Saturday, August 21, 2010


Unfortunately I did accidentally catch the first 30 seconds of the NBC Nightly News, to hear the teaser on the egg story. About reaction to the apparently contaminated eggs from Iowa, including people who wonder why the "government" didn't catch this.

Well, maybe if governments had enough qualified people working to safeguard food and safety, which would happen only if they can tax the right people and politicians stop successfully making a fetish out of cutting the size of government, which starves the resources to do what people assume and demand the government is doing.

And the GOPer obstructionists in Congress wouldn't hold up the appointment of the undersecretary for food safety for nearly a year, so President Obama had to make her a recess appointment.

Hereabouts we aren't especially worried, because in addition to imported eggs, we get ours from diary farms nearby. Actually we can occasionally hear the chickens that a neighbor keeps. All of which may serve as another object lessons in not keeping all your eggs in one basket, that is if anybody actually ever learns anything, which is increasingly doubtful.

The Daily Babble: Saturday

This past week I pretty much stayed away from the so-called news, the basically toxic blather spewed over the airwaves and cyberspace. Call it a mental health break. Watching this country in the throes of a nervous breakdown isn't pretty. The left is disgraceful and hasn't learned anything. The right is unspeakable--the circus of panic, of one-upsmanship and exhibitionism of bigotry and ignorance.

Usually my first refuge online and on the tube in recent years is sports. But after a bit of excitement it looks like the SF Giants aren't going anywhere after all. And while the Steelers season is starting to look like it might be better than I thought a month ago, the pleasure I take in football is rapidly diminishing due to the onslaught of information about the effects of concussions, one of which came close to home as researchers theorize that particular cases of ALS (including that of Lou Gehrig, whose name is the popular one for the disease) may be the result of repeated head injuries. There's hardly an ugler condition than ALS. But due to its relative rarity and the strange variations, I have suspected it might be the name for more than one disease or condition. Here's another article on this research.

So I spent the resulting free time on other pursuits, like reading one of those things you hold in your hand and turn the pages of, oh yeah, books. And writing about my fourth grade year. Hard to fathom how full it was. And with no Internet, ipad, Facebook, cell phone or even cable TV. How is that even possible?

Friday, August 20, 2010

Emerson for the Day

A person “must do the work with that faculty he has now. But that faculty is the accumulation of past days. No rival can rival backwards. What you have learned and done is safe and fruitful. Work and learn in evil days, in insulted days, in days of debt and depression and calamity. Fight best in the shade of the cloud of arrows.”


Photo: Just released by NASA, the Earth and the moon from 114 million miles away, photographed by the Messenger spacecraft. Hat tip: Worldchanging.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Future Principles: Redundancy

The idea of redundancy I first learned, probably in high school, was based on the first dictionary definitions: superfluous repetition : an act or instance of needless repetition 4 : the part of a message that can be eliminated without loss of essential information. (Merriam-Webster.) It became a useful concept in editing, for example, as well as something impressive to yell at somebody in an argument.

But there's another, technical meaning. Redundancy is the use of redundant components, and redundant in this sense means: serving as a duplicate for preventing failure of an entire system (as a spacecraft) upon failure of a single component.

It sounds so sophisticated and technological, but it's really a principle that's summed up by a common wisdom: don't put all your eggs in one basket. That is, don't let the failure of a single component result in the failure of the entire system, i.e. your life.

It's an increasingly important principle, partly due to fast-changing pervasive technologies, and also to a future of multiple risks.

A word that's very fashionable among people and groups concerned with the mounting threats to the future is resilience. Well, one way to build resilience into a system, or into your life, is with redundancy. With diversity of means to attain necessary ends.

It is a principle not very fashionable in a society that gloms onto the latest new basket--ipad/phone/pod, or more broadly, wireless microwave technologies--and promptly throws everything into them, including the kitchen sink.

It is as well a principle that corporate capitalism does not favor. The point of corporate capitalism is to make the largest profit possible, which involves cost-cutting and taking market share, including the ultimate market share of a monopoly. Duplicating involves spending more. A diversity of means provided by different companies cuts into market share. Neither is good business.

That is, until the enterprise crashes. Like the BP oil rig in the gulf. I thought of that example while reading a new book, When the Lights Went Out: A History of Blackouts in America by David E. Nye (MIT Press) which is about the electrical grid, among other things. It's a complicated situation, but it's clear that there is neither enough redundancy nor resilience in the electrical grid to be very confident it will continue to deliver electricity dependably, or even sufficiently. Part of the reason is deregulation and corporate capitalism.

But my own point of view owes more to the pace of change I've seen over my lifetime. It used to be that new technologies overlapped for awhile with the old. (Nye writes about how long it took for electricity to become so dominant--for a long time, the previous technology of gas for lighting remained part of the mix in most homes and businesses.) Now millions of people rely entirely on cell phones, with no land line. We know about the theoretical power of a weapon or a situation that could disrupt microwave transmissions. But microwave has become so dominant that much of society would be thrown into chaos if some artificial or natural force seriously disrupted those transmissions.

We are utterly dependent on satellites, including and especially a relatively few that are the key components of the Global Positioning System or GPS. If something were to happen to that system, the feared consequences of the once-dreaded Y2K glitch would probably seem like a relative picnic.

Electrical power and communications are bad enough, but our greatest vulnerability may be food. We import too damn much of it relative to how much we grow. And the overwhelming bulk of it comes from too damn far away. We're very vulnerable to all kinds of catastrophes, from the effects of aformentioned failures in the complex and fragile global web of communications, as well as problems with transportation for any number of reasons, including suddenly prohibitive fuel costs or supplies.

