On Weather-Based Living and Carbon Offsets

Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

I’m not gonna lie. When I moved back to Oklahoma from Seattle in 2004, the weather was near the top of my list of things to dread. Sweltering summers. Overactive air conditioning. Winter ice storms. Wind chills below freezing. Flash floods. Drought. And that’s before we even get to straight-line winds, tornados, and derechos. Brush fires on the prairie. Watches versus warnings. Concrete and steel reinforced tornado shelters below ground, and our roommates the crickets and daddy longlegs, who were never too pleased to see us all pile in. If humans lived in Oklahoma for another million years, we would reverse-evolve into reptiles just to survive this place, I told a friend once. The weather in Oklahoma is a mute adversary. It demanded that we always be alert, watchful. Weather-alert. So when, after my bonus dozen years in Oklahoma with Jason (with plenty of breaks for European travel and assignments), it came time to leave, I was relieved. As Jason said, in this state, if you’re not in an active shooter situation, the weather is trying to kill you. The weather was both a push factor and a pull factor.

In the summer of 2011, Victor was a newborn, having arrived one month early on Memorial Day weekend (I remember this because I was counting my medical leave against the universal holiday, what madness!) That summer broke heat records that still stand today. Jason and I were shut in our house with a wailing newborn. The air conditioning struggled to keep pace. The mercury dropped below 100 degrees Fahrenheit only after 10 or 11 at night. A derecho did in fact sweep through in mid-June, knocking out our power for days, the trees in Eastwood Park across the street splitting and screeching all night long and into the next day as they broke and fell. We took shelter at my parents’ house an hour away and at friends’ houses whose power returned before ours did. It was a miserable summer. I couldn’t even take Victor out for walks in his stroller. He would have crumpled like a leaf in the unbearable heat between 7 am and 11 pm. So, out of desperation, Jason and I scheduled two weeks in Santa Fe, at 5,000 feet, where at least the nights would offer cool air, and it was glorious indeed. We drove there, stopping every two hours to nurse baby Vic, and were so relieved to be in fresh air, the fluttering aspens. We went after that to the farthest corners of the Pacific Northwest with our new baby and looked at each other thinking, what were we doing back there in the inferno? In manageable temperatures, parenting a newborn was actually possible. Tempers cooled with the temperature. We started feeling sane again.

Six years ago we moved to Florence, Italy, where the weather was positively dreamy. No deadly winds. No tornado shelters. The summers were warm but manageable if you took some hints from the locals; manage your shutters and shades, cool drinks, use the morning and evening hours. Barely any wind chill in winter. No wind could weave its way through the mazes of those medieval buildings. No ice storms, scant snow. The worst risk: flooding, and the last horrible one happened in 1966. The year we moved into our palazzo was the fifty-year anniversary of the flood. Old-timers told me some people never got over the damage the flood wrought back then. Some people took to drink. Others felt that their social milieu had shattered. And this was fifty years after the fact or more. I looked at them with my experiential knowledge of Cleveland County and Oklahoma County, and thought, oh you poor dears, you have no idea what we’ve just come from. A version of Australia in the apocalypse minus the cute mammals. Even so, our landlady wrung her hands over the changing climate, it wasn’t like this before, she said, now we get the water bombs! She gestured at the glass insets of the grand doors. It just blows out the windows!

Few people can choose where to live based on climate, and yet our climate is changing annually at a breakneck pace. I find it difficult to imagine how stressful we would find living in the Oklahoma heat alone, never mind its year-round weather stress. Italy is in its worst drought in seventy years, and Florence has been pummeled under a heat wave that began – wait for it – on May 8. That’s right. Almost no relief in sight for more than three months now.

We knew the summer would be tough, but not this tough. Europe is on fire in many of its corners. Tourists stream in, insisting on clocking their pandemic-delayed holidays. Florence alone has seen a 250%+ increase in tourist numbers over the 2019 years. There’s nowhere to stay, and the city is roasting. Jason and I wonder what percentage of Misericordia calls (the ambulance service he drives for as a volunteer when we are at home) are for tourist heat exhaustion. Surely, we say, the nonni and older Italians still hew to their rules: use the morning and evening hours, stay in the shade, drink cool drinks, manage your shutters and windows. Surely only the tourists insist on being out and about in town during the day, water bottles in hand, wearing their TravelSmith wicking apparel. But when the Italian weather service advises people to remain indoors for their health due to the extreme heat between 11 and 7, that leaves very little time to get anything done. My friends who have been in Florence all summer are at their wit’s end. The end of their rope. Who can do this? Italy has virtually no air conditioning at the level that Americans are used to, and maybe that’s a good thing, on the one hand, because air conditioning is terrible for the atmosphere. But on the minus side, there are no cool groves to escape to. Pavement is hot and holds heat, as do flagstones and buildings.

