Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011

Thanksgiving is traditionally a time for humbly recalling the ways we have benefited from kindness or luck over the previous year. Unfortunately, that tradition has mutated into the start of a month-long buying binge that dishonors both the holiday and the self-sacrificing man whose birth is celebrated at its end.

This year, I have a lot to be thankful for. As I've been for the past eight years, I am first and foremost grateful for my wife Debbie being in my life; meeting her was the single greatest bit of luck I've ever had, and every minute I spend with her feels like a gift from a caring universe, a gift I try to be worthy of. I'm also thankful for more of the ability to understand what is necessary for the world to become a better place for the majority of people, and to find more hints about how to contribute to that. I was lucky enough to have a job a large part of the year so I could meet my financial obligations and catch up on basic maintenance that had been neglected the previous year.

I will be going light on shopping during this year's Gluttony Season for a number of reasons, not the least being an uncomfortable amount of debt. Perhaps most importantly, I'm finally feeling inoculated against over-consumption, to the point that shopping has become an almost nauseating experience – though I still have a weakness for books. Having struggled with guilt over the damage my lifestyle has inflicted on the world, both now and in the future, I've even seriously considered going the radical simplicity route.

A recent calculation showed that for civilization to survive in the long-term, all of us will need to learn to live on the equivalent of $3 per hour. For the poorest countries, that would involve a considerable pay raise. For the rest of us, it will take considerable creativity to keep from losing the gains in health and freedom that have accompanied our relatively huge wealth. Despite its uniquely American origins, Thanksgiving in its purest sense can be applied to the rest of the world through our simple decision to exercise that creativity and share its fruits with others as Native Americans once shared their knowledge of sustainable survival with starving immigrants from Europe.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Blaming the Victims

I first became aware of the blaming-the-victims strategy for avoiding responsibility soon after Hurricane Katrina when an ultra-conservative friend of mine went on a rant about why his tax dollars shouldn't be used to provide disaster relief or repair the levees that had flooded the city of New Orleans. He argued that the residents of the area had known for a long time about the dangers, and foolishly chosen to live in an area that lower than sea level. Clearly, it was their fault, and they were so stupid that they wanted to rebuild their city and take the chance of the same thing happening again. Why should the rest of us have to pay for their mistakes?

In 2008, as the housing bubble was collapsing, this same friend meticulously collected “evidence” from a number of dubious sources, “proving” the cause was Clinton-era policies that enabled greedy, stupid, poor people to get mortgages they knew they couldn't afford. If they lost their homes, they deserved to. It was – and is – a common assessment by many on the political right.

The last straw for my friend was the possibility that a black, former community organizer (who by definition was in favor of the pernicious giveaway mentality of the political left) could become president. When Barack Obama won the election, undeserving people might get much more of his money, and the new president would have to be impeached. It was the last time we would speak, because, after years of tolerance, I had come to loathe the idea that some people's lives are more valuable than the lives of others, and to believe that we must take responsibility for harming others, whether directly or indirectly (such as through neglect).

Blaming people for their condition is a justification for neglect. It also permits us to harm people without internal deterrent, just like a person with a sociopathic personality disorder. It has enabled the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of a few people who were neither inclined, nor capable, of using that power to stop huge population loss, and might even favor it as a logical consequence of their competitive ethos. This, for me, is the ultimate evil.

When we refuse to help others, or harm them either directly or indirectly, we not only allow or increase the amount of pain and death in the world, we potentially harm ourselves because we can't learn what they might teach us. I've written about the blind spots we all have, which both endanger us and keep us from becoming aware of opportunities to increase happiness. Others can potentially see things we can't, and vice-versa; so working together is the best chance we have to improve our visibility. In addition, collective efforts at exploration can help us learn about things we don't currently see, and move together toward opportunity and away from danger that may be right over the horizon.    

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Dying World

Spoiler Alert!
This review includes book details.

Our Dying Planet: An Ecologist’s View of the Crisis We Face, by marine ecologist Peter Sale, describes the details of Earth's Sixth Great Extinction as it's unfolding around us, including its history, causes, what the future may hold, and things we might do to stop it. Throughout the book, Sale makes the case that no single factor is responsible; rather, a number of interacting factors are causing the rapid demise of the majority of species, the most significant being habitat destruction, which will soon to be eclipsed by human-induced climate change.

Our Dying Planet is also an excellent primer on contemporary ecology, and how our understanding has undergone a revolution in the last few decades. For example, ecologists have totally dispelled the notion of the “balance of nature,” a reason commonly used to ignore human effects on the natural world. The real world is dynamic, without predetermined equilibrium states and subject to rapid as well as gradual change. As a result, as Sales' experience with coral reefs reveals, our huge impact on ecosystems could have unpredictably bad consequences (the reefs themselves may disappear in this century).

Sale explores why we have the effect we do, including our insensitivity to gradual, absolute change; our use of fossil fuels; economics that doesn't factor in the productivity of other species (or its loss); the devaluing of other species in our culture; and reproductive behavior leading to a huge population multiplier on our consumption. He also lays out the details of what we're doing, with an emphasis on over-harvesting, habitat loss, and pollution, and compares historical and projected extinction rates with previous mass extinctions (they're at least as high as the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs). The huge role of fossil fuels is also discussed, along with the ecological impacts of alternative energy supplies since we will need to transition off of fossil fuels soon for a number of good reasons which include climate change.

