Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Upside of Down: Leveraging Catastrophe for Positive Change

Date: 11/09/06

Speaker(s): Thomas Homer-Dixon, Director, Trudeau Centre for the Study of Peace and Conflict, University of Toronto at the World Affairs Council of Northern California.

Description: From the rise and fall of the Roman empire, to the devastation of the 9/11 attacks; from the slums of the megacities in Latin America and Asia, to ground zero of the SARS outbreak in Toronto and Hong Kong; we are, says Thomas Homer-Dixon, on course for breakdown. Simply managing our problems is no longer good enough. As population, energy, environmental, and economic stresses build in force deep underneath our societies, as our technologies grow more complex and interconnected, and as events in one place increasingly cause effects that cascade around the planet, major system failure becomes more likely. But rather than giving up in despair, we must embrace this possibility as an opportunity for revolutionary change. By adopting a "prospective mind" - a mindset adapted to constant surprise and instability - we can create something new from the unexpected, and something useful from turmoil and crisis.

These are my notes:

The Upside of Down, Thomas Homer-Dixon
Audio available at:

Crisis can lead to creativity. San Francisco earthquake and fire led to enormous creativity, creation of one of the most important institutions of the 21st century.

Thesis of the book: We (Humans) are in grave trouble, but there is great hope depending on how we respond. Two parts, diagnosis and prescription.

Diagnosis like peeling an onion.

First layer, what is the nature of the crisis. Crisis is overloading the adaptive mechanisms that have worked in the past. We tend to see the individual parts rather than the whole. Past examples of collapse, French, Russian revolutions, convergence of multiple overloads. It is like an earthquake, stress builds, released in catastrophic way.

Stresses of today:

1. Demographic stress. Not size per se, but fact that poor population growing while rich population is declining. Sets up flows of migrants.

2. Energy scarcity of the post-petroleum era, within two decades of peak global oil production. Peak in discovery was 1964, use has grown faster than new oil discovered ever since.

3. Local and regional environmental damage in developing countries. Erodes the institutional strength in these countries.

4. Climate change. Tipping point in the information from the scientific community on this in the last year or two. Concern that consequences of climate change is creating even more warming.

5. Economic imbalances, increasing gaps between the rich and the poor.

Two multipliers that make the force of these stresses greater:

A. Increasing connectivity of speed of materials and information, makes it more likely that we will see cascading failures. Similar to an accident in heavy traffic leading to chain accidents on freeways. It is not true that the more connectivity the better, can lead to cascade of calamity.

B. Power effect of new technology, especially computing power, gives individual enormous analytic and computing power. Unfortunately also growth of power to kill and destroy.

These 5X2 can lead to simultaneous failure that will affect the world. Europe oil shortage, climate shock could produce civil instability.

This is the first layer.

Second layer, energy essential for complex society and technology. We are going through an energy transition. EROI (Energy Return on Investment) declining. Was 100 to 1, now 17 to 1 in West Texas oil. As we move to 1-1 there is less energy available to solve complex problems.

Third layer:

Underlying problems that casuse all this, the dynamic of modern capitalism. At $15K or so of income per capita, more money doesn’t make us any happier, in fact lots of evidence that happiness may decline as income goes up. So why do we insist on maintaining growth?

Theory is that we need growth to absorb the unemployed that result from technological change, otherwise there will demand failure. Need 3 to 5% per year growth just to stay even, it is said.

So we may not be able to tech-fix our way out of the problem.

Conclusion of diagnosis:

We can’t predict the future. But a probability of breakdown, catastrophic collapse is rising fast. The future is going to be a volatile time. So what do we need to do?

1. Recognize that we may be able to bring about reform because of the breakdowns. Complex adaptive systems go through periods of growth, breakdown, and adaptation. takes place in market economies all the time, creative destruction. Social/ political systems don’t work like that, we get locked into a management paradigm of incrimentalism. We need to start thinking creatively about what we are going to do during moments of breakdown.

2. We shouldn’t be surprised by being surprised.

3. Increase the autonomy of units of production. Produce power locally with solar, geothermal. Produce food locally.

4. Increase resilience by loosening coupling. Create more space within systems so people have more time. Move away from things like just in time production.

