Sunday, December 13, 2020

Should people be scared of the political left?

It seems like a lot of my fellow Americans, especially those who lean right in their political ideology, are terrified of SOCIALISM (or whatever they think socialism is) above almost all else. Some are convinced that we're on the verge of plunging into a dismal and oppressive communist dystopia like Stalin's Russia, and that even the most benign liberal policies like funding public schools or healthcare are pushing us down that slippery slope to the gulag. Others don’t go quite that far but are nevertheless convinced that any restraints on big business and the wealthy, or mercy for the sick and the poor, will lead to moral decay and economic collapse. Only ruthless, unfettered capitalism can prevent corrupt lazy losers from taking over and turning us into the next Venezuela, right? SIGH.

It's a testament to the power of propaganda that the GOP has been able to stoke this inordinate terror of the left at the very same time that their own party is engaged in alarming attacks on American democracy itself. I won’t get into all the details of the right’s voter suppression, gerrymandering, purging truth-tellers and protecting liars within government, pushing conspiracy theories about a “stolen” election, encouraging armed insurrection, etc. Let it suffice to say that under Trump, the GOP have come perilously close to achieving an "autocratic transition" - a switch from democracy to dictatorship. Yet, most conservative people still see Trump as a savior and not a threat.

Indeed, it’s ironic that these 70ish million conservative Americans; folks who are earnestly patriotic and scared of losing democratic freedoms, have empowered an authoritarian strongman who closely resembles the freedom-stealing autocrats they revile; the power-mad charlatans who’ve led their countries into dysfunction, disgrace, and worse. Trump’s macho image, his appeals to the grievances of “the common man,” his fiery demagoguery, his scapegoating of foreigners and minorities, his constant lying, his efforts to control the press and suppress the vote, his ostentatious wealth and trophy wives, his nepotism, and even his bizarre hair and style, all PERFECLY fit the mold of a dictator. Cuba’s Castro, Venezuela’s Chavez, North Korea’s Kim, Libya’s Gaddafi, Russia’s Stalin, and even Nazi Germany’s Hitler are cut from the same cloth as Trump. How is this not obvious to those under his spell?

I think the failure of so many to see the obvious has to do with how we have confounded the left-right spectrum with other types of societal variation. (In this context, “confound” means to mix something up with something else; to fail to recognize them as distinct things, like thinking that “hot” and “spicy” are the same thing.) Some other dimensions of societal variation that can get wrongly lumped-in with the right-left spectrum include autocracy-democracy, corruption-integrity, wealth-poverty, and dysfunctionality-functionality. All those things greatly affect the quality of society, and they can vary *independently* of the left-right spectrum. For example you can have a left-leaning society that is autocratic, dysfunctional, and poor, like Venezuela or North Korea, but you can also have a left-leaning society that is democratic, functional, and wealthy, like Norway or New Zealand.

Anyway, when we develop a blinding commitment to a right- or left-wing idealogy, many of the real complexities of the world collapse into an oversimplified, “right is always good, left is always bad” kind of thing. Our tendency to latch onto certain simplified views is a natural response to living in a scarily complicated and often hurtful world. For example, it’s totally understandable that someone who grew up under a left-wing dictator like Castro would associate socialism with corruption, oppression, and poverty, and would be generally averse to the political left. And of course, American politicians on the political right are in no hurry to disabuse Cuban Americans of those negative associations. Unscrupulous people love to take advantage of our oversimplifying tendency. They get us all emotionally riled up about something that genuinely concerns us, but then they hitch our fervor onto a dubious agenda that serves only them. Regardless of whether we’re tricked into the oversimplifying or we do it to ourselves, our confounding of left-right and right-wrong leads to all sorts of trouble, including:

1.     Failing to recognize and address problems like corruption and incompetence when they’re coming from our own side of the left-right spectrum.

2.     Reflexively rejecting anything and everything we associate with the other side of the spectrum, even if it might be beneficial.  