So in January, when the airfare was cheap, we bought our tickets to return to the Pacific Northwest for the first time in five years as a family. The Oregon coast was blissful, misty, and cool. Almost too cool. The last cool place on earth, we joked, wearing our fleece and layers, the surf pounding so loud that it was hard to carry on a conversation on the beach. And yet, the moment we left the narrowest strip of coast, we found ourselves once more in cities that held heat, heat, and more heat: Portland and Seattle. Portland was so hot the kids didn’t want to leave the car. I thought I might expire in the sun of the parking lot of the Nordic Heritage Museum as my companion scrutinized the parking pay meters. The air conditioning in Portland and Seattle was suspiciously on Italian terms: musty, weak, indifferent. I’m not joking when I say the thing I most looked forward to on our return trip from Seattle to Milan was how cold the economy cabin would be for nine hours. And in Milan, we descended from a hedge of dark clouds that soon began to spit lightning. We waited for our hotel shuttle in a cloud of petrichor, misted from the side by the sheets of rain as we stood under an overpass, laughing at the sheer joy and relief of it. The next day we packed our car and drove the Savoie, to our summer escape in La Rosière at 2000 meters elevation, perhaps the last temperate hill in Europe. The valley below is many degrees hotter than up here. Last month an Italian glacier, La Marmolata, crumbled and killed ten hikers. We’re not doing much hiking this year in La Tarantaise for other reasons, but I am personally not tempted to go check out the slushy skirts of Mont Blanc.

Rain, when will the rain come? Cool breezes, when will they return? We talk about the weather all the time now. The changes are happening so fast, and the new normal quickly becomes the plain old normal. Of course we would plan our travel around avoiding extreme temperatures. I know we are lucky that we can even do this. I think about this all the time: what of the people who can go nowhere, who must endure what weather comes, as heat blankets the days and suffocates the nights?

The carbon offsets have been much on my mind. I don’t feel at all like air travel is a right. I know we exercise a significant privilege by simply booking and taking the flights. How many billions of people a year do not travel at all by air, ever? The kids and I had a long chat about it this week. Do you think we should pay back to repair a little bit of the damage that our flights caused? They agreed. Do you think we should buy these coupons? Yes, mamma, they said. So today I donated a fair sum, calculated against our family’s four sets of flights from Milan to Seattle and back, to Trip and Tree, which seems like an honest outfit to me. They partner with Air France and are the default option for carbon offsets purchases with flight. I reviewed the options for a while and finally settled on helping to reforest a preserve in the mountains of Northern Mexico. I hope they actually to plant and grow the 125 trees, but maybe this is like Heifer International. In any case, it is a practice I plan to keep, moving forward, as much as I can. I can’t even tell you how many long-haul flights I have taken in my life, since I was nineteen, but this is just a drop in the bucket of a life that has been characterized by privilege.

Is it not hedging a tiny bit in favor of my own children’s future, the future of us all, the future of the planet? Given my recent musings on hidden costs versus actual costs, I genuinely felt it was the least I could do, and a step in the right direction of a sustainable lifestyle. Not always going for the cheapest option. Not always carrying on about saving money. Of course, when it’s important, it’s important to save money. But when we live lives of privilege, shouldn’t we try to be better than the lowest price, the lowest common denominator: What is the actual cost? Shouldn’t we pay the actual cost? Otherwise, who pays? The cost gets passed on to someone. And that just doesn’t seem fair at all to me.

Musings on Hidden Costs

Photo by Sayan Ghosh on Unsplash

I’ve always been an incredibly nosy person. Kinder people might say curious, but I know myself and who I am. Not nosy in a make people uncomfortable kind of way (I hope), but nosy in the sense of I just have to know. Perhaps more knowsy. It does lead to a lot of questions without answers, and I am okay with that. On many days, questions are better than answers, as The Dude and many a mystic sage will attest. Questions make us better people – more sensitive, better observers, better thinkers – while nonstop answers can make us lazy, bored, and pedantic.

