Contemplations – Now

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Appetizer:

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?
– LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter⩘  speaking to Don Lemon on the Silence Is Not an Option⩘  podcast.

2021

A world large enough for Democracy, and too small for race prejudice, discrimination, injustice and hate

Nannie Helen Burroughs
A portrait of Nannie Helen Burroughs, born in 1879. (Library of Congress)

"We salute you ALL – black and white – Jews and Gentiles – who are fighting under Old Glory, the undefeated banner of a free nation, to make the world large enough for Democracy, and too small for race prejudice, discrimination, injustice and hate."
– Nannie Helen Burroughs, from a radio address to Americans in arms, 1943⩘ 

For more information, see The Nannie Helen Burroughs Project⩘ 
See also, Denied a teaching job for being ‘too Black,’ she started her own school – and a movement⩘  by Jess McHugh, The Washington Post, Feb 28, 2021

Raven and the Box of daylight

US Forever stamp design by Tlingit artist Rico Worl

To be honest, there's not much that I admire about the USPS these days, but I find this US Forever stamp design by Tlingit artist Rico Worl—who lives in Juneau, Alaska—to be one of the most beautiful stamp designs I've seen in years.

The artwork is based on a traditional Tlingit story, Raven and the Box of daylight, which concludes: "Raven brought the sun, the moon, and the stars to the universe."

Rico has this to say about his design:

The stamp depicts a moment of climax in one of his heists. Stealing the stars. Raven is trying to grab as many stars as he can, some stuck in his feathers and in his hands or in his beak. Some falling around him. Its a frazzled moment of adrenaline. Partially still in human form, as depicted as his hand still being human, as he carries the stars away. I think it depicts a moment we all have experienced, the cusp of failure and accomplishment.

The stamp will be released sometime during the summer of 2021. I'm going to need to find reasons to mail some letters.

I designed a stamp for USPS⩘  by Rico Worl, Nov 21, 2020

A fresh way of looking at our world

Flat map of Earth by J. Richard Gott, Robert Vanderbei, and David Goldberg

J. Richard Gott, an astrophysicist at Princeton, Robert Vanderbei, a mathematician at Princeton, and David Goldberg, a cosmologist at Drexel University in Philadelphia have created a new map of the Earth that they believe is the most accurate flat map of Earth yet. Although I'm showing both sides above, the two halves can be better pictured back to back. In that configuration, any point on one side can be traced to the corresponding point on the other side by simply flipping the map. What an awesome map they have created!

One thing that immediately struck me when I first viewed this map is how it helped me better understand the immensity of the Pacific ocean. For fun, I created a second version of the image that rotates the two halves to emphasize this:

Flat map of Earth by J. Richard Gott, Robert Vanderbei, and David Goldberg

Thinking more about this map, I ended up wanting to move the map around freely so that any given point on Earth was centered, making it possible to get an even better idea of the size and relationship of various landmasses and oceans. I realized that what I was hoping for was a 3D globe projected onto the 2D surface of my monitor. A quick search led me to exactly what I was hoping for: the wonderful eChalk 3D Interactive Earth Globe⩘ , which provides a variety of views to play with including Photorealistic, Terrain, Tectonic, Climate Zones, a variety of data-based views, etc.

eChalk 3D Interactive Earth Globe

J. Richard Gott III, David M. Goldberg, Robert J. Vanderbei, Flat Maps that improve on the Winkel Tripel⩘ , Cornell University, Feb 15, 2021
Joshua Sokol, Can This New Map Fix Our Distorted Views of the World?⩘ , New York Times, Feb 24, 20201
eChalk 3D Interactive Earth Globe⩘ 

The moments that could have accidentally ended humanity

Thought provoking article about risk, which discusses a couple moments when small groups of scientists made decisions that carried a small chance of ending humanity: the first nuclear explosion, which might have ignited the entire atmosphere; and the opening of the hatch of the returning first Apollo moon mission capsule, which might have brought back life-ending contaminants from the moon, while the capsule was still on the open ocean. I recall similar concerns being expressed just before the CERN Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator was first used. AI, gene editing, and advanced weaponry may carry similar risks.

Fisher discusses the vulnerable world hypothesis⩘ , which posits that "there is some level of technology at which civilization almost certainly gets destroyed unless quite extraordinary and historically unprecedented degrees of preventive policing and/or global governance are implemented."

He finishes with a brief look at the concept of the tragedy of the uncommons, our tendency to misperceive a rare catastrophic risk, which is compounded by the way our perception of risk "does not grow linearly with the severity of a catastrophe." Think back to the shock felt a year ago when the first few people began dying from COVID-19, then the first scores and then hundreds of people. Now we are seeing thousands of people in the U.S. dying every day—on some days it has been over 5,000 people in a single day— and we are on the cusp of half a million having died from this terrible scourge in just a bit more than a year's time, yet there is a sort of numbness to this frankly immensely shocking new reality.

