Archive for August, 2017

Violent events of the past week (Charleston, VA; Barcelona, Spain) and political responses to them have dominated the news cycle, pushing other newsworthy items (e.g., U.S.-South Korean war games and a looming debt ceiling crisis) off the front page and into the darker recesses of everyone’s minds (those paying attention, anyway). We’re absorbed instead with culture wars run amok. I’m loath to apply the term terrorism to regular periodic eruptions of violence, both domestic and foreign. That term carries with it intent, namely, the objective to create day-to-day terror in the minds of a population so as to interfere with proper functions of society. It’s unclear to me whether recent perpetrators of violence are coherent enough to formulate sophisticated motivations or plans. The dumb, obvious way of doing things — driving into crowds of people — takes little or no planning and may just as well be the result of inchoate rage boiling over in a moment of high stress and opportunity. Of course, it needn’t be all or nothing, and considering our reflexively disproportionate responses, the term terrorism and attendant destabilization is arguably accurate even without specified intent. That’s why in the wake of 9/11 some 16 years ago, the U.S. has become a security state.

It’s beyond evident that hostilities have been simmering below the not-so-calm surface. Many of those hostilities, typically borne out of economic woes but also part of a larger clash of civilizations, take the form of identifying an “other” presumably responsible for one’s difficulties and then victimizing the “other” in order to elevate oneself. Of course, the “other” isn’t truly responsible for one’s struggles, so the violent dance doesn’t actually elevate anyone, as in “supremacy”; it just wrecks both sides (though unevenly). Such warped thinking seems to be a permanent feature of human psychology and enjoys popular acceptance when the right “other” is selected and universal condemnation when the wrong one is chosen. Those doing the choosing and those being chosen haven’t changed much over the centuries. Historical Anglo-Saxons and Teutons choose and people of color (all types) get chosen. Jews are also chosen with dispiriting regularity, which is an ironic inversion of being the Chosen People (if you believe in such things — I don’t). However, any group can succumb to this distorted power move, which is why so much ongoing, regional, internecine conflict exists.

As I’ve been saying for years, a combination of condemnation and RightThink has simultaneously freed some people from this cycle of violence but merely driven the holdouts underground. Supremacy in its various forms (nationalism, racism, antisemitism, etc.) has never truly been expunged. RightThink itself has morphed (predictably) into intolerance, which is now veering toward radicalism. Perhaps a positive outcome of this latest resurgence of supremacist ideology is that those infected with the character distortion have been emboldened to identify themselves publicly and thus can be dealt with somehow. Civil authorities and thought leaders are not very good at dealing with hate, often shutting people out of the necessary public conversation and/or seeking to legislate hate out of existence with restrictions on free speech. But it is precisely through free expression and diplomacy that we address conflict. Violence is a failure to remain civil (duh!), and war (especially the genocidal sort) is the extreme instance. It remains to be seen if the lid can be kept on this boiling pot, but considering cascade failures lined up to occur within the foreseeable future, I’m pessimistic that we can see our way past the destructive habit of shifting blame onto others who often suffer even worse than those holding the reins of power.

Previous blogs on this topic are here and here.

Updates to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists resetting the metaphorical doomsday clock hands used to appear at intervals of 3–7 years. Updates have been issued in each of the last three years, though the clock hands remained in the same position from 2015 to 2016. Does that suggest raised geopolitical instability or merely resumed paranoia resulting from the instantaneous news cycle and radicalization of society and politics? The 2017 update resets the minute hand slightly forward to 2½ minutes to midnight:

doomsdayclock_black_2-5mins_regmark2028129For the last two years, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock stayed set at three minutes before the hour, the closest it had been to midnight since the early 1980s. In its two most recent annual announcements on the Clock, the Science and Security Board warned: “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.” In 2017, we find the danger to be even greater, the need for action more urgent. It is two and a half minutes to midnight, the Clock is ticking, global danger looms. Wise public officials should act immediately, guiding humanity away from the brink. If they do not, wise citizens must step forward and lead the way …

The principal concern of the Bulletin since its creation has been atomic/nuclear war. Recent updates include climate change in the mix. Perhaps it is not necessary to remind regular readers here, but the timescales for these two threats are quite different: global thermonuclear war (a term from the 1980s when superpowers last got weird and paranoid about things) could erupt almost immediately given the right lunacy provocation, such as the sabre-rattling now underway between the U.S. and North Korea, whereas climate change is an event typically unfolding across geological time. The millions of years it usually takes to manifest climate change fully and reach a new steady state (hot house earth vs. ice age earth), however, appears to have been accelerated by human inputs (anthropogenic climate change, or as Guy McPherson calls it, abrupt climate change) to only a few centuries.

Nuclear arsenals around the world are the subject of a curious article at Visual Capitalist (including several reader-friendly infographics) by Nick Routley. The estimated number of weapons in the U.S. arsenal has risen since the last time I blogged about this in 2010. I still find it impossible to fathom why more than a dozen nukes are necessary, or in my more charitable moments toward the world’s inhabitants, why any of them are necessary. Most sober analysts believe we are far safer today than, say, the 1950s and early 1960s when brinkmanship was anybody’s game. I find this difficult to judge considering the two main actors today on the geopolitical stage are both witless, unpredictable, narcissistic maniacs. Moreover, the possibility of some ideologue (religious or otherwise) getting hold of WMDs (not necessarily nukes) and creating mayhem is increasing as the democratization of production filters immense power down to lower and lower elements of society. I for one don’t feel especially safe.

My previous entry on this topic is found here. The quintessential question asked with regard to education (often levied against educators) is “Why can’t Johnnie read?” I believe we now have several answers.

Why Bother With Basics?