The book ends with several future scenarios. They include: doing nothing different; seeking a more natural lifestyle; bypassing nature with technology; and using innovation to maximize quality of life without further ecological damage. The details of these scenarios, while sketchy, are believable, and Sales explains how likely he thinks each of them is based on recent history. He is hopeful about achieving the last scenario, but doesn't seem optimistic that we will avoid the worst case.

In my view, Our Dying Planet is the perfect book for someone who appreciates the scientific perspective and wants to learn the state of ecological understanding about our relationship with the natural world. As a leading expert who has clearly come to his conclusions based on an enviable amount of experience and thought, Sales adds a lot of credibility to the concern that humanity is seriously threatening the fabric of what sustains it and other life on Earth. The details he provides are at times overwhelming, but that's pretty much unavoidable. He has, I think, realistic expectations about what people are likely to do and why, though they can be a bit uncomfortable to read. Overall, I recommend the book, and expect to find it very useful in future discussions.

Monday, September 26, 2011


I have to confess: I'm a big fan of Fox. Twentieth Century Fox, that is. Three of my all-time favorite TV shows and countless movies come from there. I've been revisiting two of those shows recently, and as before they are terribly addictive. The lead character in The X-Files is named Fox, and the TVs in 24 often show Fox News as background.

Speaking of which... I hate Fox News. I hate it, not so much because it's a mouthpiece for the crazy wing of the right wing of the political “right,” but because it dares to call itself “news” when it clearly isn't. What's obvious to me now is that Fox News is really just entertainment masquerading as news. As entertainment, it's not bad at all: the actors are pretty good at what they do; heck, they routinely fool a huge number of people into thinking they do real news.

The addiction to honest entertainment has helped reduce stress enough so that the nerves around my herniated disc have finally healed. The bizarrely improbable exploits of Fox, Dana, Jack, and Chloe have allowed me to focus on work – which itself improbably assumes a scientifically and technologically advanced future – and helped cast the increasingly scary stories about climate change as something akin to an elaborate X-Files plot, which I can emotionally deal with in the same way.

If I don't think too hard, I can be almost convinced that the world is just hitting a little bump in the road, and all will be back to normal if we can just get business out of government. By the way, I've noticed that people on the right conveniently forget to call business in government by its rightful name: “corruption.” They also easily ignore the fact that businessmen-run-amok are the ultimate villains in 24, which they like for its us-versus-them plots.

While I remain convinced that the unfettered pursuit of personal power is the major contributor to the ills our planet faces, I'm under no illusion that ignorance of reality and understanding of the way the world really works aren't a close second. That's why I've been gradually reopening my eyes, which has included reading two books, “Our Dying Planet” by Peter Sale, and “Introduction to Permaculture” by Bill Mollison, the first dealing with the problem that pushed me toward what my culture considers normal, and the second dealing with one potential solution to that problem.

I'm only a few hours away from concluding the last season of 24, while in the real world I've been replacing critical stuff that's worn out over the years that I tried to get maximum wear out of everything I owned. I'm making progress on my novel, which is a good middle ground between dealing with fiction and reality – by using the fiction as I believe it should be used, as a simulation that illustrates an understanding of how the world works, and a mental exploration of how it might work or should work. I'll soon be “defoxified,” and once more, as Jack Bauer would say, “in the game.”

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Memories of 9/11

On September 11, 2001, I was still living in Windsor, Colorado, where my father had died nine years earlier in a futile attempt to change the way kids are educated. I was commuting in a van pool to Westminster, a suburb of Denver, where I would soon move to be closer to my job as a technical writer at Avaya.

I was listening to the car radio while driving to the Windsor Park N'Ride soon after the first plane hit. The first reports said that a small plane had accidentally hit the World Trade Center. During the time that it took to get to Avaya, the second plane crashed, and it was clear that both crashes were part of a coordinated attack.

The company had invited everyone into its large auditorium to watch the unfolding events on a large screen TV. While there, we learned of the Pennsylvania crash, saw the World Trade Center towers collapse, and watched the aftermath of the Pentagon crash. I was sitting next to my boss, whose brother was working near the section hit at the Pentagon.

Realizing that no one would be productive after that, the company sent us all home. The most direct evidence of what had just happened was the silence above us as all air traffic was grounded; it was the first time in my life that something wasn't flying overhead. When I got home, I obsessively watched the news, which would become a habit for years afterwards, and processed what had happened with my friends and family.

There was no doubt that the attacks were pure evil. That someone would plan the execution of thousands of people was unfathomable; that they would actually do it was reprehensible in the extreme. At the time, I didn't know that the perpetrators had declared war on us, that our government knew such attacks could happen, or that there was a part of the world that viewed us as a mortal cultural and economic threat. When it came out that the hijackers believed they were on a holy mission that would be rewarded with sex in heaven, it became clear that faith was the enabler of this evil, the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, and as such it might be practically unstoppable.

Practically everyone I knew became a lot more cautious, and paranoia seemed to grip the country. We were encouraged to report any suspicious activity, but not informed what that might be. I saw a photo in Newsweek soon after we invaded Afghanistan, of someone who looked a lot like Osama bin Laden, and was surprised that he wasn't identified as such; dutifully, I sent an e-mail to the FBI about it, and never got a response.

By 2003, after numerous terror alerts, the level of paranoia was still high enough for most people to support the invasion of Iraq, despite shaky evidence. I'm proud to say that I wasn't one of them; in fact, by that time I had come to distrust both the judgment and veracity of the Bush administration, and found the cost-benefit analyses I was hearing totally unconvincing.

