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I have more pictures and thoughts about the spring garden…but they will have to wait. Today, alas, we must talk about politics. Since you are looking at the internet, you almost undoubtedly know by now that somebody at the Supreme Court leaked the draft of Samuel Alito’s high-handed opinion striking down Roe vs. Wade. It is a real document. Perhaps the final language will change somewhat, but unless everything changes immediately in some crazy way, abortions will be illegal or effectively illegal in red states by the end of June. It is surprising, but it is also unsurprising (since progressives and moderates have been watching Republicans strategically building towards this outcome for decades).

So far, I have read all sorts of opinions about what this means to the nation, to women, to Republicans, to Democrats, to the legitimacy our worthless kangaroo Supreme Court, to our terrible health-care system, etc. None of these writings have satisfied me, because none of them said what I wanted to hear. Therefore I guess I am stuck writing the essay which I keep looking everywhere for. You will have to judge whether it is true or not. Perhaps you will have to judge whether to make it true, since, in the end of things, that is how politics works.

Ok, here is my thesis: obtaining what they have claimed to want will be a much bigger problem for Republicans than they care to let on. They are like the proverbial dog chasing a van who finally catches it. If abortions are illegal in red states, it will quickly threaten the GOP’s already tenuous political coalition through several ways. First of all, the same religious fundamentalists, scolds, and absolutists who have obsessively made this a single-focus issue will want abortion outlawed everywhere in the nation. Republicans will now have to work towards that goal, unless they want all of those single-issue voters to harumph and stay home. Yet, as women start dying left and right, politics in those same red states will change more quickly and in more unnerving ways than Republicans are ready for.

I suspect that strategy-minded Republicans such as Mitch McConnell never really wanted to see Roe end for exactly this reason. The pro-life zealots were already maximally engaged. This will not create more of them or cause them to show up at the polls in greater numbers. After an odious victory lap, they will either tune out of politics or demand that Republicans do stuff which is even more unpopular. And ending Roe (and its reproductive freedoms)–especially in this draconian way–is quite unpopular with 55-70 percentage of the electorate (depending on how the questions are asked). That number is likely to get much larger as snoozing Democrats and progressives wake up and notice that the United States is quickly becoming a farcical fascist dystopia .

So Republicans are back to their true play. Either they must comprehensively end representative democracy once and for all and replace it with an autocracy masquerading as a democracy (like Hungary or Turkey) or they will have to eventually face voters, a majority of whom do not like their policies. Republicans have become so wily at avoiding voters and at painting Democrats’ attempts to govern the nation as extremism, that we have lost sight of how deceptively weak and unpopular their fundamental positions are. Now they are running on a platform of raising taxes for working people, destroying Social Security, making healthcare more expensive, AND abolishing reproductive choice for all Americans. The fact that they are doing as well as they are is testament to their astonishing ability to lie and prevaricate, but the truth is slowly creeping up behind them and dawning even on the most misinformed voters.

So the next two elections of 2022 and 2024 will be the GOP’s best chance to use structural advantages to finish off the democracy as a functioning entity. That was already the case, but perhaps today’s leak will remind confused people who had tuned out of politics (dully repeating the Republican line that “all politicians are equally bad“) that they need to turn back in and fight off these ghastly autocrats and religious zealots. Otherwise today’s assault on freedom, dignity, and privacy will neither be the last nor the most jarring.

Among today’s dreary and disconcerting news was one item which was almost too sad to read: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a list of 23 species of living things which which have gone permanently extinct. The headliner of the list was the ivory-billed woodpecker which was last seen alive in 1944 and which has been reckoned lost since before I was born. Although optimistic bird lovers have been holding out hope that the magnificent creature would re-emerge from some forgotten grove of old growth giants in Arkansas or something, the woodpeckers’ demise was really a result of early 20th century forestry mismanagement and dates back to those times . The other creatures on the list, however, were doomed by today’s problems of habitat loss and climate change, and the entire funereal catalog should serve as a wakeup call that the biodiversity crisis is gaining momentum as global environmental problems worsen and elide together.

