Monday, June 9, 2014

World Oceans Day and the Pale Blue Dot

Last night's Cosmos was the final episode. It was a fantastic summary of the entirety of the season. Reinforcing the lessons and the influential characters we met and admired over the 13 episodes. In this one, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Seth McFarlan's team assembled an awesome homage to Carl Sagan - the original Captain of the spaceship of the imagination.

Carl Sagan's way of describing life and the world takes you from the tiniest portions of existence to a perspective of the universe where "you" barely exists. The calm and fluid tone of his voice, make you somehow OK with it and recognize the beauty in the symmetry.

The segment chosen is especially poignant because of the date that this final episode landed on. This description of Earth as a "blue dot" or a "blue marble" has been a sort of clarion call of the Ocean community. It reminds us that the Ocean makes up the majority of our Earth and that from space, our planet is blue. Without the blue, there is no green. There is even a practice, started by Wallace J Nichols, of giving a blue glass marble to ocean heroes.

Yesterday, June 8th, was World Oceans Day.

World Oceans Day is an international day of recognition for our Oceans, its beauty and what they mean to us. The day is usually full of special events to support "clean energy choices, trash-free coasts and beaches, sustainable seafood, and more."
This year's highlights included a "Selfie for the Sea" campaign, a flood of tweets and a special hangout between Vampire Diaries actor Ian Somerhalder and Fabien Cousteau broadcasting from Mission Aquarius.

It is fitting, even if unintentional, that the end of such a popular show as Cosmos mirrored the theme of this year's World Oceans Day; "Together we have the power to protect the ocean."

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Boiling Over the Arctic

In the next few months, all eyes are going to be on the growing conflict that is currently simmering in the cold arctic circle. As the ice melts, the once remote and un-navigable area is opening to all sorts of activity. This will have serious repercussions for the local environment and the world. Everything from ships using the new trade routes to militarizing the area to the mining and the extraction of newly discovered minerals and oil will have potentially catastrophic effects.

A spill or other environmental disaster is going to happen in the Arctic, it is only a matter of time. While there are plenty of lists out there from organizations like the World Wildlife Fund, the Ocean ConservancyGreenpeace and even Mother Jones discussing why an arctic spill would be a horrible tragedy that would be impossible to clean, the real kicker is that no country in the Arctic Council is prepared to handle such an event (See the recent report highlighting the U.S.'s and the international oil industries inadequacies).

The Arctic Council

To understand the issues, we need to familiarize ourselves with the political body set in charge of the Arctic. The territory that makes up the Arctic Circle is divided up among 6 countries; the U.S., Canada, Iceland, Norway, Greenland (Denmark), and Russia. Each country is allowed to claim 200 miles of the ocean off of their perspective coasts. These six countries make up an odd diplomatic assembly known as the Arctic Council whose responsibility it is "to provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, with the involvement of the Arctic Indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic."

Diplomacy surrounding this northern jewel housing a possible 20-30% of the world's untapped energy resources has already begun to heat up as countries scramble to stake their claims and begin the extraction process. This region, and the stakeholders involved are becoming ever more important yet, the United States currently does not have a permanent ambassador to the Arctic Council.

While the Council has put together an Arctic Search and Rescue plan that cuts through the territorial claims and disputes in the Arctic, there is currently no plan in the advent of an environmental catastrophe (with this exception of lose objectives). No one has really answered the question, "What happens when oil spills in the Arctic?"

The Swimming Bear

Russia in particular is taking a hugely aggressive stance and has topped off at $63 Billion worth of investment in arctic resource extraction so far. As you can see from the fantastic map created by the NY Times above, there are pockets of oil wells scattering over only a portion of the area that is yet to be explored. This is only the start.

To hear it from Vladmir Putin, "this, in essence, is the beginning of great and large-scale extraction of minerals and oil by our country, [Russia] in the Arctic."

