Saturday, January 25, 2014

You Can Learn a Lot From a Mummy

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Imagine that you find a book written by an itinerant priest 500 years ago.  Most of the pages are missing and the ones that remain are written in a barely legible script.  You’re lucky enough to find a few references to the book in two other writers’ works and, in the majority, the bits seem to line up.  From there you painstakingly spend over a decade transliterating what you’re reading into the metaphors of the present moment ensuring that all of your work does not offend the sensibilities of the present day reader.  And, just for good measure, you take a single edict from a single king and use that as the definitive lexicon to insure you haven’t mistaken any cultural meaning.

O.K., here goes.  The following text (approximately the same length as the text on the Rosetta Stone from which we confirm much of our “knowledge” of 5,000 years of Egyptian culture) is precisely the antiquarian representation to which my example applies.  This is an English translation of the Latin text of the concluding sentence from the declaration of the Fifth Lateran Council exactly 500 years ago this month.

As we ponder how heavy is the burden and how damaging the loss to the vicars of Christ on earth that counterfeit elections would be, and how great the hurt they could bring to the christian religion, especially in these very difficult times when the whole christian religion is being disturbed in a variety of ways, we wish to set obstacles to the tricks and traps of Satan and to human presumption and ambition, so far as it is permitted to us, so that the aforesaid letter shall be better observed the more clearly it is established that it has been approved and renewed by the mature and healthy discussion of the said sacred council, by which it has been decreed and ordained, though it does not need any other approval for its permanence and validity. For a more ample safeguard, and to remove all excuse for guile and malice on the part of evil thinkers and those striving to overthrow so sound a constitution, with a view to the letter being observed with greater determination and being more difficult to remove, to the extent that it is defended by the approval of so many of the fathers, we therefore, with the approval of this Lateran council and with the authority and fullness of power stated above, confirm and renew the said letter together with every statute, regulation, decree, definition, penalty, restraint, and all the other and individual clauses contained in it; we order it to be maintained and observed without change or breach and to preserve the authority of an unchanging firmness; and we decree and declare that cardinals, mediators, spokesmen, envoys and others listed in the said letter are and shall be bound to the observance of the said letter and of each and every point expressed in it, under pain of the censures and penalties and other things contained in it, in accordance with its meaning and form; notwithstanding apostolic constitutions and ordinances, as well as all those things which we wished not to prevent in the said letter, and other things of any kind to the contrary.

For those of you who are not computational linguistics aficionados, you might miss the fact that the reference above has approximately 45 nouns and proper nouns from which you would need to confirm all meaning – knowable and known – about every subject in world culture to confirm that your aforementioned transliteration was correct.  From the text above, we could safely say that the hooded priests who affixed their seals to the Fifth Lateran Council decree were pretty sure that they were actively fighting the “tricks and traps of Satan” (a.k.a. people who didn’t agree with them) and they wanted to be certain that everyone knew that they were in power.  We wouldn’t know anything about fishing, Mediterranean shipping traffic, weather, housing, municipal infrastructure, or the communities who lived in Rome 1,500 years ago.

Yet when it comes to our cumulative knowledge of a lineage of cultures that persisted along the Nile River for over 5,000 years, our references are equally opaque.  However, when viewed across the arc of a temporal illusion, we’re convinced that we “know” a lot about Egyptian cosmology.  So, as we unearthed another Egyptian pharaoh this week near Abydos – King Senebkay – CNN declared that the “Pharaoh’s tomb sheds light on the shadowy Egyptian dynasty.”  Really?  What we really know is that we’re finding evidence that what Napoleonic and English aristocrats and academicians told us we know is inadequate and that our illusion of “knowing” is an illusion.

The text to which I referred in the opening of this post is the writing ascribed to Manetho (although we don’t know if he actually existed or was the compilation of several writers in the 3rd century BCE).  In work attributed to him, all of the “gods” and “deities” are direct analogies to the Greek pantheon; all of the time references are Hebrew (including Adam and Noah’s flood) and all the explanations are Hellenistic.  The quote from the compiled works of Manetho below demonstrates the pathologic cultural bias of the one fragment of information upon which we built our entire understanding.

“So long at Manetho followed the ancient records, he did not stray from the truth; but when he turned to unauthorized legends, he either combined them in an improbable form or else gave credence to certain prejudiced informants.” (c. 280 BCE.  Manetho.  Tr. W.G. Waddell 1940.  pg. 147).

