Friday, November 28, 2014

Seeing systemic violence in my life

"A prophet does not 'see' the future, he or she sees the present with such clarity that the future is obvious."
- anon
"Civilization is based on a clearly defined and widely accepted yet often unarticulated hierarchy. Violence done by those higher on the hierarchy to those lower is nearly always invisible, that is, unnoticed. When it is noticed, it is fully rationalized. Violence done by those lower on the hierarchy to those higher is unthinkable, and when it does occur is regarded with shock, horror, and the fetishization of the victims."
- Derrick Jensen
A few months ago, I tried to explain to a friend making $150,000/year how systemic violence works in our society, even against relatively well off people like him. Anyone who chooses to can see this violence committed against the poorest sectors of our society on a daily basis, but most people I know are blind to how this violence is committed against themselves as well.

So I'd like to share the story of how half my extended family was poisoned this summer to illustrate the issue. Unless they choose to move away, they will continue to be poisoned for the rest of their lives, and they will live with and pay for the health consequences.

Part 1: The Violence Flowing Down the Heirarchy

In July, I found this news item: State poised to shut down 11 local oil injection wells (h/t ZeroHedge). From the article (published July 3, 2014; emphasis mine):
Seven independent oil companies have been ordered to halt state-approved wastewater injection work starting noon Monday out of concern they may be contaminating Kern County drinking water.
Emergency orders issued Wednesday by the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources apply to 11 disposal wells east and northeast of Bakersfield. About 100 water wells are located within a mile radius of the disposal wells.

Oil and water officials say the wells may have injected "produced water" -- the toxic and sometimes radioactive liquid that comes up during oil production -- and possibly injected fracking fluid at relatively shallow depths that contain relatively low salinity, oil-free water suitable for drinking and irrigation.
State officials said they have found no evidence the underground injections, some approved by DOGGR as long ago as the 1970s and others very recently, have ever contaminated drinking or irrigation water. Pollution has not been ruled out, however, as regulators conduct site inspections and await test results and other information from the companies.
I learned about the fracking problem in Kern County, California while living in Earthaven, an ecovillage full of social activists who've seen such damage by powerful corporations and the surrounding lies many times. I went to a friend and said, "Regulators just said they told frackers to stop injecting waste water near a city where my family lives, and where I plan to visit soon. But we shouldn't be alarmed because they haven't found signs of danger to drinking water. And you know what that means..." And she and I said in unison: "they found signs of danger to drinking water!"

So I asked, what should I do? I'm going to visit my family in California in a few months. Do I drink their water? Even if I don't drink their tap water, do I eat food they make locally with their local, toxic water? My family believes the government would protect them, and companies wouldn't knowingly inject millions of gallons of toxins into their drinking water, so they'll think I'm nuts if I refuse to drink their water or eat their food - plus it would be impolite, not to mention expensive, as a guest to refuse every single offer of local food and water for my weeks-long stay. To avoid drinking chemicals like mercury, arsenic, lead, and many others, I'd have to be rude!

In the end, during my family visit, I tried to drink my own water where I could. Still, in the interest of minimizing friction with my family, I often ate and drank the same things they did.

Then, in October, this news item appeared: 3 Billion Gallons Of Fracking Wastewater Pumped Into Clean California Aquifiers: "Errors Were Made" State Admits (bolding in original article)
[...] as the California’s Department of Conservation’s Chief Deputy Director, Jason Marshall, told NBC Bay Area, California state officials allowed oil and gas companies to pump up to 3 billion gallons (call it 70 million barrels) of oil fracking-contaminated waste water into formerly clean aquifiers, aquifiers which at least on paper are supposed to be off-limits to that kind of activity, and are protected by the government's EPA - an agency which, it appears, was richly compensated by the same oil and gas companies to look elsewhere.
And the scariest words of admission one can ever hear from a government apparatchik: "In multiple different places of the permitting process an error could have been made."
Because nothing short of a full-blown disaster prompts the use of the dreaded passive voice. And what was unsaid is that the "biggest error that was made" is that someone caught California regulators screwing over the taxpayers just so a few oil majors could save their shareholders a few billion dollars in overhead fees.
The process, for those confused, explained by NBC:
In “fracking” or hydraulic fracturing operations, oil and gas companies use massive amounts of water to force the release of underground fossil fuels. The practice produces large amounts of waste water that must then be disposed of.

Marshall said that often times, oil and gas companies simply re-inject that waste water back deep underground where the oil extraction took place. But other times, Marshall said, the waste water is re-injected into aquifers closer to the surface. Those injections are supposed to go into aquifers that the EPA calls “exempt”—in other words, not clean enough for humans to drink or use.

But in the State’s letter to the EPA, officials admit that in at least nine waste water injection wells, the waste water was injected into “non-exempt” or clean aquifers containing high quality water.

For the EPA, “non-exempt” aquifers are underground bodies of water that are “containing high quality water” that can be used by humans to drink, water animals or irrigate crops.

If the waste water re-injection well “went into a non-exempt aquifer. It should not have been permitted,” said Marshall.
Yet it was, to the tune of 3 billion gallons. And nobody said a word about it until someone finally did a little research and found that people, especially those in power, lie.
And lie they did because the severity of the pollution is only now becoming clear:
In its reply letter to the EPA, California’s Water Resources Control Board said its “staff identified 108 water supply wells located within a one-mile radius of seven…injection wells” and that The Central Valley Water Board conducted sampling of “eight water supply wells in the vicinity of some of these… wells.”

