Thursday, November 22, 2012

Psychology of Climate Change

Yesterday my niece, Jenny, raised the following question:

I'm interested in the psychology behind people's views of global climate change. Specifically, it is so interesting that this is such a partisan issue. What a great example of the confirmation bias (i.e. people seek to confirm their pre-existing views rather than looking for contrary information). Also, this issue is a perfect example of how data is filtered through our own lenses. That's my random academic thought for the day. Any opinions?

Yes, Jenny, I do have an opinion. And it is opinion (not 'fact'), though one based on considerable study and thought. My main concern is that we live in a society built to a large degree on science and technology, but the general public does not know much science, does not understand how science works, and exhibits a deep distrust of science. Moreover, our leadership demonstrates many of the same characteristics. This is a dangerous set of circumstances. Why is this so? The psychology is fascinating.

The point you make about confirmation bias is a good start. It was interesting that several Comments to your post objected to the use of the word bias. The idea seems to be that (a) there is truth and (b) everything else is bias. Thus, claiming someone else is biased reveals my own bias unless I am right, and how do we know who is right? Well, no, we all exhibit confirmation bias to some degree, regardless of how close we are to the truth.

So the first thing to understand about science is that scientists are human, and they have confirmation bias like everyone else. But they are trained to minimize the impact of this by (1) always being skeptical, (2) following certain procedures to avoid the most egregious errors, and (3) submitting their work to the scrutiny of peers. Is the scientific method perfect? No. Is it better than the alternatives? Yep.

Here is what Steve said:

  1. Only .07 C is certainly not scientific evidence of anything
  2. and that increase stopped 16 years ago.
  3. Nearly all the heat records for our area were set in the 1930s during the dust bowl and have rarely been topped.
  4. The idea that men can control climate in any way is ludicrous.
  5. We can't even predict weather more than what 12 hours?
  6. What we have is political consensus there is no science involved.

Let me start with statement #5. With regard to Hurricane Sandy, the Weather Service made the disclaimer many times that "these conditions are so unusual that we cannot be sure of any of our predictions". They admitted the limitations of their computer models because of lack of previous similar conditions. Despite this, they were spot on days in advance probably saving hundreds of lives because of their accuracy. Remarkable. The computer models of a decade ago have come quite close, but the modeling of today is ten times better. Don't claim we don't know what is going on. About #4, of course we cannot control weather or climate specifically or directly, but to claim that our actions play no role is just putting our heads in the sand. One of the great successes of climate science is the way predictions about the impact of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide on the actual temperatures have born out. The models did not get it exactly right, but actually quite close. Points #2 and #3 are simply false. If you want me to post the evidence, just ask.

Point #1, however, is more interesting. To be honest, I felt this way for a long time. How could a fraction of a degree in average temperature make any difference, when our daily and seasonal temperatures vary widely? This is a powerful emotional argument. But that is all it is, emotional. The melting polar ice, sea level rises, extremes of drought and flooding, multiple hottest months on record, extreme 'once in a lifetime' storms cannot be ignored. But part of the reason we have such a hard time with this is not understanding the nature of causation. None of these phenomenon are direct cause and effect. They are systemic effects.

Jon rightly said that "It is not a partisan issue on the scientific level, just the political level." Later, presumably in response to my analogy about smoking and cancer, he said that "Technically, we still can't say with complete certainty that smoking causes lung cancer because we can't rule out all of the Possible causes. There will always be an infinitesimally small percentage chance that something else that we are unaware of caused the cancer." Actually the chance is not infinitesimally small, but this is an example of direct causal thinking. The evidence that smoking increases the chances of cancer and a host of other deadly conditions is unassailable, and this evidence was irrefutable decades before the public accepted it (and the tobacco industry admitted it). Jon goes on to say " The same is true with climate change. However, this discussion is not about the science so much as people's motivations for believing the way they do." Exactly! And what are these motivations? As with the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel industry began bankrolling a campaign of disinformation. The "Report" to which Brett posted a link is a good example. Whatever else it may be, it is not science.

So, yes Jenny there is a lot of "confirmation bias". But science works hard to minimize this bias among its individual members. Let me give you a good example. Several years ago, Professor Richard Muller identified problems in previous climate studies that, in his mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. He co-founded the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project to rectify the previous problems. After three years of work by dozens of climate scientists he changed his mind.

"The Berkeley project's research has shown," Muller says, "that the average temperature of the Earth’s land has risen by two and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of one and a half degrees over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases."

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Grassroots Bipartisanship 4

Who does not believe that our nation spent far too much money on the recent political campaigns by both parties? Who does not think money is a powerful corrupting influence on government, especially at the federal and state levels? And who does not wish we could do something about it? Well, we are the people, and we can!

Fortunately a few highly creative people have started the ball rolling and now we have the opportunity to join in. At the moment I am most taken with the American Anti-Corruption Act written by former Federal Election Commission chairman Trevor Potter in consultation with dozens of strategists, democracy reform leaders and constitutional attorneys from across the political spectrum. Please consider becoming a citizen cosponsor of the act. Then watch this powerful video and read more about the movement at Represent.Us.

(Update: I pledged to get "Citizen Co-Sponsors" for a new law that will force politicians to REPRESENT US. Will you help me?)

For some time now I have been following (and supporting) Move to Amend, a coalition of hundreds of organizations and tens of thousands of individuals "committed to social and economic justice, ending corporate rule, and building a vibrant democracy that is genuinely accountable to the people, not corporate interests." We (I included) are calling for an amendment to the US Constitution to unequivocally state that "inalienable rights belong to human beings only, and that money is not a form of protected free speech under the First Amendment and can be regulated in political campaigns."

