Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Madness of the Modern Human

"I eat using Uber-Eats.I push a button, the food is made, the driver delivers it to me. But when it's fully autonomous, how does the food actually get to my door? There's a tech stack that can get the car through the physical world to my doorstep, but then what? Does some robot get out of my car and deliver my food? That's hard. I don't know if that's two decades out, but the point is the physical world is getting wired up fast."
As you might guess, that is a quote from Uber's Mad CEO, Something-or-Other Kalanick. A unicorn billionaire who first wants to push taxi cab drivers to poverty, replacing them with "gig" contractors, who will then (in not too many years) be replaced by driverless cars.

Seriously, what is wrong with us? With the oceans crashing against our coastal cities, the planet warming, the poles melting, the forests being razed, the Sixth Extinction well in progress, can we still be so madly obsessed with using technology in the most absurd, energy-consuming, convenience-crazed ways?

A driverless car brings the food to my building "but then what?"

BUT THEN WHAT? How about getting your big fat ever spreading butt out of your Lazy-Boy and answering the damn door yourself, maybe even walking outside to a neighborhood restaurant and partaking in a meal around others?

Silly, sad humans.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Politicians won't move on climate change cause they know we don't REALLY care.



Yep. That's the truth (at the least the truth that seems to be taking shape between my ears these days).

I've been thinking about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch of late....


Lots of us seem to know it exists, and we are disgusted by it. Disgusted by us - humans who are disastrously trashing our planet.

And what are we going to do about it?

We are going to demand that Congress DO SOMETHING!

And our demands are going to be expressed in extremely powerful ways:
  • Online petitions
  • Facebook rants
  • Lots and lots of outraged tweets
Oh yes. Those. Lots of them, lots of indignation, shared outrage, thank you Facebook Echo Chamber.

And yet, and yet...somehow those awful Congresspeople ignore the Will of the People. How can this be? 

Time for more outraged and indignant rants and sarcastic memes on Facebook.

How ridiculous on two fronts:

1. Online "activism" is largely ineffective. 

2. Politicians will only listen to us when we take action that demonstrates our seriousness.

And this is where we really fall short.

So you read about all the awful plastic clogging up our oceans, killing fish and whales and dolphins and....everything, really, just about everything.

And what do you actually do?

Do you change even one iota of the way you live your life? It doesn't seem that way to me. We bitch and moan for a while, and then watch Game of Thrones or go to Six Flags or buy another case of plastic bottled water.

And since we don't seem to be willing to make the smallest sacrifices in our lives, politicians know they can just keep on serving their real masters: lobbyists of corporations.

Let's face it: if you consume and discard plastic, it's going somewhere, and it's going to be nasty, no matter the location. 

But if you don't consume that plastic, you will have not contributed to the problem. You will have not made things worse. And if millions of people did this same thing - took action in their life to change patterns of consumption - the impact would be enormous.

Here are some of the things I do to avoid plastic consumption:

1. I never, never, NEVER (well, hardly ever) buy plastic bottled water. And I especially never buy cases of plastic bottled water that is wrapped in plastic. How grotesque. Instead, buy a glass or stainless steel bottle and refill the damn thing, people.

2. I hardly ever buy processed food. I mostly buy food, like broccoli and fruit and eggs. Sure, they all require some processing. But nothing like buying a Lunchable. So gross.

3. I travel with a set of bamboo "silverware" so I can avoid using plastic-wrapped plastic forks and knives. I so detest those.

4. When I get ice cream, I get a cone: no need for a plastic dish, no plastic spoon. Of course, if I go to a lovely ice cream shop like Oberweis and eat my delight there, they use glass bowls and glasses and real silverware. So then I will treat myself to a milkshake or sundae. Yummy and no plastic.

5. I make my own yogurt instead of buying lots of plastic containers of the stuff. It's easy to do: just buy one of these

6. I buy milk in reusable glass containers. Again, thanks Oberweis!

And there's more, but you get the idea. It mostly comes down to being more intentional about how you go through the day: think ahead, always carry your water bottle and bamboo silverware, just say no to treats that come in plastic that you do not really need to eat, etc.

