Why the debate shouldn’t matter

I’ve read three or four recent news stories claiming that some large percentage of voters are going to place a lot of weight on the debates.

My personal opinion is that this seems silly. Skill in debating doesn’t necessarily correlate to skill in governing. Furthermore, a president of the United States is really only as good as their team. Debating skill tells me nothing about the ability of someone to put together a good management team. (Besides, we’ve already seen both of the two major presidential candidates govern for several years; we already know how they’re going to perform.)

But the United States seems obsessed with high stakes performance evaluations like the presidential debate. For high school kids, we love our high stakes school tests, and our SAT scores. For sports teams, we love our playoff games. For Unitarian Universalist ministers, we love our “candidating week,” seven days in which to evaluate a candidate for a years-long tenure.

We United Statesians also love our hyper-individualistic take on leadership. We love to imagine that the Great Man theory of leadership is correct. We like to believe that one person in a leadership role has a huge impact on an organization, which is why we pay Chief Executive Officers of for-profit corporations millions and billions of dollars. Even though the Great Man theory of leadership is obviously wrong, we fervently cling to our belief in it; we are leadership theory fundamentalists.

And people wonder why United States democracy is in such trouble….

Ecojustice education resource

A team at the University of California in Davis, headed by Tom Maiorana, has developed a game that models evacuations in the face of wildfires. (Apparently there was a story about this game on National Public Radio (NPR), but I don’t listen to NPR and read about this online somewhere.) They’ve set up “Prototyping Resilience,” a website for the game.

As someone who has been doing ecojustice education on the side for nearly two decades now, as soon as I heard about this game my gut response was: Wow, what a great teaching resource. Then I has to stop and think about why this would be such a great teaching resource. First, the game raises awareness of a new phenomenon, massive wildfires, which result from climate change and to a certain extent from land use change. Second, the game empowers people to know what to do in case of a wildfire (i.e., it’s akin to the tabletop exercises long used in emergency prep circles). Third, the game educates people about community cooperation. Raising awareness, empowering, building community — all key precepts for ecojustice education.

Detail of a sheet of game instructions showing game tokens representing a wildfire.
Detail of the visual instructions for the game.

The current iterations of the game are specific to actual communities in California. But the game developers plan to have a generic “Evacuation Boardgame” ready by October, 2024. I signed up for the generic game using the “Game Request Form” link at the bottom of this webpage.

Well, that was ugly

I ran into Mary P at the Sunday service here in Cohasset. She’s the other delegate from our congregation to General Assembly. She asked me if I’d been following General Assembly. I said that I had, but added that it was painful to watch at times. She agreed.

We both were repelled by speakers (on both sides of various issues) who were mean-spirited, unkind, willing to mistake opinion for facts, and so on. We both agreed that we were not seeing these kind of behaviors in our local Unitarian Universalist congregation.

I suspect the online format tended to encourage bad behavior. But whatever the cause, I felt frankly embarrassed by some of my co-religionists. Mind you, it was people on both sides of the issues being debated. For example, in the discussion of the bylaws revision, after legal counsel for the Unitarian Universalist Association gave her professional opinion that the bylaws revision would not reduce the freedom of individual congregations, at least one speaker said the bylaws revision would reduce congregational freedom. In another example, one speaker who supported the revision of the bylaws relied on what I considered to be ad hominem attacks; I wound up muting the audio.

This online General Assembly was one of the few times I felt embarrassed to be a Unitarian Universalist. To me, it felt like hyper-individualism had run amok. Sadly, the whole thing was livestreamed on Youtube, so anyone could watch it.

Oh well. Who am I trying to kid? We live in a horribly polarized society. Why should Unitarian Universalists be immune from polarization? And a huge driver of polarization is people doing way too much social interaction online, instead of in person. If we hold General Assembly online, I guess we have to expect the same bad behavior that has driven me from Facebook, Twitter, Mastodon, and other social media platforms.

And the problem may well be my problem. These days, the only thing I use social media for is finding out about Sacred Harp singings; I’m no longer accustomed to a daily dose of mean-spiritedness, unkindness, and misinformation. Maybe if you use social media a lot, General Assembly seemed tame and well-behaved. But it’s not for me — and I’m not enthusiastic about ever attending another online General Assembly.