That opinion was reinforced in the intervening years, and it became clear to me that people like Bush were using threats and disaster for pure political and economic gain, sabotaging the Constitution, destroying anyone who got in their way, and therefore making them a greater threat than the enemies who attacked us on 9/11. Unwilling to just complain, I became politically involved in ensuring that such people never held such power again.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Stress and Consequences

My back and arm pain returned shortly after I wrote that it was gone, and is intermittent no matter what exercises I do. The main variable affecting it appears to be my state of mind, or rather, my state of emotions. In addition to my persistent worry about the future of the world, the stress of fighting for survival during the daily commute seems to have a huge impact.

As planned, I've spent more time focusing on solutions than problems. I'm learning more about permaculture, along with my local natural “substrate” that includes ecology and geology. Some of this research is being used in “Visitors,” the sequel to my novel “Lights Out,” which helps keep my fun writing skills up as well.

I'm also looking at further personal improvement. For example, I took a “StrengthsFinder” test to find out what my natural capabilities are. Not surprisingly, my top strengths are: Strategic, Learner, Intellection, Responsibility, and Ideation. Basically, I'm a curious, responsible thinker who loves ideas and strategic planning. During the more frequent pain-free periods, I'm considering how to use those strengths in a more satisfying way.

The news has not helped in my quest to reduce stress. It seems that every day, more bad news comes out on the climate front. We're a lot closer to the edge of irreversible devastation than people thought just a few years ago; the Siberian permafrost will likely melt, unleashing a huge amount of methane, and the Arctic will almost certainly be ice free in a few years. Historic heat waves, wildfires, floods, and freak weather are all pointing toward a future where disaster is the norm. Meanwhile, politicians and business leaders appear to be focusing on raping and pillaging the planet while they still can; all for fun, profit, and personal power.

I'm lucky to have a job, but I don't know how long it will last. In addition to the financial benefits and being able to work with genuinely good people, I can for hours briefly forget my deep misgivings about the overall future of electronics and health care, and focus on tasks that may do some good in the short term. After hours, however, when I poke my head up to see what's going on in the rest of the world, my fears return – along with the pain.

I know that my current life is like the proverbial “calm before the storm.” The basic outline of how to avoid the storm is pretty clear, yet I'm still struggling with how to implement it. The best I've come up with so far is to follow the script of my poem “Deathstoppers.” My writing has become more caustic, both out of frustration and because accountability for what's happening may be among the best tools to pull us out of the indifferent death spiral we're in. As President Obama is now discovering in response to his recent, powerful jobs speech, the best way to deal with bullies, especially stupid ones, is to stand up to them. And we've got some world-class sociopathic idiots driving us toward oblivion right now.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Month of Pain

The back spasms that followed my presentation on population and consumption ended up being a sign of something more serious than stress: a herniated disc was pushing on nerves in one of the most critical parts of my spine. For a month I experienced chronic pain in my back and right arm, which even with medication was keeping me from getting enough sleep and doing more than the most basic activities. Luckily I was able to work at home with frequent breaks, since driving my normally long commute would have been excruciating, if at all possible. I know several people who have experienced far worse (and in a few cases, still are), and I appreciate them much more now.

The worst appears to be over, thanks largely to a treatment called “dry needles,” which is part of a physical treatment plan I started a week after my symptoms appeared (when I realized that I couldn't treat it on my own). With some medication and a bunch of exercises, including home traction, I am now nearly pain-free for hours at a time, and I'm getting much more sleep. My thinking has cleared too, and I can now write without distraction by pain, though I'll be stuck with taking frequent breaks for the rest of my life – the lack of which likely caused the problem in the first place.

I only peripherally tracked the news during that time, enough to see that the situations I cared most about weren't getting any better. Government remains broken, with one party blatantly terrorizing everyone else so they can gain total control and destroy whatever semblance of social cohesiveness our country has left, and the other party negotiating on the assumption that they have more honorable intentions. Climate scientists are being openly threatened by climate change deniers, which is disturbing on many levels. The evolving scandal involving Rupert Murdoch is showing what happens when people are able to gain unchecked power (the old adage still holds: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”); it remains to be seen if the lesson sticks.

Instead of writing, I caught up on some reading I had been putting off. For example, I'm almost finished with “A Concise History of World Population” by Massimo Livi-Bacci, which is teaching me what expert demographers have to say about the issues I've explored on my own. As a result, I can now add “demographer” to my list of possible new careers.

I'll be writing more as my condition improves, and looking for ways to address my interests without burning the candle at both ends. To keep stress below a healthy threshold, I'm going to try being more constructive and positive, and to have some fun along the way. My father lived his life as a constant adventure, and saw each turn of events as a step toward a future that, if it wasn't what he wanted, could be just as good; that's an attitude well worth emulating.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


If you've read my poem “Deathstoppers,” you probably noticed that I've been trying to follow the strategy laid out there.

The team deployed throughout the world
Its goal was crystal clear
To stop the death that threatened all
Without a shred of fear.

Whether they call themselves “environmentalists,” “sustainability activists,” “greens,” or “conservationists” (among many names), a large number of people are working toward the same ultimate goal. In my case, I've just defined a set of values which recognizes the extinction of species and destruction of ecosystems as inherently bad, and am trying to live by those values.

Its members started with the worst
The ones who didn't share
Who raped the land for fun and gain
And cared not what was fair.