“This is something that is going to slowly contaminate everything we know around here,” said fourth- generation Kern County almond grower Tom Frantz, who lives down the road from several of the injection wells in question.

According to state records, as many as 40 water supply wells, including domestic drinking wells, are located within one mile of a single well that’s been injecting into non-exempt aquifers.

That well is located in an area with several homes nearby, right in the middle of a citrus grove southeast of Bakersfield.
In the meantime, the oil companies are already taking defensive measures, blaming the fiasco on... a "paperwork issue."
The trade association that represents many of California’s oil and gas companies says the water-injection is a “paperwork issue.” In a statement issued to NBC Bay Area, Western States Petroleum Association spokesman Tupper Hull said “there has never been a bona vide claim or evidence presented that the paperwork confusion resulted in any contamination of drinking supplies near the disputed injection wells.”
Well, actually, there is:
However, state officials tested 8 water supply wells within a one-mile radius of some of those wells.
Four water samples came back with higher than allowable levels of nitrate, arsenic, and thallium.
Those same chemicals are used by the oil and gas industry in the hydraulic fracturing process and can be found in oil recovery waste-water.
Similar to how no financial elites went to jail for massive crimes after the crash of 2008, there's no talk of jailing leaders of these companies for poisoning the water of millions of people (in the middle of a drought no less). In California, there's a 3-strikes law where a person who commits a 3rd felony gets a significantly worse sentence than he would if it were not the 3rd time. And what happens to companies that commit millions of felonies? They book the profits and call it a paperwork problem.

Part 2: What happens when we try to stop the violence?
Most people I know don't believe in systemic violence because they believe some combination of the following:
  1. Government regulators for the most part prevent bad behavior, with occasional mistakes
  2. Government prosecutors go after the bad actors, further disincentivizing bad behavior
  3. Most companies wouldn't knowingly do evil, with occasional exceptions
  4. If things got bad enough, I could exercise my constitutional rights to work with others to force positive change. This is a free, democratic country after all!
(4) is the most interesting because it's entirely theoretical for most of my friends and family. That is, they live well enough that they've never had cause to try to effectively change some significantly bad aspect of the society they live in. If my family really decided to understand the political/economic/social root problems that lead to this mass poisoning, and tried to join others to resolve those problems, what obstacles would they face?

Unfortunately, the Occupy protests and the violent police and judicial response to them showed that my family would have a very hard time exercising their Constitutional rights. Chris Hedges documents a recent example of judicial and police corruption that scares people away from social activism. I'll quote him at length, but read the whole article for more:
Update: On May 19 Cecily McMillan was sentenced to three months in jail and five years of probation, plus community service. Click on the word Guardian and the words Huffington Post to see articles on the sentencing.
NEW YORK—Cecily McMillan, wearing a red dress and high heels, her dark, shoulder-length hair stylishly curled, sat behind a table with her two lawyers Friday morning facing Judge Ronald A. Zweibel in Room 1116 at the Manhattan Criminal Court. The judge seems to have alternated between boredom and rage throughout the trial, now three weeks old. He has repeatedly thrown caustic barbs at her lawyers and arbitrarily shut down many of the avenues of defense. Friday was no exception.
The silver-haired Zweibel curtly dismissed a request by defense lawyers Martin Stolar and Rebecca Heinegg for a motion to dismiss the case. The lawyers had attempted to argue that testimony from the officer who arrested McMillan violated Fifth Amendment restrictions against the use of comments made by a defendant at the time of arrest. But the judge, who has issued an unusual gag order that bars McMillan’s lawyers from speaking to the press, was visibly impatient, snapping, “This debate is going to end.” He then went on to uphold his earlier decision to heavily censor videos taken during the arrest, a decision Stolar said “is cutting the heart out of my ability to refute” the prosecution’s charge that McMillan faked a medical seizure in an attempt to avoid being arrested. “I’m totally handicapped,” Stolar lamented to Zweibel.
The trial of McMillan, 25, is one of the last criminal cases originating from the Occupy protest movement. It is also one of the most emblematic. The state, after the coordinated nationwide eradication of Occupy encampments, has relentlessly used the courts to harass and neutralize Occupy activists, often handing out long probation terms that come with activists’ forced acceptance of felony charges. A felony charge makes it harder to find employment and bars those with such convictions from serving on juries or working for law enforcement. Most important, the long probation terms effectively prohibit further activism.
The Occupy Wall Street movement was not only about battling back against the rise of a corporate oligarchy that has sabotaged our democracy and made war on the poor and the working class. It was also about our right to peaceful protest. The police in cities across the country have been used to short-circuit this right. I watched New York City police during the Occupy protests yank people from sidewalks into the street, where they would be arrested. I saw police routinely shove protesters and beat them with batons. I saw activists slammed against police cars. I saw groups of protesters suddenly herded like sheep to be confined within police barricades. I saw, and was caught up in, mass arrests in which those around me were handcuffed and then thrown violently onto the sidewalk. The police often blasted pepper spray into faces from inches away, temporarily blinding the victims. This violence, carried out against nonviolent protesters, came amid draconian city ordinances that effectively outlawed protest and banned demonstrators from public spaces. It was buttressed by heavy police infiltration and surveillance of the movement. When the press or activists attempted to document the abuse by police they often were assaulted or otherwise blocked from taking photographs or videos. The message the state delivered is clear: Do not dissent. And the McMillan trial is part of the process.
McMillan, who spent part of her childhood living in a trailer park in rural Texas and who now is a graduate student at The New School for Social Research in New York, found herself with several hundred other activists at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan in March 2012 to mark the six-month anniversary of the start of Occupy Wall Street. The city, fearing the re-establishment of an encampment, deployed large numbers of police officers to clear the park just before midnight of that March 17. The police, heavily shielded, stormed into the gathering in fast-moving lines. Activists were shoved, hit, knocked to the ground. Some ran for safety. More than 100 people were arrested on the anniversary. After the violence, numerous activists would call the police aggression perhaps the worst experienced by the Occupy movement. In the mayhem McMillan—whose bruises were photographed and subsequently were displayed to Amy Goodman on the “Democracy Now!” radio, television and Internet program—was manhandled by a police officer later identified as Grantley Bovell. [Click here to see McMillan interviewed on “Democracy Now!” She appears in the last 10 minutes of the program.]
Bovell, who was in plainclothes and who, according to McMillan, did not identify himself as a policeman, allegedly came up from behind and grabbed McMillan’s breast—a perverse form of assault by New York City police that other female activists, too, suffered during Occupy protests. McMillan’s elbow made contact with his face, just below the eye, in what she says appeared to be a reaction to the grope; she says she has no memory of the incident. By the end of the confrontation she was lying on the ground bruised, beaten and convulsing. She was taken to a hospital emergency room, where police handcuffed her to a bed.
Had McMillan not been an Occupy activist, the trial that came out of this beating would have been about her receiving restitution from New York City for police abuse. Instead, she is charged with felony assault in the second degree and facing up to seven years in prison. She is expected to take the witness stand this week. [...]
For more info about the arrest incident and trial, refer to a follow-up article by Chris Hedges.

