Thursday, December 18, 2014

America Loses the Colbert Report

A national treasure, hero and amazing actor is leaving his role as a satirical mirror of the conservative pundit to another stage. Stephen Colbert has been a political jester the likes of which the world hasn't seen since Diogenes the Dog and tonight is his last show. For 9 years this entertainer has acted as an iconic personality and affected American politics far beyond any fictional character in history. Tonight is Stephen's last Colbert Report and America is losing a needed voice in the political conversation.

Over the past 9 years the brilliant host of the Colbert Report has played the part of lampooning conservative punditry. On the national stage this entertainer and joker had played his part so well that he managed to convince House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi to first advise colleagues against going on the show, to jokingly campaign against his Super Pack, to later debating him on his own show, and finally appearing in his send off.

Stephen Colbert taught us the Elven language, that it was OK to argue with ourselves, why bears should never be trusted, and tried to bring the funky Cornel West to a different audience. The Colbert Report helped us all better know our political districts"bumped" some serious academic guests, and even introduced me to one of my heroes of the ocean, Dr. Sylvia Earle. One shark scientist even made the claim that "Stephen Colbert Is the Best Source of Science on TV." The article in question asks if the move to CBS will "dumb down" his programming. I share that fear.

Colbert hosted the 2006 Presidential Correspondents Dinner (roasting President W. Bush in the process) has won Grammys, Emmys and even two Peabody Awards. Stephen Colbert pointed out the absurdity in the hubris in our policies and even taught American's about an interesting concept in campaign finance, the Super Pack.This program was not only consistently hilarious, but it was also provocative and educational.

Colbert is an amazing interviewer and that will follow no matter where he goes. His subject matter and his guests will likely be more akin to the fluff of other late night T.V. and far less impactfull on National discourse. In many episodes, Stephen Colbert goes toe-to-toe with the political leaders and heads of state with barely breaking a sweat like Newt Gingrich and Laura Ingraham. He opened up his image for the larger community through releasing a "green screen" challenge. In one particularly interesting situation Colbert covered the issue of migrant worker's conditions and later testified before Congress in character.

The program, by pointing a finger at the hilarious underbelly of the political system, Stephen Colbert changed it. By making himself part of the political narrative, Colbert also put himself in a corner. He had to consistently play the same character, probably even in public, for 9 years. This level of commitment and obsession will be missed.

I am happy for Stephen in the fact that he will be replacing David Letterman for the prime, late night TV spot. I am sad for America because we will be losing a key voice in the political discourse who brought up the level of our culture, our scientific awareness and our awareness of the absurdity around us.

Shine on you crazy Stephen Colbert, you will leave America a slightly less politically educated place but I am positive the hilarity will ensue.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Thoughts on the Plastic Bag Ban

Yesterday California became the first state in the nation to ban plastic bags from grocery stories. Building on similar efforts by municipalities such as San Francisco, San Jose, Washington D.C. and others throughout the country, the State ban is the latest push against these urban tumble weeds.

After July 1st, 2015, grocery stores and other retail locations will no longer be able to give single-use plastic bags and charge 10-cents for paper or compostable bags. This push comes after the relatively ineffective efforts of the California legislature to enforce recycling of these plastic pests. In 2006 the state put forward legislation mandating recycling at stores and, eventually, curb-side locations. The estimate by most agencies was that as few as 3% of California's plastic bags we actually being recycled and the law had little to no oversight. This isn't the first time that California has tried to pass a Plastic Bag Ban, but this is the first successful effort.

The pollution and waste that these products create has been cited as the main reasoning for this legislation. The facts that the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually at an estimated cost to retailers of $4 billion, and that most of these end up either in land-fills, in creeks, or in our oceans should lead most to the conclusion that the ban is a reasonable move.

Plastics are durable, cheap to make, light and cheap to transport. The same reasons that these bags are attractive to consumers are the same reason that they are a problem. Plastics don't biodegrade, they do break down into smaller parts and photo-degrade but they can last at least 500 years. The lightweight plastic bags get picked up by breezes and eventually make their way to all sorts of places they shouldn't be. During these migrations the plastics absorb bacteria and toxins that can create their own bio-systems and, by being eaten by fish and other animals, can enter our food stream.