By now, a few of you may be wondering how many other ‘sacred’ texts and stories are equally subject to cultural redefinition and manipulation.  Rest assured, if you hazard a peak into some of the earlier catholic Councils, you’ll become increasingly uncomfortable!

Now what does all of this have to do with InvertedAlchemy and the economy?  Well, it turns out, quite a bit.  Karl Popper’s Poverty of Historicism is a remarkable commentary on the social implications of inferring “known” from filtered “past” narratives.  His work nearly 60 years ago attempted to alert society to the dangers of selective and propaganda-filled narratives.  A philosophical product of a world in conflict, Popper had the decency to remind us that if we tell ourselves linear stories, we will harm our capacity for genuine understanding and critique.  This will lead to dogmatically held, error-laden postures that fracture and contribute to conflict on multiple levels. 

We’re presently in the throes of a dangerous mutation where the social opiate of “sustainability” is permeating structurally unsound systems creating the illusion of transformation all the while preying on the gullibility of the masses.  What used to be the realm of social activists and hippies – the idea that it’s a bad idea for us to consume all available resources on the planet and toss them into landfills so that we can fulfill our gluttonous race to exhaustion where we are the punctuation at extinction – is now in vogue across markets – including the recent orgy of inactivity and illusion in Davos.  The reason why NGOs and social activists are as ineffectual as their predatory capitalist chameleons is their abject failure to examine alternative narratives of our past to see if the assumptions framing our current views are adequate to describe our present condition.  They’re not!

And, by the way, trying to understand life by untangling the knotted chromosome and stretching it into the monofilament of DNA; explaining matter by forcing it through the Cuisinart of the periodic table; and understanding physics by calculating newton meters in geometric limits; all fail to capture the actual experience of life which animates through persistent respiratory tides dancing to the gravitational harmonic rhythm of the cosmos.  The Greeks were smart enough to know the difference between essential “Knowing” (gnosis), perception of forms or appearance (eidos), and consensus opinions or prevailing illusions (doxa).  This week’s “discovery” in Abydos reminds us that we’re burying our heads in the sand… and we don’t know it!


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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Linnunrata, Vikings and Tigers

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I love the Finnish myth of the creation of the world which starts with an exploding egg.  What I love even more is the cosmology that was developed around the stellar path of the Milky Way – the Linnunrata.  At the edges of the earth, according to the legend, was the warm home of the birds to which they would fly along the path of the band of stars that stretched across the heavens only to return with the summer to nest in the forests of Finland.  The warm south was an idyllic place where birds, souls and fantasies all flew during the long, cold winters.

HSBC just published their updated forecast for where the world’s economies will grow and shrink by 2050 and, to say that the Finnish and Norse birds have flown the coop is the understatement.  Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland all are forecast to free-fall from the upper echelons by enormous scale and with them much of the rest of Europe.  These ranking drops in excess of 20 places on the world stage happen in the face of ascendancies by countries like India (forecast to be the third largest economy behind China and the U.S.) which is slated to rise 5 ranks, Mexico rising to 8th (+5), Turkey rising to 12th (+6), and Philippines to 16th (+27), Malaysia to 21 (+17) and Pakistan to 30 (+14).  In fact, the largest gainers are South Central Asian and South American while the biggest drops are all European. 

This report struck me as fascinating in part because of the massive geopolitical ramifications that these transitions portend but more so because to the absence of creativity reflected in the metrics.  Apparently, we are to assume that in the next 36 years, we’re still going to be measuring and counting things the way we did at the end of the Cold War.  The birds in Finnish mythology, go to the south in the winter and find their way home following the stars of the Milky Way bringing with them the humanity and warmth that they experienced in the south at the edge of the world.  While HSBC sees the rising Tigers and MINT countries (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Turkey) is the age of Odin at its end?

In 2007, I gave a speech entitled 10 Years Hence in which I was asked by the Mendoza School at the University of Notre Dame to discuss what the world of 2017 would look like.  I’ve excerpted it below to stimulate a conversation that may light a path to envision a world not of rising or falling ranks but of a More Perfect Union.

We live in an era defined by Ignorance Arbitrage.  By this, I mean that all of our implicit social constructs rely on the selective “knowledge consensus” among authorized network members.  We explicitly communicate within archetypes constrained by presuppositions of awareness that may, or may not, be encoded for others to understand in part or in whole.   As long as equilibrium, or the appearance thereof, is preserved, we’re comfortable.  However, when the preponderance of evidence no longer sustains our contrived realism, we despair over our impending obsolescence.

