Category Archives: Science

Smoke Days

At first it was the smell of burning leaves, a very nostalgic smell for me,  evocative of Indiana in October, back when I was a kid and you could still burn leaf piles. I had never experienced that smell in California before, in eighteen years of living here.  I chalked it up to the weirdness of city living: with so many people, who knows what odd things someone might be doing somewhere.

Half an hour later, the sounds of helicopters made it clear that it wasn’t a renegade neighbor burning a backyard leaf pile. A text from my wife around the same time filled in the remaining details: there was a grass fire about a mile from our house, next to a highway. She seen it while driving to an exercise class and called it in. Soon I was watching online video with the local news channel: ten fire vehicles lined up along the side of the road next to a charred football-field sized patch. The 1991 Oakland fire was a smallish grass fire that was put out and then sprang back to life, a fact that is now deeply ingrained into fire management here. Oakland fire personnel were walking through the surrounding area with hoses, saturating it. Most likely some of them would be there for hours, watching vigilantly for any rekindling.

As the day progressed, the fall-in-Indiana smell turned into a New-Delhi-smog smell. That smell evokes fond memories of India; but also memories of upper respiratory infections on two separate occasions when I passed through Delhi. That acrid smoke was from strong winds had started not just that little Oakland fire, but from the now-infamous Camp Fire. A huge smoke plumes trails off of it, like a long gray scarf of doom blowing across the state and out into the ocean.

Continue reading Smoke Days

Note To Coasts: Please Do Not Un-Friend The Midwest.

As a current coastal elite that was raised in Northwest Indiana I’m writing this note to both the Midwest and to the coasts — but mostly people the coasts — to try to get you guys on the same team. Specifically, the team of the Democratic Party. I think historically coastal Democrats have assumed the Midwest would follow along with their lead at all costs, because the Democrats are the party of the working people and the Midwest is historically full of working people. In the wake of the Trump election, I’m afraid that a lot of elites are reflexively going to go along a downward spiral of saying “well screw you white bigots!” to the Midwest, to which the Midwest will continue to respond “screw you! preppy special rich people!”

Let’s take a look at what happened. Here is the electoral map from 2008 and 2016, the states that changed between this election and last are in Midwest (Iowa, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio) plus Pennsylvania, Florida, and South Carolina.

Electoral College 2008 vs 2016.
Electoral College 2008 vs 2016.

I’ve also lived in Florida — I went to college there — it’s a weird and less straightforward state. South Carolina I know nothing about. Pennsylvania I also don’t know much about, but I think of it as sort of like a cultural continuation of Indiana and Ohio — rural/industrial — except for Philly which should just be part of New Jersey.

I grew up in Michigan City, Indiana. Indiana, the Mike Pence state. Indiana that voted for Obama in 2008, but not in 2012, and certainly not for Hillary in 2016. Indiana that has flip-flopped its governorship between Democratic and Republican parties for the entire 20th Century.[1]Wikipedia, list of Governors of Indiana There have been few other articles by Midwesterners who are now themselves liberal urban dwellers that I’ve read recently,[2]David Wong, Cracked: How Half Of America Lost Its F**king Mind[3]Jeff Guo interviewing Kathy Cramer for WaPo: A new theory for why Trump voters are so angry — that actually makes sense but I want to add my voice because I think this is important, and I may have a slightly more political bent than the other ones I’ve read.

I lived in Michigan City from age four to age eighteen. I then left for college in Florida, and moved to California where I became a computer programmer and then went to law school at Berkeley.

Until the age of sixteen, I did not meet any Black people, or LGBT people (some could have been closeted, of course), Muslims, Jews, or basically anyone else who was non-white or non-Christian. There were a couple of girls from Korea in high school, which was exotic and interesting, and one guy who was half-Asian, and one half-Lebanese family. That’s all I can think of for twelve years of school, K-10. I went to Catholic schools, so for me growing up a “minority” was a Polish kid. Michigan City has a fair number of Black residents, mostly segregated, mostly in a housing project.

The most racist statement I can recall was a friend telling me that whenever I drove past the projects I should hope my car didn’t break down. Saying “nigger” was on par with saying “fuck”; one did not do that. It didn’t carry the rage-inducing historical context that it would for a Black person to hear it, but no kid I knew would’ve gone around saying it in front of any responsible adult.