What is not cited is the cost these bags to the American taxpayer. Those bags that end up as litter or are caught by trees and the landscape have to be cleaned up. Unless there is a massive volunteer force, the cost of the labor usually falls to the municipalities. While these bags are lauded as "Recyclable," the energy and economic costs associated with recycling can be a huge net-loss and most facilities can't process them. Those that are mandated to collect them, but do not have the equipment to convert them into something new usually ship them to other locations, causing a larger carbon footprint for this film.

In many instances, with mixed recycling being sorted at municipal waste facilities, plastic bags would end up in machines that could not process them and cause those machines to break down. The cost of repairing these machines usually falls to the tax payer.

In 2009 I was working for City Council Member Kansen Chu and, at the time, I worked with city staff on a ban on plastic bags. The process for attempting to pass such legislation included a closed door meeting with stakeholders from the opposition. The list included waste management, grocers associations and the American Chemistry Council. The main arguments were that the ban would cause increased costs for grocers, that paper bags were a higher cost and higher impact alternative and that the convenience of these fully recyclable bags outweighed any "negligible environmental impacts."

During those sessions I talked to each of their points and retorted that, the times are changing and that the Chemistry Council should try and change with them through bio-degradable plastics, or be comfortable with the concept of becoming obsolete.

Almost as soon as California's ban passed, a similar response was published by the American Progressive Bag Alliance, a group of American plastic bag manufacturers and related companies, who plan on trying to repeal the legislating through referendum. Trying to tug at libertarian heartstrings with phrases like "greedy special interests and bad government collide in the policymaking process" the release is short, cryptic and filled with unsubstantiated claims.

The release specifically states that the bill "would jeopardize thousands of California manufacturing jobs, hurt the environment, and fleece consumers for billions so grocery store shareholders and their union partners can line their pockets."

In regards to California jobs, there are many plastic film producers in California but, like other industries whose product's usefulness has come to an end, those facilities and their staff either need to adapt to new forms of plastic or find new industries to explore.

I actually called the APBA to follow up on the other claims but the representative was unavailable for comment. As of this posting the American Chemical Council, who has direct ties to the formation of the Bag Alliance, had made no public comment.

The fact of the matter is that the real solution regarding plastic waste for American's and people around the world to change their consumption habits to something SLIGHTLY less convenient than getting a new, single-use plastic bag every time we go shopping. We need to recognize our impact and the waste we produce. Remember each time you get a Starbucks or a soft drink with a plastic straw that those items will probably not be recycled and next time, carrying a reusable container or straw would be, in the long run, a better decision.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The People's Climate

Yesterday a flood of over 400,000 people descended on the streets of New York city. Banging on drums, singing out chants, and displaying signs of all shapes and sizes, the attendees of the aptly named "People's Climate March" lent their voices demanding action on the tragedy of the commons we are currently witnessing in our changing world.

Citing frustrations with the current international inaction on climate change by world leaders, citizens of the world from as far away as France, Rome and Papa New Guinea joined in this single act, creating the largest climate demonstration of its kind. This event seemed like the culmination of disappointing and anger at the ineffectiveness of conferences like Kyoto, CopenhagenCancun and Durban mixed with similar attitudes towards their own governments. The roughly four hundred thousand attendees in New York were joined in 24 hours of demonstrations world-wide calling for real action in response to the pending United Nations Climate announcement beginning tomorrow.

Attendees ranged not only in origin but backgrounds as well. Reports of contingents representing Hurricane Katrina victims, the ocean, climate scientists, and VIPs. Officials and activists like Al Gore, UN Secretary Ban Ki Moon, John Kerry and activist/movie star Leonardo Di Caprio were a few of the multitudes who took to the street.

Organizers and leaders at the event called on participants to not only take action, as Bill McKibben and a panel urged, but to also pay attention on the issue of dirty money in politics. The event triggered huge media attention including 24 hour live blogging by the Guardian and the NY Times and the 1,400 groups either supporting or participating ranged from the Sierra Club to AVAAZ have been very pleased by the results.