A group with which I have become familiar only recently is Fund for the Republic. The board is impressive and diverse, and its statement of purpose reassuring :

We are a new nonprofit philanthropic venture and are nonpartisan — this cause is about country, not party. We hope to catalyze reform, identifying and assisting those new to the cause, helping them understand and navigate a complex terrain of strategies and opportunities, and providing analysis of what works and what doesn't. We are committed to collaboration and will be diligent about identifying collective opportunities, supporting the best existing efforts, and avoiding duplication with funders and NGOs alike.

One arm of Fund for the Republic is RootStrikers, "a network of activists fighting the corrupting influence of money in politics," founded by Lawrence Lessig. The name comes from a quote from Thereau: "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root." Together, we must strike at the root of America's problems.

Another participant in this broad coalition is united re:rublic, Josh Silver, CEO, and its principle project is Get the Money Out with goals quite similar to Move to Amend. Two additional movements promoting campaign finance reform are and the CoffeePartyUSA.

Some of my friends may object that these movements are thinly veiled fronts for a liberal agenda because they would restrict the influence of individuals like Karl Rove, Sheldon Adelson, Donald Trump, the Koch brothers, and others at the conservative end of the spectrum. But the undue influence of big money is not limited to these individuals and their party, not by a long shot. In many races across the country this last cycle Democrats outspent their Republican opponents. The charters of all the organizations above specifically emphasize non-partisanship, and they all have substantial bipartisan support. "When the people lead, the leaders will follow."

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Grassroots Bipartisanship 3

It is now time (way past time) for Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). This act was passed in 1994 as a result of extensive grassroots efforts and with solid bipartisan support. It was reauthorized in 2000 and 2005, again with broad solid support. Violence against women remains a serious problem in our society and all of us should give firm support to this legislation. This is important.

Since I am seeking cooperation from all segments of the political spectrum, however, I must disclose and discuss the fact that the 2012 reauthorization measure was controversial. Conservative Republicans in Congress opposed the 2012 bill because it extended the protections to gay men, lesbians, American Indians, and illegal immigrants who are victims of domestic violence.

Personally, I believe victims of domestic violence deserve protection regardless of the circumstances, and I have a hard time seeing how this is a partisan issue. But giving all my friends the benefit of the doubt, I acknowledge that there is room for discussion on some provisions of the act. One way or another, though, Congress must act expeditiously to reauthorize the VAWA. Please tell your members of Congress that you expect them to protect the safety of women by reauthorizing the VAWA. Call (202) 224-3121 today. To look up your Members of Congress' names and direct lines, please check this website.

Two other great resource are The National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women and the National Women's Law Center.

For those unfamiliar with the VAWA legislation, here is a description from Wikipedia.

"The Violence Against Women Act was developed and passed as a result of extensive grassroots efforts in the late 80's and early 1990s, with advocates and professionals from the battered women's movement, sexual assault advocates, victim services field, law enforcement agencies, prosecutors' offices, the courts, and the private bar urging Congress to adopt significant legislation to address domestic and sexual violence. Since its original passage in 1994, VAWA's focus has expanded from domestic violence and sexual assault to also include dating violence and stalking. It funds services to protect adult and teen victims of these crimes, and supports training on these issues, to ensure consistent responses across the country. One of the greatest successes of VAWA is its emphasis on a coordinated community response to domestic violence, sex dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking; courts, law enforcement, prosecutors, victim services, and the private bar currently work together in a coordinated effort that had not heretofore existed on the state and local levels. VAWA also supports the work of community-based organizations that are engaged in work to end domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking, particularly those groups that provide culturally and linguistically specific services. Additionally, VAWA provides specific support for work with tribes and tribal organizations to end domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking against Indian women."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Grassroots Bipartisanship 2

Now that the election is over there is no reason not to confirm a long list of judicial appointments that have been awaiting confirmation for months. Republican senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe fully agree. Please contact your senators (preferably by phone AND email) and encourage them to act expeditiously on this matter.

The "fiscal cliff" we keep hearing about would not only slash the Defense budget as well as Medicare and Medicaid, it would severely cut the International Affairs account. This fund is less than 2% of the entire Federal Budget (maybe less than 1%), and it provides much needed humanitarian assistance around the world, so it would be a travesty to reduce its funding by even a dollar. And these moneys are not mere handouts. They support smart programs that help people help themselves. This work is supported by such non-partisan organizations as ONE (call), Bread for the World (circle), and World Vision to name a few. Please let your senators know that you support maintaining the full amount of this budget.

The discussion following my first post in this series became a little partisan, but no one on either side thought Mr. Berman should be high on the list of candidates for Secretary of State. Nor did anyone speak up that we should not oppose all restrictions on the freedom of the Internet. (I support protecting intellectual property rights, but not at the expense of a free and open Internet.)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Grassroots Bipartisanship 1

Call me naïve in hoping for a national conversation on the issues that divide our nation, but in the meantime why don't we try to work together on areas where we agree, or at least where we seem to agree at the grassroots level?

Today's suggestion is for us to continue to oppose any and all efforts to restrict freedom of the Internet. We can do this today by telling President Obama that Democrats and Republicans alike oppose the possible appointment of Congressman Howard Berman as Secretary of State, because he was one of the original sponsors of SOPA.

