Thursday, August 27, 2015

At Play Along Amazon Creek and Trying to Breathe

By Bob Ferris

Amazon Creek from ditch to willow-lined waterway.
I rode my bike along Amazon Creek in Eugene this week.  During my ride I exchanged smiles with others enjoying this wonderful piece of public infrastructure.  This scenic, recreational and wildlife corridor was formed around a too-channelized and failed drainage system and the idea that there might be a better way.  It is a work-in-progress and now home to community gardens, wetland recovery projects, waterfowl, beavers and benches.  In short, it is another example of a community coming together, changing directions and working with nature in a manner that benefits the neighborhood and enriches the quality of life for all in the area.

It is hard to place a value on riding past a prize pumpkin in a community garden or watching some early morning disc duffers frolic flinging Frisbees down fairways.  Not all of it is pretty as there are homeless too and the territorial markings of nearly every urban setting are in evidence.  But it is alive and vibrant with every gang tag offset by emerging beauty and the promise of more wildness to come.

I suspect a fairly tongue in cheek comment in the smoke article.

The only down side of my ride other than a sore knee was the smoke (1,2).  The smoke that has clouded this Valley for most of the summer is the physical manifestation of a society given ample and articulate warning about the issue of climate change, but that has been bullied and conned into choosing to ignore it.  I truly resented the one public good being degraded by the private greed of the other.

Now I know that there will be those stalwart deniers who will take issue with this linkage between fossil fuel use and fires in spite of the excellent graphics presented by the Union of Concerned Scientists and explicit links to climate change.  And I know that they are probably taking a big breath to dazzle me with stories about 17-year stalls in warming(1), 400-year lag times between warming and CO2 levels rising(1), solar cycles and editorials about Al Gore lying about ice caps(1,2).  I guess I would normally suck in some atmosphere myself and then do my normal response too, but that is the whole point: I cannot do it at this juncture because of all the smoke.  So I am going to have to do the abbreviated version of rebuttal that at this time consists of two words that are a little like Happy Birthday (but not really).

So “happy birthday” to all those who have worked so hard over the past 50-60 years to ignore and confuse the issue of climate change and stall actions so they could continue to externalize their environmental costs in efforts to increase profits(1,2,3).  And “happy birthday” too to those faithful minions acting much like canyon rocks echoing the myths and misdirects that are leading to the loss of iconic species like the salmon and steelhead as well as making it hard for most in the West to breathe (1,2,3).

I suspect in all of this my election for short and sweet is also influenced by the current political and economic pollution as well as the media’s absolute unwillingness in post Fairness Doctrine fashion to act in the public’s interests.  So I cannot breathe but I am also pissed.  I suspect that I could spread these heartfelt and well-deserved “wishes” around ‘til the cows come home, but I think it is more important to come back to where we started: at Amazon Creek.

What Amazon Creek represents to me in its purest form is a choice to stand up and do what is better for a community or a region or accept something worse.  Moreover, in a bigger sense, the drainage’s pre-condition of failed and ugly solutions also represents our current political, economic and media environment and the very real choices currently in front of all Americans in the upcoming elections.

Unfortunately, right now I see many, many candidates that resemble the rusted shopping carts and discarded tires typical of neglected urban drainages rather than the healing willows and resilient reeds that we really need to restore our former greatness.  This needs to change otherwise we will be stuck breathing what we are given and living second rate lives or worse.

Hopefully, we will profit from the lessons learned at Amazon Creek and hundreds of similar projects around the nation that started with someone just like you recognizing that change requires action and accepting responsibility rather than inevitability.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Checking the Numbers and Not Feeling the Proper Bern

By Bob Ferris

Are all candidates being treated equally?
We keep hearing about so-called media bias in terms of it being liberal and at the same time not covering the campaign of Bernie Sanders.  (Like how could it be both?) So I thought that I would just take a little exploratory sample to see if some candidates received more coverage than others and how did that relate to important measures like polling numbers.

