Thursday, May 28, 2015

On Whether to Memorialize Burlington Policy Against Militarization of Police.

[May 27, 2015]

Ms. Kenney, Burlington Police Commissioner:

There is in our community a fear of the police, and many stories of police acting extra-legally, unaccountable because the victims of these acts are homeless or drunk, thought to be a threat to public safety, or simply too powerless to demand respect. Even if members of the police commission or members of the community want to challenge these stories, the fact remains that there is embedded distrust, where trust is the natural outcome of the proper fulfillment of the duties of policing.

If you want me to  detail these stories, I can. I am witness to some, and have heard others of them first hand. For now I would like to assert principles and indicate what I believe the implications are.

In the evolution of civilization, the state has gradually asserted a monopoly over the use of force. With the institution of democracy, this authority has been segregated into the use of force to protect the territory of the state, and the use of force to protect domestic tranquility. Today we are discussing the latter.

Because the state exists to protect the well-being of the citizens, and the state maintains a monopoly over the use of force, the agents of that use of force, the police, are duty bound to minimize harm to the citizenry, their ultimate employers and ostensible benificiaries, including the suspects of crime, and carry a heavy burden to use force only when absolutely necessary. Their duty, where they exist as the deputies of the citizenry, is not to control the populace, it is to protect the populace, which may mean refraining from the use of force even when control may be lost, if with the loss of control no harm to the wider public will be done.

In short, the police could go very far toward pacifist tactics, reducing their over-use of force and increasing the sense in the community that the police are acting to protect, not acting to control, by implementing a "least harm" policy. As a brief example, if someone on Main street at 2 AM is drunk, and causing some people to feel unsafe, the police do not need to aggress against this individual by wrestling them to the ground, sometimes striking them. They need engage in sufficient control: Stand between the dangerous person and the public that is at risk, surround the individual and deflect the danger. Meet danger with no weapon that is greater than the weapon displayed. The police don't need heavier equipment, they need better training, aimed at "least harm" protection of both the innocent and the guilty.

I must say, it seems some times that the police view themselves as the agents of justice. To assess the danger perhaps created by some actor, to judge whether there is guilt, and to administer punishment. This is neither the right nor the duty of the police: they must deliver the person suspected of criminal  behavior to the court with the least harm possible. If that person does not resist, the police can show respect, and do nothing that hurts the suspect. Because it is the necessary duty of the police to protect, and to not impart to the community they serve any more harm than is necessary for the protection of the innocent. The suspect who resists or is threatening can be handled professionally. There is no place in the interaction between the suspect and the officer for harm imparted out of anger. Anger has no role in the administration of public safety.

Certainly, to extend this principle, the segregation of military and police must be enforced and institutionalized. Rather than leave open a back door to militarization by having no policy one way or the other, I would insist that we have policies designed to reduce the need for the tools of force and to reduce the need for training in the use of force. The police must be made to understand that their unique authority imparts on them a grave responsibility, and they must exercise the use of force with a reticence equal to that responsibility.

Stephen Marshall

Riff on Decision Making in Self-governing Groups

[May 28, 2015]

In this article, L.A.Kaufman challenges the consensus on consensus decision making in many activist communities. I answer this well argued commentary.

It seems to me that every form of decision making offers benefits and dangers. They are screens which select the kinds of divisions and unities we are going to allow, but there will always be opposition to the current form, and proponents of the current form. Since the form of decision making merely smushes around upon whom the injustices will be levied, there is no principled "best" form. The politics will always go on, and the participants will always seek ways to game the process.

I would like to propose a ranked system of decision making. When a  group first gathers, they decide by consensus on the rules of conduct, and on the principles of the group. The second rank of decisions, such as objectives and measurables, must meet a high standard but not consensus. A third rank, such as actions to pursue, and how to spend money, can be decided by majority. The goal is to protect the ability of members to identify with the decisions made. Decisions with which a person can disagree, and agree to support anyway, are decisions which do not require consensus. Decisions which do not affect the goals of the group (how to set up a tent) are delegated to competent persons.