If millions of humans took action like this, the amount of garbage going to landfills and into the ocean would decrease substantially. 

With reduced demand, less plastic would be produced in factories, less pollution would be produced, etc.

But if you do not do things like this, if you direct your outrage to distant politicians who will never pay you attention and do not address some of that outrage at yourself, well...

Then the coral and whales and sharks and fish and birds and eventually even (dare I say it!) humans will suffer. 

Bottom line: if you want politicians to change their behavior, first change yours

That way, when they still don't give a rat's ass about you, at least you will have helped make the planet a little bit healthier.

Multiple by a million or a billion, and maybe the coral will notice.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

How are you?

I get this question a lot.

You probably do, too.

Sometimes nothing more is meant by it than "Hello."

Sometimes they really mean it, they really want to know.

Generally, my answer is "Great!"

'Cause no matter what relatively small irritations I have in my life, the bottom line is that my life is quite wonderful.

But I've decided that perhaps I should not simply say "Great!" I should explain why my life is so great.

So here goes:

Great!

I am an organic life form living on the only planet we know of in the entire universe that supports organic life. How wonderful is that?

Plus, I am self-aware, so I know that I am alive and can appreciate rainbows and the sound of wind moving through trees, and so on.* How incredible is that?

And, best of all, I have two smart, beautiful, hilarious, stubborn and funny granddaughters.**

So how am I?

GREAT!

* Note: just in case that sentence sounds as though I am celebrating the uniqueness of human beings, I must clarify that I happen to believe that many, many living creatures from thousands of species are self-aware and appreciate the world around them. Birds, spiders, squirrels, "etc" ....

** Photos are, of course, required to back this up:

Loey Lucille Silva


Juna Josephine Silva



Sunday, June 26, 2016

Complaining about the weather

Seems like I hear people complaining about the weather a lot.

Too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry....

Seems to me that we should never complain about the weather. I refuse to complain about the weather. Why would I take this position?

So far there is just one planet that we know about in the universe that supports the kind of life we are: organic, carbon-based life.

"Weather" cannot be separated from this planet. So when you complain about the weather, you are complaining about the only place in the universe humans can even possibly, remotely live. 

Seems a bit mean spirited, from that perspective, to whine about rain (which is needed badly for us and trees and lots of other living things to survive).

Beyond all that, humans have spread across the entire planet, even (and often) to places that are hostile to human survival (places, in other words, that we did not evolve to live in).

In order to live in many of these places, we destroy chunks of those places to make them more hospitable, comfortable and convenient for us.

So it seems to me that when someone complains about the weather, we should ask:

Do you live in a location on Planet Earth that does not require the establishment of a "human survival zone"?

Indicators of Human Survival Zones: air conditioning so your brain doesn't fry; heat so that you don't turn into an ice cube; homes that seal you off completely from your surroundings....

If yes, then our response should be:
Wow! Aren't you lucky? You can breathe, you can drink water, you can eat the food, you can enjoy the natural environment with minimal degradation of that environment, and without dying. Why would you ever complain about the weather?
If no, the our response should be: 
You have no right to complain. You shouldn't even be here. You can only be here by radically changing (usually by destroying) the world around you. Which, by the way, affects the weather. If you don't like it here, then leave. But don't complain.
And if none of that seems to be making a dent, you can always fall back on the Rainbow Argument:
How can you complain about the weather (and by extention a planet) that gives you rainbows? 

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Two Amazing Men Discovered Evolution by Natural Selection!

Most everyone knows about Darwin, and what they think they know is that Charles Darwin is the discoverer of Evolution through Natural Selection. And for sure, he did discover this. But the amazing thing is....he wasn't the only one. And whereas Darwin came to this theory pretty much as a Big Data Scientist over a long period of time (mostly via "armchair" collection of data from scientists and naturalists around the world), The Other Guy developed his theory of Natural Selection very much in the field - more specifically, in the jungle, surrounded by the living evidence. 

His name is Alfred Russel Wallace, he is one of my heroes, and I offer below the "real story" for your reading pleasure. 

