Surrounded Islands

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, via their official website:

On May 7, 1983, the installation of Surrounded Islands was completed in Biscayne Bay, between the city of Miami, North Miami, the Village of Miami Shores and Miami Beach. Eleven of the islands situated in the area of Bakers Haulover Cut, Broad Causeway, 79th Street Causeway, Julia Tuttle Causeway, and Venetian Causeway were surrounded with 6.5 million square feet (603,870 square meters) of floating pink woven polypropylene fabric covering the surface of the water and extending out 200 feet (61 meters) from each island into the bay. The fabric was sewn into 79 patterns to follow the contours of the 11 islands.

For two weeks, Surrounded Islands, spreading over 7 miles (11.3 kilometers), was seen, approached and enjoyed by the public, from the causeways, the land, the water and the air. The luminous pink color of the shiny fabric was in harmony with the tropical vegetation of the uninhabited verdant islands, the light of the Miami sky and the colors of the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay.

“Bad news sells because the amygdala is always looking for something to fear.”

Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler, writing in Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think:

The amygdala is an almond-shaped sliver of the temporal lobe responsible for primal emotions like rage, hate, and fear. It’s our early warning system, an organ always on high alert, whose job is to find anything in our environment that could threaten survival. Anxious under normal conditions, once stimulated, the amygdala becomes hypervigilant. Then our focus tightens and our fight-or-flight response turns on. Heart rate speeds up, nerves fire faster, eyes dilate for improved vision, the skin cools as blood moves toward our muscles for faster reaction times. Cognitively, our pattern-recognition system scours our memories, hunting for similar situations (to help ID the threat) and potential solutions (to help neutralize the threat). But so potent is this response that once turned on, it’s almost impossible to shut off, and this is a problem in the modern world.

These days, we are saturated with information. We have millions of news outlets competing for our mind share. And how do they compete? By vying for the amygdala’s attention. The old newspaper saw “If it bleeds, it leads” works because the first stop that all incoming information encounters is an organ already primed to look for danger. We’re feeding a fiend. Pick up the Washington Post and compare the number of positive to negative stories. If your experiment goes anything like mine, you’ll find that over 90 percent of the articles are pessimistic. Quite simply, good news doesn’t catch our attention. Bad news sells because the amygdala is always looking for something to fear.

Marc Siegel, writing in False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear:

Statistically, the industrialized world has never been safer. Many of us are living longer and more uneventfully. Nevertheless, we live in worst-case fear scenarios. Over the past century, we Americans have dramatically reduced our risk in virtually every area of life, resulting in life spans 60 percent longer in 2000 than in 1900. Antibiotics have reduced the likelihood of dying from infections … Public health measures dictate standards for drinkable water and breathable air. Our garbage is removed quickly. We live in temperature-controlled, disease-controlled lives. And yet, we worry more than ever before. The natural dangers are no longer there, but the response mechanisms are still in place, and now they are turned on much of the time. We implode, turning our adaptive fear mechanism into a maladaptive panicked response.

The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water

Notes from The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Charles Fishman:

* One of every six gallons of water pumped into water mains by U.S. utilities simply leaks away, back into the ground. Sixteen percent of the water disappears from the pipes before it makes it to a home or business or factory. Every six days, U.S. water utilities lose an entire day’s water.

* Ten gallons of tap water, at home, costs on average 3 pennies. That’s the equivalent of getting seventy-four of those $1.29 half-liter bottles of water we love so much for less than a nickel. We happily pay three thousand times that price at the convenience store—one bottle for $1.29. But when the water bill goes from $30 to $34 a month, customers react as if they’ll have to choose between their prescription drugs and their water service.

* We only have that one allotment of water—it was delivered here 4.4 billion years ago. No water is being created or destroyed on Earth. So every drop of water that’s here has seen the inside of a cloud, and the inside of a volcano, the inside of a maple leaf, and the inside of a dinosaur kidney, probably many times.

* Water itself isn’t becoming more scarce, it’s simply disappearing from places where people have become accustomed to finding it—where they have built communities assuming a certain availability of water—and reappearing somewhere else.