But if a minority in the group feels it cannot maintain affiliation with the group because of a lower ranked decision, or a higher ranked decision, the group must decide whether unity is more important, or a principle is at risk. Can members of the minority remain affiliated if the decision is not changed? Members of the group can propose to elevate an issue to a higher rank, requiring a stronger agreement, if they think they must otherwise divorce, or a lower rank if they think they can maintain unity without the higher rank agreement. The decision of whether to elevate an issue to a higher rank, or a  lower rank, expresses the sense of the group over the relative importance of the principle, against maintaining unity within the group, and would be made according to the level of agreement currently required. 

This process of course does not eliminate the dangers to group unity and group principles. It merely allows the members to express their sentiments about which of these is more important, and thus sets the debate at its proper level, gaining efficiencies in time and energy, and increasing democratic value, while referring the most important decisions to the highest rank of agreement.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The First Harvest: How Rocks Are Like Bubbles.

[May 27, 2015]

It is said, where rocks are common, that the first crop of the farmer’s new year is the rock harvest. Stones, over the winter, have forced themselves to the surface, where they make plowing impossible. Why do they move at all? 

Rocks are like bubbles, in that they rise in the medium in which they are submerged, because, in both cases, there is more pressure from beneath than from above. The surprise is that rocks are more dense than the medium of their submergence, while bubbles are obviously less dense, so why do rocks rise instead of sink?

Large rocks, like large bubbles, experience a greater difference of forces from top to bottom than do small rocks or bubbles. The vertical span of a large rock or large bubble subtracts more from the vertical column above than that of a small rock or bubble, hence the column above, upon which the downward pressure is largely dependent, is proportionally shorter and less weighty, and therefore the upward forces on a rock or bubble are greater for a large one than for a small one, and we expect large rocks, like bubbles, to rise more quickly than small ones. 

I have seen exhibits in which large and small bubbles were released into fluids differing in their viscosities, and whether the fluid is thick or thin, whether the average speed of the bubbles was quick or slow, the largest of the bubbles rose fastest, and the smallest bubbles rose slowest. This remains true until the bubble achieves a size at which it tends to break up. 

This may seem counter-intuitive: ought not a small object make its way through its field of obstacles more readily? But actually we are familiar with other versions of this thought experiment: Drop a stone from shoulder height and it falls straight away. Drop a fistful of finely pulverized soil, and much of it will float down or just blow away. But put a fistful of dirt in a screen and the smallest particles will get through, while not the large ones. The passage of rocks and bubbles through the medium in which they are submerged is not a screening process, it is one dependent on the behavior of fluids. And the soil which surrounds a rock, like the liquid which surrounds a bubble, behaves like a fluid in some ways, and a fluid will flow around the bubble easily enough, but more quickly where the pressure differences are larger, such as for a larger bubble, and we expect that soil will allow a large rock to rise through it from below more quickly than it will allow small stones to rise. 

But there remains a puzzle. How is it that a rock, which should be more dense than its surrounding medium, should rise through that medium? Ice, which is a water-rock, floats in water because it is less dense than liquid water, which means that the water it displaces weighs more than the water that is bound up in the ice. Perhaps it is too obvious to point out that a rock will sink in water, but what if we made the ice block just a bit heavier, and not much heavier, than the water it displaces, by putting a modestly sized rock in it before we freeze it? This block of ice would most certainly sink. 

In the same way, why doesn’t a rock sink in the soil in which it rests? Indeed why do I think the rock is more dense than the soil? 

Soils are generally made up of the pulverized bits of the bedrock on which they lay, plus some organic matter, water and air. Some soils (clays) are also made from hydrated versions of the bedrock (feldspar). Since organic matter, water and air are all automatically less dense than the rock, we only need to prove that the soil particles born from the original bedrock are themselves less dense than the rock. 

We do this by imagining the hypothetical situation in which  a rock is fractured into the thousands or millions of small, soil-particle size fragments which make up the soil, but are held together in their original positions, so there is no space between them. This mass of rock particles may be as dense as the intact rock only for as long as it is undisturbed. As soon as the rock particles begin to lose this most improbable of all arrangements, other, lighter substances are introduced into the spaces between the particles, the likes of air, water and organic matter. So no arrangement of the particles can be more dense or equally dense, as the original intact rock, which must be more dense than the medium in which it is found. This would be true except, for example, in the atypical case that a rock made of a lighter material, such as limestone, is imported to a field (by glaciation, for example) where the soil lays on a heavier bedrock and by rights could be more dense than the rock in question. However this rock does not present a mystery, as we would expect a rock which is lighter than it’s medium to rise. Still, we want to understand how the heavier rock, nevertheless, would rise in the bed of soil, until it emerges and becomes a nuisance to the farmer. 

