Watching Gasland at the Little

I had heard some good things about it, so I headed over to The Little (240 East Ave.) to see GasLand. Alas, due to being "short listed" for a possible Academy Award for it, director Josh Fox was not available in person and instead joined a question-and-answer session afterward via Skype (which actually works pretty good.)

Fox lives in his family home in rural Pennsylvania and received a letter from a company asking for a lease of his property for hydrofracking — a technique for extracting natural gas from a specific kind of shale deposit by pumping a chemical slurry through a mineshaft at high pressure to fracture the shale. Not knowing anything about the process, he started filming (presumably shortly after) he started trying to contact the companies involved to ask some questions. Coming up dry, he decided to do some more research and found that fracking has been used in other areas and there was a correlation to contaminated water supplies. As you've likely heard about the film, the dramatic demonstration is tap water that can be set ablaze: the water supplies became contaminated with natural gas which then sputters and bubbles out the tap.

What is incomprehensible to me is that during George W. Bush's term, he signed a law that exempted hydrofracking companies from the clean air and clean water acts. Now, water supplies and air is highly contaminated in hydrofracking communities, yet the companies involved refuse to acknowledge that it is their work that causes it. The simplest explanation to me is that the companies know it is difficult to legally prove the source of contamination, so they offer no cooperation in assessing their role in the problem which makes it nearly impossible for residents to successfully get corrective measures taken. Gasland contrasts this with hydrofracking experts being questioned before Congress and insisting their methods are completely safe — despite that they are pumping known carcinogens and volatile organic compounds underground to fracture shale adjacent to natural aquifers.

My own take is that given the choice between contaminated tap water and expensive natural gas, I'll take expensive natural gas any day. If push came to shove, I could bundle up, insulate my house better, use localized electric heat, or start burning wood. But I would be unable to perform the filtration and fractional distillation necessary to extract safe water rapidly enough that I wouldn't die first from dehydration.

The argument is that there is plenty of water so it doesn't matter. And even though our bodies need a rather pure and clean water, there is presently enough, at least in the United States. But polluting these water sources is no good for anybody. In fact, as Gasland points out, the proposed hydrofracking in Pennsylvania and New York sets the stage to potentially pollute the aquifers that supply New York City, Philadelphia, and Delaware: some 15 million people.

That got me to thinking.

I think everyone has had fantasies of the "post-apocalyptic utopia": the one where the population is decimated, you and all the people you care about survive, and there is now a surplus of resources at your disposal — either a natural disaster, or in recent years, zombie survival fantasies. When I put the pieces together, I wonder if the wealthy, powerful people that head these companies believe they can achieve this sick fantasy. I don't doubt they are in a position to secure clean water, food, and shelter for themselves and all the people they care about. By supplying cheap natural gas, they are in a position to further amplify their advantage over everyone else. And if they also poison the populace — or at the very least make them dependent on corporate-supplied water — they may actually be in a position to live as kings while the world crumbles and dies around them.

While my prediction seems astonishingly dire and alarmist, I really can't conceive of a simpler rationalization. As I had mentioned, if I were working for one of these companies and they outlined the system, my first question would be to ask how the environment would be protected. And I certainly could not make a claim as those who were questioned by Congress. I really can't fathom how people think this is okay, unless I assume their goals include extinguishing the vast majority of human life on this planet.

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Watching Ghost Bird at the Dryden

I was curious (especially after reading Dayna Papaleo's positive review in The City Newspaper) and headed to George Eastman House (900 East Ave.) to see Ghost Bird.

The film lays out a tale of hope and skepticism. The ivory-billed woodpecker was one of the largest woodpeckers in the world, but logging of its natural habitat in the southeastern United States, and (to a lesser extent) hunting resulted in its extinction. Declaring something "extinct" is a fickle thing because something is only extinct until one is seen again. And that's what happened … sort of, anyway. A bird watcher managed to barely catch a few frames of video of a large woodpecker in an Arkansas swamp that was thought to be an ivory-billed. Years of searching yielded no conclusive evidence (nor any tangential evidence like the tell-tale large nesting holes). Further muddying the search was that pileated woodpeckers — common in that area — could be almost as large and (to all but the best-trained eyes) look a lot like the ivory-billed.