Let’s review our modern credo of manifest destiny. 

We begin with a resolute recitation of Doctrine of Conquest.  Following World War II, a victor’s conundrum emerged.  You will recall that in 1945, the Soviet Union was our military ally together with Britain, France, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Denmark, Greece, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, South Africa, and Yugoslavia.  You will also recall that our enemies included Germany, Italy, Japan, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria.  Four short years later, we were in the Cold War.  From 1949 to 1989 the global economy was shaped by the dichotomies of the specter of Communism vs. the supremacy of Capitalism in a neat East vs. West model.  It is worth noting that Socialism was largely ignored (albeit frequently invoked as Communism’s evil cousin) despite its important contributions in Europe, India, and other “lesser developed countries”.  The West embraced materialism at every level to overtly display social and economic supremacy and constantly contrasted it to the despondency of those living under the iron fist of “the others”.  When the Soviets, in 1957, successfully launched the highly relevant technology – a satellite – the United States’ response was to put a man on the moon!  We, the country founded on conquest, reclaimed supremacy by conquest of a large dusty rock as though we didn’t have enough dusty rocks on earth.  While I would not suggest that our Space Race didn’t have unintended benefits, it’s comical that modern communication rides on the back of the “losers” of the Cold War.  In short, to confirm our myth of our own divine right, we engaged in a conquest of an inert object.  To the victor goes the re-writing of history.

From Conquest, our Catechism teaches the Doctrine of Colonization.  In the 1980’s, the steel of our cars and guns and the copper of our electronics conveniences provided little solace when Japan out invented the United States in a number of critical technologies – challenging a doctrine of intellectual supremacy that was significantly built on the backs of the German engineers relocated to the United States after the end of World War II.  After all, the MacArthurian utopia was supposed to cooperate with our global economic policy but something had gone terribly wrong.  Japan learned from the excesses of the industrial West during the 1970’s and started beating us at every turn.  You will recall our response in the 1980’s was:
  • Slashing domestic industrial manufacturing to “build competitiveness” thereby un-employing 2.8 million Americans;
  • Doubling of Foreign Direct Investment into the U.S. nearly making up for the job cuts in American businesses by employing Americans in foreign owned enterprises;
  • Pumping billions of dollars into state-sponsored research kicked off by the Stevenson-Wydler Technology Innovation Act of 1980 in which the following doctrine was elucidated.  “It is the continuing responsibility of the Federal Government to ensure the full use of the results of the Nation's Federal investment in research and development. To this end the Federal Government shall strive where appropriate to transfer federally owned or originated technology to State and local governments and to the private sector… including plans for securing intellectual property rights in laboratory innovations with commercial promise and plans for managing such innovations so as to benefit the competitiveness of United States industry.”
  • Malcolm Baldrige, U.S. Secretary of Commerce, architected the “Trade War” doctrine as a matter of national economic response to Japan – a policy strikingly similar to that deployed today against the Chinese;
  • The Capitalist Victor of the Cold War minted the oxymoronic phrase “unfair competition” to level against any country that happened to outperform U.S. economic execution.
Colonization, under the moniker of “Free Trade”, means that U.S. and European policy reserves the right to define “Free” and “Fair” and the litmus test to apply to measure the relative pH of the system is how the behavior of others impacts U.S. and European industry.