This "large-scale extraction" is occurring while Russia increases their Naval and Military presence in the area. The United States is also concentrating on the pricey process of militarizing the Arctic Ocean. This is all heading towards another Russian-NATO standoff.
“The United States is anxious to militarize the Arctic Ocean. It has to do it via its relations with Canada and it is also seeking to do it via NATO, through the participation of Norway and Denmark in NATO. And now it is calling upon Sweden and Finland to essentially join NATO with a view to establishing a NATO agenda in the Arctic,” Michel Chossudovsky, from the Centre for Research on Globalization in Montreal.
Bringing the decades old conflict between western powers and Russian influence into the arctic could be explosive. With the pressures that Russia has exerted on Europe through oil supply threats during the ongoing Ukrainian situation, the question starts to become, how much control does Russia have over global oil supplies and what is the impact of the arctic reserves?

Spills and Companies

Remember that Russia has had massive oil spill problems in its own cold-climate Siberia and the country has already started working with companies like Exxon Mobil in the Arctic. Other international oil companies have begun to partner up and have already tried to make the rules and standards surrounding oil extraction more lax in Canada. Shell, who has massive spill issues most recently in Texas, has plans in the works for drilling around Alaska. BP, who some may remember from the Deepwater Horizon tragedy that is still affecting the Gulf of Mexico and who just recently sprayed an oil mist over 27 acres of Alaskan tundra, has won drilling options off the pristine and beautiful Greenland coast.

Again, an arctic oil spill is only a matter of time.

The Hope 

Back in August, 30 Greenpeace protesters boarded the Russian Prirazlomnaya arctic oil platform to try and bring world attention to the looming threat of an arctic environmental disaster. The protesters whose origins spanned the globe and whose members included the famous Russian photographer Denis Sinyakov, were arrested by the Russian military on the charge of piracy and detained for months.

It took an international tribunal and 11 Nobel peace laureates writing to Putin, calling on him to drop the "excessive" charges of piracy, to have these protesters released on bail.

When Russia started exporting Arctic oil from the Prirazlomnaya platform last week, Greenpeace was there again. This time it was the Dutch who arrested the protesters, only to be released a few hours after being towed to Rotterdam with no charges.
Greenpeace is changing the maritime political landscape with their activities and it is amazing to watch. The trouble is that since they are fighting against the interests of major nations and international corporations, they can only do so much.

A simple solution to the pending geo-political and environmental disaster is to stop our oil addiction. It will be a slow process but the more we divest from oil and revert that money towards alternative energies, the less this tense situation, and powder kegs like those in the middle eastern countries, become relevant.

We, as a species, need to come together and push for energy that won't destroy our future. I call on anyone who reads this to petition the Arctic Council and their own leadership for sanity. The best possible solution would be to declare the polar regions Marine Protected Areas with used designated solely for science.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Controlling the Market - Disruptive Technology at Risk

The Supreme Court handed down a monumental decision last week on the relationship between money and politics. The ruling in  McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission removed the overall limit on contributions from the wealthiest donors to candidates and political parties while setting a precedent of ridiculously specific conditions that have to be met before declaring an action “corruption.”

This move comes three years after Citizens United which opened the floodgates for a torrent of dark money to enter into the political arena. If you will recall the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United “effectively freed corporations and unions to spend money" both on "electioneering communications" and to directly advocate for the election or defeat of candidates.

In a world where money is representative of “Free Speech” and corporate entities or “citizen associations” have the same free speech rights as flesh and blood citizens, we are moving towards an Oligarchical Plutocracy - a society ruled by and for the wealthy. The more money I have, the more speech I have. This effectively removes any concept of equality from the American system. While I have covered this in the past and the media is very interested in the implications of this move, I am fearful of what is on the horizon for our technology and innovation.

While the Supreme Court has recently turned away an opportunity to further chip away at the campaign finance laws it may only be a matter of time before more actions are taken to allow for more direct input on the political system by agencies such as unions, PACs and Corporations. The problem with allowing companies with that much control and influence in the political game is that it destroys the safeguards for public citizens. In the end, traditionally corporations have only one interest, benefiting the future of the company and the return to their shareholders - the bottom line.  

