Influential Prose

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Mapping Behavior to Environment

About 1.5 million years ago, a large group of chimps were separated by a growing Congo river. One side of the river had more abundant food sources than the other. 

The chimps on the abundant side are known today as bonobos, and they're very mellow. The women run things. They're neighborly, sharing territory with other bonobo groups. When tensions rise, they have sex instead of fighting.

Chimps on the side with less abundance are known today as chimpanzees, and they're much more aggressive. They're very territorial, patrolling their borders in gangs, merciless in fighting, hierarchical and patriarchal.

These behavior patterns map to their environments.

In times and places of scarcity, competition is more intense. Strength and force become the rule, escalating violence.

In abundance, a flat, cooperative society works fine. 

Violence within our communities is not our default. It's turbulence that emerges when people can't meet their needs.

To maximize choice, work for community-wide abundance.


Written by Influential Prose

June 15, 2021 at 6:21 am

Posted in evolution, science, sociology

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Secularism After the Crusades


[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

The Crusades were a series of military conflicts spanning two centuries, from 1095 – 1300. The First Crusade began as a bid by Pope Urban II to wrest Jerusalem and surrounding areas from Muslim rule (sometimes referred to as the East, or Asia Minor) and back under Christian control (the West). The First Crusade was successful, but the seven Crusades and assorted minor battles afterward fared poorly, with lasting consequences. The aftermath altered attitudes toward the Roman Catholic church and encouraged skepticism. This diluted church authority, led to the Protestant Reformation and the secular ideas of the Renaissance.

In the West, merchants in Italy’s port cities on the Mediterranean Sea grew rich as middlemen moving troops and supplies to the Levant, while also shipping goods like rice, coffee, sugar and cotton cloth from the Muslim world to Europe. Their wealth, together with the increase in travel and commerce, would become critical to sparking the Italian Renaissance and early thinking about secular governance in the 14th century.

In the East, the Islamic world was united by the sultan Saladin, attaining military supremacy following a period of internal division. Secular governments ruled by sultans and emirs already existed in this era, but the division of power between political and religious leaders (caliphs) was in transition. Military and economic matters became largely secular, while social administration was primarily governed by Sharia law.

The Crusades’ many military defeats cost the Catholic church substantial respect and credibility, weakening the papacy. Perceptions of corruption and turmoil in the church continued, leading to the Western Schism in 1378. Cardinals elected two different popes, triggering a political crisis and warfare. The aftermath emboldened kings and spurred resistance to church authority, paving the way toward a more secular worldview in the West.

An incalculable — and for Christians, self-inflicted — loss of world knowledge occurred when Norman (Christian) crusaders burned the Imperial library during the Sack of Constantinople in 1204, destroying both secular and religious literature. This assault on the eastern center of Christianity marked the end of the Byzantine empire, the last vestige of the Roman empire wherein Christianity first emerged.

Despite ongoing war and dissension, the time of the Crusades — known as the High Middle Ages — were also a period of consolidation and expansion for secular and religious spheres alike. Greater stability emerged in legal and financial institutions, communication systems improved and political organization gained sophistication. Church bureaucracy grew to include the papal curia, a variety of organizations that helped administer the Roman Catholic church.

Doctrinal compliance and consolidation of church authority was accomplished through the medieval inquisition, beginning around 1184 through the 1230s. Deviation from official church doctrine became subject to a series of aggressive, locally-based efforts to eliminate dissent and heretical views. Bishops and papal emissaries were given wide latitude — including torture — to root out heresy, but as church representatives, they were not permitted to kill. The job of burning unrepentant heretics at the stake was conducted by secular authorities. Little imagination is needed to perceive the effect on secular thought.

Written by Influential Prose

June 22, 2015 at 9:32 pm

Going Over to the Dark Side?

Employment Matters column,

Anyone with a fair amount of work experience knows that workplaces can sometimes be a battleground. It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. Ideally, everyone works together as a team and stays focused on getting the job done. But in the real world, it doesn’t always happen. Tensions arise between co-workers, between workers and management, between businesses and customers.

There are an endless number of triggers for frustration – the annoying co-worker, the pressing deadline, the demanding customer, the obnoxious boss, and sometimes just the Monday morning blues.

A few years ago, I had an ugly encounter with a former boss who was having a bad day. Our workplace is a medical facility, and staffing is a constant problem. We must have staff available 24 hours a day, every day, all year long, and the work is not easy. My boss was hearing; most of the staff is deaf. As she was venting her frustrations, she singled out the deaf staff and commented that they were behaving like children. I challenged her on that point – “you mean to say we’re all just immature slackers?” – and she answered yes.

