Thinking Forward While Looking Back

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Jill Lepore is a New Yorker staff writer and a historian at Harvard University. She tells David Remnick that her new book is the result of a dare: to tell—or even to understand—the story of this country, from the Age of Discovery through the present day, in one volume. In “These Truths,” Lepore surveys six-hundred-odd years of American history, paying particular attention to themes of immigration, suffrage, and how the media has shaped our democracy. Above all, Lepore grapples with whether the United States has lived up to the promises of its founding. She finds an America alternately fearful of change and fearful of stagnation, trapped between idealizing the past and hoping for a better future. The journey toward progress, Leporesays, is less a march than a stumble.

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I have listened to several interviews that Jill Lepore has given during her promotional tour of her new book, such as the one above (click the top image to go to the source). Today I listened to this one, and it has convinced me that this is one of the books I should take the time to read to put the country of my birth, and the country that many people regardless of birthplace are currently confused by, back in some kind of perspective.

We mostly avoid political commentary on this platform but it is impossible to pretend that the USA or Brazil, or the world as a whole are moving forward or in a good direction. My point of view on the state of governance is mainly one of surprise and confusion–how did we get so reactionary so quickly, and where will that lead us?

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Photograph from Universal History Archive / UIG / Getty

I had already listened to this short discussion of the ideas in this book several months ago. It was interesting but had almost zero impact. On the best of days recently I tell myself that if such a shocking mess is possible, then it should also be possible to imagine and move toward a radically superior future. And that always feels Panglossian. But with a few hundred years of history in mind, Jill Lepore gets me thinking that maybe I can see these times for what they are–not good, nor headed anywhere good–but also see that the cycles of history have had us in at least equally trying times, many times in the past. Ezra Klein has one of the best podcasts out there, and this episode proves it to me:

Jill Lepore is a Harvard historian, a New Yorker contributor, and the author of These Truths, a dazzling one-volume synthesis of American history. She’s the kind of history teacher everyone wishes they’d had, able to effortlessly connect the events and themes of American history to make sense of our past and clarify our present.

“The American Revolution did not begin in 1775 and it didn’t end when the war was over,” Lepore writes. This is a conversation about those revolutions. But more than that, it’s a conversation about who we are as a country, and how that self-definition is always contested and constantly in flux. Continue reading

The Little Creatures We Cannot Live Without

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Photo illustrations by Matt Dorfman. Source photographs: Bridgeman Images.

Brooke Jarvis has written a longform feature article with the word apocalypse in the title, which may make you wince and turn away. As might the word insect, even if you find the illustration above mesmerizing as I do. And reading to the end is an investment in time. But do not turn away just because the illustration below is alarming. It is another alarming topic we are responsible for taking account of.

02mag-insects-image2-superJumbo-v5.jpgSune Boye Riis was on a bike ride with his youngest son, enjoying the sun slanting over the fields and woodlands near their home north of Copenhagen, when it suddenly occurred to him that something about the experience was amiss. Specifically, something was missing.

It was summer. He was out in the country, moving fast. But strangely, he wasn’t eating any bugs.

For a moment, Riis was transported to his childhood on the Danish island of Lolland, in the Baltic Sea. Back then, summer bike rides meant closing his mouth to cruise through thick clouds of insects, but inevitably he swallowed some anyway. When his parents took him driving, he remembered, the car’s windshield was frequently so smeared with insect carcasses that you almost couldn’t see through it. But all that seemed distant now. He couldn’t recall the last time he needed to wash bugs from his windshield; he even wondered, vaguely, whether car manufacturers had invented some fancy new coating to keep off insects. But this absence, he now realized with some alarm, seemed to be all around him. Where had all those insects gone? And when? And why hadn’t he noticed? Continue reading

Putting The Whole Earth Catalog Where It Belongs

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Stewart Brand published the final issue of the “Whole Earth Catalog” in 1971. Upon the title’s fiftieth anniversary, he reports feeling little nostalgia for the project. Photograph by Richard Drew / AP

The intersection of mammoth and passenger pigeon had a quirky ring the first time I read about it. Stewart Brand, mentioned plenty previously in our pages, is a kind of genius of quirk, and deserves more attention. Not to pin present problems on him, but to understand the legacy of his masterpiece. I count myself an admirer. But an admirer with deep concern, not unlike what I feel about this other genius. Anna Wiener’s Letter from Silicon Valley, titled The Complicated Legacy of Stewart Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalog,” provides a perspective on Brand and his Catalog that captures my own concerns about the spawn of his quirk:

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Stewart Brand, in 2013. Larry Busacca

In the fall of 1968, the Portola Institute, an education nonprofit in Menlo Park, California, published the first edition of the “Whole Earth Catalog”: a compendium of product listings, how-to diagrams, and educational ephemera intended for communards and other participants in the back-to-the-land movement. The catalogue’s founder, Stewart Brand––a photographer, writer, former army lieutenant, impresario, and consummate networker––had spent part of the summer driving a pickup truck to intentional communities in Colorado and New Mexico and selling camping equipment, books, tools, and supplies to the residents. Brand returned to the Portola Institute (a gathering place and incubator of sorts for computer researchers, academics, career engineers, hobbyists, and members of the counterculture), hired a teen-age artist to handle layout, and began production on the catalogue’s first edition.

At the height of the civil-rights movement and the war in Vietnam, the “Whole Earth Catalog” offered a vision for a new social order—one that eschewed institutions in favor of individual empowerment, achieved through the acquisition of skills and tools. The latter category included agricultural equipment, weaving kits, mechanical devices, books like “Kibbutz: Venture in Utopia,” and digital technologies and related theoretical texts, such as Norbert Wiener’s “Cybernetics” and the Hewlett-Packard 9100A, a programmable calculator. “We are as gods and might as well get used to it” read the first catalogue’s statement of purpose. “A realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.” Continue reading

Junto Clubs For 2018 & Beyond

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The Junto Club outgrew into the American Philosophical Society.

This historical reference is not typical of posts on this platform, except for when one of our contributors was in the midst of historical coursework that led to riffs like this; and then during his archival research that led to riffs like this.

We are riffing now from a current need (to put it mildly) for better conversation, with hindsight to a widely respected man’s approach at a time full of contentions. Thanks to Andrew Marantz for this brief note, whose accompanying illustration below belies the seriousness of the situation. Click the image to the left above to go to a historical archive with more background on this Talk of the Town item below:

Benjamin Franklin Invented the Chat Room

Conversation clubs, inspired by the Founding Father, have never felt more necessary.

180409_r31846webIn 1727, when Benjamin Franklin was twenty-one, he and a few friends—among them a scrivener, a joiner, and two cobblers—formed a conversation club called the Junto. They met on Friday evenings at a Philadelphia alehouse. “The rules that I drew up required that every member, in his turn, should produce one or more queries on any point of Morals, Politics, or Natural Philosophy, to be discuss’d by the company,” Franklin wrote in his autobiography. The United States was not yet the United States, but already he sensed a civility problem. His solution: structured, secular chitchat, “conducted in the sincere spirit of inquiry after truth, without fondness for dispute, or desire of victory.” Continue reading

A Metric For Reinvention

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Click above for 26 minutes of intelligent contemplation. Neuroscience meets environmentalism. He was a New York Times science writer, then the author of one of the most influential nonfiction books of recent decades. Now, he is the gift that keeps on giving:

Daniel Goleman

One way a systems perspective could help with the environmental crisis is through understanding that we have a very narrow range of affordances, the choices presented to us. Continue reading

Technology, Wilderness & Balance

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An illegally flown drone gives scale to next to a lava tube in Hawaii Volcanoes national park. Photograph: Andrew Studer

Some in the hospitality business will likely embrace technologies that I cannot picture using in our hospitality operations, ever, but that is fine. Good for them, I say. Recent events at Chan Chich Lodge have reinforced my wonder at, and love for, technology as a tool to support conservation. There is no doubt that guest photos of big (or small) cats and monkeys, shared via social media, help our conservation mission. There is no doubt that tech tools such as eBird and Merlin (Belize edition recently released, just in time for Global Big Day for those of us who need it) also move our conservation mission forward.

That said, I still have a preference for digital detox among our guests, as much as possible. Artificial noises, visuals, aromas and structures are best minimized in order to maximize the many benefits of nature. Distractions, which may be normal things and habits quite common at home, are the spoilers of visits to great places. The problem first came to my attention nearly two decades ago while visiting Mont Saint Michel, where helicopter tours were just becoming a thing, which clearly annoyed every individual who was making the wondrous visit on foot.