In fairness, Mr. Berman has been an effective congressman as the Ranking Democrat of the House Committee of Foreign affairs, and he has a solid record for bipartisanship. But the Secretary of State plays a key role in developing global Internet policy, and here Mr. Berman's record is dismal. Berman has repeatedly tried to censor the web at Hollywood's behest, and Hollywood has been leading a global charge to clamp down on Internet freedom.

Add your name here to tell the President not to appoint Berman. Then pass it on.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Touch the Jungle Update

The nonprofit project, Touch The Jungle, is a rainforest and wildlife conservation project working in a rural area of Ecuador. So you are probably wondering why we are currently raising funds to build a high school and how that relates to habitat and wildlife conservation. It's really simple. The local people are ultimately the end line of defense to protect the habitat and wildlife. Without their direct cooperation and involvement, it is a losing battle to protect anything on a local level. Outsiders can buy all the forested land they want, and people can donate to "protect an acre of rainforest" but if the people who live there are not actively involved in habitat protection, then nothing is really protected at all.

However, the majority of the local people live in extreme poverty without even the most basic life necessities, which often is the reason why they will end up agreeing to timber clear cutting or mining, sometimes illegally. TTJ's approach is to work directly with the local people and help improve their lives in order to empower them to protect their own forests and wildlife. We have found in Intag, the community we work with, a very strong fundamental desire to protect their natural resources such as their forests, their rivers, their wildlife, even at great sacrifice to themselves. So TTJ works hard to help them protect their forests and watersheds.

In this case, they do not have a high school. TTJ believes that building a high school/trade school will give the young adults of this region the tools to help them protect their forests, watersheds, and wildlife better than ever before, and for many generations to come. Our high school will be a satellite location of the government schools, the government will provide the teachers, curriculum, and ongoing support once we build the school. The TTJ school will also be a trade school that students can earn degrees in organic agriculture and animal husbandry, watershed management, forestry management, wildlife management, etc, and our wildlife rehab facility will be directly involved with students as well.

Providing this type of education will not only improve the lives of generations of young adults, allows them a chance to have better jobs, but it also directly provides them with the tools to protect their habitats and wildlife. No longer will mining, drilling, or timber companies come in making false promises, lies about the environmental effects of their destructive practices. The local citizens will have the education to directly confront those lies and take a stand, with facts and knowledge on their side. They will have the knowledge to live sustainably in their own communities day to day as well. The Touch The Jungle school will become the training grounds for generations of Environmental Warriors and together we will save this area of tropical rainforest and cloud forests of Intag.

And not only will we help the Intag forests, but contamination of the Intag rivers and forests will run down into the Amazon forest and the coastal rainforests of Ecuador to further contaminate and harm wildlife, habitat, and peoples further downriver. In short, TTJ provides help in many ways to the area of Intag, Ecuador. We improve the lives of local people by providing education and health care for their children and young adults, supporting local businesses, helping women start their own businesses and supporting women's issues, creating jobs in Eco tourism, etc. The end gains of all those efforts are the protection of wildlife and habitat.

So no matter what your interest, whether it is helping children in poverty, education, healthcare, clean water, environmental issues, creating jobs, wildlife or habitat conservation, we hope you will see a way to help TTJ in our efforts. Our US nonprofit agency, Earthways, covers all overhead and admin expenses, so that 100% of your donations go directly to the project level. Everyone that works with TTJ are volunteers, including myself. This year, Earthways is matching all donations we raise towards the school project, so your donation is automatically doubled. You can read more about TTJ on our website at Please consider making a donation to Touch The Jungle this year.

Thanks! ~Tracy Wilson, TTJ project director.

Copied with permission.

Neighbor Helping Neighbor

When Hurricane Sandy pummeled the East Coast just days before the general election, we asked ourselves as a nation, what is the proper role of the government in providing relief and assisting with recovery? Today I want to turn the question around. What is the role of neighbor helping neighbor in a calamity such as Sandy?

In April of this year, my sister and her family in rural Kansas suffered a frightful tornado. Thankfully no one was injured but the loss of property was devastating. Most impressive, though, was the immediate response of the community in helping them clean up the damage and rebuild their lives. Neighbors helped a neighbor in a way that was rapid, efficient, and effective. I was moved by this, as were many who observed this outpouring of support.

As inspiring as this story is, however, I remember thinking at the time that this could only happen in a small community. In an urban area with widespread destruction, coordination would be too difficult and the needs too overwhelming for individuals to be of much help. It turns out I was wrong.

In parts of New York hardest-hit by Sandy, the Occupy Wall Street movement (now Occupy Sandy) is said to be out-performing the Red Cross and FEMA. How could this be possible? First, Red Cross and FEMA have to deal with a lot of bureaucracy, while Occupy already has a network of organizers with access to local community groups. Second, Occupy Sandy asks for in-kind donations that people can actually give and use immediately. Third, Occupy had developed a community of trust so it was easy for them to unite quickly around a common need. Fourth, the shared leadership style of Occupy is ideal for affording communities the ability to stand on their own.

One of the more creative ideas is the use of Internet to focus outside giving on actual needs through an Amazon Wedding Registry. It has gone viral, a great example of the wider community supporting one another.

Another interesting observation is that New Jersey had not been doing Occupy Wall Street, so there was no infrastructure in place. But InterOccupy (facebook) put out a call for assistance and received a great response.