But why is this dangerous for future innovation? Let's indulge in a thought experiment. Imagine that you have invented something that is literally going to change the world as we know it. This invention will not only make you a ton of money and build a company, but it will start a new boom of an entire industry, make like easier and better for humanity and possibly even destroying another industry. This is what is known as disruptive technology.

Just like the refrigerator replaced the icebox and the car replaced the horse and buggy, technologies will arise that will outmode a previous technology and the industry surrounding it. Industries rise and fall, but in some instances, the government will step in to try and salvage industry or even support it through subsidies and incentive programs. Those who have control over industry will seek any way to maintain that control over that industry. This is just a historical fact.

We are still seeing business interests and corporate entities try to stifle innovation and competition today. Everything from gaming the way our patent system works to car dealership groups pressing Texas and New Jersey governments to ban sales of Tesla and taxicab groups in D.C. trying to push out Uber. Each of these businesses are using whatever systems they can to maintain their dominant role. For those familiar with the Sacramento area, back in 2006 energy conglomerate PG&E spent $9 Million on a campaign to make sure that the public utility SMUD couldn't expand their coverage to some areas of Yolo County. The effort was to keep their monopoly hold on the area as the only energy provider. It was completely legal.

These types of efforts almost cost the world FM Radio and AC Power among other great innovations. Some say it through stifling practices that we currently don't have better electric vehicle technology in the world. Even with equalizing tools for innovation like Kickstarter or the Maker Movement, there is plenty of room to worry. 

My concern is that, the more corporations become political players and able to throw huge money around to protect their interests the harder it will be for new technologies and innovations to really shake things up. This is something that even those on more of a conservative side of the argument should be worried about. It is a scenario that will itch at the back of my mind while I pay close attention to the future of decisions like these.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

An Open Letter Response to Charles Koch

Dear Mr. Koch,

When I read your letter to the American people in the Wall Street Journal, I felt I had to respond. I am not doing this because I think you will actually read these words or that, in the end, this letter will make that much of a difference to you if you do. I had to point out the insult in your opinion piece. I had to do this because, in this age where money now equates to speech, I had to throw as much “free” speech into this conversation as I could.

You, your brother, and others like you represent a huge, ever widening divide in America. In a land whose origins rested on equality and stories of individuals pulling themselves up by their bootstraps to become successful, you represent an affront to the American dream.   

In your opinion piece, you reference Thomas Jefferson as a historical perspective to support your views on limited government, in justification of your efforts for a “free America." I offer my counter. On the subject of wealth inequalities, Jefferson wrote;

“I am conscious that an equal division of property is impracticable. But the consequences of this enormous inequality producing so much misery to the bulk of mankind, legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property, only taking care to let their subdivisions go hand in hand with the natural affections of the human mind. Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in geometrical progression as they rise. Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right. The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on.” Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, was writing to James Madison about the gross inequalities of wealth he observed in pre-Revolution France. His observations there led him to realize that the massive accumulation of wealth and gross inequality of its distribution represented a danger to the American people. 

You are worth roughly $40 billion, 365 thousand times more than the median American family. You and your brother were born into wealth from your father’s oil company and your grandfather’s railroad and newspaper businesses. Through the efforts of organizations like the CATO institute, the Heritage Fund, and Americans for Prosperity, you hold immense political power and influence. You even hold enough sway that you can elicit the exact type of political mandate on things like climate taxes that you rail against in your op-ed.

The reach of your political network extends to push for massive, ecologically damaging projects for your own benefit like the XL Keystone Pipeline, and derailing mass transit efforts. You are also connected to efforts to limit voting rights, and even corruption. Instead of going into depth on these subjects like I have in the past, I really want you to understand one thing.

In your piece you hail the tenets of, among other things, “equality before the law” but the truth is that there is no equality in America. Those who hold unfathomably massive wealth also hold far more influence on, and have access to, unequal levels of our political infrastructure.

You and your brother are so far removed from the actual American experience that you represent what is wrong with our country and where it is headed. A government run for the interests of the wealthy and the corporations in which they have interest. This Plutocracy that represents your vision of a future filled with “freedom” is so far from the American dream that it is a disgusting insult when you try to press your vision on the rest of us by twisting the words of a founding father.