My sense is that CNN is a pretty middle-of-the-road, perhaps even liberal leaning, news source so I thought that I would do a simple and straight-forward analysis of headline mention on their Politics page on a single day.   This was not a particularly whiz-bang or robust analysis drenched in statistical power, but an interesting exercise to see if more needs to be done.

What I found was this: Out of 60 candidate mentions on this page and on this day (August 23, 2015) 15 mentioned Democrats and 45 mentioned Republicans.  So if you were a Republican you were three times as likely to get mentioned, but since there are three times as many Republican candidates mentioned we can see some sort of fairness patterns here in the coverage with an average of 3.75 mentions per Republican or Democratic candidate.  No harm, no real foul here.

The breakdown of 60 headline mentions on CNN Politics page on August 23, 2015.  The poll numbers were averages taken from Real Clear Politics (1,2).
But when you look at how headline mentions are allocated within these party delineations and within the top tier candidates that is where we start to see some problems in terms of fairness and logic.  The first problem is that Trump seems to be getting more than twice the coverage of Clinton.  How is it fair or reasonable that the Republican front-runner candidate gets twice as much ink (electrons) as the leader in the Democratic race?  Moreover with only capturing 22% of one party’s and yet receiving 36% of all coverage it can be argued that Mr. Trump is getting much, much more oxygen than he deserves and claims that he is a monster created by the media gain some credence.

Now getting back to the original questions about liberal bias and Bernie… It is hard looking at these numbers to make the argument—at least in this outlet and on this day—that we are seeing liberal bias even in this progressive venue.  That said the numbers do support the idea that Bernie Sanders is not getting his due in terms of coverage at about 50 % of what his poll numbers would indicate that he should receive.  The numbers are—for better or worse—what they are and not conclusive other than they raise some legitimate questions about fairness and what we have lost since the Fairness Doctrine was removed from the political landscape.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Growing Threat Posed by the Big Stick of Fascism

By Bob Ferris
Maria Altmann with a reproduction of the Gustav Klimt portrait of her aunt. 
Carlene and I watched “Woman in Gold” this past weekend and found it an emotionally rewarding movie.  The film was complex and there was certainly a lot to take in.  One scene that stuck me hard might have been lost on many.  It was the short bit where the random man approached Helen Mirren’s character (Maria Altmann) and said something to the effect that it wasn’t always about the Holocaust.  The action was simultaneously a spiteful denial and a demonstration that the underlying evil and hatred was not gone but only hidden…waiting.

This scene was powerful because of its meaning and relevance.  How, for instance, is this stubborn hatred so different than the Confederate flag debate and the steeping bigotry we see in this country (1,2,3)?  Moreover, how dissimilar is the Nazi propaganda about the Jews or Communists and their role in the economic misery of the 1930s and 1940s from the myths that are currently being promulgated in this country about blacks, immigrants, food stamp recipients, and union members?

The Nazis had a well-developed propaganda machine that created these fables and also fashioned or enabled hatred on a massive scale to distract the masses from the fiscal culpability of the greedy and shortsighted.  This myth engine also manufactured a psychological umbrella to insulate the rightfully angry from feeling remorse or compassion for taking out their aggressions on these surrogate targets.  And if the public was reticent to act in the way their Nazi manipulators wanted them to, catalysts were provided in the form of the SS, the para-military Brown Shirts or Hitler Youth to show them what to do and how to do it.

People mobilized by false narratives often dress up which provides then a sense of belonging and insulates them from the illogical nature of their acts.
These are obvious, distasteful, and extreme examples, but really how different are many of the Tea Party folks from those in Nazi-era Germany who fully embraced a set of falsehoods and then acted on them?  And what about comparisons that could be made between the Brown Shirts and this current crop of conservative militias and hate groups?  Is it so absolutely surprising that the swastika is so often a totem for these groups?  Coincidence?

Taken in total there is reason for true concern regarding this pattern and the involved players here in the US.   While it is hard to tell exactly how far along this path towards Fascism we have been pushed and prodded, our spider sense should be jiggling as we see massive amounts of resources as well as concerted political effort expended to inoculate us with a set of false and supremely hypocritical narratives.  A prime example was Charles Koch’s recent claim that he and his allies’ efforts to buy political influence to create a less regulated landscape for their own benefit was like the civil rights movement or efforts to stop slavery.  Really?

