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Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

Bits of old stories were flitting through my head last night, like birds seen about their business out the window behind one’s desk.  A phrase here and there, in my peripheral literary vision.

This morning I set out to re-read a couple of the stories, couldn’t find them, and read, or re-read others instead.  I’m reminded once again of an essential quality of truly classic science fiction– it predicts the future in a timeless fashion.

In a yellowing paperback copy of “Nebula Award Stories Number Five”, edited by James Blish, I read Theodore Sturgeon’s first SF story, “The Man Who Learned to Love”.   I was utterly shocked by its relevance to today’s world, and heartened by it as well.  The path I’m choosing is similar, although I lack the protagonist’s invention.  It’s nice to be reminded.

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Remember when nerds ran through the hallways of MIT chanting “The Ringworld is unstable! The Ringworld is unstable!”?  OK, I don’t remember directly, as it was rather before I got there, but my realization today was equally shocking.   Environmentalism isn’t sustainable, not the way it’s practiced currently.  Let me tell you how I got there, and how we can work on getting around the problem.

This evening I read a fascinating post dissecting some environmental myths and affordances over at David Reevely’s “EcoLibertarian”.   Reevely, like my spouse, is apparently a WW2 history buff, and found a very cogent (and relevant) analysis of the Allies’ bombing campaign in Richard Overy’s book “Why the Allies Won”.   Overy makes the point that the West’s strong points were in engineering and management, rather than an ability to shove literally millions of men onto the battlefield.  By leveraging those capacities, what looked like wasteful use of materials and energy actually turned out to save lives in the long run and transform the war from a brute-force context to one of capital and logistics.

Fast-forward to the birth of the environmental movement, which, as Reevely points out, arose on quasi-moral grounds, “on the idea that it was intrinsically sinful, in some sense, to consume more than you absolutely needed.”  This was usually expressed as separatism, with individuals and families trying to drop out and provide for all of their own needs.  As Reevely also observes, this meant lifestyle reductions, aka the infamous “do more with less”.

A lot of people still approach environmentalism as “what will I give up today?”   Reevely’s point, which I wholeheartedly endorse, is that there is more to environmentalism than this fundamentally reductionist approach.  Instead of trying to see how many eco-soldiers we can deploy to drop out and give up their goods and services, we should be asking ourselves how to use the momentum, in capital and engineering, that we built up with peak oil in order to create a better way going forward.

A very wise person recently told me that the key to happiness is moving toward pleasure, rather than away from pain.  An endless cycle of giving up things in order to “save the planet” can only go so far.  That’s moving away from pain, not toward something pleasant.   It’s a philosophy that can create some satisfaction, a sense of duty, and a smug “moral high ground”, but it doesn’t inspire or truly lead.   Ironically, a completely reductionist philosophy of environmentalism is ultimately not sustainable!  Dropping out of modern society is of less value, in my opinion, than staying in and calling for moderation and sanity, as well as leading by example.

For my own contribution, here are some approaches to environmentalism that I’ve found valuable in the real world.  I’m still giving up some things, but I’m doing it as part of a managed approach, not as an abnegation of the market system.

  • Using our day-to-day buying power to influence local micro-markets.  Enough of us must have filled out comment cards at Trader Joe’s, as they now have California-produced olive oil along with all the imported stuff.  I still complain about the bottled waters from overseas at least monthly, maybe it will add up to a difference someday.   Talking pleasantly to the folks stocking the produce department sometimes turns up a manager, and we express our appreciation for the local produce being carried, and wish out loud that more things had better area of origin labelling so we could make better choices.  In at least 2 of the 4 stores where I frequently shop, origin info has increased to naming the state, as well as the country.  I’m finding choices I didn’t know I had, e.g. between Tehachapi CA apples and Washington state apples and Australian apples, rather than just Jonathan vs Gala vs Fuji.   BTW, just because it’s not local doesn’t mean it’s bad– for instance, NZ and AU lamb that’s pasture-raised and transported by ship is actually more eco-neutral than local veggies raised with petrochemical fertilizers and irrigation.
  • Making a habit of letting our increasingly-ubiquitous connectivity enable frequent feedback to local, state, and national elected representatives fast and easy.  I keep a letter template on my desktop and laptop computers, and have my senators and representatives, as well as some town and state contacts, in my eFax rolodex.  If I read about something online or in a coffee shop, it’s the work of a few minutes to fire off a polite, focused faxed letter and let my opinion be heard.  Sure, I could email.  But again and again I read that it’s the physical pile of letters and faxes that are weighed more heavily than phone calls and emails, so I’ll spend the piece of paper.  Who knows, they may not even be printing them out.
  • Leveraging the economic and lifestyle surplus of peak-oil-now to invest and invent for future sustainability.  A good example of this is all of us backyard gardeners enjoying a hobby while learning how to actually grow stuff.  It’s a good thing my family doesn’t live or die on the basis of my garden, even though we do pretty well most of the time.   I buy carbon credits for our vehicles, after researching the options, because I want to encourage that practice.   New innovations in manufacturing are letting us build some high-end components like LEDs and solar cells more cleanly and cheaply than ever, but we couldn’t have gotten there without the fuss and waste in the middle.   Increasing numbers of people are finding ways to telecommute part or full time.  Etc.

