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Day 4 of the quarantine. Thanks to modern videoconferencing technology (however buggy and lossy), we maintain distancing but not separation. What a luxury to continue to work and do science while not in the office. It does make you wonder, though, how much companies spend on office building rents and equipment that could be reinvested in communications technology and co-working spaces for coming together only when necessary. Reading: The History of Office Design

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Today I show you the cover of a beautiful book and ask you to help friend, former King of Krewe du Vieux, and New Orleans resident Ronald Lewis by purchasing it HERE. Mr. Ronald lost so much during Hurricane Katrina and The Flood but rallied Mardi Gras Indians, musicians and activists to build and maintain The House of Dance and Feathers, a museum and cultural center in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans that preserves and celebrates the city’s Mardi Gras Social Aid, Pleasure Club, and Indian culture. And now he is is in the hospital for a respiratory infection, which may or may not turn out to be COVID.

Here’s more from his friend and collaborator Tom Harvey:

Dear all, We have just found out that one of our long-term partners, Ronald W. Lewis, the director of the House of Dance & Feathers, is in the hospital with a respiratory infection. He has been tested for COVID-19 but the results are not back, but is in quarantine for at least another week. One of the main ways that Ronald supports his museum and day-to-day expenses is through the sale of the book that we created together … it is a community history and art book about the Lower Ninth Ward, Mardi Gras Indians, and Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. Please consider purchasing a copy at the link below so that he does not lose income while he is not able to be at the museum, and please stay safe out there.

UPDATE: Mr. Ronald passed earlier this week. It was not due to COVID, he had been in bad health for a while. If you are considering buying the book, please still do so as it will help his family defray medical and funeral costs at this difficult time. Rest in power.

Dealing with new challenges while still overcoming previous ones cannot be easy. Please help if you can.

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The door of my high school locker had a magazine ad pasted on it. Orange background, a minimalist plastic chair and the words SEE YOU IN 2020. It was 1992, the internet was coming alive, I was learning to write email in vi and had just discovered Project Gutenberg, and the future was going to be connected, accessible and superb. So why wasn’t my Generation X happy in the early 1990s? Why did we innately not buy the promises of the future, as we simultaneously built one? It’s probably a combination of the confident optimism of youth and that not many of us thought 2020 would come. Surely, our parents would wipe the planet off the face of the solar system by 2000.

Not only are we in 2020, it is neither the dystopian Sprawl imagined by the likes of Gibson and Stephenson nor is it a better and braver place. It’s an altogether different thing held together by the unimaginable events of the last 30 years, but one we would have seen coming had we heeded the words of those who warned against the increasing privatization of the commons, power gathered and wielded by fewer and fewer, modernized but not eradicated colonialism, global absorption of bad western habits, and the resultant lack of leadership and vision when we need it the most.

When I re-christened this blog From Kuwait To Katrina And Beyond in 2006, little did I think yonder would be a virus-related pandemic. At some point, I joked that “two data points do constitute a trend for large values of each datum. After losing one home permanently to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait of 1990 and temporarily losing another to Katrina in 2005, I am going to build my home into an underground bunker and march in there in 2020.” Welcome to America, COVID-19. Are you going to question my trend game now? Terrible and anecdotal correlations aside, it is a bit eerie that we are now in a quarantine likely headed into a lockdown with a large number of Americans in zombie-apocalypse mode. And there’s no disaster so bad that can’t be made worse through fear, panic, denial and the lack of reliable, actionable information.

Few people read this long-form medium and particularly this space any longer and I admit to growing large audiences on social media sites I don’t own (again with that Why Do We Build It As We Resent It?). So, I took to Facebook today to share a thoughtful piece by Radio Open Source: COVID-19 and Incompetence with the following preface.

As this virus passes through, my hope is that Americans become more reliant on science, data and reason, and less on magical thinking. Prayer is personal and a great source of calm, but prayer as policy is dangerous and will only make us sicker. I enjoyed this Radio Open Source podcast. May it get us all thinking about educated, informed and strong public health.

Facebook informed me a few hours later that this post violated their community standards against spam. How I can spam my own feed is beyond me, but what I find more annoying is that Facebook wrongly blocked legitimate CV-19 websites because of a bug in their spam filter. All of the post-Katrina, post-Flood, post-Macondo, during-Trump frustration with the disruption of valuable discourse, when we need it the most, came rushing back. Yet again and at least, this is my space where I can post all of the information and thoughts I want in the order that I want and in the medium and format that I want without interruption by ads. (Another prediction I made about the emergence of our AI overlords by 2020 has been proven wrong.)

So, it’s March 17th 2020 – St. Patrick’s Day and Day 2 of the Houston-wide mandate to socially distance, work from home as much as possible, and help the city flatten the curve. Houston is a globally-revered medical mecca, but “Texas has about 2.9 hospital beds per 1,000 people — less than one-fourth the rate of South Korea.” We are also at the mercy of our failure to prepare as a nation, which is already taking its toll. On the plus side, no in-person work meetings that could have been emails, virtually chatting and reading books with friends to stave off cabin fever, and, man, my home office has never been cleaner.

If blogs are not your thing, find me on Twitter and Instagram (see sidebar). Slightly different styles of updates at each place, but the message remains the same – Peace, love and hand sanitizer. Stay informed. Stay well. Stay.

And help me increase the signal to noise ratio by leaving comments anywhere and everywhere with numbers and links.

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[Disclaimer: Bina Venkataraman is a close relative and, in my opinion, an excellent science journalist.]