They called them out for what they were
Made their acts a source of shame
No one took their money
For fear they'd share the blame.

For most of my life, I had the philosophy of “live and let live.” Out of respect (and an overdose of humility), I assumed that all but a few people ultimately wanted the same things and had the same values. With awareness and adequate tools to connect the dots about what was happening to all of us, we each contribute to a better world in our own way.

Then I found out I was wrong. A lot of people are willing to sacrifice the lives and livelihoods of others, even the future of our species, for their own personal gain. They have also adopted ideologies and beliefs that shield them from understanding or feeling responsible for their actions. Like children who haven't developed a healthy, mature empathy for others, they need to be taught – or forced – to care, so they won't harm others as well as themselves.

They will continue for as long as they are rewarded for their bad behavior, primarily through wealth and power. To stop them we have to both educate them and stop rewarding them. Like children, they need to recognize their actions as a source of shame. Choosing not to buy from them and freely using terms like “planet-killer” work toward those ends.

Next the team set out to change
How much it cost to live
By growing more of Nature
So freely it could give.

The land provided basics
Renewable each year
While factories made less and less
Of unnecessary gear.

When people have power over others' ability to meet their needs, consumption becomes decoupled from the physical reality that supports those needs. The biosphere's innate sustainability stems from the direct contribution of species to the system that provides their needs. If people are able to survive by more direct interaction with the natural world, fewer resources will be subject to the whims of others, which have historically produced far more waste.

People learned to value life
In all its varied kinds
The team showed how we're all the same
Part of a web that binds.

As we reestablish our bonds with other people and other species, we will hopefully rediscover that life is to be cherished instead of used and disposed of, because we are all part of it.

Though some remained who wanted more
The earth chose what they had
Slowly wounds began to heal
As good replaced the bad.

Disaster was averted
Death slowed to a crawl
Love and health became the rule
The team became us all.

My vision of the ideal result is summarized in these last words. It is what I hope for, and what I work for.

We are, unfortunately, still in the early phases of this process. Many of us don't even realize how much is at stake, having trained to be ignorant and accepting of the system that is ruining our world. I like to think that I'm a pretty smart person, and I didn't get it until I was in my forties. Now, in my fifties, I'm starting to be an active part of “the team,” in word and more in deed. But time is running out, and the planet-killers, I'm afraid, are winning.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Judgment Days

For nearly five days I got to see the U.S. criminal justice system close-up as a juror on a child rape case. The presumption of innocence was foremost in my mind as I listened to witness after witness describe how a teenage girl gradually let the world know about a set of events that happened when she was just seven years old. There was no physical evidence, and the versions of the girl's story that emerged over time were not entirely consistent with each other. If I were using the standards of an engineer or physical scientist, these facts alone would have led me to vote “not guilty.” What led me to vote the other way started with the realization that such standards are not those of a “reasonable person,” whose judgment must be the basis of such a decision.

For one thing, I learned that the pattern of disclosure for such events typically follows the pattern we saw, if disclosure even happens at all. Also, the minds of young children are so different from those of adults that it is unreasonable to use the standards of adults when appraising them. There is also the simple issue of time: Unlike a repeatable physical phenomenon that can be remeasured, there is no objective way to verify what happened to a person several years in the past where any physical evidence has likely been effectively erased. What you have left is a level of confidence that the circumstances were as described by the accuser, that she had more motive for telling the truth than not, and that the overall picture of events painted by the verifiable evidence and testimony was overwhelmingly more consistent with the defendant being guilty than innocent of the crimes he was accused of.

You will recall that Osama bin Laden was executed right before I was called into jury duty. During the trial, I found myself agreeing with an astonishingly few observers who were concerned that the president might have assumed a new power that is fundamentally unhealthy for a democracy, the power to kill anyone he deems a threat without any review. My father's generation went out of its way to bring the Nazis (a far greater threat) to justice, recognizing that checks on government power (and mob rule) are more important than checks on individual behavior, even as many of them had witnessed the carnage first-hand. There is also an important learning experience to go through, which leads to both understanding of how to prevent bad things from happening in the future, and how the process of justice can be improved so that everyone's rights are adequately protected. I was seeing that latter process working first-hand, while hearing the president I helped elect call into question the mental stability of people who suggested he might be wrong for not following it himself.

I was barely back at work when I learned of a crazy prediction that the world was scheduled to end soon. Such a statement might seem ironic coming from someone who has made a hobby out of finding out if-and-when humanity might become extinct (my own projections are just a few decades off) -- “crazy” is relative, I suppose. Judgment Day is now, and if our president can execute whoever he wants (or at least with the fig-leaf assurance of his handpicked attorney general), the putative creator of the Universe is capable of doing much more, with far less of a check on his power. While the Christian “right” might disagree with the timing of the rapture, they appear to have no problem believing that it is imminent, even as they dismiss the overwhelming evidence for human-induced climate change that is far more likely to make their worst nightmares real.

