Blog By ChatBot?

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One of the most exciting and disturbing developments that has come to light in the last year is the development of highly sophisticated artificial intelligence “chatbots” capable of producing text often indistinguishable from and sometimes superior to that of human beings, across a variety of subjects. The most prominent of these is ChatGPT, developed by OpenAI. ChatGPT stands for Chat Generative Pre-Trained Transformer. It was released in prototype version November 30, 2022, resulting in an explosion of discussion.

ChatGPT will respond to a question or command. For esample, I asked ChatGPT “Who was Louis Bromfield?” ChatGPT responded:

Louis Bromfield was an American author and conservationist, born in Ohio in 1896. He was a successful and popular writer in the 1920s and 1930s, producing a number of novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Early Autumn” (1926). He was also known for his conservation work and was a pioneer in sustainable agriculture and land management practices.

In the 1930s, Bromfield established an experimental farm in Ohio, known as Malabar Farm, where he implemented his ideas about conservation and sustainable agriculture. He wrote several books about his experiences on the farm, including “Malabar Farm” (1947) and “Pleasant Valley” (1945), which detailed his efforts to preserve the natural environment and promote sustainable farming practices.

Bromfield’s work had a significant impact on the fields of agriculture and conservation, and his legacy continues to influence modern thinking about sustainable land management and environmental protection.

ChatGPT, generated 2/2/2023 at 7:38pm

I subsequently asked it “Say more about his writing and how its works are evaluated.” It produced a response focusing on his novels but says little about his later works which were generally considered inferior, churned out to fund his farming efforts. So, I asked it about his work at Malabar Farm in Mansfield, Ohio, which I have visited several times. It described his pioneering efforts in sustainable agriculture and described the farm as financially successful. The latter is a more dubious claim. Bromfield was constantly trying to raise money from writing and movie deals to make ends meet.

What is concerning to many is that ChatGPT generates responses that are often factual and crisply written, as in the example above. Can you see how this might be used by students pressed for time, or just not that eager to put in the work to write a term paper? There is a good deal of concerned conversation in academic circles about the implications for everything from admissions essays to term papers to academic articles.

It is also being suggested that ChatGPT and other chatbots could put writers out of business in many fields. It can write advertising blurbs and in some genres, especially those with fast turnaround times, novelist are using ChatGPT to at least help produce content.

One the positive side, a case can be made that ChatGPT is another tool, like Wikipedia or Google, to quickly research a subject. People are already talking about the kinds of tasks that could be done by a chatbot. This could improve productivity, although it may mean that many writing jobs may be on the line. It’s probably time for those who write in some form for a living to ask, “can a chatbot do that?”

At the same time, there are problems with blind reliance on chatbots. At its most basic, OpenAI warns, “May occasionally generate incorrect information.” I indicated some instances in the examples above where the responses were questionable. I also asked ChatGPT for citations supporting its responses and it said it could not do that but recommended several works, none of which, as far as I can ascertain, actually exist. This problem has been widely noted as has a tendency of ChatGPT to “hallucinate,” to create totally fanciful responses. ChatGPT also warns:

  • May occasionally produce harmful instructions or biased content
  • Limited knowledge of world and events after 2021

Teachers are already developing assignments that recognize the limitations of ChatGPT and testing those assignments on ChatGPT. Others are assuming its use and integrating it into the composition process. The use of ChatGBT actually offers an interesting exercise in how one verifies the veracity of information. Since the sources on which ChatGBT draws aren’t transparent, the writer will want to look at other reputable sources, and this helps teach discrimination between reputable and questionable sources.

The biggest problem, of course, is plagiarism. To use a ChatGBT product as verbatim, or substantially, without quotation marks or attribution, representing it as one’s own ideas, is plagiarism. TechCrunch reports that OpenAI has even created a tool to detect AI generated, including ChatGPT generated, text. At present, it is only 26 percent effective. Now the interesting question comes, how does one handle works that do cite ChatGPT? I suspect that syllabi and specific assignments will have to address this, as well as the consequences for Chatbot plagiarism.

So, what about blogs by chatbot? I tried this experiment. I asked ChatGPT to review Alex Haley’s Roots. I’ve never written a review of this book. It produced the following:

“Roots: The Saga of an American Family” by Alex Haley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning book and television miniseries that was first published in 1976. It is a historical novel that traces the journey of an African man named Kunta Kinte and seven generations of his descendants, from his capture and enslavement in Africa, to his life in America and the eventual liberation of his descendants. The book was based on Haley’s own genealogical research and oral history from his family, and it was groundbreaking in its depiction of the African American experience. It sparked a renewed interest in genealogy and African American history, and has been widely praised for its impact on American culture and society.

ChatGPT, generated 2/2/2023 at 7:00 pm

That’s a nice, succinct summary, but not nearly long enough for my blog reviews. So I tried this “Review in the style of” ChatGPT produced this:

“Roots: The Saga of an American Family” by Alex Haley is a magnificent piece of literature that tells the story of one African American family’s journey from slavery to freedom. This book is a powerful and emotional read that provides a vivid representation of the horrors of slavery, as well as the resilience of the human spirit.

The narrative follows the life of Kunta Kinte, an African man who is captured and sold into slavery, and traces the experiences of his descendants over several generations. The character development is excellent, with each character being unique and memorable in their own way. Haley’s writing is both descriptive and evocative, painting a vivid picture of the time period and bringing the story to life.