3.     Uncritically accepting lousy people and policies just because they’re under the banner of right or left that we’ve pledged to.  

4.     Thinking, “if right is good, further right must be better,” leading to extremism. (Or the same thing but with left.)

5.     Believing lies or baseless conspiracy theories about the other side because they fit in with our feelings and ideologies.

The way to get out of this “confounding” problem might be to increase awareness of all those other, important societal gradations besides just right-left. I think it would be especially helpful to recognize integrity-corruption and democracy-autocracy as important societal variables separate from the right-left axis. Autocracy and corruption are not endemic to left-wing societies. They can absolutely afflict right-wing societies, too, as folks now suffering from oppression in Turkey, or Saudi Arabia would attest.  

 There’s a kind of X-Y plot called the “political compass,” which has an up-down axis as well as a left-right axis, and which is accompanied by a quiz that places you in one of the four quadrants based on your personal views. On that, typical, political compass, the up-down axis is designated as “liberty-authority,” and it helps distinguish libertarians from classic conservatives, democratic socialists from authoritarian socialists, etc. That helps a little with the “confounding” problem that I’m talking about, but it’s not quite what I’m looking for. I think it would be more useful to make the up-down axis be more clearly a good-bad axis, with something like “functional democracy” at the top and “corrupt dictatorship” at the bottom. Then you could put different countries that we’re familiar with in the different quadrants to better illustrate that both right and left can fall into corrupt dictatorships.

Rough draft diagram-

Final thought: I’ve said that many important aspects of societies, such as integrity-corruption and democracy-autocracy, are independent of the left-right spectrum. An implication of that is that we do not need to be inordinately afraid of moving right or left, as long as we’re watching out for those other aspects of how society can go good or bad. However, I do think there is some danger of going to the EXTREMES of right or left because an extreme philosophy is more likely to get blinded to the other nuances. 

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Windsurfing edge of TS Eta, Lovers Key, FL

Most of my windsurfing lately has been on the hydrofoil since we haven't had enough wind or waves to justify getting the traditional shortboard gear out. That changed a few days ago though, when Tropical Storm Eta brought some BIG wind from the south, and big swells. The Gulf of Mexico looked really ugly at most of the potential launches. However, by launching at Dog Beach on Lovers Key, and sailing out through New Pass (an tidal inlet protected by two sandbars) I was able to get into the waves without dealing with any shorebreak or sketchy longshore currents. I used a 4.2 sail and a 106 liter Exocet Cross. It was easy to get out on that, but I was over-powered and over-boarded in a way that made it tough for me to carve on the waves. So no major tricks or anything that I can brag about. I still managed to get some video that shows the condtions.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Sloppy stars surfski kayaking practice in the ocean

I have a new-to-me surfski kayak that is fast but quite tippy in rough water. It's a Nelo 560.

To improve my rough water balance and comfort level for the October 3rd Key West Classic race, I've been deliberately paddling in the ocean at odd angles to the wind and waves. (It's not THAT hard to go straight upwind or straight downwind, perpendicular the bumps, but getting the waves from the side and at oblique angles is quite tricky.) I've sometimes done a workout like this as "sloppy squares," drawing boxes with my path, but I changed it up this week with what I'm calling "sloppy stars." I program the workout in my Speedcoach GPS as 10x800m with no rest between the segments, and then I just have to estimate what angle to go at and remember to always turn left at the end of each segment to make the star pattern. I'm pleased with how this turned out.

Monday, September 7, 2020

COVID-19: What is our endgame?

It’s very hard for a group to accomplish an objective if the objective hasn’t been made clear. I think lack of clarity about objectives explains some of the United States’ ongoing struggles to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Dealing with a pandemic is a group effort that requires widespread understanding and agreement about the end goal. This helps us align our expectations with reality and carry out our individual responsibilities effectively. 

In this blog post I will try to articulate as clearly as possible what I think our COVID-19 objectives are, or should be. As of this writing it’s too late for 190,000 Americans whose lives have already been lost to the deadly disease, but millions more lives still depend on our actions now. 