To summarize: a plainclothes police officer sexually assaulted a peaceful protester, surprising her from behind. When she instinctively threw her arms up to protect herself, he violently threw her to the ground and charged her with assault of a police officer. The judge systematically disallowed any evidence showing that the police attacked her and other protesters rather than the reverse. The peaceful protester was convicted of felony assault of a police officer.

It's not just black people in Ferguson who are victims of systemic violence. All of us are subjected to it, through bailouts and non-prosecution if financial criminals, non-enforcement of environmental regulations that lead to toxic air, water and food, and wars that waste money and lives, destroy the environment, and generate more 'terrorists' than they kill. 

Of course, if we try to respond effectively and directly, we encounter incredible police and judicial brutality. And note that every story in this article occurred under Democratic administrations - in California with Governor Jerry Brown and the national Occupy response was coordinated under Democratic President Obama.

This is the essence of systemic violence: everyone is allowed to do the most appealing work they can find and then spend their money on amusements. Responding ineffectively to real problems, for example by complaining on Facebook or sending chain-emails, is allowed. But when people coalesce into groups and really try to cause significant change, even totally peacefully, the violent response comes out.

We cannot await the next election to hope for effective change. We will only be able to choose the lesser of two evils, while neither  choice will effectively address our problems. We must understand the real problems we face and work together with others in our community to protect ourselves.

More reading:
For a record of police brutality against Occupy protesters, refer to this study by NYU School of Law and Fordham Law School: Suppressing Protest: Human Rights Violations in the US Response to Occupy Wall Street.

For a list of chemicals commonly found in fracking waste water, and now in aquifers, streams and tapwater in areas across America, see page 5-102 in this report by New York's Department of Environmental Conservation.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Learning Spanish (or any language) quickly

I'm now in Quito, Ecuador studying Spanish intensively, and I want to share some language-learning methods I've developed that are really helping me. I've tried learning Spanish on-and-off before, but I couldn't say anything outside of the present tense before about 2 weeks prior to arriving in Quito. By the time I arrived, I got slotted as an intermediate student and was speaking in several past and future tenses. I was making lots of mistakes and forgot the words for 'black' and 'white' on the first day, but I was still able to speak intelligibly about relatively complex ideas.

This post describes some resources and techniques I've been using. Besides the ideas from the book and 'fan-fold', which I learned in high school, all these are things I've invented to help me learn Spanish faster. Refining the learning techniques has been a fun side project as I learn the language.

How to Learn Any Language
"How to Learn Any Language" is a book by Barry Farber that I highly recommend. It's a short read at ~150 pages, but it has some pretty powerful ideas. Among them:
  • Throw yourself at the language: don't let the task overwhelm you; instead, commit to grabbing the bull by the horns and immersing yourself in it as much as possible. Commit to total understanding and perfect accent rather than half-assing and learning traveler-speak, and be excited that you're going to be so good.
  • Interact with the language: closely related to (1) above, don't just passively listen to audio programs or read text without trying to understand and really comprehend.
  • Always keep a flash card on you: Waiting at the bank, filling the car with gas, or waiting to pick up a family member? If you have flash cards, it isn't wasted time. And the honest feeling of growth is more meaningful than checking Facebook for the 10th time. Even if you have just 5 seconds, commit to learning 1 word really well.
  • Read real newspaper articles at adult writing levels: part of 'throw yourself at the language', print a newspaper article and highight the words you don't know and look them up. This'll take awhile, but if you stick to the same topic, eventually it'll take less and less time and you'll be reading real material in your target language within a few weeks-months rather than waiting 'til you've gone all the way through a 4 year course.
  • Use Visualization and Assocation to learn vocab: this is super cool, and I don't do it enough. There are lots of cool techniques for memorizing massive amounts of info quickly. One is the "method of loci", where you associate words/faces/etc with places in an imagined physical space like a part of house (read more). Another fun trick is to associate the sound of a new vocab word with the definition somehow, and the more meaningful or personalized the association the better. Making associations raunchy or funny only makes the memory stick better. (Read more)
  • Get a good audio program and use it regularly: Farber recommends the Pimsleur audio language guides, and I found the Spanish Pimsleur programs to be really helpful. They're very different than the standard 'hear a word, repeat the word' junk. They kept me engaged and I found that I remembered what I was learning pretty well. I definitely recommend them. Check your library before you go out and buy a copy. 
There are probably other techniques in the book, but these are the ones that have influenced me.
    My Additions to These Techniques
    Use "Fan Folds" to rock the vocab and even grammar
    To make a fan-fold, take a sheet of lined paper and write a list of 20-30 words in Spanish in a 1-2 inch wide column on the left side. Make another 1-2 inch wide column adjacent to it and add the English translation. This table below will represent the paper at this stage:

    comerto eat
    vivirto live
    hablarto speak
    irto go
    caminarto walk
    el colorthe color
    ... más ...... more ...

    Now fold the paper so the Spanish column is hidden. You should only see the English and the rest of the empty page. Now translate the English into a new column to the right so it looks like this:

    [folded back]to eatcomer
    [folded back]to livevivir
    [folded back]to speakhablar
    [folded back]to goir
    [folded back]to walkcocinar caminar
    [folded back]the colorel color
    [folded back]... more ...... más ...

    Once you've finished, go back and correct your translations. I mistakenly put cocinar (to cook) where I should have put caminar (to walk). But now this column is corrected, so I can fold the English column back and translate the new Spanish column into English. Eventually you'll have 7-8 columns of words on the page: a Spanish column, then the English column, Spanish, English, and so on. If you use the back, you can get ~15 columns on one sheet. I like this better than flash cards for studying vocab at home for a few reasons:
    • Less clutter: 25 words to a page instead of 5 to a card means 1/5 the paper
    • Practice writing: flash cards are read-only after they're created. Writing helps with memorizing both the definition and spelling.
    • Make themed fan-folds: I have a fan-fold here for all the verbs that are irregular in present tense by changing a vowel from 'e' to 'ie', for example 'pensar' changes to 'yo pienso' (I think). Likewise I have an opposites list: hot, cold, big, small, cute, ugly, fat, skinny.
    I like to do the first 4-5 columns in one sitting to really begin memorizing. Then I put away the list and do another column before bed and then another column every day or so. That way I spread the memorizing out over days and really get the words into long-term memory. Combine this with trying to use the words in daily life or in your readings or writings, and those words are yours!

    Treat grammar like vocab
    The perfect tenses are the ones with 'have': I will have eaten, I have eaten, I had eaten, etc. To learn these tenses, all I needed to know was how to conjugate "have", how to form the past participle for verbs, and how to put the two into a sentence. That means I need to learn 3 sets of conjugations for 'haber', one rule for making participles, and one rule for making simple sentences in perfect tenses.

    Rather than learn one tense at a time, I put all the conjugations of the Spanish word for "have" ("haber") into a fan-fold, and practiced them just like I practice any other vocab. Within a day I could speak very simply but intelligibly in the 3 perfect tenses that I care about.

    Get excited about small wins and share the excitement
    When I learn a word one night and it comes up in conversation the next day, and I get it right, that feels really good. I dance a little jig inside. Sometimes, after finishing my sentence, I'll even jokingly tell the person, "Hey, by the way, I just learned that word last night!"

    Never ever ever grind at meaningless vocab or grammar!
    Learning things you don't care about sucks. Bottom line. I've avoided this in a few ways...

    Write out in English what you want to say in Spanish and translate
    I've written out several conversations in English that I realllly wish I could have in Spanish, and then I've tried to translate them. I have the luxury of bringing my translations into my Spanish teacher here to correct, but even if I didn't, translating things at night that I really wish I could have said earlier in the day means that every word and grammatical construct is totally relevant - as I learn the grammar/vocab/idioms I am actively relieving the frustration I felt recently at not being able to say something. I don't know how better to motivate learning than that.

    In addition to conversations, I have also written and corrected several emails in Spanish, and I'm thinking of writing a short story to help practice some past tenses with irregular verbs. I pretty much told my teacher to stop assigning me homework because my 'exercises' were helping so much more.

    Find News Articles or Essays that Actually Matter to You and Have Translations
    I tried Barry Farber's "read newspaper articles" technique and was bored out of my mind, mostly because most news articles are boring and hide more than they illuminate. Then I realized that I follow several writers whose works are translated into Spanish to help them reach a broader audience. The two authors I used for this were Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges. Their work is translated and posted all over, but I used this site to find Spanish versions. Depending on my mood, I translated Spanish to English or English to Spanish.

    Their essays are about as challenging as clearly-written essays get. By the time I was finished with one article from each author, my "social activism" vocab was way bigger than my "kitchen" or "how to shop" vocab, but the articles sustained my interest since I was actually learning meaningful things, and I started to understand grammar students don't normally get 'til their 3rd/4th year. And yeah, I didn't know how to shop when I got to Quito, but I knew a little about how to tell people why I'm here - again, only the vocab that is meaningful to me.

    A super helpful and free resource is Alba Learning. You can find dozens of stories in clearly-spoken audio form along with an exact word-for-word transcript. I've looked high and low, and I haven't found a free service nearly as good. The website has children's and adult's stories, erotica, poetry, mysteries, you name it. Sometimes, after spending hours reading/translating Chomsky or Chris Hedges, reading and listening to some children's stories felt like a nice break!