One of the most significant aspects of “Roots” is its depiction of slavery, which is graphic, honest, and heart-wrenching. The book serves as a reminder of the atrocities committed against Africans and African Americans, and it’s a testament to the strength and resilience of the human spirit.

In conclusion, “Roots” is a landmark work of African American literature that should be read by all. Its impact on American culture and society cannot be overstated, and it remains an important and relevant book to this day. Highly recommended!

ChatGPT, generated 2/2/2023 at 7:02 pm

Hmm. That does sound a bit more like what I do–still shorter and less detailed than what I usually write. I rarely use words like “emotional read” or “Highly recommended.” I do like words like “resilience” and “evocative.” It does follow the form of many of my reviews, although it feels more “generic” than what I might write. And I found no typos, which can rarely be said of me. It would be interesting to know what others think.

But I won’t be turning to ChatGPT to write my reviews or other blog posts. Here’s why:

  • Fundamentally, I like crafting my own reviews. I write them to remember what I read.
  • ChatGPT cannot know by itself how I actually engaged with a book–what I thought, how I reacted–it can only summarize the content and mimic my style. There is a serendipitous element to all this–I often discover what I think as I write.
  • For better or worse, my writing cannot help but reflect my life experiences and my deepest values, neither of which are static.
  • Part of the implicit contract with both publisher and public is honesty. Will ChatGPT say that a book just doesn’t cut it?
  • No one needs to visit Bob on Books to know what ChatGBT thinks of a book (and I would have to be honest in attribution).

Chatbots are here to stay. We’ve been using Seri and Alexa for years. We engage them when we seek online support. And the new AI of ChatGBT is becoming increasingly successful at simulating our human neural networks while accessing vast sources of information and articulating its responses in reasonably interesting text. And those mistakes? AI is iterative, which means it learns and corrects those mistakes. I asked ChatGBT about something I’m very familiar with, the history of Youngstown. It was accurate, except it said that John Young was from Pennsylvania, when in fact, he was from Whitestown, New York. I corrected this and then asked where John Young was from and it gave the correct answer. Part of the reason for the free release of this powerful tool was to learn and refine it through user interactions like the ones I’ve recorded here.

But I won’t be using it to write my blog. I’ll keep reading the books, keep writing about things that interest me, and keep researching, checking sources against sources when I can. That doesn’t guarantee that I won’t make mistakes, but they’ll be mine, and part of my own iterative learning process, part of my lifelong formation. I will not delegate that to a chatbot.

The Little Furnace That Can’t

My 3 1/2 year old furnace with a cracked heat exchanger.

This wasn’t the post I intended to write. But the day kind of went off the rails when our heating tech said something to the effect of “I can’t believe this!” and proceeded to tell me that the heat exchanger on our three and a half year old furnace was cracked. In case you don’t know–this is bad. As in carbon monoxide leaks. His next step was to shut off the gas supply to the furnace, his due diligence to protect his company from liability.

The news got worse. A repair bill in excess of $1000, and that was if they could get the part. I later learned that they probably wouldn’t get it until mid-December–almost two months. So I called the company we bought the furnace from. They are coming to check it tomorrow. They say they can get the part in 2-3 weeks, around the second week in November. The supply chain chickens have come home to roost for us.

I learned from our technician that this particular part is known to crack where ours cracked and that newer models have redesigned the heat exchanger. And he reminded me that replacement parts for furnaces may be like those on cars, not usually as good as OEM parts. So we could well have the problem again, maybe several times during the life of the furnace.

Hmm. It used to be that heat exchangers lasted the life of the furnace. But in this case, the metal is thinner. I’m thinking that maybe this furnace’s life has ended–for us. I don’t want a potential carbon monoxide threat sitting in my utility room. Yes, we have CO detectors, including one by our bedroom. We’d probably feel better being rid of this furnace and to negotiate for a replacement that (hopefully) doesn’t have this problem. Now we’ll have to see what the company we bought the furnace from thinks about that.

Needless to say, I’m not happy. This happens more than I’d like. Crappy compressors in refrigerators are another one of my beefs. Remember those refrigerators that would last 30 years? You might still have one. Now, you are lucky if they last ten. All the while, they boast about energy efficiency. What’s efficient about making and disposing of these major appliances in such a short cycle?

What’s more troubling is that technicians know about these things, which are potentially life threatening. If my furnace were a car, there would probably be a recall. Why is that not the case?

At least it’s not January. That said, the temperatures the next few nights will be in the 30’s. We have no other heat source than an old space heater–will be going out to get another.

We may have to convert to electric one of these days. It would mean some serious rewiring in our mid-80’s house in natural gas land. It may even be a green move when we finally figure out how to generate our electricity from something else besides coal. Maybe we’ll put solar panels on our southern exposure. Cha-ching…

Meanwhile, the house is starting to get a bit chilly…

An Update:

A technician from the company from whom we bought the furnace was out this morning. One thing that impressed me was that he was far more thorough than the previous guy, pulling the blower, looking from below, above, as well as through the front via camera at the location the other tech said there was a crack. He found nothing. He ran CO and combustion tests. Nothing.

So where does that leave us?

