World Peace Game

An educator named John Henry has created something called the World Peace Game, a complex international relations game he teaches to 4th graders.  The game pits children as leaders of different countries, presenting them with real-world challenges and letting them figure out the best solutions. There’s no curriculum attached and no rote learning at all…the teacher’s only role is to control the timing of turns and group discussion. Instead, the game teaches children to analyze dynamic systems, compromise with their classmates, think creatively, and take calculated risks. The game was originally introduced to the world via Henry’s TED talk, and has been catching on ever since.

Best of all, the kids love it and they constantly surprise adults with their ingeniuty and problem solving ability. As someone interested in both game design and effective teaching methods, I’m fascinated by the World Peace Game and really want to play it for myself.  The game and its story are now being made in to a documentary, for which I encourage you to watch the trailer:


Tar Sands Action, Portland, Maine 1/26/13

I guess it could always be both.
I guess it could always be both.
(click to enlarge)

On Saturday I joined activists from all over the country in protesting a Tar Sands pipeline in Portland, Maine. These folks were the real deal and truly committed, not least because yesterday was colder than a well digger’s ass. Even though I left the house bundled for a Siberian blizzard and was wearing two pairs of gloves, I still had to stop three times on my way to the bus to warm up my hands. In these moments, the irony of attending a climate protest on one of the coldest days of the year was not lost on me.

Despite the cold and that I’m brand new to activism, I was buoyed by the fact that I didn’t have to make the trip to Maine alone. My companion for the ride was Shayna Orent (@ShaynaOrent), who I had met and chatted with for the first time only the day before. Shayna and I connected through my mother-in-law, who knows Shayna’s parents from church and recommended we meet. Interestingly, my wife Sarah actually babysat Shayna and her brother when they were both growing up in Andover, MA. Boarding a Greyhound to protest in another city for the first time can be daunting, so Shayna and I helped alleviate some of the weirdness by buddying up.

The pre-march rally in Portland, ME
The pre-march rally


Continue reading Tar Sands Action, Portland, Maine 1/26/13

Shrinking Mississippi

Water levels of the Mississippi
(click to enlarge)

In the last few weeks, barge operators have been getting stuck on the Mississippi river.  Spurred by severe and persistent drought in the region, the Mississippi’s water level has dropped to record lows.  The Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for keeping the shipping channel open, says the drought’s effect on the river is “equal to or worse than any [drought] of the past five decades.”

“It’s unreal,” said Mike Petersen, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers. “I’ve never seen it like this.”

A rusted hulk rises above the waterline as drought shrinks the Mississippi River

60% of the US is still in drought, and has been since the summer of 2012.  This same drought that ruined the corn crop and made food prices spike on everything from Wheat Thins to flank steak is now causing a new long term effect:  persistently low water levels in the rivers and lakes of the Midwest.  Low water levels have tremendous implications for economic activity, agriculture, and the anxiety level of anyone that depends upon a body of water for their livelihood.  Climate change has come home.


Continue reading Shrinking Mississippi

Look Ma, I’m an activist!

This weekend I’ll be headed to Portland, ME to attend my first Tar Sands pipeline protest. It’s a little strange, since I’ve never had the self-image of being one of those hippy protester types.  But these are strange times, and I guess strange times bring with them strange situations that force us to reevaluate ourselves and the things we hold dear.


I won’t know anyone or exactly what I’m doing, but luckily I found a buddy to go with me.  Shayna is a friend of a friend who lives a few towns over and is in a similar situation of wanting to go, but not wanting to go alone.  If you, the reader, isn’t doing anything on Saturday and would like to keep us company, we’d love to have you.  The march is all happening in one day so your committment is minimal, plus getting there and back is cheap ($20 round trip on the bus).

If you’d like to learn more:

Fracking pollutes groundwater, causes minor earthquakes, and is a major contributor to climate change.


Four more years.

This morning Sarah and I attended a get-together of local Democratic party faithful to schmooze and watch the inauguration. On the shmoozing front I’d only give us a B-…we talked to a few nice people but didn’t break much new ground. On the other hand, I’d give us an A+ for the efficiency and ruthlessness with which we raided the event’s appetizer table. I was so busy stuffing sour cream quesadillas and gourmet flatbread pizza in my face I almost missed the fact that Obama mentioned climate change in his speech!


I enjoyed Obama’s address and was obviously delighted that climate change featured so prominently. My hope is that this mention further nudges the national narrative on the issue, and sparks a few dinner table discussions for Americans tonight. The rest of the speech contained some interesting content, much of which focused on rejecting “I got mine” individualism and promoting the usefulness of collective action. I think it says a lot about the state of American politics when a President feels he must make the case for government as a means to address problems too big for any individual to tackle alone.

Okay, who ate all the sesame-crusted teriyaki chicken dumplings?
Okay, who ate all the sesame-crusted teriyaki chicken dumplings?