    I used that site a few ways:
    • Listen first: listen without reading, then at the end of the story, pause and remember as much as you can about the the story. Maybe listen again, or maybe read the transcript while listening. Underline and look up any vocab you need to. Add vocab from these stories to a common fanfold.
    • Read first: Read the transcript first, underlining-and-looking-up vocab as needed before listening. Then listen with or without transcript in front of you. This tests listening when you have most/all of the vocab under your belt.

    I downloaded the audio and printed transcripts for 15-20 children's stories and did those exercises while traveling around. It was super helpful.

    Learn what you're interested in, don't learn in some arbitrary order
    For me, keeping the studying relevant is necessary for keeping it fun, and keeping it fun is necessary to sustain interest and energy.

    As you can tell from the social-activist translations, and other exercises, I'm learning super out-of-order by the standards of most curricula. People ask me why I'm here and I want to tell them I want to study how to live within an ecosystem, and they ask what I've done so far in this journey and I end up talking about living in an ecovillage in the woods of North Carolina. So my vocab includes "ecological community" and "neo-indigenous", and I barely know the words for common clothes or the names of furniture pieces. But guess what - I'm having really interesting conversations with interesting people, and my interest in the language and how it will help me is only growing as I study and meet people here. I can't overemphasize how helpful it's been to "grab the language by the horns", as Barry recommends, and learn what feels right at each step.

    Even immersing myself here is more easy and fun with this system: I'd probably not be finding such interesting people if I could only talk about shopping, furniture, clothes, and other 1st/2nd year vocab. And the folks I'm finding wouldn't think I was as interesting a person, and our connection would be weaker.

    It's not just the vocab though. Instead of plowing through a textbook chapter of "LEARN ALL THE IMPERFECT PAST TENSE RIGHT NOW", I learn tenses as I go. That means I don't learn irregular verbs until I need them - that is, until I stumble across them in reading or I'm corrected by someone. This is also like a child's learning their first language: don't learn a whole tense at once, but words and rules as you go. It means after 3-4 weeks of decently intense study I can speak intelligibly if often incorrectly in each of past, present, future, conditional tenses. And that means immersing myself here is easier, since I can express complex thoughts and have interesting conversations. Sometimes I get frustrated at only learning by reading/speaking, so as I mentioned earlier, I'll make a fan-fold out of a whole class of irregular verbs and learn it once and for all.

    Sometimes I've found myself limited to simple thoughts because I only know simple words. Being able to express all the tenses and conditionality has helped me avoid this.

    Laugh at mistakes
    Mistakes are a great chance to build repoire with someone. Mistakes are learning opportunities and they're often funny, or can be with the right attitude. When I have this attitude, I'm letting the person I'm talking with know that I can accept constructive criticism, I'm a fun person, and... in general, I'm not an asshole. So I get corrected more, learn more, and feel less frustrated during this phase of intense learning (and mistake making).

    I've even caught my (relatively new and pretty cute) Spanish teacher making a mistake 2-3 times since arriving, and we have as much fun with her mistakes as we do with mine. So yeah, have fun.

    Side note: In Walter Isaacson's biography of Benjamin Franklin, he describes how Franklin and another American assigned as ambassadors to France both tried to learn the language. The other American learned the details of the language better but was very stodgy and not very popular. Franklin was extremely personal, and though he didn't learn French as well, he developed such strong relationships and influence that he was instrumental in bringing the French into the Revolutionary War on the side of the US. The lesson to me is that the whole point of learning a language is to communicate and develop relationships, so while you're learning, don't let the details of the language get in the way of making relationships!

    Go for 'functional' over 'perfect'
    As I've said several times probably, I still mess up a lot, and probably a lot more than I know. I'm purposefully mostly avoiding studying irregular verbs and minor rules in the beginning while I get the main rules down pat. But I'm learning a framework of rules to which I can add exceptions, and I can have complex conversations already, which is really important because I'm only studying at this school for a few months. I don't need to be perfect when I leave, but I need to be functional and I need to be able to self-teach effectively.

    Don't overplan and don't stress about procrastinating
    Just as I don't let textbooks determine the order in which I learn, I don't let "me from 2 days ago" decide either. If on Thursday I think it'd be great to review future perfect tense on Saturday, and Saturday comes and I don't give a shit, I don't study future perfect tense.

    Emotionally this can be a trap. If I study what I'd planned, I get frustrated, bored, and anxious. If I don't study what I'd planned, I can have feelings of disappointment, guilt, and anxiety. Faced with this, I use some meditative techniques I've learned this year to calm down. Among other things, I remember why I'm doing this: to have fun, to be able to talk to a few hundred million people more, and to enable me to explore a new way of life I'm passionate about. So long as I maintain my vision and energy, all I need is to listen to my body, heart and mind and rest when that's the healthy thing to do. This way I'll have the energy to go full blast other times.

    One interesting thing I've heard before, and which I'm confirming for myself now, is that procrastination is often a sign that the task isn't important or reasonable in some way. If I'm too tired or I care too little, I'm likely to procrastinate. Instead of feeling guilty, I ask whether the task matters or whether I need to take a break. Then if I avoid the task, I have no feelings of guilt - I know I can either ditch the task entirely or come back to it when I'm ready.

    Be fearless in conversations and seek opportunities to practice
    I'm hoping to study martial arts, improve at salsa dancing,make friends with locals, and go hiking a few times with a local hiking group while I'm studying in Quito. Among the multitude of reasons I'm interested in these activities, they give me lots of chances to listen to and speak with locals.