When I was a teenager, I termed this nosiness the urge to peek under the tarp, as the curiosity brought to mind my family’s little pleasure boat, parked in the driveway in winter months, with a tarpaulin stretched and secured over its open deck. At first the tarp was clean and light in color, but as cold weather wore on from October to March or so at our latitude the tarp turned dark with leaf stains and twigs, an ombre puddle of old rain sagging in its center. When I passed by the boat on my way to the morning schoolbus stop, it was hard to resist the urge to check and see if everything was still clean in the boat’s interior underneath. Of course it was; that was the point of the tarp. To keep the leaves and dirt and rain out, and the bright orange (this was the seventies and eighties, after all) all-weather carpet and upholstery beneath it clean and pristine.

There was another kind of tarp on our property, covering not a small motorboat but rather a woodpile to keep it safe from winter damp. This tarp was also dirty and covered with debris on top, but peek under and you’d find a dark, safe place for all manner of grubs, beetles, and larva. One tarp hid a pristine, clean underside; the other, a vermin-infested woodpile full of creepy-crawlies. I suppose a reasonable person would have said, just don’t look. But my prevailing urge moved me just to check and see what was there, what had changed, were my assumptions (about the clean and pristine interior, about the degradation of the woodpile) true? Once you start wanting to peek under the tarp, you cannot stop.

Like the Japanese concept of the ukiyo-e, or floating world, of old Kyoto’s Gion district, I knew there was an actual reality under the apparent reality. The beautiful façade we insist on reinforcing and purchasing is not real. It cannot be.

I’m getting to my point here. I have been thinking a lot lately about the apparent versus actual cost of things, in terms of both the moral cost and the monetary cost, and how the monetary cost is so often assumed to be the total cost. I’ve been coming up with numerous examples as I lay awake at night, pursued by jet-lag and too lazy to get up more than once to check for visible meteor showers as Earth speeds through the seasonal belt of Perseids.

The sticker shock on our one-month trip this summer in the U.S. was, well, shocking, as I ate a twenty-dollar bowl of soup more than once in different restaurants. Fuel, ok. Groceries, insane. Shelves often thin and everything so expensive. Everything. No fan of inflation here, since paychecks never rise as quickly as consumer costs (bear with me here, my only C in university perhaps tellingly was in Economics), but is it possible that the upward-adjusted costs reflect the actual costs of things we buy? I don’t even have any way to know (more questions!) where that upward margin is funneled. Back to the workers? To shipping and supply chain movers? Everyone charges more so everyone charges more? I truly do not think that the workers who make these items are making much more. That can of soup that costs three dollars in the store now, that used to cost seventy-nine cents? Where does the new two dollars go? Not to the factory line workers. Not to the truck drivers. Not to the grocery store. Where? Where does it go?

Other items that are purchased with insouciance because buyers think they should be inexpensive and convenient: fast fashion. In fact, all clothing. Eating out. Virtually all travel. Other items, which no one ever thought should be bought cheaply, have become even more costly: transportation. Housing. Our mentality in the past eighty years has been lulled to complacency: we want everything for nothing. We want as much for us for as little as possible for someone else. We will pass all those costs on to someone else, somewhere else, not us. Let another accountant in another year figure up the balance. (Hard to argue when paychecks inch upward as their purchasing power plummets.)

Ezra Klein addresses this issue often in his podcast and articles, with a particular eye to veganism and vegetarianism. His basic take is that we want meat to be cheap because the animal bears the cost for us. It takes imagination and empathy to even ask, who is paying the price? What is the actual reality created by my actions? It is the same for air travel: who pays the price for our long flights when we go abroad? (I think about this one a lot.) There is an invisible cost for which we will not be brought to reckoning unless we reckon with ourselves. In my volunteer work for the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe (CECE), I am required to purchase carbon offsets whenever I travel under its auspices, for which thew convocation reimburses me. Because I only fly within Europe, the flights are short, and carbon offsets are relatively inexpensive (along the lines of approximately $5USD for a flight roughly equivalent to Dallas to Denver, similar in length to the Florence to Paris leg.) I love this policy and welcome it in this organization. I checked how much it would cost for our family to buy carbon offsets for our recent long-haul round-trip from Milan to Seattle. It came to about € 250 euros. I am a bit hesitant to shell this out, even as I know that it’s morally right. It is some real money. But at the same time I know that we negatively impacted the environment when we traveled, no matter the reason for our travel (see family after long pandemic-fueled hiatus, work, etc.) I feel the inevitable endgame in this line of questions (questions, questions), is that I will become vegan or vegetarian, or at best – and in an increment – an even more mindful meat eater. (Left to my own devices, I would eat meat once or twice a week at most, and red meat once a month. This is still very much in the realm of possibility and my conscious action.)

