Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Oblivious Ignoring the Obvious

By Bob Ferris

Sitting inside a small dwelling captivated by an air quality index (AQI) that for three days was worse than Beijing’s while entertaining house guests whose Rogue River rafting trip was derailed by unhealthy air gives one time and cause for thought.  Particularly when some of that time is spent also looking at the tragedy of Houston and other parts of Texas in the wake of Harvey.  These all strike me as threads of the same sad cloth.  

Which cloth?   It is the deadly and devastating fabric woven by greed and inattention that seems to be worn proudly by those careless in their choices of politicians and nearly gleeful in their acceptance of flawed policies.  Unfortunately when enough of them wear this cloth we all do.  In this, these oblivious folks are much like cattle fed feathers who think it food because it is covered by molasses.  And the Trump administration is buying sweetener in the guise of unfulfillable economic promises by the trainload so that this segment of the population will think deregulation a robust and beneficial idea.  

The idea that the AQI for a span of time in Eugene, Oregon increased ten-fold is profound when you experience it and sobering when you understand that the citizens of Beijing live with these levels daily.  As much of this problem in China relates to coal use in power plants it strikes me as beyond incredible that any rational person would argue that coal is the answer to anything.  But pushing coal they are while using the sledge hammer of jobs to knock down opposition and crush the ideas of regulations or risk.  

There is a pathetic sadness here because experience tells us that being a successful president is not about selling the American people an old technology that causes them and others harm but success comes from leading all towards a future approach that benefits us all. The fact that this president does not even understand what he sells and thinks that “clean coal” is about a post-mining process rather than the chemical make-up of the product just causes head shaking of a monumental magnitude. Which makes us jump to Houston and Harvey to look at more of these threads.

In my consulting days I would visit Houston frequently.  I was always amazed and somewhat sickened by the skyline of buildings some purposely designed to look like gold.  It was city built on naked avarice and seemed not only unembarrassed by this fact but proud.  It is not surprising that this environment anchored in greed was fertile ground for the likes of Joel Osteen and others willing to remold or twist a religion to mirror the moral character of this city and others of similar ilk.  This manufactured disconnect from morality was designed to license sanctimony.

I would argue that there is nearly a co-evolutionary relationship between the sort of trophy capitalism we see in Houston and this so-called Prosperity Gospel that includes Joel Osteen as well as Donald Trump's spiritual ally, the also thrice-married Paula White.  The above clip is from an appearance on the Jim Bakker Show (yes that Jim Bakker).

But then comes the deluge.  Now to those watching with eyes wide open, we see two things immediately.  The first is that Houston’s growth without consequence attitude was a failed approach as it made the city vulnerable to disasters (1,2,3,4).  Good planning may slow projects down but it is also designed, however imperfectly, to make sure that most structures are not built where they should not be like at the bottom of a dry lake bed.  This crucial component to development was stomped out by the "congregation" on their way to worship the golden calf.  

The second apparent factor is climate change.  The storm Houston experienced was more than likely made worse by the very picked fruits of Houston’s wealth—the exploitation of fossil fuels.  Moreover, the industry’s denial of the impacts of carbon dioxide in order to make more profits longer contributed to the level of damage from this event (1,2,3).  While there might be some celebration of the karmic nature of this, I think we would all be better served by focusing on empathy and correction rather than retribution.   

But all beasts, for better or worse, want to survive and conservative beasts tend to want to survive in their present state without change.  Here we see that we must “pray” for those in the path of the storm and then pray for those who survived.   This praying implies God’s hand in all of this--his (or her) responsibility--but not ours.  The more and harder we pray for divine intervention the less we are able to embrace the concepts that poor land-use planning and lack of climate change response are the driving forces in the disaster.  In the illogic here we are meant to believe that putting one’s hands together and shouting to the heavens are more effective actions than filling sand bags, stockpiling water, collecting canned goods or—heaven forbid—providing shelter in a mega-church created in the name of one who was clearly dedicated to charity and helping the down-trodden.  

