My day job involves working for an organization whose mission is: “To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.”
Those are the words and vision of inventor Dean Kamen, founder of the U.S. Foundation for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, better known as FIRST. FIRST engages kids in elementary through high school grades in competitive robotics competitions that provide youth with opportunities to work with professional mentors and learn science, math and engineering skills in fun, enduring and rewarding ways, with over $16 million in scholarships for participating high schoolers.
“The assumption that drove the creation of FIRST, “ Kamen said in an interview with PTC last year, “ was you get what you celebrate in a free culture, and the reason America was slipping compared to a lot of its peers around the world—particularly in kids getting involved with and mastering science and technology—was not bad teachers or bad schools, it wasn’t what we don’t have. It was the fact that as a rich country we have so many distractions that have created for kids role models that prevent them from working hard at things that matter.”
In the last few weeks, I was so immersed in working with students , their mentors and the local business community supporting kids in “working hard at the things that matter,” that I almost missed an equally important debate on things that matter to us here in Tampa Bay involving a big box retailer and the substantive public tax payer incentive that county officials want to give the store to open shop in our community.
The Tampa Bay Times reports that the Hillsborough County Commission is considering contributing $6.25 million (down from $15 million, initially) toward road improvements around “The Estuary”, an enormous, ironically named shopping plaza planned between Falkenburg Road and Interstate 75 – currently the site of Florida pine scrub, and a good 15 miles inland from any chance of an “estuary”, which is by definition a partially enclosed body of coastal water where freshwater from rivers and streams meets and mixes with salt water from the ocean and actually does something physically, biologically, environmentally and even economically useful, by virtue of the recreational opportunities our coastline offers.
Besides the sad fact that “The Estuary” shopping center is going to completely destroy anything remotely natural – estuarian or otherwise – in the area of planned development, developers predictions of “ annual sales of $61.8 million, generating state and local sales taxes” and “property assessment climbing to $16.4 million, boosting taxes on land now used for agriculture” ring hollow in light of the facts, and misleading in light of “things that matter.”
Bass Pro’s track record and the history of big tax incentives for major retailers suggest assurances that “ Hillsborough could break even on its $15 million investment by 2018” are probably more than a little inflated. More important, though: Do we truly believe that subsidized shopping offers a real return on our investment towards our collective future?
Bass Pro projects it would create 369 permanent, full-time jobs in addition to 1,517 temporary construction jobs over five years, and the entire shopping plaza development is project to create 1,327 retail jobs.
But the fact is, says a report by the Public Accountability Initiative that examined such claims (Fishing for Taxpayer Cash), “Bass Pro often fails to deliver on its promises as an economic development anchor and major tourist destination – promises which were used to reel in government subsidies. Its stores successfully attract shoppers, but often do not produce sought-after economic benefits associated with major tourist destinations,” and taxpayers in places like Cincinnati, Harrisburg PA, and Bakersfield, CA “ have been left with high levels of debt and fiscal stress as a result of Bass Pro Projects.”
“Retail is not economic development. People don’t suddenly have more money to spend on hip waders because a new Bass Pro or Cabela’s comes to town,” Greg Leroy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a non-partisan economic development watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., told The Atlantic Cities in an article last summer . ”All that happens is that money spent at local mom and pop retailers shifts to these big box retailers. When government gives these big box stores tax dollars, they are effectively picking who the winners and losers are going to be.”
Larry Whitely, a spokesman for Bass Pro Shops, argued in the article that their stores “should be viewed as an amenity being added to a community — much like one might view a park or a library. …”These aren’t just stores – they are natural history museums. Every store is designed to reflect the unique natural environment of the area in which it is located.” “
Aside, again, from the basic fact that the store, by virtue of its construction, would be destroying a unique natural environment in the area in which it is to be located, $6.5 million would buy a lovely real natural history museum , park or library with a far greater return on the investment, socially, aesthetically, academically, environmentally and economically. $6.5 million dollars could also address food insecurity, make a serious impact on homelessness, pay for new teachers, finance school improvements, or make a nice deposit on a light rail system.
