For Food Security

Day Five: For Food Security

I feel more conflicted about this one than I have about my previous gratitude topics. Not that food security is not a marvelous blessing–it truly is, in every sense of the word. 

But I’m aware that all around me–in my community, across my nation, and around the world, there are many, many people who do not share this blessing.

To express public gratitude for it, in the knowledge of such widespread lack, almost feels like gloating. That’s not my intention at all. If I could, I’d extend this blessing to everyone in the world, so that no one anywhere has to go to bed hungry, or wonder where their next meal will come from.

Here in the USA, today is Thanksgiving. Everyone in the country is presumed to be eating their fill, then waddling into the next room to zone out in a “food coma” while watching American football games. However, despite the best efforts of community charities, not everyone will be able to do that. Statesman Jacques Diouf put it well:

Everyone alive should be acknowledged to have a basic human right to adequate, nutritious food. That this is ignored, pushed aside as inconvenient, left to the vaguaries of climate change, governmental style or unregulated capitalism, or even actively subverted so hunger can be used as a weapon is inexcusable. Yes, people have been doing it for millennia; it’s a crime against humanity every single time, in my opinion.

How can persons of conscience work to fight food insecurity? Acknowledging that we who can eat well are blessed, we can make charitable donations on both the local (link to find US agencies) and international (this link: UN) level to help fill immediate shortfalls.

But we also must advocate for longer-range goals: 

Creating systemic improvement is a large, difficult goal, fraught with practical difficulties, cultural pitfalls, and unintended results. It also is desperately necessary, as long as people anywhere are hungry.

Creating changes in public opinion is a way to begin. Funding empirical studies by unbiased researchers is a reasonable step forward. Involving all involved parties in design of solutions is a reasonable, respectful necessity that is likeliest to result in the best solutions. Many initiatives have already begun. We all must work together to bring the best ones to fruition.

IMAGES: The “Seven Days of Gratitude” design is my own creation, for well or ill. If for some reason You’d like to use it, please feel free to do so, but I request attribution and a link back to this post. The “Food security definition” quote by Pattie Baker is from Quozio, via Pinterest; her book Food for My Daughters is available from Amazon Smile and other fine booksellers. The Jacques Diouf quote is identified as sourced from Live58, though I couldn’t find it on their site; I did find it on the website for GRIID (the Grand Rapids Institute for Information Democracy). The quote from Ray Offenheiser of Oxfam America is courtesy of The Huffington Post, via Pinterest. Many thanks to all!

For Religious Freedom

Day One: Grateful for Religious Freedom

On many calendars, this is the first day of the week, so I figure this is a good place to start my Seven Days of Gratitude project for the week of the US Thanksgiving holiday. Throughout my life, gratitude and thankfulness have repeatedly come up as important themes. I welcome this holiday each year as an opportunity to explore them once again.

My daughter recently started a “Gratitude Journal,” a daily recording of at least one thing each day for which she is thankful. Thinking about her project has given me my theme. As a practicing Christian, it is my belief that I have myriad blessings each day to celebrate with joy and thanksgiving to my God.

Massive among of those blessings, for me, it the United States Bill of Rights guarantee that I may practice my religious faith freely, without fear of persecution. It should be a source of great joy to everyone in the USA that this not only is guaranteed to me, but to everyone in my country, whatever tradition of faith–or however much absence of religious expression–they cherish.

Ironically, I think this is the single most important reason why so many people in the United States still say they believe in God (89%, according to a 2016 Gallup Poll. Compare that to most other industrialized nations, many of which have long histories of state religions). It seems to me that if you are free to believe in the God of your innermost spiritual being, you are more able to find reasons to believe in any God at all.

Or not. And that won’t get you thrown in prison either, thank . . . the Bill of Rights.

Our strength, yet again, lies in our diversity. That’s why I shudder when I hear people say “America is a Christian nation!” Many of the founders may indeed have been some variety of Christian (pretty broadly defined, though: consider how many were Deists, or how Thomas Jefferson felt free to create his own “good parts” version of the New Testament), but asserting any specific religion as “the” American religion would have been “fighting words” to them.