Second part of prescription:

1. Start thinking about what we will do in crisis NOW. Non-extremists have to collectively solve the problem of what we are going to do in times of crisis. Discuss core values, develop plans for response, build social capitol, networks of trust and reciprocity.

2. Catagenisis, down birth, rebirth. San Francisco after the earthquake great example. Water system rebuild, parallel system for fire fighting. 1907 financial failure triggered. Led to the creation of the Federal Reserve System.

Little progress will be made with our greatest problems until our society experiences great shock. Moments of opportunity will occur, we have to be ready.


Q: No mention of religion. How does it fit in?

A: Who asked? Book has discussion of values and fundamentalism, they are related.

Rise and spread of fundamentalism is a dangerous think, people who want to substitute a creed for thinking. They are subject to being manipulated, being violent against other groups.

I advocate an expansive discussion of our values, utilitarian, moral, and existential.

We don’t have a sufficient conversation about what it is that we want. Consumer conversations fill up all the space. One of the most important crisis that we face.

Q: What about the aging and medical crisis?

A: Relates to the demographic trends. Rich areas have aging populations, poor have youth buldges. We are not effectively exploiting technological productivity gains.

We need growth to support pension systems, that is a challenge.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

On this day in

1095 - On the last day of the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II appoints Bishop Adhemar of Le Puy and Count Raymond IV of Toulouse to lead the First Crusade to the Holy Land.

1660 - At Gresham College, 12 men, including Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, John Wilkins, and Sir Robert Moray decide to found what is later known as the Royal Society.

The motto of the Royal Society, "Nullius in Verba" (Latin: "On the words of no one"), signifies the Society's commitment to establishing the truth of scientific matters through experiment rather than through citation of authority. Although this seems obvious today, the philosophical basis of the Royal Society differed from previous philosophies such as Scholasticism, which established scientific truth based on deductive logic, concordance with divine providence and the citation of such ancient authorities as Aristotle.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Skeptical Guide to Multi Level Marketing:

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle: For Some People, Intimacy Is Toxic
New York Times
November 21, 2006

It is practically an article of faith among psychotherapists that an intimate human relationship is good for you. None other than Freud himself once famously said that health requires success in work and in love.

I’m not so sure. It seems that for some people, love and intimacy might not just be undesirable but downright toxic.

Not long ago, a man consulted me about his 35-year-old son, who had made a suicide attempt.

“I was shocked, because he never seemed depressed or unhappy in his life,” the man said of his son. “He always preferred his own company, so we were relieved when he started to date.”

He went on to tell me that he and his wife had strongly encouraged their son to become engaged to a woman he was dating. “She was perfect for him,” he recalled. “Warm, intelligent and affectionate.”

Everything seemed to be going well until, one day, the father got a call from his son’s girlfriend. She had not heard from the son for several days, so she went to his apartment and found him semiconscious in a pool of blood. He had taken an overdose of sleeping pills and slit his wrists.

After a brief hospitalization, where he was treated for depression with medication, he returned home and broke off the relationship. Soon after, he moved to Europe to work but remained in frequent e-mail contact with his family. His messages were always pleasant, though businesslike, full of the day-to-day details of his life. The only thing missing, his father recalled, was any sense of feeling.

I got a taste of this void firsthand when his son came home for a family visit during the holidays. Sitting in my office, he made little direct eye contact but was pleasant and clearly very intelligent. He had lots of interests: computers, politics and biking. But after an hour of speaking with him, I suddenly realized that he had not mentioned a single personal relationship in his life.

“Who is important to you in your life?” I asked.

“Well, I have my family here in the States and some friends from work,” he said.

“Do you ever feel lonely?”

“Why would I?” he replied.

And then I suddenly understood. He wasn’t depressed or unhappy at all. He enjoyed his work as a software engineer immensely, and he was obviously successful at it. It was just that human relationships were not that important to him; in fact, he found them stressful.