    The first step to being fearless in conversations, even with near strangers, is to emotionally accept that the worst thing that can happen is that I make lots of mistakes. Often as not, those mistakes will lead to laughter and make it a more memorable conversation than it would have been anyway - so the worst thing that can happen ain't that bad! And when the worst thing that can happen ain't that bad, you know you're doin' it right.

    Still, I couldn't be fearless if there were truly no way to express the ideas I have. Besides emotionally accepting I'll make mistakes, I have to have some way to express the thoughts, so the other techniques I've used have helped make the immersion much more meaningful. Some Americans I've met have confirmed that merely being in Ecuador and getting 20 hours of private Spanish lessons per week is not enough to really become conversational.

    In Summary
    • Be passionate and reinforce the passion: if you lose interest in your project, how important was it in the first place? Either rekindle your passion or wait 'til it rekindles on its own.
    • Study what you care about when you care: don't waste your time and emotionally energy on things you find boring or meaningless. You won't remember them as well anyway.
    • Don't overcomplicate things: don't learn a rule and 10,000 exceptions at once; learn the rule, practice a bunch, even mis-learning a few irregular verbs, and then correct yourself over time once you're comfortable with the basics. I've found that re-learning irregular verbs is very easy.
    • Sprint to get to past, present, future, and conditional: If you're stuck in present tense, you're stuck expressing incredibly simple ideas no matter your vocab. Learn the main grammar quickly and you'll love dropping in new words to fill the grammatical structures you have.
    • Have fun and don't stress: beats the alternative, right?
    • If immersion or conversations aren't working, find other techniques: Even being immersed, it's easy to not practice large chunks of grammar or vocab by avoiding areas that would challenge you. Be creative about finding other techniques like making up conversations or finding meaningful articles online to supplement.

    A study in natural learning
    Before 'formal education' and when humans lived in smaller, more self-reliant communities, they learned incredible amounts about navigation, plants, medical care, animals, ecology, astronomy, weather, geography - you name it, and without curricula and textbooks. Using a mix of personal exploration and various kinds of mentorship, they learned these things as they needed to, because they needed to or because they were naturally curious. Not to make it sound like it was all fun-times and super easy, but humans have evolved to learn well and rapidly under certain circumstances, and we can learn really poorly if we try to learn under very alien circumstances. So this Spanish-learning experience is actually a chance for me to experiment with and practice a different kind of learning than I experienced in school growing up - experimental, self-directed, self-aware, fun. I expect the techniques and attitudes I'm learning will pay dividends far beyond the actual Spanish.

    I'm also very excited to explore "Coyote Learning". If you're interested in alternative forms of learning, check out short introductions here and here.

    Sunday, November 16, 2014

    A Global Climate Change Primer

    A friend out here in California says she believes global warming is real, but struggles to remember and convey the evidence coherently when it it comes up in conversation. I wrote this short essay to help her.

    What is Global Climate Change?
    "Global Climate Change" is the changing of climates and secondary effects worldwide due to increases in carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.

    What's the science behind Climate Change? How does it happen?
    The sun continuously shines  on the earth. Some energy is radiated back into space, and some is absorbed by the ground and the atmosphere. Gases like CO2, methane, and others are called 'greenhouse gases' because they trap heat energy in the atmosphere, warming the earth's surface and the air (think of greenhouse glass that lets in the sun's energy and holds it in).

    The climate is changing because humans are adding gargantuan amounts of CO2 and methane to the atmosphere - about 30 billion tons annually. Fossil fuels are mostly carbon based, so when we burn them in engines and power plants, the 'waste products' from the combustion are CO2. So long as humans have been burning significant amount of carbon-based energy (the beginning of the industrial revolution, around 1750), we've been altering the atmosphere.

    What are some effects of climate change?
    This depends heavily on the location: some places get more flooding and others more drought, some are cooler but most are much hotter, etc. In general, expect the intensity of weather events to increase - more violent storms, more severe flooding or hurricanes, etc. This makes sense; more heat energy is trapped on the earth by greenhouse gases, and that energy leads weather to be more energetic.

    What effects are we seeing?
    There are hundreds of major effects all over the globe.  Here are just a few examples of evidence you can cite to non-believers:
    • Oceans are 30% more acidic than 200 years ago: this makes the ocean inhospitable to many species who can't live in more acidic environments. More CO2 reacts with salt water to make the ocean more acidic. [0]
    • Insurance companies plan on increasing sea levels and more intense storms[1]
    • Wildlife has moved to find areas with the right temperatures: on sea and land, animals are migrating away from their original habitats towards the poles to stay in areas with temperatures they're used to. [2]
    • Shipping Companies have new shipping routes due to ice loss: the northwest passage, along the northern coast of North America, has been permanently frozen since before recorded history. As of a few years ago, it melts enough every summer to allow shipping traffic. [3]
    What happens if we can't reverse climate change?
    There are many ways this could go bad. Huge heat waves or droughts could cause large crop failures, leading to famines lasting a very long time. For example, heat waves linked to climate change lead to crop failures in 2010, dramatically raising food prices and setting off revolutions all over the middle east[4]. This is one of many possible outcomes, none of them good. The worst case is that climate change destroys enough human habitat that there simply isn't room for us on this planet anymore - not enough other plants and animals to survive on, or farmland that will grow food.

    What can I do about it? How can I think about this problem in a reasonable way?
    I'll share my thoughts in an upcoming essay.