Before that moment, we had a good relationship. But things were never the same between us afterward, and she left several months later.

Lately I’ve been tasked with more responsibility, and some of it is work usually done by management. It has given me some insight into the sort of things that frustrated my former boss. Her outburst was, and remains, inexcusable. But I understand better why she lost her temper.

I’ve found an interesting thing happens when you take on some of the roles of management. Suddenly, the staff – some of them, at least – will see you differently. Their picture of the working world is Us vs. Them, or Workers vs. Management. Anyone stepping beyond the ranks of workers and into management is moving over to the Dark Side.

And of course, there are some managers with the same view, but reversed – Management vs. Workers. The way they see it, the staff is like a herd of stubborn mules that only work well when pressured to do so.

Where I sit now, I can see both sides, and it’s quite a view. And I what I see, mostly, is the same thing that Cool Hand Luke noticed. “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

If you have the bad luck to have a bad boss, you can be forgiven for thinking the boss has a cold, mechanical heart that only beats faster when thoughts of sadistic torture stir the mind. Now there are people who enjoy power just a little too much, but more often, they’re just stressed out. Being under pressure can bring out the worst in us, and that applies to bosses too, because they’re caught in the middle – squeezed from above by management, squeezed from below by workers.

The ugly part? Sometimes a boss has to enforce rules that make no sense, and the boss knows it makes no sense. When the workers complain – justifiably – a supervisor has to set aside personal feelings and support a dumb policy. It happens. I’ve seen supervisors protest bad policies privately to management in support of the workers. Sometimes management listens, sometimes they don’t. And when they don’t, the boss has to endure the complaints and become the bad cop. This is why being a leader can be a lonely job.

What I consistently see among people who do well as supervisors is they communicate constantly. They are very good at dealing with the question that always comes up; “Why?”. It’s not enough to introduce a new way of doing things and then say, “That’s how it is, no questions, get back to work.” Sometimes the reason for change is obvious and necessary and nobody questions it, but there will be unpopular changes now and then, and a good boss will be prepared to answer the frustrated questions in a satisfactory way. Not doing this tends to generate suspicion and distrust, hurt morale, and break down the goodwill that supports teamwork.

The need to communicate doesn’t only apply to bosses. And it takes on a whole new importance in a workplace where deaf and hearing staff work together. When people aren’t trying to understand each other, then – surprise! – misunderstandings arise. People get lazy – they retreat to their comfort zone, talk only with the staff they can already communicate with easily, and slowly but surely a gap appears between deaf and hearing staff. I see it happen where I work, and you may see it in yours.

And what we, as deaf people, need to do in this situation is take the lead. Don’t whine to the boss, don’t complain bitterly about the hearing staff, and those of you who are hearing, don’t write deaf staff off as immature. We all need to do two things; get out of our comfort zone, and start talking.

I know, I know – it’s slow, it’s awkward, it’s frustrating and it eats up a lot of time. But that’s when you’re just starting out. It takes patience, but when you get a little momentum going, when you build up enough mutual vocabulary that you can actually begin to have a conversation without resorting to pen and paper or other substitutes, it’s very rewarding.

You have the power to make this happen, and you have to overcome the fear and reluctance that gets in the way. Doing this one thing makes your job easier in the long run, and just as important, it makes your boss’ job easier too.

Taking the path of least resistance, staying in our comfort zones – that’s human nature. Inspiring others to do better, by example – that’s leadership. That’s how we can take on the dark side and make it bright.

Written by Influential Prose

October 1, 2009 at 2:31 am

Defined and Negotiated Terms

Published November 3, 2018

There’s really no such thing as freedom. There are terms of existence.

Some of the terms are natural and organic, like gravity. One term of existence is, don’t jump off a tall cliff. Violate this term, go splat — no more existence.

Some terms of existence are defined by other people. Collectively we frown on random premeditated murder. Terms of existence for the guilty, depending where they happen to be, range from confinement to assisted exit from existence.

Which is to say our terms of existence are either a negotiation between our biosphere, our physiology and each other, or dictated by force.

When negotiations work out to the satisfaction of all parties, we have peace and harmony. When we don’t, matters become restless. The intensity of our agitation tends to match changes in balance. Our economic, environmental and tribal imbalances are growing; so is our polarization. We did not come to this juncture in the USA unassisted. There has been foreign meddling, stirring the pot at the very least, leading to a profoundly epic time.