For now, we will run the furnace. And, I changed the batteries in one CO detector, and we will add two more per his suggestions. And we may talk to a home inspection guy who is a friend to see if there is a way to get an “impartial” assessment because:

  • We wonder if the first company is really trying to get us to buy another furnace. We’ve dealt with them for a long time, but in recent years, we’ve noticed techs who try to get us to buy more add-ons.
  • We wonder if the second company doesn’t want to lose money on warranty repairs.

I should say, the second company’s tech seemed very thorough, spent a long time on the diagnostics, and didn’t charge us anything.

But all this strikes me as a parable of our “epistemic crisis.” Whose “truth” do we trust? When truth and trustworthiness has become such an expendable commodity in our communal life and everyone claims a right to their own truth, their own facts. When there is no accountability for lies or they are even considered expedient–this seeps into all of life.

Right down to those upon whom our homes and lives depend.

A (hopefully final) update

We did have a third company inspect the heat exchanger. They gave free second opinions if you had an invoice with a diagnosis of a cracked heat exchanger. I showed the tech a picture the first company sent. He said, “That’s not your heat exchanger.” But he checked everything out thoroughly.

We also installed two CO detectors, one on each floor. And a company that has had our business for thirty years has lost it. It appears they were trying to sell us a bill of goods, some of which may be reflected in the first part of this post. It’s disheartening, and left us a bit less confident in the safety of our furnace, even with those second opinions. This is what happens when trust is broken…

Water Security

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Several weeks back I wrote a post on food security. It was in the wake of the Intel deal to build a huge manufacturing plant in Central Ohio, insuring the security of our micro-chip supply. But there is a form of security even more fundamental than food security, and that is water security. Human beings cannot live more than three days without water. Fifty-five to sixty percent of the human body consists of water.

In addition, we depend on water to grow both plant and animal food, as a source of power, for various manufacturing processes, and for transport among many other things. That Intel plant in Ohio? It is projected to use a staggering 5 million gallons of water per day, becoming the single largest user of water in Central Ohio. Ohio’s abundant supplies of water were no doubt one of the factors in siting the plant there. But they will now have to develop the infrastructure to move that water, and a reclamation plant to recycle at least some of the water used.

It seems that water may threaten our security in at least three ways:

When there is too little of it. Climate change is rendering many parts of our world much drier, not just for a year here and there but for the long term. The reservoirs that are supplied by the Colorado River have dropped by 50 feet or more to about 25 percent of their capacities, jeopardizing power generation as well as the supply of water to Arizona, California, and Nevada. And much of that supply, up to 80 percent, is for agriculture. It’s likely that the fresh fruit and vegetables in your refrigerator were grown there. But perhaps for not much longer–a major dislocation. NASA predicts that California has only one year of water. Given the low levels of water in rivers, streams and reservoirs, efforts are being made to tap into groundwater supplies in aquifers. But these are also finite and dependent on the same rainfall and runoffs for replenishment

When there is too much of it. We heard a presentation recently of a Christian school in rural eastern Kentucky that fought to recover from a hundred year flood last year, only to endure a thousand year flood this summer, with much higher floodwaters. One of the impacts of climate change in much of the eastern United States is more intense storms with heavier rainfall totals. That school has decided to re-locate out of its location in a hundred year flood plain because the once in a hundred or thousand year events seem to be coming much more frequently. Coastal communities like Fort Myers in Florida face greater storm surge, which in combination with rising sea levels can wreak ever greater devastation. And with the melting of ice from Greenland to Antarctica, rising sea levels will make many of our coastal cities new versions of Venice.

When impurities render it unpotable or toxic over the long term. It is a major wonder of infrastructure and technology that we can turn a tap, fill a glass, and drink it. This is not the case in many parts of the world, resulting in higher infant and child death rates, and underlying digestive illnesses for many. But bacteria are not the only danger to our water. Impurities are a major threat from lead that impairs child intelligence in many cities with aging water infrastructures to toxic chemicals that escape into adjacent groundwater, or are discharged by manufacturing processes. Finally, the possibility of sabotage always exists.

Many of our problems are ones that have been long foreseen, but ignored. John Wesley Powell, armed with watershed maps testified before Congress in 1890 about the limits the water supply of the West, situated in a desert climate, would impose on development. People did not want to hear him then and most still don’t want to heed his message. But it seems to me that the question needs to be asked whether the West, particularly in even drier and hotter conditions than Powell knew of, can sustain a growing population and the water uses to which it is accustomed. Likewise, climate experts have predicted with a high degree of accuracy the intensifying climate effects contributing to flooding and coastal inundations.

It seems it is probably past time for us to think about water:

  • How will what we know determine decisions about where we live, or don’t live?
  • How will we better steward existing resources, including the capture of rainwater runoffs, often wasted?
  • How will we protect and expand the supply of potable water, including in the permitting processes for industrial activity that may endanger it?
  • How will we manage water disparities in different parts of the country without creating water wars?
  • How will we think intelligently about various industrial uses of water to avoid disruptions in production while providing for other uses? How will we handle situations where demand exceeds supply?

Many places are already wrestling with these questions. Our presence on a burgeoning and changing planet means all of us need to grow in our awareness of these realities. We no longer have the luxury of ignoring the warnings of John Wesley Powell and the host of others who have given public testimony about the challenges facing us. Every single one of us are within three days of extinction without water. That seems to me to be enough reason to care,

Ten Challenges Facing Higher Education

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I’m going to depart from my reviews today to talk about a different part of my life. I’ve spent my working life in collegiate ministry on college and university campuses. My current position involves leading an effort to support emerging scholars who are followers of Christ in navigating the pathway of their calling. I cannot think of a more challenging time for colleges and universities and for those who would pursue their calling in these institutions. I wanted to write today particularly for those who don’t work in higher education to foster understanding of the challenges the campus is facing. Here are ten that come to mind. Each has merited whole books. I’ll give them at most a few sentences.