One of the things I really love about this story is the way Darwin and Wallace respected each other, and did right by each other. We all have a lot to learn from their integrity and compassion.

Alfred Russel Wallace and Natural Selection: the Real Story 
By Dr George Beccaloni, Director of the Wallace Correspondence Project, March 2013

http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/tv/junglehero/alfred-wallace-biography.pdf

Alfred Russel Wallace OM, LLD, DCL, FRS, FLS was born near Usk, Monmouthshire, England (now part of Wales) on January 8th, 1823. Serious family financial problems forced him to leave school aged only fourteen and a few months later he took a job as a trainee land surveyor with his elder brother William. This work involved extensive trekking through the English and Welsh countryside and it was then that his interest in natural history developed.

Whilst living in Neath, Wales, in 1845 Wallace read Robert Chambers' extremely popular and anonymously published book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation and became fascinated by the controversial idea that living things had evolved from earlier forms. So interested in the subject did he become that he suggested to his close friend Henry Walter Bates that they travel to the Amazon to collect and study animals and plants, with the goal of understanding how evolutionary change takes place. They left for Brazil in April 1848, but although Wallace made many important discoveries during his four years in the Amazon Basin, he did not manage to solve the great ‘mystery of mysteries’ of how evolution works.

Wallace returned to England in October 1852, after surviving a disastrous shipwreck which destroyed all the thousands of natural history specimens he had painstakingly collected during the last two and most interesting years of his trip. Undaunted, in 1854 he set off on another expedition, this time to the Malay Archipelago (Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia), where he would spend eight years travelling, collecting, writing, and thinking about evolution. He visited every important island in the archipelago and sent back 110,000 insects, 7,500 shells, 8,050 bird skins, and 410 mammal and reptile specimens, including probably more than five thousand species new to science.

In Sarawak, Borneo, in February 1855, Wallace produced one of the most important papers written about evolution up until that time1. In it he proposed a ‘law’ which stated that "Every species has come into existence coincident both in time and space with a pre-existing closely allied species". He described the affinities (relationships) between species as being “...as intricate as the twigs of a gnarled oak or the vascular system of the human body” with “...the stem and main branches being represented by extinct species...” and the “...vast mass of limbs and boughs and minute twigs and scattered leaves...” living species. The eminent geologist and creationist Charles Lyell was so struck by Wallace’s paper that in November 1855, soon after reading it, he began a ‘species notebook’ in which he started to contemplate the possibility of evolution for the first time.

In April 1856 Lyell visited Charles Darwin at Down House in Kent, and Darwin confided that for the past twenty years he had been secretly working on a theory (natural selection) which neatly explained how evolutionary change takes place. Not long afterwards, Lyell sent Darwin a letter urging him to publish before someone beat him to it (he probably had Wallace in mind), so in May 1856, Darwin, heeding this advice, began to write a ‘sketch’ of his ideas for publication.

Finding this unsatisfactory, Darwin abandoned it in about October 1856 and instead began working on an extensive book on the subject.

The idea of natural selection came to Wallace during an attack of fever whilst he was on a remote Indonesian island in February 1858 (it is unclear whether this epiphany happened on Ternate or neighbouring Gilolo (Halmahera)). As soon as he had sufficient strength, he wrote a detailed essay explaining his theory and sent it together with a covering letter to Darwin, who he knew from earlier correspondence, was deeply interested in the subject of species transmutation (as evolution was then called).

Wallace asked Darwin to pass the essay on to Lyell (who Wallace did not know), if Darwin thought it sufficiently novel and interesting. Darwin had mentioned in an earlier letter to Wallace that Lyell had found his 1855 paper noteworthy and Wallace must have thought that Lyell would be interested to learn about his new theory, since it neatly explained the ‘law’ which Wallace had proposed in that paper.

