The power of words …

As we all know, good communication is a bedrock virtue. For families, for organizations, for society to function well, we need to communicate honestly, sufficiently, and effectively.

When communication is deliberately dishonest–for political gain or whatever purpose–it causes short-term and long-term damage. Society, organizations, families suffer.

Communication can involve words, sounds, images, gestures, facial expressions, and more. Today, social media emphasizes images and video … but, words are still and will remain powerful.

So, which words are most powerful for you? Which words, when you hear or see them, can quickly create a sense of security, calm, trust, and well-being?

Please take the survey or comment; please list 5 words (or more, if you would like) that, upon hearing or reading them, can create within you a sense of calm and trust.

Thank you! (Kevin Engel, 23 February, 2019)

Science highlights: food waste, weather forecasting, 2080 climate, and sinking land

Food waste

1/3 of all fruit & vegetables produced annually are thrown away because they appear marked or spoiled. A new edible food coating–already in use–helps food last 2-3 times longer and can cut down on food waste.

Read the article (Charlotte Jee, MIT Technology Review, 14 February 2019).

Weather forecasting

Weather forecasting has improved; accurate forecasts can now be made for 10 days in the future. But, there appears to be a limit. Tiny atmospheric disruptions cause models to diverge after 2 weeks; 14-15 days may be the ultimate limit to weather prediction.

Read the article (Paul Voosen, Science, 14 February 2019).

Climate change …

What will our climate be like in 2080?

Check out this interactive map of 540 urban areas in North America–https://bit.ly/2X1aYZ1

Sea rise and sinking land in Louisiana

Sea levels are rising globally from melting ice and warming oceans. The impacts are huge. But, there is another factor–sinking land especially in river deltas. Louisiana, USA is an example; the land is sinking due to compacting soil and groundwater, oil, and gas extraction.

Read the article (Paul Voosen, Science, 30 January 2019).

Are we too gullible? Or, are we relearning how to communicate?

Internet and social media 2019

Are people too gullible?

On the surface, the answer is “yes.” We vote in the millions sometimes to elect and even reelect politicians who patently will say and do anything to get elected, clearly care more for themselves than those they had pledged to “help”, and routinely line their pockets at public expense. We vote against our own economic benefit and we tolerate legislation that helps the few over the many. And, we do this over and over again.

Why do we do this?

Research points at the corrosive effects on individuals and on society of Internet social media. Algorithm-driven thought bubbles push us into distinct groups suspicious of and sometimes violent toward those who think or worship or speak or look differently.

Sometimes, the world today seems to be unraveling; all the news is bad. No one can get along.

Is there a positive way forward? Is there any hope for the future?

Think of this–in the mid 1400’s, there were technological advances in moveable type printing and the Gutenberg Bible was produced. Suddenly (over the next 100-200 years), bibles and other printed works became available outside closely controlled monastic and scholarly collections for the first time. “Cheap bibles meant more readers and, ultimately, more debate over the meaning of God’s word.” It was a time of great social, cultural, and commercial change.

Fast forward 550 years–the 1990’s; the Internet becomes widely, publicly, commercially available. In step with that, satellite/cell phones become ubiquitous. Suddenly (in 10-15 years), literally everyone wherever they are–rich and poor–are connected to a network that takes them outside their immediate area. People can communicate across the globe.

In the past 25-30 years, our world has undergone almost unimaginable technological change–and the greatest of that has centered around how people can communicate, receive, and send information. What we are living through is the stuff of wild science fiction.

George Orwell’s1984 used to be a symbol of a distant, speculative technologically and politically repressive future … and now “1984” is a good 35 years in the past. We have and are living it; we are beyond “1984”, and it has turned out to be a much more complex, dangerous, and beneficial time.

Are we too gullible? Yes … but maybe because we are learning once again–as a society and, for the first time, as a world–to communicate with each other. The Internet and social media has almost swept away the habits and customs of past millennia. So now we have to learn how to do it effectively all over again.

And, we will … but, we are only about one generation into the process; the speed of technological change is much faster than the speed of human change. We will get there eventually; it may take another one to two generations and maybe more.

Unfortunately, this great “communication change” is occurring at the same time as climate change and ongoing technological change (including impending job automation). Any one of these means profound societal shift; all three at the same time brings great uncertainty, great stress, great risk, great danger … but also incredible opportunity and possible incredible benefit for the many.