  1. Mission. Despite the myriad of verbiage you may hear in public pronouncements and on websites and admissions materials, there is a crisis in understanding what a university is for. I hear everything from educating for citizenship to training people for the high tech jobs of the future. Businesses, governmental entities and social advocacy groups all are trying to shape that mission to their own ends.
  2. A Crisis of Epistemology. The irony is that the relativism of the post-modernism of the 1980’s and 1990’s, with its suspicion of truth and how it may be known and its analysis that truth is defined by whoever is in power, has spread to our whole society. Truth is whatever my tribal group says and the facts be damned! Scholarly work is now on the receiving end where peer-reviewed research is scorned in preference to the latest internet post with any tone of authority.
  3. Cancel Culture rather than Scholarship that Pursues Truth Where it Leads. This flows from the previous point. In recent years, speakers with points of view (usually conservative) were shouted down or prevented from speaking. Research that questioned accepted norms of a discipline would often be refused publication or the researcher denounced. Now conservatives are having their day, passing laws in state legislatures about what must be taught and not taught, often in response to university administrations who issued similar dictates to their faculty. None of it fosters a spirit of fearless inquiry.
  4. The Exodus of Faculty and the Crisis of Adjunctification. The COVID pandemic has facilitated the departure of faculty who find their lifestyle unsustainable with increased demands of in-person and online instruction and the increased presence of alienated or emotionally struggling students. Faculty of color are leaving at higher rates. Colleges continue to ask faculty to do more and replace tenure track positions with adjunct faculty or contracted lecturers. Increasingly, I recommend that most graduate students ought to have some other work aspiration than academic work in a university. But this leaves serious questions to be asked about the quality of education, the future of academic research, and what will happen when enough people decide to withhold their labor.
  5. College Costs. I think as a society we ought to be moving toward the support of some form of post-secondary education for all of our citizens. But this means getting a handle on the costs of education. What I will argue is that university faculty are not the problem. Many have invested at least a dozen years beyond secondary education in their training. Many could earn far more in industry. And the cost of their salaries is not the big issue. On many campuses, if one studies the directories of non-academic units, one will be surprised at the number of people employed in these positions and how bloated many administrations are with very high salaried people. Some of these positions exist because of unfunded government mandates.
  6. Equity in Admissions. Addressing college costs and funding is significant and under our current system, many of lower and medium income families will either conclude that it is not worth it, or carry debts that often take the first half of their working careers to liquidate and often delay home purchases and other major financial commitments. I don’t think everyone should go to college but one’s race or socioeconomic background should not be the deciding factor but rather aptitudes, gifts, and passions.
  7. The Demographic Cliff. After 2026, high school graduations will drop by ten percent due to declining birth rates. The pandemic has sped up that curve for many institutions where enrollments have already dropped significantly, especially at two-year institutions. This may actually be an opportunity for some institutions to streamline themselves and also to work on recruiting and retaining and offering financial aid for students who might not otherwise attend.
  8. The Student Mental Health Crisis. One university counseling center director told me they anticipated they would need to increase their staff by 50 percent to respond to student mental health needs. He discovered that they should have increased their staff by 100 percent and said that he had received similar reports from university mental health professionals across the country. The major concerns are anxiety and depression. This has been a growing crisis, even before the pandemic, which has made it much worse. Often university faculty are the first to encounter a student with these struggles.
  9. The Sexualized Campus. Beyond the sexual politics around orientation and sexual identity and the outcry about abortion rights lies the reality of a campus that is a highly sexualized place. The abuse scandals with student athletes is the most visible tip of the iceberg. Colleges are deeply conflicted around the question of consent and what constitutes it and how, in an atmosphere that normalizes both recreational sex and alcohol and substance use, consent is supposed to work.
  10. Fostering Robust Diversity with Civility. Campuses are incredibly diverse places with people of color and internationals from throughout the world. You have every political party and faith and sexual orientation and gender identity. It is our society in microcosm. Often it is a weak or brittle diversity as is true in most of our country–comfortable only with one’s own tribe. The challenge is to foster a climate, not of guarded and careful niceness that mutes distinctiveness, nor one of belligerence, but rather of both forthrightness about one’s own ideas and values and curiosity rather than judgment about those of others. Actually, I’ve often witnessed students rise admirably to this, often better than faculty and administration. Learning, and where it is needed, enforcing the practices of a principled civility, would seem vital for the development of future leaders.

It is a challenging time in higher education. Challenges can call out not only the worst but the best in human beings. I hope those outside the university will not use this as a chance to rail at higher education. The problems here mirror those in our society. If you are a person of faith, pray for those who lead universities, perhaps using this as a list of things to pray for. There are many Christians working in these universities in positions on faculty, in administration, on staff, or in support services. Two of my friends are presidents of major universities. They love God, they love the campus, they love what they teach and research, they love and seek the common good and they do this amid these challenges.