We are trying to negotiate terms via democracy with people who no longer respect democracy. The opposition wants to define terms of existence. All of them. For everyone. Backed by weapons.

This business with the Mexican border is a demonstration of will. It’s a statement that says, yes, we will separate families, we will shoot children with rocks, we will house them in barracks and define their terms of existence.

These behaviors indicate they won’t stop with demonstrations. There’s no longer reason to extend a benefit of doubt. The scope of targets will expand unless they are restrained.

That’s what this election is about. That’s how much is at stake. This may well be your last opportunity to define YOUR terms of existence in the USA.

As many others have already said, vote as if your life is at stake. Maybe you need medical care that is no longer affordable or available. Maybe your area is hit with a natural disaster and an indifferent federal response. Maybe local militias decide it’s fun night to go out and hunt down people wearing yellow hats.

Some terms of existence are defined for you. Some terms you get to define yourself. That’s what voting is about. Do it.

Written by Influential Prose

December 23, 2021 at 11:54 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Bug in Human Behavior

We still think tribally. Team sports? Mostly small bands competing with other small bands, replaying competitions for prized territory. We do mock battles for fun.

Our ancestral hominids emerged as hunter-gatherers in competition with each other and other animal life. The biological imprint of that lifestyle still colors our behavior. We remained hunter-gatherers for over 200,000 years and it wasn’t an urban lifestyle.

Population densities remained low until farming at scale began 10,000 years ago; the earliest cities formed soon afterward. We are fast adapting to crowded living, but old behavioral patterns persist.

The tribal boundaries we draw are familiar, based on geography, skin color, language, religion, self-identity, profession and — most powerfully — economic interests. These fluid boundaries can intersect and overlap, dissolve, merge and split, through manipulation, cooperation and force.

It’s amazing that we have functional (as distinct from sustainable) cities of 20+ million people. World population today is 54% urban. We are getting better at getting along. Our tribal tendencies are one part of our troubles, but they’re not the bug.

In the deep past, in those small hunter-gatherer groups of mostly family living in a world where hominids are not apex predators, being cast out from your tribe was a death sentence. That was the daily reality. This creates a powerful — arguably instinctual — incentive to stay on good terms with the tribe. It’s still a fundamental driver for human behavior today.

How much of what we do is guided by social convention? We are born immersed in our local culture; it strongly influences our behavior and thinking. We recognize other cultures think and act differently, but we remain focused on our own local customs.

Historically, when your tribe says you must believe something to remain in the tribe, then your own survival and self-preservation requires you to get with the program. That was literally true during the hunter-gatherer stage and remains socially true now. Our musical tastes, language, films, dances, art, all vary between cultures and generations and serve as unifiers, social glue. That’s a positive, right? A feature, not a bug?

Here’s the bug. If you have to deny reality to get along, most people will.

This is why the Emperor’s New Clothes story resonates. We see it happen in fads, in financial swings, rumors, churches.

Social fictions can unify populations and aid problem-solving. They can also divide and magnify problems. Whatever the value set is, when beliefs rooted in social fictions clash with reality, people feel tribal unity is threatened and react accordingly. This intense impulse runs deep.

These contractions of trust polarize by tribe. That warning you feel in your gut regarding current events is real; it’s conditioned by hundreds of thousands of years of tribal living…and warfare.

Let us not underestimate just how malleable people can be. Start with a large group who aren’t the brightest and not conspicuously successful, or a group that lacks access to good education, or has longtime simmering resentments due to suppression by race, religion, geography, etc.

Salt such groups with people who tell them they’re patriotic heroes and their tribe is endangered. Give them weapons and point them to another group. Tell them the fate of the tribe is in their hands.

They’ll do their best. Happens all the time.

Is there a way out? It’s hard to be certain in unique conditions. Given the pressure of climate change, we’d do better do it soon. Humanity could make a good start by discarding social fictions and update our understanding of who we really are. Then can we begin aligning sustainable values with reality.

Edit 2–4–18: Andrew Sullivan gets it. When Two Tribes Go to War

Written by Influential Prose

December 23, 2021 at 11:48 pm

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Fire in the Sky

From a letter to a friend shortly after 9/11

Date: Sun, 11 Nov 2001 10:03:47 -0500
To: Dave
From: DeafScribe
Subject: Fire in the Sky

That was 3 hours well spent.