When fully bloomed, we achieve the transcendence of the Doctrine of Eminent Domain.  In this final incarnate step, we see the emergence of the unholy trinity of creator, purveyor, and manipulator.  If we say that we create all things that are innovative and valuable, and we convince others that they want and must have the things we create and allege to be innovative and valuable, and finally, if we actively insist that only that which we say is valuable can achieve value, we have achieved bliss.  When white collar jobs followed the blue collar exodus to India, Vietnam, Korea, Singapore, China, and Thailand, the American people were reassured by policy makers and the media that all was fine because, after all, all the innovations come from America.  The assumption followed, therefore, that as long as we created all that is new and valuable, the rest of the world would “need” us.  However, this assessment never fully calculated the fact that, since 1987, the majority of foreign students being educated in the programs created under the 1980 – 1983 national research competitiveness programs came from Taiwan, China, India, and South Korea.  By 1994, the U.S. Department of Education reported that over 50% of all doctoral degrees awarded in computer science and engineering were awarded to foreign students.  A subtly in that report (published in 1996) was the observation that while Taiwanese and Indian students were more biased towards computer science and engineering, students from the People’s Republic of China were more focused on the natural sciences.  One early indicator of pending transformation can be drawn from this statistic – namely that the PRC has millions of basic scientists from whom the next new “new thing” is likely to emerge as their training has not merely prepared them to out-engineer and optimize but to understand the basics of discovery.  Just because we educated masters and doctoral students doesn’t mean that they all returned to their home countries with a permanent sense of loyalty to their academic progenitors.  The assumption that eminent domain applies to the landscape of the mind, while a wistful aspiration, has not held true in the past and will not hold this time.  The Stevenson-Wydler Act inadvertently has educated and enabled the GDP growth of others while we preside over a flat or decreasing GDP on our shores.  Since we’ve educated the world, we should be cooperating with it rather than vilifying those whose intellects we’ve shared.

A series of clearly identifiable factors began to warm the seas into what promises to be the economic El Niño that bodes for a transformational 10 years hence. 
  • In 2006, one third of all international IPO’s were from China with proceeds growth of 87% in a single year.
  • The total proceeds from global IPO’s has not yet returned to 1998 levels though the average deal size has grown by almost 20%.  The companies that are raising money are hardly at the innovative edge of future technology and business models – credit cards, airplanes, real estate, hotels, and car rental to be precise - concerning the top 5 grossing deals in 2006.  It is troublesome to be reminded that one of the common reasons for the slowdown in IPO deals is the requirement for compliance under Sarbanes Oxley – an unwanted burden of accountability and oversight which leads me to my observations about the future.
  • The “strength” of the U.S. economy is measured with metrics which systematically under report:  unemployment and under-employment; the consumer contribution to the economy that is increasingly representing new debt (much of which has been supported by hyper-inflation in perceived real estate value); national entitlement programs including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, together with the grossly overlooked actual financial position of the FDIC, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and their attendant solvency risks which are nowhere to be found in Federal fiscal transparency; and, the actual contribution and double counting of Federal underwriting of government spending on both consumable products and services as well as the perpetual abuse of the in-process research and experimentation tax credit which is supposed to finance our future GDP.
  • Industrial stalwarts such as General Motors, General Electric’s plastics division, pharmaceutical giants, and consumer electronics increasingly see global competition catching and surpassing them with little or no option than to option off their futures.
  • James Wilsdon’s critique of the British investment in science, and the underlying presumption that this is linked to what I refer to as Gross Innovative Output in the November 3, 2006 Financial Times, in which he illuminated an industrialist paradigm at the public policy level which has become unmoored.  The notion that investing in laboratories, academia, and industrial research and experimentation will somehow positively correlate to the next new thing may have worked in a more industrial society.  However, in a world where proprietary value – that which protects goods or services from commoditization and minimal profitability – is increasingly based on knowledge franchises, this public policy and financial prioritization is outmoded. 
  • According to the FDIC, the total of past due and nonaccrual assets in 2006 were predominantly (82%) in real estate-secured and consumer credit (51% and 31%, respectively).  A closer look reveals that a potential double exposure exists driving the remarkable increase in these statistics from 2004 to 2006 of over 20%.  Leading the increase in non-performing obligations were debts for the 1-4 family residential real estate sector and the credit card debt non-performing sector which are tracking each other very closely supporting the concern that the seven consecutive quarters of negative savings in the U.S. is impacting not only wealth accretion but is also beginning to adversely impact long-term credit rating foundations. 
  • One of the largest financial innovations of 2005 and 2006 was the creation of the sukuk – an Islamic finance product originated in the Gulf States and subscribed from Indonesia to Germany.  This novel finance vehicle, in two year’s time, raised close to 10% of the global total financing proceeds compared to all funds raised through IPO’s in the traditional markets.  While the rest of the world was learning about, and investing in Shari’ a-compliant investments, U.S. policymakers were protesting port security provided by one of our allies who floated a sukuk offering.
In short, our love affair with our domestic ever-expanding consumption without transparency and accountability has resulted in a financial and social bankruptcy the import of which has not been lost on the rest of the world.
The Silk Road is coming back.  For over two thousand years, stretching from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Sea of Japan, southward through the Indian Ocean, the Silk Road was the nexus for the emergence of knowledge transfer and international trade networks which rival, in diversity and value, modern conventions.  While the U.S. and Western Europe prosecute military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Silk Road is emerging as a literal and figurative power reminiscent of its earlier glory.  It was after all, on this network, that one of the most compelling technology transfers was facilitated.  Between C.E. 300 and 1168, Chinese and Muslims developed and applied the core technology for potassium nitrate, arguably one of the most explosive technologies that has shaped two millennia of human endeavors. 