And rightly so. I believe that all of us in the United States should be deeply thankful for our guarantee of religious freedomand I believe that we must remember and defend it, any time we see the rights of any religious community under attack. Bad as that is, though, I think it’s even worse when the values of any particular religion are imposed upon others, especially by people acting in the name of some level of government. Any advocacy for either abuse should be “fighting words” for all true Americans.

IMAGES: The “Seven Days of Gratitude” design is my own creation, for well or ill. If for some reason You’d like to use it, please feel free to do so, but I request attribution and a link back to this post. The illustrated quote from Sir Patrick Stewart is courtesy of We F**king Love Atheism. Many thanks!

Hokusai’s rice farmers

The Artdog Image of Interest 

Throughout September, the Artdog Images of Interest will highlight pieces of artwork by respected masters from around the world, that highlight the value of labor.

This woodblock print by Katsushika Hokusai dates to about 1835-6, and is the first of an incomplete series based on the poems collected in a famous anthology, A Hundred Poems by a Hundred Poets, collected by Fujiwara no Teika in 1235. 

The poem that inspired the print is attributed to Emperor Tenchi Tenno, in which he “expresses empathy for his hard-working subjects.”

One might debate how much empathy an emperor could have for a rice farmer, but the value of the farmers’ labor to the Japanese economy and culture, both in Tenchi’s time and later, is hard to overestimate. They not only fed his empire; in the Emperor’s role as a Shinto priest, many of his duties “revolved around rice-growing.” To this day, rice is still Japan’s staple grain.

IMAGE: The best image I could find online of this work is from MUZÉO. Many thanks to them, for publishing such a fine image. You can buy an open-edition copy that’s even better quality from them, if you like it. I also am indebted to Scholten Japanese Art, for the story behind the print.

Universally understood

The Artdog Quote of the Week 

I’ve heard it said that mathematics is a universal language–but only if you’ve been taught how to decode it. With the arts–especially music, dance, and visual art–no translation is required for the human heart and mind to respond. 

We’ve explored the value of the arts in education during this back-to-school season in my home country, the USA.

But I would submit that no matter when your school term starts, where you live, or how, where, or from whom you learn, if your education is untouched by the arts, it embodies only a pale shadow of the fascination, depth and lifelong relevance it could hold.

IMAGE: Many thanks once again to designer Lonnie King, for enriching this important thought from Richard Kamler with an evocative design.

Disorders

This post is late, and it will have to be short. Disorders of several sorts have beset close family members in recent days, and as a result a certain level of chaos reigns. When such things happen in our personal lives, we may feel as if we’ve been run over.

Photo by Ryan M. Kelly – The Daily Progress/AP

But actually being run over is much, much worse. We have glimpsed recent new horror (including synagogue congregants, holed up in fear while Nazis marched outside in American streets) in Charlottesville, VA, where “all sides” did not contribute to the public disorder in equal measure, no matter who desperately wishes to believe otherwise.

AP Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Anger does beget anger. Confederate monuments and statues all across the country have become targets in reaction to the white supremacists in Charlottesville.

Image source: WNCN-TV video screenshot, via The Blaze.

In such an environment it’s difficult not to wonder if the world has gone mad–or if perhaps we have. Patience is hard to find. Perspective is hard to find. Just as it’s hard to keep one’s head in a mob, so it’s hard to keep one’s eyes on core values.

But that is our current national test.

IMAGES: Many thanks to CNN, photographer Ryan M. Kelly of The Daily Progress and AP for the photo of the horrific impact of a car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters in Charlottesville, to Los Angeles ABC Channel 7, Pablo Martinez Monsivais and AP for the photo of President Trump making a statement about Charlottesville, and to The Blaze and WNCN-TV for a pictorial article about the destruction of a confederate monument in Durham, North Carolina.

Political correctness

Let’s talk about “Political Correctness,” since it’s been thrown in my face recently. It came up at my writers’ group Saturday, when a fellow group member whom I normally respect brought a story that was riddled with ugly, offensive racial stereotypes directed toward a particular minority group. During the critique session I called him on this (I wasn’t the only one), and his defense was that he didn’t want to have his story “limited” by political correctness.