I don’t want to say that the Midwest isn’t racist. I very much believe in implicit racism — across the entire country we all got, and still get, messages that white is superior to black in movies, television, advertising, and all the rest of mass media. But the racism of Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan is fairly weak by American standards. Looking at lynchings as a historical indicator, there have been lynchings in Indiana, but more white people have been lynched there than Blacks — 33 to 14 respectively. There is only a record of a single Black person being lynched in Michigan, and none in Wisconsin. That stands in contrast to, say, Tennessee at 352 lynchings of Black folks, or 539 in Mississippi. The numbers for all states are for the years 1882-1968.[4]Charles Chestnutt Digital Archive, “Lynchings by state and race, 1882-1968” Indiana might have elected Mike Pence as its governor, but Wisconsin holds the title for first openly gay senator, Tammy Baldwin.

On the Daily Show a few days ago, Hasan Minhaj said in criticism of Trump voters: “You may not personally be a racist, sexist xenophobe, but that comes with the package […] so if you take that deal, what you’re telling me is, ‘Hey man, I don’t hate you. I just don’t care about you.’ ” [5]Marissa Martinelli at Slate: The Daily Show Did a Very Good Segment on Why Trump’s Bigotry Wasn’t a Dealbreaker

Although he meant it as a criticism (as in, “Hey assholes, why don’t you care about my civil rights, my ability to go about my business and not be in fear?”), I think it’s actually also pretty descriptively accurate for most white Midwesterners. For most people in those states, the idea of Black people, Mexicans, Muslims, Jews, and LGBT people are abstract concepts. As Patrick Thornton put it about is fellow Ohioans, “Denying marriage rights to gay people [for someone from rural Ohio] isn’t that much different than denying boarding rights to Klingons.”[6]Patrick Thornton at Roll Call, I’m a Coastal Elite From the Midwest: The Real Bubble is Rural America It’s not that they want to harm you, it’s just that you — and the idea of oppression based on skin color or other protected subcategory — are outside their experience.

I would take Hasan’s words differently: if they don’t hate you, that means they are potential allies. I read recently (unfortunately I can’t recall where) about an American adviser that was sent to somewhere like Turkey or Greece in the ’50s or ’60s to help mobilize a pro-US political party in upcoming elections. Reviewing the various political constituencies with them in a strategy meeting, he was like “How about the gypsies? They are probably as afraid of right-wing oppression as you are.” And the Turks (or Greeks) were like “They gypsies? They are dirty and disorganized. We wouldn’t stoop to asking for their help.” And the American adviser was like “Ok, well you lost that chunk of the vote then right off the bat.” I feel like the Midwest and coastal elites are both kind of doing that to each other: failing to engage because the other seems so different.

Educating The Midwest? Like Thornton, I started to encounter different people as I pursued higher education. I was sixteen and went to the Indiana Academy, a public magnet boarding school that was in Muncie, about three hours from home. Although still mostly white, there were more minorities; some of my best sources for reading about the modern Black experience is from a couple of Black friends from the Academy. I went to college in Florida (still mostly white, but some openly gay people), and then moved to the San Francisco Bay area (lots of openly gay people, and everything else). I traveled around Asia for a year; I went to Berkeley Law school, where I was surrounded by people who were interested in social justice, representing all manner of different underprivileged groups.

It is hard to provide a similar experience to everyone in the Midwest, at least on a short timeframe, like before 2020. Many of the people you are trying to reach are dogs that are too old to teach new tricks. You are not going to be able to reach them on the basis of your anger, or shaming them into voting for you candidate. While I think that across-the-board radical increase in funding for public K-12 education is one of the main lessons Democrats should draw from this election, the time frame on that is too slow to be the only thing.

Allying With The Midwest.  The Midwest was union country, once. In 1964, Michigan was the most unionized state, followed by Washington state and Indiana.[7]NPR: 50 Years Of Shrinking Union Membership, In One Map Although the demographics have changed somewhat since then, the unions have more or less been broken, I think there is still enough of a memory and a culture of that kind of class-warfare mindset that could provide a hook to reaching them.

There is no doubt that the Midwest is angry. It is a disappointed flavor of angry. Disappointment, as an emotion, is a result of expecting something, and not getting it. The Midwest grew up expecting to make, build, assemble, and farm things. There’s not much of that left to do in those fields. The largest employer in Michigan City is now a casino, followed by a hospital and then a prison. I suspect big-box retail stores are also high up on the list. There’s jobs, but not ones that pay well or that match the expectations set by the past.

The ideas of fighting big banks and big corporations resonate strongly. Midwesterners feel like a giant truck of some kind of financial nature hit them and they’re not sure what it was. All the manufacturing jobs going away, the subprime mortgage crisis, high costs of healthcare — all kinds of anonymous elite bad stuff that happened to them. They are pretty much open to any kind of solution that strikes back against the abstract elitism, or that proposes a constructive plan for employment and dignity for them.

