Sunday, May 27, 2018

The toxic price of convenience

As many as 110 million Americans may be drinking water contaminated by a toxic class of chemicals that according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are used in "stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products (e.g., Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, and fire-fighting foams (a major source of groundwater contamination at airports and military bases where firefighting training occurs)."

The chemicals, referred to as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, were detected by EPA-mandated testing of U.S. water supplies between 2013 and 2015. The full results of that testing have not been made public. An analysis done by the Environmental Working Group using available data uncovered the widespread contamination. The group's analysis was released last week.

Firefighting foams are a major source of the contamination, primarily from their release during routine training drills at both civilian and military airports. But the desire of consumers for nonstick pans and stain- and water-repellent clothing and carpets brings direct contact with the toxic chemicals.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Genes, synecdoche and the possibility of editing ourselves

Margaret Atwood's 2003 novel Oryx and Crake depicts the evolution and aftermath of a bioengineered global catastrophe. Whether Atwood at the time was privy to insider knowledge that genetic alteration would become easy to do and ubiquitous or whether she just thought it would make a good premise for a novel, I do not know.

What we have now, however, is a world moving ever forward toward what is being called the democratization of genetic engineering or biohacking for short. Anyone with a credit card and a mailing address can now order their own genetic engineering kit. Meanwhile, in major research laboratories around the world visits from awed reporters are bringing the possibility of fabulous advances in medicine to the attention of the public.

Some 6,000 diseases are thought to be linked to our genetic structure. Could these diseases not only be prevented in newly forming humans in utero, but also cured on the fly in fully fledged humans through means that alter their DNA? The preliminary answer is possibly.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

America's 'Cadillac Desert': Is there a substitute for fresh water?

Thirty years after Marc Reisner penned Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water his prophesy is being fulfilled. As the chalky rings which mark previous higher water levels around Colorado River reservoirs grow ever wider, Grist reports that major disputes are now afoot over the remaining water supply.

Modern economists have long told us not to worry about resource scarcity. Higher prices will bring on new supplies whenever resource supplies decline. And, if a resource truly is becoming unobtainable, then we'll always find a substitute.

When I hear this, I often counter: "There is certainly some truth to what you are saying. But, please tell me what the substitute for potable water will be." The response is usually to change the subject—for the obvious reason that there is no substitute.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Information overload, sustainability, and the emerging organization

Nafeez Ahmed, an exceptional journalist who writes at the intersection of resources and society, understands the complexity of the ecological predicament we humans face. In a piece he wrote last year, Ahmed asserted that our current arrangements are approaching a convulsive crisis point. One reason for this is as follows:

[T]he system faces a crisis of information overload, and an inability to meaningfully process the information available into actionable knowledge that can advance an adaptive response.

If he's right, is there anything we can do? The short answer is maybe. The great human ecologist William Catton pointed out in his 2009 book Bottleneck that the mass media has become a conduit for propagating bad or at least inconclusive information. In short, the feedback we humans need in order to run our society in a sustainable way is dangerously lacking.

But what if we could reorganize society to better handle the information available and act on that information quickly, decisively and appropriately? Management consultant and author John Hagel may be able to shed some light on this. (Regular readers will recall that I was channeling Hagel in last week's piece.)

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Is the CEO obsolete? A look at the emerging organization

Recently, the writer of a guest editorial in The Guardian Weekly proposed a solution to what ails the world's business schools: Shut them down. The author, Martin Parker, claims there are 13,000 business schools on the planet and he says that's 13,000 too many. He says the reason he knows a total shutdown is the only remedy that will actually work is that he's taught in business schools for the last 20 years.

His detailed critique covers a lot of territory, but I found one part of it particularly interesting in light of what I've been reading lately. Parker wrote: "If we want those in power to become more responsible, then we must stop teaching students that heroic transformational leaders are the answer to every problem[.]"

At first blush it seems as if we need more such leaders. But I think the point here is the same point which management consultant and author John Hagel is making in his book, The Power of Pull: This kind of thinking leads to passivity rather than the creative engagement which our society so desperately needs.

Hagel explains that what he calls "scalable" collaboration and learning are now the essential ingredients to have broad impact on society.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The global village and the surveillance society

Media savant Marshall McLuhan coined the term "global village" in 1962 in his book The Gutenberg Galaxy. Today, we take the concept of an electronically connected global population with instant access to practically every plugged-in person on the planet as a fact of life.

