Thoughts From Attending My 50th Class Reunion at MIT

Forgive me for straying from my usual topic of real estate — I took some time off with Rita to attend my 50th reunion at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last week, and I was super-inspired by the experience of returning to the Institute for what was more than just a party. It was an immersion  into the continuing impact that MIT is having on the world of science and technology.

Reunions at MIT are probably unlike those at any other college or university. Yes, there is partying, but roughly half the events were educational in nature, updating alums on current research regarding important topics of the day. This year the dominant topic was climate change — something I wrote about, quite coincidentally, in last week’s column.

Not only was climate change the subject of Michael Bloomberg’s commencement address (there’s a video link for it at http://news.mit.edu), but the 3-hour Technology Day symposium the following morning was all about climate change. The 1,200-seat auditorium was filled to capacity with alumni eager to be updated on MIT research about this important topic, and they were fully engaged to the very end.

Technology Day at MIT – click here for archived 3-hour video.

When I attended MIT 50 years ago, undergraduate men vastly outnumbered the undergraduate women, who barely filled the one dormitory provided for them.  Over the past 20 years, women have risen to comprise 46% of the undergraduate student body and 35% of the graduate student body, spanning every academic discipline. This gender equity was evident in Saturday’s symposium, too. Four of the six presenters, including the moderator, were women.

In his commencement address, the former NYC mayor observed that the technology for successfully addressing climate change is largely in place (except for bringing it to scale), and challenged graduates to go out into the world not just to expand upon it, but to build the political will to deploy it. I was reminded of that statement the following day while attending a Class of ’69 discussion about anti-Vietnam war activism at MIT during our time on campus. During the Q&A, a fellow ’69 alum said he had interviewed several undergraduates about political activism, which is not currently evident on campus. The impression he got is that the students are all “heads down,” concentrating on solving the world’s problems — such as climate change — undistracted by the politics that excite and divide those of us beyond the walls of academia.  Reflecting on that analysis, as someone who was very active politically as a 1960s undergrad and is still active now, I suspect it’s because nowadays, unlike in the 1960s, the Institute and its students are on the same page about such issues, sharing the same commitment to addressing commonly accepted world problems.

(In the unlikely event that President Trump were to stage a campaign rally in the Boston area, I get the impression there would be a sudden upwelling of activism at all local universities, including MIT, but the MIT activists would be focusing their vitrol on the President’s denial of climate change.)

Climate change, of course, is only one of the “world’s great challenges” which MIT is committed in its mission statement to addressing through academic research. We learned in Saturday’s symposium about ground breaking research on mass storage battery systems and alternatives to blast furnaces for creating steel. Those inventions likewise contribute in a big way to sustaining the livability of our planet.

A deceased member of the class of ’69, Bob Swanson, who cofounded Genentech, is generally credited with creating the biotech industry. Scores of biotech businesses now populate the high rises on Kendall Square, adjacent to the MIT campus. A tribute to his accomplishments during one of the luncheons was most inspiring.

It was hard not to come away from the reunion weekend without a deep appreciation of what MIT and its graduates can and are accomplishing in addressing the planet’s most important challenges.  I consider myself very fortunate to be among those who were given the privilege of being immersed in that environment for four or more years, however long ago.

A videographer asked members of my class what their biggest learning was from MIT.  My answer to that question referenced the chemical process of osmosis, a secondary definition of which, according to Google is, “the process of gradual or unconscious assimilation of ideas, knowledge, etc.” Just being in that environment amidst the faculty, administration and fellow students was its own education through osmosis. This may be hard to understand if you weren’t there, but my classmates would probably all nod in agreement.

I return from my reunion, renewed in my appreciation of science and technology and of all that my alma mater contributes to their positive application to society.

PS: I was honored when MIT chose to feature me in a pre-reunion “Slice of MIT” blog post, focusing on what I have done to transition Golden Real Estate’s office to “net zero energy.” Here’s a link to that blog post.

Climate Change, Our Planet’s Most Pressing Issue

Colorado has been blessed with probably the least impact of climate change, but eventually it will catch up with us.  Meanwhile, we watch, stunned, not only by the tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires and flooding in other sections of the country, but also by the failure of the major networks to mention climate change as the culprit and to point out that it will only get worse over time.

Over 5 years ago, in 2014, the headline on my column was “We May Have Already Passed the Tipping Point on Climate Change.”  Here is what I wrote back then:

Each January, political leaders shower us with speeches on the State of the Union, the State, the City and other jurisdictions.  No one presents a State of the Planet speech, but if someone did, I suspect climate change would be topic #1 — and for good reason.

My friend and mentor, Steve Stevens, sent me a chart (below) showing the decline in late summer Arctic sea ice. It’s a wake-up call regarding climate change.

I don’t have a degree in science, but I do understand science enough to know this chart’s significance.

If you studied any science — or own an automobile — you know that white surfaces reflect solar heat, whereas dark surfaces (open ocean, for example) absorb it. The loss of sea ice does not just indicate global warming, it accelerates it, which makes one worry whether it’s already too late to reverse the effects of human-caused global warming.

