisa Butler

The only thing I know about sewing is that whenever I've tried to do it, I've ended up with a needle sticking into one of my fingers. But my beloved is a quilter: one of her beautiful quilts, in the colors of autumn foliage that I love so much, keeps me warm on cold nights; another turns the ugly LaserJet next to this desk I'm sitting at into a beautiful work of art. I fell in love with the beautiful quilts of the women of Gee's Bend⩘  when I gifted a couple coffee table books about them to my beloved, then snuck them back to feast my eyes on the beauty within.

Bisa Butler's quilts are mind-blowingly beautiful. The image above is of her quilts, her story of one of my personal heroes, Wangari Maathai of Kenya; however, most of Butler's quilt stories are about Black Americans.

These unknown stories fascinate me. I feel these people; I know these stories because I have grown up with them my whole life. I know about my grandmothers birth in Plaquemine Parrish Louisiana , I know about my Aunt Sheila whose family left Mississippi for Chicago in the 1940's; I know about my own father who left Ghana in 1960 with a scholarship to study in the United States and a suitcase with one shirt and one pair of pants. I know the pride of hard work and the dignity of these people because they are my people. I can imagine their lives because they are me and I am them. I grew up listening to the tales of my elders and I heard about what it felt like to be cold and hungry, but also to have love for one family.

I quilt because this was the technique that was taught to me at home. I could sew before I ever painted on a canvas. My grandmother and mother while not quilters, sewed garments almost every day. African Americans have been quilting since we were bought to this country and needed to keep warm. Enslaved people were not given large pieces of fabric and had to make do with the scarps of cloth that were left after clothing wore out. From these scraps the African American quilt aesthetic came into being. Some enslaved peoples were so talented that they were tasked for creating beautiful quilts that adorned their enslavers beds. My own pieces are reminiscent of this tradition, but I use African fabrics from my father's homeland of Ghana, batiks from Nigeria, and prints from South Africa. My subjects are adorned with and made up of the cloth of our ancestor. If these visages are to be recreated and seen for the first time in a century,I want them to have their African Ancestry back, I want them to take their place in American History. I want the viewer to see the subjects as I see them.

Bisa Butler Art ⩘ 

It is what it is

On the topic of the coronavirus in an interview with Jonathan Swan of Axios, Donald Trump claimed, "I think it's under control." Swan then asked, "How? A thousand Americans are dying a day." To which Trump replied, "They are dying. That's true. And you -- it is what it is."

Jonathan Swan, Trump: Coronavirus is "under control"⩘ , Axios, Aug 4, 2020
Jonathan Swan, Full interview with President Trump⩘ , Axios, Aug 4, 2020

He didn't come to my inauguration

On the topic of the legacy of the late civil rights icon John Lewis in an interview with Jonathan Swan of Axios, Swan asked if Trump found Lewis' life impressive. In reply, Donald Trump complained, "He didn't come to my inauguration."

Jonathan Swan, Exclusive: Trump declines to praise John Lewis, citing inauguration snub⩘ , Axios, Aug 4, 2020
Jonathan Swan, Full interview with President Trump⩘ , Axios, Aug 4, 2020

What should exist

"So we have to be thinking not just about what should not exist, we should be thinking what should exist and begin building that."
– Newark Mayor Ras Baraka

Silence is Not an Option: Reimagining the Police⩘ 

John Lewis

"Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself."

John Lewis, Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation⩘ , NYT, Jul 30, 2020

The hope of the world is the individual that cares

Pastor Carl Lentz, Hillsong East Coast Church. From Race vs Religion – Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, Episode 7⩘ , Jul 29, 2020.

10 Ways To Reduce Our Reliance On Policing And Make Our Communities Safer For Everyone

Excellent article by Alex S. Vitale, professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College. There are alternatives and promising possibilities. We just need the courage and fortitude to try them.

  1. Mental health and social workers to respond to crises
  2. Violence interrupters to reduce gun violence
  3. Unarmed traffic patrols
  4. Civilian control of crime labs
  5. Fund better and safer transit service
  6. School wellness centers
  7. Dispute resolution experts for neighborhood and domestic disputes
  8. Support, not police, for people experiencing homelessness
  9. Integrated crisis centers
  10. Trained civilians for property offenses

Alex S. Vitale, 10 Ways To Reduce Our Reliance On Policing And Make Our Communities Safer For Everyone⩘ , The Appeal, Jul 20, 2020

Related: New York University School of Law Policing Project⩘ 

Black Print

Press room of the Richmond Planet newspaper, Richmond, Virginia, 1899
Press room of the Richmond Planet newspaper, Richmond, Virginia, 1899.
Photo from Library of Congress⩘ 

Excellent article about the growth of Black printing and publishing in the U.S. and the women and men who made it happen. From the first pamphlets and books in the late 1700s to the first newspapers in the 1800s to publications with widespread circulation in the 1900s, it is a rich and courageous story.

Black print culture, then, is considerably more than the sum of its extant printed artifacts. It is the complex and unfathomably rich interplay of all its parts, and a reflection of a people, determined, proud, and unwavering in their conviction that Black lives matter.

Black Print⩘ , I Love Typography, July 11, 2020

Thank you, moms!

The Wall of Moms
Art by Xochilt Ruvalcaba, Instagram:

This is amazing: a bunch of moms is taking to the streets of Portland every night to stand between the unidentifiable attacking federal militarized agents and the Black Lives Matter protestors in an effort to protect the protestors.

#wallofmoms is a PDX-based network of womxn and non-binary mother-identifying folx dedicated to supporting the current civil rights movement to end police brutality by defending and supporting BLM protesters on the front line and online.

Thank you, moms!

Wikipedia: The Wall of Moms⩘ 
Related: 'Wall of Moms' face down federal officers in Portland⩘ , Reuters Pictures, July 23, 2020

We're all just normal people who think what's happening is wrong

Video by Zane Sparling, @PDXzane
Video by Zane Sparling, @PDXzane⩘ 

A Navy veteran wanted to ask federal officers "Why are you not honoring your oath to the Constitution?" Apparently those officers considered that a crime because as Christopher David stood stoically, wearing his U.S. Naval Academy gear to identify himself as a U.S. Navy veteran, he was viciously beaten with a baton (resulting in two fractured bones in his hand) and repeatedly sprayed with chemical irritant by unidentifiable federal officers.

Watch Sparling's video of the attack on Christopher⩘ .

"It's just us normal people out there," he said. "There were a whole group of pregnant moms standing out there linking arms and they got gassed. You hear people like [President] Trump say it's just a bunch of wacko fringe people in liberal cities who are out there, but no way. We're all just normal people who think what's happening is wrong."

Reported by Zane Sparling: Article: Portland protester describes beating by federal officers⩘ , Portland Tribune, Jul 19 2020; Video: @PDXzane⩘ 
[1] A Navy vet asked federal officers in Portland to remember their oaths. Then they broke his hand.⩘ , The Washington Post, Jul 20, 2020
[2] Navy veteran says he was beaten 'like a punching bag' in Portland⩘ , Reuters, Jul 20, 2020
[3] A Navy veteran says he was beaten and pepper sprayed by authorities while attending his first protest in Portland⩘ ,, Jul 20, 2020
See also: Heather Cox Richardson, July 20, 2020⩘ , Letters from an American

Representative John Lewis

"You must be able and prepared to give until you cannot give any more. We must use our time and our space on this little planet that we call Earth to make a lasting contribution, to leave it a little better than we found it, and now that need is greater than ever before."

"Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way."