I hope, but doubt, that such tours have been limited in the time since then. The evidence seems to point to more distractions in monumental places, whether natural or cultural, that had previously been visually and sonically protected (thanks to Sam Levin at the Guardian for this):

‘Turn it off’: how technology is killing the joy of national parks

As drones, smartphones other gadgets invade America’s most tranquil trails, many lament the loss of peace and quiet Continue reading

Communicating An Idea Clearly

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When I followed a link to a recording of his lecture, which happened after reading a review of his book, I could not yet have answered clearly as I can now an important question related to Yuval Noah Harari. Is it the core idea, or is it how he communicates that is more compelling? Yesterday I read this op-ed of his in the Guardian and it was as sticky for the last 24 hours as what I heard in that lecture in March, but perhaps not because of the idea.

I say this because the future he describes, in which artificial intelligence is pervasive and essential to the sense of value guiding our lives, is not one I am immediately attracted to, to put it mildly (I say this surrounded by a half million acres of very real forest and very real wildlife and a community of wonderfully real people with whom I enjoy hosting other wonderfully real visitors). And yet the argument he makes, and specifically the structure and description he uses for that argument, are compelling. And worth a few minutes of reading:

Most jobs that exist today might disappear within decades. As artificial intelligence outperforms humans in more and more tasks, it will replace humans in more and more jobs. Many new professions are likely to appear: virtual-world designers, for example. But such professions will probably require more creativity and flexibility, and it is unclear whether 40-year-old unemployed taxi drivers or insurance agents will be able to reinvent themselves as virtual-world designers (try to imagine a virtual world created by an insurance agent!). Continue reading

Gigging Gets Gruesome

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Fiverr, an online freelance marketplace that promotes itself as being for “the lean entrepreneur,” recently attracted ire for an ad campaign called “In Doers We Trust.” COURTESY FIVERR

We know from experience in the realm of sustainability, which has had its soup du jour moments in the last two decades, that whether you are leading or following, a fad or a trend can be a slippery slope. It can lead to innocuous inattention to unintended consequences, or worse. Various new forms of technology, which we tend to celebrate in recent years for their disruptive service to the economy and society through innovation and blah blah blah…Don’t just do it. That might be the counter-message as we explore the gig economy’s downside, as this post by Jia Tolentino points out:

Last September, a very twenty-first-century type of story appeared on the company blog of the ride-sharing app Lyft. “Long-time Lyft driver and mentor, Mary, was nine months pregnant when she picked up a passenger the night of July 21st,” the post began. “About a week away from her due date, Mary decided to drive for a few hours after a day of mentoring.” You can guess what happened next. Continue reading

Evolution Of Responsibility

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Nathan Heller is one of the most consistently engaging, most compelling writers out there, and this new article is one more piece of evidence:

IF ANIMALS HAVE RIGHTS, SHOULD ROBOTS?

We can think of ourselves as an animal’s peer—or its protector. What will robots decide about us?

By

Harambe, a gorilla, was described as “smart,” “curious,” “courageous,” “magnificent.” But it wasn’t until last spring that Harambe became famous, too. On May 28th, a human boy, also curious and courageous, slipped through a fence at the Cincinnati Zoo and landed in the moat along the habitat that Harambe shared with two other gorillas. People at the fence above made whoops and cries and other noises of alarm. Harambe stood over the boy, as if to shield him from the hubbub, and then, grabbing one of his ankles, dragged him through the water like a doll across a playroom floor. For a moment, he took the child delicately by the waist and propped him on his legs, in a correct human stance. Then, as the whooping continued, he knocked the boy forward again, and dragged him halfway through the moat.

Harambe was a seventeen-year-old silverback, an animal of terrific strength. When zookeepers failed to lure him from the boy, a member of their Dangerous Animal Response Team shot the gorilla dead. The child was hospitalized briefly and released, declared to have no severe injuries. Continue reading

Perspective On The Ages

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The Geologic History of Earth. Note the timescales. We are currently in the Holocene, which has been warm and moist and a great time to grow human civilization. But the activity of civilization is now pushing the planet into a new epoch which scientists call the Anthropocene. Ray Troll/Troll Art

Big words in the title may distract from the excellent point of this “cosmos & culture” article at National Public Radio (USA), worth a read:

Climate Change And The Astrobiology Of The Anthropocene

You can’t solve a problem until you understand it. When it comes to climate change, on a fundamental level we don’t really understand the problem.

