Friday, December 22, 2006

Five Strange Things

I can't seem to escape this meme of five strange things about me. White African tagged me. People are strange and I suspect I've got "strange" in spades, but for some reason am at a loss to figure out how to play this game.

Yesterday was my fifty-first birthday and a good friend was nice enough to have me and my father over for dinner with some friends. I was pleased to take some of my new hat designs to show them around.

Readers of this blog may recall that I think party hats are a good way to raise money. In my experiments with this hypothesis, the data just don't support it. Still I persist. Paper hats have a good thing going for them, they are very cheap to make and they seem to have some value.

In October I followed a proposal making process at where the Omidyar Foundation was making money available for five proposals generated by member-teams at The proposals were selected for funding by votes from members. I was particularly interested in the WDI--Attacking Water Borne Diarrheal Illnesses proposal. And it was a shock when the WDI proposal wasn't selected for funding. Of course all of the proposals were great, because in each target area the Omidyar member groups vetted and then selected non-profits in the field doing good work. The Omidyar Foundation was so impressed with the quality of the proposals that they have offered to match dollar for dollar donations to the organizations up to $12,500--that's up to $2500 for each of the five organizations identified in each of the target area proposals.

So out came my hats and my perseverating notion that paper party hats are a good way to raise money and awareness about good projects. Hats for Health is a little known and strange result. In the picture you can see a friend wearing one of my newspaper hats.

Okay, so having grandiose ideas that thousands of people will take up making paper party hats to raise money to combat water-borne diarrheal illness is just one strange fact about me.

In my last post, I complained that I had missed the point and started writing my mini-biography around five facts about me. Thinking the better of it I deleted most of the verbiage and simply listed the five things:
1. I'm a Southerner.
2. I used to be a charismatic Christian.
3. I flunked out of university.
4. I love Trudy.
5. I'm a mama's boy.
For today's post I'll copy in what I wrote for numbers 1-3. Surely there are more than five strange things about me in all of it.

I talk too much. If there are little-know facts about me they're probably little-known because I wore out people from talking too much.

1. I'm Southern. I was born in the mountains of Virginia. My parents were both born in Massachusetts and I was the only one of five children born below the Mason Dixon Line. As it turns out I don't think that's really a fact as three of the kids were born in Cumberland, Maryland but some arcane dispute was conjured up to suggest that the hospital where they were born was actually north of the Mason Dixon Line. There was no disputing that Virgina is most decidedly South, so I was often called their "Rebel child." Readers outside the USA might wonder why a line that established boundaries would be so important. I wondered the same all my life and it's drawn my attention to the ethos of America North and South.

2. I used to be a charismatic Christian. In 1964 our family moved to Greenville, South Carolina from Cumberland, Maryland. I was in fourth-grade. First thing, I got beat up for being a damnyankee. This Southern stuff was hard to figure. And you might note that 1964 places me in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. We moved there just before the signing of The Civil Rights Act of 1964. What it meant to be a Southerner was something I wanted to understand very much. A Change Is Gonna Come is a big part of what it means to me. Religiosity is another part of it. I went to an Episcopal school, Christ Church in Greenville. Religious education was one of the few subjects where I excelled.

Then for my ninth and tenth grades in school we moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where I attended public schools. Just in time for perhaps the most contentious school desegregation plan in the country. We moved in the summer of 1968. For the 1969-1970 school year Charlotte schools were under the new school busing orders and there were protests and security at my first year in senior high. Those years were also years of drugs and rock music. I had received a bit of marijuana, some bright pink rolling papers and a couple of hits of blotter LSD in the school cafeteria. On the bus I rode was a long-haired hippie, a Jesus Freak. The day I got my stash I sat next to him. Part of my being so receptive to his pitch was I was looking for a reason not to play with drugs.

I started going to religious services on Wednesday nights. They were far different from my relatively high-Church Episcopal background with frenzied prayers, fervent singing and speaking in tongues. In addition the meetings kept me out far too late on a school night.

