Thursday, November 30, 2006

World AIDS Day

Support World AIDS Day

December 1st is World AIDS Day.

I'm cranky about all the days. I remember as a kid being interested by church calenders where almost every day was a Saints day. Something that might be said of Christianity is how much graphic violence is contained in the collective memory. The calender of Saints Days is a rather lurid list of gruesome ways of death.

In Sunday School we very often sang I Sing a Song of the Saints of God. I think the money line is:
they were all of them saints of God, and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.
Perhaps it was simply my own morbid personality, but the line that always caught my childish attention was:
and one was slain by a fierce wild beast
And maybe it was the fact of singing this hymn so close to Sunday dinner that being a "saint of God" and a "big roast beef" are pressed together in my mind.

There is so much suffering in the world. That much is as true as it ever was. Yet there is great splendor in being alive and that, I suspect, is as true as it ever was. Looking back from my decidedly un-churched present, I Sing a Song of the Saints of God seems a rather good choice of hymns for children to sing. It doesn't spare them the suffering in life, but encourages them to imagine their lives as significant.

Tomorrow I will be attending a fund raiser at the Brew Haus at the Iron City Brewery for The Africa Project. I'll wear a red ribbon. I'll wear a ribbon to remember all those suffering because of AIDS and I'll wear a ribbon to remind me to try to do something to solve and ameliorate this crisis.

I'm old enough to remember when we first began hearing about AIDS. I have not always been brave about talking about it. In the mid 1980's I went back to school to finish my college degree, having flunked out the first go at university education. I had to present a speech in one of my classes and chose to speak about the importance to public health of confidential HIV screening.

In between my flunking out of college and my return I had tried to renovate a house in a very poor community. I had lots of ideas about energy efficiency and romantic notions fueled by a Whole Earth Catalog aesthetic. I was "run out of town on a rail." To this day I don't really understand the dynamics of it all. I was never physically injured, but there was quite a little violence directed towards me by way of property theft and destruction. One evening sleeping in my bedroom some sort of explosive was thrown on my porch blowing out all the windows in my bedroom. Harassment centering around the taunt "Hey, gay John" was more or less continuous. That's only part of the story because in so many ways my relationships with my neighbors and the people in the community were very warm and cordial. More than anything, I suspect it was my earnestness which made me a laughingstock. And in truth I look back at those days with some amusement.

However, giving my speech to the Public Speaking class, my face was red and sweat poured down my brow. I injected nothing personal into the speech. I did not tell them that much of what I knew about AIDS came from giving blood and fluid samples as well as all sorts of other tests twice a year at the Pitt Men's Study. The study is still ongoing as part of the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study. I gave my speech and was graded well, but in hindsight what I remember most about it is how weak my knees were.

A very big obstacle in the way of confronting the challenges of AIDS is shame.

We are social creatures, so ostracism is rather universally feared. When ends are used to justify means it always seems to lead to trouble. There's no doubt that avoiding shame is a very powerful motivator, but attempts to control people with shame are fraught with danger. My sister would sometimes taunt me as a child telling me that I really wasn't part of the family, but rather delivered by aliens with a stern warning they had to keep me. Power over others is somehow delicious. About those who seek to defend all that's good, right and proper through shaming others, one is often left wondering whether they themselves have any shame at all.

Standing up to bullies is very hard. It's not because bullies tend to have lots of allies, nobody really likes a bully. But bullies use as their shield and weapon norms and mores which nobody really wants to challenge. But when challenged bullies often do step down with less resistance than expected; probably because bullies know as well as the rest of us they're not really liked.

There is a saying about courage: "Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to act despite fear." which I can't seem to find a reference for whom originally said it. A similar quotation is credited to Ambrose Hollingworth Redmoon who is remembered by some of us Americans "of a certain age" as the manager of a psychedelic rock band, Quicksilver Messenger Service. Redmoon was paralyzed in an automobile accident in 1966. He was a writer, but not much of his writing was ever published. In a 1991 issue of the magazine Gnosis an essay, No Peaceful Warriors, he wrote:
"Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than one's fear. The timid presume it is lack of fear that allows the brave to act when the timid do not. But to take action when one is not afraid is easy. To refrain when afraid is also easy. To take action regardless of fear is brave."
Observing World AIDS Day requires the courage to believe that the lives of our fellow humankind are valuable and the bravery to take action on behalf of people who live in shame because of AIDS. World AIDS Day is not an obligation rather an invitation to be brave. I think it's very much like the hymn of my childhood; where despite "fierce wild beasts" a'slaying, saints are portrayed as a joyous lot. It's in that sense I wish you a merry World AIDS Day.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Create Hats

Created by Daisuke Yamamoto

I'm always full of ideas, but rather consistently fall down in the execution of them; oh most of the time too lazy to try. Creativity requires both imagination and perspiration. Often it seems some people are willing to exert the effort, but worry too much about getting the ideas straight; rather the opposite to my temperament. Either way we all forget too often what fun it is to make things creatively. This beautiful Youtube video and the others of RinpaEshidan capture some of the joy in creating: mashing up ideas and something physical.