Things that you’re NOT liable to find in the Bible

Louisiana state law now requires that the Ten Commandments shall be posted in every classroom. But if you compare the Ten Commandments found in the Bible with Louisiana’s Ten Commandments, you quickly see that they are not the same Ten Commandments.

Where did Louisiana’s Ten Commandments come from? Apparently, in the 1950s “representatives of Judaism, Protestantism, and Catholicism developed what the individuals involved believed to be a nonsectarian version of the Ten Commandments because it could not be identified with any one religious group” — Anthony Flecker, “Thou shalt make not law respecting an establishment of religion: ACLU v. McCreary County, Van Orden v. Perry, and the Establishment clause”, St. John’s Journal of Legal Commentary, vol. 21:1, p. 264 footnote 136. (This Patheos post gives another take on the same story.)

In other words, the Louisiana version of the Ten Commandments may be inspired by the Bible, but it is not Biblical. If you’re a Biblical purist, you could say that Louisiana’s rewriting of Exodus 20:2-17 is actually a type of graven image or idol — something that seems like it comes from God, but is actually made by fallible humans.

Below the fold, I’ll include several translations of the relevant Bible passages so you can compare them.

Continue reading “Things that you’re NOT liable to find in the Bible”

Two brief thoughts on online GA

I was finally able to retrieve my delegate credential for the online General Assembly (GA). Which prompted me to log in to the Whova event management portal for GA.

As I poked around, two things caught my eye.

(1) There’s a friendly prompt to answer an icebreaker question. Great idea for an online space, so I clicked through. The first icebreaker question that appeared was “What’s your favorite place of all the places you’ve travelled?” and you are given a list of countries around the world to choose from. This is a classic question used to establish your your socio-economic class: choosing, for example, Papua New Guinea places you in a higher socio-economic class than choosing, say, Canada or the United Kingdom. There are other icebreaker questions you can choose from, of course, but choosing this question is a good way to establish yourself as being part of the upper middle class.

Anyway, I decided to skip the icebreaker question.

(2) I noticed that there were quite a few online sessions aimed at teens. Given that increased screen time correlates with decreased mental health in teens, I’m not sure how I feel about this. It’s great that GA organizers are trying to serve Generation Z. But it’s more screen time….

Actually, screen time has been associated with depression among adults, too. Depression is actually one of the biggest health risks for clergy (substance abuse is another). I check in periodically with a psychotherapist, so I don’t believe I am currently suffering from depression. However, I do find that the thought of spending much time with online GA leaves me feeling — well, depressed.

Resource for faith leaders

Our town social worker pointed out an online course that should be of interest to most faith leaders, including UU clergy — “Mental Health and Aging for Faith Leaders.” This research-based, 4-hour-long course is hosted by the Boston University School of Social Work.

From the course description: “Many older adults and their families turn to their faith communities as they encounter mental health concerns associated with aging. This course is designed to prepare faith leaders and members of faith communities to address these concerns. The course reviews the major mental health conditions that affect older adults, describes barriers to treatment,  and discusses the impact of culture when addressing mental health concerns.”

Get more information here.

Beating the heat

In the 90s today, with a heat index of over 100 degrees F. Walking along the Whitney Spur Rail Trail, I noticed a Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) relaxing on a tree branch about 15 feet above the ground. It looked so relaxed, I wonder if the squirrel was enjoying the cooling breeze blowing down the trail. It looked totally relaxed, something that’s unusual for Red Squirrels.

Red Squirrel stretched out on a tree branch, with its paws hanging down.

Plan now for Pee-on-Earth Day 2024

In just two days, it’s time for everyone’s favorite holiday — Pee-on-Earth Day!

When you flush your urine down the toilet, you use a gallon or more of drinking water. From there, your urine enters the stream of wastewater, typically joining human feces to be processed in a wastewater treatment plant or a septic system. By treating urine like feces, our society wastes clean water and energy (energy to purify the drinking water, and energy to run the wastewater treatment plant).