In a subsequent post I hope to come back and address the role of government (both federal, and state and local), non-governmental agencies (large and small), insurance companies, and private business in relief and recovery efforts. But today I want to admit that Occupy Sandy has proven me wrong about neighbor helping neighbor in disasters of overwhelming proportions.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Obama's Second Term

An organization I hold in high regard has made a list of "ten awesome things Obama can do" in his second term. First on the list is "fight climate change." I endorse and have therefore adopted all ten of these goals, but I won't post the list here nor will I provide a link because today I want to focus on this first item, working to prevent and reverse climate change.

Based on the miniscule attention climate change received during the campaign, we might think it is not a controversial topic. To the contrary, both candidates avoided it precisely because it is such a political hot potato. But should it be so controversial? If intelligent, well-meaning people examine the evidence together and have a civil dialog about the pros and cons of the measures involved, should we not be able to arrive at effective solutions? Maybe that is naïve; I hope not.

As most of you know, I've put a lot of effort into examining this issue, and I believe the scientific evidence is clear that climate change is a real phenomenon and that it is primarily caused by human use of fossil fuels. I am open to exploring new evidence and other viewpoints always, but the remainder of this posting is based on the premise that this statement is accurate (subject to refutation).

If we are indeed the cause of real climate change, what should the President do about it in his second term? What can he do?

  1. Promote fair evaluation of scientific evidence in climate change discussions.
  2. Work to end fossil fuel subsidies.
  3. Help drive through a fair, and binding climate treaty.
  4. Consider climate change in evaluating the environmental impact of the Keystone XL Pipeline.
  5. Promote the clean sources of renewable energy.

These are a few ideas off the top of my head. I've not done a very good job of setting this up to be an open conversation, but eventually that is what I am hoping for.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Climate and Paul Ryan

In selecting Rep. Ryan as his running mate, Gov. Romney is said to have transformed the presidential campaign into an ideological debate. This might refer to Ryan's ideas about the budget deficit, Medicare and Social Security, tax codes, gay rights, or women's concerns, but today I am not interested in these. What I want to know is: what are Mr. Ryan's ideas about climate change?

Ryan's Web page on environment asserts that he wants to "develop legislation that is based on sound science and will continue our efforts to maintain and strengthen our environment." He goes on to list budget increases for the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Fish and Wildlife Agency, and conservation orientated agencies within the USDA, Department of Commerce, Corps of Engineers, and EPA. This all sounds great.

The first clue that my interpretation may be different from his is the sentence, "Bigger government has not equated to better government, and it has only led to duplication, waste, and mismanagement." This is code-speak for the need to cut funding for these programs.

The second clue is his endorsement of the American Energy Initiative, which is designed to remove government barriers to energy production and stop policies that drive up gas prices. This means he wants to "remove government roadblocks and bureaucratic red tape that hinder and delay American energy production", code-speak for let the fossil fuel industry do whatever they want without regulation or controls.

The fourth clue is that half of the page is devoted to the spread of Asian Carp of the Mississippi River. I do not mean to belittle the importance of this issue, but to make this the centerpiece of his environmental policy seems out of balance, shall we say?

The fifth clue is that there is no mention of "climate change" or "global warming", none whatsoever. Nor is there any mention of "climate" or "warming" on his energy page. The energy page talks about "reforming outdated fuel regulations". He pays lip service to "investing in alternative energy sources", but seeks to remove any "discriminatory distortions" for such projects while saying nothing about tax breaks for the highly profitable fossil fuel industry.

Though Ryan says nothing on his website about global warming, he wrote an editorial during the 2009 international climate talks in which he laughs that "fighting global warming has been a tough sell in our communities, where much of the state is buried under snow," and accused climatologists of a "perversion of the scientific method, where data were manipulated to support a predetermined conclusion," in order to "intentionally mislead the public on the issue of climate change." His record in Congress has been to oppose every measure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In 2010 he wrote that "there is growing disagreement among scientists about climate change and its causes", which was not true then, nor now. Overall his environmental voting record for 2011 was only 3%. Not all of these votes were related to climate change, of course, but I think the message is clear.

Now, in all fairness, Mr. Ryan is not the head of the ticket, which would be Gov. Romney. What does Mr. Romney think about climate change? That can be difficult to pin down. In 2004, as governor of Massachusetts, his administration unveiled a detailed plan to curtail the state’s carbon pollution. In 2011, he told voters in New Hampshire:

"I don't speak for the scientific community, of course, but I believe the world's getting warmer. I can't prove that, but I believe based on what I read that the world is getting warmer. And number two, I believe that humans contribute to that. I don't know how much our contribution is to that, because I know that there have been periods of greater heat and warmth in the past but I believe we contribute to that. And so I think it's important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases that may well be significant contributors to the climate change and the global warming that you're seeing."

Yes, he does hedge a little, but mostly he seems quite clear. Climate change due to human activity is real. Since then, however, he has backed off considerably without being specific or definitive. Frankly, I don't actually know what Mr. Romney's views on climate change are.

By contrast, President Obama has established the Climate Change Adaptation Task Force. Wow! He acknowledges the findings of science. I'd say this is an ideological debate!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Be the Change

This week I have been reading Cultivating Peace by James O'Dea. I highly recommend it. One of its central themes is that freeing the societies we live in is closely interconnected with freeing our own inner lives. Becoming a peacemaker requires as much inner work as skillful work in the world around us.

Last week I also listened to Scilla Elworthy's TED talk, "Fighting with non-violence". She too emphasizes that the change that has to take place has to take place here inside me first. It is my response, my attitude to oppression that I've got control over, that I can do something about. And to do that what I need to develop is self-knowledge.