Recently I joined It's a wiki and platform for people to come together to do something good. It is a welcoming community, but the space is a bit difficult to navigate around. In late October an opportunity for nine $5000 grants was announced. Teams collaborated to create proposals in funding areas. The team I followed most closely was the Attacking Water-Borne Diarrheal Illnesses (WDI) Proposal. The group effort was so great to watch and I learned a lot about making proposals and about the problem of water-borne illnesses, the #2 killer.

Alas, the proposals were voted on and the WDI proposal was eliminated from consideration. Ah, but reprieve: the Omidyar Network announced matching funds for the eliminated proposals during the month of December. By this time, I was ready to jump in and participate. But I hate fund raising, it always seems to remind me that I don't have any money. Still wanting very much to participate and to help the wonderful organizations the WDI team identified as deserving for funding, I dusted off my party hats idea. Yes, that's right and you can find out more at my new blog; Hats for Health.

I'm such a sucker for attention, that the barest encouragement is enough to move my lazy bones. One of the participants of the WDI team wrote:
Roll on the day when the paper hat is associated as much in the public mind with the elimination of WDI, as a red ribbon is with the elimination of AIDS or a white wristband with the elimination of world poverty!
Whoo hoo! Roll on! Clearly it's going to take a lot more people making hats.

I've got a box of hats I made earlier in the year. Something a little disturbing is the YES!Paste, I thought was the greatest thing since sliced bread, has hardened like a rock making the hats brittle and fragile. I better re-think using it so much. White glue at least for some parts of the hats is probably a better choice.

I have been enjoying surfing around for paper hats. Something that's surprised me about it is that "paper hats" seems a term like "stop smoking" for attracting traffic to sites that have nothing to do with hats. Yes there was a warning page about "explicit content" but I was curious just what kind of explicit content about paper hats would be about. Shocking! But nothing to do with hats. Hats are a great expression of human ingenuity and I've found so many interesting sites. Jeremy Weate of Naijablog posted about the Abuja Carnival and his Flickr photo set is really worth a look for the hats and costumes.

Steve Ntwiga Mugiri posts on John C. Dvorak taking a pot shot at the OLPC $100 laptop. Dvorak calls the OLPC "a dangerous distraction" a point Steve generally agrees even while distancing himself from Dvorak. Oh yes, there a kernel of truth to "dangerous distractions" and I see it raised often in discussions about trying to solve the world's problems. In a forum of very earnest people recently one poster railed against reading fiction believing facts in too short supply. I don't think that way and a part of the reason is its very difficult to predict just what's going to be useful down the line.

In any case paper party hats are criticized as frivolous. Parties are important. They are times when we come together as a community. Having fun encourages an atmosphere of cooperation and a sense of possibility. It's very discouraging to know about suffering in the world, but not to imagine any way to ameliorate it. A paper party hat isn't worth very much money, they don't cost much to make, but they are worth a little money. Making paper party hats is a way to encourage people to consider human problems and to act in a small, but significant way, to solve them.

The intention of Hats for Health is to encourage people to help raise some money in December for matching grants to the good organizations working on water and water-borne diarrheal illnesses. You may find Hats for Health a little amusing, and perhaps even encourage you to make paper hats for other worthwhile efforts. The Flickr Party Hat Group Pool is still up and ready for your photos of party hats, paper and otherwise.

Please visit Hats For Health.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Money; It's a Drag

King Tubby

I've got a title and picture that don't really match what I've got in mind. Foolishness, but one way or another I'll try to fit them with the rest of the post.

There are clearly down sides to being foolish as I am, but there must also be some up sides; or why else would I persist? The short answer is "crazy," but that doesn't quite get to the "why."

For whatever reasons I end up chatting on Instant Messaging with African people. Not so much, but enough that I can see a pattern of flimflam in some of the chats.

Amongst my foolish habits is I read palms. People who know me know that I'm so lazy that my disclaimer with every palm-reading session: "I don't know one wit about reading palms." is easily believed. It's rather uncanny, however, people still seem to think there's something to my readings. "Oh my Gawd! How did you know?