    [0] Oceans more acidic:
    [1] Insurance industry issues:
    [2] Wildlife shifting:
    [3] Ice melting is leading to shipping through northwest passage (northern North America):
    [4] climate change leads to droughts and heat waves, and thus to crop failures and revolutions:

    Saturday, November 15, 2014

    What Am I Doing Part 4: What I'm Actually Doing

    What does real 'sustainable living' look like?
    A sustainable community protects the health of the things it depends on for its way of life: it's that easy. Unsustainable communities either a) are ignorant of what they depend on, and so cannot protect those dependencies, or b) choose to ignore their insight and persist in behavior that damages or uses up things they depend on. At a minimum, these dependencies include access to healthy food, water, and shelter. American industrial society has others: access to fossil fuels, complicated and long-distance logistics chains that enable the construction of complex technologies, stable currency, fresh water in huge quantities, etc.

    I want to learn how to be part of a truly sustainable community. I've broken that into two parts:
    • Regenerative relationship with my ecosystem: I want to learn to live with the land; that means nurturing the life systems that nurture me and my family
    • Become part of a happy, healthy human community: at a minimum, communities must be able to discuss difficult issues and act effectively to protect the resources they depend upon
    Regenerative Relationship With My Ecosystem
    This is pretty simple in theory: if I decide to eat deer, I'll learn what plants deer like to eat and spread those plant seeds throughout the woods. I'll make sure that I don't waste any of the deer that I kill, and I'll make sure I don't overkill - that enough deer live each year to perpetuate the population. If I eat acorns, I'll spread them around and nurture the trees that will grow up to feed my family. Beyond food, this applies to plants that provide cordage and building materials, and everything else I'll depend on: I'll learn how to care for the animal and plant populations I depend upon - and care for them effectively - so I can pass on the same life to future generations.

    Become Part of a Healthy, Happy Community
    Sustainable communities must be able to effectively communicate about very trying issues and be willing to make short term sacrifices for long term gain (even gains generations into the future). This requires a degree of wisdom, emotional maturity, and communication ability (both sharing and listening) that astounds me to think about. The common alternative, which we see in industrial civilizations, is a large heirarchical, unequal society where a few people make decisions for the whole, often for their personal benefit to the detriment of the group.

    The good news is that humans evolved to live in sustainable communities - we're happiest and most fulfilled when we grow up in communities that enable us to sustain ourselves, grow into emotionally strong people, have meaningful spirituality and rituals, and develop intimate bonds of interdependence, friendship, love, and even sexual intimacy with many others. Communities where each person is closely connected to many others have a huge advantage in communicating and making hard decisions.

    And afterwards?
    I've read about this way of life and community, but I want to immerse myself to learn first hand. And so I'm traveling to South America where there are many indigenous, partially indigenous, and newly-indigenous communities living in the way I hope to. Afterwards, whether I join such a group or co-found a new one somewhere or do something else entirely, I will apply what I learn in my own life and be part of a broader movement for protecting the healthy ecosystems we all need to live.

    Friday, November 14, 2014

    What Am I Doing Part 3: Why A Lifestyle Change?

    Consider the scale of our challenges
    Most people I meet care about the problems we face and want to help somehow. Let's take water as a simple example: I've met many people suffering in this California drought who won't order a glass of water at a restaurant unless they're sure they can finish it, or who pave over their lawns so they don't need to water the lawn anymore.

    I respect these people for caring, but what impact will they have? Fracking uses between 70-140 billion gallons each year[1] and makes more water undrinkable by injecting poisonous wastewater into aquifers, and you want to save half a glass when you're out for dinner? The USDA reports that farming in America alone uses 128 billion (Billion!) gallons per day.[2] The first step to responding to our challenges reasonably is to understand them, and especially understand their scale: if we're overconsuming water by billions of gallons, we must learn to save billions of gallons. One woman told me recently, "well, we have to start somewhere." That's technically correct, but if you stop there, the most you 'save' is 1/2 a cup of water during dinner, all you'll have practically accomplished is making yourself feel good while being utterly ineffective in responding to our water shortage.

    Then consider the whole system
    When you start to investigate any given challenge like water overconsumption or climate change, you quickly learn that our biggest challenges are tightly coupled. Obama and various American military officials have said fracking gives America a strategic advantage when dealing with other countries. So if you want to save our water supply by limiting fracking or making it unviable by forcing frackers to clean their water waste, you must weight that against the loss of influence internationally, increased dependence on other countries for our energy, etc. Want to fight climate change? Good luck - one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gases is methane emissions from industrial livestock farms (cow farts!)[3], so you'll have to convince people to go vegetarian all over the world, countering the agriculture industry lobbying and propaganda. 

    Total agriculture-related emissions are 1/3 of all greenhouse gas emissions. At first glance, uses less water to water your lawn than eat a chicken sandwich: the US Geological Survey says a pound of chicken requires 500 gallons of water, including the water to make its feed, to grow the chicken, make the structures to hold it and transport it, etc.[4]

    Ultimately, all these issues are interconnected - water overuse, agriculture, energy, population growth, climate change, war, you name it. We cannot address these issues individually; we must address them together.

    Thus the need for a lifestyle change
    Many are willing to make trivial changes in their lives, but few are willing to acknowledge the systemic issues and respond at the appropriate scale. If the current economic and political system are to survive much longer, we must address these issues at the right scale - otherwise the economy will collapse as it encounters crucial resource shortages and associated financial and social problems.