The strategy of the Democratic party has to be to communicate a “strike back against elites” strategy that has an underlying constructive plan. Right now it seems like Democrats are the party of the top 30% of the population — right all the way to the top. For me, the emblematically fatal moment for Hillary Clinton in this campaign was not the emails, or Benghazi, but the unapologetic alliance with Goldman Sachs. Why did she take so much money to talk to them? “That’s what they offered.”[8]Hillary Clinton is going to really regret saying these 4 words about Goldman Sachs Lots of less-educated less-political Midwesterners were turned off by that financial elitism in a way that Trump was able to channel. You can’t say you’re sticking it to the big banks when you’re taking whatever they offer.

The top one percent is in such a different category from anyone below them that it should be an easy alliance. To be in the top one percent (by wealth, not income) you have to have eight million dollars. To be in the top ten percent, you have to have almost a million dollars.[9]Net Worth in the United States: Zooming in on the Top Centiles Most people who are coastal “elites” are not elite enough to fit into even the latter category — many are elite by education but not by finances.

The challenge for Democrats, then, is focus communicating about sticking it to big banks, taxing the top 1%, and trade agreements: the Sanders-Warren-Reich strategy, in other words. And put it in the hands of those that can deliver that message with honest passion. I’m not trying to say that civil rights, gender equality, or any other issue shouldn’t be more important — just that you can’t connect with the Midwest en masse on those issues.

Chuck Schumer isn’t going to cut it as that messenger. We do not need the voice of the Democratic Party to be another New York Senator. Bernie is the obvious choice, with his national profile and popularity. However, I think that everyone is making a big error in understating the power that Sherrod Brown from Ohio, or Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin could have, if we were all paying attention to them — including perhaps Brown and Baldwin themselves, who may not be doing enough to stand up and lead.  Both are as progressive as it gets, beating even Sanders on the Progressive Punch index, and yet both were elected by Midwestern states.[10]Progressive Punch Senate Index If they were shoved forward by their party as the voice of leadership, or they chose to ally with Sanders to help provide a coherent class-based message of the Democratic Party, I think its odds of success in the future would be much better.


We Were In Denial That a Trump Presidency Could Happen. What Else Are We Denying?

“I’ve been criticized for advocating a politics of fear, which is correct. That’s not a criticism. That’s sanity.” Noam Chomsky, Oct. 11, 2016.[1]Noam Chomsky and The Bicycle Theory, NYT

I’m writing this is because I am afraid. There’s a lot of reasons to be afraid of a Trump presidency, but here’s my top two: (1) nuclear war; and (2) environmental disaster.[2]Yes those are also Chomsky’s top two. What can I say? I think he’s a smart guy. Both are immense, looming problems and have been for a while. But a Trump presidency increases the odds the former and will increase the rate of the latter. But more importantly, his candidacy highlights how simple and intuitive it is to deny that something horrible can happen.

Denial About The Possibility of A Trump Victory. I talk to my mom at least once a week. This Sunday, two days before Trump was elected, I talked about how I was very worried about the 30% prediction for a Trump win by FiveThirtyEight. She said she wasn’t so worried: “I just can’t imagine that people would vote for someone who is so inappropriate and has offended so many people.”

I don’t want to pick on my mom particularly, but her words seemed emblematic a widespread mood, especially in cities where there aren’t many reminders of the existence of conservatives. My Facebook feed on Monday was filled with people ramped up and getting ready for jubilation. I’m a worrier. I worried that:

(1) the fact that 30% odds are about the same as an NFL kicker missing a 35-yard field goal.[3]I can’t find the citation for this because fivethirtyeight has published like 1,000 posts since then, but this article on NFL kicker stats will have to do Which is to say, it’s not most likely, but often enough to be worried.

(2) the camera pan of 2012 at the Mitt Romney victory party, with stunned faces of lots of pale white guys in blue blazers that had been expecting victory and seemed unable to psychologically accept defeat. The self-reinforcing reassurances that everything would be ok felt too similar.

Denial comes pretty easily to humans. One of the most influential books I’ve read was Ernst Becker’s The Denial of Death, which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1974. I read it in college, about seventeen years ago now. It wasn’t assigned; a professor just mentioned it in passing. While I was in the library to do something else I picked it up and started reading. I vividly remember not doing whatever that other project was, sitting down, and just turning page after page. It’s one of the primary reasons that, after being raised a Catholic, I no longer believe in God. But it also deeply impressed upon me that each person is psychologically wired to avoid thinking of their own death, or anything else that is deeply difficult and abhorrent.