We should not be surprised that Joel Osteen (above) first said his church was inaccessible when it was not and then claimed he held back aid because he was not asked.  My sense of true charity is that it is mostly an unexpected and unsolicited act.  If it is what you do naturally; there is no hesitation. And why would one expect that charity would spring from a well drilled expressly to wash away the guilt of greed and shift blame for any consequences of these acts of our exploitation to God?

The large question here is Houston’s future and whether or not this wake-up call will lead to changes there and a realization that we need to do better when the city is rebuilt and when we look at infrastructure projects elsewhere.  We need to follow Japan’s model of rebuilding an modernizing after being largely destroyed during World War II rather than London’s model of rebuilding roughly the same structures on the same streets after their great fire of 1666.  

I worry, however, that the enculturated illogic of Houston will persist.  Perhaps too much effort has been invested in climate denial, pushing America to illogic, and in side-stepping the responsibility of exploitative actions to grasp the true opportunity offered by this tragedy.  Part of my doubts come from a recent story on CNN about a statue of the Virgin Mary “surviving” a fire during Harvey.  Though the piece did not identify this as a “miracle” per se the implication was there in the imagery.  What does this story say about our society that anyone, anywhere would accept that something that was inflammable not burning in a fire was remarkable let alone miracle-like?  And why did CNN not take a picture of a “surviving” rock or garden gnome instead if they did not want to communicate this idea?   

Hopefully, my fears are unfounded and we will wake up.  But to do  this we will have to overcome this problem of the obscenely rich empowering the supremely unqualified while choking the life out of institutions designed to enhance our country’s human capital and protect our status as world leaders.  I also hope that this current administration is the bottom of our fall rather than the start and that we are learning from the reactions from those in business, the arts, sciences and from moral leaders that Charlottesville and Houston have to be turning points.  

I speak in terms of "we" above rather than just of those in Houston because at the end of the day we all pay for the destruction and restoration of Houston either through government funds, insurance premiums or elevated gasoline prices.  The results, therefore, should act to restore all of us otherwise they are meaningless at a time when we need great meaning and shared success to reunite us.  

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Our Russian Measles Problem

By Bob Ferris

I talked to a man the other day whose parents immigrated to the US from the Ukraine before he was born.  He was at my home to fix a pest problem and we incidentally ended up talking about Russia.  It was like scratching yourself during the early stage of measles when you finally realize how covered your are with the sores and understand the lasting damage they will cause.  
“Ideological synchronicity between the American neo-Nazis and the Kremlin approaches complete overlap.” From Observer.
Is it weird to characterize Russia’s attacks on American society like measles?  Not really.  Take what most upsets folks lately and it generally has some sort of Putin thumbprint on it.  Let’s start with Charlottesville.   It does not take too much scratching to see that white supremacist Richard Spencer has some serious ties to Russia.  He makes pro-Putin statements and his wife is Russian-born.  These should be some early clues.  Spencer also allied himself with Russian radicals when he tried to organize a racist conference in Hungary before he was arrested and deported in 2014.  Whats more, the man who allegedly ran his car into Americans protesting racism and Fascism killing an innocent woman had also reposted materials of a pro-Russian nature.  (Note: After US-based companies refused to host neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer Russia rushed in to keep the site on-line.)

“The media and enemies of President Trump have tried to drive a wedge between Russia and the United States,” Graham, who is known for spouting Islamophobic and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, wrote. “Our country needs Russia as an ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism. Join me in praying for President Trump and President Vladimir Putin as they have this very strategic meeting.”  Franklin Graham quoted in ThinkProgress 
What seems true for the white supremacists also applies to the Religious Right. It is no small coincidence that Russian philosopher Alexandr Dugin, also known as Putin's Rasputin, was scheduled to be a speaker at Spencer's 2014 conference in Hungary and is also a person with ties to the Religious Right here in the US.   It also no surprise in this Russian-driven dynamic that Dugin endorsed Trump in the 2016 election while praising ultra-conservative commentator and conspiracy-pumper Alex Jones as a "hero" of this recent presidential campaign and a person who "told the truth while everyone else lied."
“YourNewsWire appears to be pro-Russian: According to Boswell, the European Union’s East StratCom Task Force criticised YourNewsWire for using fake news to favour Russian policy. However, Joel Harding (a Kremlin propaganda expert) believed that Russians were using YourNewsWire as a mule or proxy to spread disinformation.”  From Profile 
The White Supremacy and Religious Right examples seem obvious but there are also subtle attacks as well.  What about false rumors of deadly, radio-active salmon and other Fukushima sky-is-falling junk (see below) spread by Sean Adl-Tabatabai and the fake news entrepreneurs at  They too are said to be pro-Putin.  And while it is easy to see that there might be a profit motive to the click-bait they offer, what about the idea of the benefit to Russia of casting doubt on America’s food resources or our safety?  That is likely both about profits and politics.  