Third, I explored the Website of Andrew Beath, founder of EarthWays, who states that personal transformation is the first step to global change. Quoting a Kate Wolf song, "We are crying for a vision that all living things can share", he goes on to say that from this inward crying comes personal awareness that gives direction to our desire to take action.

Mahatma Gandhi's admonition to "Be the change you want to see in the world" makes a lot of sense, but it also used to confuse me. I want to see the world become peaceful and I am a peaceful person. So why isn't it working? I'm slowly realizing, however, how quick I am to tell people why they are wrong before I seek to truly understand them. I now see that my ire is often directed toward people, not what I perceive as their flawed thinking. When I give up the need to be right, I find that a true conversation can take place. This seems true on many levels.

Quoting O'Dea, "When we truly engage with each other, a mystery unfolds: we enter a safe ground of being where we can share our differences and come to know each other. So often we live with a fiction of who the other is. When we come to know them in a peacebuilding context, it is not that we have to agree with them but that we can appreciate them for who they are. This alone is what humanizes the world and brings peace."

Friday, August 10, 2012

Touch the Earth

I'll be honest. Protecting the environment has not always grasped me emotionally in the same way responding to the plight of people with inadequate water, sanitation, food, and shelter has. Although I know that safeguarding the environment is essential and biodiversity is vital for the survival of our planet, my heart has simply responded more quickly and more deeply to people in need. I don't think I am unusual in this regard.

So I have been slightly surprised at my new calling, as announced Thursday, and for much the same reason I worry that some of my friends may not feel as honored by 'their gift' this year as they have been in the past year.

Of course helping people is still my main focus. The project I will be supporting is building a much needed high school in a remote area of Ecuador. What is different is that the project will not only improve the lives of the youth and adults of this community, it will help them preserve the rainforest and protect its wildlife. We are not only touching people's lives, we are touching the Earth. This feels right to me.

"Touch the Earth" is a Native American expression expressing the concept that by touching the earth, the soil, we can touch the soul of our planet and be at peace within the universe. I'm not quite that literal, but not far from it either. The human predicament is intricately tied to the plight of our planet. It's impossible to separate them. The sense I have is that by making it possible for the young people of this small region in Ecuador to gain an education, we can help empower them to continue their stewardship of the rainforest and the wildlife it sustains. It is all interconnected.

This is all I am going to say today. This is my calling for now, and I do not necessarily expect it to become yours, at least in the same way. For those who do develop a deeper interest, though, I will be posting more details in the coming weeks.


Thursday, August 9, 2012


A year has passed. By now each of you on my friends list (except the very most recent) should have been honored on your birthday with a donation to a good cause. Since birthdays come around once a year, it is time to reassess what began as an experiment and has since become a weekly/daily spiritual practice.

And it was an experiment at first. (Experiment in Giving) My goal was to raise awareness of issues that have captured my interest, and see how others would respond. My friends (and often their friends) responded with graciousness, gratitude, and heightened interest. What I did not count on is the affect it would have on me. I found myself becoming more generous in all areas of my life, not just financial, but with my time and energy, and even with my smiles. Dare I say it, I am happier.

So giving in this way (beyond my family's 'regular' donations to our church and other charities) has become a transformative practice. But now that it has been a year and each friend has been honored once, should I continue or should I do something different?

Both seem right. I want to go on, and yet it seems like a good time to make a change. It has occurred to me that perhaps I should become more focused in the coming year. I still have high regard for the causes to which I have been giving for the past year (listed under "Facebook Birthday Experiment" on my webpage,, and I intend to continue supporting them in some manner. But even though these organizations have a sound reputation for involving local communities, I never know exactly where my donations are going. This is not a criticism; it is just a feeling that I am not as closely involved as I would like to be. Could I do something more specific?

It turns out that I have friends with close ties in Haiti, Burma, Ethiopia, and possibly dozens of other locations around the world. I thought about continuing my Birthday Experiment by giving to one of these more 'local' causes, someplace where each donation would be more tangible.

And then, quite recently, I was made aware of a location on our planet so remote that maps are hard to come by, a region with fewer than 0.000003% of the earth's population (200 out of 7 billion), a society among the poorest in the world, fighting bravely against some of the world's most powerful economic interests not to mention a corrupt government. These are a people living in harmony with their environment, and what they require most as a community to continue their stewardship and improve their lives is a high school.

Will building a school save the world? Of course not, and I understand this. But it is not MY job to save the world. I can only respond to what I am called, and this project seems to be my calling at present. This project may HELP save the world.

So at least for the coming few months, I will make a $5 donation on YOUR birthday in YOUR name toward the building of this school. What I plan to do a bit differently this year is make it easier for others among your friends to match this gift if they wish, and you may do so yourself, but only as you (or they) feel led.

More to come.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


"Something has gone terribly wrong with the American experiment. Our families are imploding. Our national debt is exploding. Experts on the left and the right warn we are on an unsustainable trajectory and urgently need to change course. Yet too many in Washington, academia, the media and even the church are in a 'business as usual' mode. As result, millions of America [sic] fear the ice is cracking under our feet." ~Joel Rosenberg

I agree. I really do. In the next few days I will be critical of this quote and many of its implications, but up front I want to go on record as agreeing with the statement as such. I agree that America is on an unsustainable trajectory, and in particular I agree that the escalating national debt is a contributing factor.

It may not be possible on Facebook, but I'd like to think we could carry on a civil discussion about the American experiment, the national debt, and other aspects of our economy. To do so we will have to look for principles on which we can agree, and then agree to respectfully disagree about the rest. That is why I started by agreeing that the national debt is a serious problem for our nation. We will disagree plenty on how and within what timeframe to bring the debt under control, but we can surely all agree that this needs to be done.

