peristaltor: (The Captain's Prop)
I've been on a mental dive down the ant hill lately. Ant hill? Don't I mean "rabbit hole?" No, I do not. I strongly suspect we get that term "down the rabbit hole" from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and if so, that would mean that a logical, rational exploration of a topic would be simply to run along with the Red Queen; the faster you run, the slower you get; all logic gone. So, while I love the deliberate whimsical suspension of logic for purposes of allegory and entertainment, I'm leaving the rabbit warrens unexplored. Go read Watership Down if you want to dive into a bunny nest.

Ant hills, though. That's another story.

They are complex, far more complex than most realize. So, I shall explore. )
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At the tail end of my last money-ish post, I quoted L. Frank Baum's opening to his topical money allegory The Wonderful Wizard of Oz:

Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer's wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles.

This was, of course, printed first in 1900. People carried most things by wagon, especially in rural farm lands, simply because the gadgets we take for granted, the automobile in all its cargo and people hauling variants, were not common. Worse, the vast vehicle support apparatus such as rural roads in 1900 would not support any but the most rudimentary (ie. slow) transport. Wagons pulled by beasts and men were the norm.

How times have changed.

Today, I happened to catch John Michael Greer's Archdruid Report entry titled The Upside of Default, where he coins a new word, just for fun, and pokes a bit more fun at this "investmentariat":

The investmentariat has been told for decades that their money ought to make them money, but nobody told them that this only works in an economy that experiences sustained real growth over the long term, and nobody would dream of mentioning in their hearing that we don’t have an economy like that any more.

All the investmentariat knows for sure is that the kind of safe investment that used to bring in five per cent a year is now yielding a small fraction of one per cent, and the risks you need to take to get five per cent a year are those once associated with the the kind of "securities" that make a mockery of that title.

He goes on to calculate very, very roughly that our Western economies have morphed into something of an impossibility. Okay, it may look like Dorothy's tiny house has nothing to do with Greer's sneering mockery of a modern small-time investor; but I do plan on eeking out a connection. Really. )

X-Posted in [ profile] talk_politics.
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Lenny loves to tell stories about his old Barracuda. One, I just realized, helps to illustrate the potential -- and more than a few problems -- with biofuels. Click here. You know you want to. )
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Here's a video. You've probably seen it already.

I tripped across it some time ago and dismissed it as, well, wrong. When you base your criticisms on elements that are factually inaccurate, you fail. It's as simple as that. Sadly, last night I caught up a bit with my podcast list and heard [ profile] kmo chatting with Jim Kunstler about the current failings our economy is suffering, and heard once again that video, now spliced as audio into the middle of the podcast. I think Mr. Kunstler understands far better than most why that video is factually inaccurate, but he chose not to address the inconsistencies and instead shared a hearty chuckle.

But understanding the video's failings proves key, for me, to understanding our economy's failings well enough to even attempt thinking about ways to improve things for the future. To the failings! )
peristaltor: (The Captain's Prop)
Dear Mr. Davidson,

Let me congratulate you for your role in producing the best financial news for laypeople, I think, available on the podcasting web. I've been listening to your Planet Money podcast now since pretty much its inception. Your award-winning This American Life collaboration "The Giant Pool of Money" explained more of the current financial crisis and housing bubble than most other financial reporting has yet to do, and managed to do so without reverting to overly technical vebiage. Planet Money has helped me more than any other outlet understand Credit Default Swaps, Collateralized Debt Obligations, regulatory arbitrage, and a vast number of important details kept usually opaque to the lay person. For that, I thank you.

That said, I have for years now been frustrated with what your reporting has thus far failed to do, to explain our macro-economy with the same precision given the arcane minutiae of finance and banking. I felt this frustration most intensely as I listened to you shout at Elizabeth Warren and try to badger Rep. Barney Frank. Both had important points to share with you -- both were, importantly, correct -- but you seemingly didn't want to learn from these experts and instead let your preconceptions about what should happen guide your behavior into that, frankly, unbecoming of a journalist.

The most recent example of your blindness to the realities of today's situation came when you spoke on our local KUOW show "The Conversation."* Asked reasonably by a caller named David, you almost arrogantly dismissed the importance the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act had on creating this latest crisis.