From a purely personal perspective, $6.5 million could fund a couple or three FIRST robotics STEM education robotics teams in every one of Hillsborough County’s nearly 160 K-12 schools for years, helping create the type of scientifically literate people Florida needs for a truly economically successful future. Because the real path to future prosperity in Florida and nationally, economic development experts are saying, is growing a knowledge based economy,not a consumer based one.
A knowledge based economy is one that is “driven by research, ideas, innovations, and technical skills to generate high-impact economic benefits and high-wage jobs. Strong sustainable knowledge economies
- Are able to sell goods and services at a higher profit margin than others;
- Earn average wages up to $25,000 more than non-knowledge-based communities, and;
- Are able to perform and execute business through more cost-effective and efficient relationships.
In the “New Economy Index” report of states by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which evaluates states on a similar “knowledge based” formula, Florida ranked 21st – and dropping.
“Some have argued that, given the economic downturn, now is not the time to focus on innovation,” observed the report’s authors. “rather, our chief concern should be job creation. Yet, fostering innovation and creating jobs are by no means mutually exclusive. To the contrary, most studies of the issue have found that innovation is positively correlated to job growth in the mid- to long-term.”
By a correlation factor of 0.87, notes one author – ” in fact exponentially proportional to KEI (Knowledge Economic Indicator) , ie higher the KEI, higher is the per capita income of that country and vice versa. Highest KEI is of Denmark at 9.58 on a scale of 1 to 10, and the lowest KEI is of Myanmar at 0.96 at rank 145.” (Express Tribune-)
Among the key findings in Change the Equation’s Florida Vital Signs report, “Florida needs a world class education system and seamless talent supply chain to meet workforce demands at all skill levels. STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – is of the utmost priority if Florida is to achieve its long term goal.”
Nowhere in that report is there a call for more consumer opportunities or retail jobs.
“Before handing taxpayer money to Bass Pro projects, ” concludes the Public Accountability Initiative report, ” public officials should consider what some other cities are going through as a result of Bass Pro-anchored projects that have fallen short: high levels of debt and fiscal duress, lackluster development, vacancy and blight, and lower-than-expected tax revenues. Considering the potential consequences, it is imperative for public officials and taxpayers to take the proper steps to ensure that they are not subsidizing an underperforming development: ask straightforward questions of Bass Pro and project developers, demand transparency and data, secure contractual guarantees that limit cannibalization, and, above all, consider alternatives. There is no good reason to subsidize development that sells cities short and leaves taxpayers on the hook.”
Public officials – and the public – should also consider what really matters to Florida’s future and help us build a Knowledge economy that will serve us and future generations far better, and make us far more productive and competitive than any retail chain store ever will. If, as Dean Kamen says, and as I fully agree, we get what we celebrate, and the best we can do is Bass Pro Shops , then that’s all we’ll get.
If, however, we choose to celebrate creative productivity and scientific and technical literacy and achievement, we’ll get so much more than we could ever have imagined!
Depending on who’s doing the talking, and what they’re talking about, either god or the devil is said to be in the details. The astounding and sometimes horrific nature of the insect world is one of those situations where both may be there at the same time.
This past summer, in particular, insects have had their share of headlines, from tick borne diseases to mosquito induced West Nile Virus,and flea driven Bubonic plague . Okay, technically ticks aren’t insects, they’re arachnids, but they’re arthropods of note and notoriety. Almost everyone’s heard of Lyme Disease now, which is caused by tick bites as are a number of other illnesses. But the tick bite illness in the news this summer – tick induced delayed anaphylaxis -is one I first heard about a couple of years ago when I was working on my book, the Florida Allergy Handbook .
I was actually in the middle of a draft review and was double checking some facts on tick allergy when I came across an article citing research about how the bite of certain seed ticks predisposed some victims to a severe allergy to meat.
I did a double take.
It got weirder. You only developed the meat allergy if your blood type is other than A or AB. The first
reports hailed from Australia but were eventually confirmed by University of Virginia researchers who found that some individuals bitten by “seed” ticks–the tiny larval young of adult ticks–experienced severe anaphylactic reactions three to six hours after eating beef, pork or lamb.