– Representative John Lewis, February 21, 1940 - July 17, 2020

The woman who swims with sharks

Cristina Zenato swimming with sharks

Cristina Zenato has a special relationship with sharks. She has been diving at one site with one family of sharks in the Bahamas for twenty years. The video⩘  showing her gently being with the sharks is a beautiful glimpse into another way of being.

I love that there is a busy silence. It is the most peaceful and calming moment of my day. My babies are Caribbean Reef Sharks.

There is a total disconnect from humans to sharks. We can swim in the ocean with sharks in a way that you can never walk around on the snow with a polar bear following you. We have to make that connection with the sharks, understanding they're way, way less dangerous than many creatures out there. We must change our ways because we need to protect the oceans and we need to protect the sharks. And when you reach that message, then you have a victory.

Perspective: Sharks kill an average of 10 people per year, which generates a fairly high level of fear and anxiety. It's good to keep some perspective in mind: people kill around 100,000,000 sharks per year 1. People also kill approximately 425,000 people per year, topped only by mosquitoes, which kill about 725,000 people per year 2. By the way, that furry creature wagging its tail and chasing the sticks you throw … they kill an average of 30 people per year. Think about that the next time you step into a backyard to play with one without wearing your chainmail suit!

Video: The woman who swims with sharks⩘ , BBC

Freedom House Ambulance Service

Freedom House Ambulance Service
Photo credit: University of Pittsburgh, Freedom House paramedics with ambulance.

From 99% Invisible: the inspiring story of the creation of the world's first ambulance service, an all-Black paramedic operation in Pittsburgh during the late 1960s and early 1970s. It's also a tragic story, because this amazing and pioneering service that birthed the EMT and paramedic professions that save so many lives across our country and around the world was destroyed by racism.

At a city council meeting, Safar presented data showing that as many as 1,200 people a year had been dying needlessly while in the care of other emergency services. Freedom House paramedics, by contrast, had saved 200 lives in the first year alone. Doctors and medical directors from around the country flocked to Pittsburgh. Freedom House medics were invited to conferences as far away as Germany. Everyone wanted to see what they were doing and learn how they could copy it.

We should pay tribute to Freedom House Ambulance Service for making it possible for all of us to dial 911 for any medical emergency we may experience.

99% Invisible: Freedom House Ambulance Service⩘ 

Related videos:
Freedom House Ambulance Service – The First Paramedic and EMT Service⩘ 
Freedom House Feature Documentary Trailer⩘ 

2022 update – There's now a book: American Sirens: The Incredible Story of the Black Men Who Became America's First Paramedics⩘  by Kevin Hazzard, Hachette Books, Sep 2022.

This town of 170,000 replaced some cops with medics and mental health workers. It's worked for over 30 years

Excellent article about CAHOOTS⩘ , the Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets program in Eugene, Oregon. It's showcases how one community has created a way to shift the responses for some kinds of incidents—for example, mental health crises, homelessness, substance abuse, and threats of suicide—from police to a team of nurses or EMTs paired with a crisis responder trained in behavioral health.

The article makes clear that this isn't an easy, one-size-fits-all solution, but also that there is a possible way forward.

This town of 170,000 replaced some cops with medics and mental health workers. It's worked for over 30 years⩘ , by Scottie Andrew, CNN, July 5, 2020

Black Lives Matter: one of the finest examples of patriotism in modern America

Excerpt from an analyis piece by John Blake, CNN, July 4, 2020: Our country is in chaos. But it's a great time to be an American⩘ 

On July 9, 1776, a rowdy group of American colonists banded together at a political rally in New York City and did something that today would be called "badass."

They had just been treated to a public reading of the Declaration of Independence, which Congress had officially adopted less than a week earlier. After hearing calls to "dissolve the political bands" of tyranny, they marched to a public park that featured a statue of King George III, Britain's ruler, and knocked the 4,000-pound statue off its 15-foot pedestal.

The head of the statue was then decapitated and perched on top of a spike, and much of the rest was melted down to make 42,000 musket balls for American soldiers.

The historian Erika Doss thought of that scene recently while watching protesters toppling statues of Confederate heroes. Doss, who recounts the 1776 episode in her book, "Memorial Mania," sees a parallel between the colonists who fought against Great Britain and protesters who rail against Confederate monuments today.

"They're patriots," says Doss, an American studies professor at the University of Notre Dame, of today's protesters. "They're looking at the symbols and these visual and martial emblems and icons in their midst and they're saying this doesn't stand for who we are today."

Our country is in chaos. But it's a great time to be an American⩘ 

These are true patriots

Excerpts from an opinion piece by Senator Tammy Duckworth,⩘ 

Marching and chanting, grieving and kneeling, countless Americans have braved tear gas and rubber bullets over the past six weeks to send an unequivocal message to their elected leaders: that they will not stand idly by as racial injustice continues to tear at our country.

. . .

America has always been full of complications and contradictions. We're a deeply flawed country, but what makes us unique is that we're a deeply hopeful one, too. Hopeful that, with a little effort, we'll one day live up to the promises made in our founding doctrine. That coming together in the streets can make a real difference. That we can learn from yesterday's sins to bring about a better tomorrow.

So on this Fourth of July, let's remember that fighting back against injustice isn't just the right thing to do, it's the most American act imaginable. Our nation was founded by a group of patriots who refused to blindly follow their leader—and 244 Independence Days later, it's only by continuing to speak truth to power that, someday soon, we may all live free in that more perfect union envisioned by our founders.

Senator Tammy Duckworth, These are true patriots⩘ ,, July 3, 2020

Catastrophic failure of leadership

U.S.A. presidential leadership during the pandemic crisis
Image of United States of America presidential leadership during the pandemic crisis

During the course of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic so far—and it appears likely that we are early in what will be a long and terrible experience—two articles have struck me most strongly:

The final sentence of the article by Fallows, his imagining of the NTSB accident report about this catastrophic failure, is utterly devastating.

Followup: This New York Times article from July 18, 2020 underscores the catastrophic failure of leadership: Inside Trump's Failure: The Rush to Abandon Leadership Role on the Virus⩘ 

Followup: This Washington Post article from Dec 19, 2020 also underscores the catastrophic failure of leadership: The inside story of how Trump's denial, mismanagement and magical thinking led to the pandemic's dark winter⩘ 

My Body Is a Confederate Monument

Caroline Randall Williams

What is a monument but a standing memory? An artifact to make tangible the truth of the past. My body and blood are a tangible truth of the South and its past. The black people I come from were owned by the white people I come from. The white people I come from fought and died for their Lost Cause. And I ask you now, who dares to tell me to celebrate them? Who dares to ask me to accept their mounted pedestals?

You cannot dismiss me as someone who doesn't understand. You cannot say it wasn't my family members who fought and died. My blackness does not put me on the other side of anything. It puts me squarely at the heart of the debate. I don't just come from the South. I come from Confederates. I've got rebel-gray blue blood coursing my veins. My great-grandfather Will was raised with the knowledge that Edmund Pettus was his father. Pettus, the storied Confederate general, the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, the man for whom Selma's Bloody Sunday Bridge is named. So I am not an outsider who makes these demands. I am a great-great-granddaughter.

Caroline Randall Williams, You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument⩘ , The New York Times, June 26, 2020

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

A thought-provoking white privilege paper by Peggy McIntosh, 1989.