To set the context, it is helpful to picture the Silk Road Economic Block in the following way.  Starting in Alexandria, Egypt and terminating in Beijing, China, draw your latitude line angling from N30° to N40°.  Then look south of that line to the Equator.  This region holds close to ½ of the world’s population; is home to most of the world’s religious and cultural progenitors; enjoys unprecedented GDP growth forecast to represent over 20% of the world’s GDP in the next ten years; and, is actively building cross-border economic cooperation at the corporate and national level.  The strength of the Silk Road Economic Block poses a number of compelling arguments for a global shift in power within 10 years hence.

First, the U.S. dollar.  In 2006, 47% of the U.S. Treasury securities were held by foreign interests while the U.S. Monetary Authority retained 17.8%.  The Federal Reserve estimates that two thirds of U.S. currency is held outside the country amounting to over $700 billion.  While the U.S. dollar represents 47% of the world’s official foreign exchange reserves, it is helpful to consider that with that exposure comes certain risks.  In June 2005, the Bank for International Settlements warned that countries would need to act “together” to deal with the burgeoning U.S. trade deficit and went so far as to suggest that the U.S. should consider cutting expenditures and raising taxes.  Failure to address this issue could lead, they suggested, to disorderly decline of the dollar and trigger significant global market perturbations.  As we all know, the appetite for this medicine has not yet created the impetus for change. 

As we see our country slip in its influence on the foreign policy front, we cannot ignore a maelstrom of our own creation.  While we’ve leveraged our nation in our pursuit of energy consumption, insatiable material acquisition, and protection of our way of living, we’ve actually mortgaged our economic fulcrum in shaping global policy.  When China elects to build energy alliances with Iran, paid for in U.S. dollars and financed on U.S. Treasuries, precisely what leverage have we retained.  Given the fact that U.S. consumption has provided vast wealth to those in the Middle East and Asia who now are cast as “emerging threats” to our national security and “sponsors” of terror, what incentive have we provided to engage in constructive dialogue?

Increasingly, innovations of global consequence are emerging from the Silk Road Economic Block.  In Singapore, Malaysia and China, biofuel technology is being funded and deployed.  In China, near-zero emission transportation and municipal systems are being developed.  In Iran, low-fire glass ceramics are being developed to safely dispose of highly radioactive nuclear waste.  In India and Iran, transgenic tomato plants are being developed to produce vaccines for biological warfare agents.  In Singapore, a global surprise anticipation center is being built to fundamentally change national and international policy from reactionary to proactive and anticipatory.  In Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, novel energy and water municipal systems are years, if not decades, more advanced than the municipal systems in much of the U.S. and Europe.  Islamic financial products – based on fundamental ethical requirements for transparency and risk-sharing – are attracting capital market participation for funds that have never been liquid in the global economy.  National treasuries are adopting policies for foreign direct investment within the Block realizing that economic gain is inextricably linked to domestic and regional security.  In short, the region is emerging the “Fusion Economy”. 

Why Fusion?  First, because it accurately describes at the physical sciences level the imperative driving the emerging reality.  In the fusion reaction, the application of an external nuclear force overcomes the naked repulsive electrostatic force that keeps nuclei repelled.  When one nucleon is added to a nucleus, it attracts others and, by doing so, adds mass while emitting energy.  What’s coming?  The Fusion Economy.