Climate change was one of the first issues Obama addressed, and hearing it feature so conspicuously was…jarring, almost?  Logically I realize how bad climate change will become, and that the issue will dominate politics for the next few decades as humanity scrambles for solutions. Yet hearing it from an American president as he addressed the nation and the entire world really struck me. I feel like we’ve crossed the Rubicon, and that the days of climate change being a second tier issue for third tier environmentalists are over. Knowing Obama’s priorities and having just endured the hottest year on record, it’s clear that climate change will be a issue on the lips of every man woman and child for decades to come.

The chant among progressives has been “Four More Years”. Well now we’ve got ’em, and we find out if our man is up to the task. This speech starts things off on the right foot, but we’ll soon see if Obama is willing to put his money where his mouth is.


That’s no moon…

Recently NASA’s Earth Observatory released a beautiful series of images from the dark side of the planet.  However, savvy observers noticed something strange…what was that patch of lights out in the plains of North Dakota?  There’s no big city out there, it’s mostly open grassland.

So what is it?

That's no moon...

What we’re dealing with here is an immense new oil and gas field, created by the boom around a technology called fracking.  That mysterious area is illuminated by are the lights and natural gas flares from hundreds of oil rigs.  You see, when you drill for oil, a lot of natural gas comes up with it, which oil companies just casually burn off in to the atmosphere.  Those lights are proof that the region is literally on fire.

Natural gas (primarily methane) is a byproduct of drilling for oil.  Despite its market value and the ecological damage it causes, oil companies typically just burn it off like it were so much waste.
Natural gas is a byproduct of drilling for oil. Despite its market value and the ecological damage it causes, oil companies burn this gas off like it were so much waste.

Those lights weren’t there six years ago, however.  Seemingly overnight North Dakota has become the second-largest oil producing state in the nation, to the point where its night sky is now lit up like a major metropolis.  No wonder the locals call it “Kuwait of the Prairie”.

There’s a lot of talk in America these days about energy independence.  We’re actually doing quite well in this pursuit, due in no small part to the huge reserves of oil and gas we’ve recently discovered in North America.  But everything has its price, and the price for exploiting these resources are natural gas fires so multitudinous you can see them from space.  Fuck you climate.  Fuck you very much.


The Human Brain Project

Any doubts left that you’re living in the future?  European scientists are planning to build and study a complete working model of the human brain inside a computer.  My fear of Skynet here is balanced by my curiosity and amazement at the depths of human ingenuity.

Want to know man’s true nature? Ask a baby.

In the course of these talks I run across a lot of cynicism about humanity’s ability to fix our problems.  How can humanity tackle big problems, especially ones that involve sacrifice, when we’re all a bunch of greedy jerks?  My counter argument is to assert that people are not  fundamentally bad, and that “human nature” is just a product of the culture and systems in which we reside.  After all, there’s nothing in Spartan genetics that predisposed them to bloodthirst and war, nor is the DNA of the Bhutanese responsible for them being the happiest people on Earth.  Every human being is molded by the culture in which they live.

Sure he’s wired for good…but good don’t pay the bills.

In a way, this debate is a reframing of the age old question of nature vs. nurture.  Are humans born with a sense of morality or do we arrive blank slates, waiting for the world to teach us right from wrong?  Or is it worse: do we start out nasty, selfish devils who need our parents, schools, and religions to whip us into shape?

The only way to know for sure is to ask a baby; unfortunately, they are notoriously reticent on the subject. However, just because babies can’t expound upon their moral philosophies doesn’t mean they don’t have any.  In fact, new methods have allowed  scientists to unlock babies’ ethos:  research from the Infant Cognition Center at Yale University has shown that babies possess an intrinsic morality and sense of justice.

Continue reading Want to know man’s true nature? Ask a baby.

Climate Talk – Shannon and Nick, 12/16/12

A decade ago, I lived in the most disgusting apartment anyone has ever seen.  There was graffiti on the walls, rot in the furniture, flies buzzing over week-old dirty dishes, and toddler-height piles of cat feces stacked in the basement.  But past the filth, it was also a household full of beauty, spontaneity, and a constantly rotating cast of interesting characters.  An ambassador’s daughter mingled with an epileptic IT guy.  Starving writers traded stories with rotten-toothed vegans and overweight sci-fi fans.  The vibe was eclectic and bohemian and somehow it felt like home.

This apartment was the bottom floor of a double-decker and the apartment above could hardly have been more different.  The upstairs apartment was populated exclusively by women, kept clean and tidy, and to the casual observer seemed something like a neo-feminist commune.  Residents cooked and ate together, shared chores and bills, and spent leisure time watching artsy subtitled films.  It was the upstairs heaven to my downstairs hell (though they still had their share of girl drama).  Despite our obvious differences, on long summer nights the cherubs above would mingle with the morlocks below on the front porch drinking beer and swapping jokes.  This is how I first met Shannon.

Continue reading Climate Talk – Shannon and Nick, 12/16/12

Edison knows what’s up

With all the love for Tesla out there these days, Thomas Edison isn’t exactly the internet’s favorite person.  For one from one who is considered by many as the godfather of American energy, it turns out he was kind of dick.  But this quote is enough for me to cut him some slack for a couple of weeks:


“We are like tenant farmers chopping down the fence around our house for fuel when we should be using Nature’s inexhaustible sources of energy — sun, wind and tide. I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

Thomas Edison, 1931