I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. So I have begun in an untutored way to ask what it is like to have white privilege. I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was "meant" to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

I decided to try to work on myself at least by identifying some of the daily effects of white privilege in my life. I have chosen those conditions which I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined. As far as I can see, my African American co-workers, friends, and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and line of work cannot count on most of these conditions.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

One factor seems clear about all of the interlocking oppressions. They take both active forms, which we can see, and embedded forms, which as a member of the dominant group one is taught not to see. In my class and place, I did not see myself as a racist because I was taught to recognize racism only in individual acts of meanness by members of my group, never in invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on my group from birth.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy MaIntosh⩘ 

Related video: How Studying Privilege Systems Can Strengthen Compassion by Peggy McIntosh⩘ , at TEDxTimberlaneSchools, 2012. In this video, she speaks about the myth of meritocracy and the metaphor of white privilege as a bank account that she was given:

I didn't ask for it and I can't be blamed for it, but I can decide to put it in the service of weakening the system of white privilege. That is my energy, that is my financial commitment, that is my daily life, and it has been transformative to use my bank account of white privilege to weaken the system of white privilege.… It has been transformative to use the power I did not know—I was never taught—that I have in the service of kinder, fairer, and more compassionate life for everyone.

What is owed

If true justice and equality are ever to be achieved in the United States, the country must finally take seriously what it owes black Americans.

An excellent longform piece that presents a crystal clear argument for reparations by Nikole Hannah-Jones, The New York Times Magazine⩘ , June 26, 2020

No one can predict whether this uprising will lead to lasting change. History does not bode well. But there does seem to be a widespread acceptance of the most obvious action we could take toward equality in a nation built on the espoused ideals of inalienable, universal rights: pass reforms and laws that ensure that black people cannot be killed by armed agents of the state without consequence.

But on its own, this cannot bring justice to America. If we are truly at the precipice of a transformative moment, the most tragic of outcomes would be that the demand be too timid and the resolution too small. If we are indeed serious about creating a more just society, we must go much further than that. We must get to the root of it.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

The difference between the lived experience of black Americans and white Americans when it comes to wealth—along the entire spectrum of income from the poorest to the richest—can be described as nothing other than a chasm. According to research published this year by scholars at Duke University and Northwestern University that doesn't even take into account the yet-unknown financial wreckage of Covid-19, the average black family with children holds just one cent of wealth for every dollar that the average white family with children holds.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Slavery's demise provided this nation the chance for redemption. Out of the ashes of sectarian strife, we could have birthed a new country, one that recognized the humanity and natural rights of those who helped forge this country, one that attempted to atone and provide redress for the unspeakable atrocities committed against black people in the name of profit. We could have finally, 100 years after the Revolution, embraced its founding ideals.

And, oh so briefly, during the period known as Reconstruction, we moved toward that goal. The historian Eric Foner refers to these 12 years after the Civil War as this nation's second founding, because it is here that America began to redeem the grave sin of slavery. Congress passed amendments abolishing human bondage, enshrining equal protection before the law in the Constitution and guaranteeing black men the right to vote. This nation witnessed its first period of biracial governance as the formerly enslaved were elected to public offices at all levels of government. For a fleeting moment, a few white men listened to the pleas of black people who had fought for the Union and helped deliver its victory. Land in this country has always meant wealth and, more important, independence. Millions of black people, liberated with not a cent to their name, desperately wanted property so they could work, support themselves and be left alone. Black people implored federal officials to take the land confiscated from enslavers who had taken up arms against their own country and grant it to those who worked it for generations. They were asking to, as the historian Robin D.G. Kelley puts it, "inherit the earth they had turned into wealth for idle white people."

In January 1865, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order 15, providing for the distribution of hundreds of thousands of acres of former Confederate land issued in 40-acre tracts to newly freed people along coastal South Carolina and Georgia. But just four months later, in April, Lincoln was assassinated. Andrew Johnson, the racist, pro-Southern vice president who took over, immediately reneged upon this promise of 40 acres, overturning Sherman's order. Most white Americans felt that black Americans should be grateful for their freedom, that the bloody Civil War had absolved any debt. The government confiscated the land from the few formerly enslaved families who had started to eke out a life away from the white whip and gave it back to the traitors. And with that, the only real effort this nation ever made to compensate black Americans for 250 years of chattel slavery ended.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

At least 6,500 black people were lynched from the end of the Civil War to 1950, an average of nearly two a week for nine decades. Nearly five black people, on average, have been killed a week by law enforcement since 2015.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

And yet most Americans are in an almost pathological denial about the depth of black financial struggle. That 2019 Yale University study, called "The Misperception of Racial Economic Inequality," found that Americans believe that black households hold $90 in wealth for every $100 held by white households. The actual amount is $10.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Reparations are not about punishing white Americans, and white Americans are not the ones who would pay for them. It does not matter if your ancestors engaged in slavery or if you just immigrated here two weeks ago. Reparations are a societal obligation in a nation where our Constitution sanctioned slavery, Congress passed laws protecting it and our federal government initiated, condoned and practiced legal racial segregation and discrimination against black Americans until half a century ago. And so it is the federal government that pays.

Reparations would go to any person who has documentation that he or she identified as a black person for at least 10 years before the beginning of any reparations process and can trace at least one ancestor back to American slavery. Reparations should include a commitment to vigorously enforcing existing civil rights prohibitions against housing, educational and employment discrimination, as well as targeted investments in government-constructed segregated black communities and the segregated schools that serve a disproportionate number of black children. But critically, reparations must include individual cash payments to descendants of the enslaved in order to close the wealth gap.

What is owed⩘ 

Our monuments are representations of myth, not fact

James Baldwin in Our monuments are representations of myth, not fact

Ken Burns talks about one of his earliest films, "The Statue of Liberty" from 1985, featuring excerpts of writer James Baldwin pondering the question: "What is liberty?" and, quoting the Declaration, We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, observes, "And the moment I do that, I'm in trouble again, because obviously I was not included in that pronouncement." that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, and among these rights are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness "Ah, what is liberty?"

Burns reflects:

Our monuments, even those as revered as the Statue of Liberty, are representations of myth, not fact. And as we consider what role monuments play in our culture, it's the history, not the mythology, that we must remember.

Baldwin goes on:

Liberty is the individual passion or will to be free. But this passion, this will is always contradicted by the necessities of the state, everywhere, for as long as we've heard of mankind, as long as we've heard of states. I don't know if it will be like that forever. For a black American, for a black inhabitant of this country, the Statue of Liberty is simply a very bitter joke, meaning nothing to us.

Our monuments are representations of myth, not fact⩘ 

Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man

Emmanuel Acho, Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man

This is essential.

Welcome to the first of hopefully many episodes of Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man.
   In the midst of all this chaos in our world, so many of y'all have reached out to me, and by y'all, I mean white people have reached out to me asking, "How can I help? How can I join in? How can I stand with you?"
   So I've created this for you because in order to stand with us, and people that look like me, you have to be educated on issues that pertain to me, and fully educated so that you can feel the full level of pain, so that you can have full understanding.
   I fervently believe that if the white person is your problem, only the white person can be your solution, and so this is made for you, my white brothers and sisters, to increase your level of understanding so that you can increase your level of compassion and lead ultimately to change.
   So consider this a safe space to answer so many questions that I've seen from y'all.

Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man with Emmanuel Acho⩘ 
Introductory episode⩘ 

Juneteenth and the Meaning of Freedom

A good essay to reflect upon by Jelani Cobb.

There's a paradox inherent in the fact that emancipation is celebrated primarily among African-Americans, and that the celebration is rooted in a perception of slavery as something that happened to black people, rather than something that the country committed. The paradox rests on the presumption that the arrival of freedom should be greeted with gratitude, instead of with self-reflection about what allowed it to be deprived in the first place. Emancipation is a marker of progress for white Americans, not black ones.