Just before he made his suicide attempt, he remembered, he had been feeling very uncomfortable with his girlfriend and the pressure from his parents. “I wanted everyone to go away,” he recalled.

Typical of schizoid patients, this man had a lifelong pattern of detachment from people, few friends and limited emotional expressiveness. His well-meaning parents always encouraged him to make friends and, later on, to date, even though he was basically uninterested in social activities.

“We thought he was just shy but had lots of feeling inside,” his father told me.

That’s what his son’s therapist believed too. When I telephoned her, she explained that she had been pushing him over the four years of treatment to be more social, make friends and finally date. She attributed his failure to do this in any significant way to his underlying anxiety and low self-esteem. “With time,” she said confidently, “I expect he’ll make progress.”

When I got off the phone, I wondered if we had been talking about the same patient. I found him calm, detached and self-confident about his abilities and work.

His therapist apparently believed that no one could genuinely prefer solitude and that there must be a psychological block preventing this patient from seeking intimacy.

But after four years of weekly therapy the patient had basically failed to reach any of these goals. You would think that for this reason a therapist would question whether the treatment was really the right type for the patient. After all, if your doctor gives you an antibiotic that doesn’t kill an infection, he or she should question the diagnosis, the treatment or both.

Granted, psychiatric illnesses are generally more difficult to treat than simple bacterial infections, but why should psychotherapy be any less self-critical and self-correcting than the rest of medicine?

I had a hard time explaining all this to the patient’s father. Finally, I came up with an analogy that I had some hesitation about, but since I discovered that both of us were dog lovers, I gave it a try. I explained that some breeds, like Labradors, are extremely affiliative; other breeds are more aloof and will squirm if you try to hold them.

“You mean my son is detached by nature,” he said. “I guess we all pushed him too hard to do something he couldn’t do and didn’t want.”

Emotional intimacy, it seems, is not for everyone.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

$17 million was spent on advertising this past election, most of it by out-of-control 527 committees on negative ads, according to today's Rocky Mountian News:,2808,DRMN_24736_5153574,00.html

So I just sent out this letter to the editors of the Denver papers:

The solution to high cost campaigning is a return to
shoe-leather, door-to-door organizing in every neighborhood.

In 2002 we saved our wonderful Colorado neighborhood caucus
system. Now let's start using it. Instead of a 96-hour campaign
the final days before the election, let's elect political party
leadership that will support a 100-hour campaign, 2-hours a
week in our local neighborhoods every year.

Phone banks and mass advertising have just about killed
the Colorado grassroots, but we can each make a difference.
A beneficial side effect, restoration of our neighborhoods.

If our state chairs get serious about the caucus, Presidential
campaigns will finance our efforts, just as they do in Iowa where
they spent an average of $40 per caucus attendee in 2004.

How to get involved? Call the state or county party of your choice
or go to, search on the political party or
presidential candidate of your choice, and attend their
next meetup nearest you--or start a new meetup.

Let's save our neighborhoods by increasing the informed participation
in our March, 2008 caucuses in the 3,000 neighborhoods across
the state.

John Wren, founder
The New Denver Republican Meetup
Denver just keeps shifting the homeless about
By Tom Morris
November 12, 2006
Rocky Mountain News,2777,DRMN_23970_5139303,00.html

The recent flap about feeding the homeless in Civic Center ("Meals for homeless exit park," Oct. 13) reminds me that Denver's solution to the homeless problem since 1966 has been a game of musical chairs.

In 1966 the city approved the Skyline Urban Renewal project which claimed Skid Row for commercial development. At the time I asked one of the eager young business types roaming downtown with fliers promoting the project what the city had in mind for the inhabitants of Skid Row. "Oh," he opined, "they'll move up north somewhere."

Which they did for a while until they were dispersed throughout the city by the attempted gentrification of Curtis Park.

They ended up sleeping in city parks, hanging out on Colfax Avenue, creating favellas under the bridges over Cherry Creek and the South Platte River and generally floating around looking for an untended place to call home.

The hard-core homeless, like the rest of us, are free. They are citizens of a country dedicated to the proposition that each of us must choose our lives from the smorgasbord of our abilities, ambitions and luck.