Anti-intellectualism comes in many forms.
The above combined with the political rhetoric—often reinforced by religious leaders or groups—is winding ever tighter the mainspring of hatred against the groups mentioned above as well as gays and intellectuals (1,2,3). As a scientist I find this latter attack extremely troubling as there is an eerie historic echo to stunts like snowballs on the Senate floor or Creationist museums—compete with humans riding dinosaurs—that bring to mind the smell of burning books.  That this Mein Kampf-style of anti-intellectualism is frequently practiced by those evoking our intellectually-overachieving Founding Fathers (1,2) is a disconnect of stunning magnitude.  (In this it is important to note that those funding the politicians, the climate denial machine and the more conservative Christian groups are largely the same actors.)

Hatred is always a key component of a path towards Fascism as anger is redirected at specific targets and away from those responsible for the anger.   
Roughly 25 years ago I had a rare opportunity to spend an extended period of time with the late Arne Naess the Norwegian philosopher and father of Deep Ecology.  We talked about a lot of diverse topics during our time together and we eventually talked about World War II and how Europe allowed what eventually happened.  I kept coming back to the issue with him about not why it was bad, but why wasn’t it nipped in the bud and stopped before sixty million souls died globally including nearly 6 million Jews and 500,000 Americans.  I never really got a satisfactory answer, but I think it is an important question.

Just as we are likely at a tipping point in terms of climate change, it strikes me that we face similar peril in our political system.  If we do not act now during this current 2016 election cycle and reclaim the balance we once enjoyed and that made us strong as a nation, I am not sure how else short of collapse or revolution we will ever gain the needed course corrections.  In this we cannot with any degree of rationality expect that elected officials groomed and nurtured under the very system that needs correcting or those surreptitiously supported by those steadfastly embracing the status quo will suddenly decide that the hand that feeds them now is not their best bet for a meal moving forward.
In yet another sign that rising income inequality is unsettling our nation, the SEC ruled that starting in 2017 most publicly traded companies must identify and disclose how much CEOs make relative to the median salary of rank-and-file employees (from AFSME).

I do not play the Hitler card easily or often because of the seriousness of the reference and the consequences of evoking it casually, but we have allowed far, far too much of what we originally fought the Revolution for to creep back into our system.  What we need now is a serious set of political pliers to extract all of it.  The pliers should be employed to do the following work on behalf of We the People:
- Stop money from equaling political power and look for ways to get people to the polls rather than having an element of our political system stay awake thinking of clever ways to disenfranchise Americans.  
- Reverse those actions taken over the last 50 years that have shifted assets from the middle class to the super rich and fostered a landscape where CEO pay has climbed at roughly ten times the rate of the average worker.  
- Honor education and the educated again and provide easy and inexpensive avenues for our brightest to become even brighter as the dividends are much greater than the cost.  
- Clarify once again that freedom of religion means that folks in the US are free to practice their own religions personally, but in order to do that governance must be free of religion.  
- Re-Cronkite our media and create a public understanding of the difference between facts and opinions as well as where both are used most appropriately.  
- Make it clear that public good and welfare should take priority over corporate profits or the pocketbooks of a narrow sector of society.  

Arne Naess in a fighting pose.
There are more but to bring this full circle I will end here with a story about Dr. Naess and a lesson he taught me.  I love the above picture of Arne because during the first week of our short association we were camping in Baja California with a collection of graduate students on a trip organized by Michael Soule.  Every time that we came together for a campfire discussion Arne would sit behind me and poke me with a stick.  I asked him repeatedly to stop because the humor of it soon wore off.  Finally, I cornered him and he told me that he was just trying to make me mad enough to hit him because I reminded him some of Ingemar Johansson the Swedish boxer also known as the Hammer of Thor.  Arne told me that he had once been in the ring with Ingemar and he just wanted to remember the feeling of being hit really, really hard.  As I did not want to be known for the rest of my career as the ecologist who killed the father of Deep Ecology we discussed the situation setting clear boundaries and expectations.  We were both better for the experience.