“Brother Ass”

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It was St. Francis, most likely, who first spoke of our bodies as “Brother Ass.” This has been one of those days when that name has been particularly fitting. C. S. Lewis commented on this description of the body, observing:

Ass is exquisitely right because no one in his senses can either revere or hate a donkey. It is a useful, sturdy, lazy, obstinate, patient, lovable and infuriating beast; deserving now a stick and now a carrot; both pathetically and absurdly beautiful. So the body.

I won’t go into the earthy details of why this name seemed appropriate today. Let’s just say, I learned one more thing this 68 year-old body doesn’t handle well–the closest adjectives Lewis used that applied are “infuriating” and “pathetic.” It absorbed attention and energy that I might have devoted this evening to a review of a book on the theology of Jonathan Edwards. I’ll put that off for a day.

I must confess that, like the ass, my body has been incredibly useful for those 68 years. Through it I’ve encountered a myriad of other embodied persons including my companion in life with whom I’ve been married over 44 years. I’ve dug and harvested gardens, driven and cycled and hiked and run and climbed. I’ve listened to glorious music and sung choral works and painted pictures and written–oh, I’ve written! And I’ve barely scratched the surface of my body’s usefulness.

I’m kind of amazed how sturdy it is. I’ve lived longer than any of the machines and devices in my house, and longer than the house. I’m amazed at teeth, the forces they absorb, and that with proper care, they last a lifetime. There is the heart, the muscle that never rests until its last beat, that we only attend to when it is racing or otherwise troubling us or the doctor takes our pulse. And if my body takes more attention than when I was younger, so do reliable old cars!

I’m also aware of its laziness. My resting state is in a soft chair with a good book, great music on the stereo, and a drink at my side. The apostle Paul speaks of disciplining his body and making it his slave (1 Corinthians 9:27. I feel the tug of the reins, the lifetime tug of war between indolence and industry. Were it not for good parents, I’d probably be a slug!

Obstinate. That’s what I call that fat around my middle. Or the fingers far too prone to make typing mistakes. Or the eyes that refuse to focus on some things with or without glasses. Or hair that grows where it shouldn’t rather than where it is wanted.

Patient. None of us have cared for our bodies as we ought–food, rest, exercise, appropriate and timely care. They often bear a lot, letting us get away perhaps too long with bad habits, sending us quiet warnings, and shouting if need be.

Bodies can be infuriating at times. They don’t always do what we want, and sometimes things we don’t want. They remind us that we are not in perfect control. There are the erections of teenage boys at inopportune times and the impotence of older men who would give anything for their teenaged self. Funny creatures we are!

We are indeed both pathetically and absurdly beautiful. Sometimes there is indeed pathos when a man or woman has beautiful physical qualities but relies upon them rather than wisdom and character and proper ambition to make their way through life. Sometimes it seems that our beauty is absurd–how often have you gazed at yourself in the shower and seen both the beauty and the absurdity–and it is all in this package that is us.

Even when my body frustrates me, I marvel that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Often those frustrations come from failing to heed the wonder. More incredible yet, we are invited both to offer “Brother Ass” as a living sacrifice to God (Romans 12:1) and to be bodily temples for the Holy Spirit, God indwelling us (1 Corinthians 6:19). Most incredible is that one day, we will be bodily raised with bodies something like Christ’s resurrection body (1 Corinthians 15).

So, it appears that God has deep affection for “Brother Ass.” Lewis says you don’t revere or hate an ass. I think of the futility of the body sculptors who seem to revere their own bodies. And I think of the sadness of those who hate their bodies. Instead, I receive my body and the life of the body as gift, one to be tended, protected, and used well, and accepted when it doesn’t do as we wish. A lovable old donkey–Brother Ass!

Food Security

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I live in central Ohio and the big news here is the Intel ground breaking last Friday, September 9, 2022. This was made possible in part by the CHIPS Act, signed into law recently by President Biden, who spoke at the ground breaking. The talk is of 10,000 new jobs plus 7,000 construction jobs, and who knows how many other jobs that will be attracted by the presence of this tech giant. Everyone speaks how important this is to achieve microchip security, jeopardized by our recent supply chain issues where chips for everything from automobiles to refrigerators were in short supply. Our area colleges are re-shaping curricula to provide the training for the technicians, programmers, and engineers the company will need. This is being made possible by a significant flow of money.

It might be questioned why all these chips have become so necessary and ubiquitous in our lives. But what I’ve been thinking about quite a bit of late is why a similar focus is not being placed on the security and sustainability of our food supply. Some of us grew up in a world without chips, but none of us have grown up or can long survive a world without food.

What concerns me is where food comes from. Do you know where the food you ate for breakfast came from beyond your local grocery? I cannot say I do, but when I’ve been able to find out, I’m often surprised the distance that food has traveled to my table and the processes it has undergone during that journey. What I wonder if we’ve thought about is how “breakable” those complex logistical chains are. We tasted something of that with particular products during the pandemic. Recently, some infants were left without the formula they needed due to allergies when there were problems at ONE manufacturing plant. Part of the stop gap was shipping formula from overseas in huge transports.

Of course, all of this is has a large carbon footprint–from the fertilizer and farm machinery to the transport, refrigeration, processing, and more transport to local groceries. I wonder if it is a dangerous assumption that this will always work.