Jelani Cobb, Juneteenth and the Meaning of Freedom⩘ , The New Yorker, June 19, 2020.

Dark Waters

Wilbur Tennant (played by Bill Camp) in the film Dark Waters

Powerful, powerful film.

Can a film about a chemical with a name like Perfluorooctanoic acid⩘  (PFOA) be riveting? When the story is driven forward by a farmer like Wilbur Tennant (played by Bill Camp) and a lawyer like Robert Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo), absolutely!

Can a film about a rural farmer and a big city lawyer be terrifying? I was at times white knuckled and holding my breath!

How do the assholes who run companies like Dupont stand looking at themselves in their mirrors? Want to know how corrupt our state and federal government are? A disgustingly dishonorable company like Dupont is still in business while the honorable farmer they killed lies six feet under. Shameful!

Then, when the film had finished, I got even more terrified as I started thinking about all times I've eaten food cooked with Teflon pans; walked on carpet, sat on upholstery, or worn garments treated with Scotchgard; or watched a movie while munching on popcorn out of microwaved popcorn bag. Holy shit!

Dark Waters Official Film Site⩘ 

The Camden Policing Model

In this episode of Stay Tuned with Preet, former New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram talks with Camden, New Jersey Police Chief J. Scott Thompson about the work he has been doing to transform the Camden police force from warriors to guardians of the community. It is a transformation that is in progress, but already has provided significant benefits to the community, showing that it is possible for the model of policing that is so broken in many jurisdictions across our country to be scrapped in order to make way for building something different and better.

Full episode: The Camden Policing Model⩘ 

The city that disbanded its police force

Still frame from BBC video The city that disbanded its police force

"Camden, New Jersey, created a brand new police force to forge better ties with its residents.

"Their aim was for the police to be guardians, not warriors of their community.

The city used to have one of the highest crime rates in the United States but now, eight years later, it is seeing its lowest crime rate in 50 years."

The city that disbanded its police force⩘ , The BBC's Nada Tawfik reports, June 18, 2020

These are the ordinary things they were doing when they were killed by police

By AJ Willingham, CNN, June 16, 2020.

"Sleeping. Driving. Standing outside of an apartment building. These are some of the last things some black Americans were doing before they were approached by police for one reason or another. For all of them, the encounter ended in death. "

Read every word of this article⩘ . Take the time to let yourself fully absorb what each person was doing when they were killed by the police. This. Can't. Happen. Anymore. Black Lives Matter.

AJ Willingham, These are the ordinary things they were doing when they were killed by police⩘ , CNN, June 16, 2020

Isn't that public safety?

When I first heard the slogan, "Defund the police," I didn't get it. Because policing across the country is broken, I do understand and support ideas like demilitarizing the police, but defunding? That sounded crazy. At the same time, intelligent and passionate people are calling for it, so I started reading to try to figure it out.

Fund real public safety

Now I understand that for at least some, it means funding real public safety by shifting resources from police to programs that provide socially beneficial services, which should have the effect of reducing the footprint of the police and, hopefully, will reduce some of the overly aggressive and, all too often, even deadly responses. For example, instead of giving the work of dealing with a mental health crises to the police, shift that work, and the funding it requires, to first responders with the training to actually deal with a mental health crisis in a positive way.

As Representative Ayanna Pressley said in a recent interview⩘ , "We cannot allow the narrative of the defund movement to be co-opted. What we're talking about is the investment of community."

This seems like a crucial step that needs to be taken in order to achieve the essential task of really reforming the police. In some, if not many or most jurisdictions, there may need to be a dismantling of the current policing system, replacing it with a new system built fresh from the ground up, as appears to be happening in Minneapolis right now, where the city council voted unanimously to begin just such a process.

There is a set of flyers available that helped me understand this better: Alternatives to Policing Flyers⩘ . Here's a sampling of four of them.

Isn't that public safety? Sleeping on benches  Isn't that public safety? Brake lights
Isn't that public safety? Gun violence  Isn't that public safety? Mental Health Crisis

Note: The posters were created a couple years ago. The site includes an Explainer⩘  as well as a document with the text of all the flyers. In the Explainer, the creator says: "For transparency I had my information here but truly I don't want people directed to my page. What I would really love is for people to click the links below [in the Explainer⩘ ], learn, and follow these brilliant organizations doing the work on the ground, which I will continue to do as well. Thank you."

Alternatives to Policing Flyers⩘ 

How to reform American police, according to experts

In 2016, Vox Senior Correspondent German Lopez "spoke to nine veteran policing and criminal justice experts across the country, with a focus on the big question: How should police and lawmakers address complaints of racial bias while making sure communities are effectively policed for crime?"

On Jun 1, 2020, he revisited the question: "In a testament to how little things have changed, all eight of their recommendations stand up today—and none have been implemented at a national scale."

It's a insightful article, taking a deeper look of each of the eight recommendations:

  1. Police need to apologize for centuries of abuse
  2. Police should be trained to address their racial biases
  3. Police should avoid situations that lead them to use force
  4. Officers must be held accountable in a very transparent way
  5. On-the-job incentives for police officers need to change
  6. We need higher standards—and better pay—for police
  7. Police need to focus on the few people in communities causing chaos and violence
  8. We need better data to evaluate police and crime

German Lopez, How to reform American police, according to experts⩘ , Vox, Jun 1, 2020

Engage in the long, faithful work

Engage in the long, faithful work by Morgan Harper Nichols

Engage in the long, faithful work.
Surrender the need of striving
to be the best or always right
and focus instead on leaning into Light,
that reveals all things.
All that is good
and all that stands to be corrected,
and redirected.

And as you lean into Light,
be gentle with the word "darkness."
For more than it merely means wrong or bad,
it is also the color of a full, starless night sky,
and actual bodies
of human beings
who have been overlooked
too many times.

Many, many words
hold more than one meaning.

Language on "light" and "dark" may have its place,
and this is also true,
this very language has been used to say,
"You are a threat. I am not. I am worth more than you."
It takes kindness to understand this, for
even though kindness is a beautiful word.
it does not mean that nothing gets disrupted.
Sometimes a way of thinking must be interrupted
in order for kindness to truly thrive.

For as sure as kindness
leans into what is good,
it also speaks about what isn't right.
It is compassionate and gentle
when long histories are pulled from mourning into morning.

Engage in the long, faithful work
of awakening
with your heart and mind open to the possibility
that things are more complex than they once seemed.

And as hard as it is to hold all of this,
you are still free to dream:
you do not have to be who you used to be.
You do not have to think the way you used to think.
You are free to take hopeful, thoughtful action
in pursuit of better things.

So here's to new beginnings,
knowing it is impossible to ignore the long history,
opening up to the mystery
that grace still finds you here.

And grace is unmerited favor
but it might not always look the way you want it to.
It will invite you out in the open
and it will also reveal what has been broken.
You might have to unlearn the way you thought things would be.
You might find that being undone
is the best way to move on, humbly, mindfully, wholly.

For how liberating it is
to pursue wholeness over perfection,
finding that grace is more than a beautiful word,
but a daily act of being undone, an awakening, a direction.

– Morgan Harper Nichols

Instagram: morganharpernichols⩘ 
Via: Boing Boing⩘ 

The Liberation of RNA

Photo of C. Brandon Ogbunu by David DelPoio

C. Brandon Ogbunu, an evolutionary systems biologist and Assistant Professor at Brown University in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University, shares a story that unlocks some deep truths and insights in The Liberation of RNA⩘  Radiolab episode, which aired June 13, 2020. C. Brandon Ogbunu's interview with Jad Abumrad is wrapped around a live story he told for the The StoryCollider⩘  podcast, which aired December 6, 2019.

