Our Pal Technology

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

When did we start talking about our relationship with technology? (Really. Just search it on Google and you’ll be surprised.)

I believe the notion of a relationship began way back, when we first got the inkling that computers were not simply sophisticated typewriters. That they seemed to have a mind of their own. I believe it was when we started arguing with them and becoming impatient with them. I believe it was when we acclimated to the digitized customer service voice. Calling it ‘she’.

We have come a long way since those early, naïve, days of communication technologies, which, today, seem to be influencing us and affecting our behavior in ways we cannot imagine, distancing us more and more from the natural world, the source of our health and well-being.

As an example, I’ve included here excerpts from a blog, Abu Yehuda, about the extreme influence Facebook is having on our lives:

Facebook’s essential extremism

Posted on August 24, 2018 by Vic Rosenthal

There are 7.6 billion humans on this earth. 2.23 billion of them logged on to Facebook (the number counts “monthly active users”) during the second quarter of 2018.

I don’t know about you, but I found this astounding, considering that Facebook did not exist prior to 2004, and was not open to the general public until 2006. This single “platform” has arguably had a greater influence on human social and political behavior than anything since the invention of radio and television. It may turn out to be as disruptive of the social order as the widespread introduction of movable type in the 15thcentury.

The sheer speed at which Facebook has spread through world cultures along with its constantly changing, hidden, proprietary algorithms mean that its effects are difficult to study. Unlike the decentralized publishing industry that grew out of the advances in printing technology, Facebook is tightly controlled by a single private company….

One of the well-known characteristics of Facebook is its encouragement of ideological bubbles. This is by design. The designers understand that the amount of time one spends on Facebook – and therefore the number of ads one sees – depends on the psychic gratification one receives from the content. It’s well-known that such gratification increases when the content includes ideas with which one agrees, while exposure to ideas that challenge one’s beliefs produces discomfort. So the algorithm that decides which posts a user will see chooses those which – according to an elaborate profile created by the user’s own posts and “likes” – it estimates that the user will find congenial….

The platform itself is structured to encourage its users to behave in ways which support its objective of providing a gratifying experience. For example, a user who posts a “status,” photo, or link, has control of the comments that other users can make about it. If another user posts a comment that the “owner” of the initial post disagrees with, the owner can delete it. As a result, Facebook etiquette has developed in which it is considered inappropriate to post a disagreement. “This is my page, and I won’t allow racism (or fascism, transphobia, etc.) on it,” a user will write, and delete the offending comment.

There is also the way Facebook users get “friends.” Friend suggestions are generated in various ways, such as number of common friends, but also by the platform’s evaluation of common interests, which also means ideological agreement. My personal experience illustrates this. I have been a member of Facebook since 2010, and by now have collected several hundred “friends.” After an initial period in which I befriended relatives and real-life friends, I almost never initiated a friend request. But on a regular basis I receive such requests. Some of them are people with whom I share non-political interests or who were my real-life friends in the past. A few are people that I have interacted with in the comments section. But the majority are people with whom I am not acquainted, but who appear (to Facebook) to have a similar ideological profile…..

So why is this bad? Of course it means that I won’t be exposed to ideas that I disagree with. That’s bad enough. But there is an even worse problem. It is that in an ideologically homogeneous group, a participant gets respect by reinforcing the ideology of the group. I can become a hero to my group of hawkish conservatives by being even more hawkish. Because there are no doves in my group, thanks to Facebook’s algorithm and natural selection, there is nothing to stop me from moving farther to the right. And the next person that wants to make his mark in the group will attack me from the right, moving the discourse as a whole along with him….

As a result, ideological groups develop which then move more and more away from the center. They emphasize different facts and even develop their own facts. They create their own dialects, with each side using words that the other side never uses…. Members of opposing groups would think each other’s ideas are crazy, but they will rarely see them….

Facebook often announces programs to try to distinguish real and fake news, and to remove posts that “violate its community standards,” whatever they are. It certainly does not want to provide a platform for incitement to murder, genocide, sexual violence, racism, or many other undesirable things. But it will never do anything that will significantly impact its primary objective, which is to get people to spend more time scrolling through it and encountering ads.