Ferrebeekeeper can’t eulogize all 23 lifeforms, however, since we have a long history of writing about mollusks, I will draw your attention to the flat pigtoe (Pleurobema marshalli), a freshwater mussel from the backwaters of rural Mississippi and Alabama (pictured above). The little mussel was sensitive to water pollution, invasive competitors, and industrial waterway development/degradation. Despite its gross joke of a name (a common theme among freshwater mussels of North America, by the way), the mussel not only filtered fresh water, and buttressed the living things around it in the ecosystem, but served as a canary in a coal mine of sorts. All of that water filtration puts mussels in peril from pollutants and toxins (indeed seven of the other species on the deathlist were freshwater mussels).

Whenever I hear about freshwater mussels I think of how fond Great Grandma Virgie was of her pet freshwater mussel which she kept in a tank filled with guppies (I doubt she had a flat pigtoe, but probably it was a rayed bean or similar analogous freshwater shellfish from the streams of West Virginia). She would sometimes rhapsodize about the enigmatic pet, decades after it had departed this watery world.

Anyway the larger point is that we are soon going to see lots of creatures following the pigtoe to the great beyond, unless we can find better ways to protect and safeguard the natural world. Humankind’s appetite grows ever more insatiable, yet our ability to build consensus and create robust solutions to complicated problems is growing worse rather than better. The Fish and Wildlife Service is soon going to be back with more entries for their permanently extinct list. We need to stamp out the corruption and political deadlock which are impairing our ability to address self-evident problems we are creating in the biosphere.

Yesterday’s post was about the intellectual and emotional dissonance of realizing that all of the stuff American schoolchildren are taught about how our democracy works is no longer true. Our quarter-of-a-millenium long experiment in self-government is starting to fail. Thanks to the decades-old legislative logjam in the Senate, meaningful far-reaching legislation is nearly impossible to pass. In place of well-crafted legislation, we have been muddling forward with a baffling hodgepodge of conflicting executive orders and judicial rulings. American citizens (who are not the most patient people to begin with) see this dysfunction and tune out of politics–or start believing in crazed strongmen or weird conspiracy theories. How did we get here?

Although gerrymandering, political polarization, “media bubbling,” and demographic factors have all contributed to the mess, the biggest problem in American politics at this moment is the filibuster, a procedural rule which means that any United States senator can derail legislation by refusing to yield the floor unless a supermajority of 60 senators vote for cloture (which ends the debate and brings the legislation to a vote whereupon a simple majority of 51 senators can then pass the legislation). The founding fathers meant for the Senate to be counter majoritarian (since pathetic little states have the same 2 senators as large worthwhile states) however they wanted legislators to be able to make deals and pass laws! The filibuster is not in the Constitution but is a part of the senate’s self-created rules (which can arguably be changed–under certain specific circumstances–by a simple majority). The current state of affairs vis-à-vis the filibuster was made possible in 1806 thanks to the advice of the infamous Aaron Burr (who was then vice-president and thus the presiding officer of the Senate). Burr recommended the Senate get rid of a rule which allowed for a simple majority to force a vote on the underlying question being debated.

Yesterday I mischaracterized the filibuster as requiring a senator to continuously talk on the floor. For many years–from 1837 (the first time the filibuster was used) through the Civil War and up to World War I–that is how the rule was construed; however, in the modern era, the majority has preferred to avoid filibusters by moving to other business when a filibuster is threatened. I think my civics teacher was hoping to explain that back in 1988, but the exigencies of middle school prevented him from properly explaining the Byzantine complexities of Senate rules. Speaking of which, this excellent overview by the Brookings Institute actually explains all of the filibuster/cloture rules and all of their possible ramifications. Within that article we find the following troubling graph which is a fair representation of the growing importance of the ever-growing power of the minority to balk legislation.

I worry that the real point of this essay is being lost as I try to explain esoteric parliamentary rules (hardly my métier, anyway). Yet that worry should focus everyone’s attention, since it is what has effectively already happened. Mitch McConnell, the “grim reaper” of the Senate believes that Americans will not care if, through inaction and executive rulings he strips them of their rights, their wealth, and their future. He believes that faced with a complex procedural problem, Americans will blame both political parties. This benefits the Republicans who hardly care if government accomplishes nothing, since it allows them to say “government accomplishes nothing” and then pilfer the system and flout rules designed for a lifetime ago. When faced with such obfuscation and bad intentions, Americans should be furious! The U.S. government is not designed to allow Mitch McConnell to hollow out society and shovel money to his billionaire masters while China takes over the world! The fact that we have allowed him to take over our country because he is a master of mendacity and tortuous rules should shame every American voter. We should write to our senators and demand that they end the filibuster, and if they don’t we should remember to vote them out. Joe Biden also needs to dangle big rewards (and big threats) in front of Joe Mansion until the West Virginia senator properly tows the party line [this essay has taken twice as long as it should since I keep writing incandescent insults about Joe Manchin and then ruefully erasing them].

