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    • The First Great Environmental Crisis Will Be
      Water. As I’ve said for many years. The world is facing an imminent water crisis, with demand expected to outstrip the supply of fresh water by 40 percent by the end of this decade, experts have said on the eve of a crucial UN water summit. I’ll use the US as an example, though this going to effect almost all countries, some much worse than others, and it wi […]
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Monday: Bubba and Baruch

A recent Esquire interview with Bill Clinton didn’t get as much attention in the blogosphere as I might have expected, or maybe I missed it.  But it’s a fascinating article in many respects.  For one thing, Bill Clinton still has it, that damnable facility with language that drives his enemies and detractors to distraction.  Nevertheless, for all of his political skills, which are formidable, there seems to be a blind spot where Republicans are concerned or maybe he sees the lengths that others are willing to go but he’s made up his mind not to go there.  The conversation he had with one of his impeachment foes, former Representative Bob Inglis, is an example of this:

So he came to me and he said, “I just want you to know, when you got elected, I hated you. And I asked to be on the Judiciary Committee in 1993, because a bunch of us had already made up our minds that no matter what you did or didn’t do, we were going to find some way to impeach you. We hated you. You had no right to be president.” And he said, “That’s wrong.” And he said, “I’m sorry.” And he now meets with a group in South Carolina with a woman he once defeated, Liz Patterson. Very commendable thing.

In one sense, he was blindsided by this irrational hatred from the Republicans when he first came into office.  Maybe that’s the problem.  Bill, the politician, can handle rational behavior, the pulls of different ideologies.  He gets that kind of hardball politics.  It’s the meaningless, destructive, selfish kind of politics that elude him, the tearing down just because you can.  Call me naive but I kinda like that in my politician.

There’s a lot to still like about Bill.  Some of his ideas about work shows that he’s still learning and there is still an openness about where the future can take us in the area of workplace flexibility.  I am in complete agreement that we should adopt the military’s method of teaching people new skills every couple of years.  I know this helped me quite a bit when I went back into the lab for my last year of work.  I relearned how to do experiments hands on, learned an entirely new but related area of study and best of all, was able to add my previous experience to my new experience.  The result was greater than the sum of the parts, especially because I had the added advantage of working on the same protein in a different capacity.  It was a revelation to me, renewed my interest in science, and triggered something in my brain that we think we lose when we get older.  I can tell you with absolute certainty that this is not true.  So, my advice to employers is not to write off people who have been in the same job for years.  Change it up, if they are willing.  You’ll be encouraging flexibility and building a knowledge pool of expertise.  In fact, I would predict that your chances of hitting on something truly innovative will be increased.  Of course, this should be encouraged and not forced.

Bill has something to say about the Occupy movement as well.  He’s for it.  But he also says that the occupiers should come up with 3-4 statements or demands.  Now, I know that other people have made this kind of suggestion before and I agree that it’s somewhat premature to be asking this of Occupy.  But let’s consider this suggestions from Bill’s point of view.

In my humble opinion, Bill and Hillary Clinton have a very well developed worldview.  You may not *like* that worldview or find that it doesn’t gel with your concept of what a politician is or should be or whatever.  But this worldview is internally consistent.  That is, the Clinton’s have a philosophy about how the world operates and what it takes to meet your goals.  Their approach to politics and policy is based on this worldview.  A glimpse of this can be seen in Hillary’s book “It Takes a Village”.  If you believe that the community you construct has the biggest impact on a child’s life, your policies will reflect that as well as the approach you take to dealing with members of that community.  That worldview was also evident in their approach to healthcare in the early 90s.  Back then, health insurance was a problem but we saw it from a personal point of view.  Cost and access were the problems.  I think the Clintons saw it differently.  If you have a well developed worldview of how people, business and politics work, it isn’t difficult to project into the future and see that the costs of health care were unsustainable and would eventually have a severe impact on business.

It was a glimpse of this worldview at Hillary’s breakout session at YearlyKos2 in 2007 that I found so appealing.  This internal consistency and study allowed Hillary to define the problem and develop policies to address this problem and stay within this worldview.  This is their biggest strength. I think this is also the Clintons’ weakness because it relies on rationality and clearly defined goals and the Republicans introduced a measure of senselessness into that worldview.

I’m not sure how to derail the Republicans and make them see reason but if you have a worldview, you must find a way to put that senselessness and selfishness in its proper place and learn how to incorporate it.  Capitulating to it in the hopes that you will be able to reason with it clearly didn’t work in 2008.  I think the Clintons keep learning.  They aren’t perfect but they’ve been working on this stuff for a long time.

Now, what does this have to do with Occupy?  Occupy has a great starting point.  How do you address income and social inequality and make life more rewarding for the 99%?  Without a consistent worldview your demands may end up looking like a laundry list of various complaints that don’t relate to one another.  They will be easy to shoot down.  Your spokespeople won’t know how to defend them.  I looked at Occupy Science’s facebook page a couple of weeks ago and despaired.  The participants were in full react mode without bothering to find out how modern science research and business work.  Without that knowledge base, you can not make sensible demands or craft good policy.  It’s not enough to be angry and act like an injured party.  You need to understand the nature of the problem.  This does not mean all of the complexity.  It simply means, how do the components relate to each other so that you know which buttons to push to get the desired endpoint.  That goes for all of the other important issues as well.

