Monthly Archives: March 2012

Oh crap!

How can one resist reposting an article with the following quote: “we’re wiping our asses with 7 million eucalyptus trees.”

It’s from a provocative article from online enviro-mag “Grist.” It’s a lot to think about and conjures up images of Rodin’s “Thinker” on the toilet.


The manager and therapist styled by the “All American” Salesman

After reading and re-reading Bellah, et al.’s Habits of the Heart, it’s difficult to not see their take on individualism in American culture. One of the main points is that individualism is one of the primary languages in American culture. Two subtypes of individualism are the manager and the therapist. Both are essentially utilitarian or maximizers of preferences with the manager concerned more with the external and the therapist with the internal.

Bellah, et al. do leave the possibility open for new subtypes of individualism to emerge or build off of secondary languages in America such as biblical or republican.

After years of working in the financial world and reading Greg Smith’s piece in the NY Times about the culture of Goldman Sachs,  I think that a new individualist subtype has become prevalent: the salesman. Whereas Bellah, et al. focus more on these as languages, I think the salesman is often more of a style. It may not even have its own language, but it is an approach to life. It is one that instrumentalizes all relationships in order to maximize preferences that are monetary.

Although, Smith’s piece describes those salesman that take use the language of manager, there are also those who use the language of the therapist. I encountered the latter in working with many people from the real estate and mortgage industries. There are various educational programs for people in these industries that involve “lead generation” or the ability to bring new people in, take advantage of social networks, etc. in order to increase sales. Interestingly, however, such tactics are often wrapped in the language of self-realization, self-help, and meaningful relationships.

But such a style is not limited to the financial world. It pervades much of our culture, we are constantly encouraged to “sell ourselves” or “market ourselves” in the new economy. Such advice seems like “common sense.” Yet, it’s also often mixed with notions about “being oneself.” One only need to watch an episode of “What Not to Wear” to see how so many people “become themselves” by wearing a more marketable uniform of “who they really are.”

Maybe this is why, “Death of a Salesman” is still so popular?

Finally, the gender-specific “man” in salesman, I think is appropriate as well. Much of this type of style, especially, as expressed by Smith about Goldman Sachs fits all to well into a stereotype of patriarchal culture run amok. Although this could be nuanced, you get the point.

As it stands, this is all just thinking “out loud” or “on line,” but I believe there is something to this American style of individualism. After all, marketing and sales are part of the water we constantly swim in–how could it not shape who we are?

Human Sacrifice, Your New Name Is “Reality TV”: Christianity, Rene Girard, and The Hunger Games

When I first heard of The Hunger Games they sounded repulsive to me. Teenagers engaged in death-matches for public sport and food? Not what I go for.

Why did I think I disliked The Hunger Games? It is because I thought it would just be a glorification of violence at the expense of youth, in a muddle of ambiguous morality.  I admit it, I’m a sucker for moral clarity (probably because I deal with muddles so often, clarity is nice once in a while).

But then I saw this video by Fr. Robert Barron (via Mark Shea) where he makes some stunning insights by applying Rene Girard (one of the last great French literary theorists, philosophers, and theologians still living – AND I had lunch with him once!) to The Hunger Games.

It all comes back to the scapegoating and sacrifice of the one or few for the sake of the many. Of all the odd and disturbing human universals, scapegoating and sacrifice is one of the most horrible. The Aztecs did it. Mayans, Incas, ancient Near-Eastern religions did it. The ancient Greeks (the story of Theseus and the Minotaur) and Romans (with gladiators and minorities), the Nazis, Communists, utilitarians* (oo, cheap shot!), new atheists, “the 99%”, and various religions, nations, political parties, and cultures, and on and on across literature, myth, geography and history – it is everywhere. It’s an equal-opportunity corrupter. The Hunger Games just continues the storyline. It intuitively makes sense because it comes from who we are. Continue reading

Morality and Technology

Some kinds of problems can be solved in two ways: a moral solution and/or a technological solution.

Take global warming.  If we wanted to reduce global warming we could either change our technology – which is very carbon intensive – or change our behavior – which is very carbon intensive.

For example, cars only burn gasoline and make CO2 if we drive them. Our light bulbs only use coal-fed power if we turn them on. Rainforests only release their stored CO2 if we burn them down.

Those are all behaviors which we could control if we wanted to.  But self-control is hard. So the much easier solution is the technological one.

Hydropower dams! Wind farms!  Solar cells, geothermal, fusion power! Electric cars, electric buses, electric trains. And on and on. All good technologies, and we need them to replace the older carbon-intensive techs that we need to retire.

But in this quest to save the world from climate change, technology is only one component of the solution. If we continue to solve all our problems via technology, what will happen to our behavior? We will grow weak-willed. We will think that whenever there is a problem we could solve it if only we had an engineer to come and save us. Thus we forget the fact that we also have a say in this as individuals, in how we act. What about ourselves?

One of the greatest challenges posed when I taught an ethics of engineering course last year was from a student who said we should all just get off the grid. We had been talking about cooperation in evil and he took the teaching to heart – he wanted no part of cooperating in climate change. We could end CO2 production now if people all just stopped using CO2 intensive power sources. And of course he was right – but that is a really hard thing to do. Our social institutional structures are not set up to let us out of the grip of CO2. To name just one, the entire interstate highway system is against us. And he was only one voice in a class of 3o.