There's a little of what makes the flimflam work at play:
The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence. --Thomas Wolfe
Most of us do feel lonely and want very much not to feel so lonely. So the appeal for money in flimflam IMs and emails follows along the lines: together we won't feel so lonely. In essence what I read in palms is an acknowledgment of a person's loneliness and then an expression that they won't be alone. Buba at Cunninglinguistically Yours --my favorite blog name evah!--shared a missive of the sort I'm referring.

A recent chat devolved into my interlocutor cursing me out. I don't have money to send so I tend to try to steer such conversations elsewhere. But I'm a bit of a dolt when it comes to reading between the lines, and perhaps it was simply my being dense which set him off. I asked him why the insults and he answered to the effect: "Because you've got the money and won't share it."

I'm very much in favor of the approach of people like me taking a focused and modest approach to seeking solutions for African problems described by Robert Rodale in his book Save Three Lives.

I'm also reminded of a story I read about a mother of a three-year old adopted daughter from Africa. The girl had seen some coverage of crisis in Africa--perhaps and image like this one--and Mother was trying to quiet her daughter's fears. She told her girl that even when they might be apart the girl could call her. The girl protested about children in trouble, "But what if their mommies can't find a phone?" I'm afraid I've butchered the story, still even to a child in a nice middle class house in America it's plain that the problems people face are real and big.

There are at least two sorts of fears people encounter when they think about a "Save Three Lives" approach: The first "What if I'm conned?" The second "What if I'm forced to confront suffering I'd prefer not to?"

After that guy cursed me out in chat, I wondered how much money sails across oceans in search of romance and to fill the void of lonesomeness. I also puzzled over not really making a clear judgment about the good and bad of it. Last year about this time "I Go Chop Your Dollar" was a popular song on the Nigerian airwaves referring to 419 scams. There's a video up at YouTube which is worth watching if you've got the time. The Riverside Rugby Blog provides a helpful translation of the pidgin Nigerian English. The sentiments expressed in the song aren't hard to understand.

One of my other interlocutors finally and with good-nature has accepted that I'm not going to send money. I was telling him there might be better ways to make some money using the Internet and suggested blogging. I suggest blogging to everyone and just about no one takes note. He told me that the Blogger Web site wouldn't load for him. That set me off looking for other Ghana Blogs to see if any used Blogger. There are some and I discovered a new cool blog, Buchele Ghana Adventure.
An Ashesi Lecturer and an international man of leisure spend a year in Ghana, West Africa
Lovely, the blog is a family affair. First of all it's worth saying a word or two about Ashesi University. Patrick Awuah left Ghana in 1985 to attend Swathmore College. After graduation he worked as an engineer at Microsoft. Awuah enrolled at UC Berkley's Haas School of Business to explore founding and managing a university in Ghana. In collaboration with Swathmore, UC Berkley and University of Washington, Ashesi University opened its doors in a suburb of Accra in 2002.

I was just looking for Ghana blogs, but in one of the posts I found an insight into money that I hadn't expected. Steve, international man of leisure, has been blogging about a trip with Emmanuel, the family's day guard's family home. The three posts about the trip are delightful travel writing. Americans can be ugly, but we're not without our charms. Steve's observations about Emmanuel's approach to money are intriguing and he concludes:
They say that one of the differences between the Western World and Africa is how westerners will let money ruin friendships. The joke in the West is if you want to lose a friend, just loan them money. That would never happen here. Money is treated like a community resource, maybe like water from a well. A neighbor asks for some water, and of course you would share, so it is when friends/family/neighbors ask for money, if you have any, it is theirs for the asking.
That makes sense to me. Certainly I don't think people should fall prey to cons. But I think the worries about them are over-blown. The real issue is that we shouldn't imagine crossing cultural differences is a simple matter. Instead rather and adventure based in dialog.

Confronting suffering is not easy. The idea of being involved in the lives of real people to solve problems people face in practice one becomes quickly aware of the magnitude of the problems facing real people. That presents quite a dilemma: To know and do nothing; or to know and try to do something? It's painful either way as far as I can see. But to be moved into action seems quite a reasonable response.

It's not so easy to move a lazy man. And money, it's a drag. I find it really hard to motivate myself towards fund raising. Oh well, I have to try, I guess. Which brings me to the great King Tubby. He was a Jamaican electronics and sound engineer and a genuine original. Without King Tubby modern dance music wouldn't be; without King Tubby no Dub.

I love the picture because of his crown. I can't seem to get the idea of fund raising with paper party hats off my mind and off the ground. But I'm going to try once again, Paper Party Hats 2.0. The coming holidays seem an auspicious time for a launch. Watch out for Paper Party Hats redux.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Social Web

Picture from Yulis Room

It appears that Blogger liked my last post so much it posted it twice. I'm not sure why that happened, or how to delete the extra post because the extra post doesn't exist at my Blogger Dashboard. Perhaps it's a happy accident and those readers in the Pittsburgh area will see it and doubly consider attending. Tickets will not be sold at the door, so you have to plan a little in advance. More information at The Africa Project or contact me.