* The total water on the surface of Earth (the oceans, the ice caps, the atmospheric water) makes up 0.025 percent of the mass of the planet—25/100,000ths of the stuff of Earth. If Earth were the size of a Honda Odyssey minivan, the amount of water on the planet would be in a single, half-liter bottle of Poland Spring in one of the van’s thirteen cup holders.

* A molecule of water that evaporates into the air—from a fountain, from a puddle, from your skin—spends about nine days floating in the sky before returning to Earth as rain or snow.

* Americans spent $21 billion on bottled water in 2009. It doesn’t seem like an astonishing sum of money – about $65 per person, $1.25 a week. But in the context of water, $21 billion is huge. Consider, for instance, what Americans spend for all the water delivered to their homes – 350 gallons per family per day, 365 days a year. The water bill comes to about $412 a year. Which means we spend $46 billion a year on all the household water we use all year long — to run the morning shower, to boil the pasta, to water the lawn. As a nation, we spend $46 billion for a year’s water, always on, whenever we need it. And we spend another $21 billion – almost half as much – for bottled water, for an amount of water that wouldn’t get us through eight hours of water use at home on any given day.

* We’re moving 1 billion bottles of water around a week in ships, trains, and trucks in the United States alone. That’s a weekly convoy equivalent to 37,800 18-wheelers delivering water. (Water weighs 8.33 pounds a gallon. It’s so heavy you can’t fill an 18-wheeler with bottled water—you have to leave empty space.)

* Water utilities use 3 percent of the electricity generated in the United States, equal to the output of 162 power plants, making water utilities the largest single industrial users of electricity in the country. In California, 20 percent of the electricity in the state is used to move or treat water.

* There is no global water crisis, because all water problems are local, or regional, and their solutions must be local and regional. There is no global water crisis, there are a thousand water crises, each distinct.

“The ideal citizen of a politically corrupt state, such as the one we now have, is a gullible dolt unable to tell truth from bullshit.”

Charles Simic, via NYR:

Widespread ignorance bordering on idiocy is our new national goal. It’s no use pretending otherwise and telling us, as Thomas Friedman did in the Times a few days ago, that educated people are the nation’s most valuable resources. Sure, they are, but do we still want them? It doesn’t look to me as if we do. The ideal citizen of a politically corrupt state, such as the one we now have, is a gullible dolt unable to tell truth from bullshit.

An educated, well-informed population, the kind that a functioning democracy requires, would be difficult to lie to, and could not be led by the nose by the various vested interests running amok in this country. Most of our politicians and their political advisers and lobbyists would find themselves unemployed, and so would the gasbags who pass themselves off as our opinion makers. Luckily for them, nothing so catastrophic, even though perfectly well-deserved and widely-welcome, has a remote chance of occurring any time soon. For starters, there’s more money to be made from the ignorant than the enlightened, and deceiving Americans is one of the few growing home industries we still have in this country. A truly educated populace would be bad, both for politicians and for business.

And this:

In the past, if someone knew nothing and talked nonsense, no one paid any attention to him. No more. Now such people are courted and flattered by conservative politicians and ideologues as “Real Americans” defending their country against big government and educated liberal elites. The press interviews them and reports their opinions seriously without pointing out the imbecility of what they believe.

Depressing, but very accurate.

The Case for Mars

Notes from The Case for Mars by Robert Zubrin:

* Where there is no vision, the people perish. The American people want and deserve a space program that really is going somewhere. But no goal can be sustained unless it can be backed up, and not by “rationales,” but by reasons. There are real and vital reasons why we should venture to Mars. It is the key to unlocking the secret of life in the universe. It is the challenge to adventure that will inspire millions of young people to enter science and engineering, and whose acceptance will reaffirm the nature of our society as a nation of pioneers. It is the door to an open future, a new frontier on a new world, a planet that can be settled, the beginning of humanity’s career as a spacefaring species with no limits to its resources or aspirations as it continues to push outward into the infinite universe beyond. For the science, for the challenge, for the future; that’s why we should go to Mars. The only meaningful counterargument against launching a humans to Mars initiative is the assertion that we cannot do it. This claim, however, is completely false.

* Unique among the extraterrestrial bodies of our solar system, Mars is endowed with all the resources needed to support not only life but the actual development of a technological civilization.