1. Our primary objective should be to minimize loss of life. Life is the most precious thing we have, and dying before one’s time is a tragedy worth going to great lengths to prevent. Good medical care can improve survival chances among the infected by a modest amount, but preventing infections in the first place is by far the most effective way to reduce mortality. We have straightforward and effective means of preventing infections through hygienic measures, which include social distancing, personal protective equipment, testing, and contact tracing. At some point we will probably have an additional means to prevent infections- vaccines, but the infection prevention strategy can be very effective even while we lack a vaccine

This is important to note, because there is a widespread misconception that without a cure or vaccine, hygienic measures are only “delaying the inevitable.” I.e., there is a misconception that eventual infection of the entire population is unavoidable. It IS avoidable, though, and this would be obvious if we just remembered some of the basic math of epidemiology; the well-established science of how diseases spread through populations. In epidemiology, R0 is the average number of new people than an infected person spreads the infection to before he or she either dies or recovers. If R0 is more than 1, then the number of infected people in the population increases, eventually including nearly everybody. But if R0 is less than 1, the prevalence of the disease in the population dwindles, eventually to zero, and most people are never touched by the infection at all

Just as a fire deprived of access to new fuel will burn itself down to nothing, a disease deprived of access to new victims will also fizzle to nothing. This is the goal, and it has already been achieved by countries like New Zealand, which now need only remain vigilant for smoldering embers and sparks from abroad. 

How long it takes for the disease to fizzle out depends on how low we can get the R0. If the number is only slightly less than 1 then the disease still burns for a long time, but if the number is near zero the disease is rapidly extinguished and society can get back to normal promptly. There's more information on the basic math of epidemiology here- 

2. Our secondary objective is to minimize suffering. Sickness and the death of loved ones inflict great suffering, so our most effective measures to prevent infections (see objective #1) are also our most effective measures to minimize suffering. 

While sickness and death are the greatest causes of suffering in a pandemic, our measures to prevent infection may inflict suffering, as well. I.e., there are significant social, emotional, and economic costs to our hygienic measures. This creates a difficult situation, because in a pandemic that is being managed effectively, where hygienic measures are enforced and infections and deaths are kept low, all citizens suffer from the prevention measures while relatively few experience the actual sickness and death. Thus the cure is perceived as worse than the disease, and there is heavy pressure to relax the hygienic measures. 

The social, emotional, and economic costs to our hygienic measures should be minimized to the extent possible, but not to the extent that they increase sickness and death. Indeed there’s a dangerous trap of prematurely relaxing the hygienic measures, causing R0 to rise and the disease to spread again. This dooms us to more deaths and a more painful and prolonged period of hygienic measures than we would have had to endure if we had just stuck with the measures the first time. As they say in addiction recovery programs, “Half measures availed us nothing.” 

3. Our final objective is to extinguish the fires of COVID and prevent them from reigniting. Extinguishing the fires depends on our keeping R0 consistently below 1 for “a while” through hygienic measures. As I noted earlier, how long it takes depends on how well we adhere to the measures. If we half-ass it with weak, unenforced rules and repeated cycles of premature reopening, we could still be fighting it for years. However, if we buckle down it won’t take that long to get to the point where COVID is nearly gone and we can get back to mostly normal life. Preventing the COVID fires from reigniting will depend on watching carefully for smoldering embers within our borders (testing), and guarding against new sparks from abroad (also testing and international cooperation). The social and economic costs at that stage will be a lot less than they are now, and we can maintain them indefinitely if necessary. However, we may get a break if a safe and effective vaccine is developed and widely administered. When a majority of the population has immunity due to vaccination, it’s very hard for a disease to find susceptible victims. An immunized population is a like a wet and soggy forest, where sparks are unlikely to catch and spread. This is the good kind of “herd immunity.” I have more to say on herd immunity, though. 