As I reported in my book, “Patients first experienced an increasingly intensifying itching that spread across the skin’s outer and deeper layers, and escalated to swelling, intestinal distress and finally symptoms of anaphylaxis. “
The culprit turns out to be an IgE antibody that binds to a sugar molecule known as alpha-gal, a finding that further disrupts what we thought about allergies, which are typically caused by proteins in food, pollen, dander and venom, not sugars .
Every time we think we’ve got a handle on things, it turns out we’re just holding a branch connected to a whole lot of other branches – and it’s full of bugs. We rarely really know what we’re talking about, and even when we do, the little things still rule.
West Nile Virus is nothing new, but this past summer the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, reported a record 2,118 ill and 92 dead of the disease, across 44 states. Mother Earth News is not alone in suggesting that climate change might be causing the increase in insect borne diseases.
“The best insecticide ,” says Mother Earth News.”… is cold weather. Nine of the 10 hottest years on record occurred between 2002 and 2011 with 2012 likely becoming the hottest year ever recorded! We are having earlier springs and hotter summers which mean mosquitos can breed earlier and longer.”
And that’s exactly what they’re doing. Throughout the Florida Allergy Handbook, I cite instances of climate change as a likely contributing factor to everything from larger, more virulent poison ivy to record size wasp nests. This summer in Florida alone, we’ve had nine inches of rain above normal, making for larger and longer areas of standing water that provide prime breeding ground for mosquitoes and other pests.
An intriguing article in Wired this month observed, “In the United States, Lyme disease is thought of as the major tickborne bad actor — but over the past two years, health authorities have been coming to grips with the unappreciated toll of other tick-related diseases, including erlichiosis, anaplasmosis, STARI, and babesiosis, which is moving into the blood supply. That’s not even to mention the toll of long-standing insect-borne diseases: malaria, one of the top five infectious killers in the world, along with rapidly rising dengue.
“When we indulge in cultural fascination with scary new diseases, we tend to look to the animal kingdom — bats in the movie Contagion, whose scenario was based on the discovery of Nipahvirus, or monkeys in just about any account of Ebola. Like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, we have difficulty believing we can be brought down by something we can barely see. (In some cases literally: The tick suspected of transmitting Heartland, Amblyoma americanum, is half the size of a sesame seed.)”
And yet arthropods continually fascinate me. The massive global, economic, social and health impact of things in such tiny packages is stunning in its unintended audacity. There is a wasp, for instance – a tiny fairy wasp with the ironically long name megaphragma mymaripenne - that is just 200 microns in size,; just twice the width of the average human hair, and smaller than a single celled amoeba. And yet this creature is replete with organs!
And on these creatures live other creatures in an almost infinite Whoville universe. Click the image below for a remarkable 1 milimeter to 500 nanometer inward zoom at the constellation of life in a humble amphipod.
“Nature will try anything once,” Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behavior too grotesque. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass.”
All around me things are clacking in the grass. The abundance of summer rains have
produced an abundance of life everywhere you look – and sometimes it’s best not to look too closely. For days I watched a rather amusing little orange insect trundling placidly among the white pentas in my yard. I researched, and ran it past my usual expert sources – All Things Bugs, and IFAS . But because I’m nothing if not curious, I decided to run a “What Kind of Insect is That?” contest at Fine Art America while awaiting an answer, to see what other kinds of interesting critters might be out there.
Nearly 200 entries of amazing insect photos were submitted. It was there that I learned my cute little orange bug was a juvenile assassin bug that would grow up to do just what its name suggests – assassinate other insects.
The winning entries are remarkable things to behold – a yellow and black treehopper, by Craig Lapsley , with giraffe spots on a humped head and an opaque eye; a rainbow colored lantern bug, by Roy Foos, right out of a Dr. Seuss book, with a red elephantine protuberance covered in white spots and sporting green and yellow wings ; and a bulbous cicada, by Shane Bechler , with enormous cellophane wings.