Yournewswire fear mongering on Fukushima was not a casual enterprise.

But then this messaging gets multiplied by the pro-Putin forces at Zero Hedge and other gears in this grinding false media menace (see below). These are all likely the modern-day equivalent of Tokyo Rose or dropping demoralizing leaflets from bombers.  Scratch. Scratch. Scratch.  

Screen Shot from Zero Hedge

It is easy to dismiss some of this as silly or obviously just supermarket tabloid fare.  But that does not mean it is not without material harm.  Yournewswire also pushed the Pizzagate scandal which even in its ridiculousness led one poor soul to take up arms against an innocent pizza parlor.  Only one acted but so many more were influenced.  It truly makes you wonder what influencers caused the man in Oklahoma to take actions to plant a 1000-pound “bomb” near a bank and whether or not they came from similar sources with like intents. What electronic voices echoed in his head to make him pursue this course?

Taken collectively this case of Russian measles attacks everything that we hold dear.  It has certainly attacked our confidence in our cherished free elections and acted to crush our relationship with truth.  It is working to derail our evolving pathway towards a diverse democracy by sowing seeds of distrust between those of other origins and of differing approaches to life and faith.  It also foments distrust of science and the value of education which compromises our country's human capital and weakens us as a nation.  And our country’s susceptibility to this attack has cast doubt on our claims of being a world leader of consequence deserving of gratitude and praise rather than eye-rolls and disdain.  

And the fear mongering was also repeated on Russian-owned RT (Russia Today)

The pathway to lessen the damage seems obvious—stop scratching the sores.  Every child with measles has heard this.  So quit sharing fake news because it itches something in you.  Fake news is designed to itch.  We only avoid self-damage when we are thoughtful and disciplined.  But recovery is going to take time because we are covered by this from head-to-toe.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Rickety-Tiki-Taffy of Hate

By Bob Ferris

This whole hateful gathering in Charlottesville is so disturbing—and at the site of Mr. Jefferson’s University no less.  So let’s start with him.  Thomas Jefferson was a man who epitomized science and reason.  Not much science and reason here.  Tons of tattoos, ignorance and unchecked testosterone, but rarified thinking of the type advocated by Jefferson: No.  

Jefferson was also not one who embraced religious dogma blindly being a Deist and famously carving up a Bible to retain what he felt were the good parts and discarding the “hocus pocus” of it all.  He also studied other cultures, fathered children with a woman of color, and festooned the front hall of his home with Native American artifacts.  It is hard in here to find a man like him, but modernized, that would be marching at the front of this collection of louts.  Jefferson was a progressive among those of a more conservative nature which seems a pole away from conservatives pulling us backwards in a progressive world.
I say nothing of it's motives. They were founded in ignorance, not wickedness. God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all and always well-informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive..... Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon, and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.” Fuller quote from Thomas Jefferson’s “Tree of Liberty” letter referencing Shay’s Rebellion.
I am sure that there are those who having nothing else to defend their actions would quickly point out the shorten quote from Jefferson’s “Tree of Liberty” letter (see above in bold).  Fine.  Grab a sentence and distill meaning.  I am sure that works for those with a short attention span—not naming any names here—but the rest of us read the whole thing and also check the context for meaning and understanding.  Those in Charlottesville are mentioned in Jefferson’s letter but probably not in the way they think.