All of which is to say that the United States government is not as broken as it looks. With a single rule change, we could have 21st century infrastructure, glorious innovation, comprehensible healthcare, and an economy which makes everyone prosperous! So why has that rule not been changed? Mitch McConnell has threatened Americans with scorched earth and political apocalypse if the filibuster is reformed or eliminated. Do you like being threatened? I do not.

Yesterday’s deplorable rampage at the United States Capitol has left me thinking about Washington D.C. which used to be the city I knew best (I went to high school in Falls Church, VA, which is inside the beltway). Outside of the famous federal district at the city’s heart, Washington in the 1990s was a dangerous place! Murders spiked there in 1991, when there were 482 murders within a city of 600,000 people. Since those days, the USA’s power and prestige has declined, but Washington has burgeoned. Now the federal part of DC around the capitol is apparently filled with armed lunatics in crazy clothes and Columbia Heights is a thriving posh neighborhood! (it was quite the opposite 30 years ago).

I only went to the Capitol on school field trips or when relatives were in town, however, I used to know the museums, the Library of Congress, and Union Station very well. I hadn’t thought too much about all of this for years (except for the Smithsonian, which I think about often). However, yesterday’s debacle made me reflect upon the Victorian/Greco-Roman splendor of the Capitol itself and suddenly I remembered the United States Botanic Garden, which is tucked away on the Capitol’s Southwest Corner! The garden has been there, in one form or another, since 1820. The centerpiece of the garden is a Victorian style glass house where various rare tropical plants from the Wilkes expedition were originally housed (and which has featured beautiful collections of warm-temperature plants ever since). When I was younger I used to go there and marvel at the sumptuous tropical luxury combined with 19th century visual opulence. The resultant mixture is difficult to describe but entirely in keeping with the aesthetic of the Capitol complex. (Additionally, Grandma Connie loved the Botanic Garden and would sometimes enthuse about it as one of Washington DC’s true treasures).

A model of the U.S. Capitol…inside the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory

I was trying to write a garden essay to try and get us through this anxious fortnight until January 20th. However that hasn’t quite happened. I suppose this somewhat maundering essay is a paean to Washington DC, always a city of perplexing & vertiginous juxtapositions. Seeing Donald Trump’s brownshirts and proudboys looting the Capitol like Visigoths was a private emotional injury to add to the grotesque civic affront of Trump’s electoral assault. Perhaps there is a metaphor there: the Capitol (and its surrounding complex) are the home of American democracy. Use of these buildings (and the franchise they represent) is a shared responsibility and privilege for all Americans. To see the Capitol abused by fascists hellbent on overturning our democracy for the personal and private benefit of their godking (the ludicrous Donald Trump!) is a shared national trauma. We can and will refurbish and reopen everything, but we have some regrowing (and some weeding) we need to tend to!

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Happy Fourth of July!  Our nation is going through a terrible patch (thanks to a combination of deeper structural problems, a criminal idiot for a president, and the novel coronavirus), however, in the past we have been able to bounce back from these sorts of disasters, reform the constitution, and get back on track.  It is the most meaningful election I can remember this year and Ferrebeekeeper will have lots to say about that as we get closer to Fall!

For today though, let’s celebrate the finer aspects of America rather than the current (Republican-caused) governmental dysfunction.  Independence Day in America is traditionally marked with ornamental novelty explosions AKA fireworks.  I love fireworks, but I have already said all that I can think of to say about them in past blog posts.  Fireworks are one of those things which are more fun in the real world than online or in pictures. They always look like sublime sea anemones made of radiant fire to me.  That is as awesome as it sounds..in the vast July nighttime sky, however pictures of such a thing would look like little black and white cnidarians. Therefore, to celebrate this rough Fourth of July, let’s look at some actual cnidarians in patriotic shades of red, white, and blue.  It is true that these pictures won’t set your topiary on fire or cause your house pet to cower under the bed, yet I think if you take a moment to really look at the sea anemones, you will be struck anew with their expressive otherworldly beauty.  Then you can hold this undersea pulchritude in your heart and remember it this evening as you watch rockets detonate above you.