Both the original story and the Radiolab episode are powerful listens.

America, Racism & Patterns of Change

An excellent conversation that brings together one of my favorite podcasters, Preet Bharara of Stay Tuned with Preet⩘  and one of my favorite historians, Heather Cox Richardson of Letters from an American⩘ . A very insightful discussion.

America, Racism & Patterns of Change⩘ 

The ultimate measure

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

How Can We Win

Kimberly Jones, from the video How Can We Win, David Jones Media, Jun 1, 2020

Kimberly Jones, social activist and co-author of I'm Not Dying With You Tonight, recently shared some powerful thoughts about the upheaval we're experiencing, which were recorded on video by David Jones: How Can We Win⩘ .

She explains clearly and passionately the rigged game that racism is. While I most emphatically do not condone violence, looting, or property destruction, I think it's important to try to understand the context that Kimberly Jones provides about the centuries of pent up desperation and furious anger that ignites this rage.

Kimberly Jones, How Can We Win⩘ , David Jones Media, Jun 1, 2020

Related links:

Nina, a stunningly beautiful podcast

Tracie Hunt⩘ , a reporter for Radiolab, shares a stunningly beautiful story about the intersection of art and protest, centered on a performance by Nina Simone on April 7, 1968, three days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and set in the context of the sounds of today's protests.

It's a short podcast, but packs a large emotional punch. Listening to it left me awestruck and crying.

Full podcast: Nina⩘ 

The American Nightmare

Excerpts from an article by Ibram X. Kendi.

… there is something wrong with society, something dangerous and deathly about racist policy, and black people are experiencing the American nightmare.

Americans should be asking: Why are so many unarmed black people being killed by police while armed white people are simply arrested? Why are officials addressing violent crime in poorer neighborhoods by adding more police instead of more jobs? Why are black (and Latino) people during this pandemic less likely to be working from home; less likely to be insured; more likely to live in trauma-care deserts, lacking access to advanced emergency care; and more likely to live in polluted neighborhoods? The answer is what the Frederick Hoffmans of today refuse to believe: racism.

There are only two choices: racist or anti-racist.

The American Nightmare⩘  by Ibram X. Kendi, The Atlantic, June 1, 2020.

Something else Ibram X. Kendi has said that I want to remember:

"The heartbeat of antiracism is self-reflection, recognition, admission and fundamentally self-critique… A racist when charged with with racism will say, 'I'm not a racist,' no matter what they said or did. An antiracist would be willing to confess and recognize what they just said or did was, in fact, racist."
Ibram X. Kendi Author of How to Be an Antiracist

I will always stand on the side of the egg

Excerpt from a speech by Haruki Murakami.

Please do, however, allow me to deliver one very personal message. It is something that I always keep in mind while I am writing fiction. I have never gone so far as to write it on a piece of paper and paste it to the wall: Rather, it is carved into the wall of my mind, and it goes something like this:

"Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg."

Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?

What is the meaning of this metaphor? In some cases, it is all too simple and clear. Bombers and tanks and rockets and white phosphorus shells are that high, solid wall. The eggs are the unarmed civilians who are crushed and burned and shot by them. This is one meaning of the metaphor.

This is not all, though. It carries a deeper meaning. Think of it this way. Each of us is, more or less, an egg. Each of us is a unique, irreplaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell. This is true of me, and it is true of each of you. And each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, is confronting a high, solid wall. The wall has a name: It is The System. The System is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us and cause us to kill others—coldly, efficiently, systematically….

I have only one thing I hope to convey to you today. We are all human beings, individuals transcending nationality and race and religion, fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called The System. To all appearances, we have no hope of winning. The wall is too high, too strong—and too cold. If we have any hope of victory at all, it will have to come from our believing in the utter uniqueness and irreplaceability of our own and others' souls and from the warmth we gain by joining souls together.

We all committed our lives to the idea that is America

General Mark A. Milley, current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote the following memorandum to all branches of the U.S. military on June 2, 2020.

SUBJECT: Message to the Joint Force

1. Every member of the U.S. military swears an oath to support and defend the Constitution and values embedded within it. This document is founded on the essential principle that all men and women are born free and equal, and should be treated with respect and dignity. It also gives Americans the right to freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. We in uniform—all branches, all components, and all ranks—remain committed to our national values and principles embedded in the Constitution.

2. During the current crisis, the National Guard is operating under the authority of state governors to protect lives and property, preserve peace, and ensure public safety.

3. As members of the Joint Force—comprised of all races, colors, and creeds—you embody the ideals of our Constitution. Please remind all of our troops and leaders that we will uphold the values of our nation, and operate consistent with national laws and our own high standards of conduct at all times.

Handwritten addition to the memo: We all committed our lives to the idea that is America—we will stay true to that oath and the American people.

Mark A. Milley
General, U.S. Army

Listening to more black voices: One time i got pulled over

On June 2, 2020, Karlous Miller @KarlousM posted a tweet sharing an experience with the police⩘ . Hundreds of people have posted their own experiences in reply. Here's the original post by @KarlousM and a sampling of the many replies. It's worth it to take the time to read through them.

Karlous Miller @KarlousM
One time i got pulled over, the cop said i wasn't speeding but "it looked like i was about to pick up speed." I still don't know what the fuck that looks like 'TIL this day.

Ole Hawkster @mister_hawk
Got pulled over for going the speed limit. Told me most ppl go 5 over and me going the speed limit was suspicious…obeying the law was suspicious

Dréa @TackyJackie_
I got pulled over at gun point in my friend's neighborhood because "there had been a lot of robberies in the neighborhood" she said "I live here I haven't heard a thing." Neither cop apologized.. just young & black in America…

M.T.. @Tanica
I had a gun pulled on me in front of my home after it was robbed. Cop thought i committed the crime…i was also in my military uniform.

csb, mba @taluvshoes69
Simply living while black.

Karlous Miller @KarlousM, One time i got pulled over⩘ 

Equal Justice Under Law

James Mattis, 26th United States Secretary of Defense

Statement by James Mattis, retired United States Marine Corps general, and 26th United States Secretary of Defense, Jan 2017 - Jan 2019.

In Union There Is Strength

I have watched this week's unfolding events, angry and appalled. The words "Equal Justice Under Law" are carved in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court. This is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding. It is a wholesome and unifying demand—one that all of us should be able to get behind. We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers. The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values—our values as people and our values as a nation.

When I joined the military, some 50 years ago, I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.

We must reject any thinking of our cities as a "battlespace" that our uniformed military is called upon to "dominate." At home, we should use our military only when requested to do so, on very rare occasions, by state governors. Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict—a false conflict—between the military and civilian society. It erodes the moral ground that ensures a trusted bond between men and women in uniform and the society they are sworn to protect, and of which they themselves are a part. Keeping public order rests with civilian state and local leaders who best understand their communities and are answerable to them.

James Madison wrote in Federalist 14 that "America united with a handful of troops, or without a single soldier, exhibits a more forbidding posture to foreign ambition than America disunited, with a hundred thousand veterans ready for combat." We do not need to militarize our response to protests. We need to unite around a common purpose. And it starts by guaranteeing that all of us are equal before the law.