In terms of a principle for the future, redundancy means that we should be careful to retain useful older systems and not become so totally dependent on new systems so fast. It means that meaningful redundancy should be built into new systems--not just technologically, but in how they are organized and managed. It means increasing viable local and smaller scale alternatives, like local power sources and local agriculture.

As families, individuals and communities, we should build as much redundancy into the systems we depend on as we can. Those with the most obvious resources--like money--can control more, and install that backup generator that can draw power from solar panels, etc. But people can make choices with redundancy in mind. And communities can use what they've got. Maybe it's land left vacant by vanished industry, as in Detroit, where neighborhood gardens are providing food and a whole lot more to distressed neighborhoods.

Although this community where I live has its advantages (local and nearby food sources, expertise in off-the-grid power, etc.) I worry that we don't have enough redundancy in this house. But power outages have provided lessons. We have a gas stove, at least (though with enough electrical components and controls that some of it is useless in an outage), and a loss of electrical heating won't kill us thanks to our climate. And we have the advantage of a 1950s home, with windows that open (which we've improved to include insulation as well as ventilation.) Homes and other buildings built since the 1950s are too dependent on air conditioning, heating and other uses of electricity. In some ways, my apartment in an old building (from the 1920s) in Pittsburgh was even better: heat by radiators, a gas stove with no electrical components, rooms designed to take advantage of ventilation, a lot of resources--food, clothing, medicine--within walking distance in an established city neighborhood. In many ways, older is better.

Old as well as new, local as well as imported, land line as well as cell, even bad old batteries as well as rechargeables, and maybe even tapes as well as CD/DVD/online. Oh yeah, books and newspapers as well as the Internet. The principle of redundancy, for the future, which is coming to your neighborhood soon.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Defending the American Soul

President Obama's defense on Friday night of the right to build the mosque in Manhattan that the Rabid Right have made into an inflammatory issue, has been widely praised for political courage and derided for "insensitivity" today. But how he said it is worth a second look. Here is the key and most widely quoted paragraph:

"But let me be clear: as a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are. The writ of our Founders must endure."

"As a citizen, and as President," says I'm speaking as an American, and as the voice of the United States as a nation, at this moment. "The Writ of our Founders" not only refers to the basis for this principle--the First Amendment to the Constitution, commonly called the Bill of Rights--but in language often used by conservatives--i.e. Founders: nota bene, Glenn Beck.

Then the President immediately returned to the particular--not that particular mosque, but the religion it represents. "And let us always remember who we are fighting against, and what we are fighting for. Our enemies respect no freedom of religion. Al Qaeda’s cause is not Islam – it is a gross distortion of Islam. These are not religious leaders – these are terrorists who murder innocent men, women and children. In fact, al Qaeda has killed more Muslims than people of any other religion – and that list of victims includes innocent Muslims who were killed on 9/11.That is who we are fighting against. And the reason that we will win this fight is not simply the strength of our arms – it is the strength of our values. "

President Obama was speaking at a dinner called an iftar, which breaks the fast commemorating the Muslim Ramadan, a White House event held regularly by President G.W. Bush, and begun (as President Obama noted) by President Thomas Jefferson. As would be typical of the commemoration of any ethnic or religious holiday, the President noted other contributions, including Muslim immigrants in the 19th century, but in today's toxic environment, these became all the more important. The President:

"Today, our nation is strengthened by millions of Muslim Americans. They excel in every walk of life. Muslim American communities—including mosques in all fifty states—also serve their neighbors. Muslim Americans protect our communities as police, firefighters and first responders. Muslim American clerics have spoken out against terror and extremism, reaffirming that Islam teaches that one must save human life, not take it. And Muslim Americans serve with honor in our military. At next week’s iftar at the Pentagon, tribute will be paid to three soldiers who gave their lives in Iraq and now rest among the heroes of Arlington National Cemetery. These Muslim Americans died for the security that we depend upon, and the freedoms that we cherish."

Note that sentence about an iftar at the Pentagon--where in fact there is a mosque. That's right--lots of angst about a proposed mosque two New York City blocks from Ground Zero, but not a word about a mosque inside the other building attacked on that September 11, resulting in the death of Americans.

Why is all this so important? Thanks to the leadership of Sarah Palin and others, the intolerance by the Rabid Right is feverishly spiraling to dangerous lengths, trying to prevent mosques being built not only in Manhattan but elsewhere, with one prominent spokesperson demanding that no mosques be built anywhere in America, and claiming they are all terrorist threats. According to an AFP report, a Florida church has actually scheduled a "Koran-burning" on September 11. And to demonstrate the pervasive xenophobia involved, a Texas Rabid Right congressman took to the House floor to buttress his argument for ending the grant of American citizenship to native borns guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, by spinning a wild tale of terrorist mothers coming to America to have babies, and return them to their terrorist countries to be indoctrinated so that in 20 or 30 years they could return to wreak terrorism on America. The link of the immigration issue and the mosque issue shows their common theme.

And so here's the absolute kicker of President Obama's brief speech, oddly missed in most accounts. The President clearly, forthrightly and eloquently based his support for freedom of religion that includes Muslims on the U.S. Constitution and American civic values. But he ended by referring to a key text and core principle of Christianity:

"And we can only achieve "liberty and justice for all" if we live by that one rule at the heart of every religion, including Islam—that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us."

[Photo above: Arriving for a vacation weekend in Florida the morning after this speech. And here's Josh Marshall's take on the second-day story, the attempt to characterize President Obama's position as a contradiction.]