As such, it's more a documentary about the complicated interplay between science, money, and hope. True scientific research (that is, research that does not have a specific economic or ideological goal) seeks the truth. But as researchers rely on money and jobs as much as anyone else, this creates pressure to conduct research that gets research dollars rather than what should be done next (in an interview with director Scott Crocker by Ben Radford, Crocker relays (sans formal attribution) that the "process of acquiring funding for research [is] akin to throwing spaghetti at the wall: whatever project sticks gets the green light. This 'stickiness factor' of proposals is often determined by very unscientific agendas having more to do with commercial and public relation interests.") And then there's the hope — against all odds — that humans did not actually wipe out a species.

As a believer in scientific research, I was rather shaken to learn that a pair of scientists had their paper silenced because it called into doubt the video depicted an ivory-billed woodpecker. I firmly believed that science was immutable to outside forces — that reasoned dissent was so integral to science that it could not be bribed away. Finding that I'm wrong breaks a few of the fundamental rules I had about what to believe.

I had relied on peer-reviewed and approved studies as the gold standard. But that assumed the review process was open and any rigorous argument would be published for review. And so (as I did a couple weeks ago) I'll revisit global warming and specifically whether it's significantly caused by humans. I understood that the self-perpetuating nature of research funding meant that (at least today) research projects whose thesis supported human-caused global-warming theory would be more strongly funded through traditional means of government and educational institutions. However, other wealthy interests were equally providing funding to discredit the theory: petroleum companies in particular would derive great benefit if global warming were not caused by man, so I had a high level of confidence in human-caused global-warming because of that balance.

Alas, the publishers of reviews are biased. So given that new information, where do I turn? Unfortunately I'm cornered into the milquetoast "the results are inconclusive." In other words, if I can find a rationale for significant bias, I can only ascertain that I can't confirm or deny the claims made as a result.

So let me formally split global warming. I don't think there is significant bias in the study of global temperatures, so based on research I've seen, the global average surface temperature is increasing. But as for the human influence on that warming trend, because of the bias from political, social, and economic forces, I cannot determine a reliable source. That said, I have yet to see where the addition of car exhaust, tires, garbage, or pollution has improved a natural habitat, so I'll continue to work to reduce my ecological impact.

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Seeing Dutchman at the Flying Squirrel

I was intrigued that the performances of the racially-charged play Dutchman at The Flying Squirrel Community Space (285 Clarissa St., formerly the Flower City Elks Lodge) would be followed by a moderated discussion on racism so I headed over.The play  was written by Amiri Baraka and first performed in 1964; it was later made into the film Dutchman. Although the dialog and situations were a little dated, the core story of a black man seduced-then-ridiculed by a white woman is still haunting and strong.

Rakiyah Tapp acted as facilitator for the discussion and did an excellent job keeping people communicating. She noted that there are three kinds of racism that tend to stratify into levels: [if I remember correctly] individual, institutional, and systemic. Systemic racism provides the discriminatory rationalizations for institutional racism (at the organization-level) and individual racism (one-on-one between people).

I started out by saying that I felt that "racism is taking culture too far". (Of course, I always seem to start with something that makes no sense and ends up alienating everyone, some of them for the entire night.) My point was that we're all biased by our stereotypes based on our first impression of someone, but racism is when those stereotypes obliterate the individual before us. I suggested that we should train ourselves to treat every new person as an individual and ignore cultural cues — at least at the outset.

In the ensuing discussion, it became clear that white-on-black racism is unique among the ways individuals discriminate against one another because the systemic component is so deeply ingrained. (In fact, the play's climax brings this idea to the forefront.) As such, no suitably complex analogy is available for whites. For women, gender bias is deeply ingrained, but it is not nearly as tenaciously sinister as racism, and for white men, there is no systemic discrimination of any appreciable magnitude. So the mechanisms I used to bond with another person — commiseration and analogous stories — not only fail, but backfire tremendously as I'm reinforcing my own lack of understanding.