The Koch name will go down in history as a warning against the oily, slimy influence that corporatists can have on our country. The more the American people become aware of your influence, and the influence of those who have gained from Citizens United and subsequent rulings, the more we will fight you and fight for our future. We will fight for future for all of the American people and not just the 1%.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Science Communications Revolution - using the tools and picking your battles

The world of science and science communication is changing. This is something that we have seen in action at events like Science Online, Decoding Science and through the invention of tools that break down the walls between the realms of Science and the Layperson.

We as a society are growing towards a world where every citizen is a citizen scientist with a pocket tri-corder in the form of a smart device. In this world each citizen takes it upon themselves to capture data in the form of pictures, hashtagged posts, lat-long mapped points-of-interest and even qualitative first-person accounts of existence.

We are currently living in a world where tools already exists that allow anyone to speak directly, in real time, to their favorite experts, celebrities or even astronauts in orbit from the comfort of their own home. In an instant we can have our fingers on any publicly available data from almost any field with detailed analysis. To a certain extent, we can instantly answer almost any question we can think of.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson's reboot of Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" dropped its second episode this last Sunday. Tyson’s popularity has skyrocketed to the forefront of American attention through his appearances in popular media like the Daily Show, the Colbert Report and even Superman comics. Before his version of Cosmos debuted, Tyson described, in a Google Plus Hangout on Air, this rising tide in the popularity of science and ease of scientists to reach larger populations as “the main-streeming of science which is a watershed shift in how our culture is thinking about it.

As the expanse of human knowledge and experience grows, the need to directly connect on and educate science increases. The necessity to gain the attention of audiences in this social media and 24-hour-news-cycle driven world where people’s attention span is hair-thin grows ever important. There is a growing swell of scientists that are learning the tricks and trades of hitting that mark. Utilizing both new media and tried and true methods, science is making a break for the front monitor of the public’s view.

At conferences, like those mentioned above, scientists are being taught how to use social tools and storytelling techniques to better communicate. These scientist learn how to translate things like "uncertainty" and "consensus" into a 140 character world where stories resonate more true than hard data. There is one lesson that really needs to be hit home, pick your battles.

Earlier in February, Bill Nye, the well known TV science guy, who educated millions of kids and teens on some basic science in the late 90s, debated renowned Creationist and ant-evolutionist Ken Ham on the merits of Creationism as a scientific and teachable model.

While some warned against the debate or called it a waste of time and others still called it a "Nightmare for Science" in the opinion of this humble observer, this was a stroke of brilliance for Bill and the popularization of the scientific community.

Going into the debate, both sides knew two things, they would not be able to convince their opponent of their viewpoint or change their counter-part’s mind and that they both could use the opportunity to broadcast their positions to a wider audience. Ken Ham used the opportunity to pander to the Biblically observant through jokes about the Bible being “the answer” for all questions and to press forward a strange theory that the laws of physics changed drastically in the last 5000 years or so. He even got a public push to raise funds to build a replica of NOAH’s Ark.

Bill Nye used a small section of the debate to give some basic science lessons about the universe, dating and scientific reasoning to counter Ken’s complaints with evolution, but for much of the debate, he grew the conversation to something greater. Bill knew that this was not going to be an “Inherit the Wind” situation, he knew that he was in “enemy territory” and, being a man who was in the process of attempting a comeback to a larger market-share of American culture through public climate-change debates and televised dancing, Bill wanted this debate to hit larger targets. For a significant portion of the debate, Bill Nye turned the conversation to the need for better public education and science funding. He highlighted the fact that if you wanted a degree in Radio-Carbon Dating or certain fields that required certain types of science in Kentucky, you needed to search elsewhere. Bill Nye turned the debate into a call to action to the people of Kentucky, and abroad, to vote for science.

While Neil deGrasse Tyson has come out recently as saying that debating Climate-Change deniers is not worth his time, this wasn't always the case as he had previously clashed words on programs like Real Time with Bill Maher. In truth, Tyson is picking his battles here and allowing his amazing shiny new program Cosmos to throw down the gauntlet against those who would "pick and choose science" and even those who would try to decry evolution.