 “Today, civil society acted at a scale that outdid even our own wildest expectations,” said May Boeve, executive director of, in a statement. “Tomorrow, we expect our political leaders to do the same.”

The main purpose of the event was to resonate with those meeting at the United Nation on Tuesday. world leaders from 125 nations, including Barack Obama, President Obama and world leaders from government, finance and business worlds will be at the U.N. to announce initiatives meant to move the world towards limiting global warming. While some may argue that we are too late for an international bureaucracy like the UN to make any effective change from where we are headed, citing past failures, back and the fact that "some of the most important world leaders" like Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be skipping the proceedings. These two nations missing this summit would be more than just a snub at the UN, it could be disastrous for any agreements made there. 

There are a few external trends that seem to be supporting the People's Climate march. Just today the news broke that Google was dissolving their ties with the lobbying group ALEC, a group that normally represents the dirtiest of oil interests. This was the culmination of an effort by a coalition of groups, spearheaded by eco-billionaire Tom Steyer backed Forecast the Facts.

Adding to this interesting trend are some moves made by the energy industry. First, it is noteworthy that Six international energy companies have agreed to work to reduce emissions of methane, through a UN backed process. The hope is that these initial steps will resonate throughout the industry and eventually bring a change to the culture and practices. Second, the Rockefellers, a family that made most of their fortune through oil, have decided to shift more than $50 billion of their fossil fuel holdings and business to the clean energy sector citing the reason as clean technology and renewable energy are trending to be the future of the energy industry.

The People's Climate march was a sight to behold and made me lament the fact that I was stuck on the west coast for this perfect storm of action. While the effects of the event, and the #FloodWallStreet protest, are still playing out, we cannot sit idly by waiting for the longer term effects to play out. Now is the time to contact your local representatives, citing this historic moment as a turning point.

We, as a collective commons, have to protect our interest through paying attention to the activities of the UN, of our local government and by getting involved with events throughout the world. Those who have held a vested interest in the goings on in the Climate March need to continue the wave through participating (either in-person or virtually) with events like SXSW Eco happening next month or the IUCN World Parks Congress and the BLUE Ocean film festival and conservation event happening in November. We each need to continue the conversation, look to solutions and plan for the future. As others have noticed, we are at a crossroads of opportunity and need to dramatically change our economic model to something that supports us in the long run without decimating our home.

Monday, August 11, 2014

10 Things to Do Instead of Watching Megalodon

The Discovery Channel is again gracing the viewers of its ever popular Shark Week with a Megalodon special. Those familiar with Shark Week will remember this very popular feature on "The Monster that Lives" from last year's programming and the ire it raised with the scientific community. For those not familiar, this program seemed to be Discovery Channel's pièce de résistance of misleading shark programming. The fake "documentary" was so detrimental to the viewing community that an audience poll showed 73% of those who had watched the program believed that this long extinct animal still existed.

The scientific community takes issue with the fact that Shark Week has become a feeding frenzy of sharks portrayed as frightening or dangerous. There have even been outreach that the network has done where their posted shark "facts" are flatly wrong.When an entire movie centered around convincing viewers that a giant shark that had been extinct for more than 2 million years still could pose a threat to the ocean, it was the final straw for many in the conservation and scientific community. Even though actual shark scientists reached out to Discovery, the network didn't seem to get the message.  

This year the network seeks to be doubling down on its Megalodon bet with Megalodon: The New Evidence. No one is quite sure what to expect from the show but the theory is more "eye-witness" accounts of seeing the mythical creature and  more CGI than the last Star Wars film.  The "Submarine" shark has already been shown to be a huge disappointment with false science and advice like "popping a balloon full of milk".

Personally, I am avoiding this show and deciding to get my "Shark Fix" from a few sources that are more scientific and "factual." If you too want to take a bite of something a bit more substantial than the "documentary" programming that the Discovery Channel is putting out there, here are 10 things to satiate your shark appetite.  