These are in fact the little things that run the world, and will continue to do so long after we are gone. The cockroach repels us, yet because of us it thrives in the ecosystem of our leavings. We’re peripheral to the universe of ticks and mosquitoes, who largely exist on the blood of other animals, and yet they fell us by the thousands almost as an afterthought. Even the bubonic plaque has made a resurgence, contracted by a child in the Colorado this past summer, when she was bitten by fleas on a dead squirrel that she handled.
And yet insects are also beautiful , like butterflies, and successfully resourceful like ants, and vital to our existence like bees and other insect pollinators without whom our food crops would suffer and die. They also aerate the soil, are a critical food source for other animals, decompose dead materials,and fertilize the soil with the nutrients from their waste and remains.
It’s easy to fear and detest – and possibly be injured by – the things we don’t understand. E.O. Wilson said “More respect is due the little things that run the world.” Respect, born of knowledge and common sense conduct in and proper preparation for the outdoors, will protect us better than GMOs and indiscriminate eradication practices.
The god and the devil in these extraordinary details deserve both our reverence and some healthy caution, for they are both terrible and wonderful, like the Creation from which they hail.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if you knew exactly what was in the food that you were eating? This is especially important for people with life-threatening food allergies. With the Portable Allergen Specialized Spectrometer, or PASS, you can finally do that! Using the technology of mass spectrometry, the PASS device scans and penetrates the food with microwave beams. It then turns the scanned information into tangible data that goes through the mass spectrometer-like machine inside the device. Once the process is finished, the information will then be shown on a screen, showing each and every type of food that is on the plate. This device will help people with food allergies that are worried that what they are eating at a restaurant might contain the food that they’re allergic to (In other words, they’re afraid their food won’t PASS the allergy test).”
The PASS system is the brainchild of 15 year old Matthew Temmer, of Land O’Lakes. Matthew, who presented his insightful thoughts on the power of youth voice and vision at TEDxYouth@TampaBay 2011 , which I help curate, suffers from severe food allergies, and developed the PASS device idea”so that no one ever has to experience a severe allergic reaction at a restaurant again!”
When I wrote the Food Allergy Field Guide, the biggest concern facing those with food allergies, including my son, was – and remains – eating out safely. My son enjoys french fries, but seasoned fries are often off limits, because it’s hard to know if there’s flour in the seasoning, and wait staff aren’t a reliable source of information about ingredients, nor are cooks sometimes. The same issue applies with gravies and sauces. And cross contamination is always a concern. Having something like the PASS device to ensure safe dining would also make for far more relaxed and enjoyable dining for those with food sensitivities. So I applaud Matthew’s great idea and hope someone can help make it a reality in the near future.
You can read more about Matthew’s idea at Connect a Million Minds, and if you think it’s as potentially useful as I do, I hope you’ll cast a vote for the Portable Allergen Specialized Spectrometer as totally awesome, too!
From the annals of weird but true stories comes this “nugget” from the UK: A 17 year old British girl who has eaten almost nothing but chicken nuggets since she was two years old, collapsed recently and had to be taken to a hospital, where she was found to be suffering from anemia and swollen veins in her tongue.
Where to start with this one…
First, I did some rudimentary research to confirm it really was a true story, coming from The Sun , and all. But sure ‘nuff, Stacey Irvine, who looks relatively okay, has in fact eaten primarily processed chicken nuggets for the last 15 years of her life, with fries (or chips, across the pond) and the occasional culinary venture into toast for breakfast and the rare potato chip for a snack. Doctors call hers a “beige” diet, a blandly descriptive enough term.
I’ve got one of those monochromatic eaters – she has Asperger’s Syndrome , in which a limited diet is fairly common. But as a young adult who was exposed to a wide variety of foods at a young age and who hails from a family that generally likes to try new foods, her diet ranges to some reasonably healthy shades of yellow and red, and includes the proper amounts of most of the necessary nutrients. Interestingly, she’s fond of chicken nuggets, too, but is also well aware that while chickens have wings and breasts and legs – nowhere does their anatomy include a “nugget.”
