Anxiously Tracking Ian

Sunday, September 25

Here we go again. Checking the National Hurricane Center’s website every three hours for the latest forecast. Scrambling to buy bottled water and canned food at Publix. Suspiciously eying our aging laurel oak, wondering if it’s going to make it (relatively) unscathed though another big storm.

And Ian could turn out to be a huge one. After an exceedingly quiet hurricane season so far this year, we’ve got Tropical Storm Ian, soon to be major hurricane Ian, headed our way in Tampa Bay.

The Many Paths of Ian

As I start to write this post on September 25th, Ian has shifted a bit west of us. For a little while there, Ian was projected pierce the heart of the Tampa Bay area. Now, its projected path has moved westward and so forecast to make landfall in the Big Bend area of the state.

But storms can be fickle, veering off course gradually or even suddenly. We’re still in the “cone of uncertainty,” so we don’t really know how intense it’ll get for us.

This year, we’ve invested in a water filtration system, purchased a small Jackery (which I’d wanted for camping anyway and should arrive later today), and bought a portable solar panels (which which theoretically arrive Monday). If and when the power goes out, these minor investments should, in theory, keep some of our electronics (phones, fans, lights) functional. 

Of course, that’s assuming we get through the storm without injury or major damage…which is fairly optimistic of me.

Well, first comes the waiting game. And if you’ve never had to track a tropical storm before, you can get a taste of the experience vicariously here.

11 AM Sunday: Tampa Bay is still in the cone but the storm is no longer projected to roll straight through downtown. Small mercies…so far.

2 PM Sunday: The storm is staying on course for the Big Bend region of Florida, where we were vacationing just a few weeks ago.

Still, if the storm passes to the west of us as a major hurricane, we’re going to see some weather, and the beaches are bound to get torn up.

8 PM Sunday: Hmm, is the projection moving east a bit? Yes, I think so, which is a tad worrisome.

I’ve added the forecast tracking line so the movement is more apparent in future forecasts. The good news is that we now have our Jackery E240, which is basically a 240 Wh lithium battery with a plug and couple of USB jacks. At least it should help charge our electronics and a couple of small electric fans if electricity goes down.

6 AM Monday: Woke up to a big “Uh Oh” this morning.

The 5 AM projected path shows continued movement eastward. Now the projected storm path is just off Tampa Bay’s coast and expected to make landfall somewhere around Cedar Key, I think.

But there’s just no telling exactly where it’s going to go. It could easily come right at us poor suckers hunkering down on the sizeable sandbar known as Pinellas County. I don’t think Cyndi and I (and the cats) are going to evacuate but the idea is starting to look more appealing.

8 AM Monday: Ugh, this course is no better. Maybe a smidge worse. I don’t like the direction this is heading, literally.

2 PM Monday: Oh shit shit shit. The H is just about touching our house now.

The good news is we got our solar panels this afternoon. Now we can charge the Jackery if we need to. (At this rate, we’ll almost certainly need to).

5 PM Monday: Oh fuck-a-duck. The big H is now covering the whole of Pinellas County. Could the track get worst than that? Yeah, now that I think about it, it could be a big M instead, which would indicate 110 MPH+ winds. The way our luck is running…

I’m trying to get my work-related stuff done while also doing what we can batten down the hatches (stow away outdoor furniture, move planters, put bags of dirt down in front of the garage, etc.) Because we have a house made of brick and cinderblock, I’ve never made hurricane shutters from plywood for it as I did for our wooden Kenwood home. With this kind of setup, I’ve always assumed we needed to have special metal shutters made and those can be super expensive. So, we’ve done without. Even if we could afford it, it’s too late to do anything about that now. Wish we had a basement but basements are few and far between in Florida.

I just helped one of my neighbors put up some shutters that she had some guy build for her a few years back. Light plywood and plastic board. She has a wooden house so these will work for her. The same thing wouldn’t work well for us but now that I’ve seen her system, I think maybe I could build something that would work. Maybe. I’ll definitely look into that before the next big blow (he says, still optimistically)

5 AM Tuesday: Remember when I say it’d be worse if the big M was covering Pinellas County? Well…

8 AM Tuesday: Looks like the same pattern. I guess it’s stabilized for now. And aimed at us like God’s own arrow. Hope Cuba is faring as well as possible.

11 AM Tuesday: Another small shift. I can see Pinellas on this one. This path has Ian making landfall closer to Sarasota. (Sorry Sarasota!)

We’re still in the red zone, of course, and anything can happen. I imagine the folks down in Fort Myers are not happy with the way this is shifting. Regardless, we’ll be moving some indoor furniture this evening to barricade the bigger windows as much as we can.

5 PM Tuesday: The storm’s predicted path has changed again, this time headed toward Fort Meyers.

Although I’m feeling a little better about our own situation in St. Petersburg, we’re still in the red zone and likely still bound for a big blow. I feel lousy for the folks in Fort Meyers. Ian may be doing something similar to what Hurricane Charley did back in 2004, taking a fairly sudden right-hand curve, giving the folks down there precious little time to react and prepare.

Of course, anyone who has lived on this coast for a few years knows how unpredictable these storms are, and the old hands know they need to prepare regardless. But it’s one thing to know that intellectually and it’s quite another to see the NHC plot a course right through your back yard.

8 PM Tuesday: We’re still in the red zone, of course, but it’s looking like Fort Meyers and Punta Gordo will get the first shock of the storm tomorrow afternoon.

Now the trajectory is going taking Ian bi-coastal like some demonic Florida tourist. Not only may Orlando get a taste but so might St. Augustine and Jacksonville! The folks in those towns are like, “WTF! How did get we suddenly dragged into this?”

But if you go back and look (which is what this post is designed for), you’ll see they were in the cone of uncertainty all along. Damn! They don’t call it uncertain for nothing.

In the meantime, I bought a new ladder so I can more easily get onto the roof with a tarp if I need to. The question is, do we still move around a lot of our indoor furniture to cover some of bigger windows now that eye of the storm seems to be going east of us?

Uncertain. Stay tuned.

I’m supposed to do a research presentation for a virtual event tomorrow. I’m hoping the power won’t go out till after that. It shouldn’t matter, since we have contingency plans in case I can’t make it. Still, it’d nice to at least get through that while the power is on.

Will the power go off even though the path will (theoretically) be to the east of us? Probably. This is a humongous storm that covers a lot of territory. Have a look at the NOAA image below to get an idea.

Tomorrow there will an even better image. Of course, I won’t be able to easily access it if the power gets knocked out. Hoping that the local cell towers continue to work…and that my phone is up to the job of hotspotting.

5 AM Wednesday: We’re still in the red zone this morning, but it looks like the Fort Meyers/Port Charlotte/Punta Gorda area remains the projected landfall.

It’s been raining here most of the night. It started as a nice light, barely noticeable (from inside the house, that is) rain but it’s now a regular steady rain, the kind of thing associated with any sizeable storm. The wind is blowing but not hard yet. It’ll be “go time” later today and tomorrow for us, but we’re likely to get the worst off the storm this afternoon, evening, and tonight as we (try to) sleep.

For now, I need to put on my proverbial work hat and get prepared to do a presentation this morning. As the Japanese say, “Ganbare!”

8:30 AM Wednesday: Oy, the storm is nearly a Cat 5 now. It’s a monster, much larger than Charley was in terms of its sheer scope. This is going to be brutal.

Here’s Charley versus Ian in terms of the sheer scope of the storm.

Source: https://weather.com/storms/hurricane/news/2022-09-27-hurricane-ian-different-than-charley

11:15 AM Wednesday: X marks the spot. Ian is right on the coast and coming in quickly as a major hurricane.

Got through my online presentation but our lights are starting to flicker and the wind is really picking up.

1 PM Wednesday: Power still on but wind picking up madly now.

Made an ice run to one of those huge neighborhood ice machines. Whiffed on the first one but got ice from the second. The few people we met at the machines were all really nice. One guy offered to give me some ice if I didn’t have the cash. Everybody tells you “Stay safe” despite the fact we’re the ones out in the middle of a hurricane seeking some nice-to-have ice. Most sensible people are staying off the streets. Have seldom seen 22nd Avenue so lightly traveled.

3 PM Wednesday: The eye of the storm should be coming onshore right about now.

We’ve still got power, though it’s been blinking on and off occasionally. It’s pretty windy out, to the tune of about 46 mph. But that’s a very far cry from the 155 mph winds closer to the center of Ian.

Yeah, NOAA says the storm has officially made landfall at Cayo Costa, which is a state park and large barrier island. That’s reasonably good news (that is, that it hits a barrier island first), though Cayo Costa is just west of Fort Myers.

Sure hope the folks down there aren’t getting too pummeled. With luck, Ian will go from a major hurricane to a regular hurricane once it’s over land.

Meanwhile, Cyndi is cooking up a storm, so to speak, ensuring we can have some cooler-kept meals if and when the power goes out for good.

The good news for us is that the track is taking the storm east quickly, which means away from St. Petersburg. We’ll still feel the effects of the storm up through tomorrow morning, at least, but Pinellas has dodged the bullet of a full frontal impact. Of course, that only means that other Floridians took the brunt. When that happens, you feel simultaneous waves of relief and guilt.

Regardless, we’ve still got a long way to go yet. And after the storm proper, comes the cleanup and recovery.