It will be tempting to bring up the presumptive presidential candidates and their political records and/or promises. Though I may succumb on occasion, I see little to be gained by this because it is little more than a quick way of eliciting antagonism, which is not what I want. Although much could also be said about comparing the current and previous administrations and their policies, it probably won't be possible to avoid such discussions entirely. For example, the Rosenberg quote was originally brought to my attention accompanied by a graphic implying that the present administration is to blame for the national debt. Eventually I will want to investigate this claim.

Where I want to start, however, is with the widening gap between the very rich and the poor. Inequality is now far higher than just 30 years ago. The top 1 percent today gets around 20 percent of the nation's income – twice what it did two decades ago. The top 0.1 percent's share has almost tripled. Disparities in wealth are even greater. The causes of these disparities and their remedies are open for discussion, but does anyone not think this is a serious issue? Click Like if you agree and please comment if you do not.

To forestall an argument I anticipate, I will not be suggesting that the answer to this inequality is to "steal from the rich and give to the poor." Some of my interlocutors may claim that this is my recommendation, but I will try to phrase my thoughts more clearly than that. I should also state that much of my thinking on this topic is based on the writings of economist Joseph E. Stiglitz, most recently in Politico. Here are the bullet points:

  • If the economy is growing for everyone, inequality per se is not a problem. But in fact inequality is bad for growth.
  • Those at the top aren't the true innovators – people who provided the intellectual foundations of the computer, for example, or the Internet.
  • Much of the top-most wealth comes from successful "rent seeking" (income derived from owning an asset, rather than from effort).
  • "Rent seeking" attempts to garner a larger share of the economic pie, rather than making the pie larger.
  • The U.S. has more inequality than any of the other advanced industrial countries in which similar market forces are at play.
  • Laws and regulations in the U.S. shape markets in ways that enrich the top – but don't necessarily enhance growth and efficiency.

If any of my friends disagree with one or more of these points, I would love to hear from you.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Invitation and Warning

At present I'm still up to my neck (my eyeballs, actually) with an EMR project at work, so I don't have much extra time to devote to blogging or to Facebook. But today is Sunday. My grandson, Ian, spent the night with me last night, and my daughter, Rachel, and I took him to church with us this morning (Debby being out of town). This afternoon is a time for relaxation and reflecting on things that are important.

It happens that I have been reading The Inquisition of Climate Science by James Lawrence Powell. In a way I am learning nothing new, because I have been convinced that global warming is real and that human activity (specifically the burning of fossil fuels) is by far the predominant cause since long before I put together the list of links about the Science of Global Warming in August, 2011. In other words, Powell did not need to persuade me of the truth of climate change (because I was already persuaded), but what Powell's book has done is help me better understand the forces arrayed against us, forces that are doing everything they can to muddy the waters and convince the populace that there is nothing to this threat. This, my friends, makes it a moral issue.

Then this morning I read a column, On Climate Change, Money Trumps Common Sense, by Bill Moyers, a journalist whom I have long admired. In this article Moyers quotes a publication of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration publication (via the Washington Post) revealing that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of Barrow, Alaska, reached 400 parts per million (ppm) this spring. This may not be all that surprising, but it is alarming nonetheless.

It is time to wake up, friends, long past time. So here is an invitation and a warning. The invitation is this. Please engage me in discussion. I will be forthright, but I will not attack you personally, nor will I belittle you. In fact, if you think I am overlooking important information, I am happy to read and study anything you bring to my attention. But please engage me. This is too important not to discuss civilly and intelligently. Engage me here on this blog; engage me on Facebook; engage me by email.

The warning is this. From here forward, I no longer view discussions of climate change and global warming as political (and therefore to be avoided as far as possible). I now view this topic as one with moral and spiritual implications to be discussed openly and often. If this makes you uncomfortable, please feel free to "un-friend" me or at least "unsubscribe". (I won't be not be offended and probably won't even know.)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Gayatri Mantra: A Paraphrase

Strictly speaking "Gaytri mantra" refers to a class of mantras in Vedic metre having three Padas of 8 syllables each, but this particular mantra is the best known so it is called The Gayatri Mantra. Also strictly speaking, therefore, this mantra consists of just three lines, but it is universally preceded by "The Great Utterance" making four lines in all.


ॐ भूर भुवः स्वः ।
तत् सवितुर्वरेण्यं ।
भर्गो देवस्य धीमहि ।
धियो यो नः प्रचोदयात् ॥

The Great Utterance

Om ( ॐ ) ( औम् औँ )

Whole books have been written about this word/syllable/symbol, and the entire Mundakopanisad Upanisad is devoted to its explanation and importance in Hindu (or vedic) thought. It has been referred to as "the name of God, the sound of the Universe, the primordial sound," and it is also known as the Seed Mantra because it contains the seed for all other mantras within itself. When taken letter by letter, A-U-M represents the divine energy (Shakti) united in its three elementary aspects: Bhrahma Shakti (creation), Vishnu Shakti (preservation) and Shiva Shakti (liberation). Aum corresponds to the crown chakra

Looking at the symbol itself, start with the dot in the upper right. What is that? Well, that is "That!" The dot stands for Ultimate Reality, the Essence of All, The Ground of Being. It also represents a state of consciousness in which all comes to rest, all is silent. It is the state of bliss, the state to which we aspire, the aim of all spiritual activity. Immediately below the dot is a semi-circle that represents illusion, distractions, selfishness, sin. It is such illusion that prevents us from reaching the state of bliss.