Instructions given by the military departments to our troops before the Normandy invasion reminded soldiers that "The Nazi slogan for destroying us…was 'Divide and Conquer.' Our American answer is 'In Union there is Strength.'" We must summon that unity to surmount this crisis—confident that we are better than our politics.

Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.

We can come through this trying time stronger, and with a renewed sense of purpose and respect for one another. The pandemic has shown us that it is not only our troops who are willing to offer the ultimate sacrifice for the safety of the community. Americans in hospitals, grocery stores, post offices, and elsewhere have put their lives on the line in order to serve their fellow citizens and their country. We know that we are better than the abuse of executive authority that we witnessed in Lafayette Square. We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution. At the same time, we must remember Lincoln's "better angels," and listen to them, as we work to unite.

Only by adopting a new path—which means, in truth, returning to the original path of our founding ideals—will we again be a country admired and respected at home and abroad.

Who will we become?

Jun 2020: It seems to me that we are at a critical juncture in our history. Will we become a better people pursuing equality and justice, or move towards becoming a more authoritarian regime that doesn't strive to serve the best interests of all its citizens?

To put it mildly, I have not been a fan of many of the people in Trump's administration, including U.S. Defense Secretary Esper. Today I heard the remarks he gave at the Pentagon to reporters and all of us. His remarks follow yesterday's exploitive photo op by Trump in front of St. John's Episcopal Church, shortly before which peaceful protestors were violently removed so that Trump could walk from the White House to the church, and at which Esper was present, seemingly as another prop for Trump. (For more context, listen to this report, which includes the remarks made in response by Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde⩘ , the diocesan bishop who oversees St. John's Episcopal Church.)

Given all that, I was, frankly, quite surprised by Esper's remarks. They are just words—only time will reveal if there is any sincerity behind them—but they struck me, for the most part, as good words, though he should've apologized clearly and forcefully for his previous and unacceptable use of the term "battlespace," rather than trying to excuse it away.

Esper's words also appear to run counter to what Trump is saying, so it will be interesting to see whether Trump will fire or otherwise try to sideline Esper.

For all these reasons, I feel it is worthwhile to capture a substantial excerpt from Esper's remarks so I can refer back to them once time reveals to us what unfolds. It's a long extract, so I'll begin it here and continue it on another page.

First, let me say up front, the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman is a horrible crime. The officers on the scene that day should be held accountable for his murder. It is a tragedy that we have seen repeat itself too many times. With great sympathy, I want to extend the deepest of condolences to the family and friends of George Floyd from me and the department.

Continued >

Sep 2020 update: Looks like the DOD has taken the following down. I guess political pressure has trumped truth.] U.S. Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper briefed reporters at the Pentagon on National Guard support during civil unrest in cities across the country, U.S. Department of Defense, June 3, 2020 [Broken link:

Nov 2020 update: Trump just fired Esper.

May 2020 update: Esper's memoir: A Sacred Oath: Memoirs of a Defense Secretary in Extraordinary Times⩘ . Confirms just how unhinged Trump is.

We cannot remain silent

Excerpts from an editorial by Mike Mullen, seventeenth chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired:

"While no one should ever condone the violence, vandalism, and looting that has exploded across our city streets, neither should anyone lose sight of the larger and deeper concerns about institutional racism that have ignited this rage."

"We must ensure that African Americans—indeed, all Americans—are given the same rights under the Constitution, the same justice under the law, and the same consideration we give to members of our own family. Our fellow citizens are not the enemy, and must never become so."

The entire editorial:
I Cannot Remain Silent⩘  by Mike Mullen, The Atlantic, June 2, 2020.

Listening to Black Voices

This conversation between parents and their children broke my heart.

Still shot from the video How to Deal with the Police

Dad: We actually have a line that we do at our house. We practice this thing. What is it?
Daughter: I'm Ariel Sky Williams. I'm eight years old. I'm unarmed and I have nothing that will hurt you.
Dad: It's just kind of a thing that we practice at our house.

Black Parents Explain How to Deal with the Police⩘ , Feb 6, 2017, from the series Parents Explain by Cut

This article helped me to better understand the privilege I have that many of our citizens don't.

For those of you reading this who may not be black, or perhaps Latino, this is my chance to tell you that a substantial portion of your fellow citizens in the United States of America have little expectation of being treated fairly by the law or receiving justice. It's possible this will come as a surprise to you. But to a very real extent, you have grown up in a different country than I have.

As Khalil Gibran Muhammad, author of The Condemnation of Blackness⩘ , puts it, "White people, by and large, do not know what it is like to be occupied by a police force. They don't understand it because it is not the type of policing they experience. Because they are treated like individuals, they believe that if 'I am not breaking the law, I will never be abused.'"

We are not criminals because we are black. Nor are we somehow the only people in America who don't want to live in safe neighborhoods. Yet many of us cannot fundamentally trust the people who are charged with keeping us and our communities safe.

Yes, Black America Fears the Police. Here's Why.⩘  By Nikole Hannah-Jones, ProPublica, March 4, 2015.

Thanks to Jason Kottke for helping me to hear these black voices and many more: Listening to Black Voices Amid Murder, Violence, Protest, and Pandemic⩘ , posted by Jason Kottke, KOTTKE.ORG, May 29, 2020.

A day in the ER battling COVID-19

Still image from A day in the ER battling COVID-19 video

A powerful, partially animated video by Emergency Room doctor, Dr. Craig Spencer. He shares his experience battling the coronavirus pandemic by showing us what a single day in the ER is like, including the emotional pain of the doctors and nurses as they hold the hand of their dying patients, sharing their final moments via video conference with the heartbroken families forced to remain at home, unable to be with their loved ones at the end: "This isn't what we do."

He also compares this current pandemic to his previous experience as a member of Doctors Without Borders dealing with the Ebola outbreak: "I survived Ebola; I fear COVID-19."

Dr. Craig Spencer

We were too late to stop this virus. Full stop.
But we can slow its spread.
Stay inside.
Social distancing is the only thing that will save us now.

At this moment of global crisis, we need global solidarity.

Dr. Craig Spencer, Director of Global Health in Emergency Medicine, Columbia University

YouTube: A day in the ER battling COVID-19⩘ , May 24, 2020.

Planet of the Humans

Still shot from Planet of the Humans

A powerful and controversial film by Jeff Gibbs, an invitation to face the bullshit that Earth Day has become, the way key aspects of the environmental and green energy movements have been co-opted by billionaire industrialists, and our individual and collective responsibility. Despite the intense criticisms the film is receiving (perhaps unsurprising given who and what the film is focused on), I think it is worth watching and thinking about, especially some of its conclusions related to our individual and collective responsibility for the climate crisis. We all need to own this.

The film begins: "I've got a question: How long do you think we humans have?"

It then peels back the curtain to expose how we are deluding ourselves.

Gibbs concludes: "I truly believe that the path to change comes from awareness, that awareness alone can begin to create the transformation. There is a way out of this. We humans must accept that infinite growth on a finite planet is suicide. We must accept that our human presence is already far beyond sustainability, and all that that implies. We must take control of our environmental movement and our future from billionaires and their permanent war on planet Earth. They are not our friends. Less must be the new more. And instead of climate change, we must at long last accept that it's not the carbon dioxide molecule destroying the planet, it's us. It's not one thing, but everything we humans are doing; a human-caused apocalypse. If we get ourselves under control, all things are possible."

The film concludes:
"Humankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery—not of nature, but of itself."
– Rachel Carson 1962

The coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has had me thinking about The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. As horrifying as it is, the way this not quite alive gene package is so efficiently sweeping through our human species—totally disrupting our way of life and causing tremendous destruction—is also fascinating. With what goal? Simply to propagate itself.