Darwin, having formulated natural selection years earlier, was horrified when he received Wallace’s essay and immediately wrote an anguished letter to Lyell asking for advice on what he should do. "I never saw a more striking coincidence. If Wallace had my M.S. sketch written out in 1842 he could not have made a better short abstract! ... So all my originality, whatever it may amount to, will be smashed." he exclaimed2. Lyell teamed up with another of Darwin's close friends, Joseph Hooker, and rather than attempting to seek Wallace's permission, they decided instead to present his essay plus two excerpts from Darwin’s writings on the subject (which had never been intended for publication3) to a meeting of the Linnean Society of London on July 1st 1858. The public presentation of Wallace's essay took place a mere 14 days after its arrival in England.

Darwin and Wallace's musings on natural selection were published in the Society’s journal in August that year under the title “On the Tendency of Species to Form Varieties; And On the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection”. Darwin's contributions were placed before Wallace's essay, thus emphasising his priority to the idea4. Hooker had sent Darwin the proofs to correct and had told him to make any alterations he wanted5, and although he made a large number of changes to the text he had written, he chose not to alter Lyell and Hooker’s arrangement of his and Wallace’s contributions.

Lyell and Hooker stated in their introduction to the Darwin-Wallace paper that “...both authors...[have]...unreservedly placed their papers in our hands...”, but this is patently untrue since Wallace had said nothing about publication in the covering letter he had sent to Darwin6. Wallace later grumbled that his essay “...was printed without my knowledge, and of course without any correction of proofs...”7

As a result of this ethically questionable episode8, Darwin stopped work on his big book on evolution and instead rushed to produce an ‘abstract’ of what he had written so far. This was published fifteen months later in November 1859 as On the Origin of Species: a book which Wallace later magnanimously remarked would “...live as long as the "Principia" of Newton.”9

In spite of the theory’s traumatic birth, Darwin and Wallace developed a genuine admiration and respect for one another. Wallace frequently stressed that Darwin had a stronger claim to the idea of natural selection, and he even named one of his most important books on the subject Darwinism! Wallace spent the rest of his long life explaining, developing and defending natural selection, as well as working on a very wide variety of other (sometimes controversial) subjects. He wrote more than 1000 articles and 22 books, including The Malay Archipelago and The Geographical Distribution of Animals. By the time of his death in 1913, he was one of the world's most famous people.

During Wallace’s lifetime the theory of natural selection was often referred to as the Darwin- Wallace theory and the highest possible honours were bestowed on him for his role as its co- discoverer. These include the Darwin–Wallace and Linnean Gold Medals of the Linnean Society of London; the Copley, Darwin and Royal Medals of the Royal Society (Britain's premier scientific body); and the Order of Merit (awarded by the ruling Monarch as the highest civilian honour of Great Britain). It was only in the 20th Century that Wallace’s star dimmed while Darwin’s burned ever more brightly. 

So why then did this happen?

The reason may be as follows: in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, natural selection as an explanation for evolutionary change became unpopular, with most biologists adopting alternative theories such as neo-Lamarckism, orthogenesis, or the mutation theory. It was only with the modern evolutionary synthesis of the 1930s and ’40s that it became widely accepted that natural selection is indeed the primary driving force of evolution. By then, however, the history of its discovery had largely been forgotten and many wrongly assumed that the idea had first been published in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Thanks to the so-called ‘Darwin Industry’ of recent decades, Darwin’s fame has increased exponentially, eclipsing the important contributions of his contemporaries, like Wallace. A more balanced, accurate and detailed history of the discovery of what has been referred to as “...arguably the most momentous idea ever to occur to a human mind” is long overdue.

ENDNOTES

1. Wallace, A. R. 1855. On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species. Annals and Magazine of Natural History, 16 (2nd series): 184-196.

2. Letter from Darwin to Charles Lyell dated 18th [June 1858] (Darwin Correspondence Database, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-2285 accessed 20/01/2013).

3. These were an extract from Darwin’s unpublished essay on evolution of 1844, plus the enclosure from a letter dated 5th September 1857, which Darwin had written to the American botanist Asa Gray.

4. Publishing another person’s work without their agreement was as unacceptable then as it is today. Publishing someone’s novel theory without their consent, prefixed by material designed to give priority of the idea to someone else is ethically highly questionable: Wallace should have been consulted first! Fortunately for Darwin and his supporters, Wallace appeared to be pleased by what has been called the ‘delicate arrangement’.