And just as the Warren and Frank episodes revealed, you yet again display a basic lack of understanding how money is created in our economy. Which is ironic, really. The first thought I had when I heard "The Giant Pool of Money" was how did so much money get created? Yet as I listened to the piece, the answer to that question was never presented. Oh, there was an explanation of sorts offered:

How did the world get twice as much money to invest? Lots of things happened, but the main headline is all sorts of poor countries became kind of rich making TVs and selling us oil: China, India, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia. Made a lot of money and banked it.

I thought to myself after hearing that piece again, what? Such countries have always made money with this trade. The piece absolutely did not explain how what happened happened. As you yourself asked in the piece, "So, it took several hundred years for the world to get to 36 trillion. Then, in six years, to get another 36 trillion."

That, Mr. Davidson, is far more important a story than the piece -- as good as it was, as groundbreaking as it was -- bothered to explain.

So I went looking for the answer to that question. I think I've found it, but I'd like others to look at the answers I've found and perhaps dig out more detail, find out if I am mistaken or not. I'm truly hoping people with expertise, communication skills, and an appropriate venue will behave like, you know, reporters. As long as you fail to appreciate the answer to the question "What doubled the size of that giant pool of money in six years?", I doubt you will be able to truly grasp some of the larger questions facing not only this economic situation, but our society as it stands today.


Let me say that I appreciate your position. Finance is difficult stuff to understand. From what I gathered listening to the podcast, you learned on the fly from bankers, brokers, dealers and wheelers. New York is the most active financial center in the country, if not the world. It's a perfect place to learn the ins and outs of the system from the very people earning a living in that sector.

I think, though, that in your zeal to cover the story, to educate yourself with what was happening, you have missed the fundamentals. Most specifically, I doubt you understand the process enabling banks to make money. Really. (Please note that I didn't say you misunderstand how banks earn money; there's a difference.) Don't feel badly. I doubt bankers want this process widely known, even bankers you might know by first name. Quite a bit of evidence suggests this information is deliberately obfuscated from the public at large.

I'm not going to tell you how this happens. That's not my job. I'm just a blogging bus driver from Seattle. As a financial reporter with a distinguished body of work, finding out how this happens -- and relating that story -- is your job.

I suggest you start by looking into the work of Ellen Brown, author of The Web of Debt. I first heard her interviewed by [ profile] kmo on his C-Realm Podcast. You can find both [ profile] kmo interviews here and here, just to get an introduction to Ms. Brown's work. Then, check out his interview with Nathan A. Martin for a really sobering look at what happens next, or what might be happening right now.

Don't have time in your busy schedule looking at this information? Hey, I understand. You've got reporters who could do the job. Put them on the story. [ profile] kmo got Ms. Brown on his show twice even though (unlike Chana and Alex with their Cadillac Escalades) he only drives a beat-up Ranger.

Think about this: The Glass-Steagall Act was repealed on November 12, 1999 by the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act. That giant pool of money started its spectacular, almost tumorous growth in 2000. If you follow my links and actually investigate them, you should hopefully see that the money supply started to grow as quickly and large as it did mainly because of the G-S repeal, just as caller David noted.

I firmly believe that our country cannot function without an informed electorate. I have maintained my memberships in and have listened to National Public Radio stations simply because I regard them as the best remaining source of widely-disseminated news and information. Your show is an especial favorite, one I feel can only benefit from you and your reporters becoming ever more informed about the topics on which you report, and then sharing that knowledge with us, the humble listeners.

Thank you for your time.

Addendum, June 2010: I only got around to listening to the podcast dated May, 25, "Is The Joyride on Wall Street Really Over?" recently. In it, Alex and Jacob seemed to imply (in Act II of your dramatizations) that proprietary traders directly use depositor money to trade (aka Alex's $100K). Specifically, Jacob said, "As you should have learned from the Planet Money podcast, I actually can use your money. I'm a prop trader at a bank. I can use the bank's deposits to make bets in the market."