In the language of fluid behavior, where bubbles live, the object which is more dense than the fluid will sink, and the object which is less dense will rise. So in the language of fluid behavior, the dense rock rising is anomalous. But of course soil is not a fluid. Some of its behavior is fluid like, and indeed rocks do rise over time through soil. There is “flow” of the substrate around the rock, leaving the zone above the rock and filling in beneath the rock.  The answer to our riddle, I believe, is here, in the difference between the behavior of solids and of fluids. 

The argument is made that frost is responsible. In this scenario, water beneath a stone freezes, and as it does it forms crystals which exert thrust. The thrust will most likely be directed downward, since sideways thrust will be resisted by the ice forming in lateral zones. Hence the rock above might be lifted. 

But let’s consider the possibilities. Because freezing begins at the surface of the ground, the zone above the stone always freezes before the zone below the stone. Only the stone which has already crested will be completely free to rise when the thrust is exerted. The stone which is below the surface must lift entirely the mass of frozen earth above. If the stone is deep enough in the ground, the zone beneath the stone may never freeze, even if the freeze does reach the top. If freezing were the only mechanism, rocks would never lift away from the bedrock from which they are cleaved. 

The freeze-thaw cycle and the thrust forces it induces may indeed play a role in the migration of rocks to the surface of the soil in which they are. But then, why wouldn’t the rock simply fall back to where it had been before the freezing started? Another process is operating. Herein we observe the difference between fluid and solid behavior. 

Whether wet or dry, freezing and thawing or just unfrozen, soil is made up of particles. When they are loose and not locked by friction into a rigid formation, they will move. Reasons to move include freezing, being washed, pressure from one side not balanced at the other, and vibration, with influence from gravity. Generally at depth soils will be packed, but they can still respond to these influences. 

First there is the rock at depth, below the frost line. For this rock, movement depends entirely on vibration. A vibration passing through the soil momentarily and microscopically lifts the rock, and soil particles fall into the space left open, in the manner of fluid particles. But when the vibration forces the rock down upon the soil particles beneath it, the force does not cause the particle to move away from its position beneath the rock; its behavior has become that of a solid. Hence over time and many cycles of vibration, soil migrates under the stone. The solid does not need to be more dense than the object it supports to support it. Once the soil particles are forced beneath the rock, they will stay there, gradually exerting upward force which is not resisted by any equal down ward force. As the rock gradually migrates up through the soil, the soil above remains less packed, may even grow looser, as the pressures from below cause the soil to crown. As the soils below fill in beneath the rock, the particles on the side fall down to fill in behind the soil particles going under the stone, and the particles from above fill in around the stone. Thus the behavior of the soil particles, when the vibration lifts the stone, is fluid-like, but the behavior of the soil particles when the vibration packs down on them is solid-like. The solid-like behavior prevents the rock from moving down, while the fluid-like behavior allows it to move up. Hence they take a one-way journey from below to above the surface. 

From here the action of frost is to accelerate the process of emergence. When ice crystals do form, and melt, they create spaces for particles to fall into. If the process of crystal formation moves the stone, this will leave additional space for soil particles to migrate into. 

Washing of particles may in fact undermine a rock and cause it to subside. Washing is likely to participate in the lifting of a rock on the scale of an individual particle, if just enough water is present to lubricate the passage of the particle, or impel it more expeditiously, to occupy the spaces created by crystals and vibrations. 

The effect of pressure from one side is like the effect of the rock rising through the soil. It has only one direction in which to go. A soil particle poised beside a cavity beneath a rock will, when the some random vibration passes through the soil, fall in the direction of the cavity, and not the other way. That is the one thing it can do. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Planning for Vermont's Future

[May 18, 2015]

Do you have a vision for a state which does not use fossil fuels? This may seem far in the future, but fossil fuels, no matter how abundant they may be now, will not last forever. And well before they run out, we will be baking from global warming. So let me suggest that there are two (mutually exclusive) ways to reduce our use of carbon based fuels: chaotically (read: no planning), or mindfully (read: with planning). 