But the challenge is real. To many problems, there are moral or technical solutions (bioethics seems particularly full of them). The technical solutions are often easier and so we run to them to save us so that we don’t have to actually change our behavior or make hard moral choices.

The philosopher Hans Jonas warned of going down this route where technological power saves us instead of morality. He warned that as we grow in power, we can begin to lose a sense of how it ought to be used. As our power grows, our ethics diminish. And soon we have nuclear weapons, a massive extinction of species , and global warming and we wonder what to do – because we’ve forgotten how we are supposed to act and who we are supposed to be.

So while the technical solutions are tempting, we must not succumb to letting only them save us.  We need our self-control too. We need to know why we are living and what we are here for, and how to act based on who we are.  And in contemporary culture, those are hard questions to ask, much less answer.

(H/T to my engineering and social justice class at SCU and to Thomas at God and the Machine for making me think about this stuff)

Brian’s Links 20 March 2012: Invisibility and Environmentalism

The invisible car.  Really its a zero-emissions vehicle, the LED invisibility is just an analogy. Two technological feats for one car!

And while we are on the subject of invisibility, check out artist Liu Bolin hiding in plain sight in New York City and other places around the world.

Yes, court-ordered forced abortions are still illegal in the United States, though this case had to go to the appeals court

For Catholics in the Occupy movement, a new gathering point on the web. More info here at the ever-informative

This looks like a really great new wind power technology. They’re “windstalks.” Just swaying in the breeze.

Here is a great story about how people are getting to the bottom of where their meat comes from and how it is raised.  One of the farms mentioned, Soul Food Farm in Vacaville, CA, is a splendid little place with tasty free-range eggs. My family and I are lucky to have access to farms like this. Free-range is a great way to go.

Will there be moral machines?

Portland’s public toilets are metal shacks with almost no privacy.  They are cold and uninviting. And they are proving to be the best public toilets ever invented.

And finally, a man trying to save his island nation from rising sea-levels. President Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives (who was unfortunately recently ousted). Turns out that environmentally “invisible” car above can’t come too soon – it and everything else we need to set our ourselves right.

Brian’s Links 15 March 2012: Money, Meat, and Marvelous Animals

I think this crow is having fun.

Guess what? Ugandans really hate the Kony 2012 campaign. “Towards the end of the film, the mood turned more to anger at what many people saw as a foreign, inaccurate account that belittled and commercialised their suffering, as the film promotes Kony bracelets and other fundraising merchandise, with the aim of making Kony infamous. One woman I spoke to made the comparison of selling Osama Bin Laden paraphernalia post 9/11.” Here’s a good resource for further investigations

The “avoid ghetto” button for your new map directions might also provide a “divert path to nearest advertiser” feature.

Is Distributism a Form of Capitalism? Depends what you mean by “capitalism.”

So, our congress folk are not exactly like the rest of us: “Between 1984 and 2009, the median net worth of a member of the House more than doubled, according to the analysis of financial disclosures, from $280,000 to $725,000 in inflation-adjusted 2009 dollars, excluding home ­equity. Over the same period, the wealth of an American family has declined slightly, with the comparable median figure sliding from $20,600 to $20,500.”

Addressing the issue of whether science and religion are at war, and additionally, whether your story’s characters are unrealistic due to your lack of interest in people you do not like. Written by science fiction author Mike Flynn.

It’s great that this new material can soak CO2 out of the air, but the idea of artificial trees I think is a little too C.S. Lewis That Hideous Strength.

Should we raise the human IQ?

Greek parents abandoning their kids in the streets.

Ever wonder if you should terraform that planet over there? Well, Wikipedia can tell you whether it’s okay or not.

Why are Americans eating less meat? A 12% reduction in 5 years is a pretty big drop. Maybe it’s because of the foaming exploding pig poop problem?

Vegetarians, you are hereby morally obligated to eat laboratory grown meat.

Tuberculosis with no cure, at all. Completely drug resistant.

Honeybee colony collapse disorder may have a culprit: a tiny parasitic fly laying its maggots in live honeybees. San Francisco State University professor cracks the case! Here’s the free paper! (I love free papers.)

A story about getting your email account hacked and losing everything.

It’s like news from The Onion, but it’s The Onion Dome.

From the real Onion: Iran expresses concern that US may be building its 8500th nuclear weapon.

And lastly, “A 12-year-old girl who was abducted and beaten by men trying to force her into a marriage was found being guarded by three lions who apparently had chased off her captors, a policeman said Tuesday.” Don’t mess with lions fighting crime, seriously. Awesome.

"We'll take it from here."

Incumbency and its Discontents

In the early years, we elected incumbents because they were good, often even great. Today, we tend to elect incumbents because they are there.

Did you know that if President Obama is re-elected in November and serves his entire 8-year term, it will be only the second time in history that we have had three two-term Presidents in a row (Clinton, G.W. Bush, and Obama in this case)? And the first goes all the way back to the triumvirate of founding fathers, Jefferson (1801-09), Madison (1809-17), and Monroe (1817-25). In fact, only 19 of the 44 US presidents have been re-elected (though FDR did it three times). Even accounting for FDR’s long run, as a national practice, getting re-elected to the presidency has actually been harder than getting elected in the first place.

So why do we think of incumbency as such an advantage in presidential politics? Continue reading