Michael Pollan on Deep Agriculture

I can’t believe how much I enjoy the Long Now talks.  Thoughtful and intelligent people, usually talking about things I happen to think are important, and interesting.  I almost feel like it’s a re-invention of the oratory form.  I’m glad they’ve gone to the extra effort of doing a high quality production, with decent microphones, and well illuminated speakers in front of a dark background, multiple camera angles and only occasional (but necessary) cuts to the slides on screen.  Not all thoughtful and intelligent people are good orators, but I guess I’m willing to put up with some unnecessary “um” and “uh” syllables thrown in if the ideas on offer are good enough.

Michael Pollan gave a recent talk, unsurprisingly to a full house (it’s SF after all), entitled “Deep Agriculture“, which was largely, but I think not entirely, a synthesis of his previous books.  The first point he made was that America’s healthcare costs, our industrialized agricultural system, climate change and the ultimately limited supply of fossil fuels are really all part of the same system of issues.

We spend roughly twice as much per capita on healthcare as do the twenty nations which have longer life expectancies than we do.  A significant portion of that excess spending is on chronic “diseases of the rich” which are intimately linked to diet: obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc.  At the same time, we spend a smaller proportion of our incomes on food than any other nation in the world, and probably any other nation in history.  If our cheap diet is generating high healthcare costs, then it isn’t really all that cheap.

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What Are Cities For?

Kurt recently asked me:

Assuming (1) that you like the outdoors, open spaces, gardening, etc. and (2) that you would prefer high-density urban design to low-density, suburban, car-oriented sprawl, then how would you fuse these two together in an ideal town? If my assumptions are wrong, I realize my question is moot.

I am asking because I like the idea of owning acres of land, but not the idea of having to drive everywhere, and I wonder if those two desires are mutually exclusive.

and it got me thinking about what my ideal city would be like, and how close one can get to that in this lifetime, especially on this continent.  I’m going to make this an exercise in creative idealism.  Kurt’s assumptions are right, and I do feel torn, especially having grown up in a rural area, on 8 acres of oak woodland with a creek running through it.  I am completely sympathetic to the pastoral urge, but that urge is not and never has been satisfied by the suburban existence which has come to typify the American experience in the last half century.

A small urban plaza

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Genes are sentences and genomes books

It’s really a pleasure to talk to smart people who don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.  I think it forces you to come up with the best analogies and metaphors.  The most essential explanations.  It turned out that Sally read my post on watching the Long Now synthetic biology debate, and so she went and watched it too.  We talked about it on and off over a walk today, and I ended up making this analogy, which I liked a lot.

Every gene is like a sentence.  It’s the smallest unit of biology that expresses a meaningful biological idea, in the same way that it’s hard to say something interesting without constructing a whole sentence.  Of course, more complex ideas require many sentences to convey, and similarly, metabolic pathways require many genes to encode.  A genome is like a whole book, conveying a large system of interconnected biological ideas into a coherent entity.

Synthetic biology is the business, or art, of writing new biological books, using only sentences that you copied from somewhere else.  It’s as if you were given the complete works of Shakespeare, and told to write a new play, using only his own lines, but reorganized however you saw fit.  With a big enough library of books, it would be possible to pick and choose sentences, paragraphs, or entire sections or chapters, to convey pretty much any idea of your own, in someone else’s words, especially if your idea had anything to do with love, or loss, or war, or the human condition in general.  As it is now, we’re just making variations on a theme, inserting whole chapters from Moby Dick into some tract by Nietzsche or a poem by Lao Tze, but we’ll get more subtle and creative as time goes on.

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The holes in my woolens

I discovered a couple of small holes in one of my my merino sweaters this morning.  Moth larvae.  My fault for not using camphor or some other kind of deterrant.  At first, I was bummed because I thought this represented a flaw – I love wool, and especially merino, because it’s warm even when it’s wet, it wicks, it doesn’t smell, it doesn’t burn and melt like plastic, it’s durable and comfortable and not based on petrochemicals.  But moths can eat it, and it can mold.  It requires more care than fleece.  Thinking just a little more, it occurred to me that actually, these holes are in some sense a feature, not a bug.

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Lesser Political Evils

I’m registered to vote as “decline to state” (a.k.a. Independent… not to be confused with the purposefully confusing American Independent Party).  Under duress (or… on Facebook) I’d describe myself as a “Bright Green Libertarian“.  Alas, in our divisive and quantized system of government, that means I have to choose between the lesser of two evils, for all practical purposes.  The two evils being, so far as I can tell:

  • The Republicans who stand for big government in the name of large, politically well connected corporations and the military-industrial complex, with a healthy dose of social conservatism and uncritical patriotism, in order to garner the necessary votes, while still managing to screw over a lot of the poor and uneducated people who vote for them (as with the intellectuals, if only the rich will vote for you, you’re not going to get very far).
  • The Democrats who stand for big government in the name of large, politically well connected corporations and the military-industrial complex, with a healthy dose of social handouts and nominally “progressive” policies, in order to garner the necessary votes from the economically underperforming masses, but fairly libertarian social views (do whatever you want in the bedroom, and take a puff off the hookah, so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else).

Given these two options, I tend to find the latter more palatable.  The “socialism” that is most troublesome in our society, I think, is corporate socialism.  Corporations have the concentrated lobbying and funding organizations to make sure they get what they want, and plenty of it, so long as the people are willing to go along.  They are the primary economic entities shuffling the chips around.

Which is more fair?  To go with only helping out the corporations and the rich, which I guess you could see as closer to the ideal of limited government (since hey, at least we’re not helping those poor people!), or to say, so long as we’re going to be intervening on a massive, multi-trillion dollar scale, it might as well be spread around evenly.  Both options are bad, but I think the former is really much worse, because it further concentrates power.  The Republican promise of small government is a total sham.  They have no intention (Ron Paul aside) of shrinking the government, of reigning in spending, or of avoiding “entangling alliances”.  That they are still able to get away with peddling that line is a travesty of journalism and public attention span.

So given the unpleasant choice, I’ll take equal opportunity budget deficits, with the consolation prize of getting the government out of the personal relationship and substance sanctioning business, over war debt and corporate cronyism with an unwanted side of illegal wiretapping and extraordinary rendition.

The part of Obama’s administration that (by far) gives me the most hope, is their apparently aggressive moves toward more, and digital, government transparency.  We’ll see what comes of it.

Francis Collins has no evidence for God

I can’t say that I’m surprised, but what Francis Collins presented in his talk last night at Caltech as constituting evidence for God’s existence was utterly unconvincing.  However, what he said and the questions which followed were vastly better framed, less offensive, and in some important respects much closer to the truth than the talk that Richard Dawkins gave at Caltech in 2006 when he was touring for his book The God Delusion (which was ultimately so unpleasant and ill conceived that even I, an atheist who basically agrees with Dawkins’ criticisms of religion, am unable to recommend it).  You can watch or listen to an earlier version of Collins’ talk on the Veritas Forum website.  It’s in support of his own book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

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