For some time now, I’ve been writing about the need to broaden our thinking about climate. That includes our role in changing it — and the profound challenges those changes pose to our rightly cherished “project” of civilization. Continue reading

Our Attention to Plants (or Lack Thereof)

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Compared to “juicy” pop culture news, nature-lovers and conservationists constantly have to fight for people’s attention on subjects like endangered animals or protected wildlife. However, the struggle for plant devotees to garner people’s interest on green eukaryotes is much more difficult, except maybe for some garden-popular flowers and vegetables, and perhaps a few trees, but otherwise plants go unnoticed.

Conservation efforts are devoted overwhelmingly to animals; compared to the hundreds of plant species easily found but mostly overlooked in our environs. There’s even a formal name for this: plant blindness. And in a study published in the journal Conservation Biology, biologists Kathryn Williams and Mung Balding of Australia’s University of Melbourne ask whether it’s inevitable: Are people hard-wired by evolution to ignore the vegetal world? Can something be done about it?

“We are absolutely dependent on plants for life and health, but so often they fade into the background and miss out in the direct actions we take to protect our planet,” says Williams. “I wonder how the world would look if more people, instead of seeing a wall of green, saw individual plants as potential medicine, a source of food, or a loved part of their community.”

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Our Landfill Contribution

 

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The diagram above provides a clear illustration of the amount of waste each person contributes to the landfill per year in the U.S. It is a regrettable outcome that results from decades of unresponsive national policies and unsustainable urban development, but can be remedied with a multilateral shift towards a circular economy, according to Nithin Coca, journalist for Triple Pundit LLC.

One of the reasons that America went down the path of throw-it-away is related to the reason we decided to build vast suburbs instead of dense, sustainable, walkable cities. We have a lot of land compared to most other developed countries. The same space we used to build suburbs, roads and an auto-centric culture, we also used to hide our waste as we moved into a throw-away economy.

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National Parks Service, Careers Of Import In Important Places

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Paul Banko bikes through lava flows and fern forests to get to work (Credit: Age Fotostock/Alamy)

Continuing the celebration of the National Parks Service (USA) centenary, thanks to the BBC for this notable story:

In 2002, the last pair of wild ‘alalā disappeared from the forest. Biologist Paul Banko is fighting to return this rare charismatic bird to the wild.

By Shannon Wianecki

Paul Banko has an enviable commute: he rides his bike through cooled lava flows and dense fern forests to reach his office at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. He’s been climbing trees, poking around in nests and rescuing imperilled birds here since his teenage years. Continue reading

Bad News for the Night Sky

Credit: The authors of the manuscript. Prepared by Fabio Falchi

It is unsurprising to learn that light pollution has increased in the fifteen years since the first global map tracking the spread of artificial lumens, but disappointing to hear nonetheless. Last week we posted about one downside to lights in the dark, two years ago shared the idea of “dark sky parks,” and four years ago linked to an initiative to reduce light pollution. Carl Engelking writes for the Discover Magazine blog on the new atlas of the night sky:

The beauty of the night sky is rapidly fading, and an update to the first global light pollution map, created 15 years ago, makes that painfully clear.

The new atlas revealed that more than 80 percent of the world lives under light-polluted skies – that rises to 99 percent of the population in the United States and Europe. One-third of humanity can no longer see the Milky Way. As the new map shows, the night sky is slowly retreating to the glow of artificial light.

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Fourth Estate Considerations

the_fourth_estateWhen we started this exercise, aka blogging, we wanted to keep a running tab of “things” we care about as they showed up in various news sources, and to comment on those topics as often as we could share relevant examples from our own daily activities. Community, collaboration and conservation have been the catch-all topical themes.

Depending on the news for this exercise, not surprisingly we care about the state of the news in all its business/profession dimensions. We have a particular fondness for long form written journalism, and a particular loathing for its polar opposite, whatever that might be called. Gossip-mongering, ugh. So when I first saw headlines announcing that a gossip-mongerer had suffered a legal defeat last week, I smiled at the headline but could not otherwise be bothered to read the details. That changed dramatically when I read the short item below:

How Peter Thiel’s Gawker Battle Could Open a War Against the Press

BY NICHOLAS LEMANN

Probably the most important case in American press law is New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), in which the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, made it just about impossible for a “public figure” to win a lawsuit against a news organization. Justice William Brennan, in the majority opinion, wrote, “The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a Federal rule that prohibits a public offi­cial from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood re­lating to his official conduct unless he proves that the state­ment was made with ‘actual malice’—that is, with knowl­edge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” This standard, built on in succeeding cases, made this the country with the most pro-free expression, and specifically pro-press, laws in the developed world; post-Sullivan protections extend from publications to individuals, and from libel to invasion of privacy. “Libel tourism” means looking for a pretext to sue an American publication in England or some other friendlier venue, especially if you’re a celebrity. Conversely, the purveyors of recent monster revelations, like Wikileaks, have taken pains to find American publishing partners, because the right to publish is far more substantial here than elsewhere. Continue reading