Just this morning, I saw an article headline about how wonderful this coming summer might be if we can get the pandemic under control. While there's a certain truth to that, it masks that immense challenges we face, challenges that will be unaffected by whether or not this current pandemic fades away, for example, the now ever-present risk of ecological collapse triggered by climate change.

The moments that could have accidentally ended humanity⩘  By Richard Fisher, BBC, Feb 2021

The curious observer's guide to quantum mechanics

A spectrum of a star showing absorption lines with an optical frequency comb line above each
A folded spectrum from the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher

Ars Technica has a fascinating seven-part series exploring quantum mechanics written for non-mathematicians by Miguel F. Morales, professor of physics at the University of Washington. It's a fun way for someone like me to get a glimpse into some of the weirdness underlying our existence.

  1. Particle/wave duality⩘ 
  2. The particle melting pot⩘ 
  3. Rose colored glasses⩘ 
  4. Looking at the stars⩘ 
  5. Catching a wave⩘ 
  6. Two quantum spooks⩘ 
  7. The quantum century⩘ 

Interesting tidbit I hadn't previously known: "the ground you … are sitting on typically rises and falls by ~5cm a day due to land tides." Nothing is quite what it seems … or everything is much more than it appears at first glance. What a crazy, fascinating, wonderful existence we are surfing!

Miguel F. Morales, Exploring the Quantum World⩘ , Ars Technica, Jan - Feb 2021

Harriet

Photo of Harriet Tubman from 1868 or 1869

About a year and a half ago, I read Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom⩘  by Catherine Clinton. I found it to be an excellent biography of an extraordinary person. I'm not much of a film person, typically preferring to pass my time listening to or reading books, so I missed the release of the film Harriet.

Recently, however, when the news that we are once again considering honoring Harriet Tubman by placing her image on our $20 bill, I did some more research, came across this film, and decided to invest some of my time in watching it.

Poster for Harriet filmMy time invested was richly rewarded. While the film takes a few liberties with some of the actual events (see What's Fact and What's Fiction in Harriet⩘ , Slate, Oct 2019), I think what it accomplishes is far more important: making the key events of Tubman's life viscerally vivid. Cynthia Onyedinmanasu Chinasaokwu Erivo delivers an amazing performance as Harriet, the supporting roles are well played, and Kasi Lemmons' directing is strong.

I don't think I can improve upon how I described Harriet Tubman's impact in my previous book review. Just as the book does, the film provides "a vivid portrait of this amazing woman's life and work, from her strength in the face of slavery, to her courageous act of escaping from slavery, her heroic work assisting others to free themselves from their unjust bondage at great personal peril, her valiant work on behalf on the Union army to help win the Civil War, her dedication of her remaining lifetime to helping those less fortunate than herself and advancing the causes of justice and equality. She is a true American hero."

I hope we do honor her by placing her image on our $20 bill.

Proposed Harriet Tubman $20 bill

Harriet, the film⩘ 

Finally, the stock market explained

Image by Michael Goodwin, author of Economix, economixcomix.com
Image by Michael Goodwin, author of Economix, economixcomix.com⩘ 

I really appreciate the clarity with which Goodwin explains what the #$@%! is going on with the stock market going up and up while the real economy is tanking. I hadn't previously understood the impact of stock buybacks. It'll be interesting to look back at this in a year or so.

What's Going On With the Stock Market?⩘  by Michael Goodwin

10 golden rules for tree-planting

Ponderosa pine bark, image by Toshen
The beautiful bark of an old Ponderosa pine in a Rocky Mountain forest

Scientists have proposed 10 golden rules for tree-planting, which they say must be a top priority for all nations this decade. The golden rules are explained more fully in the original article⩘ .

  1. Protect existing forests first
  2. Put local people at the heart of tree-planting projects
  3. Maximise biodiversity recovery to meet multiple goals
  4. Select the right area for reforestation
  5. Use natural forest regrowth wherever possible
  6. Select the right tree species that can maximise biodiversity
  7. Make sure the trees are resilient to adapt to a changing climate
  8. Plan ahead (how to source seeds or trees)
  9. Learn by doing
  10. Make it pay

Scientists address myths over large-scale tree planting⩘  by Helen Briggs, BBC, Jan 25, 2021

May this be the story that inspires us

"Together we shall write an American story of hope, not fear, of unity, not division, of light, not darkness. A story of decency and dignity, love and healing, greatness and goodness. May this be the story that guides us, the story that inspires us, and the story that tells ages yet to come that we answered the call of history."
– President Joe Biden, Inaugural address, Jan 20, 2021

The power to protect the guilty

As I scan the list of the soon-to-be-ex-president's pardons this morning shortly before the inauguration, I'm reminded of an article by David Frum published nearly four years ago, shortly after the start of the outgoing administration.

As one shrewd observer told me on a recent visit, "The benefit of controlling a modern state is less the power to persecute the innocent, more the power to protect the guilty."
– David Frum, "How to Build an Autocracy⩘ ." The Atlantic, Mar 2017

A moment of grace

Memorial service for the victims of COVID-19

Our nation's first memorial service for the victims of COVID-19, Jan 19, 2021.