Climate change deniers may celebrate the fact that the Arctic Ocean is becoming increasingly navigable in the summer, but they need to connect the dots between global warming and the whipsawing we now see in our day-to-day weather. 

I’d be curious to see the statistics on how many times the network news programs featured severe weather reports in 2013 versus previous years.  I can’t remember an evening in which weather wasn’t a major or lead story.

Our earth’s climate has been de-stabilized. Had you heard of the polar vortex before this year?  I hadn’t.  The uninformed will say that our cold weather proves that the earth is not warming, but how naïve is that?  It’s global warming that is causing extremes, both of temperature and precipitation — which is caused by warming. I don’t hear them questioning El Nino, in which natural changes in ocean temperature affect climate.

Is there time to reverse this situation?  Maybe not. But we certainly don’t have time to debate its existence with climate change deniers.

[End of my 2014 column]

Night after night, we see news reports of unprecedented severe weather around the country, but rarely is the connection to climate change mentioned. Our president’s failure to address climate change may be part of his legacy.

Do You Practice Sustainability? Home Renovation Can Be Done Sustainably, Too

Tonight is the fifth in Golden Real Estate’s Sustainability Series. Previous sessions were about home insulation (January), home heating technology (February), solar power (March), and electric cars (April).

This month, the topic is sustainable renovation. Our presenter is an expert in sustainable practices when it comes to home renovation.  His name is Steve Stevens, and he has been my mentor regarding sustainable practices for nearly two decades.

A retired scientist from Bell Labs, Steve has made a lifelong project, it seems, out of reducing the carbon footprint of his 1970s brick ranch in South Golden.

Retired and living on a fixed income, he has developed several habits/practices that are not only sustainable but also have saved him a boatload of money.

For example, he only buys cull lumber from Lowe’s, and he buys returned products (typically mis-ordered) such as windows  and doors, which are then sold for a fraction of their original price.

Steve also seeks out salvaged goods such as windows and doors. As with buying cull lumber and returned products, collecting salvaged products means zero new carbon footprint for doing your renovation. 

Steve, being a scientist by training and passion, always considers the embedded carbon footprint of products, whether it’s food or building materials. How much energy is used to transport the goods you purchase?  For example, are you buying slab granite mined and shipped from Asia, or an alternative material mined or created closer to home?

Steve will share his shopping and construction tips that save money and are also sustainable.

For example, he emphasizes insulation, which should always be your first measure when it comes to saving energy. But what products should you buy, and where should you start?

The session will be held tonight, May 16th, from 5 to 6 pm in the Golden Real Estate office at 17695 S. Golden Road, Golden. There are still seats available. Reserve yours by emailing me at Jim@Golden RealEstate.com

Each of our sessions is video recorded by our friend, Martin Voelker, from the Colorado Renewal Energy Society.  You can watch videos of the first four sessions at Sustain-abilitySeries.info.  This session will also be recorded and posted there.

I Love to Write About Real Estate, But This Week It’s Personal

By JIM SMITH, Citizen

I’m writing this week’s column from the woods near Kalispell, Montana, where we are visiting Rita’s sister and her husband. Although I usually write about real estate, that topic is not top of mind for me this week. Instead, I’m going to write about what’s really top of mind for me these days — Donald Trump and the decline and fall of the America in which Rita and I grew up.

I’m paying for this ad space personally. That’s why I removed all branding in the printed versions.  The opinions I express herein are not those of the brokerage I own and manage.  None of my broker associates were consulted about its content and I know that at least one would disagree with what I write below.

What’s really on my mind as Rita and I take this 10-day road trip to Boise, Seattle and now Kalispell, listening to the national news and conversing with friends and relatives, is the sad state of our republic.

Since I am also writing this on Father’s Day, I’m also thinking about my late father, Abbott Smith, an old-school proper New Englander to whom integrity was everything. I can still hear Dad saying, “Just because other people steal apples doesn’t make it right for you to steal apples.”  I got my values from him.

Dad would be appalled that we have a president who, under the tutelage of his one-time lawyer, Roy Cohn, practices the principle that if you tell a lie long enough people will believe it. Also, that you should never admit you’re wrong. (Google the two names together or click here to learn about Cohn’s influence on Trump.)

Rita and I left on our vacation about the time that President Trump negotiated with his “new friend” Kim Jung Un after insulting his fellow G-7 leaders, including the prime minister of our country’s strongest ally and trading partner, Canada.

It was clear to me years ago that Donald Trump is a narcissist and bully, whose only interest is self aggrandizement and self promotion, even when it violates the emoluments provision of our Constitution. My lifelong Republican father would be turning over in his grave if he knew not only what Donald Trump is doing and saying but, worse, how the elected members of the “Grand Old Party” — most of whom at one time proclaimed “Never Trump!” (Google that phrase or click here to read the very long list) — have snapped into line with Trump because they think that’s how they can maintain what’s most important to them — their re-election.