“McDonald’s chicken nuggets are my favourite,” Irvine told the Sun. (I’ll keep their spelling, for the full effect). “ I share 20 with my boyfriend with chips.
“But I also like KFC and supermarket brands. My main meal is always chicken nuggets every day.”
While Irvine’s OD-ing on chicken nuggets on her bed of happy meal toys, on this side of the Atlantic Mrs. Obama is hitting the streets and neighborhood schools with her healthy eating campaign and the USDAs My Plate in hand. Her efforts are intended to showcase USDA improvements to school meal requirements that increase the availability of health food choices, and also seek to limit the total number of calories in an individual meal.
Those chicken nuggets Irvine is so fond of – and which plenty of public schools serve – contain 58g of fat and 926 calories in a 20 nugget meal – exceeding daily recommended intakes of 56g fat, and comprising almost half of the daily recommended 2,000 calories a day. If that’s not scary, maybe this video of what’s actually in that chicken nugget might do the trick. At the very least, the pink boa constrictor of mechanically separated chicken should be sufficiently horrifying. (Although the YouTube closed captioning on the piece is rather entertaining.)
But maybe it’s not horrifying enough for American sensibilities. Healthy eating guru Jamie Oliver, a TED Prize winner with a winning way of getting people to reconnect with good food, tried one of his food deconstruction programs with a group of American school children a couple of years ago. After carefully separating a whole chicken into its normally edible parts, Oliver then dramatically processed the remaining carcass, bones and all, in a blender while describing how chicken nuggets are made. Presenting the pink glop of chicken parts puree to the children, he asked them, “Who would eat this now?” After just a moment’s hesitation, every hand shot up.
A clearly thunderstruck Oliver then cooked up the patties and served them to the children, who happily ate them. Reflecting on his failed experiment later, he said, “What’s scary is that we’ve brainwashed our children so completely, so even though they know something is disgusting and gross, they’ll still eat it if it’s in that friendly little shape.”
Humans are creatures of habit and convenience. Give us the two together, and we’re set, even if it kills us, which eating out of convenience and habit might well do. So the battle for the Western world’s waist line and cholesterol levels rages on – with Jiminy Crickets like Mrs. Obama and Jamie Oliver perched on our shoulders cautioning common sense and restraint and beckoning us to the joys of healthy eating, and the fast food foxes luring us to the next donut and the promise of the immediate gratification of corn syrupy endorphins coursing sluggishly through our clogged arteries.
Maybe if we could see it for what it really is: Our lack of self control in our eating habits is at least partly symptomatic of a lack of control in other aspects of our lives, which leaves us open to manipulation and control by others. We fancy ourselves a “free people.” But we’re not. We’re often slaves to what anyone wants to sell us, from politics to processed poultry.
Pleasure Island is making chicken nugget donkeys of us all, and it will continue to do so until we see it for what it really is, take control of our health and our lives, and truly become free.
Every Sunday, my UU congregation choruses a shared promise to “honor ourselves, our relationships, and each other with dignity, respect and compassion, always maintaining the common good.” And every Sunday as we speak those words, I look into the many, varied and well-loved faces of my fellow parishioners with appreciation and a sense of community I find in few other places, and nowhere as richly as there. I’ve been saying those words for ten years now, and yet it only recently occurred to me that we were saying “common good”, and not “greater good,” as I’d been interpreting the words.
We hear about the Greater Good a lot. There’s a lovely online magazine by that name, full of thought provoking news and research about altruism and compassion, and a Greater Good Network for charity giving. And a recent documentary film with that title examines the debate about vaccinations. The phrase, “the greater good” is invoked by everyone from religious leaders to politicians and has echoed from the dawn of philosophy in Aristotle’s writings:
“And those things also are greater goods which men desire more earnestly to bring about for themselves or for their friends, whereas those things which they least desire to bring about are greater evils. “
To Karl Marx’s famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) contention that “History calls those men the greatest who have ennobled themselves by working for the common good; experience acclaims as happiest the man who has made the greatest number of people happy.” — Marx, Letter to His Father (1837)
In ethics, the “greater good” is housed under the theory of “Utilitarianism”, which says that the right course of action is always the one that maximizes the overall good for the greatest number of people. English philosopher Jeremy Benthem called it “the greatest happiness or greatest felicity principle.” UUs recount a long religious and political history of working for the greater good , from Susan B. Anthony to Linus Pauling and others, from marching with Dr. Martin Luther King to Occupying Wall Street.