In short, the platform itself, which is designed to increase ad revenues for Facebook’s shareholders, has the undesired side effect of nurturing and amplifying extremism. Rather than bringing people together, it drives them apart and polarizes them. Unfortunately, this is built into the structure of the platform, and is essential to the attainment of its business objectives. It can’t be fixed with anything other than a wholesale change that would make it unrecognizable, and possibly destroy its ability to make a profit…

So you can see, our ‘relationship’ with technology has taken on a different feel from the days when we argued with our computers. As quoted in an IndieBound review, David Auerbach, author of Bitwise: A Life in Code, wrote:

We engineer ever more intricate technology to translate our experiences and narrow the gap that divides us from the ma­chine. We willingly erase our nuances and our idiosyncrasies—precisely the things that make us human.

 

 

 

Good Fire

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

The American settlers in the Sierra forests at the turn of the twentieth century encountered fire. They had to learn to live with the reality of fire, that it would be as much a part of their environment as the snow, the rain, the thunderstorms and the Mono winds. They built their towns and businesses, their permanent structures, and protected all from fire through total suppression. In essence, they removed fire from the forest.

The native people, on the other hand, who had thousands of years of forest living behind them and had acquired an understanding of fire’s ecological give and take nature, had adapted to the fire-hungry environment of the Sierra forests. Over the millennia they learned to embrace fire and to use controlled burns to create and improve the rich habitats that provided their food, their medicines, and their basketry resources.

In terms of supplying themselves with food, the Indians were agriculturists, not simply gatherers. They studied weather patterns and fuels, cultivated their plants, tended their vast garden with burning, pruning, sowing, weeding, and tilling the soil. They harvested at the right time and in the right amount. In return, the land provided them with leaves such as mint for teas and medicines; grains and seeds for cakes, breads and soups; bulbs, and fruits such as Manzanita, elderberry, choke cherry, sourberry, wild strawberry, blackberry, wild grape and gooseberry.

The oak tree, which produces acorns, the main staple of the Indian diet, received special fire protection from the native people. By directing the smoke from fires built under the trees, they were able to keep the mistletoe at bay. If you’ve ever seen a mistletoe-covered oak tree, you have an idea of the damage it can do if left unchecked.

Even to this day efforts are made to enhance the output of oak trees with the smoke from prescribed fire. Lois Connor Bohna, a Mono tribal member who gathers and processes acorns is always on the lookout for stands of healthy oak trees, free from bugs and mistletoe. “From a good group of oaks,” said Lois, “I can harvest up to three thousand pounds of acorns every year.”

Tending basketry plants was also an important part of Indian use of fire. The Mono woman, who was the primary basket weaver in the Tribe, knew how to gather. She knew when to gather. She understood the elements, such things as that the redbud stick is most pliable and the red color the deepest if cut during the coldest days of wintertime, or that sourberry is good when cut in spring as well as winter.

The weaver looks for materials that will produce baskets that can withstand day-to-day usage, whether for cooking over hot coals, holding water, or carrying a baby. For example, when selecting bluebrush branches for the rims of cradle boards, winnowers, and sifting baskets the weaver will look for brownness, roundness, length and no lateral or side branches, those characteristics of young, healthy plants that grow after fire has been put on the land and the old, dry, inflexible, white sticks have been eliminated.

One might ask how ancient indigenous use of fire in the forest could inform twenty-first century forest restoration planning. It’s been suggested that, by discovering the approaches used by the Indians in a particular ecosystem, forest managers will be able to tailor their restoration practices to each environment and avoid a one-size-fits-all policy. “A major thrust of restoration ecology,” wrote anthropologist M. Kat Anderson in her introduction to Omer C. Stewart’s Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness,

is to restore ecosystems to a semblance of the historic structures, composition, and functions prior to major Euro-American settlement and development. Ecological restoration can be defined as the practice of reestablishing the historic plant and animal communities of a given area or region and the renewal of the ecosystem and cultural functions necessary to maintain these communities now and into the future.

References

Anderson, M. Kat. Taming the Wild: Native American knowledge and the management of California’s natural resources. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2005.

Blackburn, Thomas C. & Anderson, Kat, eds. Before the wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians. Ballena Press Anthropological Papers. 1993.

Cermak, Robert W. Fire in the Forest: A history of forest fire control on the National Forests in California, 1898-1956. USDA Forest Service Pacific Southwest Region. 2005.

Goode, Ron. Cultural Burn. Tribal Chair North Fork Mono Tribe: Personal Paper Presented to the Dinkey Collaborative. 2014.

Stewart, Omer C. Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness. Henry T. Lewis & M. Kat Anderson, eds. Norman, Oklahoma; University of Oklahoma Press. 2009.

 

Fire: Friend and Foe

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

That fire requires oxygen is something children learn early in life. In a second grade science lesson a jar is placed over a flaming candle. The flame dies out. The wick smolders and cools.