5. In a letter from Joseph Hooker to Darwin dated 13th and 15th July 1858 (Darwin Correspondence Database, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-2307 accessed 20/01/2013), Hooker stated " I send the proofs from Linnæan Socy— Make any alterations you please..."

6. In a letter from Darwin to Charles Lyell dated 18th [June 1858] (Darwin Correspondence Database, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-2285 accessed 20/01/2013), Darwin, who was referring to Wallace's essay, says "Please return me the M.S. [manuscript] which he does not say he wishes me to publish..." and in a letter from Darwin to Charles Lyell dated [25th June 1858] (Darwin Correspondence Database, http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-2294 accessed 20/01/2013), Darwin states that "Wallace says nothing about publication..."

7. Letter from Wallace to A. B. Meyer dated 22nd November 1869 cited in Meyer, A. B. 1895. How was Wallace led to the discovery of natural selection? Nature, 52(1348): 415.

8. See Rachels, J. 1986. Darwin's moral lapse. National Forum: 22-24 (pdf available at http://www.jamesrachels.org/DML.pdf)

9. Letter from Wallace to George Silk dated 1st September 1860 (WCP373 in Beccaloni, G. W. (Ed.). 2012. Wallace Letters Online www.nhm.ac.uk/wallacelettersonline [accessed 20/01/2013])

OTHER NOTES

Please cite this article as: Beccaloni, G. W. 2013. Alfred Russel Wallace and Natural Selection: the Real Story. <http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/tv/junglehero/alfred-wallace-biography.pdf>
This article is a slightly modified version of the introduction by George Beccaloni to the following privately published book: Preston, T. (Ed.). 2013. The Letter from Ternate. UK: TimPress. 96 pp.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Goodbye Old Bike, Hello Old Bike

In 1977, one of my best buddies told me about a friend he had, who had just custom-built a bicycle for him, from components. This guy would do the same thing for me. "How cool is that?" thought I.

A few weeks later, for (according to my admittedly leaky memory) about $200, I received a bicycle that became one of my all-time favorite machines.

It was built around a black Raleigh Competition Reynolds 531 double butted steel tubing. It was powered by a lovely, engraved, all-metal Shimano 600 Arabesque derailleur ("One of the most decorative groups Shimano ever released"):


The bike was a beautiful ride and all-around excellent transportation. It came to Chicago with me in 1981. It took me downtown for my first job as a programmer in Chicago, at First National Bank (I commuted by bike whenever possible). It accompanied me on day trips all over Chicagoland. It took me back and forth to the CISPES office, a cause and organization that consumed way too much of my life for too little in return. Whatever foolishness I chose to engage in, this bike helped me do it in style (my style: it was scratched up and usually dirty, but the chain and gears were clean and lubricated).

But for some reason (yes, that's right, I do not recall), about fifteen years ago, I decided to buy a new bicycle, and chose a Jamis Coda. I hung the black bike (I don't know what else to call it. It used to be a Raleigh Competition, but that was long before I took possession) in the back of my shed, and very much enjoyed the Coda. It was new, it was shiny, and it was a hybrid, better suited for city riding. After a while it wasn't new or shiny anymore - just my style, but it was still a great ride. I didn't think very often about my black bike, even when I noticed it hanging behind garden gear and abandoned kids' toys.

Well, a couple months ago, I got careless with my Coda and it was stolen. Arrrrggggh.

I figured I would buy a new bicycle, which I dreaded in part because everything has gotten so over-built, optimized for convenience, unnecessarily fancy, etc. Not my style. Started looking around and found myself at Bucephalus Bikes, where they do a brisk, proud business in reconditioning older bicycles to better-than-new.

That got me thinking: maybe I should bring in the Reynolds 531 frame (by this time, I was thinking that was all that was left of the bike) and see what it might cost to make it a beauty, once again.

I hauled it out of the shed and was delighted to see it was intact as a bicycle, but with understandably flat tires, rusty chain, and who knows what else wrong with it. I did, after all, choose to stop riding it long ago.