The overall summary  Don’t drop out and raise llamas in the woods unless you LOVE raising llamas in the woods.     It will just make you bitter, and annoy the llamas.  You want to be Eco, not Emo.   What are you doing to be Eco smarter, not harder?  Y’all are an extremely hoopy set of froods, and smart as new paint– leave a comment and share your approaches, too, please!

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Nathaniel Talbott is really rocking my world with his recent essay comparing the transcontinental railroad with the ruby-on-rails phenomenon. As he points out, there are some surprising similarities in enabling markets and disintermediation– the physical railroad opened up new territories and new markets, and the rapid development cycle of ROR is enabling software customization of previously unaffordable (in time or money) types.

They [the co-op members trying to use a wacky uber-customized spreadsheet macro that breaks when you look at it cross-eyed] have little to no means of affecting the software that they use, and no real choices to use something else. And there are literally millions of others like them out there—small business owners, hobbyists, clubs, families and civic groups. But that’s the other, more profound thing that I think is changing and will greatly change how our kids think about software—one day we’ll look around and see everybody commissioning software, not just people with lots of money or people who can do it themselves. Tickets to the interior are suddenly affordable, and everybody’s buying one.

Everybody wins. Cool stuff happens. Ma and Pa Kettle can get custom software written affordably while GoogroSoft is still polishing paisleys on monolithic software applications.

OK, that last one is a bit Strata-filtered, but you know what I mean. Go read it, and if you’re not familiar with some of the background, such as the original Long Tail essay, NT is a nice guy and scattered links throughout his essay back to some of the prequel material.

Why, you may ask, is this tagged for sustainability? Because, in my opinion, the cottage-industry model of programming offers a lot of options in that area: telecommuting, bespoke efficiencies, disintermediated access to change, etc.

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…including practices that will be thought of as sheerest quackery 50 years from now, as were some of today’s practices 50 years ago. I’m not interested in outlawing science, not even remotely. I AM interested in calling attention to the fact that a lot of *really bad science* seems to insist on being afforded the same respect as good science.

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2465/is_4_30/ai_63699790

“…
Animals differ amongst themselves and – most importantly – from humans in their reactions to chemicals. Penicillin for instance, therapeutic for humans, will kill a guinea-pig or a hamster; while strychnine, favourite weapon of the murderer, is harmless to the same guinea-pig, a chicken or a monkey.

How, Croce asks, if animals differ so much from humans in their reactions, can one test drugs on them intended for humans? Worse still, how can you test the efficacy of a drug intended for a particular human illness on an animal that does not suffer from the same disease?

The vivisectionist responds by artificially inducing the disease in the animal. In the case of osteoarthritis, for example, the researcher attempts to mimic the human deformity using dogs, sheep and cats by beating joints with hammers or injecting them with irritants. As Croce says, it is incomprehensible that such a procedure, which produces no more than fracture and inflammation in the joint, can be used as an acceptable model of human ostenarthritis.
…”

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Most people grow up so far out of touch with animals that they probably shouldn’t even be doing animal research. Researchers ‘surprised’ by dogs’ abilities? Did any of them grow up with a family dog?