Oxygen, heat and fuel, the fire triangle of the child’s lesson, has been fire’s story since its appearance on Earth, which, according to fire historian Stephen J. Pyne, was 400 million year ago, when all the ingredients were in place and the triangle was completed.

For 400 million years, fire has followed a consistent principle: after ignition – which occurs naturally in the form of lightning – sufficient heat, fuel and oxygen must be present if fire is to take hold and thrive. The removal or reduction of any one of these elements during a fire diminishes or extinguishes the fire’s energy.

How was it that human beings were able to grasp this principle and make fire their own? Perhaps they observed the slowing down of a forest fire when the nights turned cool, the halted progress as a fire crept up against a granite wall, or the flare up of flames in the presence of a sudden breeze.

Whatever it was that allowed them to connect the fire triangle dots, somewhere in the course of their evolution people learned they could start and stop fires and keep them going. They learned about fuels, figured out which burned hotter, which cooler. They put their fire triangle knowledge to use and manipulated fires of different types—to cook their food, clear their fields, shape their tools and weapons, run their cars, and, to fight their wildfires.

Anthropologist M. Kat Anderson, proposes that control of fire was “the greatest invention in the history of humankind,” allowing ancient people to stay warm, cook food and repel predators. Fire might have encouraged them to remain awake after nightfall, contributing to a social life, or prompted them to venture out and settle in otherwise forbiddingly cold areas.

Fire’s connection to humans is only one part of its narrative, however. As a force of nature, fire tears through the living world, feeding on biomass, drawing out its energy; in essence, killing it. “Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, melting glaciers, these are purely physical,” wrote Pyne. “Not fires. Fires need life.”

Yes, fire feeds off of living matter. But in forests where fire is a natural part of the environment, like those in California, fire meets its match. It comes up against life that can resist its onslaught. It encounters plants that even depend on fire to sustain and improve their species.

In the Sierra National Forest, many examples exist of plants that have adapted to the presence of fire or make use of fire for propagation and improvement.

The ponderosa pine grows a bark thick enough to protect the tree from fire’s destructive heat. The dormant seeds of the Buckbrush burst open and germinate with fire, even when the mother plant has been killed. Flowering after fire is enhanced in the Mariposa Lily and Penstemon. In the ubiquitous Bear Clover, a.k.a. Mountain Misery, the deep and complicated root system and tenacious underground series of horizontal stems produce sprouts after the plant’s bout with fire.

Then there is the giant sequoia. In its relationship to fire, the sequoia resists fire by its rutted fibrous bark which has been known to grow to a thickness of two to three feet. The Sequoia defies fire by sending up shoots after fire has passed, the only conifer in the Sierra that sprouts.

The Sequoia also recruits fire to open its cones, which are the size of a chicken egg – two-and-a-half inches in length. A mature tree could have eleven thousand cones, but some can produce up to a hundred thousand. The cones, each containing an average of two hundred flakes of seed, can remain on the tree for decades waiting for heat from a fire to dry them and open them, releasing hundreds of thousands of seeds in the course of a year.

As they float to the ground, the seeds can travel up to six hundred feet from the base of the tree. Once the seeds settle, they need a soft rich soil in which to embed, a condition brought about by fire that cleans out the pine needles and other debris—duff—around the base of the tree. The seeds will become covered with a tiny layer of the mineral soil, and there germination begins.

What takes life, gives life.

Fire Talk

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

California. Mid-summer. It’s early evening, and several of us are out taking a walk. The sun sits above the horizon, a perfect circle, and bright red! Beautiful. Awesome. We stand and stare.

“Oh, that’s because of the smoke coming from all the fires going on,” someone remarks.

“The smoke has really been getting to me this year.”

“It’s the Mendocino fire.”

“I thought I heard thunder,” someone remarks.

“Maybe we’ll get some rain. What a relief that would be.”

“Scares me. You know, thunder means lightning, and that could mean more wildfires.”

This is California fire talk. It happens every year during fire season.

For those of us who do not live in the direct path of wildfires, fire season begins when fires begin, when we read the daily reports and are forced to breathe in the smoke.

For those who live in fire-prone environments, the season begins in early spring, with the anticipation of the wildfires that surely will come. By July, as the dryness sets in and the temperatures rise, the prospect of fire becomes ever more real.

People tend to become more vigilant. They might begin to watch for the telltale red sun or brown hazy sky. Or they might wake in the middle of the night and look out their windows, sniff the air.  Has a fire started somewhere as they slept? Fire talk enters their conversations.  In coffee shops, at the supermarket they chat facilely about fuel loading and suppression, backfiring and cutting line.

