Contemplations – Now
– Stephen Hawking
A better rice farming method
This is one of the best bits of news I've read in a long time.
A method of growing rice, which was developed in Madagascar in 1983, requires a fraction of the seed and much less water per hectare, and is resulting in significantly higher yields. "Reports from China, India, Southeast Asia and Africa suggest that average yield increases of 20 to 50 percent are regularly being achieved by farmers adopting the 'system of rice intensification' (SRI)."
SRI, which has been spreading around the world via a grassroots movement, was initially and unsurprisingly rejected by the global seed industry, but has finally gained the endorsement of the scientific journal, Nature, and the United Nations, and is being studied by the SRI International Network and Resources Center at Cornell University, which estimates that it has been adopted by 10 million farmers in 60 countries.
The method, which "aims to stimulate the root system of plants" … "involves careful spacing of fewer but younger plants, keeping the topsoil around the plants well-aerated by weeding, using manure and avoiding flooding."
This could be especially valuable in the face of the hotter, drier growing seasons that appear to be resulting from climate change.
John Vidal. "A New Farming Technique Using Drastically Less Water Is Catching On." Huffington Post, May 15, 2018.
They paved paradise? Screw 'em!
A springtime plant has broken through asphalt laid last autumn. Resist!
Is America on the Verge of a Constitutional Crisis?
"As the Trump presidency approaches a troubling tipping point, it’s time to find the right term for what’s happening to democracy."
Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes address a vital question we are facing.
What we are seeing, in other words, is a little more dynamic than [constitutional] rot, a phrase that assumes we know the outcome. It’s more like constitutional infection or injury. The wound may indeed lead to a crisis; it may become gangrenous. But to describe the United States today as facing a constitutional crisis misses the frenetic pre-crisis activity of the antibodies fighting the bacteria, alongside the antibiotics the patient is taking.
Quinta Jurecic and Benjamin Wittes. "Is America on the Verge of a Constitutional Crisis?" The Atlantic, Mar 17, 2018.
A Better Way to Look at Most Every Political Issue
Our civil discourse is in a sorry state these days, and it appears many of our political leaders, especially at the national level, are more focused on exploiting our divisions than leading us torward finding ways to bridge our gaps. At times, I get really discouraged by this and find myself having to resist an urge to simply withdraw, because I'm not quite ready to give up on the possibility that democracy can work to improve our lives. So I continue to try to understand what is wrong and how we might fix it.
Today, I came across an article by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic that left me feeling a sense of optimism, something that unfortunately is all too rare these days. He argues for a shift in the way we view and discuss the issues that divide us in order to make it easier for us to find areas of agreement and to avoid overstating the differences in our viewpoints.
He explains it all much better than I can begin to, so I'm going to quote a few core points he makes so that I can return to them from time to time and work to integrate them more strongly into my way of thinking. However, it's well worth it to read his entire article as he backs up his suggestions by providing clear examples using some of the most contentious issues dividing us today.
We sometimes think of political issues in binary terms.… But most individuals hold views that are more complicated than a binary can capture.
An alternative is to describe a given position on a spectrum.…
Politicians seeking to win votes express their stances either in terms of a binary or as a spot on a spectrum, depending on where they see the greatest advantage. Though their beliefs don’t change, how they frame them makes a political difference.
There’s a different set of frames, though, that are as relevant as binaries and spectrums, though they are less familiar and less discussed: equilibriums and limits.…
On … scores of … political issues, there are people who tend to focus on equilibriums, other people who tend to focus on limits, and still others who vary in their focus. A single question put to the public cannot reveal the majority position of the polity on such issues, because there are at least two different majority coalitions: One forms around the position that a majority holds on the best equilibrium; the other forms around the position a majority holds on the appropriate limit. The winning coalition turns in part on what frame is more prominent at any particular moment.…
America’s two-party system frequently forces binary choices on voters, and locating oneself on a left-right political spectrum can be a useful exercise. But I’d like to see more political analysis that recognizes the difference between equilibriums and limits and examines the coalitions that form around them. Seeing those frameworks more clearly would reveal instances when differences between Americans are not as sharp as they might seem, and enable marginal improvements to policy on issues where slippery slopes are unlikely and the main obstacle holding back reform is the fear of a limit that almost no one wants to cross.
Conor Friedersdorf. "A Better Way to Look at Most Every Political Issue." The Atlantic, Feb 11, 2018.