(Kevin Engel, February 2, 2019)

Moveable type printed book

Weather extremes–global warming and polar cold

Lake Michigan shore, Chicago, Illinois, USA
January 29, 2019
Lake Michigan shore, Chicago, Illinois, USA January 29, 2019
Joshua Lott for The New York Times

Read this article

Weather extremes–a hallmark of climate change. Searing heat, wildfires, drought, electrical grids being overwhelmed, deaths, etc. in one place. Arctic cold, frostbite in minutes, school and college closings, city and county offices closed, states at a standstill, more deaths, etc. in another place … and both happening at the same time in different parts of the world.

“This is weather in the age of extremes. It comes on top of multiple extremes, all kinds, in all kinds of places.”

But, how can extreme cold be part of an overall global warming?

Research is indicating that global warming, specifically “a warming Arctic is causing changes in the jet stream and pushing polar air down to latitudes that are unaccustomed to them and often unprepared.”

I write this from Newton, Iowa, USA–a place not unaccustomed or unprepared for cold weather. But, not accustomed and prepared for cold weather of this extreme. It was -22 F this morning (with a wind chill of -49). That’s 54 degrees F below average air temperature for January 30.

Climate change is here, it’s happening, and it is impacting every place. And, as with most disasters and upheavals, the poor and vulnerable suffer the most.

This is not a time for decision-makers to stick their heads in the sand …

(Somini Sengupta, New York Times, January 29, 2019)

Dust storm in Australia 2018-2019
Dust storm in Australia 2018-2019

Termites may do good

Termites

Are termites always bad? Maybe not …

In a study conducted in Borneo during the extreme drought of 2015-2016, researchers compared “widely scattered” plots of land within a tropical rainforest. In some of the plots, termites were removed; in other plots, the termites were left alone.

“In the plots with intact termite mounds and nests, soil moisture … was 36% higher during the drought than it was in plots where termite activity was disrupted.” In addition, the termites aided litter decomposition and soil nutrient content.

Termites like a moist environment and , if needed, “will dig down … to bring water up to their living spaces.”

The increase in soil moisture caused by the termite activity helped plants in the rainforest survive during the drought; plants used in the research were “51% more likely to survive” in areas where termites were active compared to areas where they were not.

What could this mean?

Due to climate change, “droughts are expected to occur more frequently” all over the world. As a result, termites could play “an increasingly important role” in assisting current and future “rainforest productivity and biodiversity.” Everything has a role to play and some human attempts to eradicate termites may lead to unintended consequences …

Read the article (Sid Perkins, Science, January 10, 2019).

How do we get along?

Illustration by Henry James Garrett (New York Times)

Unless someone is completely self-absorbed and amoral, most people care for somebody, some group, or at least something besides themselves.

Research has shown that “people tend to empathize more readily with those who look, sound, and behave like themselves.” Note how the algorithm-driven thought bubbles of social media take advantage of and feed into this tendency.

Humans are not alone in being able to empathize–to feel the pain of others. Other animals can as well. Rats can do it–and are used in research to test this effect.

For example, research has found “that a white rat raised among only white rats will do nothing to save a black rat from a trap.” “Rats, like humans, can be biased in how they act on, or don’t act on, their empathy.”

But, it’s not color alone that causes the bias. “A white rat raised among only black rats would save a black rat from a trap–but would fail to save other white rats.” And, white rats raised with both black and white rats will rescue rats of both colors.

It is the social context that determines the extent of empathy–not the color and physical appearance.

What can this mean for us?

“Prejudice is not baked-in; it is the result of our ignorance.” “A failure to learn about people of different kinds”–immigrants, people who observe a different religion, who live in a different place, who speak a different language, who look different, who are of a different gender, who are a different sexual orientation, and on and on–can mean “we fail to recognize their pain as genuine pain.”

Read the article; see the illustrations (Henry James Garrett, New York Times, December 28, 2018).

See also —

You have the power to make your own decisions about issues important to your life–use it!

Scapegoats and self-blame

Why is it so hard to change people’s minds?

Algorithms increasingly control our lives; is that a good thing?

How do people determine right from wrong?