Here’s a recent radar image. You can see the eye of the storm right over Charlotte Harbor.

6 PM: Amazingly, our power remains on! We’re fortunate because some parts of St. Pete are dark. Kudos to Duke for keeping our power on this long in this kind of blow.

Yeah, there’s a lot of debris down under our oak, and a sizeable hunk of a neighbor’s Jacaranda is down.

Still, we’ve been fortunate so far. Wind gusts around here are up to 77 mph at the moment, according to Accuweather.

I can’t quite tell when the eye of the storm will be closest to us. The way it’s traveling, we’ll stay fairly close to the center up until around 2 or 3am tomorrow (that is, tonight). So, it may yet get worse around here, or may stay similar to how it is now until the main storm moves out of range sometime Thursday afternoon or evening.

The power just went out but then blinked back on. Impressive.

By the way, here’s an image that shows where Cayo Costa is (see far left). That’s where the storm made landfall.

9 PM Wednesday: Still in the red zone, still rainy and hyper-windy, still a lot of debris from trees, still some downed streetlamp wires, and still can’t get the cat to go outside and take a poo (don’t ask). All in all, though, we have little room to complain.

The hurricane is headed to Cat 2 status and moving northeast. I’m hoping that by dawn we will have seen the worst of it, but you never want want to count your hurricane chickens before they’ve flown the coop…or something. You know what I mean.

We’ll hope for no rude awakenings in the wee hours and see what the morning brings. With luck, the break of dawn will come without too much more storm breakage.

The latest radar image shows the eye of the storm almost directly to the east of us now, which suggests the storm is moving faster than (I, at least) originally anticipated. That’d be a good thing and would mean the wind should have died down considerably by morning. Guess we’ll find out.

8 AM Thursday: Ian is down to a tropical storm, and the eye is on the other coast of Florida now. But it’s still blowing pretty hard in my neighborhood, a testament to the sheer scope of the storm.

Though the storm is not over, we feel extremely fortunate thus far. We are no longer in a red zone, so yay to that!

Noon Thursday: Ian is leaving the Florida east coast and the track has it bowing out over the Atlantic till it makes landfall again in South Carolina, which is now in the red zone.

Hopefully, the storm won’t have enough time over the water to turn into a major hurricane again. Not that a “regular” hurricane can’t rock your world.

Just took down a neighbor’s storm shutters. Guy with chainsaw is cutting up the fallen jacaranda next door. People wasting no time around here, though we’ll fully clean our yard of fallen debris from the oak tree once the wind stops gusting.

Feeling terrible for the folks down near Fort Myers. This is the second time in 18 years that they wound up taking the thrust of a major storm that we were “supposed to” get in Pinellas.

2 PM Thursday: Ian is back over the water. Watch out, Charleston and company, here he comes!

This is Ian’s track so far.

5:30 PM Thursday: Here’s the crazy part. In St. Pete, we STILL have gusty winds from Ian even through the eye is in the Atlantic Ocean on the other coast.

How can that possibly be? Because huge doesn’t begin to describe this system. To get a sense of it, check out the graphic below. Even now, we are inside the system and just leaving the purple part that indicates a high probability of tropical force winds. It boggles the mind. You’re a frigging monster, Ian!

Although this extended blog post is focused on tracking the storm from the perspective of one person in the Tampa Bay area, I should note that it’s now being reported that the storm might be the deadliest in Florida history.

I suspect it’s way too soon to be able to say that with any certainty, and I hope it’s not true. Despite the uncertainties surrounding this storm, we all have far more time to prepare for these events thanks to modern meteorology.

The mistake we all make, despite the many warnings of the NOAA, is to take the predicted track too literally. We should all be paying much more attention to the cone of uncertainty than to the track itself. As this blog post makes clear, the track tends to shift from hour to hour, but the cone tends to be more stable. If we’re in the cone, we need to understand that the storm may well be coming our way no matter what the specific track-of-the-hour says.

Some Links to Ian Aftermath Photos:

Paths of Destruction Photos

UPI Photo of Flooding Among the Palms and Condos

Leaning Palm on Power Wires

Surreal Banyan Near the Dali Museum

Upside Down Airplane

Woman on Staircase Next to Beached Boat

Man Walking Flats in Red Raingear

Devastation of Battered Boats

5 AM Friday: All is finally quiet in our neck of Florida, but Ian is fast approaching South Carolina. Somewhere near Bull’s Bay, maybe?

In the meantime, our neighborhood did a lot of cleanup yesterday. Tree debris is now nearly lined up along the road waiting for “The Claw'” As a recall, that’s huge truck that will go up and down the roads of St. Petersburg grabbing up storm-torn branches with its metal claw and feeding them into its bed or its wood-chipping maw.

Some photos of debris and cleanup

When debris flies in a storm, it often ends up flush against the house
By and by, it all gets put on the side of the road, ready for The City Claw to come take it away.
You can see what’s left of our neighbor’s Jacaranda in the stacked wood. They took down the whole tree.
There were various fallen or falling limbs in the neighborhood

8 AM Friday: Ian is “just” a regular hurricane now, which means the winds are anywhere from 74 to 110 miles per hour. But its scope is still huge as you can see by the map. That means that many South and North Carolinians are already feeling the impact of the storm. It’ll make landfall again soon.

Noon: Friday: Ian just about to make landfall again in South Carolina

5 pm Friday: Ian’s eye is now onshore and the main thrust of the storm will be visiting North Carolina soon. But this is projected to be the storm’s last hurrah before becoming a tropical depression on Saturday afternoon. Good luck to all you South and North Carolinians. I need to give you the obligatory “Stay safe!” sign-off.

With this, I’ll say goodbye to tracking Ian.

A relatively large number of people (for my humble blog) have followed this (highly extended) post. I’ll leave it up for anyone who wants to get an idea of what it’s like to live in the cone.

Of course, lately I’ve been feeling as if extended anxiety is common to the whole of humanity given given Putin’s nuclear threats (especially!), worsening global warming, spreading threats to democracy, newly projected economic disasters, and the most recent predictions of the AI apocalypse, among other things.

Compared to those kinds of things, hurricanes are easy to track, prepare for and even avoid. I hope that someday we’ll have as much tracking and relative control over other would-be devastations. Until then, however, welcome to the cone of uncertainty.

The Karst Bridge: Darkness and Light in Florida Spring Country

I owe my love of springs to living in rural Florida. My family and I lived in Lake County, FL for years, and it was generally a happy time. Lots of hikes in the Ocala Forest, lots of visits to local springs such as Alexander, Juniper and Silver Glenn.

I didn’t worry much about politics back then. So what if I lived in a more conservative Florida county? No biggie. In local elections, I often voted for incumbents who’d reportedly (according to the local press, anyway) been doing a good job. These tended to be Republicans. Fine.

My Gulag

Times have changed. Today, partisanship has reached extraordinarily toxic levels, with some Americans espousing violence as a way to settle political differences. This is a kind of mass madness. When I expressed concern about what was happening on Jan. 6th, an old schoolmate of mine, now an avid Trump supporter,  wouldn’t condemn the violence. Instead, he told me he refused to be imprisoned in “my gulag.”

My gulag? I assured him I have no gulag on my modest estate. What would I do with one? I have a hard enough time tending to our unruly little stand of bamboo trees.

Gulag? Such a strange word, a Soviet word that I assume had been ringing in the tirades of certain social media posters or cable news personalities. A word that shapes and warps the realities of the people hearing and using the term.

Black Flags in a Green Country

I was reminded of this weird exchange when we were driving the country roads of the Big Bend region of Florida. It was not a surprise to see Trump flags and political posters dotting the country landscape. People do not give up their political allegiances very easily these days. Trump, enmeshed in many scandals that would have sunk earlier politicians, has proven this beyond any doubt.

What was less expected was the number of black American flags. Sometimes they’d fly on people’s front porches, or we’d see them lined up at the end of long rural driveways, or even waving in the backs of pickup trucks roaring by. I had never heard of, much less seen, these flags before. My first impression was of something ominous and surreal, something intentionally harkening back to the black shirts of Mussolini’s Italy.

Later on, I googled it to see what those flags portend. I saw some left-leaning media interpreting these flags in very grim ways. For example, on Salon I found the following explanation:

In one troubling new development, Trump supporters have begun flying all-black American flags, in an implicit threat to harm or kill their opponents — meaning nonwhite people, “socialist liberals,” Muslims, vaccinated people and others deemed to be “enemies” of “real America.” As media critic Eric Boehlert recently noted, the liberal opinion site Living Blue in Texas is sounding the alarm about the specific meaning of the black flag and the Republican-fascists support for terrorism and other political violence.

If I had been able to ask the drivers of these black-flag-sporting trucks what it meant to them, would they say something similar? Or, would they talk about standing up for their freedoms in a land ruled by “socialists” who wanted to put them in “gulags”? (Just by the way, we now have a total of just four democratic socialists among the 435 congresspeople in the U.S. House of Representatives, not exactly a tsunami of any type of socialism.)

As far as I can tell, black flags harken back to pirate flags. Black flags were flown to show that the pirates would provide no quarter to those on the ships they attacked. This means that they would fight to the death and take no prisoners, killing everyone in their path.