3. I flunked out of college. We moved from Charlotte to Pittsburgh in the summer of 1970. We lived in the suburbs but could take the trolley into the city. It was wonderful for me and my brother to be able to enjoy the cultural institutions of an urban environment. In high school I continued carry my black Bible but my Humanities course introduced me to Western civilization, art, music and philosophy. And for whatever reasons I was able to read fiction really for the first time. I'm not sure but it was like a switch that got turned on; whereas before I had a hard time ever finishing a book I just couldn't seem to get enough. But when it came time to choose a college, I hadn't a clue. I was accepted at the University of Pittsburgh and began attending.

I was a poor student. I had a hard time concentrating. My religious devotion had taken a detour during my final two years of high school. There was nothing like the charismatic Full Gospel group like what I had been into in Charlotte. Plenty of very conservative Christian youth groups were around. And from participation in those groups I got an exposure to a more systematic theology. Pittsburgh was a much more culturally diverse setting too from my Southern background. I took Philosophy courses at attending Pitt. So towards the end of my first semester I had a "crisis of faith" and put my religious certainty in abeyance. Being easily distracted might not have been enough to make me fail in college, but by the second semester of my sophomore year I discovered "partying" and that was the death knell for my academic career.

I was, however very earnestly looking for answers. Five books I discovered in college were especially important to me in finding approaches to answers which made sense to me:

Values and Teaching by Louis E. Raths. This 1965 book is still available but isn't in print. The seven criteria of a value helped me to understand a process for valuing.

Steps to an ecology of Mind
by Gregory Bateson.

Design for the Real World by Victor Papanek.

The Oregon Experiment by Christopher Alexander, et al. I eagerly read other books by Alexander, but this was my first and it had a big impact on my thinking about how democracy could function and why democracy so often falls short as a result of structural assumptions.

The Whole Earth Epilog. I didn't find out about Bateson from the Whole Earth Epilog, nor really about Christopher Alexander but the Epilog helped me to make connections with other fields of study and cultural trends.

There were so many books, but these five were especially influential in finding a way to think about things. Very early on in my freshman year I read Chance and Necessity. I did so because a very conservative Christian author, Francis Shaffer railed against Monad's atheism. I suspect reading the book was a symptom and not a cause of my "crisis of faith." In a conservative Christian view the world was made by God. Shaffer wasn't having any part of Monad's evolutionary perspective where chance plays a crucial part. Reading Monad's book drew my attention to many areas where I was finding my narrow view of Christianity in conflict with the way things really are. Perhaps "context" is a common thread my pick of the five most important books for me in college and with that a change from imaging a universe created to imagine a universe in creation.

I truly doubt I know anyone, much less five bloggers, to take up this meme. Last post I did list five. For the heck of it I'll add Potash just because I think he could do something funny with this meme. I'll even write to him so he'll know he's been tagged. Let Them Talk is great new video blog featuring one of my best friends, Miss Joan Marie Moossy.

Have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Friday, December 15, 2006


Photo: Ajab's hard work by Ajab

I'm the sort of person who breaks chain letter chains with glee. Blog-tag seems something akin to chain letters. Having said that I was happily reading a post at Beth's Blog participating in this meme:
Publish five little known facts about yourself, and then tag five of your blogger pals to participate.
One of the delightful parts of reading blogs is finding out about people's lives. Young and old alike we're all trying to grapple with the permanent record our Web tracks leave. This piece about data mining and the WOT got me thinking about how tricky it is to make meaning out of lots of data. When bloggers write about things like being kept awake all night by a baby with an ear ache I suppose that doesn't really tell me much about them. But I find it so very meaningful simply to know they're real people like me. Oh, and I like gossip. So I was "happy as a clam at high tide" reading five little-known things about Beth Kanter until at the end of the post I saw my name, John Powers. My face turned beet red and I went directly to bed.

This doesn't count as one of my five things, but I discovered today that cabbage patches make me happy. Nathan sent a group of pictures from a program the BSLA is working on to help improve the incomes of widows caring for dependent children orphaned as a result of AIDS. The BSLA is providing training and inputs like improved seed varieties and fertilizer so the women can get more money from their gardens. One of the BSLA members, Ajab took the pictures and also included a few pictures of his cabbage patch. Seeing such a well-tended garden just made me feel good. I hope today's picture makes you feel good too.