In a similar way, our selfish human gene has infected the entire planet, disrupting the way of life of countless species and causing phenomenal destruction to the very sustainability of our planet. With what goal? Simply to propagate itself.

Are we intelligent enough to understand that the only way to continue successfully propagating our genes is to limit the propagation of our genes?

I keep hearing people say, "We'll get through this!" I keep wondering: what do we think we'll get through to? Another diesel power-fueled Earth Day concert sending tunes mingled with exhaust smoke out into our skies that we're rapidly re-saturating with our pollution?

I agree with Gibbs: "I truly believe that the path to change comes from awareness, that awareness alone can begin to create the transformation." Let's take this moment for the gift it can be: a chance to pause, really open our eyes, and see.

Planet of the Humans⩘ 

Professor Heather Cox Richardson

Letters from an American

Letters from an American (continued) …

I started reading Professor Cox Richardson's daily letters last year, and wrote about them at that time: Professor Heather Cox Richardson: Letters from an American⩘ . I've continued to read them daily and find that they help me tremendously to understand the constitutional crisis we are facing, as well as its historical context (Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College⩘ ).

I found today's letter particularly important as it answered very well a key question she has been hearing from readers of her letters.

A lot of folks have been asking me lately if America has ever been in such a crisis before and, if so, what people in the past did to save democracy.

To read her answer, see her letter dated February 22, 2020⩘ .

Letters from an American⩘ 

What Do Machine Learning and Hunter-Gatherer Children Have in Common?

Gül Deniz Salali, British Academy research fellow and lecturer in evolutionary anthropology/medicine at University College London

Interesting article by Gül Deniz Salali, British Academy research fellow and lecturer in evolutionary anthropology/medicine at University College London, based on her field research in the Congo. Ties in with what I learned from reading Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta, who explores how formal learning stifles children's inherent curiosity, contrasting high-context or field-dependent reasoning oral cultures with low-context or field-independent print-based cultures.

I am interested in how we learn and transmit skills in the absence of formal education because understanding these can help us understand how complex cultural practices such as the Go game evolve. We have evolved a great capacity for learning by imitating others. This in turn, allows us to transmit information with great accuracy. Researchers have found that when information is transmitted faithfully, cultural practices remain in the population long enough so that they can be modified to generate more complex practices. This is how human culture progresses. Our cultural traits are built upon the legacies of the past information. But this means they are also restricted by them.
   While new training algorithms in machine learning have parallels with how human children learn, they have a capacity for surpassing human culture. This is because those new algorithms are not restricted by the legacies of our cultural history. In 2017, the DeepMind team introduced AlphaGo Zero, the new version of AlphaGo that became its own teacher by learning from self-play. Now it is considered the best Go player in the world. Human Go players have been building their game strategies on the 3,000 years of accumulated knowledge. AlphaGo Zero became the best Go player by setting itself free from this knowledge.

Article: Gül Deniz Salali. "What Do Machine Learning and Hunter-Gatherer Children Have in Common?⩘ ." Scientific American, Oct 2019.
Website: Gül Deniz Salali⩘ 

The case for cities that aren't dystopian surveillance states

"Imagine your smartphone knew everything about the city—but the city didn't know anything about you. Wouldn't that be truly 'smart'?"

Smart City Illustration from Cory Doctorow's Boing Boing post about his article in The Guardian
Illustration from Cory Doctorow's related Jan 17, 2020 Boing Boing post:
Imagining a "smart city" that treats you as a sensor, not a thing to be sensed⩘ 

An excellent article by Cory Doctorow about his vision of how a smart city could be designed to work on behalf of its residents instead of its corporate and governmental overlords; a vision in sharp contrast to the privacy horror show that is unfolding as Google's Sidewalk Labs designs its Quayside smart city in Toronto.

As is so often the case with technology, the most important consideration isn't what the technology does: it's who the technology does it to, and who it does it for.

If we decide to treat people as sensors, and not as things to be sensed—if we observe Kant's injunction that humans should be "treated as an end in themselves and not as a means to something else"—then we can modify the smart city to gather information about the things and share that information with the people.

Cory Doctorow. "The case for cities that aren't dystopian surveillance states⩘ ." The Guardian, Jan 17, 2020.

The Story of Us, continued

[Note: When I first wrote about this in August 2019, I didn't imagine it might be such a long long read, but it's turning out that way, so here it is brought forward to my 2020 contemplations, in order that I can keep track of the chapters.]

Illustration by Tim Urban from The Story of Us of a pile of cartoon faces, one of which is waving
Illustration by Tim Urban

The Story of Us⩘  is a fascinating long read from Tim Urban—the brilliant and entertaining storyteller and illustrator behind the Wait But Why blog⩘ . As I'm slowly reading through this in-depth exploration, I'm finding that I'm growing to understand our world, which so often seems entirely insane to me, a bit better.

The Story of Us
Chapter 0: Introduction⩘ 
Part 1: The Power Games
Chapter 1: The Great Battle of Fire and Light⩘ 
Chapter 2: A Game of Giants⩘ 
Chapter 3: A Story of Stories⩘ 
Part 2: The Value Games
Chapter 4: The Enlightenment Kids⩘ 
Chapter 5: The Mute Button⩘ 
Chapter 6: The American Brain⩘ 
Part 3: Thinking, In 3D
Chapter 7: The Thinking Ladder⩘ 
Chapter 8: Idea Labs and Echo Chambers⩘ 
Part 4: Politics, in 3D
Chapter 9: Political Disney World⩘ 
— — — 2020 — — —
Part 5: A Dangerous Trend
Chapter 10: A Sick Giant⩘ 
Illustration by Tim Urban from The Story of Us of a sick U.S. giant

A couple excerpts from the article:

We started this post looking at two well-documented trends in the U.S.: increasing polarization amongst citizens and within government. Then we looked at two major environmental changes that seem to be playing a large role in stoking and perpetuating those trends: geographic bubbles, generated by increased mobility, and information bubbles, generated by the shift from broadcast to narrowcast news and internet algorithms. These bubbles have Americans connected in all the wrong ways—no longer personally connected with people who disagree with them politically, and more connected than ever before in an online ecosystem that over-simplifies the world, encourages intellectual conformity, and spreads mistrust and hatred of the outgroup.
   Here are four reasons this scares me:

  1. We're losing our ability to gain knowledge. If our perceptions of reality are increasingly informed by media with other-than-truth motivations, we'll increasingly lose our handle on the truth. This is like the big U.S. giant becoming schizophrenic.
  2. We're losing our ability to think together. Human giants can only think when people talk and when they're free to say what they really think. As Echo Chambers grow larger and more intimidating, people inside them are afraid to defy the sacred narrative. And the more all-encompassing political identities become, the more topics turn from kickable machines to precious infants. Meanwhile, intergroup communication suffers even more, as opposing groups become totally unable to collaborate on ideas. As the downward trend deepens, the voices of high-minded Progressivism and Conservativism—the team that navigates the U.S. up the mountain—are growing more timid and harder to hear. The U.S. giant is losing its ability to learn.
  3. We're losing our ability to cooperate. A polarized country that isn't capable of building broad coalitions can't take forward steps—it can only self-inflict.
  4. We're doing that thing that people do before really, really awful things happen. Disgust should scare you as much as it scares me. If our species were a person, it would have a mix of beautiful and unadmirable qualities—but its darkest quality would be the ability to dehumanize.