Here in the northern hemisphere, human urine doesn’t spread pathogens. And human urine actually makes a pretty good fertilizer, for plants that want a lot of nitrogen. So instead of flushing urine away, you can spread it directly on plants, although urine is such a concentrated fertilizer you probably will want to dilute it so you don’t give the plants fertilizer burn.

Pee-on-earth bumper sticker. Image (c) Carol Steinfeld, used by permission.

The one problem with human urine as a fertilizer is that First World humans tend to eat way too much salt, and excess salt gets processed out of our bodies through our urine. There are a number of ways to deal with this problem. First, you could eat less salt, which would be good for your health. Alternatively, you can spread urine on a compost pile; some salt will leach out during composting, plus the addition of other compostables will lessen the concentration of the remaining salt significantly. Composting is probably the best alternative, because when you compost urine you can adjust the inputs to the compost to balance the high nitrogen content of the urine.

My spouse, Carol, who writes about ecological pollution prevention strategies, invented the term “peecycling” to describe recycling urine as a fertilizer. She peecycles year round, using urine collection bottles made of used plastic juice bottles (thus turning a single-use plastic bottle into a multiple-use peecycling jug). We’re apartment dwellers, but we have a tiny side yard where we have a compost pile. Then we use the compost to fertilize our tiny eight foot square garden.

However, not everyone can peecycle year round. That’s why Carol has declared June 21, the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, as Pee-on-Earth Day. Everyone can save at least some of their urine and return it to the earth on Pee-on-Earth Day. Find or make a peecycling jug now, so you’re ready for June 21!

Learn more in Carol’s book, Liquid Gold: The Lore and Logic of Using Urine To Grow Plants. Order her book online here. UPDATE: Carol’s webhosting service has bonked her website — if you want a copy of the book, leave a comment or email me and I’ll make sure you get one. (If you order it through Amazon, Carol gets almost nothing from the sale, so if possible please order direct from her.)

(By the way, I’m the one who coined the phrase “liquid gold” to describe reusing urine, some thirty years ago. It’s my one claim to literary fame.)

Emblem saying "Urine Charge — Take Life Full Circle!"

Ethics and “AI”

On the Lawyers Guns and Money blog, Abigail Nussbaum writes:

“The companies that make AI — which is, to establish our terms right at the outset, large language models that generate text or images in response to natural language queries — have a problem. Their product is dubiously legal, prohibitively expensive (which is to say, has the kind of power and water requirements that are currently being treated as externalities and passed along to the general populace, but which in a civilized society would lead to these companies’ CEOs being dragged out into the street by an angry mob), and it objectively does not work. All of these problems are essentially intractable.”

What interests me here is how she focuses in on the main ethical problem with “AI” — the huge environmental impact of “AI.” Yes, it is evil that the “AI” companies steal people’s writing and steal people’s artwork. Yes, it is evil that the plutocrats want to have “AI” replace real humans (though as Nussbaum points out, if you factor in the real environmental costs, human labor is cheaper than “AI”). Yes, it is evil that “AI” is a product that doesn’t provide consistently good results. Yes, it is evil that”AI” is another way that the plutocrats can steal your personal data.

But here we are in the middle of an ecological crisis, and “AI” uses huge amounts of energy, and huge amounts of fresh water for cooling. “AI” is an environmental disaster. That is the real ethical problem.

Another carnivorous plant

Yesterday, I came across a round-leafed sundew (Drosera rotundifolia). This plant was tiny, not much bigger than the individual sphagnum moss plants amongst which it was growing. I thought I saw some movement on one of the lower leaves.

A tiny plant with leaves that show a sticky substance on them.
Drosera rotundifolia

Sure enough, one of the sticky leaves had ensnared several insects, including a small crane fly that was still struggling feebly.

A small fly with very long legs stuck on a sundew leaf.

The body of the crane fly is far enough away from the leaf that I suspect the plant’s enzymes won’t be able to digest most of the insect. Not that the crane fly’s corpse will go to waste; something else will decompose it, and keep its nutrients cycling through the interdependent web.