This quote cuts both ways in the “political correctness” debate.

I asked him what he meant by “political correctness” in this context, and he said he didn’t want to limit his range of expression. As if “artificial” rules of “correctness” constituted an intellectually narrow approach that fettered his freedom of expression. A story-critique session wasn’t the forum for a full-blown debate. The group’s leader very firmly changed the subject.

I probably wouldn’t ever convince that particular fellow through direct confrontation, in any case. In my experience, when someone who already feels his privilege is under attack and whose area of greatest pride is his intellectual ability, is accused of intellectual malfeasance, his invariable reaction is to dig in his heels and prepare to die rather than yield to a different point of view.

I do, however, continue to challenge the validity of any “expressive freedom” that depends on not restraining oneself from employing demeaning stereotypes. My associate seemed to think that what he called “political correctness” was a kind of intellectual laziness, an unwillingness to “push the envelope” in certain directions, or to challenge social norms. Perhaps ironically, I see it as just the opposite. In my opinion, folks who decry too much “political correctness” generally don’t seem willing to exert themselves intellectually to stretch beyond their own comfort zones or seriously engage a different experience.

Which of those two approaches should one more accurately call an “intellectually lazy” attitude?

It’s a hallmark of privilege when a person sees the need to adapt to others’ viewpoints as an unwarranted inhibition. That’s a “take” on life and social discourse that  ignores or dismisses the fact that anyone from a non-dominant cultural group has to accommodate and adapt near-continually, just to survive and get along in the world. Yet the most blindly privileged folk are the ones who seem to complain the most aggrievedly about political correctness.

This is not to say that all members of minorities or persons of color are perfect. It isn’t even to say that sometimes the “sensitivity line” can’t be too narrowly drawn—although I’d say the most vulnerable among us probably have a better gauge of where to draw that line, and what’s offensive, than the most privileged among us. But it is to say that our art shouldn’t rely on the cruel crutch of cheap shocks at the expense of innocent bystanders. 

It is to say that vicious racial stereotyping is both a morally and intellectually bankrupt way to approach storytelling . . . or to anything else. For God’s sake, can’t we writers dig deeper? If we can’t be merciful, then at least let’s be original.

There’s a truism that if a phrase or expression comes too easily to mind, it’s almost certainly a cliché. Using clichés is an obvious hallmark of weak writing, precisely because it betrays the author’s unwillingness to push past the easy or obvious, and explore new ideas.

What the apologists for ignoring so-called “political correctness” seem to overlook is that every offensive stereotype ever created is both mean-spirited and a cliché of the worst order. The only valid and original thing to do with any cliché is turn it on its head or expose its vacuity it in a fresh new way. That’s not easy, but then—isn’t that a given, if you’re trying to produce real, lasting, meaningful art?

IMAGES: Many (ironic) thanks to The Federalist Papers, for the Voltaire quote, and to Sizzle for the “Freedom to offend” meme. I am indebted to A-Z Quotes for both the Ian Banks quote, and the one from Toni Morrison. Many thanks to all!

To automate, or not to automate? Is there value to the human element?

A Glimpse of the Future 

Last week I took a first look at some of the jobs that have been increasingly moving over to automation, and a few that might see more automation and fewer humans doing the work in the future.

In some cases this might not be a bad thing. In other cases, the robots may not do as good a job as humans might. A couple of cases-in-point leap to mind: bank tellers and retail store checkers. Which do you prefer?

Love ’em or hate ’em (I know people who feel both ways), these machines seem here to stay.

I’m older than dirt, so I remember before they had such contraptions. I remember having to plan to get money before the bank closed for the day or weekend, and how you always talked with a human being before you could complete any transaction.

I kind of liked it (confession: I still don’t own an ATM card, out of security concerns. Planning ahead: it’s a thing.), but then, I live in the Midwest, where bank tellers and grocery store checkers are apparently friendlier than they are in some other parts of the world. I like to get to know them, in the fond hope that if someone they didn’t know came in and tried to wipe out my bank account, they’d question it. I feel quite certain my bankers at Kansas City’s Country Club Bank would. Thanks, guys!!