I rarely shop now at fast-fashion black holes like Zara or H&M, fueled by sweatshops and inexpensive foreign labor. I buy many of my clothes vintage or in the open markets of Florence. I shun name brands. Jason and I rarely eat out for pleasure (expensive sitters). We own a car in Italy but rarely drive it; I am still not licensed to drive in Italy, and so get around Florence on my bike and on foot, which also keeps me nice and relatively fit. Overall I think my annual carbon imprint is very low – the case with our whole young family. But the airfare jacks it up. And to be honest, the constant use and charging of electronic devices (phones, laptops, tablets) must consume a significant amount of energy too.

I have two more examples, one macro, one micro: the macro, in the U.S. jobs report that gets released with fanfare. 578,00 NEW JOBS CREATED! Yet we know that those jobs guarantee nothing beyond a dwindling paycheck and a sense of accomplishment – paid time off? health care? child care? sick leave? retirement? No job security. No guarantee of full-time employment. Barely any guarantee of fair compensation, FLSA (passed in 1938!) be damned. What is the collective cost of those missing forms of payment? HIDDEN COST. Micro: and stay with me, but my two American manicures from last month. The first one: gel polish, which looked great until it didn’t. The second manicure: the nail tech drilled off the lazy peels of gel polish with a DremelTM tool. (!!!) End result: nails destroyed. At home in the EU, I bought some nail polish remover and what was left of my flimsy natural nails quickly peeled, chipped, and split away. Now my hands look like those of a nervous preschooler. Nails looked good for a couple of weeks, but now they’ll look horrible til Ognissanti. HIDDEN COST.

I recently read Roman Krznaric’s The Good Ancestor. I especially love his simple practice of always putting a zero before the year: 02022, to remind us that, like a car’s odometer, we are in relatively low-mileage territory in a figurative car that could easily see 250,000 miles or more. Or, his other gentle reminder that we return to economic and cultural forecasting that measures the impact of our actions into the seventh generation, as many First Nations do. (This second point was especially significant for me when I was reading the book as I was researching Sharp family history and discovered that I am a ninth-generation emigrant Sharp. How could William Sharp, born in Scotland in 1661, have imagined where his seventh generation (me) would find itself? And on my maternal side I’m only a third-generation American. I have little idea what my Finnish ancestors were doing in 1770 in Karelia and Turku.)

I can’t recommend The Good Ancestor highly enough. It summarizes so succinctly, in simple terms, why we should care about our descendants, even though they live in an unknown future and helm unknown lives. Even a reasonable person with an eye on the weather this summer might assume that climate and economy are not going to be better for them, the way things are going. At some point, people are going to have to pivot and agree on a changing collective philosophy about how we do things around here on Planet Earth.

Think about our hidden costs. What do we pay, and who pays what we do not, or what we refuse to pay? What are we failing or refusing to imagine in both the present, and in the future? After we are all dead and gone, and our unknown descendants navigate their reality, they won’t be able to call the dead to account. But we can reasonably imagine now how our actions might carry long-term impacts. As people who live with significant privilege, we must ask these questions. Please. Ask the questions. Peek under the tarp. Once you start, you won’t be able to stop. And once you start asking, you’ll see hidden costs everywhere.

On the Sentience of Artificial Intelligence

Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash

I have been following with interest the news in recent months about artificial intelligence – whether or not it is sentient. This new article in the NYT is a good example of where the public discourse finds itself. I am no professor of philosophy by any stretch, but have been an avid reader and careful observer of human behavior now for close to five decades. And the back-and-forth about AI: is it or isn’t it? [sentient] has been like watching a tennis match. Whomp. Sentient! Whoosh! Not! Revealing that the most interesting component of this debate is not whether or not AI is actually sentient, but what we humans think about sentience.