* With its twenty-four-hour day-night cycle and an atmosphere thick enough to shield its surface against solar flares, Mars is the only extraterrestrial planet that will accommodate large-scale greenhouses lit by natural sunlight.

* If the human mind can understand the universe, it means that the human mind is fundamentally of the same order as the divine mind. If the human mind is of the same order as the divine mind, then everything that appeared rational to God as he constructed the universe, its “geometry,” can also be made to appear rational to the human understanding, and so if we search and think hard enough, we can find a rational explanation and underpinning for everything. This is the fundamental proposition of science.

* The ability to manufacture metals is fundamental to any technological civilization. Mars provides abundant resources to support their production. In fact, in this respect, Mars is considerably richer than the Earth.

* Whether it’s the United States, NATO, the United Nations, or the Martian Republic, some government’s agreement is needed to give worthless terrain real estate property value. Once that is in place, however, even the undeveloped open real estate on Mars represents a tremendous source of capital to finance the initial development of Martian settlements. Sold at an average value of $20 per acre, Mars could be worth $700 billion. Should Mars be terraformed, these open land prices could be expected to grow a hundredfold, with a rough planetary land value of $70 trillion implied.

“Jews believe that they are bearers of a unique covenant with God.”

Sam Harris, writing in The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason:

The gravity of Jewish suffering over the ages, culminating in the Holocaust, makes it almost impossible to entertain any suggestion that Jews might have brought their troubles upon themselves. This is, however, in a rather narrow sense, the truth. Prior to the rise of the church, Jews became the objects of suspicion and occasional persecution for their refusal to assimilate, for the insularity and professed superiority of their religious culture — that is, for the content of their own unreasonable, sectarian beliefs. The dogma of a “chosen people,” while at least implicit in most faiths, achieved a stridence in Judaism that was unknown in the ancient world. Among cultures that worshiped a plurality of Gods, the later monotheism of the Jews proved indigestible. And while their explicit demonization as a people required the mad work of the Christian church, the ideology of Judaism remains a lightning rod for intolerance to this day. As a system of beliefs, it appears among the least suited to survive in a theological state of nature. Christianity and Islam both acknowledge the sanctity of the Old Testament and offer easy conversion to their faiths. Islam honors Abraham, Moses, and Jesus as forerunners of Muhammad. Hinduism embraces almost anything in sight with its manifold arms (many Hindus, for instance, consider Jesus an avatar of Vishnu). Judaism alone finds itself surrounded by unmitigated errors. It seems little wonder, therefore, that it has drawn so much sectarian fire. Jews, insofar as they are religious, believe that they are bearers of a unique covenant with God. As a consequence, they have spent the last two thousand years collaborating with those who see them as different by seeing themselves as irretrievably so. Judaism is as intrinsically divisive, as ridiculous in its literalism, and as at odds with the civilizing insights of modernity as any other religion. Jewish settlers, by exercising their “freedom of belief” on contested land, are now one of the principal obstacles to peace in the Middle East. They will be a direct cause of war between Islam and the West should one ever erupt over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We’re raised to believe that the value of work is defined by the complexity of the task and not the execution of it.”

Brittany Bronson, writing for The New York Times:

Taking orders does not demand a college-level education. Carrying trays of cocktails requires physical endurance, but no extensive, complex knowledge. Most people walking through casino employee hallways – janitors, housekeepers, retail workers – are categorized as unskilled laborers, and the laws of capitalism clearly state that we are all easily replaceable: Anyone can be trained to do our jobs.

Headlines tell us that “College Graduates Are Wasting Their Degrees in Low-Skilled Jobs,” that “Skilled Workers Are in Short Supply.” We’re raised, in the culture of American capitalism, to believe certain things, without question, namely that the value of work is defined by the complexity of the task and not the execution of it, that certain types of work are not worthy of devoting a lifetime to.

But on some nights, when my multitasking, memory and body are in sync, when I find myself moving calmly around a room full of slightly buzzed and cheerful people, I feel confident that not every person can do the job as well as I can.

“Not believing in God is easy – you can’t prove a negative, so there’s no work to do.”

Penn Jillette, writing for NPR:

I believe that there is no God. I’m beyond atheism. Atheism is not believing in God. Not believing in God is easy — you can’t prove a negative, so there’s no work to do. You can’t prove that there isn’t an elephant inside the trunk of my car. You sure? How about now? Maybe he was just hiding before. Check again. Did I mention that my personal heartfelt definition of the word “elephant” includes mystery, order, goodness, love and a spare tire?

