“Cities are ecologically kinder than other forms of human habitation. They foster communities and human connections, they enable the advancement of science and the creation of great art. Cities reduce population growth, raise living standards, increase life expectancy, and enhance human freedom.”

Quoted from

I love the wilderness, and cities are a natural habitat for the thriving of humans and our incredible, diverse civilization.

SE Asia Free of Polio

From the article: “Experts once were pessimistic about India’s chances of wiping out the disease, because of its large areas with poor sanitation, high population and low immunization rate. But John E. Lange, a retired U.S. ambassador, attributed India’s success to effective monitoring and the use of comprehensive plans to target remote populations.

“This is, in a sense, a proof of concept that polio can be eradicated in some of the most difficult places to work in,” said Lange, a senior fellow for global health diplomacy at the United Nations Foundation, which was created in 1998 to support U.N. programs.”

Cameras Watching Everywhere

The valet was returning my car after I had traveled to Florida on the Amtrak AutoTrain. I asked him if I had to show him my ticket to verify whether or not Car #137 was indeed mine.

“We don’t need it. You’re being filmed.”

Like many places around the world nowadays, the Sanford, Florida, Amtrak station bristles with cameras. What do you think of the ubiquitous cameras that are filling the dark corners our world. Creepy? Invasive? Reassuring?

Even post-Snowden, I mostly embrace technologically enhanced surveillance. If I were a thief, I’d be scared $}{!+less to steal a car if I’ve been filmed from every angle. For me, loss of privacy is mostly theoretical, whereas crime deterrence is quite palpable. And if deterrence doesn’t work, the cameras will help find the jerk who stole the car.

Even though I marched against many of our wars, I don’t fear that some dark characters in the Ministry of Peace have compiled a dossier on me: I’m just not that interesting and important! A back-of-the-envelope cost-benefit analysis makes it clear to me that increased surveillance has many benefits. Have there been any major costs? Have there been victims of government surveillance?

What do you think?

“The More We Know…

…the greater we find our ignorance.” Gardiner G. Hubbard, the first President of the National Geographic Society


This is a popular sentiment. As I looked for similar quotes I stumbled upon this one from JFK: “The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.”

Regardless of the truth of the sentiment, this rhetorical form–I’ll call it “The More…The More” statement–is seductive. It sounds so strong, kind of like Leia saying to Grand Moff Tarkin “The more you tighten your grip…the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” On the face of these statements, I don’t accept that ignorance increases as knowledge does.

But I can accept the statement that more knowledge makes understanding meaning more complex, maybe harder. This is what I think Kennedy and Hubbard were saying, in fairly elegant terms meant for rhetorical impact, not logical soundness.

The utter disappearance of the Air Malaysia jet is tragic. The failed search for it is a big fat metaphor for human limitations in the era of Big Data. It reminds me of The Onion’s “World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-berg: Titanic, Representation of Man’s Hubris, Sinks in North Atlantic.”

This symbolism of human limitations is explored in today’s New York Times article by Pico Iyer, “The Folly of Thinking We Know.” Ayer’s piece is a good meditation on our weaknesses and blind spots. And I always love hearing mention of the Overconfidence Effect, our persistent belief that we think we know more than we really do (and with great confidence, no less).

I’m most interested I hearing your thoughts on this. Does all this information make us smarter yet dumber? Are we more informed but less wise?

Wisdom of the Elders

What is wisdom, the illusive trait sought by the great minds from every era?

From National Geographic

From National Geographic

Here’s my simple (and purely speculative) starting point: A x I = W (Age x Intellect = Wisdom). Everyone gets wiser as they get older, right? And intellect has a “multiplier” effect. If you’re “smart” (I) and you learn from your mistakes and successes (A), then you’ll gain W amount of wisdom.

I doubt it’s that simple.

Wisdom is rightly associated with age. So how important is wisdom to aging gracefully, accepting the inevitable with some degree of peace?

A recent article in The New York Times, “The Science of Older and Wiser,” investigated the question “Will wisdom help you age and die with more equanimity and acceptance.”

The article examines the work of several scientists. One, Vivian Clayton, a geriatric neuropsychologist in Orinda, California, “scour(ed) ancient texts for evocations of wisdom, she found that most people described as wise were decision makers….She determined that wisdom consists of three key components: cognition, reflection and compassion.”

So I’ll modify the equation: A x I x (R+C)=W

While I don’t think that the unexamined life is not worth living–there are good people who aren’t capable of reflection, or who pretty much live in the moment–self-knowledge is a good thing, as is one’s understanding of everything outside oneself.

I think a modicum of acceptance is key, as does Monika Areldt, an associate sociology professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

“’Wise people are able to accept reality as it is, with equanimity.” Her research shows that when people in nursing homes or with a terminal illness score high on her wisdom scale, they also report a greater sense of well-being. ‘If things are really bad, it’s good to be wise,’ she said.”

What I liked most about the article is seeing the scientific study of wisdom. This quality has mostly been examined through the lens of philosophy. I look forward to hearing more from science about wisdom. Maybe science can’t go that far in exploring and explaining wisdom.

What do you think are the components of wisdom?

Sunny Year for Solar

Since I was a kid people talked excitedly about the promise of solar power. This enthusiasm seemed to waver and wane over time, a bit like talk of conversion to the metric system. Most people thought that solar power would be a curiosity, even as energy prices kept rising over the the last decades of the 20th century.

Lately there’s been a big and positive change in solar. You know something is viable when people in developing countries adopt it enthusiastically…i.e., it’s not just the futuristic plaything of enviro-elites in idealistic (and rich) countries.

Last summer I saw this change in action when I visited Kisima Child Care Academy, the school and orphanage in Kenya that I support through my church. Solar cells were installed atop several buildings at Kisima, which is currently off the grid. The first big benefit was that the administrators, faculty and staff could charge their mobile phones. As you probably know, the mobile phone has become the indispensable personal item throughout the developing world, providing communication, banking and data management tools for nearly anyone who needs them. Solar power has improved the quality of life and work of the adults at Kisima, but it also means laptop computers can be charged and used in the classrooms.

Solar power at Kisima is a small example of “distributed generation,” producing energy on site or close to where it’s being used. By adopting distributed generation, countries can spend less on transmission infrastructure, and energy doesn’t have to be trucked or pushed through a pipeline. People can create power where the BIG utilities infrastructure has not been able to reach.

Most importantly to me, the more the world moves away from mineral energy, the more we disempower Russia, Sudan, Iran, Nigeria, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Angola, Kazakhstan and other countries who mistreat their citizens because they dominate their country with their petrobillions. Would Putin have been able to host the Sochi Olympics and bully his way into Ukraine without his Gazprom war chest? I doubt it.

This post was inspired by the Solar Energy Industries Association, who released a report with numbers showing that “Photovoltaic (PV) installations continued to proliferate, increasing 41% over 2012 to reach 4,751 MW.” Ten years ago, when I was a younger (and more idealistic) environmentalist, I bought a hybrid even though it did not make economic sense for me. The premium I paid for having a hybrid was not recouped from gas savings. I did it as a statement. Now I’m a much more hard nosed environmentalist: “Will a product or energy source make sense from an economic perspective? Will it save or raise money?”

The developing world has prospered its way out of poverty more because of market forces and incentives than big aid programs. As solar becomes a moneymaker, I believe that it will proliferate, making life better for people and putting less carbon in the air. As solar drives down energy costs, I hope it also steals some oxygen from petrodictators like Putin and Bashir.