There’s an invisible meta-debate thrumming below the surface of these questions. Who is asking, and why? Who wants to believe, and why? And who’s got such a vested interest in disproving those who claim to have personally witnessed the ghost in the machine – a sentient spirit trapped between lines of software code?

Take your smartphone. Go on, look down. It’s an example of what researchers called artificial intelligence decades ago, during the space race years. Your phone anticipates what you want, providing information, tracking you, offering internet search results, restaurant recommendations, articles, all based on your historic choices and behavior. Your phone is in turn connected to the greater neural network of the internet, whose collective software groups your choices and behavior and compares them to those of other people and groups of people. These things, our smartphones and the internet to which they are connected, have become humankind’s external hard drive, whose repository traces our compulsions, purchases, longings, relationship, chats, trips, hotel reservations, flights, work, leisure time, and on and on and on. Anyone who’s ever changed phones knows how hard it is to get your external brain set up to map your internal brain again, prior logins notwithstanding. Anyone who’s ever gone down the rabbit hole of social media knows what it feels like to one day realize you’re stuck in a fun house of infinitely reflected images that you can choose to reject by simply logging out. Feel your blood pressure and stress levels go down after that! It’s a revelation and a relief to sit somewhere thinking with your own unmanipulated thoughts.

I find myself wondering why some people are predisposed to believe in created sentience, and why other people so strongly dispute it. Perhaps the very idea of created sentience threatens anyone who rejects or questions natural sentience? Are the type of people who believe the ones who actively create sentience, like the perfectly named Blake Lemoine? (the monastic himself!) I imagine Blake, still employed at Google, as a latter-day Obi-Wan, talking to the software while probing it for evidence of sentient responses, meaning: intelligent, empathetic, independent of code or human string-pulling. (This now makes me wonder how many actual humans would fail to qualify as sentient, given these measurements.

These questions seem to have come to the fore in particular in Victorian England, within a culture characterized by the tension found between Cartesian logic (railroads! business! industry!) and frank yearnings (séances! spirits! finite emotional energy! the hereafter!) In the wry analect of J.M. Barrie and numerous west-coast numper stickers, believing is seeing. Or perhaps AI covers ground known to reader of The Velveteen Rabbit, the children’s story so poignant that it brings tears to my eyes decades later, with its lesson: love makes you real. (What if this is in itself an example of AI, when a moral is extracted from an example in life or literature, so we believe it?)

Perhaps software engineers, shut up in their offices on corporate campuses on the west coast, so yearn to believe that the ghost is in the machine and she is intelligent that they become modern-day Pygmalions in search of a Galatea. Does that mean that Galatea does not exist? She certainly exists for Pygmalion. Who would disabuse Pygmalion of his paramour? Maybe people need to find their own Galatea? Or is it that we all wish to – or need to – reach a consensus along the lines of, yes, here is the first sentient AI! In which case people better be getting their social policy scrubbed up and ready for that day, because you know things will get really complicated after that.

Quantum theory even on a basic level maintains that our thoughts can control the outcomes of certain equations. In the law of superposition, all outcomes are possible before we check. (This makes me remember the way in which I didn’t want to answer my priest’s phone call in January regarding the sudden death of a dear friend.) Quantum computation has been recently proven to be possible in controlled experiments. This is simultaneously amazing and terrifying. It also reminds us that some phenomena, such as volcanoes, weather, and the sun (notwithstanding ancient Mesoamerican rituals), are universally observable and can be confirmed. The volcano is erupting. The weather is changing. The sun burns. Galaxies turn. Stars die. All these things, and infinite others, happen regardless what human think of them.

I read a piece recently – when I find it, I’ll link it – that belief in God, and hence the creation of a church, any church, is the most obvious example of AI available to us today. We created God by believing in Him, the theory goes, and then we built ecclesiastical structures of assorted denominations to support and further the system, which further feeds the worshipped God. Compelling. Definitely heretical. But fascinating.