Growing up with one or more dogs, two or more cats, and various numbers of goats, chickens, and occasionally pigs, a steer, and a horse, one not only sees a wide range of animal behavior, one sees how the animals adapt to other animals and to other people. This is a level of experience that ought to be mandatory for folks doing animal research.

One can say that it introduces a bias toward thinking of animals as more people-like or more sentient than they may be. What about the bias of someone who assumes by default that they are not? Already researchers are questioning the dog studies mentioned in the previous article, and saying they may be clever imitation based on hidden cues, a “Clever Hans” effect. Grr.

We already have dozens of examples of animals using language and tools, ranging from the larger primates, which doesn’t seem to shock anybody, to parrots, dogs, cetaceans, various birds, etc. There are the elephant society studies that have recently become news. The whale dialects. The prairie-dog vocabulary, including the ability to invent, transmit, and re-use multi-word constructs (shades of High German). The list just goes on and on and on.

It’s not a specific brain size, kids. Consciousness and self-awareness is a property of life. Do what you need to for survival. Choose what you need for your comfort. Give up what you can in compassion. Start remaking society with your economic choices as well as your personal ones.

I found the pasture-raised eggs people at the MV Farmer’s Market on Sunday. No more ‘cage-free’ or ‘free-range’ eggs from huge, open, ammonia-laden henhouses with a scheduled 4-hour timeslot into a bare dirt pen. :-( Now I need to find a source of local pasture-raised milk. Or stop drinking the damn stuff. Buying fancy cheese just got both really tough and really easy– a lot of the expensive stuff I usually avoid is from pasture or mountain ranged sheep and goats, even cows.

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Speaking of whole grains, in the last post, remind me (and scares me!) that we’re almost halfway through another year. Yeesh!

I don’t recall now whether we made our New Year’s resolutions at Rosh Hashanah or in late December, but I thought I’d post them and see how we’re doing.

These are our family resolutions, rather than any personal ones. We pledged to help each other achieve them.

  • Eat Healthier, specifically have a whole-grain veggie meal for dinner at least twice a week, buy only organics when possible, no more bread with white flour, sugar, or corn syrup as substantial ingredients, drink less diet soda (splenda) and more tea/water/juice. Very Good; most of these things are fait accompli; still falling prey to the Cookie Monsters about once a month; Mike is drinking way too much diet (splenda) soda, but it’s still a shift from all diet coke, and has him at only 3 cans coke per day maximum.
  • Exercise! Moar!. Mike, gym 2 – 3 times week, including training session. Strata, daily half-hour cardio plus gym twice a week, incl training session. Mike: Great! Strata: Flunking out; health and work issues got me off-track and I haven’t gotten back on, been to the gym maybe a dozen times in 6 months, ugh!!! At least I’m gardening.
  • Downsize, specifically get rid of stuff we’re not using, buy less, reduce our carbon footprint, etc. bouts of freecycling that need to be resumed while I’m on ‘vacation’ (ha, you should see my to-do list), exercise restraint at flea markets, online catalogs, etc. Very Good
  • Puff Appreciation; be nicer to the Puffs, they are getting old; spoil them more, get the yard fenced so they can enjoy the garden, get better food. The fencing got off the ground this spring, first one neighbor and then the other, plus we hired a guy to close off one side and put in a gate. He’ll be back after Memorial Day to close off the other side. The pet food scare really got me off the ground trying a raw diet for the cats, but they rebelled. On the other hand, they are now off dry food entirely, and getting canned stuff 2 – 3 times a day; all the canned is organic and/or human quality, and no more ‘products’ or ‘by-products’ allowed in it. Little or no grain, only rice flour. Boo’s habitual arthritis and tail dandruff has all but vanished! I make more time for them, and they mug me for love more often. Excellent!
  • Clean Up Our Act!, keep the house neater, declutter it, maintain stuff more, such as outdoor painting touchup, regular window washing, and similar. Poor; we played catch-up for Passover and my Mom’s visit, but the house has been mostly a pit. Contemplating a Roomba and maybe a Scooba. Realized that the “Downsize” item is strongly linked– less stuff, looks better, we keep cleaner.
  • Green Up Our Act by doing more recycling, conservation, etc. Bought TerraPass offsets for both vehicles and our house; recycling cardboard, mail, and paper cartons regularly now in addition to plastics/glass. Continuing to use the city yardwaste bin for garden stuff. Trying to keep to 100-Mile Diet when possible; buying local. Switch to more LED lights at home. Very Good, so far. Watch our act plummet if we bring Birdie back on the road, at 6mpg, ugh. Will TerraPass it, but still!
  • Get Out More Often and just be social, see friends, etc. Poor, as life has been deadline driven for both of us for most of the year so far, and our uncleaned-up living space prevents impromptu at-home socializing. Gotta do better. No, we can’t hire cleaners, it doesn’t really help and it’s too expensive for us right now.
  • Public Service by Choice; stop saying ‘yes’ to too many things and concentrate on the ones that matter, like our chairing of the Emergency Preparedness Committee here, or my seed distribution and community garden stuff. We made time for the SNAP class, keep up with SPECS, are sworn Disaster Services peeps with Sunnyvale. Good, but let’s see how the 2nd half of the year goes. Strata is interested in SAR support work (logistics, support for SAR active personnel), which is part of the possibly revving up Birdie equation. Mike agrees, and wants to finish Birdie’s comms infr to support that.
  • Active Investment; somewhere along the line, we stopped putting away $X/month and started using it to pay extra on the mortgage and to get us both going to fitness training. It’s been over a year since we made those choices, which we noticed were just on autopilot around the new year. Need to re-examine those choices, and rebalance our life energy and our financial investment portfolios. No action on this yet. Flunking Out!
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    (Hassan…CHOP!!)