I am baffled too by the claim of this action being history-driven.  Certainly there is a faction that adheres to these white supremacy philosophies and there has been an element embracing this collective stance in the past, but those elements have traditionally been minorities and losers rather than majorities and victors.  Of note too these groups have traditionally been the tools—in all that this term implies—of the monied forces not wanting to give up some method of societal abuse be it slavery, externalization of environmental costs or economic inequities.  So nothing changes.

The imagery in Charlottesville is both shocking and ironic.  I suspect that there are few who served in World War II who do not feel revulsion when seeing anything that resembles the profile of the helmet popularized by the Nazis.  Seeing these helmets or their lookalikes at any event on US soil dishonors those who fought in that war and also is a recognizable outline that defines a regime that perpetrated despicable acts.  

Made in China.  Imagine that?

But the Tiki torches used by many of the white supremacist are blindingly ironic.  Here we have an iconic Asian yard accessory more than likely purchased at a retail outlet that at times seems nothing more than a vehicle for increasing our trade deficit, killing American manufacturing and increasing food stamp use.  I wonder how many of these “brave” marchers considered the cultural roots of their flaming scepters or where they were made?  Not many I would guess.

The title of this piece is close, but wrong, which is perfect and appropriate.  This event was built on a rickety platform of broken bricks fired into a form that never truly existed.  The event is also a stew of un-American and inappropriate imagery that is so contradictory to the stated premise that it has to be considered silly, but for the violence and death it wrought.  And all of this is sweetened by the sticky candy of easily disproven lies made all the more sugary by repetition.  In point of fact, this also applies all too well to this presidency and that needs to be remembered by us in our efforts or history if we fail to save America.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Term of Art Theft, the Leaky Ship of Hate, and Gore Too

Water where it was not supposed to be: The World Trade Center Memorial during Hurricane Sandy.
By Bob Ferris

It is a tough week for me with three colliding ideas.  Luckily, at least of the moment, they are all moving in the same direction.  What are the three?  The first is the US Department of Agriculture NRCS directive that climate change comes into a federal scientist’s mind as climate change but must spill onto the electronic or written page as weather extremes in some bizarre sort of intellectual transmutation. 

Why is this simple term shift so egregious?  First of all “climate change” is a term of art.  It is an agreed upon abstraction for a specific set of phenomenon with established causes and consequences.  Telling scientists to make this substitution is essentially like telling lawyers not to use the term “murder” because you do not like the implications.  The second foul here is that the Administration's preferred term is both inaccurate and misleading as it perpetuates the false narrative of “global warming” and the specious refrain: How harmful can warmer days be? It is scientific censorship, but also  intellectual alchemy only this time—at least in a metaphoric sense—the direction is from gold to lead not the other way around. 

This whole idea of being afraid of words or phrases so perfectly brings to mind the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the old man is to be stoned for saying the word Jehovah.  Somehow it seems that some think that if we do not mention a phenomenon that then it does not exist.  Utterance apparently brings life to the thing.  So for all those out there with this science-phobia who think that words have in themselves special powers I offer this: CLIMATE CHANGE…CLIMATE CHANGE…CLIMATE CHANGE.

The second colliding idea is the judicious release, some would call it a leak, of a third draft of a thirteen-agency publication of a federal report on climate change.  The report affirmatively—at least as affirmatively as science allows—lays out the present-day and future consequences of climate change as well as our role in the coming impacts.  This seems an odd action until you understand that by making this draft more public at this point makes it more part of the record.  Subsequent drafts and the final will all be compared to this one with the attendant questions of why something was changed or not. This also becomes a tool in a sense when agencies look to overturn rules and regulations designed to protect us as this can always be introduced as evidence legally that has to be addressed.  It will always be subject to the question: Why did the government believe this then and what has changed to influence their thinking?  

Now there are those who will squeak some about leaking.  How could they do this?  My sense is that those who argue this have never had to manage around an abusive and incompetent boss.  These doubtful critics likely also focus on the individual act rather than the pattern.  Isolated incidences of leaking indicate points of rebellion or poor-hires, but when it is wide-spread and across agencies it indicates something very different indeed.   And isn’t that part of why we are here: The inability of certain sectors of the population to recognize or accept the implication of patterns?     