"To heal, we must remember." – President-elect Joe Biden

"For many months, we have grieved by ourselves. Tonight, we grieve and begin healing together." – Vice-president-elect Kamala Harris

Four Hours of Insurrection

For the past ten days, I've been slowing wrapping my mind around what happened on January 6th. It was shocking on that day, but the true horror of the situation has been sinking in as more news reports have come out. Today, I became fully aware of just how depraved the riot was when I listened to a Radiolab podcast episode about the insurrection, and then listened to the full podcast episode that it was based on from The Washington Post. Hearing the sounds of the mob interweaved with interviews with police, congresspeople, and reporters who were on the scene really drove it home. Here's how The Washington Post introduces its episode:

Today, we reconstruct the riot inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 – hearing from the lawmakers, journalists and law enforcement officials who were there, and answering lingering questions about how things went so wrong.

Reporters Rebecca Tan, Marissa J. Lang, Rhonda Colvin, and photojournalist Bill O'Leary were all witnesses to the violence on Jan. 6. They share their harrowing accounts of what it was like, inside and outside of the Capitol.

Reporter Peter Hermann explains how battered D.C. police made a stand against the Capitol mob.

And reporter Carol D. Leonnig chronicles the experience of outgoing Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, who told her that House and Senate security officials hamstrung his efforts to call in the National Guard.

One of the most horrifying segments was the interview afterwards with officer Daniel Hodges, who a video from that day showed being crushed in a doorway by the mob, interwoven with sounds recorded of the actual incident:

As officers fell back, I would work my way to the front. And eventually I got to the very front there where you saw me in the corner next to the door. I just tried to hold them back as best I could. And eventually just the shear numbers and all of them pushing in unison wedged me in the door. [Mob shouting and Officer Hodges screaming in pain.] My arms were pinned and I couldn't really defend myself at that point, so the guy in front of me took that opportunity to rip my mask off, rip my riot baton away from me, started beating me in the head with it. [More painful screaming.] You know, I didn't want to be the one guy to start shooting because I knew that they had guns, we'd been seeing guns all day, all yesterday, and the only reason I could think of that they weren't shooting us is that they were waiting for us to shoot first. And if it became a fire fight between a couple hundred officers and a couple thousand insurrectionists, then we surely would've lost.

Later in the episode, another officer adds:

It's just … the zealotry of these people is absolutely unreal. They believe wholeheartedly in something that there is no evidence of, and they refer to themselves as patriots even while they're besieging the Capitol of the United States, and they call us traitors even while they're waving the thin blue line flag and beating us with it, literally in some cases.

At least 56 D.C. police officers were injured during the insurrection, and U.S. Capitol Police Officer Brian D. Sicknick died of the injuries he suffered when an insurrectionist clubbed him on the head with a fire extinguisher.

When I think about Trump sitting in the White House watching this unfold live on television, by all accounts enjoying it and doing nothing for hours to try to come to the aid of the United States Senators and Representatives, his own Vice President, and the police who were under siege … well, I'm left nauseated and disgusted.

Original podcast episode: Four hours of insurrection⩘ , by reporters Rebecca Tan, Marissa J. Lang, Rhonda Colvin, Peter Hermann, Carol D. Leonnig, and photojournalist Bill O'Leary, The Washington Post, Jan 15, 2021
Related article: The four-hour insurrection: How a Trump mob halted American democracy⩘ , by Marc Fisher, Meagan Flynn, Jessica Contrera and Carol D. Leonnig, The Washington Post, Jan 7, 2021
Related videos: 41 minutes of fear: A video timeline from inside the Capitol siege⩘ , by Dalton Bennett, Emma Brown, Sarah Cahlan, Joyce Sohyun Lee, Meg Kelly, Elyse Samuels, Jon Swaine, The Washington Post, Jan 16, 2021; Disturbing video shows officer crushed against door by mob storming the Capitol⩘ , by Kelsie Smith and Travis Caldwell, CNN, Jan 9, 2021
Related Radiolab podcast episode: Post Reports: Four Hours of Insurrection⩘ , Radiolab, Jan 16, 2021

Nikole Hannah Jones

Nikole Hannah Jones

Nikole Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter covering racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine and creator of the landmark 1619 Project.

I was deeply touched⩘  when I experienced the 1619 Project in the autumn of 2019, so I very much appreciated this Axe Files episode in which Nikole Hannah Jones shares insights into her upbringing, the experiences that led her to create the 1619 Project, as well as the denunciation of the project by a small, vocal group of historians, and the way that controversy is now influencing politics. She also addresses our current challenges and her thoughts about where we are headed and what transformational change could look like.

Website: Nikole Hannah-Jones⩘ 
Podcast: The Axe Files, episode 405, Nikole Hannah-Jones⩘ 

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