The lower curve on the left represents the philosophical notion of Truth, or objective experience, what we can smell, taste, touch, hear, and see. This is the Physical Dimension of experience. The top curve under the illusion semi-circle (also at left) represents the philosophical notion of Beauty, or subjective experience, what we experience on the inside. This is the Spiritual Dimension of experience. To the right of these intersecting curves is a more tortuous curve representing the philosophical notion of Goodness. This is sometimes called the inter-subjective experience. It may also be called the Emotional (or mental) Dimension of experience. Each curve has two ends, outer and inner. Taken together we choose to call these Mystery. Since Mystery is the source of all creation, the life force of procreative energy, and the creative spark within each of us, we further use the term Fountain of Mystery.

These three curves also represent three aspects of prayer. The top curve signifies Praise, the lower curve, Petition, and the right, Meditation. In terms of sensuality, these curves could also indicate pleasure, desire, and awareness respectively.

bhur भूर   bhuvah भुवः   svah स्वः

These three words in the Great Utterance must be considered together. They represent three dimensions of experience in much the same way as the three curves of the Om symbol.

bhur भूर bhuvah भुवः svah स्वः
cominggoingbalance of life


Om. In truth, goodness, and beauty

Praise Line

tat ( तत् s.1)

This is a name for the divine, with emphasis on Ultimate Reality, Mystery. Literally it means "that One." We may think of this word as referring to the dot in the Om symbol.

savitur ( सवितुर् s.2-4)

This is a name for the divine, with emphasis on "source" or "creation." The literal meaning is "sunlight." Savitur is the creative source of the universe, the procreative source of evolutionary advance (the life-force), and it is the source of the creative spark in each of us. Because it is an ongoing continuous source, we call it the Fountain of Mystery. The Praise Line itself is represented by the upper curve in the symbol, but Savitar (the Fountain of Mystery) is represented by all three curves taken together.

varenyam ( वरेण्यं s.5-8)

This word means "worthy of adoration, praise, or worship". The literal meaning may be "desirable" or "excellent," "the best".

The Fountain of Mystery invites our praise.

Meditation Line

bhargo ( भर्गो s.1-2)

Literally means "radiant light", but also means "purifying radiance" or "pure light." It is also translated "destroyer of sins." This illumination evaporates the thick fog of illusion, trivializes distractions into disappearance, and purifies us of sin.

devasya ( देवस्य s.3-5)

This is another name for the divine, with emphasis on qualities or attributes of the divine. Thus it refers to the multi-faceted nature of our experience of Mystery. Weaving these facets or threads together is Tantra.

dhimahi ( धीमहि s.6-8)

This is a verb meaning to meditate or to focus the mind. Here it means to focus on Mystery or some aspect of Mystery. Tantric meditations weave together the many facets of Mystery. They also use Mantra to reveal Tattva.

Purify us through these Tantric meditations.

Petition Line

dhiyo ( धियो s.1-2)

"The intellect" or the "mind," thoughts.

yo ( यो s.3)

This is a pronoun, most likely referring back to Mystery as its antecedent.

nah ( नः s.4)

This word is an enclitic personal pronoun meaning "our" and possibly emphasizing our oneness.

Also, note that( योनी ) is yoni – "our source."

prachodayat ( प्रचोदयात् s.5-8)

Literally "let it push" or "let it inspire," this word can also mean "to enlighten".

And inspire our minds (to know) that we are One.

Fall Festival Translation

Om — In truth, goodness, and beauty
The Fountain of Mystery invites our praise.
Purify us through these Tantric meditations
And inspire our minds that we are One.

Extended Paraphrase

When there was nothing,
Mystery said, "AUM."
By this, Mystery became manifest;
Then there was something rather than nothing.

The vibration of "A·U·M" represents the divine energy of Mystery
In creation, in preservation, and in liberation,
As described by the divine attributes of
Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
And that was 'That' ( तत् ).

'That' One,
Or the Fountain of Mystery,
Is the Creative Source of everything:
Mystery is the source of the created Universe.
Mystery is the procreative source of Life.
Mystery is the source of our own creativity.

The Fountain of Mystery, this Source of All,
Invites our praise and worship.
Therefore, this is our petition:
Purify our thoughts and rid us of distractions;
Inspire us through these meditations;
Enlighten us to the reality that in Mystery we are One.

Tantra — Tattva and Mantra

तत्त्व tattva त ्त् essence (thatness)
तन्त्र tantra न्त् woven, continuum
मन्त्र mantra न्त् prayer or hymn

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Obamacare and the Supreme Court

On Monday the Supreme Court will begin hearing three days of oral arguments over President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Opponents say the law is unconstitutional; their chief argument is that Congress does not have the power to force unwilling Americans to buy health insurance or pay a fine. If the Court rules that the health insurance mandate is unconstitutional, they will decide whether the rest of the act can take effect. They will also hear arguments over whether the law goes too far in coercing states to expand the federal-state Medicaid program for low-income people. It is not clear to me whether this last question is related to the first (the mandate issue) or is separate.

With regard to the health insurance mandate, the justices may strike down the provision as unconstitutional, they may decide that the mandate falls within the powers granted to Congress by the commerce clause of the Constitution and allow it to stand, or they may dismiss the case without a binding ruling by deciding that the issue is premature, since penalties have not yet been paid (and will not be levied until 2015). Although the Court may decide these issues at any time, they likely will not produce a decision until June.