All of us—well, at least 99 percent of us—have been poked hard with a “big stick” repeatedly and we need to tell those poking us that we have had enough.  Hopefully we will benefit from history and do what Arne’s generation was unable to do: Recognize this pattern of misinformation, misdirected hatred and manipulation for what it is and control it before it gets out of hand.  The consequences if we do not are inconceivable.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Finding the Fertile, Sane Middle Ground on GMO Foods…Maybe

By Bob Ferris
An ID from one of the many colleges I attended in the early 1970s.
When I started college in 1970 advocacy by scientists was not considered completely cricket.  It certainly happened but it was generally frowned upon as scientists were supposed to be detached, independent and a little tweedy.  When I returned to school in the 1980s after stints in the for-profit sector, the act of advocacy by scientists was becoming much, much more acceptable.  By the time of my departure from my PhD program in the early 1990s it seemed almost commonplace, if not encouraged.

I think of this trajectory now as I ponder the whole issue of GMOs and food catalyzed by the posting of the above graphic on a Facebook page by a person identifying herself as “Vegetablarian Vicki PhD, BS, WTF (Comedian).”  At least I think the poster is a woman, but the individual’s personal page was deleted because it was an alias and everything in the posted biography seems to be pretty much nonsense (see below).

The above is a good introduction to the conflict and the silliness, because when we discuss this topic or other complicated issues such as pesticide use, omnivory versus vegetarianism, or climate change we immediately find ourselves hip-deep in passion and promotion needing to quickly find the high ground of reason before being sucked below by emotion, deception or both.  Taking the above comparison graphic at face value, we are led to think that we should not trust the greedy, foreign woman in a field and rush to embrace the saintly, sandwich-eating scientist in his lab.  The imagery is offensive on a lot of different levels and really lives more in the land of half-truths and innuendos than it does in somewhere more constructive.

Dr. Kevin Folta speaking on a panel at the Cato Institute originally founded as the Charles Koch Foundation in 1974. 
In point of fact both exemplars in the graphic are scientists and both have received enough criticism for those exercising prudency in this debate to look for multiple sources before forming opinions based solely on their claims.  One cannot, for example, bust on Dr. Shiva for speaking fees and possibly letting her passions get the better of her without also considering Dr. Folta’s association with the Genetic Literacy Project headed by Jon Entine (1,2,3), funded in part by industry and associated with—through fiscal agency and co-location—the Statistical Assessment Service (SAS)/Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) complex that was constructed by S. Robert Lichter—a former paid commentator for Fox News.  (Sorry for the complicated sentence.)

Lobbying expenses by groups opposed to GMO labeling.  For more details visit Environmental Working Group site.
Complicated issues create complicated landscapes particularly when there is big money at stake and checks are being written promiscuously (see above).   It should also be noted that there is a great and eerie correspondence between the funders of SAS/CMPA and those funding the climate denial machine which makes this landscape not only complicated, but purposely slippery as well.  The core message here is that this “landscape” needs to be walked through carefully with every step fully considered and evaluated individually.

When I look at the GMO issues that I have worked directly on such as engineered salmon and Bt corn there are and remain legitimate concerns over how these organisms or their genetic material might or do interact with the surrounding environment and local economies.  As an ecologist I know of simply too many instances when introduced species brought in with the best of intentions and what was considered foresight proved to be disastrous.  And while it might be hard for some to make the connection between cane toads (see above video clip from Cane Toads: An Unnatural History) or mongooses and super-salmon or pesticide enhanced corn these cautionary tales should act as compelling flashing yellow lights to those engaged in considering these options.

I also think about Shakespeare’s line in Henry IV, Part 2 about not shooting the messenger delivering bad news, because with GMOs it is sometimes the messenger or messengers themselves that are the bad news.  The so-called golden rice situation is a prime example of this.  If you know that you might run into resistance getting approval for something because it is in part associated with a controversial company like Syngenta with a reputation for mischief, why-oh-why would you put or allow someone like Patrick Moore with all of his nuclear and climate contrarianism and corporate-linked baggage anywhere near the promotion of this product?  (Hint: When Heartland Institute and CFACT have to jump to your defense or provide you a platform, you have to understand that your good ship "Credibility" is sinking fast and on the way to the bottom. For more on this see here.)