How much further down this road must America go? The President, who says that military exercises with South Korea were “costing us a fortune,” ordered a military parade that will cost millions of taxpayer dollars that would be better spent on almost anything else. He was inspired by a parade in France, but such parades are really the trademark of Russia, China, North Korea and other dictatorships.  What’s next?  Oversized wall-mounted portraits of him in Washington DC?

Rotary’s “4-Way Test”

Every Tuesday we begin our breakfast meeting at the Rotary Club of Golden by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by Rotary’s 4-Way Test. I can’t picture this president beginning cabinet meetings with this declaration of “the things we think, say or do”:

  • First, Is It the Truth?
  • Second, Is It Fair to All Concerned?
  • Third, Will It Build Goodwill and Better Friendships?
  • Fourth, Will It Be Beneficial to All Concerned?

 Try applying that test to such Trump policies as separating immigrant children from their parents, while falsely claiming the Democrats made him do it.   Or how about denying climate change and removing all use of that phrase from EPA documents on the subject? What about imposing tariffs on our closest trading partners, while claiming falsely that trade wars are “good” and “easy to win”?  It’s hard to think of any Trump policy for which any one of those four questions could be answered in the affirmative.

Well-intended policies often need to be reversed, but Trump, as taught by Roy Cohn, will never admit he’s wrong, so he allows bad policies to stay in place when they shouldn’t, just to avoid admitting a mistake.  That’s why he insists on keeping nonsensical campaign promises he made — such as bringing back coal, quitting the Paris Climate Accords, quitting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, exiting the Iran agreement, or abandoning NAFTA, among others.  (The list is pretty long!)

As offended as we have been by so many of this president’s words and deeds, we’re also saddened by the lack of an articulate opposition by both Democrats and those once-moderate never-Trump Republicans.

Also, as a professional journalist, I am saddened by the attacks on the mainstream media as the “enemy of the people” (a Stalinist term) and by the use of the phrase “fake news” to dismiss honest journalistic coverage. The complicity of Fox News in this process is disappointing to anyone who knows and appreciates real journalism.

So what can be done about this situation?  Below are two “modest proposals” that I’d like to advance.

A Couple Modest Proposals for Saving America

It’s easy to criticize President Trump and where he is leading us, but where are the proposals to remedy this situation? Here are mine.

The first is for the Democratic Party to create what the British Parliament has long had and which I learned about in the 7th and 8th grades — a “Shadow Cabinet.”  

Wikipedia describes this pillar of British government as follows:

The Shadow Cabinet is a feature of the Westminster system of government. It consists of a senior group of opposition spokespeople who, under the leadership of the Leader of the Opposition, form an alternative cabinet to that of the government, and whose members shadow or mirror the positions of each individual member of the Cabinet. It is the Shadow Cabinet’s responsibility to scrutinize the policies and actions of the government, as well to offer an alternative program.

In most countries, a member of the shadow cabinet is referred to as a Shadow Minister. In Canada, however, the term Opposition Critic is more common. In the United Kingdom’s House of Lords and in New Zealand, the term “spokesperson” is used instead of “shadow.”

I propose that the minority party (currently the Democratic Party) designate political leaders to serve as Shadow Secretaries for each Cabinet department.  (How cool would it be if they recited the 4-Way Test when they meet as a group?)  The Shadow EPA administrator could focus his or her attention on the unreported activities and pronouncements of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. The Shadow Secretary of Energy could monitor the actions and pronouncements of Secretary Rick Perry, and the Shadow Attorney General could do the same regarding Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And so forth for every other Cabinet member. Their press conferences would be covered, including by Fox News, and provide information which is currently only being provided by investigative reporters who are readily dismissed by the president as “fake news.”  Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi simply cannot provide this service or play this role. Good candidates for a current Shadow Cabinet would be former heads or deputies of those cabinet departments.

I wish the Republicans had had a Shadow Cabinet during the Obama administration for the same reasons.  All sides would benefit from the perspective provided by a Shadow Cabinet.  It would serve to keep the “real” Cabinet and the President honest.  The worst part of the current situation is how easily the President can dismiss investigative reporting that is critical of his administration. If, instead, the reporters were covering the informed statements of department experts, it wouldn’t be as convincing when that coverage is labeled “fake news.” 

My second proposal is that some newsworthy opponent of the current president (likely a Democrat) announce his or her candidacy for President now instead of next year. Doing so not only provides a mechanism for fundraising (which is working well for Trump), but it also makes it possible to have full-fledged rallies (also working well for Trump) that would garner coverage by all the media, providing yet another avenue for turning the mainstream media  into reporters covering newsmakers critical of the Trump administration instead of providing the analysis themselves, which has only made them vulnerable to charges of partisanship (aka “fake news”).

Lastly, I want to reiterate that these are my personal remarks and not those of my real estate brokerage or its broker associates. I’m not worried that speaking out on this subject will hurt my brokerage or me financially, but if it does, I am willing to pay that price, and I will understand if an agent wants to disassociate him or herself from what I have written and leave our brokerage. Our democracy, our country, our future as a nation are too important for me to remain silent any longer about this president, his denial of climate change, his assault on the free press, and his total disregard for telling the truth.