I personally stopped believing in the supernatural (or at least acknowledging the possibility of its existence) when I started testing the core assumptions in my life the same way that I tested other beliefs, taking the chance that I would feel a lot worse about the results, because feeling bad about reality was preferable to feeling so good about a delusion that I might end up creating a far worse reality by acting on it. To me, that's the best argument for taking the long, hard path toward finding justice, for jumping through hoops to improve the outcome for everyone affected by a decision, rather than taking a short cut or putting one's faith in a higher power (human or not). While there is always the chance that we will be wrong, we have an obligation to reduce that chance, or the future which provides the ultimate judgment of all of us may be far harsher than we can imagine.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Work Life

As could be expected, going back to work was a bit of a shock to my system. During seven months at home, I had gotten used to no commuting, being able to follow my creative instincts, and having almost total control over my environment. All that is now reversed: I spend more than an hour and a half on the road each day; must focus on what someone else wants me to do – even if I get a stray thought that my gut tells me to investigate or write about; and have only an iPod to shield me from the conversations erupting around my open cubicle. Not that I'm complaining: I can now pay my bills, help a large non-profit healthcare system operate more efficiently, and continue my research on the side (which has included a major revision to my population-consumption model). In addition, I've caught up on some reading and gotten a better idea of where my future focus should be.

This week, I've had to take a minor break from everything and learning first-hand how rigorous the U.S. legal system is in assuring that everyone is treated fairly in the service of justice. I can't help comparing it to how our government starts and executes our so-called wars, where killing people – the ultimate penalty – is based on innuendo and fear. While much of the rest of the country was cheering the assassination of Osama bin Laden, I was wondering, along with a minority, whether it wouldn't have been better to try him like the Nazis, and whether it might have set a dangerous precedent for effectively dictatorial power.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Primer Preparation

I'm taking some time to prepare a PowerPoint presentation about my population-consumption-happiness modeling, which I'll post on my Web site as a primer for those who are new to what I've been doing and don't have the patience to look at everything I've produced.  As a consequence of that work and starting my new job, the frequency of my posts (or at least their size) will probably be reduced for a while.

The review is already helping with my thinking about the model's validity and applications, which makes it a good exercise regardless of the physical result.  Bear with me, and I'll try to share my insights as soon as I process them.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Self Calibration

When you're trying to contribute to a land of conscience, it's important to listen to your own conscience more frequently. Several hours after writing my last post (“Working Stiff”) it's clear that I was really full of myself, virtually gloating that I have a new job (if that's what you can call a contract gig these days) and bragging that I'm giving away my research so those “greedy bastards” can't profit from it. While everything I said was true, my conscience is more awake now, and I'm not so proud of where it was coming from, especially when I review the backstory of how I reacted when I got the news about the job.

The first thing I did was celebrate, which is one of my few traditions, by taking my wife out to dinner. Since being out of work, we've cut back on a lot relative to how we lived when we were both working full time jobs; we “walked the walk” of limiting consumption out of necessity, like too many other members of the vanishing middle class in the U.S. Knowing you have more money – or at least the promise of it – is like a drug, and I'm no less an addict than anyone else, binging on junk food, entertainment, and “replacement” equipment when it became possible again. While I was castigating politicians and business leaders for leading us all toward a cliff, in my own way and at a much smaller scale I was shuffling along in the same direction with rationalizations not dissimilar to theirs.

I've been thinking a lot about streamlines lately. The graphs I created on my Web site depicting the happiness and perceived environments of different people in the world's population bear a remarkable resemblance to those mathematical representations of the movement of water and air molecules that I studied as a physics student. It's not too far a stretch to expect that such an analysis might ultimately yield a similar field theory for the behavior of humans, which could have huge applications in strategic decision-making across all scales of life. Considering that prospect, I felt a burst of optimism that I haven't experienced in a long time. The “holy grail” of my research – a simple set of tools for anticipating the effects of everyday decisions on humanity's long-term future, the basis of my value system – appeared to be in reach, and it might be usable in time to avoid the global disaster that the use of our current set of tools is propelling us toward.

Not too surprisingly in retrospect, my head got bigger. On top of that, the career profile I completed at the local workforce center confirmed that I was more intellectual than practical, so I must be doing the right thing. I just needed to figure out how to get paid for it. That's where I was coming from last night.

The reader needs to keep in mind, as I reminded myself today, that I could be totally full of crap. As elaborate as my abstractions and musings have become, they are, at best, hypotheses based on an admittedly limited understanding of the world. I put them out to the world with the hope that others will test them and perhaps find them useful in some way I can't even imagine. I'm simply contributing to a conversation, doing my part to fill in the universal jigsaw puzzle that is human understanding of ourselves and where we live, so we can improve the chances of all living better and longer lives.

Sharing my personal experience is the newest part of that contribution. As a test engineer, one of my first steps in verifying the results of a measurement was to check the calibration of the equipment and procedures used to generate it. These reflections are, in large part, an effort to provide readers with information about my personal biases, so they can check my “calibration” and use it to filter the “raw data” I'm generating. Using that analogy, the review of the past using one's conscience is a form of “self-calibration,” which may be one of its most critical roles as the mind's way of viewing itself with something approaching objectivity.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Working Stiff

Next week I'll be starting my first job since September. It's a contract technical writing position with a large non-profit hospital chain, doing something very similar to what I've done before, which should last several months at a pay rate closer to what I'm worth than I've been able to get in a long while. In short, I got very lucky.

Ironically, I feel very close to a major breakthrough in my research. I recently posted a graph on my Web site that illustrates the “prime happiness” relationship I discovered back in February, which still tantalizes me with its simplicity and the potential for being more than a strange coincidence. It's certainly worth following up. In addition, I've come to suspect that my work with relative environments will lead to significant new insights about human perception and behavior that can ultimately be used to help steer us away from impending oblivion.