This is incorrect. Prop traders do use bank assets, including those from depositors, to back their trades, but the money they use comes from a process you at the podcast have yet to learn, or even (dare I say) express a willingness to discover. Where it comes from specifically is exactly what you need to discover lest your podcast continues to confuse the issues it presents.

Addendum 8-4-2010: Link to Mr. Davidson's appearance on The Conversation added.

Addendum 5-3-2015: KUOW moved the archive to Mr. Davidson's appearance to a new address.
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I mentioned a few weeks back that I had finished Douglas Rushkoff's Life, Inc., a book with far too many tantalizing tidbits to share without pretty much transcribing the whole tome. I settled on simply mentioning that teabagger thing. Rushkoff really chronicles not only the rise of the corporation, but also of the monetary system that supports these corporations. Without a centralized money standard, any but small corporations would have difficulty competing with small family businesses.

Why this is the case is fascinating, but I recognize different people define that word differently and therefore put my musings under this cut. )
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[ profile] kmo had another great podcast over at the C-Realm the other day, interviewing long-time guest Albert K. Bates. This time Bates talked about something of which I've heard not even a peep: Biochar.

From one of his blog posts on the topic, Bates describes biochar as a charcoal formed from inactive, crystalized carbon. The end result of the biochar process produces a fractal structure with amazing longevity and pourosity: "One gram of biochar has a surface area of 1000 square meters." Once amended to the soil, this surface area provides the dirt with great advantages for growing plants, including crops:

In the soil, biochar’s cavities fill up with nutrient foodstocks for microbes, much like a kitchen pantry. The microbes move in, and pretty soon hyphae of fungi appear. The hyphae are a fast road for nutrients and moisture – a trade exchange route to plant and tree roots. Examination of biochar-amended soils a few months after treatment found that vigorous fungal colonization was common.

If you can imagine the char as providing a coral reef-like structure, full of tiny polyps and crevices, it attracts all manner of soil organisms to it. If the pantry is empty, then those microbes will go to work to stock it, which is why biochar denitrifies over-fertilized, burned out farmland and replaces it with slow-release fertility . . . .

Bates quoted this article on the topic, which notes the almost enigmatic discovery of this ancient agricultural practice. Biochar was produced and introduced to the soil thousands of years ago producing "Terra Preta:"

Terra Preta ("black earth") was discovered by Dutch soil scientist Wim Sombroek in the 1950's, when he discovered pockets of rich, fertile soil amidst the Amazon rainforest (otherwise known for its poor, thin soils), which he documented in a 1966 book "Amazon Soils". Similar pockets have since been found in other sites in Ecuador and Peru, and also in Western Africa (Benin and Liberia) and the Savannas of South Africa. Carbon dating has shown them to date back between 1,780 and 2,260 years.

Terra preta is found only where people lived - it is an artificial, human-made soil, which originated before the arrival of Europeans in South America. The soil is rich in minerals including phosphorus, calcium, zinc, and manganese - however its most important ingredient is charcoal, the source of terra preta's color.

Terra preta's promised improvement to soils seems almost too good to be true:

This year food shortages, caused in part by the diminishing quantity and quality of the world's soil, have led to riots in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. By 2030, when today's toddlers have toddlers of their own, 8.3 billion people will walk the Earth; to feed them, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates, farmers will have to grow almost 30 percent more grain than they do now. Connoisseurs of human fecklessness will appreciate that even as humankind is ratchetting up its demands on soil, we are destroying it faster than ever before. "Taking the long view, we are running out of dirt," says David R. Montgomery, a geologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Journalists sometimes describe unsexy subjects as MEGO: My eyes glaze over. Alas, soil degradation is the essence of MEGO.

Another topic that induces this MEGO phenomenon: Global climate change. And here terra preta steps in and offers an intriguing possibility; low-tech carbon sequestration. After all, these carbon crystals survived for thousands of years in Amazonian and Australian soil. What if this burying of charcoal were revived not only to revive crashing farm yields, but to simply remove carbon from the atmosphere? Bates quotes Tim Flannery:

Professor Tim Flannery told the gathering that even if we shut down every coal plant and stop all emissions of greenhouse gases from industry worldwide, the dangerous warming of our planet would continue for centuries. “That is the point at which you realize that biochar is really, really important,” he said.