The third colliding element is that my wife and I went to go see Al Gore’s new movie An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power which in my mind was easier to watch and more impactful than the first—certainly more visually pleasing.  We went with friends (the review by my friend David Elliott here) after having a tasteful lunch at their home and touring their garden.  I mention this not as an aside to the movie but because one of the core resonances of this newest Gore offering is that it is about climate change and consequences but it is also about setting a positive tone about human relations and interactions.  We sat around a table as friends and shared ideas.  Those at the Conference of Parties (COP) meetings on Climate Change came together as friends—certainly with their own interests in mind—but looked for solutions that served everyone’s purposes.  They sought fact-based resolution rather than irrational conflict.

One cannot objectively watch this movie without contrasting the styles and postures of those accepting climate change for what it is and isn’t and those traveling down the path of denial or obstruction.  Senator James Inhofe comes off like an ignorant and rude dirt clod angrily pounding rhetoric and not giving an opportunity for response.  Inhofe is the thoughtless dentist asking complicated questions after filling your mouth with gauze and clamps.  He is all about the tooth he’s charged to extract and seems to care very little about the fate of the patient, which in this case is us.  Donald Trump too paled in comparison with all the other world leaders shown.   Trump emerged completely as someone lacking depth, knowledge, and compassion. 

Perhaps the deeper meaning of this movie is one of choice.  What course do we want to set for the future?  Will we regain our stature as a world leader by following that evolving thread of science, thought and logic sketched by Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and others or descend back into the Puritanical excesses our country was founded to escape.  The challenge of climate change is that it is here and getting worse whether we accept it or not.  We will, if we act prudently, be able to ameliorate the worse of it by a combination of prevention and adaptation.  How successful we will be and for how many will absolutely depend on attitude and approach.  Our willingness to see what is obviously ahead and sit at the table with others dealing with issues of mutual concern and negotiating agreeable solutions is critical.  Walking away is not winning it is failure.

Climate change is often spoken of in terms of tipping points.  These three elements speak of this phenomenon in their own way.  The first indicates that we have reached a point where all that is left as a strategy by those not wanting to adapt to a world that needs adjustments is to strangle intellectual discourse.  The tipping point of truth has certainly been reached.  

Sam Clovis Trump nominee for lead scientist at USDA who is not a scientist.
The second hints of rebellion not the militia-based, hardware conflagration advocated by Alex Jones and others but the thoughtful software equivalent that created Silicon Valley and the moon landing.  For this latter type to blossom America needs to foster science, qualify of life and innovation in order to keep and attract the intellectual diversity that catalyzes our leadership in this arena.  Because while osmosis tends to equalize distribution of molecules across a filtering border there is no such analogous phenomenon of smart and accomplished individuals flocking to locales lacking visionary leadership, offering worse living conditions and steeped in more stressful political regimes.  I strongly suspect that no scientist looking for a change gets up in the morning searching for a country that openly disparages science and starves its academic institutions.   We cannot have the likes of Betsy DeVos at Education, a non-scientist nominated as the lead scientist at USDA and still no science advisor at the White House without realizing we have reached a science tipping point in the US.

The movie is a tipping point of another kind.   It is a tipping point of modeling the art of managing around Congress and the Administration who each seem both unwilling and unable to deal with this crisis in an informed and mature manner.  If our leaders cannot lead then leadership needs to come from different sources.  Dale Ross the mayor deep in the heart of oil country portrayed in the Gore movie is an artful example of how this works.  I was heartened by the simple and silly partisan banter between Gore and this mayor.  It reminded me of a time in pre-Gingrich and pre-Rove DC when we could play well with those of opposing political philosophies while at the same time getting what needed to get done in a manner that was respectful of those differing philosophies.  Yeah, imagine that.       

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Not Now Cato You Fool!

By Bob Ferris

I used to watch Peter Sellers and the Pink Panther series with great glee.   In part, this was because of British-born actor Burt Kwouk and his role as Cato the servant and sometimes tester of Inspector Clouseau’s reflexes.  We all laughed when Cato would launch a surprise attack at always the wrong moment to devastating effect.  I am sure that the Trump Administration and their allies in this RAISE Act anti-immigration legislation push are similarly thinking of this iconic catch phrase.  Why?