    http://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/minimize-work-cut-your-work-week-in-half-in-6-steps.html

    Some decent advice here. Some of it I’ve been implementing without codifying it, but it’s nice to see it in one place.

    [Oh, and I know, first I sez, no more LJ, then I posts zillions... gotta get my new wordpress bloggie up, "My Summer Vacation" to hold all this stuff... any day now, yez, reely...]

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    Lecture 1 of the Notre Dame open courseware materials for Architecture 50611: Architecture and the Built Environment. Part One.

    Do you see yourself as a part of nature, or as separate from it?

    I see myself as being artificially separated from it.

    Compare, for instance, our globalized sense of nature and the world today with what it must have been to early Neolithic peoples: Picture small villages huddled within their encircling walls, isolated in the utter vastness of nature.

    While people must have feared the consequenced of unfettered interaction with nature, I take exception to the idea that they felt a sense of isolation in a vastness. Only when one has experience of the antithesis, namely vast areas in which the entire environment has a sense of the created-by-man, can one feel a contrast. One might feel lonleliness or fear at being without other people, especially in an untamed nature where large carnivores roamed, but nature itself would be (in my opinion) simply “what is” and the Natural order of things.

    A small slice of firsthand experience in this: growing up in a rural environment consisting of neither extensive farmland nor managed timber, but simply woods and fields and pastures, one simply accepts that this is the natural world and moves through it. The most grevious culture shock one finds, coming from such an environment, is a landscape in which everything is owned as personal space. One did not generally cut through the backyard areas of other homes without a good reason, nor their driveways and front yards. However there were, quite literally, acres and acres of intervening spaces through which one might freely travel. Fenced pastures had wide, wide borders; forested land had trails, and low, crumbling stone walls marking property lines, easy to step over or spend the afternoon rebuilding. Other than frightening chasms between cityscape buildings, or alleyways that are essentially public streets (and may not be loitered upon or otherwise trespassed), there is no public space. There are parks, certainly– little chunks of space kept boringly manicured for the purpose of DOING things in them, such as playing sports, but no inviting and diverse ramblings to be had.

    Why do we seek order in our world?

    I’m reluctant to even approach this without defining ‘order’, as neither of the two proffered ‘customary’ viewpoints seem plausible to me, namely Locke’s tabula rasa, and Aristotle/Kant/Arendt’s innate humanness. The latter I expect will come even more severely under fire when I finish watching the TED Susan Savage-Rumbaugh lecture and video.

    I don’t claim to know the answer, but other possibilities seem more plausible. Boundaries tend to be areas of immense productivity and opportunity. The intertidal zone, the forest edge onto meadow or grazing, and so on. Perhaps as little monkeys, we created productivity zones with early agriculture, and merely kept doing it, recursing over mimicry and incorporating elements of the natural world’s boundaries into our created ones.

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