I just returned from the beach. Got the bike out at 3:30, mounted the night light, added a bit of air to the front tire, and set off for the shore. It’s a straightforward trip – one block over to 16th St., then follow that for about 3 miles to the ocean. There’s just one hurdle – the Indian River and the bridge that vaults over it.

As much as I love my Schwinn 10-speed, it has one glaring flaw – the gearshift is old and totally unreliable. Despite the occasional adjustment, it inevitably slips back into a state where shifting gears will lock it up, jam the chain between the chainrings, and force a miserable roadside battle with an stuck chain and grease-coated hands. To avoid this fight, I leave the bike in 10th gear, which is great for keeping my legs strong, but not so fun for honking up a big bridge.

Still, it could be worse. I’m not smoking anymore, so I was able to reach the bridge top without gasping too badly. Sixteenth Street is lined with bright lights nearly the whole way, but even peering through them, I could see the meteors streaking down from the east. Beyond the lights, the conditions could not be better. The sky was crystal clear, the stars were blazing and the night was comfortably cool.

The bridge plays out to A1A, the highway that runs alongside the Florida coast. Crossing that, it’s another 1/2 mile to South Beach park. I could have stopped there, and it would have been a fine choice since it’s very dark, but I pushed north toward Humiston Beach. This meant a winding ride through silent streets unmolested by lights.

I turned off the bike lamp and let the stars light the way. The Big Dipper hung in the northeast, pointing the way to Polaris, the north star. The belt of Orion flew nearly overhead, escorted by Betelgeuse and Rigel, and Capella was a blazing beacon. To the east, where breezes carried the scent of the sea, bright streaks of burning dust and pebbles were flying down like psychedelic raindrops.

I reached Humiston, which was nearly deserted. An elderly couple made their way toward the boardwalk, where a smoker fired up a cigarette and three young girls chattered together, swaddled in sleeping bags. I parked the bike and locked it near Crusty’s, a casual restaurant propped up on posts over the sand. Went directly down to the beach, found a dark spot, and settled back to watch the show. It was 4:30.

The Leonid meteors come from a comet, the Tempel-Tuttle comet. It’s a big dirty ball of ice, a flying mountain about 2.5 miles wide. It swings around the sun every 33 years. As it passes through our neighborhood, the sun warms it and melts some of the ice. All the gravel and dust locked into the ice is released, leaving a long trail of debris in its path, much like the contrail of a jet flying through the sky.

The trail gets pushed around some by solar wind and radiation, but it mostly just hangs there in space. There’s no real wind to break it up and scatter it, so the trail we’re plowing into this year has been hanging around for three centuries, since Tempel-Tuttle passed through in the 1700’s. The comet leaves a long half-donut of dust and gravel around the sun every time it passes through. Some years it dumps more than others, and some years we hit a denser part of it than others. This year the prediction is that we’d hit an especially dense part.

Not all meteors are created equal. Some just skim past the earth in the upper atmosphere, like a flat rock skipping over the surface of water. Some hit the earth at an angle, and some crash in head first. Some come from behind our motion around the sun, catching up to the earth, and almost float into our atmosphere.

The Leonids mostly come screaming in head first. This means they come in very, very fast. There’s no sound on the ground, of course, since these are pretty small meteors and all the action is going on about 60 miles overhead.

If a fireworks show is rock and roll, then a meteor shower is understated classical symphony. It’s not an in-your-face explosion of light and sound. It’s more of a subtle, unpredictable rhythm, one surprise following another on a deep velvet void inlaid with fiery diamonds.

Even when there’s no meteor shower expected, most nights you’ll see 2 or 3 if you watch the sky for a while. The trick to seeing meteors is not to look for them. Just lie back and let your eyes relax, not seeking, not focusing on anything especially. Once you have that trick down, your side vision picks up everything in view that moves, and your eyes will dart in the direction of any movement. That way you seldom miss anything, even the really short, fast meteors.

Tonight, though, it was impossible to miss anything. At 4:30, they were appearing in a steady parade, one at a time, perhaps 2 or 3 each minute. Some were tiny and dim, some were bright and sharp. They left lines of light in varied colors and shades – red, blue, white, purple, even green. Nearly all were wicked fast, ripping by in an eyeblink. Sometimes they burned with the intensity of a welder’s torch, so bright they cast shadows.