I also remember before there was a self-checkout line at the grocery store. I even remember before they had bar codes on the groceries (what a pain that was!), and you had to watch the checker to make sure s/he didn’t make an error or ring something twice that you only bought one of. Of course, now when the machine steals your ATM or credit card information, you have few ways of knowing, so is that a net gain? Depends on for whom, I guess.

There’s reportedly now a trend toward automating fast-food service, unfortunately driven in part by the industry’s resistance to paying its employees a living wage. I can see how an automatic timer to pull the fries out of the hot oil at the penultimate moment might be a good thing, but completely removing all or most of the people? That’s a farther stretch for me.

You see, we’ve actually had automated fast-food delivery for a long time. They’re called vending machines, and they aren’t actually noted for their-high quality products or their ambiance.

Granted, Mickey D’s isn’t long on “ambience” either, but I kind of like to chit-chat with the smiling teens or senior citizens at the counter. Call me weird, but I prefer dealing with people, over figuring out the interface on yet another dang gadget. I’ve kinda perfected the human interface, at least to some extent, and I have this weird notion that people should be respected, even when they have low-end jobs.

An automated fast-food “restaurant” looks an awful lot like a glorified vending machine to me.

As I see it, the whole key should be playing to strengths. Robots and automation do some things way better than people. Business Insider interviewed Ryan Calo, a professor at University of Washington School of Law with expertise in robotics, who said, “For a long time, artificial intelligence has been better than us at highly structured, bounded tasks.” All of the applications we’ve looked at so far in both this and the previous post on this topic have been in that category.

Calo thinks, however, that robots are now, or soon will be, capable of moving beyond “the three D’s: dangerous, dirty, and dull.” It’s a fine line to define (sorry for the rhyme), so where do we draw it? If robots and automation can lift us beyond those “dangerous, dirty, and dull tasks,” isn’t that a net gain? I think it definitely is. If they can ever design a Roomba that cleans the potty, I’m all in!

Ivan Fourie encountered this friendly store clerk in Kyoto 2006, and immortalized her in a photo.

But people right now (and for millennia) do/have done way better at some things than robots and automation have managed so far. The determination to push automation/artificial intelligence beyond those basic limits won’t stop. (we’re talking about humans with an intellectual challenge. Of course they’ll pursue it as far as they can).

But just as industry doesn’t want to talk about the full cost of their initiatives (including environmental and human damage), so the people involved in the “second machine age” don’t want to talk about ALL the costs of their initiatives.

Are these Chinese robots cute enough to be worth their cost in human devaluation? Are they worth the effort of putting “friendly store clerk” and her siblings all over the world into financial devastation?

Would their AIs put good people out of work that they need? Don’t we all need people who are a positive part of their community? The friendly 7-Eleven clerk who brightens our morning? The bank teller who keeps our accounts safe? The shopkeeper who grows her small business locally? The first-generation immigrant family who runs the gas station? The custodian who keeps the school clean and well-maintained?

What’s the human cost of the fancy machines? Do they make life better for the humans in the community, or only for the corporations running the businesses?

I think we’re at a crossroads, in our contemporary life. We can look globally at ALL the costs of the decisions we take, or we can keep on looking only at money in a system skewed to ignore some of the most important costs of all.

Our choice.

Our future.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Before it’s News for the future-vision graphic. The photo of the Safeway self-checkout is courtesy of WonderHowTo, and the photo of the ATM machine is from The Northeast Today; many thanks to both of you! The cynical minimum wage meme is from Ron Paul’s “Liberty Report.” Your thanks is that I acknowledged where it came from, dude. You certainly illustrated my point, anyway. Many thanks to NPR’s “All Tech Considered” for the photo of the automated fast-food restaurant. I am grateful to Ivan Fourie’s Flickr Photostream for the the friendly store clerk’s photo. Many thanks to Business Insider for the photo of the Chinese food service robots.