We often see our global village as a force for good, creating understanding and binding people across cultures regardless of distance. McLuhan saw the downside as well. In his book he notes:

Instead of tending towards a vast Alexandrian library the world has become a computer, an electronic brain, exactly as an infantile piece of science fiction. And as our senses have gone outside us, Big Brother goes inside. So, unless aware of this dynamic, we shall at once move into a phase of panic terrors, exactly befitting a small world of tribal drums, total interdependence, and superimposed co-existence.

It turns out that the global village has many key similarities to an actual village or small town. Fellow villagers and small town neighbors are much more likely to know about each other's personal lives (often including many of the intimate details) than those who live in a large city. The anonymity and privacy today which so many prize and enjoy in the big city is quickly being eroded in the new surveillance economy. Living in the global village can now subject us to the same kind of scrutiny which those in small towns and villages have long been accustomed.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Fake news, algorithmic sentinels, and facts from the future

The suggestion that social media outlets need to police so-called "fake news" rings true on its face. Who wants to read news coverage known to be false? But what rates as "fake news" will be harder to define than we think.

And, putting algorithms in charge of policing those vast information flows claiming to be news will almost certainly not solve the problem. In a piece reflecting on artificial intelligence (AI) on the 50th anniversary of the release of the film, "2001: A Space Odyssey" writer Michael Benson tells us that "[d]emocracy depends on a shared consensual reality."

Well, actually everything we do in groups, whether it's democracy or going to a hockey game, depends on shared consensual reality. And, therein lies the problem. We are now in a fight not over opinions concerning the import of agreed upon facts, but over the consensus itself—whether scientific findings can be trusted, whether corporate-owned media can be believed, whether "objective" reporting is even possible, whether the history we were taught is indeed the "true" history of our country and our world.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

Migrant caravan: Foreshadowing the future and reflecting the present

The march of hundreds of Central American migrants through Mexico has inflamed tensions between the Trump administration and the Mexican government and focused attention on the United States' southern border.

The ostensible reasons for the march are familiar: The migrants were fleeing corruption, social and political turmoil, and lack of opportunity in their home countries. Many were from Honduras which suffered a coup in 2009 that continues to divide the country politically including during the last election in which supporters of the challenger to the incumbent president claim their candidate was cheated out of a win.

All of this reminded me of Jean Raspail's novel The Camp of the Saints. In it, impoverished Indians seized hundreds of ships docked in their harbors and set sail to find a better place to live. (The book was published in 1973 when many believed that millions of Indians and other Asians would likely starve in the coming decades due to poor agricultural yields. The full effects of the so-called Green Revolution still lay ahead.)

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Silent spring revisited: New worries and the human future

A precipitous decline in bird populations in France suggests that the silent spring foretold by Rachel Carson more than 50 years ago in her book of that name may yet arrive. The proximate cause of the 33 percent decline in avian populations noted by French researchers over the last 15 years is lack of food.

In practical terms, the birds are not being poisoned as they were in Rachel Carson's day. Rather, their main sources of food, insects, are dropping like, well, flies. The ultimate cause is overuse of pesticides related mostly to agriculture, pesticides which are working all too well in keeping insect populations in check.

Described as "an ecological catastrophe," the decline in bird populations has reached 66 and 70 percent for some species; and the decline is not just in agricultural areas, but also in forested areas outside of agricultural zones.

The findings are not that surprising given previous reports of declines in insect populations of up to 76 percent over that last 27 years in Germany.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Driverless cars and bodiless brains

The death of a pedestrian during a test drive of a driverless vehicle (even as a backup human sat in the driver's seat) calls into question not just the technology—which didn't seem to detect the pedestrian crossing a busy roadway and therefore didn't brake or swerve—but also the notion that driving is nothing more than a set of instructions that can be carried out by a machine.

The surprised backup driver seemed to have confidence in the inventors of driverless cars as he was looking down at his computer briefly just before impact.

Certainly, a real human driver might have hit this pedestrian who was crossing a busy street at night with her bicycle. But, of course, as a friend of mine pointed out, there is a big difference in the public mind between a human driver hitting and killing a pedestrian and a robot killing one. If the incident had involved a human driver in a regular car, it would probably only have been reported locally.

But the real story is "robot kills human." Even worse, it happened as a seemingly helpless human backup driver looked on. The optics are the absolute worst imaginable for the driverless car industry.