So I step back from my original argument and simply say that what I do (declare all cultural and ancestral markers irrelevant when I meet a new person) is an attempt to break the back of systemic racism. Like any "good progressive" I discourage racial stereotypes and other divisiveness. But I'm also aware of how I appear to other people — particularly children. I was raised in a country where systemic racism has continued to thrive, but I choose to buck that and adapt my behavior to treat people as equally as I can. As time goes by, it becomes more and more natural to do although I can still hear the echoes of prejudice quite well.

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Pure -isms

A long time ago, I wrote about political terminology, but I guess I'll give it another spin. Even then I was muddling political terms with economic systems and I'll do it again now. Actually, no: I'm pretty much just talking about economic systems. And pretty much just two of them: capitalism and socialism.

In my opinion, any purely applied economic system is doomed to its obvious point of failure. Pure capitalism leads to de facto slavery wherein a few people own all the necessary resources and everyone else is completely devalued (for instance, consider if one person or group owned all the drinking water — only those who owned water would have any power.) Pure socialism drains the desire to create as all of ones needs are met which, in turn, leads to economic collapse as there are no workers to provide the services.

As such, I think there are two viable alternatives: capitalism tempered by socialism, and socialism tempered by capitalism. At first blush they seem nearly identical, but I argue that there is a critical difference: how it affects personal priorities.

Let me start with a socialist system tempered by capitalism because, at this point that I'm writing, I think doing so will make a more interesting argument with a stronger impact. If someone comes up with a new idea, their socialist side asks, "how will this help people?" They'd tend to favor ideas that help people. Then — as their socialism is tempered by capitalism — an idea that really does help people will lead them to financial reward.

On the other hand, a capitalist system tempered by socialism leads one with a new idea to think, "how can I make money with this?" As such, they'd tend to favor ideas that make money. But tempered with socialism, ideas that are socially costly would necessarily be financially costly to those who manifest that idea.

I find myself frustratingly mired in the latter scenario. In particular, I tire of people telling me, "you could make a lot of money with that." I feel terribly alone making things that I think help people and not getting attaboy'd for that facet of it. When I build a tall bike, people never seem particularly impressed that it makes the world smile — that it makes everyone just a little happier. When I talk about some new bike safety blinker, nobody cares that it might prevent someone from getting hit by a car. [Yeah yeah, I'm on a bicycling kick.] All they seem to care about is money. And they think I am (or that I will be, or that I should want to be) rich because of it.

In essence, I'm mired in the same thing that burns the midnight oil of the anti-socialists: I tire of people lingering around waiting for a cash hand-out. I'm not some goddamned leprechaun with a pot of gold stashed away hoping you don't find it. I'm just trying to have fun. That's among the oldest and most tenacious of my philosophical thoughts (I remember arguing with my high-school guidance councilor that "having fun" was a valid life goal.) So I cannot believe in any alternative. Money is not everything. He who dies with the most toys most certainly does not win. And money can't buy happiness. (Ok, so that last one really is the pacifying aphorism.)

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Thoughts on Complicated Issues

Dealing with complicated issues is a complicated issue. I find that it is impossible for a non-expert to rationally debate a complicated issue. Instead, it all comes down to belief.

Take global warming, for instance. There are people in the world who have spent their lives studying this: climatologists. As scientists (the real climatologists anyway) they posit a theory, test it against empirical evidence, publish the results, and let their peers (other real climatologists) analyze, critique, and collectively approve or reject it. The Wikipedia article references a separate page that cites hundreds of scientific organizations who collectively agree that the world is warming overall, the climatological system is changing, and that these changes are attributable to human activities. More conclusive, though, is that aside from four groups who stand by non-committal statements, "no scientific body of national or international standing has maintained a dissenting opinion" (the last was the American Association of Petroleum Geologists who updated their stance in 2007 with a non-committal statement.)

However, I am not a climatologist by any means. As such, I'm left to judge by belief alone: I believe that climatologists have studied this issue and agreed that humans are causing climate change, and that these climatologists do not have sufficient ulterior motives to lie. I don't think it's possible to predict exactly how these changes will manifest themselves, but as a believer that humans are well-suited to the current climatological situation, I can't see any change being likely to give advantage to us — almost all climatological changes will be unpleasant to our situation.