Flannery suggested that 8 percent of CO2 is currently going into terrestrial vegetation, but if we could double that, we could buy ourselves time to work on moving away from coal and oil. Flannery said that we have to be mindful of the historic debt incurred by the one billion people whose ancestors made the industrial revolution. “That carbon debt to the other 6 billion could be repaid at 5 percent per year with biochar,” he said. (Emphasis mine.)

And that, as Bates told [ profile] kmo on the C-Realm, could reverse atmospheric carbon concentrations to pre-industrial levels in a matter of decades, not centuries. And at a fraction of the cost of some proposed schemes.

I'll be reading Bates' new book on the subject as soon as it is available. Fascinating stuff.

X-Posted to [ profile] boiling_frog.

Addendum, the next day: An anonymous poster shared a raft of info. I invite you to peruse. The links are in the comments. I especially like the science from the 2009 char study test field, which shows some impressive growth differences between just 5% and 20% char and additives. Never mind the sequestration angle, that's some difference.
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Whenever the people are well-informed,
they can be trusted with their own government;
whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice,
they may be relied on to set them to rights.

-- Thomas Jefferson, 1789

In this installment of my saga, I'd like to suggest a corollary to Mr. Jefferson's observation: "Whenever the people are ill-informed, their government can trust them to do nothing to correct wrongs, no matter how much those wrongs attract their notice."

There are many ways to prevent information from spreading. One can create a cover story. One can use mouthpieces to tear down the reputations of those who dare investigate the story buried beneath the cover version, or to disseminate conflicting versions of the story, thereby sowing confusion. One can simply bury the story itself, quashing attempts to bring the story to light. Provided one has enough resources and accomplices, there is just about no length one can reach to affect the official version of What Happened.

Long-time readers know I've been pointing out examples of such manipulations for years. Some topics so threaten a group vested in maintaining the status quo that they will hire operatives to troll LJ groups and plant seeds of doubt in a given topic, publish articles referencing research that completely misrepresent the research itself (and then deny the original researcher a chance to correct the record), report widely and often on salacious details but fail to correct the record with nearly as much fanfare -- these are just a few examples from just one controversy, examples that barely scratch the surface of what has happened. All one needs, as I've said, is some cash to throw around to "research" groups and foundations and ideologically like-minded newspapers and magazines. The juggernaut will follow, one that may crush hard scientific findings or at least dissuade further research.

When it comes to the truth about certain topics, you see, very few people care. I know, that sounds harsh; but it's pretty accurate. )
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[ profile] kmo delivered another great podcast the other day, interviewing economist Frank Rotering. Prof. Rotering has an interesting take on human progress and the limits the planet itself places on our expansion, part of which resonates well with what I accept.

For example, I whole heartedly agree that our biological imperative drives our expansion, the desire to eat the richest food (to give us strength and build our energy reserves as fat) and live in the best areas conducive to sating our desires to, well, eat and reproduce a lot. The number of simple behavioral studies that reveal this simple unconscious drive abound, each confirming that despite what we say, we are greedy little piggies that crave tasty (meaning energy-rich) foods and sex with the most reproductively viable candidates. Remember, folks, Darwin's "survival of the fittest" referred to reproductive winners, the organisms that most successfully got as many biological copies of themselves made before they croaked.

Where Frank went off the rails in the talk with [ profile] kmo, though, was where he started talking about . . . capitalism. Wait, haven't I gone over this already?!?

But then the Professor did something very few who throw the C word about willy-nilly actually do: He explained what he meant. I'm not saying he got it right in my eyes, but I will say he at least had the courtesy to quote Marx's writings directly and explain the nitty-gritty details that might elude the less familiar. Someone who has obviously read Marx so carefully is rare to find even amongst Marxists. That was refreshing.