Photo on CFACT website promoting Patrick Moore's Golden Rice campaign and continuing the myth that Moore (on left) is a  "founder" of Greenpeace Canada.
Moreover, why would you think it smart to set Dr. Moore on someone of David Suzuki’s repute?   How exactly is attacking the scientist who introduced many of us to the field of genetics though a text book called Introduction to Genetic Analysis going to attract those same scientists to a cause involving genetics?  And why would you use spokespeople who mainly have well-documented histories of pushing for de-regulation?  Or why too would you conduct trials without getting buy-in from some leading scientists or approval first?

My sense is that the claims of the golden rice proponents are overblown, na├»ve and perhaps a little desperate (1,2,3,4).  As someone who looks at complicated systems frequently and tries to figure them out, I find it unlikely that a single solution focusing on a single factor is suddenly going to solve the whole equation.  But we might never know because these very “smart” people though ignorance, arrogance and more than a little public relations bullying from conservative think tanks and their allies have constructed a strategy that seems to resemble in many ways a skyscraper built on quicksand.

I have friends on both sides of this difficult, complex debate—many of whom seem a little too anxious to shoot first and ask questions later when a little caution and a lot of diligence should be exercised.  To them I would say that we should not extol the promise of GMOs without giving equal examination to the associated peril.  In addition, folks who properly and prudently exercise caution should not be characterized as wanting the world to starve just as those looking for solutions are not automatically monsters.  We have a long way to go on this path but I suspect progress will not be made if that journey starts on an anonymous Facebook page compiled by a comedian with dubious "credentials" or other ill-advised locales.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Lollipop Guild Sues Kardashian over Pirated Munchkin “Vocal Fry”

By Bob Ferris

Lollipop Guild Sues Kardashian over Pirated Munchkin “Vocal Fry”

For Immediate Release

From their offices high above the Yellow Brick Road the leadership of the Lollipop Guild announced today the filing of a lawsuit against Kim Kardashian West for copying and adopting as her own their well-known vocal tremolos.

“Why it is clear, most sincerely clear, that her so-called “vocal fry” is simply a variation of our manner of speech,” said a Guild member. “We find it offensive and want it stopped.”

According to the legal documents the Guild has been following this issue for some time now and concerned not only that Ms. West has appropriated elements of their distinctive style of speech but also has encouraged others to follow her glottal contortions posing unnecessary risk to their vocal cords.

The Mayor of Munchkin City added, “We applaud the actions of the Guild as we feel that our national identity is being stolen from us and that her attempts to copy some of our beloved Munchkin costumes adds further insult to our rich history and culture.”

The Guild has stated that they are prepared to take this all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary. The Guild is even willing to go to the Wizard of Oz himself, but that is of course a horse of a different color.

When asked for comment an intelligent but anonymous strawman representing Glinda the Good Witch said that she supported the action because the good people of Munchkinland had suffered so much at the hands of a certain "type" of person.  Her fodder-filled spokesperson added that she was currently searching the sky for airborne domiciles that might solve the problem and avoid a costly trial and the associated stream of meaningless tweets.


The above is quite obviously parody salted liberally with sarcasm.  Some who follow my blog regularly or the issues that I tend to cover will find this on their own and potentially appreciate it. But if you found it because you gravitate to all things Kim or to Kardashian-hashtags you really ought to think about this adoration or morbid curiosity and ask yourself: Why?

When Pacific Islanders and Alaskan Natives are being displaced by climate change, how fundamentally important is it that Kim can balance a champagne glass on her posterior?  When agricultural production drops and locales run out of water are those people thinking that their condition is somehow ameliorated because Ms. West made yet another least-intelligent or most-annoying celebrity list?  And what about childhood autism rates, are they inconsequential because it is more important to know that Kim was banned from Vogue for acting like a three-year old with a new toy and taking selfies at the Met Gala?