There was a time when most of our food came from within 50 miles of our home. If we lived in the country as opposed to a town or city, much came from our own land. Even during World War Two, “Victory Gardens” were popular and people grew a sizable part of their food in their backyard, canning some of it to last through the winter.

I suspect most of our states could feed their own people if agriculture was set up that way and still create a national reserve to meet shortages. Once you are out of any town or city in Ohio, for example, about all you see is farmland, particularly in that part of the state west of I-71, which is flatter. The eastern part of our state is more suited to livestock and orchards–we are the land of Johnny Appleseed, after all. What is striking is that most of what you see are just two crops–corn and soybeans. In most cases, we don’t see these crops at our dinner table–they are hidden in ingredients or used for feed or even used for biofuels like ethanol. I suspect much of it is sent somewhere else, while much of the food we eat was transported from outside the state. While this may make sense in terms of the current economy of large scale agriculture, it might be questioned whether it makes sense in terms of the food security of our nation in the long term.

It’s significant to me that none of our state’s universities are launching innovative new agriculture programs and there is no comparable investment to that being put into the tech sector. It’s fascinating that one of the reasons Intel moved here was our plentiful water supply, needed in significant amounts in chip manufacturing. The significant twenty year drought in the American Southwest and signs of changing and drier climates in other parts of the world that have been critical in food production mean that significant reassessment of agricultural possibilities and methods are needed everywhere. What stands out to me is that our state could feed itself with food to spare, but no one is looking at how that might be done. No one that I know is looking at how a diverse and nutritional mix of food could be produced, less vulnerable to diseases and pests than our monocrops. And no one is celebrating the intelligence, entrepreneurship, and work ethic of farmers.

I’ve been reading a lot of Wendell Berry of late and he makes more sense than ever. Perhaps the answers are local–really local. As more of us choose to support CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), plant our own gardens and convert other spaces to gardens, we not only multiply our opportunities to grow and eat quality food, we enhance the food security of our communities and perhaps lay the groundwork for the day when this could be a greater necessity. Our church sits on an old farm property, with a spring providing water. Our building occupies less than a quarter of the space. Most of the northern side of our property is now community gardens. I love that we are a place that nourishes people both bodily and spiritually!

I suspect there are some who are more knowledgeable who see all kinds of flaws in what I’ve written. Mea culpa! I’m in a place more of asking questions about our assumptions about food production and security than having the answers. One thing I do know is that the issue of our food security is of immense importance, and our past abundance should not lull us into complacency. Beyond that, we haven’t even talked about the quality and safety of the food on which our lives depend, perhaps a topic for another post! At very least, I know that man cannot live on microchips alone…

Remembering Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II in March 2015, Joel Rouse/ Ministry of Defence Derivative: nagualdesign –, Licensed under OGL 3

Today is the first day in my life in which Queen Elizabeth II is no longer the Queen of the United Kingdom and the nations of the British Commonwealth. I am 68 and she was Queen before I was born. I’ve seen so many world leaders come and go. Churchill, de Gaulle, Khrushchev (and Gorbachev), Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, and Reagan. And always there was Queen Elizabeth II.

Her Platinum Jubilee earlier this summer reminded me that this day would come. Yet I was among those who said, “God save the Queen” because I didn’t want it to come yet. But her absence from many of the festivities suggested the increasingly fragile nature of her health at age 96. I suspected it would not be much longer before she followed her husband Philip.

I remember a youthful Queen. I collected stamps as a kid, and upon her coronation, every country in the Commonwealth at that time printed stamps with her youthful, crowned profile. I remember a young mother with children around my age or older. In pictures of her over the years, I saw a maturing, and then aging monarch, always self-possessed, but bearing like all of us, the marks of advancing years. That mental montage of images including the frail Queen with youthful incoming Prime Minister Truss on Tuesday remind me of the arc of life we all follow.

What strikes me, as it has so many, is how she persisted in fulfilling her royal duties from her youth, even while Princess during the war years until this very week. She once said, “Work is the rent you pay for the room you occupy on earth.” She traveled more than any monarch in history, visiting Canada twenty times alone. And this from one who, while Edward VIII was king, did not expect to reign. In the end, she reigned longer than any British monarch.

I think part of her longevity had to do with her resilience. Think of what the past seventy years have brought: the end of Great Britain as one of the greatest powers, the end of empire, advances in technology, changes in moral standards, the shift from industrial to technology driven economies, and so much more. Media shifted from print to radio to television to the 24/7 news cycle, and the internet. Historians and biographers have and will point out mistakes made by her and her family negotiating the traditions of monarchy in such rapidly changing times. What stands out is that she learned and she lasted. Can any of us do more?

I’m reminded of her courage. She and her family could have fled to Canada during the war. Along with Churchill, they stayed and gave support to those who faced untold trials. She faced the dangers of public life, including at least two attempts on her life.

I think of her faith. Formally the Queen was ‘Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England’. I sensed there was more. She was not just a Christian monarch but a monarch who was an openly professing Christian. This was evident in her annual Christmas messages, that I made a point to listen to once they were on video. In 2000 she said:

“To many of us, our beliefs are of fundamental importance. For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life. I, like so many of you, have drawn great comfort in difficult times from Christ’s words and example.”

Yet she was never parochial or intolerant, practicing warm inter-faith relationships.