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BLUE

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Wow! Those are some good-looking and patriotic invertebrates. I can barely tell whether I am on the national coral reef (?) or on the national mall in Washington. I hope you are having a lovely day relaxing with your friends and family.  Get some well-deserved R&R because when we get back from summer holiday we are going to have to roll up our sleeves and clean up this ghastly mess.

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It’s no good hiding.  Everyone is going to have to pitch in…

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The political crisis which has beset 21st century America generates such a breathtaking number of headlines that it is easy to become numb to the poor choices, the controversies, the hyperbolic invective…and just to the national news in general.   I have mostly chosen not to focus on the wretched litany of mistakes, missteps, idiocy, and criminal misbehavior coming out of the Trump Administration, but today I am making an exception since the program being attacked bears on larger affairs than those of our beleaguered nation.  The Political Crisis of the early 21st Century is one thing, but today’s news potentially affects the Holocene/Anthropocene Mass Extinction of Life on Earth.

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The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was passed by bipartisan legislation and signed into law by Richard Nixon. It is the key U.S. law for protecting wildlife. The law can certainly not be repealed in the paralyzed super-partisan Washington of today, but the Trump administration is choosing to enforce the law in new ways which undermine the purpose of the Act.  Specifically there are two proposed changes:

The first is that agencies enforcing the ESA are given latitude to ignore projected future changes.  The exact verbiage is “The Services will describe the foreseeable future on a case-by-case basis.”  This means that regulators are free to ignore the outcomes of their decisions provided those outcomes are not immediate.  If actions taken now will disrupt or ruin a habitat within a few years, well, that’s no longer the purview of the Act.  Talk to the relevant agency once the bad thing has happened, not before!

The second (and more disturbing) change is an omission.  Decisions about how to protect species were previously based solely on scientific consensus  “without reference to possible economic or other impacts of such determination.”  That phrase has now been removed from the guidelines.  We will see what this means in the real world.  To me it certainly seems like if the choice comes down to protecting the habitat of an endangered frog or protecting the profits of a dirtbag real estate developer, unknown apparatchiks are free to chose the latter for unknown reasons.

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Coming Soon to your favorite ecosystem! Financing available!

Experts suspect that these changes are giveaways to real estate concerns and to mining & fossil fuel extraction industries.  It isn’t hard to see why they think that!  It is worth noting though that the Endangered Species Act is extremely popular and effective.  To quote an article on Vox

The act is generally uncontroversial among the public: About 83 percent of Americans (including a large majority of conservatives) support it, according to an Ohio State University poll. And it works: According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the act has prevented the “extinction of 99 percent of the species it protects.”

So call/write to your elected officials and raise a ruckus!  There is a lot going on right now, but any politician who isn’t completely owned by Exxon is likely to at least think about messing up legislation with an 83 percent approval rating.  Is the world going to lament the absence of some hideous prefab condos in the exurbs or are we going to miss the beautiful animals and plants that support the web of life which humankind is part of?

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Sigh, I guess we had better talk about the American Mid-term election ( I am writing this in 2018 AD, in case the Republicans win everything, and you are reading this in annihilated ruins in a lifeless desert).

Throughout my life, American elections have traditionally been formalistic affairs between two similar parties.  Indeed, years ago, in a more innocent (!) time, I proposed that everyone should vote for the non-incumbent party to prevent the ossification and stalemate which were coming to define American politics.  Alas! such fantasies are now relics of a distant past: the two parties have diverged very greatly (although the false equivalence of “horse race” style reporting still occludes the true distance between them).

The Democrats concentrate far less than I would like on blue sky research, space exploration, and defense funding (which, ideally, is where our national R&D budget comes from).  Additionally the Democrats have not created a compelling narrative for the future and they have petrified national leaders…along with all of the various problems of ego, corruption, and incompetence which occur in politics at a granular level.

I endorse them completely for everything without reservation. Vote Democratic up and down the ticket.