WARNING- “Herd immunity” is one of the most misinterpreted things about the COVID-19. Whether or not herd immunity is a desirable outcome or a horrible outcome is totally dependent on how we GET to it. Herd immunity achieved by mass vaccination would be our absolute best outcome, minimizing loss of life and minimizing suffering by negating the need for hygienic measures. However, herd immunity achieved by mass infection would be the absolute worst outcome. To get herd immunity through mass infection would mean that everybody who COULD die of the disease WOULD die of the disease. That would be something like 1% of the population, which in a country the size of the United States (330,000,000 people) would be millions of people. 


The mass infection route to herd immunity would be an appalling folly resulting in unfathomably large numbers of deaths and untold suffering. 

A half-assed strategy of weak hygienic measures and premature reopening cycles (which seems to be our current strategy) prolongs suffering and leads to high numbers of preventable deaths; not much better than the mass infection route. 

Hygienic measures may be annoying, but they are absolutely our best route (and currently our only route, pending a vaccine) back to normal life. They will get us to a sustainable state where COVID-19 is basically gone and we’re just waiting for a vaccine to put the final nail in its coffin. So mask up, social distance, and call on your elected representatives to do what science assures us we MUST DO to squelch these deadly fires and return us to normalcy.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Learn Marine Ecology: My Narrated PowerPoint Lectures

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic this spring I had to switch from conventional teaching to "online instruction" halfway through the semester at Florida Gulf Coast University. Online instruction is not as efficient, effective, or fun as conventional teaching, but it IS better than nothing. One bonus of producing recorded teaching materials is that I can make them available for free to interested members of the public. I have done this with the lectures for my Marine Ecology course "OCB4633C." This is a required course in the BS Marine Science program at colleges in the Florida State University system. I recorded the lectures by doing "voice overs" of my existing PowerPoint slideshow presentations, then converting the presentations to video and uploading them to YouTube. The voice over recording function in powerpoint also lets you use a "laser pointer" or "pen" tool to scribble on the slides as you talk, so I did a lot of that.

These presentations are not National Geographic quality, and some of them move a little slowly with an inordinate amount of "ums" and "ok, so"s. Anyway, with those disclaimers done, here are the videos, in the order that I would normally present these topics to the students. Please let me know if you have any questions or comments, if you note mistakes or unclear segments, etc.

Introduction and Patterns in the Marine Environment

Intertidal Ecology

Primary Production Pt. 1

Primary Production Pt. 2

Secondary Production

Microbial Ecology

Pelagic Ecosystems

Continental Shelf Ecosystems


Seagrass, Saltmarsh, and Mangrove Ecosystems

Coral Reef Ecosystems

Deep Sea Ecology

Foodwebs, Biodiversity, and Ecosystem Functions (this one is long with a lot of theory; casual watchers may want to skip or save for last)

Fisheries Ecology

Aquaculture (aka Fish Farming)

Disturbance Ecology

Pollution and Climate Change

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Snorkeling spots in Lee County, Florida (Bonita Springs, etc.)

Snorkeling Estero Bay from the East side of the road at Bonita Beach Dog Park.

Folks who know I'm a marine biologist often ask me if I can recommend any good, nearby snorkeling spots. (Within the Naples / Bonita Springs / Estero / Fort Myers / Sanibel area.) The answer is YES I CAN- SORT OF.

The thing is, this part of Florida doesn't have any near-shore coral reefs, and the waters are often dark and murky from a combination of natural and man-made factors like stirred-up mud, tannins, and blooms of microscopic algae that feed off the high levels of nutrients in the water. So even where there IS cool underwater life to see, you often can't see it very well because of the poor water clarity. Having given those disclaimers to set expectations appropriately low, I have had some good snorkeling experiences around here, and I'll tell you where your best bets are to have some good experiences yourself.

General recommendations-

1. Best times are weekday mornings before there is much boat traffic to stir up the water. Boats can also run over you and chop you into little giblets of meat with their propellers. So you should bring a dive flag if you're going in an area that potentially has powerboats.