The administration of Mayor John Hickenlooper has launched a wishful program to stamp out homelessness. I believe that we can guarantee that the hard- core homeless will continue to prefer the vagabond life to the stability of submitting to the well-intentioned programs designed by the social scientists.

It is clear that the Daniel Libeskind design for Civic Center had absolutely no plans to accommodate the homeless. Indeed, the design sought to reduce the areas where such people could congregate. The homeless will again be scattered to the winds.

The question remains, what does a city do to accommodate this choice of free people to continue their wayward ways? There are two equally unsatisfactory answers: We can set aside a Skid Row or we can continue to disapprove of their existence.

Neither solution benefits the city. The first has the unfortunate unintended consequence of attracting the homeless. The second is a failure of our Judeo- Christian principles. Perhaps the first step is to recognize the inevitability of the homeless.

Tom Morris is a resident of Denver.

Copyright 2006, Rocky Mountain News. All Rights Reserved.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

How area seniors make these years the best
By Helen Dennis

This week's column is based on contributions of about 30 adults who attended Torrance Memorial's Advantage program called "Conversation With...." The "with" person is yours truly. The overall theme was successful aging with a focus on making the best of the rest of your life.

Attendees were between 60 and 87 years. Some were working full time; others part time and others were retired. Here is what "making this time the best time of life" meant to this stellar group of men and women:

For some, the best time started at the beginning of the day. "Getting up in the morning is a gift." I recall a similar statement made by the renown cellist, Gregor Piatigorsky. At one of his lectures at UCS's Thornton School of Music, he was asked what gave him pleasure. Piatigorsky, in his early 70s, replied, "Waking up in the morning and being able to wiggle my toes. I know I am alive." Simple pleasures are important even to the "great ones."

For others, the best time meant freedom: "Having my own schedule, no financial worries, going places when others are at work and having no obligations." Others felt free to "do what I want to do, be who I am, and free to do nothing and decline invitations."

Everyone valued time. This life stage is a time to "reinvent myself, be more focused, take care of myself, help others, smell the roses, spend the day with a friend, recognize there is no time to waste and realize what's important." Material items were considered less important than they used to be. "I don't need high density television." And spirituality was of much greater value than any material goods.

Activity and relationships were important. Individuals enjoy walking, playing bridge, taking classes, preparing for holidays and traveling. Relationships with family, friends and grandchildren ranked high.

During the meeting, an attendee mentioned that one of his gratifying activities was visiting frail and ill patients in the hospital. He would spend time with them and bring each patient a flower on a regular basis. "This small act means so much to them."

This same man stayed after the session and chatted with me. What he did not say during the meeting is that these acts of kindness occur while he is being treated periodically as an in-patient in the same hospital as those he visits. He cares for others, while the medical team cares for him. Giving has no boundaries.

A closing theme of our meeting centered on freedom. Some perceive older age as a time of zero responsibility and ultimate freedom. The reality is that our life stage requires us to assume a profound responsibility, one that has shifted from our children and family to us. Our responsibility is to do everything in our power to remain fit, vital, and as engaged as possible. No one else will do it for us. And perfect health is not a prerequisite.

The timing of our topic was fortuitous. The essence of the evening is captured in a recently published book, How to Make the Rest of Your Life the Best of Your Life (Nelson Books. 2006, $24.99) by Mark Victor Hansen and Art Linkletter. The book begins, "If you're lucky, you're going to grow old." "Aging is not optional. That means if you want to enjoy life, there is only one thing you can do: don't get old. Grow old."

Growth is reflected in our expanding and deepening capacity for wisdom, spirit, knowledge, talent, love and healing ... there is no end. And yes, to grow older means that we can get better with age.

I recently heard Linkletter discussing his book as the keynoter at a conference. He was impressive. At 94 he didn't miss a beat, was hilarious and didn't use a note.

Think about what makes this time of your life -- your best time. Feel free to share your thoughts with me.

I extend a special thank you to the 30 contributors to this column. As we know, life is not a dress rehearsal. And this group knows it. Enjoy and have a good week.