Hywind Scotland: world’s first floating wind farm
I had previously read about the Hywind Scotland floating wind farm project, but until I watched their full story video I had no idea how large these wind turbines are. This is an amazing engineering feat. Perhaps there's actually a chance that we'll pull ourselves out of the carbon-based fuel death spiral we're in.
Here's the underwater base portion of the wind turbine (on its side).
This is the turbine housing.
Here's one of the turbine blades.
The assembled top of the wind turbine.
The wind turbine being towed out to sea.
Principles of Adult Behavior
John Perry Barlow, Oct 3, 1947 - Feb 6, 2018. Founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Freedom of the Press Foundation, poet and essayist, cattle rancher, political activist, lyricist for the Grateful Dead.
- Be patient. No matter what.
- Don’t badmouth: Assign responsibility, not blame. Say nothing of another you wouldn’t say to him.
- Never assume the motives of others are, to them, less noble than yours are to you.
- Expand your sense of the possible.
- Don’t trouble yourself with matters you truly cannot change.
- Expect no more of anyone than you can deliver yourself.
- Tolerate ambiguity.
- Laugh at yourself frequently.
- Concern yourself with what is right rather than who is right.
- Never forget that, no matter how certain, you might be wrong.
- Give up blood sports.
- Remember that your life belongs to others as well. Don’t risk it frivolously.
- Never lie to anyone for any reason. (Lies of omission are sometimes exempt.)
- Learn the needs of those around you and respect them.
- Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission and pursue that.
- Reduce your use of the first personal pronoun.
- Praise at least as often as you disparage.
- Admit your errors freely and soon.
- Become less suspicious of joy.
- Understand humility.
- Remember that love forgives everything.
- Foster dignity.
- Live memorably.
- Love yourself.
From the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
Barlow’s lasting legacy is that he devoted his life to making the Internet into "a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth … a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity."
"John Perry Barlow, Internet Pioneer, 1947-2018." By Cindy Cohn, Electronic Frontier Foundation, February 7, 2017.
Don't Panic !
I didn't think I'd actually see something like this in my lifetime.
Spectacular SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch … with " the ability to lift into orbit nearly 64 metric tons (141,000 lb)—a mass greater than a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage and fuel."
On top of everything else, a fantastic sense of humor, too!
Only the Brave
Still shot from the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial Video of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, Yarnell Hill Fire, June 30, 2013.
Only the Brave, a film based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots of the Prescott Fire Department, touched me very deeply. I knew about the incredible tragedy when nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots made the ultimate sacrifice while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire on June 30, 2013, but the film helped me better understand the dedication and personal sacrifice of the firefighters whose incredibly difficult and dangerous work helps keep our communities safe.
Another thing the film helped me better understand and feel is what the families of firefighters must go through, especially when their loved ones are away from home on the front lines of dangerous fires for long stretches of time. There must be moments of utterly unbearable uncertainty.
Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park was created to honor the nineteen firefighters who lost their lives fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire.
The entire memorial is a seven-mile roundtrip hike. The first portion of the hike, called the Hotshots Trail, climbs uphill past individual memorial plaques embedded in large boulders, each honoring one of the fallen, to an overlook above the spot where they perished. The next part of the hike, called the Journey Trail, follows their final journey, ending at the heart of this striking memorial, a circle of nineteen gabions.
May they rest is peace.
Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park. Arizona State Parks.
Dedication of Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial State Park (video).
Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial Video.
Only the Brave (film site).
"Hotshots tree earns Magnificent 7 honor." The Daily Courier, Apr 17, 2015.
"How accurate is 'Only the Brave'? Here's what the movie gets right and wrong." AZCentral, Oct 19, 2017.
Using technology versus being used by it
I've enjoyed technology and the internet over the years, and have profited from it, having worked for several technology-related companies. In the late 90s, as I began to understand and appreciate some aspects of the internet's potential, I launched this website, wanting to participate in this blossoming communication medium, as well as to learn hands on the nuts and bolts of creating a website. Motivated by a desire to create something beautiful in a fashion similar to my woodworking, I've found this to be an invigoratingly enjoyable endeavor over the years.
Yet more recently this technology that now permeates our lives has lost much of the luster it once held for me. This results from factors that have been gaining momentum for several years and reached a tipping point last year. Events early this year are only emphasizing this tipped over, screwed up state.
- I'm dismayed that what began as a medium for sharing information and supporting users 1 has been predominantly transformed into a ruthless commercial environment where customers have little value beyond being a resource to be exploited and sold.