This is not an ordinary election. The Republican Party is changing and metastasizing into something fundamentally un-democratic and truly awful.  Looking at their efforts to dismantle government, rob the state, roll back fundamental constitutional protections, and destroy our international alliances, it is perhaps finally time to use the F-word.

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Indeed, President Trump is an obvious and self-avowed fascist. He makes no pretenses about it.  He openly denounces the press, threatens political opponents, espouses violence, and gleefully supports white supremacists.  Additionally he lies endlessly about everything, trusting that his propaganda mouthpieces will concentrate on other stories to feed to his imbecile brownshirt supporters.  Based on Occam’s razor, he is most likely operating on orders from Russian superiors (he squandered his family fortune, and then misrepresented his crooked finances to increasingly dodgy investors till all that was left for him was to launder money for Russians).  Trump throws everyone under the bus and talks garbage about them…everyone except for Vladimir Putin.  Why would that be?

So I am no fan of Trump, however, this year, he is not on the ticket.   Instead we must concentrate on the other portions of government which are in play tomorrow.  The founders left us a system of checks and balances to constrain the crimes and excesses of unfit executives.  These systems do not work if weak, foolish, and pusillanimous legislators refuse to engage the failsafes.  This is the situation we are now in.  The Republicans in Congress have abdicated all responsibility for the national well-being. They are like the sycophantic senators of the Roman Empire after the Republic fell: they still have the trappings and appurtenances of high office, but all they do is eagerly acquiesce to the whims of Caligula and Nero.

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Vote them out. They all must go.  Vote against the Republicans in congress, even if they once allocated a highway in your district 27 years ago, or served in the Air National Guard, or went to the same school back in the fifties.  Unless you are a billionaire, they care nothing about you and are only looking for ways to take away everything you have. First they will take away your healthcare and then your property and then they will squeeze you dry for their robber-baron friends.

After Mitch McConnell’s successful theft of a Supreme Court seat, and the recent elevation of abusive and unfit apparatchiks to the Supreme Court, there will be no succor from an illegitimate Supreme Court.  If congress does not immediately push back against the rot in the White House, elections will most likely not be free in 2020.  This may be the only chance for voters to prevent tyrrany from breaking the world’s oldest and most powerful democracy–maybe for a generation…or maybe forever.

This is a pretty grim picture.  I did not paint it.  You can see it by looking out the window or picking up any international newspaper.  I suppose we all crafted it together by letting monopolies pour money into Washington and by pursuing our own short-term self-interest (and by letting fear get the better of us).  Historians know that democracies are fragile.  Our democracy is in real peril from within, perhaps for the first time since FDR assumed the mantle of life dictator. Indeed this might be the most extreme challenge to our institutions since the Gilded Age or the Civil War.  There is only one way to fix democracies. So vote! And drag every registered voter you can find to the polls.  If you love Trump and think he is America’s radiant savior, vote! (and maybe check in with the neurologist). If you are like me, uneasy with the Democrats, but appalled by the treasonous perfidy of he Republicans, then vote! Let us throw the GOP out of power so it can rediscover bygone virtues in the wilderness.  We will work on fixing the many many things that need fixed (and on crafting a new paradigm that better suits the changed times) once the house is not on fire.

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I really miss Sir Terry Pratchett. Looking at the news (and the comments to the news) makes me wonder if this be-hatted weirdo who wrote about witches, imps, and golems was actually the last great humanist…

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Today, let’s talk about a concept from one of Pratchett’s later books “Making Money”.  Halfway through the novel, two of the characters are trying to unravel a deepening financial mystery which is threatening to derail the economy of the fantasy microcosm which the novels are set inside.  The fictional sleuths investigate the late Chairman of the Royal Bank and find that his wardrobe is filled with very specific boudouir costumes. Staring at this excess and pondering the depths of the human psyche, one of the characters forms a social hypothesis which is outlined below (I copied the following verbatim from a Pratchett wiki):

The Horseradish Sauce Hypothesis runs thusly.

Everyone likes a beef sandwich, right?

But just to vary the flavour one day, you put a little horseradish sauce on it.

You discover you like horseradish sauce, so the next time you do a beef sandwich you put a little more sauce on it.

Then a little bit more.

Then a little bit more.

Until one day, you put so much horseradish sauce on the sandwich that the beef falls out.

And you don’t even notice.

