Thursday, December 27, 2007

Embrace connectivity - Oregonian Opinion

Originally Published in the Oregonian Dec. 22, 2007

Embrace connectivity - Oregonian Opinion

Consider: Each generation considers the music of its youth as the apex of creative genius but almost invariably derides what follows as unlistenable garbage.

In much the same way, cultural observers throughout history bemoan how we're forever receding from some recent mythical golden age. "Things were simpler then," they like to tell us. "People were friendlier" and "Technology didn't run our lives" are prevailing themes we hear with increasing regularity.

We are seduced by these romanticized notions of bygone eras. A past -- even a mythical one -- can be reassuring and give one a sense of control in a world of increasing complexity and change. Alas, turning back the clock is not an option. Fortunately, the past was not as uniformly Utopian as it's made out to be; and the present is not as unavoidably bleak.

We forget how life in pre-industrial society could be brutish, nasty and short. We've rapidly evolved from a rural agrarian society to a high-tech world interconnected by instantaneous communications. This has had profound impacts on human relationships.

Perhaps the most dramatic change has been to our sense of community. Until relatively recently, people rarely traveled widely or left their towns, so exposure to other cultures was severely limited. Communities were tight-knit, but since they resulted entirely from proximity, they could also be very insular.

Contrast that with today's global culture, where people can freely move about (virtually or otherwise) to interact with like-minded individuals who share their causes and passions. From the environment to commerce, ours is a world in which everyone is increasingly interdependent on each other, albeit on a larger scale. Where folks used to raise a barn for their neighbor, people of today are mobilizing microloans to finance small businesses n Ecuador.

Change can feel depersonalizing or empowering. Sure, an e-mail is less "personal" than a letter, but it fosters interaction with circles of acquaintances worldwide -- something unheard of 50 years ago. I still chat with my neighbors, but I've expanded my circles of friends to other continents as well. As a result, I feel more aligned with (and invested in) my global community than ever before.

Moreover, many things that people consider depersonalizing, others find liberating. Nothing against bank tellers, but I like the impersonal ATM -- it works on my schedule, allowing time for other creative pursuits. The same goes for text messaging, online shopping and voice mail.

Modern society frees us from so many menial tasks and ancient hazards (i.e. diseases, starvation). Who says we can't seize the opportunity to engage in activities that enhance our community and human interaction?

Sometimes it's all a matter of perspective. Take the Internet, for example. To some, it's a cesspool of anonymous escapism and depravity. It also happens to be an unprecedented compendium of the world's accumulated knowledge -- a hub of unbridled collaboration where people engage with each other and explore their world in ways unimaginable 30 years ago.

Societies grow and change but there is nothing inherently depersonalizing about this. The choices are ours to make.

-- Chauncey Canfield

Pop quiz at Christmas - Oregonian Opinion

Originally published in the Oregonian, December 15, 2007 08:00AM

Pop quiz at Christmas - Oregonian Opinion

It's the holidays, so let the annual battles over religious displays and seasonal greetings begin. I thought I'd offer a quick Civics 101 refresher course to limit the grief and legal expenses.

Lesson One: If you want to say "Merry Christmas" to anyone and everyone around you, have at it. However, if your employer wants you to greet customers with a generic "Happy Holidays," you should a) abide by their wishes or b) find other work. The US Government and the Constitution have nothing at all - zilch, nada, zip -- to say about this.

Lesson Two: If you want to place a nativity scene on your property, knock yourself out. Same goes for your church.

Simple, huh?

So where does the confusion and controversy come in? Much of it stems from intentionally sloppy usage of the word "public" by right-wing alarmists trying to convince people of faith that practicing religion in public has become illegal.

Public can mean "open to the view of all," as in being seen in public, or it can mean "pertaining to a government function, or facility," as in public official or public park .

(Hint: The latter should not be involved with religion). To summarize:

Religious displays on private property, visible to the public? Sure.

Religious displays on Public property? No can do.

That's it, in a nutshell.

Bonus lesson for extra credit: A religious lobbying group set up shop in a D.C. rowhouse opposite the U.S. Supreme Court building. One year, they installed a tiny plastic creche on their property's front lawn, in proud symbolic defiance of the Justices across the street. They then staged a painfully earnest press conference about how they expected (nay, dared?) the jackbooted thugs from the government to swoop in and confiscate their display. Sadly for them, no one paid them any mind, (well, besides me and another bemused passerby). Incredibly, nobody from the nearby ACLU headquarters came by to sue them or kick it over, either.

Explain and discuss.

Class dismissed.

-- Chauncey Canfield

Believing our own eyes - Oregonian Opinion

Originally published in the Oregonian, Dec. 01, 2007

Believing our own eyes - Oregonian Opinion

I am fascinated by people who embrace the many advances of scientific discovery, but are quick to discount any studies which go against their preconceptions and beliefs.