Some say that black flags (though probably not black American flags) were sometimes flown by the Confederacy. The Sun reports, “Confederate army soldiers flew the black flag to symbolize the opposite of the white flag of surrender. The black flag meant that the unit would not give in nor surrender and that enemy combatants would be killed.”

So, who are the perceived “enemy combatants” of today’s black flag wavers? I’m not sure. As far as I can tell, those enemies are largely imaginary caricatures of other Americans, which makes the sight of such flags especially troubling.

My guess is that American black flags probably mean different things to different people but generally symbolize a willingness to violently resist or attack whatever forces are viewed as aligned against them.

Spurious Divisions

The vast majority of Americans generally want the same things. That is, we want to live in a safe and secure environment. We want an economy in which we can find work. We want to feed our families, afford decent shelter, and enjoy some of goods things in life.

We want individual liberty balanced by enough collectivism to ensure things like good roads and bridges, a reasonably strong military, and enough social systems to help people who have fallen on hard times (as when they get sick or lose their jobs). In short, we still want–as Jefferson first put it–life, liberty and ability to pursue our own forms of happiness.

If we agree on all this, why is there so much outrage, animosity and division in our country today? Why do some people feel the need to fly black flags amid beautiful countryside?

Much of it boils down to leaders and media personalities intent on gaining power, influence and money by making Americans believe we are far more divided than we truly are. After all, demonization works. It works to keep to the powerful emotions of fear and loathing engaged, emotions that override our reason. 

Suddenly, we see threats everywhere. People who cross the border because they are desperate for work and a better life are viewed as dangerous “invaders.” The anxious parents of kids confused about their sexual identity are demonized as “groomers.” And people who simply disagree on political issues from tax burdens to energy policy are viewed as “enemies” rather than fellow Americans.

These grotesque exaggerations are used to keep our emotions charged so that cable channels can sell more advertisements and politicians can convince us that they are “fighting for us” rather than just cynically appealing to our darker selves so they can gain ever greater power.

Gorgeous Light

In many respects, the Florida Big Bend area is an Arcadia. The people (at least the ones we met) are friendly and good natured. The countryside is expansive fields–some farmland combined with lots pastures populated by horses, cows, goats and chickens.

But we were specifically there for the freshwater springs, which are often fantastic places of cool, crystalline waters set like jewels in the primeval greenery of old Florida cypress and oaks, maples, sweet gum and honey locusts.

Peacock Spring, by Cynthia Vickers

Springs are places of light. In the largest springs, there is a boil of water that can be seen from the surface, a boil that makes the light shimmer all around. Because the water is typically crystal clear, the light doesn’t just reflect off the surface, however, but fills the entire spring down to the very bottom. The best springs are living windows into sacred worlds from which flow, in tremendous volumes, that water so essential to our lives.

Glades of Shadow

But springs are also places of shadow and power. For every first magnitude spring, there are powerful pulses of water surging upwards from limestone caves. That’s why you will sometimes see intrepid cave diver types at the springs and sinks of Florida. They are, essentially, underwater spelunkers, a dazzling but dangerous hobby that has too often resulted in tragedy.

And then there are the spring denizens, not least of which are snakes and gators. Indeed, the caretakers of today’s Florida springs are not shy about informing visitors about the potential dangers via their signage.

So, it’s little wonder we were a tad nervous when we arrived at our first spring of the trip: Lafayette Blue. It was a weekday and, despite the fine weather, we had the entire spring to ourselves. That made the scene spookier than it would otherwise have been.

Lafayette Blue is unique in that the two parts of the spring are divided by a natural bridge made up of karst. It’s a remarkable sight. On the day we were there, the lighter part of the spring flowed out into the Suwanee River, frequented by schools of mullet and some larger fish that I took for bass. There were also smaller specimen such as sunfish and chubb. On the surface were thousands of waterbugs, moving dimples of light

On the other side of karst bridge is the deeper, darker part of the spring where I snorkled with less confidence, intimidated by shadows and rocky ledges. Even the two large turtles over whom I swam looked wary, unaccustomed to visitors in their dimly lit lair.

America Undivided

As we drove miles through rural Florida on our way to various springs, I thought about the ways in which Lafayette Blue reflects America itself: a mix of dark and light, a clearly divided yet ultimately connected and singular entity, an inspiring, beautiful yet intimidating and sometimes dangerous place.

I know it’s a strange and somewhat strained metaphor, but like the karst bridge over Lafayette Blue, the divisions between red and blue America appear rock hard. And, in fact, these perceived divisions could lead to the end of democracy itself in the U.S. But this isn’t a foregone conclusion. Lafayette is a single spring just as we are a single state in a still-united nation, no matter how much certain “leaders” want to turn us against one another.

The green and rural parts of Florida will always feel like home to me. Despite our rural/urban divides, all Floridians reside in the same fantastical, surreal landscape: a rainforest growing atop porous limestone through which flows cold, clear waters that burst and bubble up from these incredible, life-giving springs. Our divisions are mostly illusory, manufactured by people who don’t have our best interests at heart. The sooner we realize this, the better we’ll be able to savor the light and dark gifts of this preposterously beautiful state.

Dog Is Doog: The [Possible] Upsides to the Downsides of My Dyslexia

One of the reasons I’m interested in cognitive science and different ways of perceiving the world is because of my dyslexia.

I was diagnosed as dyslexic well before most people had heard of the condition. I was lucky. My father was a doctor and my mother a psychology graduate back in the days when fewer women got college degrees.

I was a poor student in the first and second grades, having a hard time reading and writing. Of course, being an August baby probably didn’t help. Kids born in late summer tend to start school younger than their classmates, which means they are both cognitively and physically behind most other kids at a time when even a few months of extra development can mean a lot. Such kids tend to get worse grades and wind up with less confidence in their ability to learn.

Iced Tea and Phonics

But I also had signs of learning disabilities. For example, although “mirror writing” isn’t a definite sign of dyslexia at young ages, it can be one symptom. And it was certainly one of my specialties. I wouldn’t just get certain letters backwards such as d’s and b’s, I’d write whole words and phrases backwards including, of course, my name.

I’m sure there were many other signs as well, enough to convince my mother to seek specialist help since most teachers had never heard of the condition. In fact, my mother tried to educate my second-grade teacher on the topic, though Mrs. Decker was at first skeptical such a condition existed.

The long-and-short of it, though, was that I was taken to a special teacher in the Buffalo, NY. I knew her only as Mrs. Clark, though I want to say her name was Mary Clark (I hope I’m not conflating her name with that of the novelist Mary Higgins Clark).

I can’t quite form a clear mental picture of Mrs. Clark, though I remember her as kind and charming. I recall she was very professional-looking, her hair pinned up in a blondish, maybe grayish bun. But what I remember best is the iced tea she served, along with cookies. The glassware was crinkly and dark green and my hands often wet with condensation.

Once her tests confirmed I was a bona fide dyslexic, she set me to doing booklet after booklet of reading and writing exercises. Much of what she taught me, I believe, was phonics. I remember sounding out word after word for her. Keep in mind that was before the “Hooked on Phonics” craze began and “phonics versus whole language” battles were so savagely waged.

I imagine Mrs. Clark used other strategies as well. I seem to remember doing a lot of pencil work, so I assume she was conditioning my muscle memories as well as honing my perceptions. I have very fond memories of these lessons, which I’m sure is a testament to her patience, care and personality as well as her pedagogy. Mrs. Clark transformed my life.

Disability, Capability or Maybe a Bit of Both

After my sessions with Mrs. Clark, I went from a very poor student to quite a good one, at least within the not-so-rarified confines of public elementary school. At 8 years old, I started reading books of all kinds, though especially fiction, and have never really stopped since then.

I’m still a dyslexic, of course. Can I blame it for my lousy sense of direction? My absent mindedness? Or an initial mental sluggishness when picking of brand new skills?

Maybe. That’d certainly be convenient.

But maybe it’s more than just a handy excuse. Maybe it’s a backwards superpower. Or, at least, a cognitive distinction that that has upsides as well a downsides.

A recent study by Cambridge University researchers Dr. Helen Taylor and Dr. Martin Vestergaard indicates that dyslexic brains play a useful role in human evolution because they are, well, different. Indeed, some heavy hitters have reportedly played for the dyslexic team, including Leonardo da Vinci, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, Sir Stephen Hawking, Sir Richard Branson and Steve Jobs.

(To be honest, I’m always a bit skeptical of such lists, especially when they apply to people living as far back as the Renaissance, but that’s the historical scuttlebutt).

Dr. Taylor, who studies cognition and evolution, is quoted in Science Focus as saying, “In many other fields of research it is understood that adaptive systems – be they organizations, the brain or a beehive – need to achieve a balance between the extent to which they explore and exploit in order to adapt and survive.”

So, basically, as I understand it, the theory is that dyslexics have a tough time “acquiring automaticity.” That is, when compared to non-dyslexics, they are not-so-hot at procedural learning. This can make it harder for some to learn, among other things, to learn how to read and write.

The good news about such learning difficulties is that dyslexics become more conscious (or, in my case, maybe just self-conscious) of whatever processes they’re trying to master. This turns out to be a pain in the butt in the short term but a potential advantage in the longer term. Taylor states, “The upside is that a skill or process can still be improved and exploration can continue.”

