Sunday, July 28, 2019

Parasites And Symbionts

                                                                                                  written 14 July 2019
                                                                                              published 28 July 2019

            In the first Matrix movie, one of the agents refers to humans as a disease: a parasite infecting the planet.  High altitude pictures of cities show an extensive grey zone of concrete that looks dead.  Dead zones occur in all the oceans where excessive agriculture nutrients promote alga blooms which die, decay, and remove all the oxygen.  Plastic trash gyres occur all over the planet, killing life with indigestible material.  We are in the middle of the sixth extinction, this one man made.  The planet is heating faster every decade, threatening extinction of all life.  It is easy to see that the Matrix agent might be right.
            A parasite is a life form that lives in or on another organism, competitively taking energy and nutrients at the expense of the host.  Because the energy flows only one way, aggressive parasitic growth can eventually cause the host to die.  Such parasites survive only if they can procreate to another host in time. Sometimes the parasite learns to moderate its growth so that the host is not too weakened, allowing both to survive longer.  Some parasites move through several different host species during their life cycle, including hosts that are completely unaffected, and only move the parasite to a new location. 
            Another life strategy is symbiosis, a cooperative model where the energy and nutrient exchange flows both ways, or the symbiont provides essential services to the host organism in exchange for support.  All life developed first as individuals, but over time, found that cooperation increased everyone's survival rate.  Some symbiotic forms are between autonomous individuals, such as cattle and tick birds, dogs and humans, and gut bacteria and humans.
            But others symbiotic forms actually merge, losing autonomy, such as eukaryotic cells, where the genetic material for all the parts of previously autonomous non-nucleated cells has been collected into the nucleus.  All higher organisms have nucleated cells.  In the human body, almost all cells have hundreds or even thousands of autonomous cells called mitochondria, within the cell membrane.  Mitochondria produce the energy molecule used by the rest of the cell, and in exchange, the cell protects and feeds the mitochondria, which can no longer survive on its own.
            Humans are a relatively young species, and the evolution of self-consciousness is even more recent, but there can be little doubt that we have an impact on our host, the planet Earth.  From very modest beginnings, humans have spread across the globe, changing the environment to suit our needs.  Tool making, fire, and hunting accelerated the extinction of many animal species, and the rise of agriculture preferentially supported a very few crops at the expense of many others.  Irrigation allowed larger civilizations, but salt poisoned the land over time.  As increased farming felled the forests, which sequester carbon, the atmospheric CO2 content rose even before fossil fuels. The Black Plague killed so many peasant farmers, the regrowth of the forests caused a measurable dip in the CO2 record.
            A few centuries ago, the philosophy of materialism and the industrial revolution amplified our impact on the world.  The world was no longer sacred.  Humans weren't stewards.  Powered by fossil fuels, everything was just raw material waiting to be exploited. Human population exploded, tripling in just my lifetime.
            This is an unsustainable situation, leading to human extinction, if not in our lifetime, certainly in our children's.  We play the role of an aggressive parasite, but without the long-term game plan of a successful parasite, which must transfer to another host before the first one dies.  A quick survey of the solar system shows there is "no place like home". While several "earth like" planets have been identified within a few lightyears, we have no way to get there.
            Short of painful extinction, our only hope is to learn how to shift from an aggressive parasite to intentionally cooperative symbiont.  We have to get over our human narcissism and exclusive gain, listen to what the planet needs, and begin to live in harmony with our host, rather than trying to dominate it.  Nothing less will do.  All the indigenous cultures have survived for thousands of years, so it is within human capacity.  The only missing ingredient is a global will to survive.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Another PG&E Update

                                                                                                  written 14 July 2019
                                                                                              published 21 July 2019
                                                                                                   posted 26 July 2019