This explanation, though, confirmed something that has been nagging at me for quite some time: That Marx himself missed the most salient element of capitalism's expansionist tendencies, specifically by by conflating the necessity to expand with the ability to expand. )
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Jim Kunstler whipped out another gem in which he wrote:

For decades we measured the health of our economy (and therefore of our society) by the number of "housing starts" recorded month-to-month. For decades, this translated into the number of suburban tract houses being built in the asteroid belts of our towns and cities. When housing starts were up, the simple-minded declared that things were good; when down, bad. What this view failed to consider was that all these suburban houses added up to a living arrangement with no future. That's what we were so busy actually doing. Which is why I refer to this monumentally unwise investment as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.

(Emphasis from the author.)

Why is he so glum about our economic expansion? For lots of really good reasons. )

Addendum, August 10, 2009: Calculated Risk shares a paper describing a move from expanded building from city cores to a "new era of infill and redevelopment." Which will have to happen if "this monumentally unwise investment" called suburbia is ever to be corrected.
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I'm sorry, but I'm still on this telly, telly, everywhere tear. It's something that is pretty much turning into an obsession.

In case you missed it, yesterday, I moaned about a television in waiting rooms that I legally couldn't leave or turn away from either the sound or the image. I was spared the trauma by a helpful receptionist, but had I been forced to be there later in the day things could have gotten water-torture ugly.

Why this antipathy? I'm seeing more and more evidence that these ever-present flicker screens are causing perhaps grievous harm to our collective ability to think. )
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[ profile] kmo has done it again. Yet another of his C-Realm Podcast guests has given me actual food for thought, valuable nutritional content. By contrast, what mostly passes through our mainstream media emerges as undigestable waste.

For The Growth Imperative episode, the guest was Thomas Homer-Dixon, author of The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and The Renewal of Civilization. Another long discussion follows. )

Addendum, February 17: On second thought, it seemed strange to only give 2/3rds of the interview. Here's the final section. )
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Disclaimer, June 16, 2010: Much of the information you read below is wrong. I wrote this before I read [ profile] ellenbrown's Web of Debt. Therefore, I missed details extremely important to the thrust of this post.

For example, below I state that interest is created through loans. This is incorrect. The money issued at the time the loan is finalized is the money actually created. Money is literally loaned into existence by banks, not printed by the Federal Government as everyone seems to assume.

I'm sure I'll post an update soon. For now, though, I intend to leave the post below intact. It will give me a chance to review what I've learned over the years by showing me what I believed in the past to be true. I apologize for the mis-information.

If you must delve, the erroneous original post is below the cut. Remember, though, it is wrong. )
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[ profile] kmo had a couple of great podcasts on his C-Realm Podcast over the last couple of weeks. The first I'd like to mention featured John Michael Greer, an archdruid who speaks very well about economics and their peaks and valleys. From his September 24th entry:

Yet it also has to be remembered that not too long ago, economic depressions were simply a fact of life. In the 19th century, before government regulation restrained the excesses of the business cycle, major economic depressions happened every twenty or thirty years on average; most people could expect to live through two or three of them. The New Deal reforms of the 1930s, which restricted the vagaries of the business cycle, made depressions a thing of the past; still, those reforms were tossed aside in the deregulatory frenzy of the 1980s and 1990s, and unless they get put back in place, we will all likely have to get used to depressions again.

Counterintuitive though it may seem, furthermore, a serious depression right now may just be the best thing that could happen to the United States. I don’t say this by way of passing judgment, or in the spirit of schadenfreude that seems to surround so many predictions of social catastrophe. Rather, a good many of the dysfunctions that are dragging America to ruin will be immediately unsustainable in a time of depression, and a certain amount of economic suffering now could spare the American people a far worse experience later on.

I know, I know, those of you contemplating the blood and tears of employment spent just to squirrel away enough money in your later years to enable you not to produce more blood and tears in your later years might find these words revolting treacle. I'm sure everyone with their tootsies poised on Wall Street window sills in late 1929 thought exactly the same thing about other analysts explaining the robust economies that might emerge from the ashes of that crash. A lot of good a correction now does for my planned trip to Hawaii next year.