Some people choose instead to believe what they hear through the media, or from someone they respect (regardless of their true expertise as a climatologist), or from a celebrity or public figure, or from their personal experience, or from their non-climatological-expert analysis. Some believe much more strongly in the predictions than the assessment. But in all those differences, people are trying to debate with insufficient information. Belief is irrational and can't be debated: all that can be done is to explain one's rationale and listen to another's rationale and decide for yourself whether you want to change your mind.

Health care, on the other hand, has three sets of experts: one for the health facet, one for the money facet, and one for the moral facet: I have not encountered rigorous scientific analysis from any group, nor on the system as a whole. Doctors (while their medical practice is scientifically based) can only say that most people will live a comfortable life and may need temporary corrective care to maintain that, that any corrective effort is exponentially less severe the earlier it is started, and that a few people will require more constant care to permit a comfortable existence. Insurance companies and nations with nationalized health systems provide data indicating cost; as best I can tell, any system has approximately the same cost across its whole population. Finally, philosophers can provide the moral facet by asking, "is health valuable?" The answer transcends the other two groups as doctors' Hippocratic oath implicitly declares it so, and it is certainly a lucrative proposition as no parent would keep any wealth or a specific possession in preference to their child's life and health.

Without the benefit of a quality analysis, we are left to muddle through argument without full knowledge, again leaning on belief. Do we have more faith in government or corporations (as if they are different masters)? Should we help strangers? Will people we don't know exploit our generosity? Would we be willing to watch our own child die? Would we wish that on someone else?

My point of this exercise is to say that we all select where we get our knowledge and we use our beliefs to decide which knowledge informs our decisions. Implicit in that statement is my own belief that rational, reasoned discourse is the superior form of changing opinions.

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Election Day

So I decided to go vote. I'm not as well-versed in the candidates than I'd like, and I wasn't keen on the electronic machines, but I thought I'd go ahead anyway. We indeed have a new system in New York. Basically you fill out a bubble-sheet (color in circles on a sheet) to indicate your voting preference. Then you feed the machine into what I have described as the Ballot Disposal Unit™ — a device that supposedly scans your ballot to determine if it is readable, at which point it is dropped into a storage bin. I have no confidence that my vote was at all counted, and I had no opportunity to confirm that the machine read my choices as intended. I noticed that the machines had a number of simple seals on the door joints to indicate tampering, and some of them were removed or oddly placed.

According to my 2008 write-up, the scanning machines for the election this year are from Sequoia Voting Systems (221 Hopkins Ave., Jamestown) which is now warmly called Dominion Voting Systems, Incorporated. Originally, the machines were intended to display one's intended selections and allow confirmation.

I did a quick Google search for "electronic voting new york" and the titles for the top hits are as follows: "Rough start for electronic voting in New York – Los Angeles Times", "New York electronic voting machines experience problems – Boston.com", "Worries About E-Voting Persist As Primary Looms – City Limits …", "A Host of Monitors Will Watch the City's Electronic Voting‎ – New York Times", "New York Electronic Voting to Be Closely Watched – NYTimes.com", and "U.S. Bars Lab From Testing Electronic Voting – New York Times". Among the concerns of the experts from a sampling of these articles is the fact that up to 10 ballots can be successfully stuffed into the machine at the same time, and the exposed tamper seals can be cut leading to invalidation of all ballots inside. This is a comical joke — and at over $10,000 per machine, a blatant rip-off.

I'll reiterate my concerns from my older article: "what political parties does Sequoia make donations to? Who do they lobby in the Federal government? How much money do they spend on lobbying?" I'm assuming Jamestown is booming at this point, and maintenance fees alone will keep it a boom-town for some time.

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Attending TEDx Rochester

I headed to Geva (75 Woodbury Blvd.) to see the TEDx Rochester lectures today. I attended the premiere year last year, and hoped for a few improvements. Many were met, and some surprising updates, but I still found it fell short.