In 20 minutes’ time, the parade began to moving faster. They flew down in quick bursts of 4 and 5, appearing within seconds of each other. Mixed in with Leonids were slower meteors coming from other directions. A steady stream of larger green trails were left by slow earth grazers coming from the north. Quick white wands of neon winked on and off past Orion’s belt.

It’s easy to imagine ancient people being awed by nights like this. They must have wondered if the very stars were falling to the earth.

By 5 a.m, the single notes of individual meteors were being replaced by whole chords appearing together. 4-5 would spray down at once, usually entering from different directions, sometimes flying in formation. Seeing 10 to 15 meteors a minute was not unusual. Anywhere you looked, a gentle celestial rain was falling. It would not have been surprising if a rock thudded into the beach and sat there, steaming, a relic possibly older than the Earth itself. Above us, fragments just as old spent their final moments of existence tortured by a sudden impact with an ocean of air, turbocharged fireflies smashing into our atmospheric windshield.

It was hypnotic, relaxing, transcendent, beautiful. Sounds like hype for a trip through a cloud of dust and gravel, but it was all that and a side of fries, too.

At 5:30, meteors were still coming fast and furious while dawn was making itself felt in a ghostly gray light over the waters. It was time to start back for home. I stood and brushed off the beach sand, thinking that many of the meteors that appeared tonight were not much larger, and not so very different, than these same grains.

It’s of a piece, really, what lies out there and what we work with every day. It’s all connected, a tapestry woven from elements forged in the heart of stars.

The rain of fire will return next year.

Be there.

Written by Influential Prose

December 20, 2021 at 9:50 pm

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Columbus Day 2016

We all have basic needs. Clean air, clean water, clean food, clothing, shelter, safety, security, good health and a healthy social environment. We all have wants. Social environments become toxic when we permit the wants of some to interfere with the needs of others.

524 years ago, a group of people from Europe crossed the Atlantic ocean in search of things they wanted. Their basic needs were adequately met at home, but they wanted more.

When the European group arrived, led by Christopher Columbus, they discovered other people living on the lands they explored. That contact was fatal for many, because it led to an exchange of microbes. This exchange affected both groups, but the effects were devastating for the indigenous peoples. They lacked immunity to some of the diseases that spread, and in many communities it killed most of the people living there. This effect, for the most part, was accidental and unplanned.

This massive loss of life made it easy for the Europeans to move in and take whatever they wanted. The indigenous people fought back, as was their right. They had a right to their resources, their way of life, their system of meeting needs.

The European desire to fulfill their wants was fine. There’s nothing wrong with wants. It was only when they began deliberately destroying what remained of the indigenous people – their warriors, their homes, their independence, their means of living – that the wants of the European visitors became toxic.

And despite knowing it was wrong, they rationalized it for centuries. They still do. Not only the Europeans, but all of us. We exploit others to meet our wants and we rationalize it. It’s not exclusive to Europeans, or the West.

All living things have needs, and all those who wish to survive do what they must to meet those needs. Work, steal, fight, cooperate, trade and exploit – they’re all strategies seen throughout the animal kingdom. We’re part of it.

One of the things that makes humans unique is that we’re aware of the difference between needs and wants. We recognize that when we say “My right to swing my fist ends at your nose.”

Our right to use force ends where other people begin. We do it anyway, of course – we always have. That doesn’t make it right.

524 years ago, one group of people used force to satisfy their wants. In the process, they largely destroyed what remained after disease ran its course. They not only rationalized it, they celebrated it. They still do. It’s called Columbus Day.

In the past few decades, the awareness that it was wrong has spread. The indigenous peoples always knew it was wrong. Their descendants know it was wrong. Peoples in other lands recognized it was wrong.

The descendants of the Europeans are very late to this understanding, but they’re coming around. There is – justified – bitterness at how long it’s taken for this to happen. But it is happening, and that’s progress.

But not in Standing Rock, North Dakota.

We have one group of people with power and wants, and another with existential needs, including clean water. The indigenous peoples are fighting to protect their resources, and the group with wants and power has deployed it in the form of attack dogs, pepper spray and lawyers.

So here we are again. We can rationalize this and seize what belongs to others, or we can respect the needs of people living in Standing Rock. The power is there, as it was before. The ability to rationalize it is always present. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.

If we really wish to celebrate something this day, let us celebrate a new approach. Let us leave the people of Standing Rock in peace and meet our energy needs elsewhere. Let’s harvest the sun and the wind. Let’s stop pouring poison into the atmosphere we all share. Let’s meet our needs and wants in ways that respect the needs of others.