What we have to keep in mind is that we are living in a world where trying to gain the public's attention on any really important issue is a Sisyphean effort. Rolling that rock up gets you the groundswell and "virility" to get your 15-seconds. Most of the time it feels like just that. As soon as you get your chance to gain the focus of a post MTV world, the next story is about to be disclosed and you don't want to miss it because that story will change your LIFE!

The lesson here is that picking this battle turned Bill's passion for science to a national discussion topic. Bill Nye, Tyson and more scientists every day are part of a rising movement. The scientific community, who knows what the lessons of evolution can teach, are trying to reach a wide audience through new tools and tactics. Scientists, conservationists and educators are learning to adapt and that is good for everyone.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Why you should be paying attention to #scio14 (and why I am sad I couldn't go).

The last few days I have been watching, in amazement, ScienceOnline unfold. After recommendations fro friends and colleagues at places like TechSoup and Upwell I started to pay attention to this conference. While watching I started to long to attend this festival. After having attended everything from the BLUE Ocean Film Festival, Solar Conventions in San Jose, Geography Conferences through Google, Outside Land's Greenspace, and SXSW Eco I have to admit, I am an addict.

I love these coming of the minds that links science and nature and communication. Ignoring the instant buzz you get from so much activity and so many people that you would find at any conference, these eco-tech-media ones feel like a type of science camp where you meet tons of people who grow excited about similar things to you.

ScienceOnline is almost like the king of all of these conferences. It gets to the heart of one question that runs through the entirety of these events. At every conference I have gone to the conversation of how science can communicate easier and more efficiently to a more massive audience comes up.

Just read their mission:
ScienceOnline’s mission is to cultivate the ways science is conducted, shared, and communicated online. We bring together a diverse and growing group of researchers, science writers, artists, programmers, and educators —those who conduct or communicate science online– for meaningful face-to-face conversations around timely, relevant issues. We nurture this global, ongoing, online community and facilitate collaborations which would not have been previously possible. The goal of all this is better science communication within the science community, with the public, and with policymakers. 
Makes me giddy just reading it, they help scientists make people more educated on complex issues and more effectively communicate.  It is at ScienceOnline where ideas like scientists piggybacking on #sharkweek get generated. David "Why Sharks Matter" Schiffman learned this lesson well and is now one of the most popular active Ocean and Shark scientists online. I have been following his posts on ScienceOnline and it has been torturous.

There are panels on how to collaborate on projects through the internet, how to communicate the very complex concept of uncertainty on social media and how to build online communities.

And it is all streaming LIVE.

I want to go and learn and discuss and connect and share. Next year, ScienceOnline, next year. I mean who doesn't want to go to an "Intergalactic Gala?"

This is a convention that will teach anyone in a complicated field how to create what is known as "digestible content." As one who works in communications, the environment and with a lot of very well educated scientists helping them communicate easier and more effectively with the tools available online this is a very important meeting of the minds. This meeting is, in my humble opinion, part of a growing movement that could change the way the world is connected with science.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Top 3 CEO's that are real-life James Bond Villains

I have been covering the vilification of the green industry recently and found through  my research that part of that vilification was a direct comparison of Tesla, Space-X and Solar City's Elon Musk to a James Bond Super Villian, to which I cried foul in my last piece.

The more I have been looking into other companies and their CEOs the more I found much better examples of those who fit the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. profile. The following is a quick list of my top 3 CEOs that would more appropriately be labeled villainous to the James Bondian level.

3. Rupert Murdoch

You cannot read a right-leaning newspaper or watch a conservative leaning news channel without tripping over something that Rupert Murdoch has organized or orchestrated. Currently he controls at least 1/5th of the news in the UK and is constantly trying to expand and even kill efforts for access to more information like Australia's National Broadband Network.