Registration was easy and our passes had a little surprise. I hadn't realized until I was approached by Chris Horn — a former co-worker — who pointed out that on the back of our passes, we had a list of three people. His said, "Ask Jason Olshefsky about a 'tadpole trike'," a project I mentioned when I had originally signed up. I thought it a near-perfect ice-breaker (although, in general most attendees migrated to people they already knew … this is Rochester, after all). A curious serendipity was that the other person who found me by name was another former co-worker from a different company. People speculated that TEDxRochester did some Internet snooping, but I was pretty sure it was just random.

Anyway, the presentations were generally good although only a couple approached the lofty goal of TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design): Ideas Worth Spreading. One of my college techniques was to take virtually no notes, expending my effort listening and thinking and referring later to reference materials. To my [mild, mild] horror, the brochure listed the presenters alphabetically with biographies rather than a title (or even a taste) of what their presentation was about. Thank goodness for TEDx Rochester Live blogging or else I'd have no idea who said what in what order.

Kicking off was Almeta Whitis who presented a "song of welcome". I found it enjoyable and impressive that she inspired me and most of the audience to join her in the chorus. An idea worth spreading? Yes — in a very unique way. She attacked the issue warmly, honestly, and with a flair for entertainment: we are all human and should behave as such. In essence, "it's the humanity, stupid", not the iPhone nor the pressing project.

Next was Dr. Benjamin Miller. He talked about detection of proteins and antibodies as markers for disease and how new technology works to do that instantly with silicon chips. His broad topic was one of understanding through a triangular diagram of vision (our ability to observe), direction (a selected methodology of exploration), and control (a defined set of target results) — essentially, a subtly different view of the scientific method. As such, technically an "idea worth spreading" but one that is spread pretty far and wide already, particularly to the largely technical-minded audience attending. I also noted a severe defect: he presented an underlying assumption (the "protein-interaction problem can be solved by drugs") was one that can be questioned. Why is that the best path? Or is that the most logical one — the one that is most likely to yield results that are easy to fit into the model of scientific exploration? Alas, I feel a far more interesting talk would have discussed that question.

Karlie Robinson spoke next. She owns Webpath Technologies (40 Charles Ave., Henrietta). She talked about how hard it is to find courses in basic computer literacy. She gave the example of how we all know basic operations (cut, copy, paste, undo) are similar across all kinds of different computer systems — something we take completely for granted but which is really a pivotally important idea. Like Miller's discussion, this one is sort-of an "idea worth spreading": more "a problem whose solution is an idea worth spreading". And (also like Miller's discussion) I found myself dismayed at ignorance of the underlying assumption: that technology is a good thing and should continue to be applied all the time. A more interesting discussion would concern why menial labor can't simply show up, work, and get paid — what value have we added by tracking names, addresses, Social Security numbers, pay, and taxes. Is this really optimal?

I think Darren Stevenson (co-founder of PUSH Physical Theatre) gave one of the best discussions. He started with a demonstration of a performance then went on to define what art is. At least that was his topic which he attacked with wit, humor, and insight. His point was that creating and experiencing art is subjective and personal. Our culture tries to make everything objective and communal — to give things dollar-values and quality-values that everyone can agree upon. However, art is defies that very notion. It even defies explanation, another facet of our culture: we try to explain everything in words because explanations make things safe; things we understand are safe. We don't look at an autumn tree [how creative, Jayce: did you just look out the window?] and try to understand "what is the tree trying to tell us?" It just is, and we can enjoy it for that. Yet somehow when it's a creation of man, we feel it must be a simple metaphor instead.

The bar was set high at the start — three very good discussions. Then Jane Andrews, a Nutrition and Product Labeling Manager for Wegmans Food Markets (1500 Brooks Ave.) gave a commercial for Wegmans. Ok, so it wasn't literally a commercial — she was talking about the techniques developed at Wegmans to foster good nutrition. My own bitter bias about Wegmans and how they abandoned the city neighborhoods (especially mine) led me to ask the underlying assumption: "why do only rich suburbanites deserve good nutrition?" Regardless, the ideas she presented were good ideas run through the hot-dog factory of marketing so they'd be palatable to the general public, such as "split your plate": fill half with salad, then have whatever else you want on the other half. Unfortunately, it's extraordinarily similar to the "small plate" movement (such as outlined in the 2008 book The 9-Inch Diet by Alex M. Bogusky.) Alas, I couldn't tell if the "idea worth spreading" was "here's some ways to eat better for the simpleton", or "Wegmans, gosh, isn't it great?"