Let’s acknowledge that we are all in this together. Let’s exercise enough discipline over our endless desires to live with self-respect. Let’s cultivate the ability to live without making excuses for bad behavior.

Achieving that – learning from our mistakes – would make Columbus Day worth celebrating.

Written by Influential Prose

October 10, 2016 at 8:06 am

The Inner and Outward Gaze

Ever seen those delightful Russian matryoshka dolls, the ones where each doll opens to reveal another, smaller but identical doll, which opens to reveal yet another smaller, identical doll, and down it goes to a doll the size of a peanut?

Likewise, the films Inception and the Matrix portray realities within realities within realities, scrambling our perception of reality.

There’s an everyday analogue to this – a simple mirror. You gaze at the mirror through your eyes, which are reflected in the mirror, so your view includes the thing you are viewing through.

Both are real, the view and the reflection, and neither can exist without the other.

This image is another example, taken from the International Space Station.

What you see is an orbital sunset, looking out the back view as the ISS circles the globe. Two Russian ships can be seen docked with the sun’s glare between them, a Soyuz crew capsule in the foreground and Progress cargo capsule in the background, with the earth’s horizon outlined by a thin layer of atmosphere.

You can also see the dim outline of a camera lens. This can only be seen when the angle of the sun’s light is such that the transparent cover over the camera acts like a mirror and reflects an image of the camera.

And so it is that the instrument we use to see the earth is mirrored back to us. Our own eyes gaze back at the manufactured eye we ordinarily look out from.

This demonstrates in a concrete way something that a wise man once noted:


Written by Influential Prose

September 19, 2016 at 6:07 am

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The Roots of Social Conformity

Life on earth has spread from the same DNA base as far back as we can see, from the simple single-celled extremophiles lurking in undersea volcanic vents. There’s a lot of change from that point to us, but along the way life repeatedly encounters similar patterns and relationships. Our genes are shaped by these patterns. Predator/prey relationships, for example, are a biological universal. I’m going to argue they are a key factor in defining human temperament.

Social species that cluster in large groups gain advantages in fending off predators, especially in rough neighborhoods. Social fish species remain together in groups because survival in their neighborhood is a numbers game. The bigger the crowd, the easier it is to hide from danger. Fish that don’t get this don’t last.

Over time, this strongly tilts instinctual fish behavior towards cooperatively defensive groups. But there are also advantages in breaking from the crowd, such as locating food and mates outside the group. So what happens in a population? A distribution develops toward the optimal mix of temperaments to keep population balanced. This mix adjusts to prevailing economic conditions.

Social species need some funky renegades temperamentally capable of taking risks to find opportunities, while the core of the group remains tightly bound to tradition to protect the bulk of the population. Populations need both rigidity and flexibility. Over time, this is what temperamental variation provides.

Much human behavior is essentially monkey-see, monkey do – it’s imitative. There’s a reason for that. Think back to the school of fish; they swarm together tightly when predators lurk. Behavioral instinct; the hardwired genetic imperative says do it this way or die, no second chances.

And so it goes as social animals emerge on land. Everywhere you go, from the anthill to the elephants, there are strict local rules; don’t eat that or you die. Stay out of this area during floods. Winter comes; stock up. Whatever rules are needed to avoid becoming prey or a victim of environmental conditions fall into this category.

This creates a built-in bias toward absolutes as key to survival. It is acquired, haphazardly and not always successfully, among animals through imitation; the trait persists among humans and is most strongly expressed among conservative fundamentalists and nationalists. Notice that absolutes are usually binary – do this or die; don’t do this to live. Binary thinking is characteristic of conservatives.

In an economic contraction, conservatives gain more power. In expansions, progressives gain. In the context of the animal kingdom, this makes sense; when times are hard, security becomes a deeper concern; you’re competing with all the other life forms in the neighborhood. Aggression becomes a positive.

When times are good, we can wiggle and giggle and agree that soft-serve ice cream is simply the greatest. Abundance gives us the luxury of broader cooperation, and it’s also smart survival strategy – cooperation makes harvesting abundant resources easier and more effective.

Herds only endure when they contract and expand in tandem with available resources.

When a herd is fragmented, it exposes a larger attack surface to predators.

Which is a pretty good description of the Republican party’s mode of operation. Divide and conquer.