For the record, I believe that the health insurance mandate is both constitutional and good for healthcare. Provisions in this law have already benefited many individuals and will benefit many more in years to come.

But what if the Supreme Court disagrees with me and decides the individual mandate is unconstitutional? Would this totally put an end to the health care reforms we have passed in the last three years?

Absolutely not.

First, the Affordable Care Act has started moving our country's health system away from one that pays for volume and toward one that pays for value. If the Supreme Court were to strike down the entire act (as opposed to just the individual mandate), it would slow this change in direction no doubt, but it cannot reverse it.

Second, the health-care industry had been moving toward value-based payments even before health reform passed. The Affordable Care Act played an important role by signallying that the federal government is also headed in that direction, but this movement will continue regardless of the Supreme Court decision. The insurance companies are all for it.

Third, last year, authorized by the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration announced a $500 million program called Partnership for Patients aimed at reducing hospital-acquired infections, errors and other preventable complications. The act also requires Medicare to begin posting online each hospital’s rate of certain medical errors and infections, and to cut payments to hospitals with the highest rates. Consequently, hospitals across the country are working to reduce preventable hospital errors. The Supreme Court decision will not cause anyone to rescind this effort.

Fourth, overturning the law would release insurers from the federal rule regarding expanded coverage (such as for young adults). But (1) nearly all states, which regulate many forms of private insurance, have already codified the young-adult rule at the state level, and (2) many insurance companies would now find it unpalatable to revert back to their original policies.

Bottom line. I hope the Supreme Court will uphold the constitutionality of the health insurance mandate. If they strike it down, I hope they will leave the rest of the Affordable Care Act intact. But even if they nullify Obamacare entirely, Obamacare has already helped to bring about the most significant improvements in our health care system in decades. The Supreme Court may be able to slow this advancement with a wrong decision, but it will not be able to turn back the clock.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Why I care.

And why I hope you will too.

Increasingly I find myself caring about things beyond my immediate control, and caring more deeply about each one. Maybe it is because I have entered what I consider to be the last third of my life. Maybe it is because the Internet has made me aware of more aspects of the world and more details about each area. Maybe I am simply part of a broader, deeper movement toward greater concern and compassion. I don't always know why, but I just know I care.

Yet what difference does it make? The problem with caring about something I can't control is that I don't know what to do about it. Is there anything I can do about it? Well, it turns out that often there is plenty. It is true that by myself I can do little, but when I sign a petition along with tens of thousands of others, it can make a big difference. I have seen it happen, more than once. When I make just two phone calls to my senators' offices along with hundreds of others, the senators may change their minds on a bill. I actually saw this happen, too. Every time I donate just $5 to an organization that uses these funds wisely, it combines with small gifts from thousands of others to make a real and tangible difference in someone's life.

In my opinion, however, the biggest difference any of us can make is to raise the level of awareness of others around us. And this is where you come in. I am not trying to talk you into donating money, or making phone calls, or even signing petitions. All I am trying to do is raise your awareness of the issues that have captured my attention and concern. I'm only asking you to think about it. If a topic touches you, you may want to "Like" or "Comment", and for the things you really care about too, you are invited to "Share".

But what if you disagree with me on something? There are plenty of issues where the problem may be clear, but the answers controversial. I invite you to share your views respectfully, and I will do the same. What about concerns I have never heard of? I invite you to post about the causes you hold dear to your heart. I will do my best to respond to you as I would have you respond to me.

Recently I decided to pick out a few of the web sites that represent the issues I have come to care most about. Then I created a page with annotated links to each of these sites: donnal on the Internet.

Blessings upon you.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Another War, Really?

I am no policy wonk, especially foreign policy, but I am concerned about the recent escalation of saber rattling toward Iran. War should always be the last resort. A hardline stance toward Iran may be appropriate (or may not), but Senate Resolution 380 if adopted could make military conflict more likely.
  • The war in Iraq has cost the U.S. $100 billion a year, more than $800 billion total. How can our economy afford a war with Iran?
  • The U.S. has thousands of nuclear weapons, Israel hundreds. Why are we assuming that suddenly, deterrence will not work with Iran anymore? Military leaders see no such threat.
  • What are the views of the Iranian people in regards to a potential war and the current sanctions? Is this path helping us win or lose hearts and minds in Iran?
  • Given the controversy over our intelligence on Iraq, how are we factoring in and addressing the uncertainty of intelligence on Iran's nuclear program?
  • Why are many ignoring intelligence reports that see no move by Iran to build a nuclear bomb?
  • Could it be that the increasingly bellicose and confrontational approach of the West actually increase Tehran's desire for nuclear deterrence?
  • A tense exchange is currently playing out in public between the Netanyahu government and the U.S. military. What lies behind the starkly diverging views of the Netanyahu government and the U.S. military on Iran?
  • My worry has long been the idea of terrorists getting material to make "dirty bombs" that could be smuggled into Israel or the U.S. It is much more likely, however, that this material would come from Russia or Pakistan than from Iran.
  • I am no expert in Middle East policy, but these are a few reasons I see to lower the rhetoric and avoid war with Iran.

(Thoughts derived from an article in the Huffington Post.)

See also

Digging Deeper Again

The biggest problem with digging deeper for me is that it takes time. That is what digging deeper means, taking the time to seek out new information, organize the material, and work to articulate the findings. Recently I have had a number of other projects to work on (such as refurbishing, so I have not been doing much digging. At least for a few posts, I hope to change this.