2. Best times are when it hasn't been too windy / wavy, because wind makes waves and waves stir up mud from the bottom that reduces the visibility. Winds less than 10 knots are usually OK. That said, you can get away with snorkeling when it's windier if the winds are OFFSHORE WINDS. That means winds blowing from the land out to sea. These will not make waves along the shoreline, so they won't stir up the water.

3. Tide (level and whether it's coming in or going out) matters. Particularly when you're near the mouth of the estuary, where there's a changing mix of fresher estuary water and saltier ocean water, you may get the best water clarity when the tide is coming in, bringing the more clear water from offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. However, if there have recently been a lot of waves in the Gulf of Mexico from West winds, the incoming tide won't help and it could actually be more clear further back into the estuary. Tide can also matter because some sites may be too shallow at low tide or too deep at high tide.

Specific sites-

Estero Bay- Estero Bay is a shallow, semi-enclosed body of water where fresh and salt water mix. It has some interesting sea bottom habitats including beds of seagrass and seaweed that often have snails, fish, sea urchins, anemones, crabs, and other organisms living in them. The trick is to find a seagrass bed accessible from shore, in an area where the water isn't too murky. I have had some luck going from the east side of the road at Bonita Beach Dog Park on Lovers Key.There's a shallow area with seagrass, and a deeper channel as you go south towards the New Pass bridge that has some oysters and other shells and often has interesting crabs, urchins, and fish like Mangrove Snappers and Sheepshead.

A sand perch hanging out by a clump of oyster shells in the deeper channel part.

Another site at Estero Bay that sometimes works is the Big Carlos Pass beach access at the north end of Lovers Key. Big Carlos Pass is the biggest opening from Estero Bay into the Gulf of Mexico, and it sometimes has pretty clear water on an incoming tide. The bottom there is shelly, and there are some big pieces of rubble further out, like concrete pipes, that are covered with sponges, seaweed, and sometimes soft corals. Underneath the Big Carlos Pass bridge, around the pilings, there are piles of concrete blocks that often have reef fishes swimming around them. Just watch out for fishing lines and boats.

The ocean side of Lovers Key can also work for brave snorkelers if the tide is slack or outgoing and there are no waves. Near the entrance to Big Carlos Pass there is kind of a deep channel between shore and an offshore sandbar, and the sand is scoured away from the bottom there revealing rocks with urchins, seaweed, and sometimes big fish. You can swim really far out from shore and still in be in shallow water over the shifting sandbars. Watch out for boats, though.

San Carlos Bay- San Carlos Bay is the crossroads of several estuaries in the more northern part of Lee County. It's where the Caloosahatchee Estuary meets Matlacha Pass and Pine Island Sound. The toll bridge to Sanibel Island (the Sanibel Causeway) crosses San Carlos Bay and includes two man-made islands where you can pull off and park to snorkel or windsurf or picnic or whatever. Look at the area on Google Earth and pick a spot where you see dark, mottled patches near shore. Those are seagrass and seaweed beds with a mixed shelly / sandy bottom. Depending on which direction the wind is coming from, different sides of the different causeway islands may offer the best shelter from the wind and waves and the most clear water.

If you want to snorkel in a similar environment but don't want to pay the $7 toll for the Sanibel Causeway, you can pull off on the side of the road just before the causeway at San Carlos Bay beach.

Another interesting spot is Bunche Beach, which has a mix of seagrass, seaweed, sand, rock/shell and invertebrates like sponges.

Good luck exploring, and if you make any great snorkeling discoveries, please share them in the comments.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Hydrofoil flyby of buddy's OC1 canoe

My friend Matt is a good artist, and tech wizard who gets lots of cool water shots. The other day he caught this clip of us horsing around off Bonita Beach, FL.

If you want to see more of Matt's artistry, check out his ceramics studio webpage.

Saturday, February 22, 2020