This helps dyslexics excel as explorers and creative types, even if they pay a societal price. Taylor notes, “It is important to emphasize people with dyslexia do still face a lot of difficulties, but the difficulties exist because of the environment and an emphasis on rote learning and reading and writing. [Instead, we could] nurture ‘explorative learning’ – learning through discovery, invention, creativity, etc. which would work more to their strengths.”

Nice to Finally Know

Over the years, I’ve learned to take any research findings with a grain of salt. One study suggests coffee is associated with stress and high cholesterol. The next one indicates its good for your liver and heart. The next one…well, we’ll see.

The bottom line is that Taylor and Vestergaard will not have the final say on the pluses and minuses of the dyslexic brain.  

Nonetheless, it’s nice for dyslexics to finally hear that their learning disabilities are also learning capabilities. And, it’s fun to envision us as bunches of unconventional but adaptive clusters of neurons buzzing usefully about in the vibrantly bizarre hive mind known as humanity.

Featured image from Totesquatre: Català: la dislexia. Wikimedia Commons.

We’re Engaged in Reality Wars, Not Culture Wars

In a previous post, I discussed the book The Case Against Reality, by cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman. This time, I want to loosely tie those ideas to the U.S. reality wars.

Echo Chambers and Halls of Mirrors

In today’s U.S., there are multiple political camps that, due to the structure of our system, invariably wind up channeled into just two political parties. This is maddening for those of us who want more choices, but for reasons known as Duverger’s Law, we’re stuck with just the two–at least for now.

Our two-party system leads to polarization, especially in an age when Americans find it easier than ever to lock themselves in media that do nothing but reinforce beliefs they tend to already hold. This especially applies to our cable news networks, with one recent study indicating that TV is a stronger driver of partisan news consumption than even our fractured social media.

That’s not to say social media doesn’t also play a role. Indeed, as one recent Atlantic article reported:

[R]esearchers who measure echo chambers by looking at social relationships and networks usually find evidence of “homophily”—that is, people tend to engage with others who are similar to themselves. One study of politically engaged Twitter users, for example, found that they “are disproportionately exposed to like-minded information and that information reaches like-minded users more quickly.”

Everywhere people look, they see versions of themselves reflected back and hear echoes of their own voices. It’s toxic narcissism writ large. As for other points of view, they are often distorted in grotesque ways that make people hate or distrust those who hold those points of view.

What makes this phenomenon even more destructive is that social media algorithms are designed to keep people engaged on their platforms so they’ll spend more time there. There are plenty of reports about how Facebook, YouTube and even TikTok are taking people down conspiracy-laden rabbit holes out of which they emerge as extremists.

The Reality Wars

Of course none of this is breaking news. In fact, it is commonly viewed as part of the so-called culture wars. What I believe, however, is that these trends extend beyond mere culture and influence our fundamental construction of reality.

Image of soap bubble: By KarlGaff – CC BY 4

If you believe Hoffman’s thesis that our perceptions are not based on some close-to-the-surface reality but, rather, on some sociobiological interface that bears little resemblance to whatever underlying reality is out there, then we literally generate our own realities to some degree.

(Yeah, I know that in a lot of ways this isn’t a new idea, even if now we have more evidence to support it. In fact, it’s straight out of Freshman Ponderings 101, bong tokes and dog-eared copies of Herman Hesse novels.)

Let’s assume for a minute that Hoffman is right. If so, then some human beings literally see reality in different ways, and this is bound to influence our politics.

Different Brains, Different Worlds

Certain factors shape our realities, not just our cultural views. This shows up in cognitive and psychological studies. For example, one study indicates that the brains of conservatives and liberals often function in slightly different ways. Scientific American reports:

The volume of gray matter, or neural cell bodies, making up the anterior cingulate cortex, an area that helps detect errors and resolve conflicts, tends to be larger in liberals. And the amygdala, which is important for regulating emotions and evaluating threats, is larger in conservatives.

No only do liberals and conservatives view the world in different ways, they even remember reality differently: “Among other things, partisan identity clouds memory. In a 2013 study, liberals were more likely to misremember George W. Bush remaining on vacation in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and conservatives were more likely to falsely recall seeing Barack Obama shaking hands with the president of Iran.”

There are, in fact, various studies indicating that conservatives and liberals see the world differently. And, it’s not just the world they see differently. It’s their own minds and motivations. For example, whereas liberals and conservatives think they are applying judgment equally to all groups of people, they each tend to judge members of their own ideology more favorably than others. 

“It seems that most people think that they are applying their moral principles in an even-handed way,” authors Dr. Jan Voelkel and Dr. Mark Brandt told PsyPost. “However, our findings suggest that we humans struggle to apply our moral principles equally to our outgroups and ingroups.”

Naively Unrealistic about Reality

There’s a name for the human tendency to believe that we see the world around us objectively (and to see the people who disagree with us as irrational, biased or immoral). It’s called “naïve  realism.”

Naïve realism is theoretically responsible for a bunch of systematic cognitive errors, such as:

We’ve seen naive realism play out in spades in the U.S. over the last several years. Take the pandemic. The U.S. has suffered more Covid-19 deaths per capita than any other nations in the world except for Peru and Brazil, yet a 2020 poll from Pew Research Center found that 76% of Republicans believed the pandemic was handled successfully in the U.S. while the same was true for only 29% of Democrats.

Sometimes differences come down to which aspects of our reality we choose to pay attention to. For example, about 4 in 10 American’s have closely followed news about the Jan. 6th select committee’s hearings, but the the percentage who are following at least somewhat closely vary widely from 55% of Democrats to 40% of independents and just 28% of Republicans.

Divisions have gotten so bad that they’ve crept deep into our personal lives. For example, The Institute for Family Studies reports:

Marriages across political lines appear to be falling. In 2016, when Eitan Hersh and Yair Ghitza counted married couples among registered voters, they found that 30% of couples were politically mixed, meaning they did not share the same party identification. Most of these marriages were between partisans and Independents, and 9% of all marriages were between Democrats and Republicans. Today, only 21% of marriages are politically mixed, and nearly 4% (3.6%) are between Democrats and Republicans, according to my analysis of the new American Family Survey.

On Reality-Bending Demagogues

We live in an era of demagogues. Lexico.com defines a demagogue as “a political leader who seeks support by appealing to the desires and prejudices of ordinary people rather than by using rational argument.”

Politicians are probably demagogues if they:

  • try to make you fear or hate some specific group of people who have traditionally been ostracized from society
  • attempt to fan flames of outrage by making emotional appeals based on unsupported or widely exaggerated evidence
  • bully and attack others who dare to challenge their arguments, power or ego
  • make arguments that they themselves contradict because the arguments are based on emotions rather than logic
  • promise to solve complex problems with overly simple and often unworkable solutions
  • try to make “people like you” feel as if you are a victim of unfair treatment by some demonized group around which unproven (and usually unprovable) conspiracies are woven
  • repeat large lies again and again, following the dictate of Joseph Goebbels: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

Demagogues are typically reality warpers because their claims and emotional appeals can’t be well supported by the honestly presented facts. But this doesn’t mean the warping isn’t real. They can literally change the way people view their realities.

Some Results of Warped Realities

How does such warping work on a practical level?

Let’s use the issue of immigration as an example. On recent NPR/Ipsos poll found that fewer than half of participants correctly answered a range of true or false statements regarding immigration.

For example, 54% of Americans think it’s at least somewhat true that we’re experiencing an “invasion” at the southern border, with 76% of Republicans and 40% of Democrats believing it. Part of the problem here is that word “invasion,” which typically refers to armed forces but in this case refers to regular and generally unarmed people crossing the U.S. southern border. The emotion-laden word literally changes the way people interpret their realities and is largely a media-influenced concept. Republicans who cite Fox News or other conservative news sources as their main news source are more likely to buy into the invasion narrative.

But the reality warping extends beyond emotions attached to immigration. For example, half of polled Americans “believe it is at least somewhat true that migrants bringing fentanyl and other illegal drugs over the southern border are responsible for the increase in drug overdoses and deaths in the U.S.” This claim is not supported by the evidence. Almost all fentanyl is smuggled into the U.S. hidden in vehicles coming through official ports of entry.

So, why do so many people believe otherwise? It’s largely because demagogues and media figures mislead people. For example, Florida’s governor states, “You have people coming across illegally from countries all over the world. And so what has that gotten us? We now, in this country, have the leading cause of death for people 18 to 45 as fentanyl overdose.”

He infers that the illegal smuggling of fentanyl is directly linked to illegal immigration even those these two things are almost entirely unrelated. This is how realities are twisted and forged by politicians and media sources.

In another example, over half of Republicans believe that, compared to native-born U.S. residents, immigrants are more likely to use public benefits and to commit crimes, even though the evidence indicates that neither of these is true.

Working with the Threads of Shared Reality

So, how can we reweave some of these threads into a more cohesive U.S. reality? I wish I knew. It may be the single most important question facing U.S. democracy today.

One way to weave threads of common realties may be by starting with areas of political consensus and having people work together on those areas. For example, there are large bipartisan U.S. majorities that favor increasing the number of work visas to legal immigrants. Americans could work across party lines on the issue in an attempt to have lawmakers pass meaningful legislation in this area.