            Last week PG&E presented the Board of Supervisors with a description of their proposed power shut downs, and how they are preparing.  It was the same slide presentation given to the Ukiah City Council last month.  In the interval, people have begun to absorb the implications of these shut downs, and outrage and fear were on display this time. The California Public Utility Commission decided the shut downs would be at the discretion of PG&E, without input from the cities and counties affected.  This allows PG&E to avoid fire liability, but shifts costs to customers, cities, and counties.  
            A century of power grid development has created a society dependent on constant access to electricity.  We are now required to change that structure in a matter of months, with little planning and no funding from PG&E.  With little infrastructure in place to keep electrical services operating at home and on the job, cities and the county still have obligations to protect their citizens.  First responders, mental and physical health care, basic social services, police and sheriff: all will be expected to operate as usual in a situation that will be anything but usual.  The potential for collateral damage is huge.  Even if everything works out, the added costs have not been budgeted, in a county that is already running with little fiscal margin.
            For the past few weeks I have asked every person and business I encounter how they are preparing for the coming shut downs.  Many people haven't even heard about the issue. Some in the city of Ukiah think that because we are a municipal power system we won't be affected.  Folks on the coast think this is an inland fire issue. Others have begun to prepare, laying in food, maybe buying a generator.  
            My dentist bought a generator to keep his refrigerated supplies, but doesn't plan to be open for business.  Restaurants may still have gas to cook, but no power for vent hoods. At the county presentation, it was mentioned that there are no gas stations with backup generators north of Coyote Valley.  How many folks will still have gainful employment during a power down?  How many can afford a week off without pay?  What will this do to the tourist economy and the tax income of the cities and county? 
            Costco stocked generators, which quickly sold out. Who is wiring up these units?  How is the gasoline, propane, or diesel being stored?  We could have a power down due to weather conditions out of our area, and yet find ourselves fighting fires caused by the response to the emergency.  This summer we will probably experience a series of these shut downs, and everyone will learn more about what is required and what has been overlooked.  Next year we will be better prepared, but we still have to live through this one.
            This crisis is the intersection of a destabilized climate colliding with our declining economic empire.  The UN recently noted that there is a major weather event some place on the planet every week now.  As I write, New Orleans is being evacuated ahead of a tropical storm which will inundate the already soggy Mississippi valley.  In our area, fire is the dominant issue.  We are in uncharted climate territory now, and our social infrastructures are old, needing massive reinvestment, but underfunded to make the stock market fantasy appear alive and well.  For the benefit of a few, the rest of us have to scramble to keep a quality of life to which we have become accustomed.
            While it is easy to focus on PG&E, a typically arrogant corporation, valuing only shareholders and executive bonuses, we must recognize our part in this unfolding disaster.  Climate change warnings began over 40 years ago, becoming more acute every year, but are generally ignored.  Real change requires a deep examination of the structure of our society and our individual notion of who we are as a person.  The pattern is thousands of years old, deeply imbedded, mostly operating unconsciously.  We believe we can separate our fate from that of other humans and other life forms.  In a unity reality, this is a fundamental error, and we are now experiencing the consequences of this delusion.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Just Time For A Quick Update

                                                                                                  written 7 July 2019
                                                                                            published 14 July 2019