Some of this is understandable. Since the dawn of history, humans have been served well by their senses to navigate their surroundings. We're predisposed to use anecdotal experiences as compelling evidence -- our "common sense."

However, we've long passed the age where simple unaided observation yields much new information of scientific value. Scientists now deal with subatomic and cosmic scale phenomena only observable by lab equipment. They model our climate on supercomputers, peer into our DNA, and discover planets billions of miles away. By combing through massive amounts of collected data, they discover patterns and correlations invisible to the casual observer.

To some people, such abstract findings are not intuitive and are therefore less compelling than what they already "know" to be true.

Others are uncomfortable with the theological implications of discovery and openly rebel against the modern world - witness the radical Islamic agenda to revert to some fabled pre-industrial age. Roughly half of Americans trust the pre-scientific pronouncements of long-dead biblical authors, believing that "God created the world along with all creatures big and small in just six days.*" Can you imagine people in 4007 A.D. relying on our current religious thinkers' theories about the moral causes of AIDS, droughts and tsunamis?

Regardless of the source of this abiding mistrust of science and its methods, there are real consequences.

Patients are ignoring evolutionary concepts - stopping their antibiotics once they "feel better" -- and deadly superbugs like MRSA flourish. Action on climate change is delayed by deniers who still distrust the overwhelming scientific consensus. Vaccinations, possibly the greatest advance in modern medicine, are now being rejected by misguided people -- putting themselves and others at risk for avoidable horrific diseases.

I honestly don't know what the answer is, particularly where the willfully ignorant are concerned. They tend to be immune to evidence and reason, at least until they need the latest "miracle" drug or their beachfront property gets submerged by rising oceans.

* According to a Time Magazine 2005 Survey

Tragedy of the commons - Oregonian Opinion

Originally published in The Oregonian November 24, 2007 08:00AM

Tragedy of the commons - Oregonian Opinion

Atlanta's water crisis has pitted that parched city against the farmers and endangered species of adjacent states. Pollutants from China's booming economy rain down on the Pacific Northwest.

These are large-scale effects of what economists call the "tragedy of the commons."

This blind-spot of the free market occurs whenever a group or individual exploits a community resource like the environment without paying the true costs -- dumping waste into a nearby stream instead of treating it, for example. The flipside of this concept is that someone acting unilaterally to protect a commons overpays for benefits that are reaped mainly by society; I could get rid of my furnace and appliances in an effort to save the planet, but at great personal discomfort.

George Bush wanly calls for voluntary reductions on carbon dioxide emissions, but corporations have the same incentives to comply as I do to wash and wax my rental car before returning it full of premium -- every extra penny comes out of my wallet, while someone else benefits. Moreover, since shareholders require corporations to maximize returns, a board of
directors could even be held liable if they followed Bush's voluntary reductions to the detriment of the bottom line.

Conservatives often rally behind issues of property rights, state's rights, and national sovereignty, despite the fact that many problems don't fit neatly within a geographic boundary like a farm plot or even a continent. Actions rarely happen in an economic or environmental vacuum -- nearby subdivisions run your well dry, CFC's destroy everyone's ozone layer,
today's international overfishing ruins future worldwide harvests. Therefore, we rely on jurisdictions larger than town, state, or even federal to address them.

The U.N. Secretary General has rightly called on world leaders to act decisively on climate change at next month's summit in Bali and reach a "grand bargain" between industrialized nations and developing ones. It is becoming clear that individual altruism and corporate do-gooders simply can't achieve the needed systemic changes in time. Market forces can only
work when these loopholes in the system are closed by globally-enforceable, predictable standards for all countries and corporations.

When ideology trumps information - Oregonian Opinion

Originally published in The Oregonian November 17, 2007 09:00AM

When ideology trumps information - Oregonian Opinion

This is not a joke: Recent Pew Trust and Annenberg surveys have found "The Daily Show" viewers to be more informed on issues and events than those of any other news source.

I find this to be a healthy development. The show fosters a healthy dose of skepticism in an age of credulity and fear.

Between the Bush administration's open hostility to science and popular media's need to fuel a "crisis of the week," being informed and somehow maintaining one's sense of humor are critical.

I concede that it is difficult to stay current on politics, economics, science, and world events. However, we've ceded this responsibility by becoming overly reliant on sound bites, making us more susceptible to manipulation. Not only are we easily duped into buying ineffectual products
and copies of "The Secret, we routinely overreact to insignificant threats (shark attacks), while underreacting to significant ones (impending water shortages), and our leaders react with counterproductive policies.

Fueled by the Internet, we find junk science and urban legends being given the same deference and general credibility as findings in peer-reviewed journals. Proof is unnecessary -- simply sow doubt with a fog of selective data and your conspiracy or crackpot theory can take root in popular culture.