She combined representing the Kingdom and the Commonwealth with dignity with setting people at ease. When World War Two ended, she mingled unknown among the celebrating crowds. She could do that no longer once Queen but many pictures showing her setting people at ease, whether children, soldiers, ordinary people, or foreign dignitaries. And who of us will forget how she did this with Paddington Bear during her Platinum Jubilee.

Ma’amalade sandwich Your Majesty?

As an American citizen, she was not my Queen. And yet, in both her Jubilee and her passing, I believe in some sense she became the Queen of all of us and today I feel the loss that she is no longer with us, the first day this is so in my life. Her passing reminds me that all of us, even monarchs, are mere mortals. All of us run a race with a finish. The Queen ran hers to the end. Now, may she discover all that she in faith believed and defended. And may she Rest in Peace and Rise in Glory.

It’s Time For an Intelligent and Equitable Plan to Fund Post-Secondary Education

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I’m writing this on the day the President announced a plan to forgive $10,000 in Federal student debt for anyone earning less than $125,000 a year. My point in this article is not to debate this politically volatile proposal but rather to observe that it is symptomatic of our dysfunctional system of post-secondary education. This concerns all of us, no matter our party.

The United States has invested in public education in one form or another since before we were a country. The first public school was established in Boston, Massachusetts in 1635. Building on that precedent, Horace Mann, secretary of education for Massachusetts established publicly funded education throughout Massachusetts. The practice spread throughout the country during the 19th century, but the first real step toward equity in public education was the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act in 1965, which helped fund equal educational opportunity for all students.

There was a day when most jobs required little more than a high school diploma and this investment in public education provided the literacy and math skills as well as hands on skills that prepared graduates for most jobs and the growth of the U.S. from an agrarian to industrial society.

The G.I. Bill after World War Two led to an explosion in post-secondary education, with many veterans, who otherwise may have not had the chance. This, in turn led to a technological explosion in many fields and propelled the U.S. into space, helped create the computer revolution, advances in health care and life expectancy, and a variety of other societal advances.

The point is that investment in education is investment in the public, and not simply the private good. My basic contention is that we need to face the reality that a post-secondary degree or license in one of the various trades is the equivalent of a high school degree a century or even fifty years ago. And if you care about national greatness, this is a vital place to invest that will repay many times over the investment.

A few thoughts that likely will reveal my lack of expertise in public policy but that I think we all need to wrestle with:

  • Post-secondary is not just college. There is a huge need in the skilled trades which are requiring even more skills as we develop smart homes, buildings and vehicles. For many, training in these fields is a far better option than college and crucially needed. No call center in another country will help you solve a plumbing or HVAC problem. The push to get everyone to go to college is misguided. And we need to recognize the intelligence that supposedly “blue collar” jobs involve.
  • College costs do need to be addressed. Many of the increases in cost have come outside the classroom in terms of residence and recreation facilities. Some of these improvements are necessary, particularly in developing sustainable campuses, but few taxpayers want to invest in the costs of college not directly linked to education.
  • There needs to be equity in education investment, providing those with the least in resources the same opportunities for education. The celebrity admissions scandals reveal we are far away from equity.
  • Stringently regulate for-profit schools, who have accounted for significant student debt and typically have much lower graduation rates.
  • Investment in education should be coupled with some form of state residency and/or national service. Since public education depends on a combination of state and national funding, this makes sense. It may come in the form of an agreement to work in the trade or field one has prepared in for a period of years, where one may pay forward that investment in the services they provide and the taxes they pay.

I’ll stop here. If we truly are committed to national greatness and equal opportunity, it is time to figure out how to extend our model of public funding to post-secondary education.

A Fantasy Thought…

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I had a crazy fantasy thought the other night, in the wake of the latest mass shooting incident in Highland Park. What if instead of trying to pass more gun safety legislation, we just banned men from purchasing or possessing guns?

I know there are all kinds of constitutional issues that make this utterly unworkable. But statistics suggest that if we could do this, mass shootings and gun violence would drop dramatically. Over 90 percent of mass shootings are committed by men, most with legally obtained weapons. Over 80 percent of all gun violence is committed by men. Men also make up 86 percent of all firearm deaths. Men own three times as many firearms as women. And 52 women a month die from gun violence at the hands of a male domestic partner. (Source: Men Against Gun Violence)

A question I wrestle with as another man against gun violence is why gender is such a major factor in gun violence. In all the back and forth about gun violence, I hear very little discussion about why men are so drawn to gun ownership and far more prone to resort to gun violence, including mass shootings. [It does need to be acknowledged that there are many responsible gun owners but I also think even responsible, law-abiding gun owners need to examine the psychology of their gun ownership and what kind of person they become as they make this choice. I cannot judge this choice for another, but suggest each needs to honestly judge his own choices in this regard.]

I don’t have answers to these questions. I have questions. I refuse to chalk it all up to testosterone. Why, particularly are so many men choosing to resolve a dispute, their road rage, or a nursed sense of anger with a gun? All of us get angry, but most of us learn to control and channel our angry impulses, precisely because we realize how destructive they may be. Yet it seems that an increasing number of men have discarded the restraints on anger that most of us practice. Why is that?

This seems an important matter wrestle with in our churches, our schools, and our community organizations. I also think the social isolation, and the distorted ways of thinking that arise, fed by “dark web” sites, are factors in mass shootings desperately needing to be recognized and understood and addressed.