Moka Lantum, co-founder of The Baobab Cultural Center (728 University Ave., formerly on Gregory St.) spoke next. Although his presentation style was not nearly as polished, his idea was one that I felt warranted TED: in areas with that have a high prevalence of earthquakes, we should build homes that are locally-sourced and earthquake-stable. The underlying assumption of earthquake relief efforts is that they help — but is there a better way? Lantum impressed me by attacking that very question — and again with broader scope, "is there a better building technique than the platform-framed wood houses we take for granted?" Lantum outlines a building technique that uses bags filled with local, sifted dirt for the primary structure then covered with a locally-generated stucco-like surface. The high thermal mass works well to regulate temperature, particularly in hotter climates like Haiti where these structures were given a test as temporary emergency shelters. I thought his topic was perfect TED material: it's something that I've thought about before, and I can't think off-hand of a way to significantly improve upon the presented solution. (My only lament is that he didn't say where to find more information; a little searching leads me to an article on The Honey House which I believe is the specific technique Lantum was talking about.)

Next was Shanterra Randle, an associate coordinator at The Center for Teen Empowerment (107 Liberty Pole Wy.) Her speech could easily have been a free-form poem. She encouraged us to take the ideas we have and hear, and put them out there — to make our community better. We all have good ideas, but a good idea laid dormant is just as good as no idea at all. Another worthy candidate for what TED is all about, and as a bonus, brief, creative, and directed.

Dr. Ralph Spezio gave an impassioned and emotional lecture on his experiences as principal of School 17 and how lead poisoning was revealed as the cause of educational problems in his school. If there's one thing to take away from his speech, it's to consider the possibility that when assessing the quality of education, sometimes great teachers and great parenting is not enough. Likewise, Michelle Cardulla presented her work as Executive Director of The Museum of Kids Art (MOKA) (90 Webster Ave.) I felt her presentation could have been better rehearsed, and the idea that kids are natural artists could have been more central. Clarinetist Dr. Ramon Ricker presented an interesting topic of making your life about you and your skills. He was largely talking about marketing yourself in terms of what you are good at and what you like to do rather than what you think other people want to hear. It may have resonated more with others, but me (and I think a lot of people in the audience) were already aware.

Jim Tappon, Communications Manager of COOL Rochester gave a commercial for COOL Rochester. He spent as much time talking about vague methods to conserve energy as he did talking about how you can download information and present it to your friends and acquaintances. I think his idea of conservation through small steps is generally good, but his insistence that we become the carriers of this information à la pyramid scheme was downright offensive.

Finishing up, Jen Indovina, President and CEO of Tenrehte Technologies, presented the nearly opposite view: that it is impossible for people to change their behavior in any appreciable way, so we should make technology that lets us live exactly as we do, only makes it efficient. I found it patently offensive that adaptation is impossible, and further offensive that more products can make things efficient. As someone with a custom remote system to control lights and such, I can tell you it's nearly impossible to make a machine that can predict your behavior and not irritate the hell out of you. To buy something off-the-shelf that would work is an absurd concept. I tried to do some research on the products at the Tenrehte Technologies website, but all the products and catch-phrases presented on the website appear to be nothing more than vaporware marketing-speak: there is not even a description of what anything does, much less any technical information. Without a physical address, I can't fathom how any production is taking place, and I'm strongly suspicious that the whole company is just a scam.

As such, I left this year's TEDx Rochester in a thoroughly pissed-off rush. Walking home, I could only think fo Indovina and her insistence that we can't change our behavior; if I were driving a car I'd have classic road-rage. Thankfully I headed into Mt. Hope Cemetery (791 Mt. Hope Ave., the North Gate) and got a chance to chill out before getting home.

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