Highly divergent, one could argue polar, forces exist in the cultures of the Silk Road Economic Block.  Nowhere are the divides between wealth and poverty; progress vs. preservation; theism and modernism more brightly illuminated.  Nowhere is there a more concentrated aggregation of wealth denominated in U.S. dollars.  Nowhere are markets so entirely dependent on the consumption of energy, goods, and services demanded by, but out-sourced from, the West.  However, in spite of these conditions, a single catalyzing event (triggered by war on an economic or corporeal level) could serve to unite those who appear so woefully segregated.  Who would have imagined that Chinese restaurants would become commonplace in Tehran?  Who could imagine that China could evolve an intellectual property regime that would actually begin successfully invalidating presumptive monopolies that other nations feared to challenge?  Could it be possible that ½ the world could create a self-sustaining resiliency that would be denominated on a non-U.S. treasury / currency platform?  Could a new paradigm integrating compulsory, ethical innovation licensing be paid for in “virtual value units” that entitle the bearer to water or energy rather than a call option on a Central Bank?  Is it possible that we’ve actually placed in motion sufficient antipathy to forge Atheist, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim alliances that embrace more common values than the Anglo-Saxon values we seek to purvey? 

Ten years hence, Chinese won’t be buying IBM computer businesses – they will be engineering nanotechnology autonomous appliances.  While we debate how to deal with global warming in the U.S., New Delhi and Cairo may very well fund emission free public transport.  While our aging population finds itself under increasing financial burden to pay for medicine, Abu Dhabi Organics may be feeding the Gulf States medicament plants engineered at that National Research Center for Genetics and Bioengineering.  And, yes, my dear friends in the Kashmir may finally have the traditional herb compound that grows back my hair.

Today, we can choose the path that allows us to participate with those for whom we’ve had exclusionary practices for years.  We can begin to unwind the pejorative archetypes defining those like us as developed and those unlike us as aspirants.   We can participate in the financial accountability of ethical investing.  We can enter into dialogue with those we’re sure seek to do us harm.  Can we sit and objectively listen to former President Khatami quote the great Persian poet Sa’di’s words, “With devotion I will take that poison as the cure has been created by the Almighty,” and understand that this riddle contains not only the key to understanding those we find so foreign but a gentle echo of the admonition from the very Bank for International Settlements with whom no Silk Road voice conferred?  We have before us the paradox left by our Greek progenitors – to choose an Odyessian or Orphean destiny for the sirens are singing.  I choose the sweeter sound.


Saturday, January 11, 2014

Freely Poisoning the Elk River

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I was walking in the pouring rain this morning.  The temperature was hovering just around freezing.  The largest lake – once a vital water supply for the city of Charlottesville – was still covered with ice save an area of about 100 square meters that had been kept in motion by the Canadian geese that winter in our giant backyard.  The geese were foraging on the muddy banks moving in and out of the mist that shrouded the cedar trees.  My breath lingered in front of my face just long enough to remind me of the warmth that I was expelling against the cold enveloping me.  All was quiet and still.  Water everywhere. 

One hundred seventy miles away at a bearing of 277 over 300,000 people were awash in a very different experience with water.  Courtesy of a $400,000 grant from the Federal Government’s “stimulus” program provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the spring of 2009, Dennis Farrell’s plans to vacate his toxic chemical processing and storage facility were thwarted and his much needed river dredging took place.  The Elk River and filled with so much sand, silt and mud that it had “affected barge service from his business.”  Together with Martin Marietta and Arrow Concrete, Freedom Industries needed the Elk to run deep so they could be “economically fit to run the facility”.  Reading the Friday May 8, 2009 article by Jake Stump, a reporter for the Daily Mail Capitol Reporter, I wondered how many West Virginian’s would be pleased to know that the estimated $26 million in profit that Freedom Industries reportedly made back then was more important to company owners than insuring against the leak that has rendered the State Capitol a Federal Disaster Area where all you can do with the water is flush toilets.  If the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hadn’t dredged the river, it would have “cut the heart out of this company,” Farrell was quoted as saying.  A few short years later, Freedom Industries, profitable heart still pumping had an aneurysm that has put the body in jeopardy.

The water contamination in Charleston West Virginia is a disaster to be sure.  Having hundreds of thousands of people unable to drink, wash, or prepare food is an unspeakable tragedy.  But the reporting and the public discourse around the estimated 5,000 gallons of uncontained methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) seems to be neglecting the fact to which we’re all supposed to remain oblivious.  This event is a crisis of the Commons and we’re missing the story.

MCHM is known to be hazardous to humans.  According to the National Library of Medicine, low dose exposure can irritate the eyes and skin while larger dose exposure can cause damage to the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys and may result in death.  Medical journals from the early 1980s reported on environmental exposure leading to serious morbidity and mortality concerns.  At the incorporation of Freedom Industries in 1986, we knew that MCHM was toxic and harmful to humans.  Yet We The People thought that it was good economics to place this plant on a river that serves as a watershed and drinking source for hundreds of thousands of people.  Why? Because barge transport (the reported secret to Freedom Industries’ economic success) on a public waterway (the Commons) was profitably expedient. 