Written by Influential Prose

August 4, 2016 at 12:55 am

Posted in evolution, sociology

Profit-driven Prisons: Path to Prison Labor?

[One of series written for in 2012. Original article.]


Every year public companies must file what’s called a 10k report with the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). This is a summary of the firm’s financial performance. There are stiff penalties for lying to the SEC, and investors aren’t too thrilled with less than the truth either.

These are powerful incentives for honest accounting, so you can accept 10k statements as reasonably credible accounts of what a firm really thinks.

Here’s what the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest private prison management firm in America, had to say in its 10k about the risk to their profitability:

“A decrease in occupancy levels could cause a decrease in revenues and profitability.”

Well, duh.

Similarly, the Geo Group (formerly known as Wackenhut), the second-largest American prison management firm, reports in their 10k:

“…most of our revenues are generated under facility management contracts which provide for per diem payments based upon daily occupancy.”

Right away, we see a problem. The costs of prison management are borne by you and me, the taxpayers. We want this done effectively at reasonable cost with minimal overhead expense, like a non-profit organization.

Private prison management has a different goal – to make money. They provide a service, and expect to make a profit over and above their costs. Here’s a clear misalignment between the wishes of the taxpayers and the wishes of private business.

Profits can come from cutting costs or increasing income. Private firms can be expected to attempt both.

Cutting costs too steeply has consequences. Here are some of the cost-cutting techniques that private firms have implemented at prisons:

Lower Pay

In 2008, private prisons in Texas paid their corrections officers $24,000/yr – that works out to $12/hr  – which was $2,000 less than the lowest salary earned by personnel doing the same work at public-run prisons. Result? A sky-high staff turnover rate of 90 percent. Imagine the chaos in your workplace if 90 percent of your co-workers left each year.

Weaker Security

The U.S. Department of Justice notes that public prisons average 5.6 inmates per officer, whereas private prisons average 7.1. A point and half difference might not seem like much at first glance, but remember some of the population we’re dealing with here has a history of violence and aggression. The lower ratio exists for a reason. The Federal Bureau of Prisons has observed, “the greater the inmate-to-staff ration, the higher the levels of serious violence among inmates.” If security becomes too lax, prisoners escape. It does happen.

Cherry-Picked Inmates

Some prisoners are more expensive than others. Some due to health care, some for behavioral management. Troublesome inmates tend to get transferred out to state facilities, so taxpayers pay twice – once for the inmate, and again to sustain the private firm’s profit margin.

The other strategy – increasing income – requires more inmates, creating a powerful incentive to generate high incarceration rates. That strategy is part of CCA’s proposal to buy and operate state prisons:

“An assurance by the agency partner that the agency has sufficient inmate population to maintain a minimum 90 percent occupancy rate over the term of the contract.”

Now think about that. It creates a contractual obligation to keep the prisons as full as possible. How would that obligation be fulfilled?

CCA already has some ideas. They’ve hired several lobbying firms to support legislation that will – surprise! – likely result in more inmates.

The current focus is on immigrants. After 9/11, the industry saw opportunity in the new anti-immigrant sentiment and spent millions in support of legislation that would increase detentions. Since 2002, CCA alone has spent more than $17 million to lobby Congress.

The Geo Group (formerly known as Wackenhut) saw the value of their contracts with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency expand from $33.6 million in 2005 to $163.8 million by the end of 2010.

In the most recent report available, “Prisoners in 2010”, the U.S. Department of Justice graphs the growth of federal and state inmate populations since 1990:

1990 was the first year that CCA contracted with the federal government to handle immigrant detainees.

Can you think of other areas for prison growth? Remember, the United States already has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and at this writing most prisons are still owned and operated by the public. What could happen to prison growth fueled by the profit motive and contractual obligations to keep prisons full?

Take that thought one step further. What if cheap labor became available in prisons? It’s already happening. The America Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) promoted, and the Department of Justice implemented the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP).

The lion’s share of income from the program pays for inmate’s room and board. An obvious strategy looms — fill prison beds, get the inmates to work off a big chunk of their own costs, and pocket the difference.

Good business? The Wall Street Journal seems to think so. A column by Liam Denning opens with the business perspective:

“Imagine a real-estate business where your tenant finds it hard to move and you provide the barest of amenities. No, this isn’t the world of the New York apartment landlord. It’s the private prison business.”

I’ll leave you with a final question.

If private prison firms succeed in replacing public prisons and expand beyond immigrants, where will they look for further growth?