This is perhaps the most damaging legacy of this Administration's war on "the reality-based community" (as one Bush adviser derisively put it): the notion that all facts and data are subservient to ideology and are therefore relative.

Political appointees have repeatedly excised inconvenient data and the conclusions of experts. When even government scientists can't be trusted to provide basic objective facts, no one is an authority. This breeds widespread distrust, powerlessness and further resignation -- if all
information is subjective and biased, why bother to stay informed or take the time to sift through competing claims?

Pakistani lawyers vehemently protested Gen. Musharraf's claim that the law is whatever he says it is. We should be equally incensed at this administration's ongoing claims that scientific reality is whatever they say it is. The issues our nation and planet face are too important to tackle with incomplete information.

Putting faith into action - Oregonian Opinion

Originally Published in the Oregonian November 10, 2007 10:00AM

Putting faith into action - Oregonian Opinion

My inner humanist nodded in agreement with some of Tom Krattenmaker's points in "Putting Faith Into Action."
His call for a humbler way for religion to insert itself into politics was a welcome change from the vitriol we've heard from James Dobson and others. Indeed, I share many of the ultimate goals Krattenmaker mentions and welcome this coalition's efforts to better humanity.

However, I am unconvinced by the religious grounding he uses to support the notion that this movement's gentler approach is inherently better than the negative example he cites (quoting Bible verses to support concealed weapons). He is simply advocating a less strident faith-based push toward different policy goals.

He concedes that sacred passages can't suffice as a sole basis for such legislation in our diverse society. I counter that claiming them as any basis at all puts him in the same awkward position of his rivals -- he is reduced to arguing selective interpretations of some purportedly sacred text.

This is why defenders of Church-State separation cringe at these religious incursions into matters of government -- there can be no objective arbiter between these competing unprovable claims. Krattenmaker has sifted through the Bible's endless self-contradictory directives, distilling those bits he agrees with to arrive at his theologically-suspect notion of what should be universally agreed-upon. It strikes me that what is considered "universal" is keenly tied to one's era, upbringing and geographic locale. After all, people throughout history have been convinced that advancing the "common good" calls for the killing of adulterers, infidels, sacrificial goats, etc. For people like Pat Robertson, this has meant broadly legislating morality.

It is telling that progressive commonality is found only when these intransigent theological differences are suppressed. The activist Krattenmaker spoke with was justifiably worried about religious beliefs being watered down. The case for religious underpinning grows ever-weaker with each piece of dogma (and group identity) one has to discard to arrive at some generically articulated "universal" sentiment. The "highest-common denominator" approach Krattenmaker praises sounds to me like a call to embrace the life-affirming and planet-saving principles of humanists everywhere.

-- Chauncey Canfield

Tech guru by day, musician by night - Oregonian Opinion

Published in the Oregonian Nov. 03, 2007:

Tech guru by day, musician by night - Oregonian Opinion

As a recent transplant to the Pacific Northwest, I'm very grateful to The Oregonian for extending me this opportunity to contribute to the Op-Ed section of my newly-adopted hometown paper. Here's a short introduction to me and the perspectives I'll bring to this "experiment."

To a news-junkie with a technical bent, my IT job since 1994 has seemed a perfect fit: working in Congressional offices on Capitol Hill, seeing the political process and its players live and up-close. However, D.C.'s cost-of-living, toxic political environment, and post-9/11 bunkered mindset eventually took their toll, so my wife and I decided to trade coasts for a fresh start after our daughter was born. My employer agreed to a three time-zone telecommute, we sold our tiny pre-Civil War row house and headed west to Portland's Southeast Woodstock neighborhood last October.

I've lived and traveled all over the U.S. and abroad and absolutely love our new city, though being a newcomer admittedly imparts a rosier (no pun intended) view of what the region does (and doesn't) do well.

I am a lifelong musician and find Portland to be a great fit -- a place where my complementary passions of technology and music can intermesh particularly well in this age of digital production, online distribution and web marketing. I run a small record label, so I closely follow intellectual property issues, emerging technologies, the music industry and mass media.

I run an internet radio station called and I co-produce a weekly radio show Sunday evenings on 89.1 KMHD-FM.

I'll be tackling a variety of issues in my upcoming articles. I am a passionate defender of civil liberties and church-state separation. I'll focus on society's widespread scientific and mathematical illiteracy and how it allows hucksters, political leaders and the credulous media to mislead us, prey on our ignorance and spread irrational fears and hysteria. These distractions have broad implications as they divert attention and resources from solutions to actual problems we face.

I hope to enlighten and entertain the readers of these columns and look forward to your feedback and comments.

-- Chauncey Canfield

New Weekly Posts from my Oregonian Newspaper Columns

I'll be updating this blog with my weekly columns in the Oregonian (Portland, OR)

You can comment there or on this space. Enjoy.