No matter how my work situation unfolds, I plan to continue my investigations, though probably at a slower rate until I can find a way to devote more time to it and meet my financial obligations. That way remains difficult to nail down, even as I'm collecting more evidence about the types of careers I'm suited for and not suited for. Technical writing remains the most economically viable thing I can do, even though for the most part it services a part of the economy – information technology – that is fundamentally unsustainable. An academic career is still on the table, though my reservations remain intact. Creative writing and investigation, unless I make a big splash with a large fan base, are unlikely to yield more than trivial spending money.

Of course, it doesn't help that I hate money, specifically the harm generally required for its accumulation. If I could live and work for free, I would. What I consider the most valuable fruits of my labor, understanding that could lead to everyone living better lives, I am giving away, on my blogs and Web site. In return, I'm deriving some pleasure in the knowledge that it might be doing some good, and that it can't be bought and sold, and therefore hoarded, by a bunch of greedy bastards who would gladly sell humanity down the toilet for more personal power. I'm not above charging for some of my labor, of course, but mainly for derivative works (my art), luxury items (advertised in pop-up ads accompanying a few of my pages), and already economically-valuable services (like my technical writing).

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Lessons of Nostalgia

For the past couple of weeks I've been revisiting favorite TV shows and music, mostly from my teens and twenties (the 1970s and 1980s). I'm not sure why. Perhaps it has something to do with feeling overwhelmed with the bad news about where the world is headed. Or maybe it's a way of saying goodbye to my past in preparation for the future. The reason could be as simple as the fact that my experience from those years is becoming more relevant to the here and now, such as the education research I did with my father, the tough lessons I learned as a young test engineer, and the tragic loss of my mother due to cancer.

Three shows stand out: MacGyver, Airwolf, and The Incredible Hulk. MacGyver reminds me of my father's exploits, and the many hours I spent as an engineer verifying and troubleshooting problems. Airwolf was mainly escapist entertainment, though I could somewhat identify with the loner aspect of the main character, and maintained some hope that technology like the title's helicopter could solve any problem. I identified most, however, with David Banner in The Incredible Hulk, who felt that his calm, cerebral self needed to always dominate over his brutish, dangerous physical self.

In my late thirties I finally allowed my physical self to grow, and achieved the equivalent of what Hulk's David Banner got stuck in during a pair of episodes called “Prometheus”: a state half-way between his two selves. Unlike Banner, I was able to fuse the two selves together into a healthy whole, completing the transition to maturity that should have naturally happened a decade earlier.

Reviewing my past, I've abandoned the belief in the quick fixes that characterizes MacGyver and Airwolf. MacGyver's solutions were always just stopgap measures, dealing with immediate needs but never intended as permanent solutions. Airwolf's utility was limited to very specific circumstances, even if you bought the simplistic premise, still dominating action theater and the delusions of militarists, that a strong show of force is necessary to achieve peace.

During my review, ultraconservatives were demonstrating a new level of viciousness in their efforts to remove societal control over the pursuit of personal power. Unlike David Banner, whose innate goodness was reflected in the Hulk's goals (if not his methods), these folks appear to prefer being sociopathic hulks, willing to kill anyone or anything that gets in the way of their perceived path to personal gratification. For the time being, compromise seems to be keeping the worst from happening, reversing the “metamorphosis” in time so that they are merely human sociopaths, but it is unlikely to continue working. Unfortunately, a lot of damage is still being done in a world that has already been beat to a pulp, a world we all depend on for survival. That damage and the motivation behind it fits my definition of evil; just thinking about it makes me angry, and “you wouldn't like me when I'm angry” (though at least I'm able to get past it without doing any harm). 

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Gasp of Normality

April 1:  My projections of a world population peak and crash felt unusually personal as I woke up this morning, even as the prospects improved that I would be employed soon. I pushed away the feeling, and for one day pretended that my main problem was surviving the recession and paying off debt. In the afternoon's job interview, I focused on the immediate requirements of the job, which included whether the work environment would be a good fit. In short, I lived in temporary denial, reacting to events as if they were not part of a larger context, but rather points on either side of a more simple extrapolation of normal life.

Of course, the thoughts came back with a vengeance when my duties were done. The familiar jaw-tightening, digestive discomfort, and tension headache surged as I reviewed the day's news and thought about the backstories and potential futures of the people and animals I had directly encountered. The title of yesterday's Comment of the Day seemed to hold a special significance: “Energy for a Dying World.” That's what I was helping to do, enabling a last gasp of normality for me and my fellow planet-killers as our victim groaned in agony. Emerging from the normality, I was once again reminded what an aberration it was becoming.

Last night, I learned that radiation from Japan's damage nuclear plant was being found in the U.S. food supply, and it wasn't necessarily a sure thing that the Food and Drug Administration would be testing for it. There was some discussion in the news that the levels found so far were “safe,” which was far from comforting. Meanwhile, the poor victims near the epicenter of the quake that started it all were fighting incredible odds just to hang on, dealing with much higher contamination as well, and facing the prospect that the exports that might help them recover could be banned from the global marketplace. To me, it was one of the more egregious examples of dangerous waste as a natural byproduct of economic activity, whose costs could always be measured in terms of pain and death. If we were all mature, responsible people who cared more about life than power, minimizing such waste and controlling its dispersion would be a no-brainer; but we aren't, it isn't, and our collective future is more bleak because of it.