Feeling slightly guilty at not returning to Bucephalus, I brought the black bike to my neighborhood bike shop, Roberts Cycle. They made appreciative noises. They probably do that with all their customers. :-)

Well, in any case, a few weeks went by and yesterday I rode the bike home - smoooothly. Here are the parts Roberts needed to properly restore the bike:
  • Chain
  • Front and rear brake cables and housing
  • Front and rear shift cables
  • Seat binder bolt
  • Schwalbe 27-1/4 K-guard (Kevlar) tires
  • Sealed bottom bracket
  • Headset bearings (29, loose, had to be individually packed in)
  • Rear wheel bearings (22, loose, had to be individually packed in)
  • Front alloy wheel
  • Used rear derailleur
Yes, you read that right. They removed the Shimano 600 and gave me a "good enough" replacement for a very fair price. He never asked if I wanted to replace it. WTF? The guy who runs the shop explained that the 600 was actually not compatible with the rear gear assembly on the bicycle; I couldn't get to all the gears using it. So he swapped it out.

Gee, I'd never really noticed any problem. I rarely needed the very low settings. I started to feel aggrieved and righteous about the whole thing, but he so sincerely seemed to consider it an act of necessity. So in the end I accepted with grace (or so I told myself) the Shimano 600 (and every other part, including the old ball bearings - !!) in a plastic bag.

I tried not to be too sad. It really is pretty.

No, I won't tell you how much all those parts (and the accompanying, thoroughgoing overhaul) cost me. I suppose I could've gotten a new bicycle for the amount, but nothing as elegant or satisfying as my black bike. 

And as I said in an earlier post, "New is BadBuying things new is the way to consume the most resources and have the worst impact on our world. So I am going to make every effort to avoid buying new things and instead by used."

Hurray! I acted on my principles. I have lots of principles and I never feel like I act enough in accordance with them. I also am not sure how many I've forgotten.

So this act of reuse and redemption felt - and feels - really good. 

Now if only it would stop raining so I could go out for a ride!

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

About My Son, Chris Silva, Amazing Artist, Father and All-Around Human Being

"For the record...."




Chris is the 2015 recipient of a 3arts grant, which makes me incredibly proud and also gives me the opportunity to share his professional art bio (I mostly experience him these days as Papa to my two wonderful granddaughters).

Born in Puerto Rico, Chris Silva has been a prominent figure in Chicago’s graffiti and skateboarding scenes since the 1980s, as well as an enthusiastic fan of a wide range of music genres which have resulted from the influence of metropolitan life. Building on his solid graffiti art foundation, Silva proceeded to play a significant role in the development of what is now commonly referred to as "street art." He now splits his time between working on large-scale commissions, producing gallery oriented work, and leading youth-involved public art projects. As a self-taught sound artist with roots in DJ culture, Silva also anchors a collaborative recording project known as This Mother Falcon, and has recently started integrating his audio compositions into his installation work.

In the early 90s, Silva worked on a mural with the Chicago Public Art Group and was eventually brought on board to help lead community art projects with other urban youth. As a result, the act of facilitating art experiences for young people has become an important part of his art practice, and he regularly includes students as collaborators on large-scale artwork that often leans heavily on improvisation. Over the years, Silva has helped orchestrate youth art projects both independently and in partnership with Chicago Public Art Group, Young Chicago Authors, Gallery 37, Yollocalli Arts Reach, After School Matters, and the School of The Art Institute of Chicago.

Silva was awarded a major public art commission by the Chicago Transit Authority to create a mosaic for the Pink Line California Station (2004); created block-long murals in Chicago's Loop “You Are Beautiful” (2006); created a sculpture for the Seattle Sound Transit System (2008); won the Juried Award for Best 3D Piece at Artprize (2012); and created large commissions for 1871 Chicago (2013), the City of Chicago, LinkedIn, CBRE (2014), OFS Brands, and The Prudential Building (2015). He has exhibited in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, London, Melbourne, Copenhagen, and The International Space Station. In 2007 Silva received an Artist Fellowship Award from The Illinois Arts Council.