Most interesting to me was a fascinating report called The Hidden Tribes of America⩘ —a year-long study that collected the views of over 8,000 Americans—which found that two-thirds of Americans fall into what they call the "Exhausted Majority."
   According to the report, the Exhausted Majority holds a wide variety of attitudes and viewpoints, but its members share four main attributes:

  • They are fed up with the polarization plaguing American government and society
  • They are often forgotten in the public discourse, overlooked because their voices are seldom heard
  • They are flexible in their views, willing to endorse different policies according to the precise situation rather than sticking ideologically to a single set of beliefs
  • They believe we can find common ground

Article: Wait But Why: The Story of Us by Tim Urban⩘ 

Hubble's first gift of 2020

Hubble Space Telescope image of galaxy: Heic2002
Image credit: NASA, ESA, and B. Holwerda (University of Louisville)

"Galaxy UGC 2885 may be the largest known in the local universe. It is 2.5 times wider than our Milky Way and contains 10 times as many stars."

"Researchers are still seeking to understand what led to the galaxy's monstrous size. 'It's as big as you can make a disk galaxy without hitting anything else in space.'"

Larger version of this photo >
Hubble Surveys Gigantic Galaxy⩘ , Jan 6, 2020

The Big One podcast

The Big One podcast banner

This podcast recently caught my attention because I've been involved in emergency preparedness volunteer work ever since we got hit by a flood here in 2013. Earthquakes aren't a big risk in our area, but I thought it might be interesting to hear their approach to talking about preparedness, so figured I'd listen to one or two episodes. Then I found myself totally captivated by the breadth and depth of their reporting as well as by the vivid passion with which they share the story. As the listener, you are there on the scene experiencing the disaster unfold in real time, interwoven with the stories of people who have been involved in actual disasters, as well as scientists, experts, politicians, engineers, and first responders, all sharing their insights and experiences. I ended up listening raptly to the entire series.

While the information they share is focused on The Big One, the earthquake that will hit the San Andreas Fault at any time (it's overdue based on the historical frequency), they talk with survivors of other disasters as well, including hurricanes and fires, so the story applies to just about everyone, and most of the preparedness tips they share at the end of each episode will be valuable to anyone listening.

I also appreciated that they discussed disasters and preparedness with scientists and other experts who understand the risks and what is needed to meet and survive them. Many of us tend to get a bit complacent, so it can be challenging to find the motivation to take even the most rudimentary steps to prepare for disasters. It can help to understand both how valuable being prepared can be and how simple the basic preparedness steps are.

For people working on preparedness, it's also helpful to understand just how motivation works for communicating about a challenge like this. They share a fascinating and heartfelt segment featuring USGS social scientist Dr. Sara McBride talking about the failures of communication before the devastating Christ Church earthquake in New Zealand, and the steps that can be taken to communicate more effectively. It's not about scaring people, it's about honest conversations and telling stories.

Know that if you make it through … which you probably will … this is going to be a hard journey for you, this is going to be tough. But if you work with the people around you—your community, your friends, your family, your neighbors—you're eventually going to come on the other side of this. This is going to be something that will happen for a long time.… If you're more prepared, you're going to suffer less. That's really what it is. If you have food, if you have water, if you have your emergency supplies, you're going to limit the amount of unnecessary suffering that you have to face during those early days of response.

A few months after the series concluded, an earthquake hit southern California centered in Ridgecrest, a remote area near Death Valley. It wasn't The Big One, but it was a big one (or rather, a series of big ones, including three main shocks of magnitudes 6.4, 5.4, and 7.1 that, as remote as they were, were felt by 30 million people). So they made an extra episode to talk to people who experienced it. Really underscored what they had shared during the regular episodes.

Some of their simple tips:

Enthralling music by Andy Claussen. Amazing sound design by Arwen Nicks and Valentino Rivera.

I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to experience this excellent podcast.

The Big One podcast⩘ . From KPCC by host and science reporter Jacob Margolis, lead producer Misha Euceph, executive producer Arwen Champion Nicks, assistant producer Mary Knopf, and Megan Garvey, editor.

Tell Them, I Am podcast

Tell Them, I Am podcast banner

This series of stories, which was presented one each weekday during Ramadan 2019, is such a gift. The stories are incredibly diverse, but one thread runs through all of them: they are full of heart.

Tell Them, I Am is a show about the small moments that define who we are and who we are not. The stories are universal; the voices are all Muslim.

Several of the stories touched me particularly deeply. I had to simply stop and reflect for awhile as Reza Aslan shared the story of when he was a seven-year-old living in Tehran during the chaotic final months before the Shah fled the country. One day, his best friend, with whom he had been joyfully playing chess every day, didn't show up. When he finally found his friend and asked him why he hadn't shown up for their game, his friend said, "I'm not going to play a game in which the purpose is to sacrifice the pawns to save a king." Such wisdom!

Often I find myself feeling somewhat discouraged these days. What a gift to come across these 23 stories, most of which left me feeling encouraged and grateful. The story that touched my heart the most is the final one. Akbar Ahmed, an American-Pakistani academic, author, poet, playwright, filmmaker and former diplomat shares the story of when he was four and his family found themselves fleeing India to the newly created Pakistan on a treacherous train journey. During this traumatic upheaval, more than a million people, on both sides, were killed.

It's only now in hindsight, when I look back and I say, "Oh my God, that is the experience I lived through." The same experience I had, my Hindi colleague had in reverse, which means her family was escaping from Pakistan to India, and the same sort of tension, same sort of problems of logistics—how to do you get out, what do you take with you, who do you trust—all those same issues she faced, and she was also a young girl then.

When I was doing my PhD in London at SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies], I met her and at that time I hadn't met very many Indians, and when we became friends, we began to swap stories and joke about each other's cultures, and she said, "You know that we were told that if you ever see a snake and a Muslim, you actually kill the Muslim first because the Muslim is more dangerous, more venomous than the snake." And I smiled, and she said, "Why are you smiling?" Because, I said, I've heard exactly the same story, except in my story it was the Sikh or the Hindu or whatever. And we both smiled and realized our experiences were like a mirror. Now when human relations break down to that level, these stories assume a far greater importance, they're magnified, they're inflated, and they, in a sense, personify the behavior of the other, and that is very dangerous.

The ideas I had, the images I had from the discussion of my class fellows, from the people I met, about Hindus and Sikhs were very negative. So I had to overcome that, in fact, to understand who these people were, why they hated us, why we hated them. And that is when I met my Indian friend, many years later in London, where I really began to understand that these people were very much like us and, in a sense, experienced exactly what we had experienced.

So when I became adult and I understood some of these different permutations and combinations of human relations, I began to get very involved in what's called interfaith understanding, interfaith dialogue. And I began to ask questions and I began to see the people I meet are very friendly, very normal, they're just like us, they're just like me. So what keeps them away from me is my lack of understanding or my own prejudice or my own ignorance.…

Let me quote you the great example of my dear friend Professor Judea Pearl. His only son [Daniel Pearl] was killed in the most brutal way in Karachi. And when I heard about this incident straight after 9/11, I was horrified. And once Judea and I began the series of dialogues, very public dialogues to promote Jewish-Muslim understanding, this question was constantly asked of him; they would say, "How can you be promoting dialogue and friendship and companionship with the people, with the culture that killed your son?" And he would answer this way: "My revenge is to have a better understanding and to reach out and build bridges."

Tell Them, I Am podcast⩘ . From KPCC by host and producer Misha Euceph, executive producer and editor Arwen Champion Nicks, lead producer Mary Knauf, and producer James Kim.

< Previous · Next >

< Previous · Next >