These people accept that they have chosen to live with wildfire. It’s not simply that they learn to clear brush from around their homes or to plan for potential evacuation. Or, that from time to time they will have to endure weeks of smoke-filled air because of a wildfire somewhere in the forest. It’s that they become acquainted with fire as a breathing machine that needs oxygen to thrive and maintains a unique and vital relationship to their living world.

They learn that fire can take on a life of its own and get out of hand. All it needs is the opportunity to get so hot that it starts feeding on oxygen from all sides, sucking the air in, creating an updraft from the inward gusts of wind, propelling the flames as through a chimney hundreds of feet into the air. The wind whirls around the burning column, counter-clockwise, generating a hurricane-like firestorm with winds that can travel ten times faster than the surrounding winds, and temperatures that can climb to above three thousand degrees Fahrenheit. During such a firestorm, plumes of white pyro cumulus clouds that look like thunderheads – known to billow as high as eight miles into the air – can form as the fire enters the cooler upper atmosphere. (see illustration below)

For those who live on the periphery of wildfire country, a fire thunderhead appearing above the horizon is a pronouncement that a wildfire has taken charge somewhere in the forest.

Is it any wonder, then, that firefighters relate to wildfires as if they were alive? They speak of fires as running uphill and creeping along the ground, jumping rivers, and spotting across fire lines. They say that fires can throw embers and firebrands. They can escape, even shape an entire forest. To firefighters, wildfires are mean and wily and show exceptional endurance or fierceness or moxie. They are full of surprises, an enemy that must be defeated. They are alive and moody, feed on oxygen, suck in the air. Fires are driven.

A lookout volunteer reflected on her experience sighting fires:

It really does seem like it’s a living thing you’re dealing with. It’s almost as though it’s trying to spite you. Jump on that thing. Strangle it. It kind of brings out that kind of defense in you. You want to get it.

A Forest Service fuels specialist relates to fire as if it were a dragon:

It breathes. You watch it pulse, the wind will stop dead for a minute, like the fire is almost taking a breath. Then whoosh, it really starts going.

Here is an illustration of a Firestorm.

Who is this Cat of Mine?

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

The story goes like this: 12,000 years ago in the Middle East, along the Fertile Crescent, people broke away from their nomadic ways, settled down and grew wheat and barley, nuts and fruits. Soon mice came to raid their stores, and wild cats followed to feast on the mice. The farmers and the cats recognized a mutually advantageous situation. Food for the cats and rodent-free homes for the farmers.

And so began the tacit relationship between humans and cats, what scientists call the cats’ self-domestication. They showed up, wild, and made the farm their home, living side by side with the farmers, but independently, probably wandering back and forth between the wild and their adopted homes.

Fast forward 4,000 years on the island of Cyprus. A cat is buried alongside a man. The archaeologists cannot say definitively that this was a domesticated cat. The skeletons of wild cats and tame cats are too similar to be able to make that distinction. But they presume that it was domesticated because wild cats are not part of the ecology of Cyprus, and being an island, the first cats had to have been brought there by boat. The scientists reject the possibility that wild cats made the journeys to the island.

Another 4,000 years later, in Egypt, cats became an object of worship.

Only much later did the cat establish itself as a pet, a domesticated animal kept for pleasure rather than utility, as defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary.

And here we are. It’s 2018. And cats have become one of the most popular domestic pets in the world. Still independent. Still living side by side with us. Our pet cats are aloof, solitary beings. Unlike our pet dogs, we cannot train them to do our bidding. They do not want to be our companions, nor do they care about pleasing us. And, given the chance, they wander, only to return to their home base and grateful human house mates at day’s end.

When you think about it, these traits are probably not unlike those of their ancient ancestors of 12,000 years ago. Recent studies have shown that our house cats share 96% of their DNA with wild cats such as tigers, which began its evolutionary journey over three million years ago.

Smithsonian Institute archaeologist Melinda Zeder’s comment in a New Yorker magazine article really pinpoints our odd relationship we have with our pet cats:

I think what confuses people about cats is that they still carry some of the more aloof behaviors of their solitary wild progenitors. Sometimes they don’t give a damn about you, but they are very much part of your niche. Cats have us do everything for them. We clean their litter, stroke them, admire them, but unlike dogs they do not have to constantly please and satisfy our needs. They are probably the ultimate domesticate.

As David Zax remarked, “Makes you wonder – who’s domesticating whom?”