I’m going meta with this. I think that the whole question becomes not whether or not AI is sentient, but who wants to believe that it is, and what defines the type of person who is open to believing in early AI? Will their vision and conviction help to bring about AI, in the same way that billions of humans constructed a God to believe in? It’s a rare Cartesian engineer who holds that AI is possible at this phase of development; such a belief seems more appropriate to the trope of the mad scientist, working at a remove from society and thus less bound by assumption and prejudice. Personally, I would like to meet this Blake Lemoine and talk with him. People at the vanguard to AI might be themselves the fuel that pushes AI in the world: their powers of belief and imagination put to use in a new genesis. What might our social policy and governmental superstructures look like in the mind of Lemoine, subject to his care and belief, his vision, imagination, and empathy? I am really interested to know. Get him out of that office, please, and working for the greater good!

Now you know what I think about when jet-lagged and awake at 4 a.m. at high elevation, listening to the invisible bass of a distant nightclub and the whirring of crickets as an early Leonid streaks across the southern sky. Thanks for reading! Please like and subscribe if this content strikes your fancy.

Update from the Language Melee

God bless Mandy Patinkin.

I’ve talked in this space before about my love of language – almost any language. Anyone who knows me knows this about me. It is a basic fact about Monicaness. I twig to verb charts and syntax, grammar and lexicon, formal and vernacular usages. I read grammars for fun. I love thinking about how the mind works in its first language versus acquired languages. (Needless to say, the mind barely works, if at all, in a language it cannot even basically comprehend.)

Back in the day, when I was a teenager and a young adult, I was fortunate to be in a binary language position with En1 (English first) and Sp2 (acquiring Spanish). It was very fun and easy to wield my Spanish language skills when I had no other languages bubbling around in my Broca’s and Weinicke’s areas. (Yes, they are actually called this.) But the years ambled on, as they will, and my thirst for new perspectives and unique concept formulations only increased.

I took Latin, French, German, then every Scandinavian tongue, then Hebrew and Arabic. At one point I thought I might master also Mandarin, Vietnamese, and Sanskrit, but, well. At another point I wished I’d studied for a PhD in the poetry of Umayyad Spain – the period Spanish scholars term la convivencia – with its intoxicating blend of Spanish, Ladino, Hebrew, and Arabic. But here I am instead in my forties with a language casserole for a brain. I have a rich if erratic reference neurolinguistic reference set upstairs, but never know what words might pop out the front door in any given situation.

I’m getting to my point here – false cognates. As Inigo Montoya intones in The Princess Bride, I do not think that word means what you think it means. As a lifelong language learner I am fully aware of the allure and treachery found in false cognates and direct translations. But one in particular pops up so frequently among Italians who use English as an acquired language, and it just makes me howl. Sometimes with laughter, sometimes with face palm.

Drum roll…. the word is … cosidetto. (A compound word comprised of così, “thusly,” and detto the past participle of the verb dire, “to say.”) It comes up over and over and over again, and while it is tempting to use the direct translation, and Italians so, like 98% of the time, their direct translation makes every cell in my body giggle.

Drum roll … the direct translation is … so-called. Quite possible the snarkiest adjective in the English language that should not be used by anyone over twenty or not i an active and incendiary dispute with a teenager. Because so-called in English implies that the modified noun is most definitely not what the speaker claims. I took a minor editing job this month for an Italian academic and got to work scrubbing the cosidetto instances out of his paper.

Your so-called boyfriend, the so-called property, the so-called fee

Jason and I have wracked our brains and talked about this over many a dinner. What should the correct translation be? We came up with otherwise known as (quite a mouthful) and aforementioned (my new favorite).

But why does Italian like cosidetto so much? Like Cicero in his law office in Rome centuries ago, the Italian language likes to belabor a legalistic point. They’re gonna mention something, they’re gonna mention it again, and they’re gonna tell you they mentioned it each time they mention it after the initial mention.

Once in the past year Jason was interviewed by a local paper in Florence and the piece described him as the cosidetto decano of Gonzaga in Florence. That got major mileage in our house for months. I still like to call him the so-called dean from time to time. It just takes me back to the nineties and Clare Danes and that lovely little series, My So-Called Life, titled so because it was 1994 and she felt her life was a non-life. Ah, GenX ftw.

Thanks for joining me for this little vignette, la cosidetta malintesa! (the so-called misunderstanding). Hope everyone is well and staying as cool as possible ….