There are plenty of folks who view the warming of the planet as a hoax intended to empower governments to oppress and control the citizenry, and give privilege to an educated elite. For them the idea of a chaotic reduction in carbon fuels is fine, because the problem isn’t carbon (a made-up problem) or changing climate regimes (another made-up problem), the problem is the planning, the use of the state power of eminent domain to coerce people. It isn’t obvious to me how to plan AND NOT plan, but maybe we can listen to such folks and do our best to address the needs they feel. But the wisdom of the community supersedes the wisdom of the individual in this case. 

The importance of planning for Global Climate Change is difficult to overstate. In the long run, as resources become scarce, we will be depending on the infrastructure we built when we had choices. Put another way, we could commit our resources to building infrastructure which will become obsolete, or we can build infrastructure which will serve us well beyond the age of oil. 

And we can build infrastructure which will, either, impede the change of culture, or advance the change of culture. Beyond using capital efficiently, we need to change how we live. As the global costs of using carbon based fuels become more acute, the pressure will build to reduce carbon outputs. If we plan now, if we build a low-carbon life-style, we will be ready when others are not. Being ahead of the curve, we will be exempt from some of the disruption, and be that place that others look to for solutions. By planning ahead and building the low-carbon culture of tomorrow, over time, we will make it easier for people to adjust to changing opportunities. By planning ahead, we get to develop the new low-carbon culture incrementally, iteratively (the new buzz word), with much less disruption than others will experience when, for them, it will be a crash program. 

How can we be sure? How can we plan for something over which there is so much disagreement? How can we be sure where the real costs will be? There are certain fundamentals in which science, scientists, and many others, have confidence. 

Global temperatures are rising. Climates are being disrupted. Human population densities are rising. Resource use continues to increase, and of these increasingly burdened resources, some are finite, meaning they will run out, and others, although renewable, can be overused. We are already using more resources and ecological services than the planet can sustainably provide. So we know generally in what direction to move. We know we need to use less and reduce our impacts on nature. From this general consensus we resort to more particular strategies. 

The goal of planning is to create conditions which favors some behaviors and discourages others. But individuals are still free to respond to those conditions out of their own creativity. So this is the strategy which flows from the wisdom of the crowd, from the actions of individuals. The community births creative responses, businesses, non-profits and even forms of recreation and volunteerism, which taken collectively form an ecology of activities. So people ARE able to live their lives and take care of themselves, while the ecosystem of human activity responds to the uncertainty of what the low carbon culture will require. Meanwhile planners also respond, making their own iterative adjustments. 

By planning ahead we reduce disruption, and increase opportunity. We learn what businesses we need to grow, what education to provide, and how to maintain and improve the quality of life. By planning ahead, the changes we induce in people’s lives are opportunities, not disruptions. The change we induce is the life we want to live. 

My vision holds that intact continuous forests, intact continuous farmlands, and healthy communities with healthy people, are precious community goods. People need culture and social activity, and the communities and communications infrastructure we build make these possible. Therefore we reward people who live in high density settlements, where the usual economic and social activities can be conducted without private fossil-fueled transport. Walking, biking, electric buses, even animal transport, are the primary means of transport. Community centers provide meeting rooms and internet based access to Skype-type services, so that transport to a meeting location is optional. For special needs, vehicle coops offer electric vehicles for private use. Meanwhile, the country side is delivered free of remote housing which demands private transportation and expensive power and communications infrastructure. Housing is built with set-back maxima, not minima, so that long driveways become obsolete, and taxes on private property increase as dwellings become more remote from other dwellings (with some finessing for the traditional camp). Over time, as people seek economies under this regime, forest stands and farm lands which are divided by private property boundaries will become reunited, permitting forests to become continuous again and farmlands can be used as farm lands again. 

Overcoming the love of vast properties which is so common in Vermont will take a very long time. Possibly generations. But this is the point of planning. We plan now and begin to put small but tolerable pressures on people so that over time people will adjust with minimal disruption. As the adjustments begin, the pressures adjust so that the changes continue. People will never be prohibited from living extravagant life-styles, but everyone will be rewarded with a high quality of life by choosing the low-impact life-style. Given time it will just seem natural. And I will bet that most people will agree it’s good, too.