Helen Dennis is a specialist in aging, with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Send her your questions and concerns in care of the Daily Breeze Today section, 5215 Torrance Blvd., Torrance, CA 90503-4077; or fax to 310-540-7581, or e-mail to

Find this article at:

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Election Day
Micheal Kinsley
New York Times

...Recent elections have seen the rise of self-styled militant moderates, following the flag of white-horse candidates starting with the businessman Ross Perot and continuing, so far, through Gen. Wesley K. Clark. Business and the military are two fertile breeders of excessive self-confidence, but the only essential qualification for a white-horse candidate is a total lack of experience in running for or holding elective office. And the only essential requirement for white-horse voters is to be, like Howard Beale in Paddy Chayefsky’s movie “Network,” “mad as hell” and “not going to take this anymore.” It is not essential to know why you are so mad, or what exactly you’re not going to take.

The militant moderates drove “Crossfire” off the air after the comedian Jon Stewart appeared on the show and declared it was “hurting America.” A Tocqueville-type outsider examining the condition of American democracy at this moment might well raise an eyebrow over the growing power of unelected television comedians to set the political agenda. But this complaint is on no one’s list. Just don’t get your militant moderate started on TV evangelists, though...

For a charmingly recherché complaint, check out “Activism, Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns Is Strangling Progressive Politics in America,” by Dana R. Fisher. Fisher, who teaches sociology at Columbia, is upset about the professionalization of grass-roots campaigning, which he believes has sliced the bottom rung off the political ladder and keeps inspired young people from entering politics and pointing it in a more salubrious direction. In fact, many aspects of politics that used to be volunteer work — not just dialing telephones or licking envelopes, but making strategy — are now businesses...

Michael Kinsley is American editor of Guardian Unlimited (, the Web site of The Guardian of London. His column appears in The Washington Post and Slate.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Dave Zweifel: AA's method could solve other issues

By Dave Zweifel
November 3, 2006

With all the problems in the world these days, a fellow named Francis Fennell thinks that he's got an answer to solve a lot of them.

Who is Francis Fennell? Well, actually, he doesn't exist, at least by that name. It's really the pseudonym of a longtime member of Alcoholics Anonymous, who has been so smitten with the way AA works that he's convinced beyond a doubt that other problems - everything from drug abuse to domestic violence - could be solved by using AA's techniques.

So he's written a book, "Stake Your Claim to Happiness," that he has self-published and hopes to get in the hands of people who will take his message and make use of it.

Fact is, I know the real Francis Fennell quite well. He has long been a strong player in the campaign to solve alcohol and other drug abuse problems in Wisconsin, and he brought his book for me to read before it was actually published. It's a good and thoughtful read, full of suggestions for people who want to make a difference in their lives. And it suggests that our propensity to lie and cheat, which he sees as a scourge on our country, could be altered by Americans achieving that difference.

Fennell describes in easy-to-understand fashion how AA's famous 12-step approach to conquering alcoholism can be modified and used for many of society's other ills. AA's free support to alcoholics has been enormously successful, much more so than counseling and therapy, and Fennell sees no reason why it couldn't do the same with other problems.

Plus, truth is, he's not out to make big bucks with the book, but rather to spur support for the concept.

That it is already having some impact was evidenced in a report by Ben Bromley of our sister paper in Baraboo, the News-Republic. He recently wrote of how Fennell's book has already led to efforts to form groups in Sauk County to begin putting the book's suggestions to practical use.

"His efforts to acquaint south central Wisconsin residents with this concept started as an effort to sell books," Bromley wrote. "But that pursuit soon became secondary to a new goal: Organizing a committee of stakeholders to combat our communities' ills."

Fennell, who in his real life has operated alcohol treatment programs based on AA's principles, plans to help the groups get under way.

"We want to get across the message that there is a serious problem in society that is affecting our youth," he told Bromley. "I think a lot of things that are going on are really impacting drastically our strength as a nation." With any luck, Fennell hopes to someday attract a national publisher to get the message spread countrywide. If you'd like to get a copy of "Stake Your Claim to Happiness," go to