Yet our church’s shared covenant clearly and intentionally calls us to maintain “the common good,” not the “greater good. While the choice of phrasing sounds almost pedestrian beside the likes of Aristotle, Marx, and MLK, I believe the choice of words was quite intentional. When I think about it, maintaining the common good makes enormous good sense; for we cannot serve a greater good without first finding the solid ground of our shared common good.
The greater good can seem an ethereal thing, unattainable, or at perhaps idealistic at best, like Peace on Earth. We all want it, but some people’s peace seems dependent on other peoples’ annihilation. The common good, though – that seems more accessible. Things like clean water, a safe environment, freedom of expression and access to knowledge should be things we can all appreciate and value.
The “common good” can vary by community. Ducks Unlimited seeks to “conserve, restore, and manage wetlands and associated habitats for North America’s waterfowl,” largely for the purposes of hunting those waterfowl. The National Audubon Society also seeks “To conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife, and their habitats for the benefit of humanity and the earth’s biological diversity,” largely for the purposes of enjoying birds. hile the two groups may be somewhat at odds in certain areas of policy and philosophy, they both share a commitment to the common good of managed public lands where people can enjoy healthy populations of birds – whether hunting them or photographing them, and wild spaces for people to enjoy in the company of wildlife. Both groups often support similar conservation measures, and can be part of important alliances in the service of protecting ecosystems.
Finding the places where needs and goals intersect can be a powerful and enduring way to bring people and ideas together. Which is precisely why some groups go to great lengths to drive wedges between potential social allies. Despite our diverse Technicolor world, our vision of it is often quite black & white, thanks to an abundance of shallow, sensationalist media where positions are distilled to two widely, and often wildly, opposing views, and individuals with differing ideas and opinions are flattened into single dimensional caricatures.
Think about current events and some of the popular commentary about them. Glenn Beck contends that Occupy Wall Street is “a Marxist revolution that is global in its nature.” Martin Keeley called global warming “ a scam, perpetrated by scientists with vested interests, but in need of crash courses in geology, logic and the philosophy of science.” And the endless mudslinging by politicians determined to reduce each other into subhuman, non-people in the eyes of the electorate, like Rick Perry suggesting Mitt Romney isn’t a “competent Christian” because he’s a Mormon.
The constant exposure to over-simplified assessments of people and ideas erodes our ability to thoughtfully consider all the facts of a matter and to make informed and intelligent decisions about them. The more we buy into false arguments about issues and accept opinions as facts, the more fractured we’re in danger of becoming as a society, in our communities and even within our families.
In this great short video by National Geographic, the “typical human” is a bit oversimplified but for the purposes of making an important point – that most of humanity is not what we see here in the U.S.. In fact, based on sheer numbers, the most typical human, says NatGeo, is a 28 year old Han Chinese man, of whom there are 9 million in the world! But as National Geographic points out, “Typical is always relative.”
We all need water, but as the video points out, we use it very differently. In the U.S., on average, we each use over a hundred gallons of water daily. In Ethiopia, people use 2.5 gallons daily, and women can spend 8 hours collecting it. Our choices make a big difference, the video informs us, when multiplied by 7 billion. So does finding the global common good among so vast a human family.
Identifying the common good beyond our immediate families and neighborhoods, requires broadening our view and honestly assessing where we stand in the bigger picture, in the wider field of view, and commensurately opens us up to new possibilities and new solutions. More important, honoring that common good empowers us to work together towards a safe, healthy and fulfilling future in the service of our shared humanity, which is the true common ground on which we stand.
Rest in Peace, Steve Jobs.