1. NOAA Shark Week Portal 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a treasure trove of amazing shark footage, maps, photos and even some very entertaining and educational podcasts. Their focus is on "Sharks in the Sanctuaries" and will even show you the various locations where you can find these amazing creatures.  

2. Read Up on the Best Shark Experts

David Shiffman, aka @WhySharksMatter on Twitter, has put together an amazing, comprehensive list of Shark scientists to follow on Twitter and beyond for Scientific America. The list contains member from all over the Earth researching everything from hammer heads, to cookie-cutter to great whites. If you are tired of the same old sensationalistic, non-science show, this is a list that will give you the real science that you can sink you teeth into.

3. Learn About Shark Protection Through Time 

The Smithsonian, who has mainly been known for their amazing museums and historical conservation also work in the ocean realm. The Ocean Portal has created an amazing tool for viewing the history of shark protection over time. Looking at this adapting infographic will show you the amazing progress that we have made, especially in finning. There is still so far to go but this is an amazing time-lapse of our relationship with sharks.

4. Gills Club's Shark Research Comic

The Gills Club, an organization trying to increase the interest and activities of children and young women in ocean science has put together some epic shark research comic strips that are being released this week for Shark Week. The comics themselves go over various Shark Heroes that are inspirational true stories of real life, groundbreaking shark research. A great read and far more interesting than Megalodon. 

5. Re-Watch "Alien Sharks"

Ignoring the bumper that Discovery Studios put out that looks like something of a blend between Futurama and Monsters Inc, Alien Sharks has been a godsend for scientists. Both last year and this the program has been rather amazing, bringing shark biodiversity together with strange shark behaviors and real science. This year we see the fantastic Paul Clerkin discover some very interesting species, definately one to check out. 

6. Catch Up On a REAL Live Shark Boat Expedition

The Shark Boat, filled with self described "EcoPirates," is cruising around California and Mexico. Included in their daily routine is shark and fish research, scuba diving, interrupting illegal and unregulated fishing and, apparently doing backflips off of their boat. This crew of silly scallywags are educational, entertaining and an entertaining way to learn about one of the biggest threats to sharks, humans. They update pretty much every day from their boat to their facebook, where they post fun pictures and videos to keep you entertained. 

7. Learn Some Real Shark Facts from Southern Fried Science 

Southern Fried Science is a collection of practicing marine scientists that educates on ocean science and issues. They have covered a ton of ocean species but their "Shark Feed" is a treasure trove of articles covering Dogfish to Goblin Sharks to international shark events. This is a perfect place to learn all about, not only sharks, but the whole amazing world of ocean animals.

8. Change the Channel to NatGeo

National Geographic is presenting "Shark Fest" a schedule of shark programming that, for the second year in a row, is going fin-to-fin against Discovery's "Shark Week." Unlike Discovery's programming, according Nat Geo's press release, they promise no mockumentaries: “… scare tactics and mockumentaries are best left to others.”

9. Sign Greenpeace's Ocean Sanctuaries Petition 

As dangerous as sharks are presented in Discovery's Shark Week, they are really at threat from us. There are few, if any, waters that they can swim in safety and Greenpeace has a petition to send to the UN. Though this only takes a few minutes to sign, you can fill up the Megalodon time with sharing the petition with your friends.

10. Get Out There!

The best advice anyone can give you about learning about sharks or the ocean is to leave your house and head to the ocean or an aquarium. You will learn more in a few moments than the entirety of Megalodon, and you actually be able to experience the fishes. Some aquariums, like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, will actually have special tours of their shark science departments, just ask around!

BONUS #11. Watch Mission Blue on Netflix

The great Dr. Sylvia Earle has a documentary made on her life and her life's work in the Ocean. This visually stunning, real documentary about a woman who has spent more time underwater than you can possibly imagine is live today at noon on Netflix. Come learn about the former chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and her zeal for ocean exploration.

The film was made in partnership with Netflix as a part of their budding content development plan. Moving away from dramas like Orange is the New Black and House of Cards and into the documentary market. Mission Blue's end message is one of hope and action.

The cast includes stars of science, stage and screen and an encounter with some gorgeous whale sharks and plenty of kelp.

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.