There are, in fact, various areas of political reform that both voting constituencies tend to favor by large margins. According to the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland, these include:

  • a Constitutional amendment to allow governments greater freedom to regulate campaign financing
  • requirements for increasing disclosure of campaign financing
  • an extension of the period of time that former government officials must wait before working as a lobbyist
  • a movement to make it easier for independent and third-party candidates to compete in U.S. elections

Not only could such public policy work help form more examples of shared realities, they would bring these different groups into closer contact with one another, allowing people to form closer emotional connections with those who think in other ways.

Final Thoughts

Although culture plays a role, the “culture wars” are, in a deep sense, reality wars in that people literally disagree about what’s real. If we can internalize this as the problem, then we can finally grok just how deep our national issues go.

Ultimately, though, what we call these conflicts is less important that whether we can come up solutions to address them. Democracies will always be characterized by differences of opinions. Such differences are good. In the war of ideas, you want the best ones to flourish. That’s why democracies tend to produce happier and healthier societies.

But we also need ways of keeping those differences from mutating into outrage, hatred and violence. Because a democracy that results in open conflict is a deeply unhealthy democracy, one likely to metastasize into something truly dreaded and deadly.

Featured image from Ústí nad Labem, the Czech Republic. Větruše hill, a mirror labyrinth.

Will Exponential Growth Get Us to Our Solar Shangri-La?

There’s so much bad news these days that it can be hard to focus on the good stuff. The global trend toward clean energy is, however, one recent trend worth celebrating. So, being a bit of an energy nerd, I thought I’d delve into some of the details.

How’s Kurzweil’s Solar Prediction Faring?

Back in 2011, I read an article claiming that futurist, author and inventor Ray Kurzweil had predicted that solar power would be able to satisfy the entire world’s energy needs in 16 years (that is, by 2027) due to exponential growth in its usage. At the time, I was skeptical but interested. Kurzweil is well-known for his predictions of various future events based on the idea that some trends grow exponentially.

So, here it is 2022, just 5 years shy of the time when the world is supposed to be fully solar.” How are we doing? Well, that depends on your perspective.

In many respects, Kurzweil has proven to be correct. The growth in the amount of solar energy produced in the world has, in fact, been growing exponentially since the year 2000. By my reckoning, the number of terawatts produced by solar power has doubled every 2.375 years. Whereas solar produced just 1.08 terawatt hours (or TWh) of electricity in the year 2000, it produced 1,032.5 terawatt hours in 2021. That’s a remarkable run!

But even if it continues to double every two years over the next five years, solar will still produce roughly 8,000 TWh of power in 2027. Not bad. In fact, it’d be about a quarter of all the power humanity generated in 2021 (28,214.07 TWh). Still, we will not be powering the whole planet with solar by then.

How about if we add wind energy to the mix? Based on my own back-of-the-proverbial-envelope projections, the combination of solar and wind energy has been doubling every 3.5 years or so since 2000. Together, solar and wind produced 2,894.44 TWh in 2021. If that number doubles over the next four years (let’s say), it’ll represent 5,788.88 or so TWh in 2025. Again, pretty great, but by no means powering the whole world.

The Global Growth of Solar and Wind Energy, 2000 to 2021

Created using data from Electricity production by source, World

If solar/wind were to continue to double every four years, however, then it would represent 23,155.52 TWh in 2033 and 46,311.04 TWh in 2037, which is far more energy than humanity produced in 2021. So, Kurzweil’s forecast may well come true, though a few years later than predicted.

Even if it does, however, it won’t be all solar and wind. Hydropower, for example, won’t be going away. Nor will all the nuclear plants be shuttered. But it’s quite possible that between 2033 and 2038 the vast majority of sources of electricity will be completely renewable.

The Dad-gummed S-Curve

The problem, of course, is that sooner or later, solar and wind will hit the so-called S-curve. As the World Resources Institute notes, “Historically, technologies that are growing exponentially have a ‘top speed’ for growth — a maximum growth rate that is achieved, that lasts awhile and then slows down as it approaches 100% adoption. This pattern is known as an S-curve.”

S-curves are probably inevitable for these two forms of renewable energy. After all, it’s one thing to grow from 2 TWh to 4 in a couple of years. It’s quite another to grow from 20,000 TWh to 40,000 TWh in just two years. You’re essentially taking much of the previously installed solar power over a period of many years and then doubling it in just two!

Below is an example of a possible S-curve related to renewables, as shown in “Explaining the Exponential Growth of Renewable Energy.”

From World Resources Institute

When Will the S-Curve Flatten Out?

Nobody quite knows when the S-curve will flatten, slowing the growth of solar/wind power. There are too many variables that remain uncertain. But I think the most important variable is energy storage. If humanity can solve energy storage pretty quickly, then the S-curve will not flatten out for some time. If we can’t solve it, though, then it’ll flatten faster because the all-too-variable renewables will need to be use used in tandem with more reliable sources such as fossil fuels and nuclear.

Lightning in a Bottle

So, will today’s scientists and engineers be able to develop and implement enough robust, cheap and plentiful energy storage to allow renewables to meet their potential? After all, if we could efficiently store energy from the sun and wind so that is available when the wind’s not blowing nor the sun shining, then renewable will be reliable enough to power nearly everything.

[Note: Some experts believe that more infrastructure can serve essentially the same purpose as energy storage: that is, if you have enough renewables plugged into an expanded grid, then some energy source will always be available. For example, the wind will always be blowing somewhere. Of course, this assumes nations will invest in such infrastructure and NIMBY types allow it to be built.)

So far, we haven’t come close to perfecting energy storage, but there has been considerable progress. Since 2019, there have been a rash of articles on how the combination of solar-plus-batteries has become the least expensive way of generating electricity. Science magazine reported that “Solar plus batteries is now cheaper than fossil power.” Forbes reported “New Solar + Battery Price Crushes Fossil Fuels, Buries Nuclear.”

But, as welcome as such headlines were, the stories themselves came with a catch. That is, the lithium-ion batteries in these projects can’t hold a charge for very long and the batteries themselves wear out. In fact, the batteries cited in the Forbes article could only provide electricity for four hours past the time when the sun stops shining. That’s clearly not long enough to make this model capable of getting us to 100% renewable energy.

Nonetheless, we are about to see a ton more of these solar-or-wind-plus-lithium-ion-battery power plants (aka, hybrid projects) come online over the next few years. By the end of 2020, there were 73 solar and 16 wind projects that, altogether, provided 2.5 gigawatts of power generation and .45 gigawatts of storage, Bigthink.com reports.

By the end 2021, about 223 gigawatts of proposed hybrid solar plants were in the works, along with 19 gigawatts of hybrid wind. That’s some pretty Kurzweilian growth there.

Salt, Gravity, Hydrogen and Other Storage Hopefuls

Lithium-ion batteries are the state-of-the-art right now, but plenty of other energy storage tech is in the wings. There is a ton of innovation in this area right now, with news stories popping up every day. Yesterday, for example, it was Scientific American reporting on molten salt batteries.

Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), a Department of Energy national laboratory in Richland, Wash., are developing a battery that might solve this [long-term storage] problem. In a recent paper published in Cell Reports Physical Science, they demonstrated how freezing and thawing a molten salt solution creates a rechargeable battery that can store energy cheaply and efficiently for weeks or months at a time. Such a capability is crucial to shifting the U.S. grid away from fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases and toward renewable energy.

Then there are ideas such as using gravity to store energy, which is pretty much what hydropower already does. Now, however, they’re trying to make gravity work without water and favorable local geologies. For example, there’s the company Energy Vault, which has been celebrated in the media but is now being criticized as an unworkable idea by some analysts. It’s hard to know if anything will come of these gravity schemes.

Perhaps more promising is green hydrogen–that is, hydrogen fuel produced with renewables. The problem with using hydrogen for energy storage is that it’s not very efficient to turn renewable energy into hydrogen and then use hydrogen to power something else. S&P Global Market Intelligence reports:

The technology to convert power to hydrogen and back to power has a round-trip efficiency of 18%-46%, according to data that Flora presented from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and scientific journal Nature Energy. In comparison, two mature long-duration technologies, pumped-storage hydropower and compressed air energy storage, boast round-trip efficiencies of 70%-85% and 42%-67%, respectively. Flow batteries, a rechargeable fuel cell technology that is less mature, have a round-trip efficiency of 60%-80%.

On the other hand, I’ve also read that engineers are working at developing processes with a much better conversion efficiency for hydrogen. Even if hydrogen does not turn out to be the most efficient way of storing energy, it could still win the energy storage game if the world produces so much cheap renewable power that a substantial level of inefficiency become acceptable.

Then there’s the really high-tech stuff that is not ready for primetime but may utterly change things when it is. For example, Swedish scientists have reportedly created “an energy system that makes it possible to capture and store solar energy for up to 18 years, releasing it as heat when needed.”

This kind of tech sounds almost magical. “This is a radically new way of generating electricity from solar energy. It means that we can use solar energy to produce electricity regardless of weather, time of day, season, or geographical location,” said research leader Kasper Moth-Poulsen, Professor at the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenberg.

Now, If We Can Just Reinvent Ourselves

A world in which renewable energy quickly becomes our primary source of power feels inevitable at this stage…unless we screw it up via the worst impulses of our hominid natures. We’ll need, for example, to avoid destroying our infrastructures (not to mention ourselves) via nuclear war while electing responsible politicians who are not beholden to the fossil fuel lobbies and who are better at bringing people together than driving them apart. The world’s richer states will also need to help the poorer ones make the transition to green energies as quickly as possible. And, of course, the scientists and engineers will need to keep doing what they’ve done so well so far: reinventing the way humanity generates its energy.