A resurrected method of teaching readin’ and writin’ (from the 1930s as it happens) is “freewriting.” The idea is that students who experience writer’s block should dispense with basic elements such as spelling, punctuation, grammar, organization, and style to simply get something on the page, coming back later to revise and correct. I can appreciate the thinking, namely, that students so paralyzed from an inability to produce finished work extemporaneously should focus first on vomiting blasting something onto the page. Whether those who use freewriting actually go back to edit (as I do) is unclear, but it’s not a high hurdle to begin with proper rudiments.

Why Bother Learning Math?

At Michigan State University, the algebra requirement has been dropped from its general education requirements. Considering that algebra is a basic part of most high school curricula, jettisoning algebra from the university core curriculum is astonishing. Again, it’s not a terrible high bar to clear, but for someone granted a degree from an institution of higher learning to fail to do so is remarkable. Though the rationalization offered at the link above is fairly sophisticated, it sounds more like Michigan State is just giving up asking its students to bother learning. The California State University system has adopted a similar approach. Wayne State University also dropped its math requirement and upped the ante by recommending a new diversity requirement (all the buzz with social justice warriors).

Why Bother Learning Music?

The Harvard Crimson reports changes to the music curriculum, lowering required courses for the music concentration from 13 to 10. Notably, most of the quotes in the article are from students relieved to have fewer requirements to satisfy. The sole professor quoted makes a bland, meaningless statement about flexibility. So if you want a Harvard degree with a music concentration, the bar has been lowered. But this isn’t educational limbo, where the difficulty is increased as the bar goes down; it’s a change from higher education to not-so-high-anymore education. Not learning very much about music has never been prohibition to success, BTW. Lots of successful musicians don’t even read music.

Why Bother Learning History?

According to some conservatives, U.S. history curricula, in particular this course is offered by The College Board, teach what’s bad about America and undermine American exceptionalism. In 2015, the Oklahoma House Common Education Committee voted 11-4 for emergency House Bill 1380 (authored by Rep. Dan Fisher) “prohibiting the expenditure of funds on the Advanced Placement United States History course.” This naked attempt to sanitize U.S. history and substitute preferred (patriotic) narratives is hardly a new phenomenon in education.


So why can’t Johnnie read, write, know, understand, or think? Simply put, because we’re not bothering to teach him to read, write, know, understand, or think. Johnnie has instead become a consumer of educational services and political football. Has lowering standards ever been a solution to the struggle to getting a worthwhile education? Passing students through just to be rid of them (while collecting tuition) has only produced a mass of miseducated graduates. Similarly, does a certificate, diploma, or granted degree mean anything as a marker of achievement if students can’t be bothered to learn time-honored elements of a core curriculum? The real shocker, of course, is massaging the curriculum itself (U.S. history in this instance) to produce citizens ignorant of their own past and compliant with the jingoism of the present.

Having been asked to contribute to a new group blog (Brains Unite), this is my first entry, which is cross-posted here at The Spiral Staircase. The subject of this post is the future of transportation. I’ve no expertise in this area, so treat this writing with the authority it deserves, which is to say, very little.

Any prediction of what awaits us must inevitably consider what has preceded us. Britain and the United States were both in the vanguard during the 19th and early 20th centuries when it came to innovation, and this is no less true of transportation than any other good or service. I’m not thinking of the routine travels one makes in the course of a day (e.g., work, church, school) but rather long excursions outside one’s normal range, a radius that has expanded considerably since then. (This hold true for freight transportation, too, but I am dropping that side of the issue in favor of passenger transit.) What is interesting is that travel tended to be communal, something we today call mass transit. For example, the Conestoga wagon, the stagecoach, the riverboat, and the rail car are each iconic of the 19th-century American West.

Passenger rail continued into the mid-20th century but was gradually replaced (in the U.S.) by individual conveyance as the automobile became economically available to the masses. Air travel commenced about the same time, having transitioned fairly quickly from 1 or 2 seats in an exposed cockpit to sealed fuselages capable of transporting 30+ people (now several hundred) at once. Still, as romantic as air travel may once have been (it’s lost considerable luster since deregulation as airlines now treat passengers more like freight), nothing beats the freedom and adventure of striking out on the road in one’s car to explore the continent, whether alone or accompanied by others.

The current character of transportation is a mixture of individual and mass transit, but without consulting numbers at the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, I daresay that the automobile is the primary means of travel for most Americans, especially those forced into cars by meager mass transit options. My prediction is that the future of transportation will be a gradual return to mass transit for two reasons: 1) the individual vehicle will become too costly to own and operate and 2) the sheer number of people moving from place to place will necessitate large transports.

While techno-utopians continue to conjure new, exotic (unfeasible) modes of transportation (e.g., the Hyperloop, which will purportedly enable passengers to make a 100-mile trip in about 12 minutes), they are typically aimed at individual transport and are extremely vulnerable to catastrophic failure (like the Space Shuttles) precisely because they must maintain human environments in difficult spaces (low orbit, underwater, inside depressurized tubes, etc.). They are also aimed at circumventing the congestion of conventional ground transportation (a victim of its own success now that highways in many cities resemble parking lots) and shortening transit times, though the extraordinary costs of such systems far exceed the benefit of time saved.

Furthermore, as climate change ramps up, we will witness a diaspora from regions inundated by rising waters, typically along the coasts where some 80% of human population resides (so I’ve read, can’t remember where). Mass migration out of MENA is already underway and will be joined by large population flows out of, for example, the Indian subcontinent, the Indonesian archipelago, and dustbowls that form in the interiors of continents. Accordingly, the future of transportation may well be the past:

photo: National Geographic


photo: UN Refugee Agency