It is no coincidence that The Optimist’s Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age came out a) just as I have begun giving talks about the future of geoscience and its applications in a world powered by more than fossil fuels, and b) at the same time as the formation of a Society of Exploration Geophysicists strategy group dedicated to innovation in capabilities and opportunities for early-career applied geophysicists. The new normal of volatile economies, demographic changes, increasing globalization, climate change and shifting priorities in governance obviously have many more than future-focused geoscientists like me concerned. And not just for ourselves but also and especially for those to whom we leave this world. What will our legacy be? Leaving problems for the kids to work out or searching for and starting solutions?

My talks vary according to the audience, but adhere to and are constructed around the three main components of the future: People, Practice, and Philosophy. First come the People. Who’s We? Who are the individuals and societies we consider in our collective future? Next, Practice. What tools do we have, and which ones need creating? How and why are they used? Finally, Philosophy. Are we mentally and emotionally mature and philosophically capable to talk about the future? Can we change? The philosophy of the futurist must involve an acknowledgement of human interdependencies as well as deep introspection and more open conversation, and is what Optimist’s Telescope opens with. Bina cites the contemplation of human myopia by early Western philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato to modern psychologists: Why this bias for the present when we know it is fleeting and is the future’s past? In truth, thinking about the future isn’t even that profound or ponderous for, as the book says early on, “What appears our doomed fate is, in reality, a choice.” Help yourself and others make good choices that will help us all down the road. Even when boiled down to this simple, accessible problem, the question remains: Can we change?

Yes, we can change, Bina argues, because we have. As I sit in an industry founded on long-term vision but is increasingly funded by impatient stockholders and constrained by their attendant quarterly demands, I read tales of finance houses that gave up short-term earnings statements and annual bonuses as measures of success. I learn of fishermen who curbed their unnecessary practice of resource over-extraction and instead put a plan in place to grow sustainable populations for the future. And I smile at cities that have banned urban development and suburban sprawl hastily constructed on flood plains, subsidence zones and natural coastal barriers. Beyond provoking thought, it is in each chapter being a concrete example of an implementable solution, sustainable practice or failure analysis where The Optimist’s Telescope excels. Furthermore, Bina’s reporting skills helped her put together each of these examples as case studies but first as stories. Empathizing with the story and people of the matter and to the tick of the long clock versus embracing or rejecting it with respect to momentary political ideology may be a better way of enacting longer-lasting and much-needed change. 

New problems need new solutions but there is also wisdom to be had from histories and cultures we refuse to consider in our increasingly “global” scape. Bina goes into this in some detail with takeaways that we can use today and in our seemingly varied communities. We in the 21st-century west are not smarter than ancient Pompeiians or more advanced than the inhabitants of rural Cameroon. In fact, hiding our primitive and failing institutional practices behind the veneer of flashy technology, language-bending buzzwords and crisp suits is so much worse.

Overall, The Optimist’s Telescope is a well-researched and practical yet impassioned plea for a futures-based approach to solving the problem of our continued co-existence on this planet. As I imagine geoscience curricula for schools and universities, we must start with what needs addressing before we routinely pick items for students’ toolbelts. I greatly recommend this book or select chapters to accompany science, philosophy and science communication classes at all levels of education so that it may help students in creating their own future, asking the right questions on its behalf, and designing their own tools to make that future real and good. And, speaking of growing respect for delayed gratification, I can’t wait for the sequel to this book containing more stories and visions of the future.

Further Reading

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This Week In Reading 2019-08-23

[Short Story] Neal Stephenson’s Atmosphaera Incognita – A story by Stephenson I read in … wait for it … under 45 minutes (with some flips back to earlier pages for context). What hasn’t changed is the somewhat outlandish renaissance protagonist who goes from being a religious studies major and real estate agent to structural engineering and coding expert in the span of 50 pages. Or I need new friends.

[Fiction] Red Rising by Pierce Brown. A friend (one I will keep) has been pestering me to read this book going on four years now. Fine, fine.

[Essay] Cory Doctorow on science-fiction fandom, John W Campbell’s legacy, and the price paid for sweeping bad conduct under the rug. Goes double for our scientific societies.

[Opinion] Should we make AI more human? by Center for Science and the Imagination’s Nina Miller

[Audiobook] The Conception of Terror: Tales inspired by M. R. James – Volume 1 – Not so terrifying given I listened to the roughly hour-long stories in peak Houston traffic. I recognized Pearl Mackie’s narration immediately – she is such a delight with her perky self-assurance. Overall better voice acting than stories.

[Non-fiction] Slowly straggling my way through Confederates In The Attic, Appomattox not yet in sight. Tony Horwitz tries so hard to report the modern (well, late 1990s) Confederate South such that the words and feelings of its people stand on their own, without judgment. I find it equally difficult on my part to find any common ground with that ethos from the vantage point of America In 2019, and without judgment.

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The Resurgence of Seismic Inversion

This spring, I chaired the Geophysical Society of Houston spring symposium, in which the Society honored Dan Hampson and Brian Russell for their tremendous contributions to seismic inversion and applied geophysics. My wrap-up article on the symposium is in this month’s issue of the GSH Journal. Here is a direct link to the article itself: PDF. (Non-geos, there’s a simple explanation in there of what seismic inversion is and why it’s important.)

I’d like to take this opportunity to say that Dan and Brian are complete mensches as are the speakers who honored them. Cheers to them all!

With Brian Russell (left) and Dan Hampson (right). Also proof that Dan Hampson exists outside of complex space.

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