- I despise the devious culture of tracking that has emerged (ultrasonic beacons and canvas fingerprinting are just two recent examples). I want to be able to choose when to share my data with another party and what data to share, not have it snatched from me by some sleight of hand, so I find myself increasingly shifting into a more defensive posture, doing my best to throw up barriers that make this theft at least a little bit more difficult.
- I'm disgusted by the overall shoddy state of the security quality of the hardware and software being released. Nearly every week we hear about some major data breach due to bugs or the carelessness of not patching those bugs in a timely fashion, apps that are found to include malicious components and have been allowed to be downloaded millions of times, ads being served that are infected with cryptocurrency mining malware, or huge gaping flaws with the technology products being used by hundreds of millions of us. It appears that the rush to release products and capture market share far outweighs any sense of responsibility to protect that captured market share (you know … real people). I'm also increasingly upset with how much time we must invest in patching over and over again these products we paid for in attempt to at least achieve some partial degree of security.
- I'm appalled with how carelessly our personal data is being handled. I think it is an ultimate form of disrespect towards their customers that so many companies reaping such huge financial benefits from exploiting this data invest so little in protecting it, especially given the huge harm that results from its theft. I also find it unbelievable—yet at the same time all too believable—how trivial the penalties are for what I consider to be criminal negligence.2
- I can't stand the way companies are purposefully designing products and apps using tactics like intermittent reinforcement to try to manipulate us into spending more time using their products and surrendering more of our personal data to them. As this has caused me to grow ever more leery, I have stopped using many products and apps, and have avoided adopting many new ones. On my devices, I silence or turn off nearly all notifications, view assistants like a medieval plague, and avoid social media platforms except occasionally when I reluctantly use them to visit technical groups.
Because of all of this, using technology and the internet has morphed from an experience I initially found enjoyable to one I now approach with an attitude that is tinged with suspicion and mistrust. Increasingly, I'm focused on how to best reduce my use of, disengage from, or even altogether turn off the technology surrounding us. This isn't easy, but I think it's necessary for a healthy lifestyle.
A small example of this shift is portrayed in the images at the top of this post. I've designed the home screens of my devices to emphasize peaceful scenes and de-emphasize apps and their noisy notifications. I also enable monochrome or grayscale mode most of the time. Doing so tamps down the attempts by devices, apps, and websites to capture my attention through flashy colors, significantly calming the experience of using technology. While I love the luscious colors of the Gaillardia flower that currently graces the home screen of my phone, overall, the benefit I derive from the tranquility of monochrome outweighs the delight of seeing it in color. Better yet, just as I did when I first took that photo, I can turn off my devices altogether and go out for a walk to view the real world in living color.2
 When Time Berners-Lee introduced the World Wide Web project on August 20, 1991, he wrote: "This project is experimental and of course comes without any warranty whatsoever. However, it could start a revolution in information access. We are currently using WWW for user support at CERN. We would be very interested in comments from anyone trying WWW, and especially those making other data available, as part of a truly world-wide web."
 One glimmer of hope is the new EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) privacy rules that are going into effect in May 2018. According to a Politico article published Feb 2, 2018, Europe’s new data protection rules export privacy standards worldwide, the new privacy rules give "EU citizens sweeping new powers over how their data can be collected, used and stored." Because of the power of the EU trading bloc, the GDPR could improve privacy protections for citizens around the world. One can only hope!
 A few months later: After using monochrome for awhile, I find the experience of flipping back to color—which I do occasionally to view things that benefit from it like graphs or photos of lava flows—jarring. I find it quite interesting that I now find the colors of my screens garish, oversaturated, and unlike the living color of real life. I presume that's another manipulation technique of the technologists.
I love trees. I appreciate even the most ordinary trees, and at times I'm absolutely awestruck by some of the trees I come across. One of my favorite activities is walking in a forest. If I'm stuck driving around in an urban environment, when I need to stop I always search for a tree to park next to.
So I was delighted when I came across this site about monumental trees as I was wandering around this morning. I think I'll park here now and then!
The Galaxy Next Door – Andromeda
What a way to begin the new year!
Came across this photo as I was sleepily browsing around this morning, and instantly felt the day brighten.
"The Galaxy Next Door" is a composite of photos taken by the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX), an orbiting space telescope observing galaxies in ultraviolet light across 10 billion years of cosmic history.
As a bonus, here's a photo from a few years ago of Centaurus A's supermassive black hole expelling flumes of debris at about half the speed of light. Sometimes I read the daily news and feel overwhelmed by the chaos of our human affairs … and then I see an image like this and realize just how trivial we are!