In short, we’ve solved most of the engineering problems associated with clean energy, and we’re quickly making headway in the one area not yet solved: the storage and stable dissemination of renewable power. We can make it to a green energy global economy if we can just figure out how to listen a little more closely to the better angels of our nature.

Featured image from Lunkwill / derivative work: McSush - Exponential.png

On Why Gen Z May Have a Great Future After All

Poor Gen Z. In the United States, the oldest members this generation (born between 1997 and 2012, give or take a few years) have only recently entered adulthood, and it’s been a pretty rough ride so far.

Let’s say the eldest are 25. That means that since their 18th birthdays, they’ve seen the divisive Trump years, the turmoil of the pandemic, an attempted insurrection, a sudden surge in inflation, record global warming, a couple of recessions (yeah, I’m calling this one even if the NBER isn’t), an invasion in Europe, the greatest amount of political polarization since the U.S. Civil war, and the descent of the U.S. political system into the category of flawed democracy.

It’s little wonder that they’re turning out to pessimistic about the future. The world in general and the U.S. in particular has looked like a real shit show in recent years, and the immediate future isn’t looking all that bright, either.

But will Gen Z really be the generation that comes to adulthood just in time to see economies collapse, the world burn up, nation states fall apart, and Orwellian authoritarian states become the norm?

Sure, it could happen, especially if they (and the rest of us) don’t fight against those dystopian futures. But here’s the thing. If you squint a bit, you can detect signs that the Gen Zers might have a pretty great future after all.

Here are just a few of the trends we can point to:

  • The emergence of a go-go green world: Few have commented on the trend so far, but renewable energy is growing at exponential rates. If we only confine ourselves to solar and wind globally, the rate of growth is doubling every 3.75 years. Even if we round this up to 4, these two energies alone will provide more power in 2034 than was generated globally in 2021. The future will be renewable, and soon. That’s not a bad way to spend your early adulthood.
  • The rise of the smart (and hopefully super helpful) machines: Artificial intelligence is advancing at remarkable rates, which may have massive implications for productivity, innovation and more. Recently DeepMind announced it had successfully used AI to predict the 3D structures of nearly every catalogued protein known to science: over 200 million proteins found in plants, bacteria, animals, and humans! Sure, it was hard to hear that astonishing news amid all the hubbub about the end of the Chaco Taco, but history will judge this a major historic event (DeepMind, not the Taco). If AI can so quickly be productive in this one extremely challenging area of science, then imagine the impact it can have on worker productivity in general. As productivity rates rise over the next decade or more, so will income per capita (in theory). Of course, those gains need to be properly redistributed throughout the workforce, but that’s a different challenge. Yes, powerful AI could potentially have a number of truly terrible repercussions as well, but let’s focus on the bright side here.
  • The dazzling advances in microbiology. The protein-folding achievement just noted is one part of a much larger set of advances in microbiology. CRISPR, for example, is an astonishing technology. The rapid creation of the Covid-19 vaccination was just one the modern miracles brought to you by microbiology. These advances will continue and, in fact, speed up due to aforementioned machine learning techniques. If we can avoid the specter of bioterrorism, these advances might well mean that Gen Z will be the healthiest and longest-living generation in history. Death? Hah. That was so 2020s!
  • The renaissance in reformed political systems. Yes, the U.S. as well as various other nations are in danger of turning away from democracy and toward totalitarianism. Based on the popularity of scary-ass demagogues like my governor Ron DeSantis, we might well see the Orban-ization of America in the near future. However, at the same time, there are various grassroots movements (e.g., RepresentUS) that are seeking to reform the more corrupt and dysfunctional aspects of government. Perhaps if the U.S. can build up its immunity to demagoguery and neo-fascism quickly enough, there could be a flowering of pro-democracy movements here and abroad. This could eventually lead not just to more democracy globally but to more functional forms of democracy than have ever existed.
  • The rise in environmental protections and the strengthening of Earth’s ecosystems. Humanity has done an enormous amount of harm to the global ecosystem, but, along with the advancement in renewables, there will also be more programs such as 30×30, which is is a worldwide initiative for governments to designate 30% of Earth’s land and ocean area as protected areas by 2030. Now it even looks as if the U.S. might be able to pass the The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which would put about $385 billion into combating climate change and bolstering U.S. energy production through changes that would encourage cuts in carbon emissions. So, Gen Z may be the first generation to spend its early adulthood in a global culture that finally takes serious steps to heal much of the environmental damage humanity has already wrought

Sure, there are lots of things that could go disastrously wrong. Some of them surely will. But there are also a lot of things that could go very right. Since the Gen Zers can’t tell for sure, they can join one of the many movements to make things better.

At the very least, they’ll be able to enjoy the comradery of people trying to improve things. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll be able to help create a way better world than the one they’ve inherited so far.

Featured image: By Dian Dong, Toronto climate change activist Alienor Rougeot calling upon the public, with the youth, to take action in one of Fridays for Future's earlier climate strikes, 15 March 2019

What Kind of Political Animal Are You?

Political Identity Crisis

Sometimes on social media I wind up in political discussions in forums designed for that purpose.

I find that self-described conservatives often think I’m a liberal because I believe in empirically proven collectivist legislation such as universal healthcare.

Self-described liberals often think I’m a moderate or conservative because I think free markets work well in many instances–and because I argue against the ills of wrong-headed, governmental restrictions in various areas such as housing regulations.

So people judge my overall political belief system based on my take on specific political issues. But every issue is different, so I tend to believe legislation should not be based on ideology but on empirical evidence about a specific issue.

The problem, of course, is that you often just wind up with just two choices in an election no matter your take on various specific issues. This is a reflection of our increasingly polarized and, I think, broken two-party system, but we’ll put that aside for now.

The Small “d” Democrat

I think of myself as a small “d” democrat who believes our governmental legislative systems are largely dysfunctional because they have been, according to certain studies, captured by moneyed interests. As a result, they do little to serve the “will of the people,” as measured by polls and research. I’ve got nothing against the ultra-wealthy per se, but they are neither qualified nor elected to make decisions for the rest of the nation.

So what does that make me? Radical? Populist? Moderate? Socialist Libertarian?

Beats me. “Small ‘d’ democrat” is the best I can think of. Because I do believe that a representative democracy (yes, and I know we live in a federal republic, as millions of online cranks will insist on) is a good, self-correcting system if it typically reflects the will of the overall population rather than the will of most powerful plutocratic class. And, if it protects minority rights even while reflecting majority opinion.

I suspect that there are many people who, like me, do not fit neatly in today’s political stereotypes and conventional classifications. (It never did make much sense to plot the complex plethora of political ideas along the absurd paucity of a single horizontal spectrum.) If we ever banded together, maybe we could call ourselves “The Empirical Party” to indicate we base most of our political opinions on the best facts available, undergirded by a few basic values such as liberty and fairness.

Of course, I’m well aware that our two-party system means that any third-party has almost no hope of gaining a foothold. But it’s nice to have a dream, and one never knows.

Featured image: 1874 cartoon by Thomas Nast; Credit Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Just Remember

In my day job, I’m lucky enough to chat with lots of smart people about talent-management issues: that is, the art and science of managing people at work.

Recently, some of these smart folks have indicated that their client organizations are suddenly less worried about things like employee well-being and experience and more concerned about the return-on-investment of worker-focused programs.

I’ve seen all this before, multiple times. We go through boom cycles during which employers are having a tough time recruiting and retaining employees. In these cycles, employers give a lot of lip service and sometimes genuine attention to issues such as employee engagement, empowerment, experience, and well-being of all sorts (physical, mental, financial, etc.).

Then an economic downturn hits and much of it goes right out the window. That was the inspiration behind the following piece, first posted on LinkedIn.

I get it. They’re scared. They’re scared and determined to be brave, to survive the hard times. They’ve read enough “motivational” business books packed with tropes and flaccid logic, and so they trot out out the ole “when the going gets tough…” slogans.

Like I said, I get it. But here’s what I don’t like: the sheer hypocrisy of pretending to care about fairness, equity and employee experience one day and then being willing–often eager–to toss it all out the window in tougher times. Suddenly, they’re looking for that “ROI” on well-being and experience initiatives, suddenly the employee “partner” and “stakeholder” represents a line item to be cut, a number on a balance sheet.

I get it. We live in a capitalist system, and that’s how it works. Companies need to do what it takes to survive. Some are determined to “be bold,” to gain “market share” as others struggle. A virtue. Part of the game. The system keeps us all “agile” and works the wonders of “creative destruction.” Proper reallocation of resources. Sure, sure. I know, I know.

But just remember that employees do not forget the hypocrisy after the fact, when the economy ultimately rebounds and suddenly the endless “war for talent” is back on. Just remember WHY it’s so hard to retain good people, remember WHY engagement is viewed as a joke among far too many workers.

I don’t have the answer to these conundrums. I’m not even condemning necessary downsizings and the like. But remember these moments. Remember how one day they’re talking about creating a sense of “belonging” and the next they’re talking about “outplacement.” Yes, it’s brutal, it’s life, it’s the American way.

I get it.