Lay Folk Lessons

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Perception is key to resilience: Do you conceptualize an event as traumatic, or as a chance to learn and grow? ILLUSTRATION BY GIZEM VURAL

As science writers get better and better at reaching lay audiences–starting with Daniel Goleman’s work three decades ago for the New York Times that led to his eventual blockbuster success with Emotional Intelligence (and its many spinoffs) and expanding to much more than the several superstars we have been highlighting in these pages since 2011–it gets more and more tempting for we lay readers to think we “get it.” Hopefully we do some, if not all of the time, get the science enough not only to understand it but perhaps even act on it.

This science writer has become one of my favorites, and this particular online posting (two samples are drawn from the middle section) is a perfect example of why, in terms of the valuable actionable knowledge it imparts:

How People Learn to Become Resilient

BY MARIA KONNIKOVA

…Whether you can be said to have it or not largely depends not on any particular psychological test but on the way your life unfolds. If you are lucky enough to never experience any sort of adversity, we won’t know how resilient you are. It’s only when you’re faced with obstacles, stress, and other environmental threats that resilience, or the lack of it, emerges: Do you succumb or do you surmount?… Continue reading

Venice’s First and Only Gondoliera

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In 2009, 23-year-old Giorgia Boscolo overcame one of Italy’s last all-male bastions (for 900 years) to become a certified gondolier. PHOTO: BBC

Travel empowers. Not just the map-toting, lens-faced tourists but also the people who make travel possible. Often, mere faces. Rarely remembered by their names for their service. Giorgia Boscolo is an exception. She’s a rare breed, in a league of her own on Venice’s canals. Should your travel plans point towards this city, do catch a glimpse of this spirit who sails right through 900 years of taboo.

As a little girl in Venice, Giorgia Boscolo was forever bugging her father to let her ride with him in his gondola. While her three sisters played with their dolls, she would beg him for a turn with the remo, or oar. Dante Boscolo, an indulgent Italian father, humored his pint-sized shadow — to a point.

“My father only let me row when it was bad weather,” Giorgia recalled with a laugh.

His retort was swift: “That’s how you learn.”

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Mind Over Matter, Consumption, And Findings From Behavioral Economics

Northern lights over a camp north of the Arctic Circle, October 2014 (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

Northern lights over a camp north of the Arctic Circle, October 2014 (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

We may be a bit self-interested in declaring so, but this research matches what we believe from daily experience–not to say it is obvious–and so it is good to know science is helping us understand why:

Buy Experiences, Not Things

Live in anticipation, gathering stories and memories. New research builds on the vogue mantra of behavioral economics.

Forty-seven percent of the time, the average mind is wandering. It wanders about a third of the time while a person is reading, talking with other people, or taking care of children. It wanders 10 percent of the time, even, during sex. And that wandering, according to psychologist Matthew Killingsworth, is not good for well-being. A mind belongs in one place. During his training at Harvard, Killingsworth compiled those numbers and built a scientific case for every cliché about living in the moment. In a 2010 Science paper co-authored with psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, the two wrote that “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

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Thank You, Oxfam International

Photo courtesy of behindthebrands.org

Photo courtesy of behindthebrands.org

The Oxfam International campaign Behind the Brands aims to address how little is known about supply chains of the top 10 largest food and beverage companies. Listening to the NPR Salt Chat provides a good explanation about how pushing for transparency from these big companies is a catalyst for on-the-ground change. The campaign has only been around for a year and a half and they’ve already seen great progress in terms of land rights for local community, government intervention, and women’s rights.

It’s not always easy to connect the dots between the food we consume and the people who grow it, or the impact of growing and processing that food on the health of our planet.

But a campaign called Behind the Brands, led by Oxfam International, an advocacy organization dedicated to fighting poverty, is trying to make the inner workings of the 10 biggest food companies in the world more visible…

We sat down to talk with Chris Jochnick, one of the architects of this campaign and Oxfam America’s director of private sector development. We touched on how social media is giving activists more power, why big food companies respond to pressure, and whether corporate executives are his friends or his enemies.

We also wanted to know: Will the promises that these companies make really translate into concrete changes on, say, cocoa farms in West Africa?

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