And while every news network squawks on about citizens drinking bottled water and being unable to bathe, wash dishes or go out to eat at the now shuttered restaurants, none of the coverage actually takes on the fundamental issue.  We The People paid $400,000 for the right to have this disaster.  We The People will now have the right to pay for the clean-up and the massive loss of revenue to West Virginia’s businesses.  And, reflexively, We The People will turn to the Department of Homeland Security, the National Guard, FEMA and charities to address the immediate human suffering all the while neglecting the hundreds of Freedom Industries clones across the country and around the world where the utility of nature is being used for unconsidered profit while the same utility becomes the agency of our collective poisoning. 

When I was a kid, I remember sitting in the winter rain at our house at 357 South San Antonio, Upland California about this time of year.  Migrating Cedar Waxwings would leave their breeding grounds in northern Canada and fly south to balmy southern California where a raucous flock of them would visit our house.  Perched on the powerlines running down the street, the birds would gather in the morning for a Bacchanalian festival of epic proportions.  You see, in front of our house we had a pyracantha bush which, in the winter, would be covered in bright red and orange pomes.  Each year, these berry-looking clusters would ferment and, by the time of the birds’ arrival, they would be entirely laden with alcohol.  Predictably, the early flights of the birds would be from the lines to the bush and then back to the lines.  As the morning wore on, landing on the lines got ever more tenuous and by midday, many of the birds were too drunk to fly.  Invariably, some of these little fowl would wind up dropping out of the sky and landing in the path of cars zipping up and down San Antonio Blvd and end their tiny existence – all for what seemed like such a great idea. 

I reflected on these birds when I noticed on the Freedom Industries website their red white and blue emblazoned bald eagle – land of the free, home of the brave, patriotic façade – and the far less visible, subtle chemical compound on the upper left of the site – H3COH.  My childhood birdies were killed with ethanol – C2H6O – but let’s not stand on chemical ceremony.  When you feed an eagle methanol, you get a toxically drunk eagle just like when Cedar Waxwings eat lethal doses of ethanol.  And if the flock of cackling, drunk birds (in my metaphor, the horde of media converging on Charleston) don’t snap out of it, we’ll migrate to another one of these entirely avoidable tragedies again – maybe next year, maybe tomorrow – who knows?

At a speech I gave recently, I ranted endlessly about the use of the word “free”.  In the instance of my presentation, I was highlighting the fact that the concept of “free” is a social illusion that really masks the deep pathology of callous ignorance and indifference.  The illusion of “free” invites its evil corollary “for the taking” and leads to a conscious neglect of considering the entirety of a system.  The Elk River wasn’t “free” to “use”.  And now that We The People have contaminated it, we’re given an opportunity to reflect on the fact that the water we take from it is not “free” either.  If we actually saw the Elk River as an invaluable treasure, we wouldn’t foul it with chemical plants and barges.  If we saw water as the undisputed arbiter of life and death, we’d be less willing to see others destroy it.  But we don’t!  And, on this rainy, chilly January weekend, we’re paying for “free”.


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Sunday, January 5, 2014

Beyond the Barricade in Tahrir Square

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 Driving north up Al Kasr Al Aini towards the barricade on the south side of Tahrir Square we quickly realized the great fortune of selecting the right-hand lanes of traffic as the left stood motionless behind the snarled Sunday evening traffic.  To make matters worse, the piercing blue and red strobe lights of emergency vehicles indicated that those on the left would likely remain in stasis for quite some time. 

“Alhamdulillah,” my companion commented as we sped past the less fortunate commuters just meters away recognizing that the difference between arriving at dinner on time or hours late was providently decided by a traffic impulse a mile earlier.