At this point we are a society determined to maintain our “right” to own guns and the maintenance of this right means that nowhere is safe–our schools, our houses of worship, our groceries, our parks, our restaurants, our parades and public events, our shopping districts and malls, our neighborhoods and our homes. For those who argue that an armed presence, a police presence is what we need–all kinds of public safety forces were present at the parade in Highland Park. No doubt they saved lives in their rapid response but seven died and twenty or so were wounded by the 80 rounds fired in the brief period before the gunman needed to flee–some with devastating wounds that will take months or years to heal, if they ever fully do. This is the price of our freedom.

This is not the country I grew up in but it is the country we have become. Simone Weil contended that when we speak of rights, we need to speak first of obligations. It seems to me that our contemporary insistence on rights is devoid of the obligations that accompany any right. I wonder what our young men are learning about the obligations and responsibilities that come as they make the transition from boys to adult men. Are they learning only that no one should constrain their freedom, which the power of a gun makes more irresistible? Or are they learning that the exercise of our rights ought never impair the rights of others and especially the most vulnerable among us?

We cannot ban men from owning guns. But we can ask what kind of men we are raising our sons to become.

Could We Just Stop Using the Label “Pro-Life”?

Photo by Rene Asmussen on

I did not have a book ready for review today and so jotted down some of my own thoughts about the Texas school shooting and the claims of our politicians to be pro-life. If this is more controversial than you like, here’s your chance to take a pass.

The shootings at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas have reinforced my conviction that as a nation we have decided to sacrifice our children on an altar of guns. And it is not just Uvalde. There has been more than one mass shooting a day in the United States this year. We have more guns than people in this country. You cannot turn on the news in my city without reports of a shooting, often resulting in one or more deaths. Most of those both killing and dying are young.

And no neighborhood is safe. I thought I lived in a “safe” neighborhood until a woman was murdered in her front yard by a stalker. This was little more than a block away. I heard the shots and thought they were fireworks. Until I saw the news the next day. No place is truly safe when there are more guns than people and people seem angrier than ever. I’ve learned not to respond to aggressive drivers. They could be carrying. Some live with this all the time. I predict more of us will.

What is most disturbing in my state and many others is that the very people who have aggressively promoted pro-life measures are the same ones removing all the safeguards on gun ownership. We now have a permitless carry of concealed weapons law in our state but there has been no action on “red flag” laws that would allow a court ordered restriction of the access of someone with mental health issues to a gun–a measure the overwhelming majority of the American public favors. Such orders may be sought by family or law enforcement, require a court ruling and due process, and have limits protecting civil liberties. Yet even such measures do not impair law abiding citizens from buying any gun they want.

That is why I want politicians to stop using the label “pro-life.” Almost none that I know are consistently pro-life. They are only pro-life in the areas their base wants them to be pro-life. Which, from what I can see is “pro-fetus.” I wonder how much most of them really care for mothers and the life they are bearing. I say all this as someone who is pro-life in this sense.

What would it mean to be consistently pro-life?

  • Protecting the life of the unborn, unless this endangers the life of the mother.
  • Pro-life means access to all mothers to good pre-natal and post-natal care and affordable, quality daycare.
  • Pro-life means access to quality health care for all of our citizens, no matter your zip code or economic status. Good preventive care may actually save money as well as lives, especially for urban hospitals where the emergency room is the doctor’s office.
  • Pro-life means addressing issues of mental health. Often, mental health is something discussed by those who oppose even sensible gun measures, but then nothing is done to provide good mental health care, especially for those whose conditions might lead them to harm themselves or others.
  • Pro-life cares about our addiction crisis. Over 100,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the US in the period ending in April 2021.
  • Pro-life cares about elder care. The warehousing of the elderly and the high numbers of COVID deaths early on in the pandemic in congregate care settings points up the lack in our care for our elder population.
  • Pro-life cares about the world we live in, the air, the water, and the climate. In some parts of the world, extended droughts threaten life as do prolonged high temperatures.
  • And pro-life is committed to substantive measures to reduce gun violence. As long as guns are ubiquitous, so will be gun violence. Pro-life asks, “why do we want guns?” Certainly there are legitimate reasons, but I believe that when many buy a gun, they make an implicit decision that they are willing to take a life. Sadly, most often, it will be the life of someone they know, or even their own life. Guns turn a momentary angry or self-destructive impulse into a fatal act.

I know few politicians who affirm a consistent pro-life ethic covering all of life for all people, no matter their status. So I wish they would stop saying they are pro-life because in my ears it is a hypocritical statement. At the same time, the politicians we elect reflect the people who elect them. For most of us, we cannot claim to be consistently pro-life either. We are selectively pro-life. We are not terribly disturbed that people in another zip code in our city have a much lower life expectancy, just because of where they live, or that some small island nations may have to find another place to live because their homes may be submerged.

Maybe as a country, we need to face that we have embraced a culture of death. We celebrate it in our videogames, television, and movies. We seem relatively indifferent to the 100,000 drug deaths or a million COVID deaths or the gun violence occurring every day in any major city. It makes me wonder how quickly we will forget the 19 beautiful children and two dedicated teachers who died in Uvalde. Already, those who died at the Topp’s grocery store in Buffalo are fading from view. Equally, we are indifferent to the nearly 42 million abortions in the U.S. between 1973 and 2019.

Little wonder we do not have consistently pro-life politicians. They are simply a mirror reflection of the people who have elected them. They are a reflection of us. Let’s stop pretending.