I went to bed thinking about this, and tonight I will do the same. Tomorrow won't be a normal day, just another step along the way to finding hope grounded in reality while keeping the stress of what I know from overwhelming me.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


Yesterday something happened which gave me hope that I and others might be able to overcome one of the worst habits imaginable – shopping: I freaked out while walking though a Denver mall to get to a movie.

In retrospect, it may have had a lot to do with the fact that I've been spending a lot of time at home, mostly looking for a job. Nonetheless, I was in a state of sensory overload and disgust at all the stuff practically bulging out of the shops and the signs ordering or begging me to buy stuff I didn't need and would likely never use more than once. When I got to the theater, I sat through a continuous infomercial that was followed by countless previews, such that I felt I had seen three movies before the one I paid to see. Afterwards, I couldn't wait to leave, and believed for the first time that when I finally got work, I would be able to fight off the pressure to spend my earnings on that crap instead of paying off the debt I'd used to buy the barely-more-than-crap that I already own.

When I got home, I did what I often do. I turned on my computer. From that (er, this) expensive box, the Internet showed me a lot of useless crap I could get through the mail, festooning the almost-news and job descriptions I was really interested in reading. Next to my computer was a book I haven't finished yet, which discusses the why and how behind our interactions with each other, our artificial world, and the natural world as part of a larger ecological system that has shaped us as much as we've shaped it. But, as usual, I couldn't resist being exposed to the imaginary world inside the artificial world that is killing the natural world on which it all depends. It probably counts for something that I at least had a similar reaction to the ads on the screen that I had to their cousins in the mall: Yuck!

Later that night I got a headache while working on the sequel to my novel, which is being informed by the insights I've gained since being laid off last year. I interpreted it as both a reaction to spring pollen and chronic stress about both my future and the future of the world. Just as one of my book's characters was wondering if she could keep up with her husband and his pursuit of threats she could barely fathom, I was wondering if I could ever reclaim a sense of security in a society that is tearing itself apart. The ads insisting on my getting more stuff, and the job announcements promising high stress and heavy workloads so I could make it possible, effectively mocked such a desire, and were actively recruiting people to make sure it would be forever out of reach of everyone.

Luckily, I had cold medication to push through the symptoms and get some sleep, so I could process it today with a fresh perspective in front of the expensive little box that I bought in another mall when my defenses weren't anywhere near so high.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Building a Better World

A couple of days ago I hit my personal threshold for stress about the state of the world. I've been tracking our progress toward population collapse for a long time, invested a lot of effort in determining what we can do to stop it (at a high level, anyway), and have recently been commenting on news stories of interest – which are multiplying almost exponentially. The last straw was the military action in Libya, which no matter what its immediate justification, was a dangerously reckless move by a president who I expected to know better (and judging from his own words, once did). I decided to localize my attention, in no small part because my own survival is in jeopardy.

Most of the jobs I'm applying for are contracts with companies that are part of the problems I've been pontificating about. This has the advantages of buying time, meeting my financial obligations, and presenting opportunities for changing minds; but it still feels like I'm thrusting a proverbial knife into what might still qualify as my soul. To develop alternatives, I've continued to study human ecology, and started doing an ecological study of my own region, which includes the three cities covered by my local Transition group. Educational opportunities are still on the table, if I can find ways to improve my chances at admission and paying tuition while helping my wife with paying our other bills.

Yesterday, I decided to change my approach (at least mentally) from trying to keep bad stuff from happening to building a better world. I began by going back to first principles, which is reflected in today's Idea Explorer post, “Delta World.” In addition to providing a new, useful way to frame world events, as a value system it has the potential to help make decisions about how to interact with the local environment. I chose the concentration on differences with that in mind. Looking at what's around us and asking how it can be changed to maximize good (as I defined it) leads the way to action, which in my experience is the best cure for despair.

Personally, I don't have to go much further than my own house, which is full of items that have already reduced all three of good's component variables just in their construction, and if disposed the wrong way could decrease them even more. The yard owned by my homeowner's association is a classic suburban deathscape, occupied by thirsty grass, non-native trees and shrubs, and sprinkled with rock hauled in for nothing other than questionable aesthetics. Most of the residential area is like that. Industrial and retail space isn't very far away, sharing the primary goal of serving just one species -- ours. With my new perspective, I can imagine how the parts of my mostly artificial world directly or indirectly affect the longevity of individual people here and at the next links in the supply chains they may be part of, in many ways manifested as happiness (which, you'll recall, is linearly correlated with life expectancy). In the interest of making at least this part of the world better (again, as I define it), I can think about how the existing structures and activities might be improved, and how others might be brought into service to address deficiencies.

In the world I currently live in, meeting my own needs depends on transactions with other people, who trade currency for my services that I can use to access resources I can't as easily get on my own. No matter how much “good” I enable, I must convince someone that it's worth what they had to do to get the currency they're trading with me. If they don't share my definition of good, or see it reflected in what I've done, then I have to find someone else or effectively perish. Because the overlap between my values and those embodied in most economic activity is pretty slim, I probably won't make much money doing what I consider right, and to get the amount of money I need right now I may be forced to do a lot of what I consider wrong. In short, my life is a microcosm of the world, at least in a so-called affluent country.

In the interest of trying to have a positive attitude, I have to consider the likelihood that I'm just not being creative enough.