I love the picture taken from a Japanese blog, it depicts The Fool of the Tarot. I so often feel a fool. I feel a bit foolish for neglecting this blog. I handle that feeling with equanimity because I'm used to not doing stuff. But I'm less calm when it comes to feeling foolish about the optimism I have about the potential good that can come from social interaction on the Web.

Over the weekend I visited good friends for dinner. One of my dear friends, who is one of the kindest and most creative persons I know, has just gotten a computer. She had a Windows 95 machine she hardly used, and did her dissertation on a similar vintage machine. She has also had put to infrequent use her husband's Windows 98 machine on dial-up, but has never really explored the Internet. My friend was a classroom teacher for many years and in her work as a psychologist has created many valuable lesson plans for use in educational settings. Her knowledge and skills and a dozen or so projects we've talked about has made me pester her to get a computer and to get online.

Her husband, and my good friend, presented her with a gift of a new laptop computer. I'm delighted and excited at the prospect that we will find ways to collaborate together online. However, my effusiveness about the social nature of the Web prompted my friend's husband to exclaim:
You're freaking me out!
I knew he was quite sincere about his disquiet, alas, my attempts to assuage his concerns only made matters worse. He pointed to the use of Internet handles and anonymous posts and I cited some examples of times that it's appropriate to post anonymously. Each attempt to make him feel less anxious about the Internet only seemed to make him feel more so.

I enjoy very much the social Web. At a social networking site and online community where I participate, it's not too unusual for someone to link to one of the many "personality tests" online. Recently I linked to the Greek Mythology Personality Test. The results of my test was that I'm most like Dionysus. I'm not sure how valid or reliable any of these tests are, but I often noticed they peg my faults to a tee. Sure there's much good about a Dionysian view of things, but my thin veneer of self-image reveals patterns of Apollonian order and reason. It's disconcerting that my ecstatic disorder--will that make the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders?--shows through. Being most like Dionysus makes me feel a little foolish. I did find a neat page to print out a Bible tract-like pamphlet Have You Heard The Good News...About Dionysus?

Yep, the Internet unruly, and my talking so ecstatically about it gave my friend the willies. And that seems to be a not too uncommon reaction. One of my friends recently said something like: "It's time to shut the Internet down!" My retort was that I like the Internet and spend a lot of time online, but only seems evidence of how sinister the Internet must be.

Recently, a very delightful young man from Ghana initiated a conversation online. I chuckled the next time we chatted when he asked if I would write to his school. It seems that I've been the subject of conversation. I told my contact I wasn't sure what to write, but would write something and and send it to him so he could tell me if what I wrote was appropriate. I wrote about wikis. Today I set up a wiki which I hope my contact and his school mates will use. I haven't heard back yet, and I'm not sure at all wikis are the sort of thing they'll find useful. But the students are online and are anxious to make connections with the wider world and all the knowledge they are trying so hard to piece together.

Emeka Okafor posted about Founder of, Derrick N Ashong knows that empowerment comes from knowing ones own worth, and that goes for an individual as well as society. Young college students the world over have a sense of their potential. I suppose I am flattered that a young Ghanaian would seek me out and think that I had something to offer. To repay the compliment what more could I do than to tell him to let his light shine? At least that's my intention in bringing wikis to his attention. I believe the new communications tools aid tremendously to our ability to create something good. I believe too that most of us want very much to create goodness.

Ah yes, seeing as how I most resemble Dionysus or The Tarot Fool, I'm well aware of the mischief people pursue online. But the Internet as a social Web doesn't seem so frightening to me as it seems to so many of my friends. The Greeks knew that Apollo and Dionysus are brothers, their qualities are complimentary. My more orderly friends who now shun the Internet are needed here. "The more the merrier" is what I say.

Update: My double post has disappeared.

Africa Project at Brew Haus

The Africa Project is hosting a benefit dinner on Friday, December 1, 2006 from 6:00PM to 10:00pm at the Iron City Brew Haus, located at 3440 Liberty Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15201. Proceeds will benefit our projects to implement and support income-generating projects, education and health for former child soldiers and refugees in northern Uganda. We will be providing African entertainment; African cuisine, complimentary drinks (courtesy of Iron City Brew) as well as screening a short documentary from video footage collected this summer by our volunteers in Gulu, Uganda. Tickets are limited and must be purchased in advanced. Ticket cost $15 (students), $20 (regular) and $180 (for a table of 10 people). No tickets will be sold at the door. Call (412) 657-8513 or visit Africa Project Please, save the date and pass along the message.