A Trump presidency is a reminder that bad things happen, even when you wish they wouldn’t. We cannot be complacent. I don’t mind dying myself eventually, but I would be really put out if the species died off because we were unable to face facts.

What else are we denying?

Nuclear weapons have sort of drifted out of public consciousness throughout my lifetime. Growing up in the 1980s, I was terrified of nuclear weapons. I lived in northwest Indiana and I remember looking at blast-radius maps[4]I have no idea how I saw them, without the internet and trying to think about what my odds would be of survival if the Russians launched nukes. Wargames was perhaps the scariest movie I ever saw. And then it was all glasnost and dot-com boom and by the time I graduated from college in 1999 it was not something I thought about much anymore. But I should. We all should. The USA and the Russian Federation each have about 1,700 strategic nuclear weapons (the big ones that can take out a major city) and about 6,000 more that are reserves or stockpiles. The numbers used to be much higher, but it still enough to destroy the world multiple times over. We’ve made some motions towards having fewer such as the new START treaty, but the vision and the momentum should be towards zero.[5]The Nuclear Security Project and Global Zero are the two most significant initiatives. What sort of species keeps devices that can annihilate its habitat? And puts a hotelier in charge of them? Like with most things, it is hard to be clear on what Trump thinks because of his inconsistency, but he’s said that it might be fine for more countries to get nuclear weapons, and that he wants “unpredictable” in nuclear decision making.[6]NBC News: What Does Donald Trump Really Think About Using Nuclear Weapons?

The lesson I take is that if we survive the next four years (hey, we made it through the whole cold war including the Cuban Missile Crisis) pushing hard to come to treaties where all relevant powers scale down to zero weapons is the only sane option.

Global Warming is more in the news and forefront of our minds, but my feeling is that the average American isn’t really worried about it. It’s not very tangible; it doesn’t prevent a person from going on with ordinary daily life. I think even the average liberal Democrat is like “We should do something about that, but we will probably come to our senses soon. Someone will fix it. ”

It is like having termites in your house but not worrying about it because it still works, right? You can still sleep, cook, and stay out of the rain. The difference with Global Warming is that we can’t rebuild another house if we lose this one.

Here’s MIT, which, speaking as an entire institution, wrote: “Humanity’s current carbon-intensive path imposes risks on future generations, including the risk of catastrophic outcomes . . . . The need for action is clear, because the consequences of inaction could be catastrophic.” [7]MIT Plan for Action on Climate Change, see pdf link at topThat’s something written by committee,  from the school that started the fields of electrical engineering, aeronautical engineering, and nuclear physics.[8] It’s not one scientist at MIT writing that, it’s all the scientists at MIT writing that. They know what they are talking about. Trump, of course, says he wants to “cancel all wasteful climate change spending”[9]Trump Finally Said Something Concrete About Climate Policy“, HuffPo, 11/6/2016, and just picked a climate change denier to head his EPA transition. [10]Trump Picks Top Climate Skeptic to Lead EPA Transition“, Scientific American, 11/9/2016

What Do We Do?

I wish I had a better call to action to put here. It’s hard to try to put an action plan together for enormously bad stuff that might happen to everyone when you are only one person. I’m struggling with it myself. My immediate plan, and suggestion, is to write it out your thoughts and concerns, using your own words. Share them on Facebook. Be shameless in trying to influence others. Force others to contemplate what might happen. Express your opinions and concerns. Don’t be afraid to argue. Donate money to candidates and organizations that get it. Read Chomsky, Monbiot, and McKibben (and more McKibben). On nuclear weapons, there’s Schlosser[11]I haven’t actually read this yet, but just got it today after coming across it while I was writing. That’s a start.


1 Noam Chomsky and The Bicycle Theory, NYT
2 Yes those are also Chomsky’s top two. What can I say? I think he’s a smart guy.
3 I can’t find the citation for this because fivethirtyeight has published like 1,000 posts since then, but this article on NFL kicker stats will have to do
4 I have no idea how I saw them, without the internet
5 The Nuclear Security Project and Global Zero are the two most significant initiatives.
6 NBC News: What Does Donald Trump Really Think About Using Nuclear Weapons?
7 MIT Plan for Action on Climate Change, see pdf link at top
9 Trump Finally Said Something Concrete About Climate Policy“, HuffPo, 11/6/2016
10 Trump Picks Top Climate Skeptic to Lead EPA Transition“, Scientific American, 11/9/2016
11 I haven’t actually read this yet, but just got it today after coming across it while I was writing