By the logic of an ideal marketplace, we are all responsible for building demand for what we do, whether it be providing a product or service. There's an exquisite overlap between the need for a change in our culture's values and the need to increase demand for what's “good.” I've played that game, early in my career with my father in our education business, and lately with my own creative writing, both with dismal results. The “green” movement has been a lot more successful than I may ever hope to be, by attempting to use people's current values to trick them into accepting new values; but the results are still less than adequate, probably because there has been too much compromise in the process (see “Green Economy?” in the Idea Explorer blog). Co-opting the green approach may be my best option for at least morally neutral income in the near-term, but I can't shake my sense that it's a loser overall (note that, by my calculations, we must be making major changes within this decade and many years afterwards to avoid a catastrophic reduction in our population).

As I pointed out in Delta World,” I see the main problem being a fundamental disagreement over values. If that changes, our economics will be naturally in line with the new values, though I expect them to work in a very different way. Again: if we don't change over the next ten years, it will be too late. If I'm to contribute to solving this problem and meet my financial obligations, then simultaneously working for a green organization, doing other “good” things for free, and making a strong case for my less ambiguous value system may be the best strategy, at least until I think of something better.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Sanity Break

On Friday night I was ready for the world to end. Japan had just experienced the largest earthquake on record, followed by a tsunami and more earthquakes, all of which killed maybe a thousand people, caused a huge amount of damage, and looked like it might result in at least one nuclear reactor meltdown that could poison millions of people, if not the entire planet. I almost felt bad that it had been a good day on a personal level: the amount of time I had to find a job before savings ran out nearly tripled, and I was making good progress in my search for a new career. While I knew the world has only a decade to avoid catastrophe, I was happy to get a few months of breathing room. I realized that, after this disaster, several months might be all any of us have.

Meanwhile, my wife found several beautiful photos of sandhill cranes on their annual pilgrimage to a wildlife refuge near the small town of Monte Vista in southern Colorado, and proposed that we go down there for the weekend. Not to complain, but the last time we took anything like a vacation was almost a year ago and almost as short. With us both feeling the stress of a steady focus on survival, we mutually decided that it was time for a sanity break.

Nothing could have prepared me for personally seeing thousands of birds in one place, while others flew in from all directions. The last time I had felt anything like it was during the Leonids meteor shower about a decade ago, when the sky literally rained hundreds of meteors per hour. It reminded me of a giant conference, with attendees arriving from everywhere. The cranes were getting reacquainted, finding mates, and eating, both on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning when we visited like voyeurs watching others live their lives, along with up to a hundred other birdwatchers parked around the area.

For me, the best part was what we did on the way home, stopping at Great Sand Dunes National Monument, which I had read about but never seen in person. There, another memory served as a reference for my reaction: the view of the Kilauea volcano craters in Hawaii. On the way to the dunes, we had taken a hike on a nearby mountain with an excellent view of the immense pile of gray sand, whose undulating patterns were reminiscent of desert scenes in movies, but nothing beat getting right up close and then walking in it.

When we got home I felt somewhat refreshed. Later, I realized that as much as I enjoy being around other animals and understanding geophysical processes, they're not what I can see doing as a career. My inclinations are more abstract and human-centered; it's what I keep coming back to, what really motivates me. Near my desk is the one new career-oriented book that I've been inclined to read without interruption: Steiner's “Human Ecology.” That's something I need to pay attention to, no matter what might happen next.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Almost Too Late

Last night, I watched the on-line version of Nicole Foss's presentation on the collapse of the global economy, which was somewhat different from the presentation she gave at the Transition conference, and surprisingly even more depressing. Foss focused mostly on the financial situation because she believes it will be at the leading edge of the catastrophe that's coming, while the energy situation – specifically peak oil – will drive the majority of it. Her prescriptions were the same in both presentations; among them: avoiding debt, home ownership, and banks; accumulating cash, food, equipment, and survival skills; and, above all, becoming part of a community.

While at the conference I was thinking globally, this time I was overwhelmed with how much the details of how people's live will need to change, especially mine. Like many Americans, I'm unemployed and in debt. This isn't the first time. I've worked myself out of worse situations before, and if the economy had a chance of rebounding, I would no doubt be able to do so again. Unfortunately, there have been deep structural changes in the past few years that will make it much more difficult to recover this time, even if I get one of the many jobs I've applied for since the last time I was working. Those changes, like most of the threats facing us, are tied to the relentless pursuit of growth. When you can't get enough new stuff, you start consuming the stuff that you used to process that stuff, and that's what the world's business leaders are doing, except the “stuff” they're now consuming is effectively composed of people. Those people, right now, are disproportionately among what was the middle class, and I and most of the people I know are among them.

There's still a chance that I can work my way out of debt before things get too much worse, but it will probably mean taking the highest-paying job I can and hanging on for as long as possible, even if what I'm doing with that precious forty to sixty hours a week isn't helping to lay the groundwork for a better future given the realities I've spent the past seven years discovering. In “Titanic Choices,” I likened this to bribing the crew of the Titanic to let me out of my cabin so I would have a better chance of convincing those steering the ship to avoid the iceberg, warning the other passengers, and helping to build more lifeboats.

If Foss and those in Transition are right, we're too close to avoid the iceberg, and we'll be lucky to get a few lifeboats launched before the ship sinks. I've so far resisted this conclusion, which is reflected in the career choices I've considered so far (along with the assumption that I even have the freedom to choose my next career). Their case, right now, is holding more sway with me, especially as unrest here in the United States has started to spread like wildfire. Given that possibility, my career choice will need to be much more practical. Permaculture design, perhaps?