I am going to say nothing of truly addictive things like fentanyl, nicotine, lechery, or alcohol (which everyone already knows are habit-forming), and instead write about how society is being conquered by dangerous, low-grade flavors of horseradish.  This sounds harmless enough (after all, everyone has to get through their meaningless day jobs), yet, as in the sandwich example above, you don’t notice when the meat falls out.   One goes from “reading the news” to internet troll without recognizing it, and it’s happening to all of us.

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The internet is the all-time expert on horseradish.  It knows the specific variety that everyone likes: shopping, gambling, esoteric adult material, cat photos, Farmville, getting angry about ANTIFA, reading diatribes about how the earth is flat, or whatever. It’s all there.  The special sauce which makes the internet so addictive is that it knows what rewards give your brain a little jolt of dopamine and it can administer these little jolts every 5-12 minutes all day.  Most people spend all day in semi-isolation in beige cubicles doing meaningless & stressful tasks for distant masters.  The internet is to such people what cocaine-laced water bottles are to depressed and lonely laboratory rats.  The little razor-hooks can find the cracks in everyone’s façade because they dangerously mimic life’s true sources of meaning and joy.  If you squint cross-eyed at the list in the second sentence of this paragraph you can imagine how these things are sad substitutes for friends, romance, knowledge, status, and a sense of belonging.

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This is not how I would build a society.  It is sad that people have gambling problems instead of fulfilling life quests, or naked pictures of women instead of girlfriends, but I guess it moves stocks, diet pills, and plastic novelty hats well enough to keep the world economy chugging along.  The real problem is that the internet has moved beyond being a private venue for embarrassing vices to being the main venue for news and political discourse. It is where society collects and disseminates  information and opinions.  The internet is now where we self-select into groups.  This is not resulting in a golden age of clubs and volunteering, instead it is transforming the country into a boiling cauldron of tribal anger.    It feels good to be furious…or maybe not good, but at least it feels like something and one seeks it out every day until the beef in the sandwich is gone and all that is left is the empty calories of spicy sauce.

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I try not to write about our déclassé president, because I regard him as a symptom of this problem rather than the problem itself (and also because granting him attention makes him stronger).  Yet he is apparently a near-univeral flavor of internet horseradish.  People back home in West Virginia can feel the righteous joy of punishing smug coastal elitists by joyously watching that fellow destroy the whole country and rob us all blind. People in Brooklyn can feel the righteous joy of being angry about this mendacious hustler. Getting worked up by the news becomes a dollop of horseradish and we all need more each day.  I know I now check to see what grotesque enormity the president has committed before I check anything else.  If child poverty in Central Asia dipped four fold or the UN seriously curtailed human trafficking or something I would probably not notice, but I moronically know every dumb thing the President tweeted.

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There has always been a degree of degraded spectale to American politics–it’s part of democracy…part of humankind!–but it these piquant empty calories are taking the place of vital nutrients for the body politic.  As we stare in horror or glee at the political theater, our problems are not getting solved.  New discoveries are not being made. Compromise and reform are not being achieved.  When Trump is gone in 2020 or 2024 (assuming the republic survives), we are still going to have this dangerous fascination with outrage.

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Making the news into addictive “infotainment” is dangerous.  It is less an inquiry into truth and more like the ill-concealed traps and lures within infomercials aimed at the elderly or the ignorant.

There is a quote from Anais Nin which succinctly and poetically summarizes the horseradish hypothesis: “Abnormal pleasures kill the taste for normal ones.” It seems deceptively straightforward until you think about it, and then its tragic power becomes evident.  Really think about how you look at the news lately…are you trying to determine the truth of what goes on or are you looking for a dollop of outrage to push you forward to the next sensational click?

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The beef is falling out of society’s sandwich in a lot of ways right now. I concentrated on political problems because they are top-tier troubles, but the other ignoble horseradish is part of this too.  Everybody needs some special zest, but if the banquet is nothing but novel jallop, we all begin to starve!

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I have been watching NASA with great consternation lately.  The space agency has maintained its budget (which is good, in today’s world of brutal trench-warfare politics), however for 15 months NASA has had no leader and it seemed to be stuck in a holding pattern, unable to move forward on missions.  Finally, in April, the President’s candidate for the position of head administrator was confirmed, Jim Bridenstine a fundamentalist congressman from Oklahoma who does not believe in global warming and opposes LGBTQ rights.  He is the first non-scientist chief administrator in the agency’s history.