            "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."  On the 243rd anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it's time for a quick update to see how we are doing.
            The Republican Supreme Court supports partisan gerrymandering, corporate personhood, and big money in politics, while refusing to uphold voter rights, thus gutting the core of our democratic system to maintain their party in power.
            America, the largest global weapons exporter, spends more on war than the next four nations combined, leaving less money for social issues. We are a global bully, creating ill will with few results.  North Korean negotiations have stalled.  Trump unilaterally welched on the international nuclear deal with Iran and applied ruinous sanctions.  The results are increased Iranian uranium enrichment, the risk of regional, even nuclear, war, and oil price chaos.  So, he held a military parade.
            America takes five times our share of global resources, but Trump, desiring more, started a tariff war with China, Canada, Mexico, and the European Union.  This middle-class tax hike risks global recession.  The stock market has stalled for 18 months.  The corporate tax giveaway did not stimulate the economy or pay for itself.  Three men control half the wealth in America, and homelessness is endemic.  Unemployment is low, but wages are stagnant, and artificial intelligence is going to eliminate even more jobs.  Housing prices are declining, long term bond rates have inverted, and the Fed is preparing for the next crash.  
            American health care is more expensive, and covers fewer people, than other developed countries.  Opioids kill thousands while making big Pharma billionaires.  Chemical and radioactive contamination of our air, food, and water has caused cancer rates to double, and childhood cancers, once rare, are now a leading cause of death.  Monsanto has lost three multi-million dollar lawsuits claiming Roundup causes cancer, and thousands more are pending.  Glyphosate, the active ingredient, is wide spread, found in most people's blood, and even in rain water.  Plastic trash has been found everywhere from the bottom of the Mariana Trench to the peak of Mount Everest.  Plastic gyres exist in all the oceans, and microscopic plastic particles are found in our blood, where they act as hormone disruptors and sites for bacterial growth.
            Atmospheric CO2 content passed 415 ppm, last seen 3 million years ago when the sea level was 100 feet higher.  July temperatures in Anchorage hit 90° and the mid-west is still flooded.  The heavy runoff washed nutrients into the Gulf of Mexico, creating a larger than normal dead zone.  Insect populations have declined 40% and starving sea birds and grey whales are dying, washing onto west coast beaches.  The California fire season has started, and PG&E plans to cut power for five days at a time, creating a third world power system in the world's fifth largest economy.
            This spring, the Arctic ice field is melting early, allowing shipping through the Northwest Passage.  Climate change currently cost the American economy $350B per year, and Wall Street is beginning to pay attention.  Scientists tell us we have a decade to cut our emissions by 50% if we want to avoid near term human extinction.  But Trump and his anti-science Republican supporters, insisting climate change is a hoax, are working full time to destroy environmental regulations and renewable subsidies, while funding economic and environmental losers like the coal and nuclear industry. The Democratic National Committee isn't much better, as climate change received only 15 minutes of discussion in four hours of debate.  
            Our country was founded on noble ideals, if incompletely achieved, rooted in a vision of unity.  Like other attempts to evolve our species, these ideals have been hijacked for the short-term profit of a very few, now risking the fate of our species. I am proud of America's goals, but sad to see how far we have to go.  Even in the face of the threat of extinction, it is important to declare again what we stand for, and work to become our best.  That is the true American way.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Energetic Nature Of Matter

                                                                                                  written 1 July 2019
                                                                                              published 7 July 2019

            Our experience of separation seems validated by the material world, which appears as parts.
            Atom, coming from a Greek word meaning "uncuttable", defines the smallest indivisible part of an element. Classical Newtonian physics views atoms as discrete and specific, like very tiny billiard balls.  One gram of hydrogen contains 600 billion trillion atoms. But deeper investigation of atoms shows they are made of parts that are even smaller, and rather than being solid, atoms are relatively empty.
            A hydrogen atom, the simplest of atoms, has a single proton in the middle and one electron defining a sphere surrounding it.  If the proton was as large as a bowling ball, the electron would be smaller than the period at the end of this sentence, located almost 3 miles away from the bowling ball, enclosing an empty spherical volume of 99 cubic miles.  
            Looking more closely, material reality becomes even stranger.  The proton and the electron of the hydrogen atom contain all the mass of the atom, but we now know that mass is condensed energy, from Einstein's famous equation, E=MC2.  As I mentioned in a previous article, the mass equivalence energy of a full bottle of Boont Amber beer is 13 megatons of TNT, 1000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.  So, every speck of mass represents a large amount of energy.  But the very structure of space/time, even when empty of mass, contains an even greater amount of energy, called zero-point energy.
            I first came across the concept reading Physicist David Bohm in the 80's.  He presented that a cubic centimeter of space/time contained as much energy as the mass equivalence energy of the entire Universe, an extremely large number. This suggested that, despite representing a huge energy equivalence at the human scale, the presence of mass is really a very small fluctuation in the total energy field. 
            At the time, I was working at the University of California, San Diego, and called the physics department for further information. The researcher tasked with answering calls from the general public was very polite, and confirmed my understanding of the fundamental concept.  Many years later, I was on a cruise up the inland passage to Alaska, and two of our dining table companions happened to be theoretical physicists.  I sat with them one afternoon and got further clarification, and information that zero-point energy had been verified in experiments.
            In the quantum view of reality, matter is not a specific "thing", but a distribution of probability which has no sharp edges. At the edge of detection, matter seems to appear as a froth, "manifesting" out of nothing and disappearing again very quickly.  This frothing was used to detect black holes, demonstrating their physical reality, which had previously been a theoretical consideration.
            The material world is now understood as an exceedingly fine ripple structure on the surface of a vast energy ocean.  What we experience is the shape of this energy surface, where each apparent speck of matter is a small relative increase of energy perceived against the entirety of the ocean.  But in our macroscopic experience of the world, matter seems to endure in time, and can be arranged to serve some form of purpose.  How might this work?
            The Newtonian world view assumes that matter is the ground of reality, and consciousness is a result of material complexity, specifically in the brain.  There is growing evidence in quantum research that this is backwards: that consciousness is the ground of reality and the material world is an object within consciousness, like a dream we perceive.  Matter may be a four dimensional, space/time surface, existing within a higher dimensional volume that is conscious.  To bring it down to something we can actually imagine, if matter is like the surface of an ocean, the shape of matter might be created by patterns in consciousness, similar to wind blowing over the ocean surface, creating surface shape, but not part of the surface.  Matter may be a consequence of conscious intention, which answers the question of how it can seem to endure, and serve a purpose.  All of a sudden, the New Age aphorism that "we create our own reality" might not be limited to just perception.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Trump Is Not The Problem