Just remember.

Featured image is a boomerang. Photo by Rama, taken as MEG — Musée d’ethnographie de Genève (official website)

What You See Ain’t What You Get

Donald Hoffman’s book The Case Against Reality is nicely summed up by the subtitle: Why evolution hid the truth from our eyes.

That is, he argues that the world that we see (and the one we hear, smell, touch and taste) everyday is a kind of illusion. And not just a minor illusion but a major, systemic one. The kind of illusion you get in The Matrix, except far, far stranger.

In the movie The Matrix, after all, the Machines have built a virtual reality in which to house humanity’s minds while their bodies are used as batteries (yeah, what always sounds lame to me, too). But the virtual reality is basically identical to the reality of humanity’s past.

The world that we experience is much weirder, according to Hoffman, a cognitive psychologist, because it is not a simulation of reality but, rather, a façade that bears little if any resemblance to the underlying reality of our universe.

Fitness Stomps Truth into Extinction

Here’s Hoffman’s argument in a nutshell: we have all been shaped by evolution to reproduce rather than see the truth of things.

That is, we were designed by nature to only sense what we need to sense in order to survive long enough to produce offspring. If nature needs to lie to us to get the job done, that’s just fine by nature.

“Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness,” sums up the cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker.

Hoffman takes that basic observation further by producing the Fitness-Beats-Truth Theorem, or FBT. Consider the following fable to understand his theorem better.

Frankie and Terry Wash Up on Evolution Island

Once upon a time, where were a couple of geckos happily sunning themselves on a log on the tropical beach. Suddenly, a huge rogue wave enveloped the beach and floated the poor geckos out to sea. Things looked grim for our heroes, whom we’ll call Fit Frankie and Truthful Terry.

But then the log floated up on what seemed to be an island, an exceedingly weird island where nothing was familiar. In fact, the whole place looked gray and black. I don’t mean that the trees, bugs, bushes and rocks were gray and black. I mean that there were no recognizable land formations at all. Just gray blobs and white blobs.

This freaked out both of our gecko sojourners but, hey, they were alive even if they had slipped into some bizarre gray-and-black pocket universe that we’ll call Evolution Island.

Aside from the colors, though, there was another strange thing about the island: it turns out there was something essential to life hidden amid the gray and black regions. Think of this essence as the “elixir of life.” If the geckos got enough of it, they could live on. If they didn’t get enough–or in fact got too much–they could die. (Note: this is kind of like oxygen is to us: not enough, we suffocate; too much, we get oxygen poisoning and kick the bucket.)

Sounds stressful, right? How were they supposed to know where the elixir was? And how could they know when they were getting too much or not enough of it?

Although they were both in a tough situation, it turns out that one of our gecko heroes had what sounds like an advantage. Truthful Terry saw things as they really were: that is, Terry saw gray when there was less elixir and black where there was more. Lucky Terry.

Fit Frankie, however, didn’t see Evolution Island as it really was. Instead, Frankie’s eyes somehow saw the black and gray shades differently. Frankie literally “saw” fitness (which Hoffman refers to as “fitness points”).

Here’s how it worked: in the places where Frankie could get just the right amount of elixir (that is, not too much, not too little), Frankie saw black. In the other places, Frankie saw gray.

Just to be clear here, what Frankie saw was an illusion. Terry saw the true world, while Frankie saw a kind of fiction.

But here’s the thing: it was a very useful fiction.

Frankie’s Descendants Take Over Evolution Island

In short order, Fit Frankie realized she was felt a lot better hanging out in the black zones and so consistently gravitated toward those parts of Evolution Island. Truthful Terry, on the other hand, saw the true colors of the island but had a harder time thriving, constantly trying to find the right balance between the gray and black zones so as to get just the right amounts of elixir. Terry saw truth while Frankie saw “fitness points.”

Over time, Fit Frankie thrived and had many children (being one of those parthenogenetic species of geckos). Truthful Terry, however, figured out how to survive but just barely, being sometimes sick from too much or too little elixir. Although she could see the world as it really was, she had few offspring, and the few that she had just couldn’t compete with the many offspring of Fit Frankie.

So, it turned out that seeing only the truth was actually a curse for Terry, whereas seeing a useful lie was a blessing for Frankie. Frankie’s “fitness vision” beat out Terry’s “truth vision,” and today Frankie’s offspring thrive on Evolution Island whereas Terry’s offspring went extinct many generations ago.

on Winning the Evolutionary Game

This fable, as you might have guessed, was inspired by an evolutionary game created by Hoffman and his colleagues. Game theory, of course, is a branch of applied mathematics that provides tools for analyzing situations in which players make decisions that are interdependent. The goal of game theory is to better understand the outcomes of different interactions among the “players.” (Frankie and Terry were the players in the example above.)

Evolutionary game theory is one application of game theory that is used to model evolving populations in biology. Wikipedia reports, “It defines a framework of contests, strategies, and analytics into which Darwinian competition can be modelled. It originated in 1973 with John Maynard Smith and George R. Price’s formalization of contests, analyzed as strategies, and the mathematical criteria that can be used to predict the results of competing strategies.”

Hoffman and his colleagues created multiple evolutionary games in order to test their Fitness-Beats-Truth Theorem. They also created a separate but complementary mathematical model. Both initiatives produced the same result: life favors fitness over truth. That is, creatures that view the world in terms of “fitness points” inevitably trounce creatures that see the world as it truly is. Useful lies beat plain truth every time.

The moral of the story?

The world we see around us is not based on a true representation of reality but is, rather, a useful lie that allowed our ancestors to stay alive long enough to reproduce. In short, you and I, dear readers, are the offspring who have inherited our own version of Evolution Island. Viva la illusion!

Nature Is a Big Fat Liar, Just Like Your Smartphone

Your computers lie to you. Intentionally. For good reason.

Let’s say you want to write a document on a computer. You almost certainly start with some sort of computer icon. In my laptop, I have that Microsoft Word icon with that big blue W in it. I click that to open the application. On my smartphone, I tend to use Google docs instead, clicking on little white circle with a blue rectangle on it.

In either case, I “click on” the icon and it opens up a bigger rectangular document into which I can type words.

It’s useful, right? Absolutely. But it’s also a kind of fictional overlay. Hoffman explains:

The blue icon does not deliberately misrepresent the true nature of the file. Representing that nature is not its aim. Its job, instead, is to hide that nature–to spare you tiresome details on transistors, voltages, magnetic fields, logic gates, binary codes, and gigabytes of software. If you had to inspect that complexity, and forge your email out of bits and bytes, you might opt instead for snail mail.

Evolution does the same thing for us, posits Hoffman. It provides us with a kind overlay that helps us survive and reproduce. He calls it the interface theory of perception, or ITP.

For example, only in recent history have humans discovered the whole spectrum electromagnetic radiation, aka light. It turns out we can see only a tiny portion of the spectrum–about 0.0035%–the range we now call visible light. We evolved to be able to see only the range that best helped us survive, and even then we didn’t see electromagnetic radiation itself.

Instead, we see colors, which probably don’t even exist outside of our human perceptions. Colors are part of nature’s hack for helping us survive. We can see when fruit is ripe, for example, via this color hack. So this interface element was laid over our perceptions to allow us to gain the calories and nutrients we need to thrive and procreate.

Hoffman sums up as follows:

The [Fitness-Beats-Truth] Theorem tells us that winning genes do not code for perceiving truth. [Interface theory of perception] tells us that they code instead for an interface that hides the truth about objective reality and provides us with icons-physical objects with colors, textures, shapes, motions, and smells-that allow us to manipulate that unseen reality in just the ways we need to survive and reproduce. Physical objects in spacetime are simply our icons in our desktop.

How Deep Does the Interface Go?

Nobody knows how deep the interface goes. Hoffman concludes that we don’t need to see much if any of the truth underlying nature in order to thrive. In fact, it’s better if we don’t.

If there is an objective reality, and if my senses were shaped by natural selection, then the FBT Theorem says the chance that my perceptions are veridical–that they preserve some structure of objective reality–is less than my chance to win the lottery. This chance goes to zero as the world and my perceptions grow more complex–even if my perceptual systems are highly plastic and can change quickly as needed.

So, basically he’s saying we truth-seekers are generally screwed. Luckily for us, however, there is a caveat. That is, logic and mathematics are somehow part of our underlying reality. The universe, whatever it truly is, may throw up a phony interface all around us, but logic and mathematics do provide us clues about the underlying truth.

Why? Because even if we see that the apple is red, suggesting to us we should eat it, we still need to be able to know that taking two bites out of it is better than just taking one (or example). We don’t need to be great at mathematics, but we need enough basic logic to survive.

At least that’s his story.

Even so, Hoffman’s view is so radical that he thinks even spacetime is an illusory part of our interface. He loves to say (I’ve listened to a number of podcasts in which he’s interviewed) as well as write that “spacetime is doomed.” What he means is that our conceptual frameworks of space and time as we’ve known them since the age of Einstein have no underlying reality but are just the “interface” we use to negotiate reality.

To support his contention, Hoffman quotes theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed: “Almost all of us believe that spacetime doesn’t exist, that spacetime is doomed, and has to be replaced by some more primitive building blocks.”

Just to be clear, Hoffman does not deny that there is some “objective” reality that underlies our own, only that we do not have access to it. All we can do is use our reasoning, such as it is, to postulate about what that reality actually looks like.