This morning, I glanced at the news on my way to my early morning workout.  Blackberry had filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Typo Products.  Blackberry geniuses Jason Griffin, John Holmes, Mihal Lazaridis, Herb Little, and Harry Major had convinced U.S. Patent examiner Monsour Said to grant them a patent on “a handheld messaging device for wireless e-mail that is optimally configured to facilitate thumb-typing with thumbs, comprising a keyboard having a plurality of keys representing the letters of the alphabet said keyboard integral to the hand held messaging device….”  Apparently neither the Blackberry engineers nor the patent examiner were familiar with the theorem from 1913 set forth by French mathematician Emile Borel who examined the probability of the infinite number of monkeys on the infinite number of keyboards reproducing works of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  Undoubtedly, said French monkeys on said keyboards would have used “thumb-typing with thumbs” in 1913 making Blackberry’s infringe-able invention in 1998 highly anticipated and not inventive.   As if 100 year old French monkeys aren’t reason enough to dismiss this frivolity distracting the venue of insanity also known as the Northern District of California Court, the “revolutionary” product (their characterization) created by Typo Products representing the “culmination of years of development and research” (their characterization) that allows iPhone users to use a keyboard affixed atop the flat screen is a retrofit snapped over the iPhone casing and therefore fails Blackberry’s first claim of being “integral” to the device. 

As I’ve done for decades, I had the opportunity to sit down - this time in Egypt - with aspiring entrepreneurs – a term originally used to described the manager of a theatrical production or a circus (do I sense a French theme in this post?).  This group was working to eradicate from Egypt the horrific legacy of war in the form of vast tracts of land filled with landmines and, compliant with the misguided advice of business consultants who favor more monkey than mathematician, sought to reassure me that their ‘invention’ was ‘patented’.  These patents, they argued, were part of the value proposition of their endeavor.  Having begun my day with Canadian monkey business, I was disheartened to see passionate young Egyptian men ‘pitching’ an illusion that had distracted them from the legitimate and laudable endeavor upon which they had embarked. 

Listening to these gentlemen detail the gruesome scourge of lost lives and limbs throughout Egypt courtesy of Norwegian Nils Waltersen Aasen’s invention of the modern anti-personnel landmine on the eve of World War I, I was struck by the ironies of the day.  Nearly 100 years ago, Aasen was made an honorary colonel in the French army and was awarded the status of Chevalier in the Legion d’honneur for his anonymous armaments.  This inventor of “the automatic soldier” set in motion a century of death that my Egyptian friends sought to destroy with a ‘patented’ automatic mine detector.  Both of them promoted their efforts as ‘inventions’.  Both sought speculative investors to fund their novelties.  Separated by a century, neither fully contemplated the trajectory of their endeavors – ignoring the ample lessons from history and oblivious to the sustainability of their efforts in the future.

Far more dangerous to humanity than buried landmines is the proliferation of distracted intentions.  There’s no question that the gentlemen I met today are zealous about ridding Egypt and the rest of the world of hidden agents of death and destruction.  There’s no question that they’ve undertaken considerable time and effort to develop technical solutions that can go a long way in addressing a problem that plagues millions of acres and kills or maims thousands each year.  And with 155 signatory countries to the Ottawa Treaty who agree that they will not use, develop, manufacture, stock-pile or traffic and trade landmines, their effort is certain to appeal to the morality of a vast majority of humanity.  So why is it that these young men so willing to serve humanity believe that their effort is served by laying cognitive ‘landmines’ in the illusory landscape of innovation?  What evidence could anyone point to that supports the hypothesis that patenting the method to rid the world of landmines actually serves humanity more effectively than collaborating with humanity to achieve the same outcome?  The answer.  None.

As I’ve stated before, one of the most prolific deterrents to the success of human enterprise is the reflex to force every impulse into a consensus structure or form.  We pretend to celebrate creativity in technical adaptation and engineering, for example, but we find anathema equivalent creativity in business models or the provisioning of the same.  Figure out the angulation of keys on a typewriter modeled after the 1868 U.S. Patent 79,265 awarded to QWERTY inventors Sholes, Glidden and Soule so that opposable thumb primates can tweet to one another while driving and you’re celebrated as worthy of infringement defense.  Suggest that you consider a business approach other than the broken VC model of the failed U.S. and European inefficient capital roulette wheel and you’re crazy.  Why?  Because with conformity comes control.  And with control comes the ease of reinforcing incumbencies.  And with incumbencies comes the maintenance of the status quo – a status quo that has, for 100 years, accepted the fact that people who don’t matter in places that don’t matter randomly trigger forgotten landmines.  And, like the axiomatic silent tree that falls in the earless forest, the landmine that is never detected by the invention that never gets funded that kills the farmer that never was considered is something that the status quo never hears because it doesn’t make a sound in the Silicon Valleys of the Knowledge Economy.