    I'm choosing to 'collapse early and avoid the rush'[5], as one writer puts it: acknowledge that trivial personal changes are insufficient, and those in power are choosing to respond ineffectively. I want to be part of a movement to create an alternative, more responsible network of communities that safeguard those things which people need for a happy, healthy life: clean water, clean air, good food, shelter, and a healthy community. There are many plausible paths to manifesting this goal, and I'm excited to begin an adventure this year which I hope will get me there. I'll share the plan, such as it is, in the next essay.
    [1] EPA estimate of fracking water usage from 2012:$File/Draft+Plan+to+Study+the+Potential+Impacts+of+Hydraulic+Fracturing+on+Drinking+Water+Resources-February+2011.pdf
    [2] Agriculture water usage is massive:
    [3] Industrial livestock farming as a major source of greenhouse gases: 1/3 of total emissions according to Nature:
    [4] USGS on the how much water it takes to produce various foods:
    [5] John Michael Greer:

    Thursday, November 13, 2014

    What Am I Doing Part 2: Ecological Perspective

    All life requires energy to survive
    All life requires energy to survive. We expend the energy in our body to find food which we can consume to produce more energy, and so on. Most animals expend their bodily energy to catch their food directly, but modern humans living in industrial civilization expend their energy to get money to buy food. These are quite different!

    Industrial Civilization Humans compared to other animals
    Non-humans live nose-to-nose with their ecosystems and live in a 'mutually regenerative' relationship with that ecosystem, meaning that species in stable ecosystems help each other get by even if one species generally eats the other. For example, rabbits will help spread the plants they like to eat. That is, each plant wants its baby plants to spread to new places, and the rabbit does that, and eats some of them in return - everyone wins, and this can be 'sustainable' indefinitely.[0]

    "Civilized" humans' primary source of energy is fossil fuels dug up from the ground. We don't eat fossil fuels obviously, but we require them to enable the mining, transportation, manufacturing, war-making, and industrial agriculture that enables our civilization. We can't have a mutually nurturing relationship with these energy sources: they're dead, for one thing, and they're non-renewable so there's no way we can create more. But the energy sources are so rich that we've totally revamped our society over the last ~250 years to depend on them for our food, water, livelihoods, culture, etc. Imagine living without a vehicle, phone, computer, or other technology for a year, and only interacting with businesses that also don't use those: impossible, unless you can live with the land. 

    We're extremely dependent on these 'dead' (fossil fuel) energy sources, and so society has largely ignored the health of the ecosystems that still live around us. Thus, these ecosystems are rapidly dying off worldwide due to pollution, habitat loss from over-development, and climate change. In fact, we're in a 'mass extinction' - a scale of species loss just as significant as when the dinosaurs died off 65 million years ago.[1] Unfortunately, once the fossil fuels run out or become unaffordable, it'll be hard to return to the way of life of our ancestors - the forests and oceans won't be as rich with life as before.

    How should we respond?
    I believe the decision is pretty clear: since fossil fuels will be unavailable after they run out[2], and since we'll return to being dependent on healthy ecosystems, we must throw all our efforts to making those ecosystems healthy again before we run out of fossil fuels and before we do further damage. I'll write about my plan to support this in my own life in another essay.

    [0] Obviously there are parasites and other species not in a mutual relationship with the life they depend on or consume. It's not that every species evolved this 'wisdom'; these are the life relationships we should copy if we want to live sustainably.


    [2] Note that 'run out of fossil fuels' is an oversimpification - there may fuel in the ground that is uneconomical to retrieve, but either way we won't be able to use fossil fuels to run our civilization after some point.

    Wednesday, November 12, 2014

    What Am I Doing Part 1: Energy Perspective

    Understanding the big picture of industrial civilization - it's all about the energy
    We've heard that our lifestyles are unsustainable, but what does that mean? Humans used to depend only on functioning ecosystems to survive: energy from the sun would allow plants to grow, animals would eat the plants, other animals would eat those, and so on with humans at the top of the chain. Humans, by eating plants and animals, thus lived only on the energy from the sun as it arrived. We couldn't consume much more energy than arrived from the sun and moved through ecosystems in a given year.

    Modern industrial civilization, in addition to the yearly sunshine, depends heavily on coal, oil, and natural gas for energy. These fuel sources are plants and animals that died millions of years ago and were compressed inside the earth over eons. They're basically a one-time energy gift from the past - they represent energy from the sun trapped millions of years ago. Once we use it up, or use up the easy-to-get energy, we'll have to go back to using only what we get from the sun each year, like people did centuries ago.

    But won't we invent alternative energy technologies to solve our problems?
    Humans invent technologies that let us access energy sources, but we can't 'create' energy - we only get to use what's there already. New technologies allow us to access energy sources we couldn't reach in the past, but they don't necessarily make the energy sources feasible to use. For example, a century ago, oil fields were so rich and easy to access that we could invest the energy of 1 barrel of oil to extract 100 barrels - a 100x return on investment! Fracking has been estimated at between 2-10x return, meaning it takes the energy equivalent of 1 barrel of oil to get 2-10 barrels out, depending on the geology. This huge difference makes sense - humans, like all animals, go for the easiest-to-gather energy/food sources first, and we're now left with the dregs, and using even these energy sources up as fast as we can.

    So what do we do?
    We must recognize that the universe gave humanity an amazing gift - unbelievable physical resources (oil, coal, copper, etc) that let us create a civilization that allowed millions to live more comfortable lives in some ways than royalty of 500 years earlier. But those resources are running out, and we will either adapt proactively or reactively - that is, with foresight before shortages occur, or chaotically afterwards. If we act with foresight, we can choose to retain the scientific and cultural discoveries of modern civilization while learning to live without modern energy sources. I intend to do that!