Believing there’s no God stops me from being solipsistic. I can read ideas from all different people from all different cultures. Without God, we can agree on reality, and I can keep learning where I’m wrong. We can all keep adjusting, so we can really communicate. I don’t travel in circles where people say, “I have faith, I believe this in my heart and nothing you can say or do can shake my faith.” That’s just a long-winded religious way to say, “shut up,” or another two words that the FCC likes less. But all obscenity is less insulting than, “How I was brought up and my imaginary friend means more to me than anything you can ever say or do.” So, believing there is no God lets me be proven wrong and that’s always fun. It means I’m learning something.

“Religion was the race’s first (and worst) attempt to make sense of reality.”

Christopher Hitchens, writing in The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever:

Religion invents a problem where none exists by describing the wicked as also made in the image of god and the sexually nonconformist as existing in a state of incurable mortal sin that can incidentally cause floods and earthquakes.

How did such evil nonsense ever come to be so influential? And why are we so continually locked in combat with its violent and intolerant votaries? Well, religion was the race’s first (and worst) attempt to make sense of reality. It was the best the species could do at a time when we had no concept of physics, chemistry, biology or medicine. We did not know that we lived on a round planet, let alone that the said planet was in orbit in a minor and obscure solar system, which was also on the edge of an unimaginably vast cosmos that was exploding away from its original source of energy. We did not know that micro-organisms were so powerful and lived in our digestive systems in order to enable us to live, as well as mounting lethal attacks on us as parasites. We did not know of our close kinship with other animals. We believed that sprites, imps, demons, and djinns were hovering in the air about us. We imagined that thunder and lightning were portentous. It has taken us a long time to shrug off this heavy coat of ignorance and fear, and every time we do there are self-interested forces who want to compel us to put it back on again.

By all means let us agree that we are pattern-seeking mammals and that, owing to our restless intelligence and inquisitiveness, we will still prefer a conspiracy theory to no explanation at all. Religion was our first attempt at philosophy, just as alchemy was our first attempt at chemistry and astrology our first attempt to make sense of the movements of the heavens. I myself am a strong believer in the study of religion, first because culture and education involve a respect for tradition and for origins, and also because some of the early religious texts were among our first attempts at literature. But there is a reason why religions insist so much on strange events in the sky, as well as on less quantifiable phenomena such as dreams and visions. All of these things cater to our inborn stupidity, and our willingness to be persuaded against all the evidence that we are indeed the center of the universe and that everything is arranged with us in mind.

“The problem of political irrationality is the greatest social problem humanity faces.”

Michael Huemer, professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado:

The problem of political irrationality is the greatest social problem humanity faces. It is a greater problem than crime, drug addiction, or even world poverty, because it is a problem that prevents us from solving other problems. Before we can solve the problem of poverty, we must first have correct beliefs about poverty, about what causes it, what reduces it, and what the side effects of alternative policies are. If our beliefs about those things are guided by the social group we want to fit into, the self-image we want to maintain, the desire to avoid admitting to having been wrong in the past, and so on, then it would be pure accident if enough of us were to actually form correct beliefs to solve the problem.

Based on the level of disagreement, human beings are highly unreliable at identifying correct political claims. This is extremely unfortunate, since it means that we have little chance of solving social problems and a good chance of creating or exacerbating them. The best explanation lies in the theory of Rational Irrationality: individuals derive psychological rewards from holding certain political beliefs, and since each individual suffers almost none of the harm caused by his own false political beliefs, it often makes sense (it gives him what he wants) to adopt those beliefs regardless of whether they are true or well-supported.

The beliefs that people want to hold are often determined by their self-interest, the social group they want to fit into, the self-image they want to maintain, and the desire to remain coherent with their past beliefs. People can deploy various mechanisms to enable them to adopt and maintain their preferred beliefs, including giving a biased weighting of evidence; focusing their attention and energy on the arguments supporting their favored beliefs; collecting evidence only from sources they already agree with; and relying on subjective, speculative, and anecdotal claims as evidence for political theories.

Full paper in PDF here.