Many incorrectly whine about the influence of the liberal press, but you have to wonder if that is really the case when what Kim was wearing to a certain event seems to get more press coverage than the underlying threat of extremism in the US or the need for some semblance of gun control as expressed by far too many artificially angry men with weapons they really should have never had. Since there are people who sit in rooms and decide our daily diet of news, one can only assume this is purposeful rather than random.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman dissected the current confusion over Republican candidates and the public’s inability to differentiate between candidates who simply sound good and those who actually know what they are talking about.  Although Dr. Krugman did not say it directly what he implied and what I will say directly is the country is being purposely “Kimmed.”  Our capacity to think, care, and reason rationally is being displaced and smothered by stiletto-heeled and spandex-clad tripe.  And the world is laughing at us between great gasping sobs of despair.

Society is often shaped by media that tell us what we should ask for.  And right now they are telling us to ask for and be happy with the intellectual equivalent of a pet rock when we should be calling for and heaping praises on the best and brightest we can produce and trying to make more of the same. That is not to say that all media are doing this.  I take heart, for instance, that recent movies like “The Theory of Everything” and “The Imitation Game” have celebrated the courage and contributions of smart people (even those who are physically challenged or gay), but it is really not enough to balance the passionate and repeated embracing of something extremely dissimilar to intelligence.

When I think of a lot of the above (not the Munchkin part) I think of Rome and its fall.  There were a lot of reasons for the demise of that empire.  The History Channel tried to distill the reasons for failure to eight with the wild-card of lead poisoning acting as number nine.  When we look at our own current state, we see many of these conditions or functional surrogates like wealth inequity and the lack of living wages acting in a manner similar to an over-reliance on slave labor just as the lead issue could be replaced by a whole array of environmental contaminants from mercury to who-knows-what in fracking solutions.   And perhaps we would recognize these dangers and our peril if we could only take a little time away from being so obsessed with pressing, global issues like how swollen Kim’s feet became during her pregnancy.

P.S. I have no personal grudge against Kim Kardashian West.  I do not see her as evil or deserving of hatred, but she has allowed her transparent need for attention in the absence of achievement to be used as a giant and destructive force in this country that so desperately requires something entirely different.  

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Villains, Patriots and the Masses

By Bob Ferris
Two of the haunting images inscribed with Persian poetry by Shirin Neshat.
Carlene and I just visited the Hirschhorn in DC and had an opportunity to view the imagery and film created by Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat.   The exhibit was particularly moving as it dealt with Iran from the 1950s forward which encompasses much in terms drama, tragedy and guilt.  The latter emotion stemming from our own involvement in this bloody and sometimes ridiculous political ballet.
Collection of photographs representing the Masses by Shirin Neshat.
As I left much was running through my mind such as the irony of a democratic country backing a monarch over a duly elected ruler.  The plight of woman in this theocracy and the underlayment of big oil and greed were in evidence as well.  But what stuck with me was the section based on The Shahnameh or the Book of Kings.  Here she cuts up the whole Persian pie into Villains, Patriots and the Masses.
Photos collectively known as the Patriots by Shirin Neshat.
This classification system struck me, because it translates so well into many settings including our own present condition in the US.  Now some might not see a striking resemblance between these menacing “villains” and the oligarchy becoming entrenched in this country but I certainly see the connection.
One of the three villains with illustrations of The Book of Kings on their bodies by Shirin Neshat.
I also have wrestled some with the idea that there might easily be a fourth class that I would call “minions” such as those in Congress who serve the interests of the Villains forgetting the core principles of the country’s Founding Fathers.  Minions would also include actors like the Tea Party or the various extremist militias that are the sheepdogs that push us all away from rational policies towards those that would do us harm.  We would probably not fall victim to this latter group if only we could hear over their incessant barking or see past their clicking jaws.

So like most good art does, this exhibit makes one think and then think again.  My sincere hope is that the Patriots in this country succeed and are able to prevail against the Villains.  But this can only happen if we oust those members of the Masses currently serving the Villains and are able to ignore and control the yapping and snapping of the far too loud and impactful few.  My hope is that we Patriots prevail.