Written by Influential Prose

August 2, 2016 at 2:49 pm

Why We Fight

[One of a series written for in 2012. Original article.]

“The gross national product includes air pollution and advertising for cigarettes, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors, and jails for the people who break them. The gross national product includes the destruction of the redwoods and the death of Lake Superior. It grows with the production of napalm and missiles and nuclear warheads.

“And if the gross national product includes all this, there is much that it does not comprehend. It does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It is indifferent to the decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials …

The gross national product measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile, and it can tell us everything about America – except whether we are proud to be Americans.”

– Robert Kennedy, 1968

Money in politics is nothing new — corruption has always been part of governance. It accumulates like rust on steel and barnacles on boatsides. Without regular maintenance, the decay grows and overwhelms the structure it builds upon. We recognize the problem, we understand we must deal with it — especially when there comes a point where corruption crosses a line from gaming the system to being the embodiment of evil.

Case in point: The Red Light Cam Scam. Traffic cameras — specifically the timing of the yellow lights — have been manipulated to optimize the chances drivers will cross the stop line at red lights. Here we have a system of traffic lights, designed to protect the safety of all — ALL, mind you, including children — and it’s being shamelessly perverted to generate money. If that’s not evil, what is?

In Orlando, courts are administering disparate treatment to citizens who fight back against unfair red-light camera tickets and those who passively accept the status quo.

We see a similar pattern emerge in lobbies to defeat efforts to reduce childhood obesity and promote healthier food. While the First Lady is advocating change in how food is created and marketed to children, food industry representatives are working to thwart movement in that direction.

For example, Reuters reports that 24 states and five cities contemplated taxes on soda to discourage consumption. Every single proposal failed, save one in Washington State — a tax of two cents per can. One win in 29 tries. But even there, an industry consortium mounted a $16 million referendum drive that defeated the tax proposal. Zero for 29. All this in direct conflict with a clear good — the health of our children.

There were congressional consequences as well. Supporters of the food and beverage industry saw contributions from PACs increase. Senator Tom Harkin, who supported tougher food standards, got nothing at all from the food and beverage people. That’s how Washington works.

The American Legislative Exchange Council — ALEC — is now working with industry leader ExxonMobil on disclosure rules for the fluids used in gas extraction. Why should you care? Because the ‘fracking’ technique injects these fluids into areas that may also contain groundwater used as drinking water.

If gas extraction products might be contaminating your drinking water, wouldn’t you want to know about it? ExxonMobil wants to limit disclosure by invoking a trade secrets clause in relevant law. And as far back as 2005, at the behest of energy interests, Congress exempted the practice of fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Corporations have, by law, a fiduciary duty to maximize profits. Moreover, CEOs, shareholders, and management all have ample incentive to bolster their income. Everyone wants the best deal. But when business effectively substitutes dollars for votes in our representative government, when it actively subverts our health, safety, and natural resources in the pursuit of endless growth, it has embraced evil.

This is why we fight.

Written by Influential Prose

August 2, 2016 at 2:40 pm

Three Bright Lights

Last night the sky over Washington, DC was unusually clear, so we had a spectacular view of three planets low in the pre-dawn east. Venus, Jupiter and Mars were all pointed toward the coming sunrise. It reminded me of one of the early geometry puzzles I sorted through while learning astronomy.

Venus orbits closer to the sun than we do. When we’re on the earth’s night side, it’s orbit is “behind” us. When we look up and out, we’re looking toward the orbits of the outer planets – Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, etc.

So it makes sense that we see the outer planets at night, when we face away from the sun; but how is it we can see them and the inner planet Venus *at the same time*?

If all the planets remained aligned and orbited in lockstep, then that would be an issue. But of course planets are at different parts of their orbits at different times, and this gives us windows when we can see them together.

My phone is most definitely not an astronomy camera. Please accept this simulated view from Stellarium, matching the exact time I saw it last night. The actual view was more impressive. Click on images to enlarge.


Celestia provides real-time simulated snapshots of our solar system. The view below is tilted sideways because you’re standing on a ball looking east. See the string of lights in the middle of the ocean? Hawaiian islands. Top center of Earth, the lights of the California coast. Look up, and what do you see? Same planets, same alignment.


Same image, with orbital paths added:

And an overhead view of the solar system at the same time:


..and that’s how you see three planets, one inner, two outer, together on cool fall night.

Written by Influential Prose

May 5, 2016 at 4:22 am

Posted in astronomy, science, space

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