                                                                                                  written 23 June 2019
                                                                                                published 1 July 2019

            President Trump is not the problem.  Climate change, wealth inequity, chemical contamination, misogyny, racism, religious fundamentalist, another stupid war in the Middle East: none are the problem.  They are but symptoms of the same problem: the belief is the perception of separation.  You see what you believe.
            The text of "A Course In Miracles" describes it thus.  "Perception selects, and makes the world you see.  It literally picks it out as the mind directs.  What you look for you are far more likely to discover. Perception is a choice and not a fact.  On the sights you choose to see, depends your whole belief in what you are."  If you choose to see separation, "you will see yourself as tiny, vulnerable and afraid.  You will experience depression and a sense of worthlessness.  You will believe that you are helpless prey to forces beyond your control.  It is your faith that makes reality."  Choose instead to see the unity of the world.  
            I was educated in the tradition of western scientific investigation of reality.  Material atomism, defining primary parts, and reductive analysis, where large systems are broken into smaller pieces, are core assumptions, which seem relatively accurate.  This powered the industrial revolution, transforming the planet.  A century ago, western science evolved quantum mechanics, which showed the world to be whole and fundamentally irreducible.  It also brought consciousness into the center of investigation as a causative force.  What you pay attention to shifts.  The observer and the observed are effectively connected.  The repercussions of this shift are still evolving in western civilization.  
            Classical physics assume that space and time are the ground of reality, a stable stage upon which matters plays.  But modern physics has shown that as one approaches the speed of light, time contracts to the point that there is no time at all when moving at the speed of light.  From the point of view of a photon, a unit of energy that can only travel at the speed of light, it leaves the sun and arrives at a solar collector on Earth at the same time, and experiences no distance.  From our point of view, it took over 8 minutes to travel 93 million miles. Photons bind the Universe together, instantaneously from their perspective, suggesting a fundamental unity, despite our perspective. 
            Light travels a path of least time, described by Fermat's Principle.  When traveling in a constant material, that path is a straight line.  However, traveling through a mixed media, with different transit speeds, for instance water and air, the path of least time is bent, and calculated as the angle of refraction.  Imagine a life guard rushing to a drowning person.  The quickest path is not to swim directly to the person, but to run along the beach until the path through the water is the shortest, as that will take the least amount of time.  A photon travels a similar path, minimizing the time in the slower media, to make the overall path the shortest in time.  But the life guard knows both his location and the location of the swimmer before starting on his path, allowing for the least time.  Since the photon is already at the end point when it "starts", perhaps it also knows both the starting and end points.  Eastern scientific investigation of reality has long known the unity of the world, and the primacy of consciousness as a creative force.
            Once we open our mind to the perspective of unity, there are a couple of simple practices which help.  The first is gratitude, which is giving thanks for all that you have already received, as opposed to praying for what you want in the future.  As you expand awareness of what is already working in your life, the difficult parts are tempered.  The other practice is to be in the moment as often as possible.  The only part of time that is real is now, this moment.  All the rest is story, just concept, still being considered in the now.  A photon is always in the now, and is connected to the universe.  Perhaps we can be as well, and the world would be a more pleasant place to thrive.