His bloggy entries, though, make a lot of sense. He makes a further observation in the podcast as well that jives very well with a concept I've been trying to articulate for several years now, an idea best expressed in an analogy between plants taking over a cleared lot and societies. Greer traces the development of agriculture and equated that to a dandelion on a vacant lot; the farms sprout where the soil is fertile, consume the soil nutrients, crash and disperse just like a weed growing in the soil briefly only to scatter as many seeds as possible:

The weeds that grow in a vacant lot; they maximize their resources, they reproduce themselves, produce lots of seeds. They don't cycle. They tend to burn through the available cheap and easy resources, and then they tend to get squeezed out by something else which is slower and more efficient.

And it goes, stage by stage, with increasing efficiency, more cycling, more . . . concern for durability, less concern for maximum production in any immediate period. (The) history of agricultural societies follows that trend.

Exactly. For years I have wanted to make a documentary that followed this line of reasoning, tracing human technology in terms of what the newer gadgets could deliver in efficiency. Yes, it's fun to light an open fire and try to cook a dinner; but over the long run one gets more efficiency enclosing and controlling the fire in a wood stove, then a gas stove, then electric, then induction; and so on. Each successive addition to the technological tool chest increases in complexity and often in support needs, but decreases the necessary operator input time and resource energy needed to support the tech. The weeds to forest analogy fits that old chestnut of mine very nicely.

Anyhoo, I encourage a look into Greer's interview and blog. Good stuff. This last week, [ profile] kmo once again hosted [ profile] ellenbrown to talk about why our financial future is crashing around us. She explains the derivatives market, a bizarre system of betting on both success and failure that pretty much works to inflate our economy. . . until it crashes. After all, in conflicting bets only one will prove a winner. The fact that both bets show their outcomes as positive assets? Well. . . that's proving a bit problematic of late, now isn't it? She describes this process in more detail. I won't bother to summarize this stuff. I can barely understand it.

Enjoy the depressing content I heartily recommend!
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Remember that scary scenario I recently mentioned, the one about the world's atmosphere changing rapidly for the worse should global greenhouse effects run too rampant? On that note, this article should help the constipated make their desired releases:

In the past few days, the researchers have seen areas of sea foaming with gas bubbling up through "methane chimneys" rising from the sea floor. They believe that the sub-sea layer of permafrost, which has acted like a "lid" to prevent the gas from escaping, has melted away to allow methane to rise from underground deposits formed before the last ice age.

They have warned that this is likely to be linked with the rapid warming that the region has experienced in recent years.

Methane is about 20 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and many scientists fear that its release could accelerate global warming in a giant positive feedback where more atmospheric methane causes higher temperatures, leading to further permafrost melting and the release of yet more methane.

(Emphasis mine.)

This is one of those positive feedbacks Dennis Bushnell mentioned.
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A few weeks ago, [ profile] kmo had a great interview on his C-Realm Podcast with Dennis M. Bushnell, chief scientist of the NASA Langley Research Center. Mr. Bushnell is, to say the least, an immensely qualified individual. Just listen to the introduction [ profile] kmo gives him. (If you don't have time for that, someone was good enough to transcribe the interview here. You can read instead or listen. I'll be using that transcription for my quotation source, with some corrections.) Mr. Bushnell touches on quite a few topics that interest me -- global warming, alternative energy, to name just a couple -- so I found myself listening to it on the iPod thingie more than once.

After the second listen, something started nagging me, a concept with which I found myself quite unfamiliar. Though he speaks well and concisely, Bushnell kept making references to atmospheric conditions I didn't understand. I thought it best to go and read the source Bushnell lists in the interview:

(T)here is a book which, I believe, will be considered a milestone in this whole energy and warming discussion and that is Peter Ward's recent book called Under (a) Green Sky.

I've read a few other Ward books, so this wasn't too much of a hardship. What I read scared the living crap out of me. )

After I read Green Sky, I put on the headphones and went for a walk with Dennis Bushnell once again. As low as Ward got me, something I missed from Bushnell hit me that much harder. )

X-posted to [ profile] boiling_frog.
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I just finished up with [ profile] kmo's podcast, Higher States of Collapse, where he muses with readers about states of consciousness. Should shamanistic pharmacologia be described as inducing "higher" states, or simply "altered" or "different?" I found the entire discussion, while very interesting, missed one critical element:

Can one objectively quantify various mental states? )


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