From here.

Because the Cato Institute (nee Charles Koch Foundation) just called horse-pucky on the claims of those in Congress pushing the bill. I think it is wonderful that this conservative think tank would criticize the authors of this bill as they have.  Though it is interesting to watch them stand on their heads in order not to call Senators Tom Cotton (R-AK) and David Perdue (R-GA) liars for presenting misleading claims and falsities.  
Not now Cato, indeed. 

And this was followed by Stephen Miller former staffer for Jefferson Beauregard Sessions IIII of Alabama and now with the Trump Administration who wanted to give a history lesson while omitting key facts and context.   Miller was making an argument that the Statue of Liberty was not about immigration because the Emma Lazarus poem was an "add-on" in spite of the poem being used as a fundraising device for the statue base.  I wonder if Trump’s six-month-pregnant grandmother saw it that way when she and her husband, who was expelled from Germany for dodging the compulsory draft, steamed past the statue in 1904.  I wonder too if Trump’s mother who did the same in 1929 from Scotland felt the statue was about something other than immigration.

But we are used to this pattern of taking a slice of something to illogically characterize the whole. The poem about the statue and immigration was attached afterwards so the beacon drawing immigrants to the US is not about immigrant.  The Founding Fathers were mostly Christians so we must be a Christian nation.  The temperatures cooled for a period so global warming is a hoax.  Now is the time, Cato.  Now it the time for all of us to be Cato.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Regulating Lies

By Bob Ferris
We have a president who lies (1,2,3).  Part of this is because he constantly feeds himself from a trough of fake news and either lacks the intelligence or principles to sort wheat from chaff.  That is not to say that he does not just lie for his own sake or allegedly help create fake news that benefits him. I am concerned about fake news and this comes to mind today because of rain barrels.  What?

A friend from college recently posted on Facebook about her new rain barrels in drought-plagued California.  A good effort and commendable.  But in the comments thread someone posted a comment cautioning folks in Oregon from capturing rainwater as it might lead to a trip to the pokey.  This caught my attention because I live in Oregon and have three rain barrels.   I also live across the street from someone with roughly 2000 gallons of capacity in their system.  The interesting thing is that our neighbor works for EWEB or the Eugene Water and Electric Board.  In Eugene rain barrels are not only legal, but systems below 5000 gallons are encouraged by the City and larger ones are considered with proper permitting.    

When I posted a link indicating that water collection via rain barrels was not illegal in Oregon, the response was a link from a piece in on the AccuWeather site  that was illustrated by the photo of the rain barrel shown at the top of this piece.

But when you go to the source of this claim and the reason for the jail sentence we see the above illustration of one of the three illegal reservoirs created by the "gentleman" in question.   This is hardly about rain barrels or casual water harvesting.  But here we are with sloppy or misleading reporting taking us unnecessarily to a point of distress, anger or paranoia.  

The commenter on the thread removed his comment and therefore my replies.  I am sorry he did that because this is how these dialogues should go—facts and arguments presented back and forth until resolution is hammered out.  He did nothing wrong posting something that he had every right to believe was truthful and accurate.  It was after all not  

This taking of an egregious act and using it to create panic in a community that is not in any way, through scale or practice, subject to these consequences is a classic, anti-regulation tactic.  I am just surprised that the “victim” in question was not more sympathetic—perhaps a blind grandmother with cancer.  (Yes, this latter part is cynical.) . Naomi Klein and others have written much about this tactic.

I do not know whether the AccuWeather piece was sloppy or purposely deceptive, but I am not sure it really matters.  We in the US have become way too accepting of bad journalism in all its many forms including propaganda.  I say this because I have experienced editors and editing where questions are actually raised about accuracy and the agreement between illustrations, headlines and content.  Many are rightfully pointing out that we are living now with the political consequences of our inattention to the quality of journalism.  I think that is true.  We need to do better.  We need to ask more questions and we need to look critically at all that is feed us.  Because a lot of it seems to have passed through a large male bovine before it ever reached us.