What is your worldview?  In your world, what are the things that relate to one another?  How do you account for human nature?  What are the things that make people do good?  How do you encourage people to do those things?  What is valuable?  What is democratic?  Is democracy even a desired endpoint?  I hope it is but have we thought about this problem thoroughly to convince ourselves that this is true? What are our premises?  What do we have to work with? What is the role of business, government, religion, ethics, nature?  It’s a very philosophical problem and it takes most people a lifetime to figure this out.  The problem is, we don’t have a lifetime.  We have only a few months.  Therefore, we may have to borrow someone else’s starting point.

Who might we call on?  One possibility is Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Dutch Jewish philosopher who had a very well developed worldview.  Unlike other philosophers who tackled one weighty question at a time, Spinoza had a comprehensive worldview that melded human nature, ethics, psychology, politics and theology and he did it at a time in history when all of these things were in conflict with each other.  There are some parallels between Spinoza’s Europe and our modern day that make him a pretty good starting point.  In fact, the other philosophers of the enlightenment drew heavily from Spinoza’s works.  Was he perfect?  No.  Some of his ideas are limited by the examples he had on hand.  There was no American revolution and the ideas of Adams, Jefferson and Franklin.  And yet, our founding fathers incorporated Spinoza’s ideas into our country’s working documents.

When I was taking philosophy courses decades ago, we read Decartes and Hume and Kant but skipped over Spinoza.  There’s really no satisfactory answer for why this is except that Spinoza was a radical enlightenment thinker whose unconventional view of god might have scared conventional philosophers away.   But if you’re looking for a starting place to base your demands, you could do worse than adopt Spinoza’s method of constructing an internally consistent worldview that incorporates nature, politics and man.

For more information about Spinoza, there are a couple of youtube videos that might be useful. For a lite overview of Spinoza, try this In Our Time podcast. I like this kind of thing but it might not be your cup of tea.  This two hour discussion of Spinoza is particularly juicy:

Don’t be put off by the moderator.  He’s the only one who talks in this hesitant style.  The other panelists are more fluid.

America isn’t easy: balancing competing moral claims in advanced citizenship societies


America isn’t easy

Building and sustaining a diverse community is not easy.

What should we celebrate?

Celebrate: to perform (a sacrament or ceremony) publicly and with appropriate rites; to honor by solemn ceremonies and refraining from ordinary business; to hold up or play for public notice.

What should we tolerate?

Tolerate: to endure or resist the action of without grave or lasting injury; to suffer to be or to be done without prohibition, hindrance, or contradiction.

What should we not tolerate?

Freedom of Speech: speech as a celebratory, tolerable, or non-tolerable moral action

The right to free speech celebrates the toleration of alternative views and the expression of those views.

“Monsieur l’abbé, I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write” – Voltaire (potential misattribution)

Continue reading

Common Sense and the sensus communis: anatomy of an American pressure cooker



The pressure of a fixed mass and fixed volume of a gas is directly proportional to the gas’s temperature.

This relationship is known as the Gay-Lussac’s Law and a pressure cooker is an example of the law in practice. Cooking under pressure creates the possibility of cooking with high temperature liquids because the boiling point of a liquid increases as its pressure increases. High pressure and high heat can result in delectable dishes.


Cooking under pressure can be also dangerous because as liquids change phase into gases their volume expands greatly. For example, at atmospheric pressure the volume of steam is about 1700 times greater than the volume of water. To prevent pressure cookers from becoming bombs, relief devices (pop safety valves) are employed that are capable of relieving all of the steam the vessel is capable of producing.

America the Beautiful Pressure Cooker

The political pressure cooker is beginning to heat up. The power brokers and institutions that drive the nation have arrived unannounced on the doorsteps of America like a gaggle of unwanted, high maintenance relatives that demand hospitality for an unforeseeable time and that won’t take no for answer. Furthermore, they’ve announced that more relatives are on the way. Whatever plans America’s householders had, they’ve just gone out the window, with their household budgie and the relatives’ cat in hot pursuit.

People are justifiably angry with this incursion. Their budgie might not have been much, but it was “their budgie”, nurtured from birth into what it had become. Justifiably angry householders are trying to work out why the relatives arrived on their doorsteps and why they brought their fucking cat. Continue reading

Is it absurd to try to weather the storm?

stormIs it beyond our ken to maintain a noble purpose as we guide our battered ships of state through the dark shadows of this mild squall of an economic crisis? Whom of us will risk life and limb to keep the ships afloat? Who will cast away possessions for the same purpose? Who will act to subvert these sacrifices? How will the storm weather us, as we weather the storm?

I ask these question because these darkling foreshadows are pallid compared to those that will attend the forthcoming Category Six typhoon of environmental collapse. How will that storm weather us, if we weather the storm? Given the tendency of people to adopt default positions in crisis situations, how we perform now, should give us some indication of how we’ll perform in much more dire circumstances.

Curiously, given the introduction, the point of this post is not to delve into the ugliness which portends. The point of this post is to ask the question, “How should we behave when faced with the absurdity that the cultural virtues that we cherish undermine the existential preconditions of our culture?” In other words, what does a wine-inspired poet do, when he finds that greater amounts of drink are fueling his muse, but not curing his cirrhosis and, in fact, killing him?

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