That Way Lies Madness

When I listen to Hoffman on podcasts, his interviewers almost always express their concern that Hoffman’s argument potentially send us all down the path toward nihilism. That is, if everything we experience is just an illusionary interface, then how can we ever learn the truth of existence? And, if we can’t, then aren’t our lives meaningless?

Hoffman rejects that interpretation, saying that we can use our tools of scientific inquiry, mathematics and reasoning to learn more about “objective” reality, whatever that is. But I’m left wondering whether he’s adopting this stance because he fully believes it or because all his colleagues and the public at large would otherwise reject his theories out of hand.

After all, if spacetime is doomed, then why aren’t logic and reason? Logic is predicated on cause and effect, which are themselves contingent on the flow of time.

I imagine that, in the privacy of his own thoughts, Hoffman worries about this as well. On the other hand, so what if it’s true? Human beings as a whole are unlikely to ever embrace nihilism. We love our patterns and the sense that we know things. And, even without that evidence, we’ve shown ourselves perfectly willing to embrace faith: that is, belief without underlying proofs.

In the end, I worry less about people losing hope in their ability to understand some underlying reality than in their ability to embrace a faith that they then wish to impose on everyone around them. The latter leads to tyranny, intolerant ideology, zealotry and theocracy. For now, at least, those versions of faith seem by far the greater danger to us all.

Featured image is a Necker cube, which creates a kind of optical illusion in which the sides flip when you stare at it a while. From BenFrantzDale - Own work. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necker_cube

Reversing the Decline of Enrollment in U.S. Higher Education


As futurist and educator Bryan Alexander has reported, enrollment in U.S. institution of higher education has been in decline for a while now.

People responding to this trend tend to fall into a few predictable categories, in my experience:

  • the yawners who couldn’t care less
  • the indignant who knee-jerkedly respond with anecdotes such as “my buddy so-and-so has no degree, started a business and is doing splendidly”
  • the anti-elitists who, for some reason, use the conversation to start advocating for more vocational education and trade jobs (even though there have also been declines in the enrollment in community colleges, which provide a lot of vocational training in the U.S.)
  • the graduates who claim they learned little of practical use in college
  • the people who bemoan the rising costs of higher education in the U.S., indicating the costs aren’t worth the returns
  • and, finally, the people who see the declines as worrisome, even ominous

Although I tend to fall into this last category, I understand the various criticisms of higher education. I graduated with a liberal arts degree that, my father said after graduation, would get me a cup of coffee if I also happened to be carrying around a nickel (these days, of course, I’d need about $3 bucks).

He had a point. I wasn’t exactly in high demand in the job market upon graduation. My professors told me I should go to graduate school and become, of course, a professor. Maybe I should have, but at the time I had ideas about not wanting to be a prisoner of the Ivory Tower. Also, the idea that I’d become a liberal arts prof convincing kids to get degrees in liberal arts had a bit of a Ponzi scheme feel to it.

So, I’ve carved out my own path in the world. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve done okay. In this, of course, I’m far from alone.

Higher Education Still Pays

There’s no doubt that post-secondary educations can be expensive these days. In fact, the average total cost of attending a public school for in-state students is $27,330 per year, and attending a private university can sock you for $55,800 per year.

Ouch! That’s a lot of debt to take on if you’re going it alone.

Still, college continues to pay dividends for most people. The median salary for workers with high school diplomas is $38,792 compared to $64,896 for those with a bachelor’s degree. And college graduates are less likely to be unemployed.

Then there are the many intangible benefits that are seldom discussed, things such as an improved understanding of the world, a greater appreciation for well-reasoned arguments, a stronger disposition to read, less gullibility in area of conspiracy theories, and an enriching love of the arts, literature and science.

I’m not saying this is true for all college graduates, and I know non-graduates who are wiser and more erudite than I’ll ever be. Still, on average, there are lot of unquantifiable benefits associated with a post-secondary degree.

College Grads Also Improve the Larger Society

But college pays at more than just the individual level. It offers high rates of return for society in general.

Higher earnings mean a richer society overall, as long as wealth isn’t too highly concentrated in the hands of a few. (I won’t delve in arcana of Gini coefficients here). And, better educations tend to result in higher productivity, lower crime rates, more volunteer work and better health.

More college graduates also mean that any given state is more likely to enjoy economic success. And, of course, more college graduates ultimately mean a higher GDP per capita in the whole of the U.S., which a lot of people associate with higher overall living standards in global comparisons.

So What Do We Do?

Although I’m sure there are various reasons for the decline in enrollment in post-secondary degrees in the U.S., my guess is the primary one is rising costs. People do not wish to–or feel they can afford to–take on crippling amounts of student debt just as they’re starting out in life.

Indeed, a study by the National Center of Education Statistics found that high schoolers are much more likely to go to college if they believe their families can afford it.

How to respond to this problem has become a hot political topic. In fact, the Biden administration originally had a plan to make community college tuition-free for two years, although the proposal was ultimately stripped from the federal Build Back Better bill.

There are, of course, various states that provide free college tuition to some students based on income and merit, and there are some with very few eligibility requirements. In addition, there are 17 tuition-free colleges in the U.S.

But there’s nothing at the kind of scale we need. So, here is the beginning of an idea. Let’s provide a government-financed free online university program that is fully accredited and has no eligibility requirements. This can almost certainly be done in a way that is far less expensive than other initiatives aimed at making higher education affordable.

The program doesn’t need to touch the rest of the messy education system in the United States. Public and private universities can go on being their current dysfunctional selves while we create this one great national project that vastly opens up the educational space without driving anyone into debt.

There are probably lots of ways this could be managed. The program could, for example, contract with many of the best professors in the world to create its online courses. Or, someone could curate the best existing online courses from other universities and incorporate them into a national curriculum. Or, there could be some mix of both systems with some others added in. For example, there could be vetted, open-source elements, as there are with open-source software.

The ultimate goal, however, would be the same: at relatively little taxpayer expense, use massive economies of scale to provide a very good free higher education to all interested U.S. students.

Eventually, it might even incorporate stipends to give students at least some of the financial support they need to spend time getting their degrees.

Aren’t There Already Online Degrees?

Yes, there are already accredited degrees that can be gotten online. However, these are currently a hard-to-navigate hodgepodge where the costs are high for specific university programs (ranging anywhere from $300 to 1,000+ per credit).

In addition, there is, to my knowledge, already one free, accredited online university: The University of the People. I don’t know much about that institution. Maybe there are, however, lessons or even courses that a national program could leverage.

Ultimately, though, this national university would need to be prominently supported and well branded by the government so that it is not viewed as some sort of inferior offering.

(And, yes, there will be those who swear by traditional, residential programs as far superior educational experiences. Maybe they are. But they are also far more expensive and so less realistic to make free to the public. We need to be both practical AND ambitious here.)

The Problems

Getting It to Happen

There are two primary problems I see, and probably many more I don’t. The first is at the creation and implementation phases. As happens in our healthcare system, private and even public entities would cry foul, saying the government is competing with the marketplace. This criticism from moneyed interests might be joined by many professors and university staff members, worried that their livelihoods are being threatened.

In America, at least, these dynamics tend to be the death knell for bold, innovative and potentially impactful initiatives. For the most part, the U.S. doesn’t know how to do such things anymore.

But something like this should happen for the sake our country and its citizens, providing good educations at low costs for people who can’t afford to go into hock for the rest of their lives. Such a program might completely turn around the trend toward declining university educations, and it would bring a massive productivity and financial boost to the nation.

Ensuring It’s Not Used as a Political Tool

Even if we could implement it, however, it could be crippled by politicians and bureaucracies. This is the danger of any national program. Those who constantly warn about the evils of “socialism” (look, we already have mixed economy, and that’s not going to change) have a point in this case.

Some politicians will no doubt bloviate against any perceived “liberal” ideas or “rightwing” viewpoints and so want to micromanage professors, courseware and and curricula. The last thing anyone needs is education micromanaged by amoral or misguided politicians, whom we already have acting at the state levels.

So, this program won’t be worth implementing unless there can be firewall protecting it against political fools and demagogues. In this, I think we might learn from entities such as the Federal Reserve. Although an instrument of the U.S. government, the Fed is independent because its policy decisions do not have to be approved by the President or by anyone else in the executive or legislative branches. Moreover, it does not receive funding appropriated by Congress, and the terms of the members of the board of governors span multiple presidential and congressional terms.

A national online university initiative could not directly imitate the Fed system, of course. These are two very different entities. But we might borrow some ideas in order to protect the system against unwarranted political interference.

In the End

Of course, this may not happen no matter how much it should. Today, America seems chronically handicapped by special interests, demagoguery, fundamentalism and myopic, fact-impervious voting blocs.

But perhaps the pendulum is still capable to swinging back someday, spurring a renaissance of integrity, visionary thinking and can-do-ism. Maybe someday we’ll again see growth in the proportion of Americans getting good educations. I may be jaded in these excruciating political times, but even in me hope springs eternal.

Featured image: The University of Bologna in Italy, founded in 1088, is often regarded as the world's oldest university in continuous operation This is a photo of a monument which is part of cultural heritage of Italy. This monument participates in the contest Wiki Loves Monuments Italia 2020.