The founder of the American Right's "Propaganda Factory" Fox News is a modern day William Randolph Hearst in his massive ownership of media world-wide and, like the media barons of old, he has also used the position to create a platform for his own agenda, like influencing US, UK and Australian politics to push the national discourse to a more conservative agenda. His organizations are under investigation for numerous phone hacking scandals including British Royalty, Brangelina, 9/11 victims and even a poor, murdered girl's phone. Rupert even went so far as calling his victims "scumbags." This is apparently a culture that Murdoch makes sure permeates his organization.

Murdoch's organization is suspected to have conducted shady deals with the US Government, pressuring the UK Government into war and even bribery. His conservative stranglehold over a large portion of the world political dialog not being enough, Rupert continues to push for even more control through political and regulatory battles.

To top it off, News Corp is a member of ALEC, whose shadiness I have already gone over.

All of these points come together to form the image of a man who doesn't want to promote the news and isn't just looking for more money. This is a man who wants to dominate world information and color the national discourse of countries to shape their future in their own image creating a culture of "anything goes" including bribery, hacking, theft and outright lying. Sounds something worthy of a member of the James Bond's Rouges Gallery, specifically Elliot Carver from Tomorrow Never Dies. Is he actually evil? Well, there are some hints.

For more about Mr. Murdoch and his Global Takeover attempts, read here. 

2. Nestle's Peter Brabeck-Letmathe

Water is not a human right, it is a resource that needs to be mined, bottled and sold for a major profit, even if that comes at the cost of an entire country or eventually makes the situation worse. That seems to be the opinion of the CEO of Nestle, , and no matter what Nestle's PR spin on it is currently, these are the words that he publicly put out there on the subject.

Fresh, clean water is a declared right by the U.N. Instead of coming to solutions to the looming freshwater crisis, which most companies dealing in the stuff are aware of, Brabeck-Letmathe sees an opportunity to make a quick billion or ten though the international privatization of water. Did you know that the water you drink out of plastic bottles is coming straight from the aquifer of Pakistan? Coca-Cola and other companies exploit water resources in similar way with a few evil exceptions like refusing affected villages’ request for clean water to be piped in after Nestle has made their own water undrinkable.  

This is unbridled Capitalism gone a muck. The race to privatize the world's fresh water supply is one that will ultimately end in our ruin (see Water & Power via distopic future movie Tank Girl). Even if we have found massive amounts of fresh water under areas of the ocean, it is going to take money, effort and possible environmental damage to extract and disperse it. Obviously companies like Nestle, and other companies, will attempt to control that supply as well for their own profit.

Who else wanted to privatize and control water resources? Quantum of Solace's Dominic Greene and, honestly, I am not the first one to compare Peter Brabeck-Letmathe to a James Bond Villain. The shoe seems to fit really perfectly here. 

1. Koch Brothers

If you have read my blog, you are already familiar with the Koch Brothers and the dangers they create for the American citizenry and the world in general. While others have made the comparisons between these silver-spoon fed oil barons with the "old money" Duke Brothers from Trading Places the extent of their activities and their influence on US and Global Politics and even science makes their evil on a Bondian level.

The brothers are two of the richest people in the United States and run Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held company in the United States.Their political activities have landed them in the spot light of public scrutiny though they apparently like to operate in the shadows. They are on the radar of every major climate group including Greenpeace.

We all have heard about their activities aggressively funding climate-change denial and their influence on government officials in that regard, but it goes further. As an almost cartoonist level of unbelievably typical corporate "fat-cat" behavior, the brothers have waged war on public health care, the Tea Party, the middle and lower classes and even the government itself through the shutdown that they, in part, orchestrated.

What makes them truly worth of the Bond Villain title? They are waging war on the less fortunate and on the science that is trying to make our future livable all in the name of profit. Through placing key people at key conservative positions, like within the organization Americans For Prosperity, the brothers make sure that their business interests come first in the political discourse of the right. Through the campaigns they try to subvert (even small local ones) they grasp to control the government, much like S.P.E.C.T.R.E These two and their behavior represents the fear-as-reality of the wealthy trying to buy the government, subvert the common man and even put the public in danger for the protection of their business interests. 

So, before we start comparing Richard Branson, Warren Buffett or Elon Musk to something evil and torrid, take a close look at who the people are that are casting these dispersions and who is trying to make our futures better.