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Bridenstein does however have a background as a Navy officer which is promising.  It is possible he can put his more recent background as a divisive political agitator and an ignoramus behind him.  His first major speech was somewhat encouraging:  he reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to send missions to both Mars and the Moon in the not-enormously distant future.  The historic first moon landing was 49 years ago and the last manned mission to the moon took place in 1972 (three years before Bridenstein was born).  The new administrator compared these missions to the Lewis and Clark Expedition and went on to say it is time for NASA and private aerospace ventures to work on building a transcontinental railroad to space in the current era.  That is a fine metaphor (although I don’t trust private aerospace ventures any more than people of the 19th century trusted crooked railroad monopolies).  Bridenstein needs to back up his elegant words with real plans for NASA.  Currently, the USA can’t even put a human in space, much less send one to the moon or another planet.  Bridenstein needs to act quickly and decisively to show that he is not an agency head like Scott Pruitt, Ben Carson, or Jeff Sessions (which is to say a leader who embodies the opposite & antithetical values from the agency they were sent to run).

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I liked your railroad metaphor, Jim, but you need to appoint a lot of smart people to organize a meaningful and coherent schedule for America’s favorite agency.

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RIP to the first victim of an autonomous car.  Details are still coming in, but it seems like an Uber robot SUV being tested in Tempe, Arizona killed a woman who was walking her bicycle.  Well, I guess technically some rich guy was already killed while incorrectly operating his semi-autonomous Tesla, however today’s accident feels more real to me and, judging by headlines, to everyone else as well.

I used to be deeply in love with the idea of cars.  They represented power, freedom, and status…until I tried to drive one and realized A) I am terrible at it; and B) it is profoundly easy to hurt or kill someone with a car.  American society is designed to normalize this in all sorts of ways… to such an extent that most people don’t even notice our rising traffic fatality statistics.  In Holland, if you kill somebody with a car, no matter what the circumstances, it is a real problem, but in America, even if you pretty much straight-up murder somebody through volition or grotesque incompetence, the police will come and rationalize a way it was the bicyclist’s or pedestrian’s fault and give you a hug and a root beer sticker. (If you kill more than six people you get a free foot-long hero sandwich!)

The deep indifference of the authorities is born out by the numbers: in 2016, 37,461 people died in traffic-related accidents in the United States.  If 40,000 people died in a war or by gun violence, society would be up in arms (so to speak) and we would be having a national conversation about how to improve things (editor’s note: in 2016, 38,000 Americans were killed by guns. What sort of dark carnival are we running over here?).

America is too spacious for us to ever be free of automated carriages.  I live in New York because, despite the cars, I can bicycle here (barely) and because there is a 24-hour subway (also barely…thanks a lot, Cuomo).  But beyond the coral-reef lifestyle of America’s one worthwhile city there is too much distance to cover.  Even if we were all Lance Armstrong (and we’re really not) we would still need motors to get around.

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We have decided not to invest in effective national mass transit. Likewise, we are not redesigning roads in ways which have been proven to make them safer in Europe and Japan (safer for motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists alike).  Our only hope of diminishing the carnage and damage wrought by our 1950s/60s era national transportation system is effective robot cars.  This won’t work if we take the lamentable current state of transportation as something to aspire to.

So, although today’s headline was scary and terrible, we need to keep looking at the bigger picture. We are fixated on the person tragically killed by a robot car because it is novel and garners attention (look, here I am writing about it too), but the real headline should be the hundred people who were killed in the United States today by normal human drivers.  Of course, that is the same story every day so nobody remarks upon it.   So Uber (and Google, and Tesla), get your act together.  Break down the data and figure out what went wrong and fix it.  Why didn’t your car stop (they are supposed to have faster reflexes than any person)?  Also, why was the “car” a giant hulking tank to begin with?  What is wrong with robot cars that are adorable little soft alien bug cars, like the Japanese are working on?

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Robot cars are coming and I believe they will be glorious, but a lot more work is needed…and more imagination and creativity are needed too.  So let’s slow down for a moment, but then speed up.  Think of the one person killed, but think of the hundred too.

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