I talk too much. If there are little-know facts about me they're probably little-known because I wore out people from talking too much. Good grief! Days after I started this post, that bit about talking too much has become absurdly obvious. I picked five "facts" about me and tried create a relevant narrative around them. The result was a mini-biography. I just deleted all of that.

Back to the drawing board. Already I've posted two little known facts: 1. Cabbage patches make me happy. 2. My name is John Powers.

On the latter many people have questioned what in the world I was thinking when I chose "Kaunda" as a screen-name. It was an accident. I had thought to post as Muzungu but someone is already blogging under that name at Blogger. I don't remember my second and third choices, but do remember scrambling to think of a name. At the time I was very hopeful that Yoweri Museveni would step down at the end of his constitutional limited term as president of Uganda. I saw a piece where Kenneth Kaunda urged Museveni to step down. Julius Nyerere had once given Kaunda similar advice. However much Nyerere's advice played into it, Kaunda did resign. So yes, in a way I was thinking of Kenneth Kaunda, but mostly was just looking for a name that hadn't been chosen yet.

Here are the five "facts" I chose and ended up bloviating about so much that it bored even me:

1. I'm a Southerner.
2. I used to be a charismatic Christian.
3. I flunked out of university.
4. I love Trudy.
5. I'm a mama's boy.

Someway I'm going to have to find a way to provide some context for those facts, but right now I don't have a clue how to do it.

As far as someone actually playing tag with me, I'm dubious; I don't really have any blogger pals. I'll just list five blogs I read and would be interested to know more about the bloggers behind them.

I'll tag:

1. Drima
2. Afromusing.
3. Steve Buchele.
4. Fola.
5. Who is Vasslesssmudge?

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Imagining Ourselves

There are lots of cool Flickr Toys and by way of Beth's Blog, a truly indispensable resource about non-profit technology, education technology, ICT in the developing world, creativity and much more, I learned about the newest toy: the Warholizer. It's fun to make pictures with the Warholizer, but some pictures are better than others.

The one I've chosen is perhaps one of the worst. Last autumn just before Halloween a friend, who always looks great in costumes, spied an Afro wig at the drug store. She wondered who would be fool enough to wear one, and so that's how I ended up with an Afro wig. Even at the time I knew it was a rather dangerous gift, but I immediately put it on and spent the evening picking it out with my fingers so it was really big. Now of course I have this really big wig that sits atop a pie safe in my little room with the rest of my hats.

It's easy to imagine me in melt-down mode, but I can't imagine myself following into Michael Richard's racial tirade. But then again I've got pictures of myself wearing an Afro wig. In a discussion forum a person of color asked: "What's with white people dressing as a person of color for Halloween?" It was a thought provoking question and discussion for me. The portrayal and amplification of stereotypes has pernicious effects. And white people like me can be unbelievably oblivious about racial stereotypes. A visit to The Jim Crow Museum can be rather startling. But perhaps even more unsettling is how familiar so many of the images are.

After playing around with the Warholizer I went to Yahoo to play around with my avatar. I guess I didn't play with paper dolls enough as a kid, but it's easy to see their attraction in making, dressing and locating your avatar. I'm fifty, and so far all of the face shapes available are rather too youthful; still I'm able to pick a face and hair style bearing some resemblance to me. And today I cycled through the skin tones. There is a tension between making an avatar which looks like you and making an avatar how you'd like to look. To my eye changing the color of the skin tone really seemed to have little effect on how much the avatar seemed to look like me. That is, until it came time to save the avatar, and then the idea of how others would see me came more into the fore. How will others respond if I say, I think I look good in dark brown skin?

I was leafing through a book, Five Centuries of American Costume by R. Turner Wilcox recently. In the section of nineteenth century military costume I came across Zouaves and was quite surprised that regiments in the Civil War donned bright uniforms based on some imagination of what French regiments in Algeria looked like. I've since been told that these units suffered heavy casualties because their outfits made them easy targets.

One of the rationalizations of the American government for abandoning more than two centuries of precedent, law and convents surrounding the treatment of prisoners of war is that the enemy nowadays don't always wear uniforms. It's so inconvenient that "them" could look like any of "us" an therefore secret profiles must be made and list constructed to identify "them." The mathematics involved in such procedures are certain, there will be false positives, and given the apparent scale of these activities more of "us" will become entangled in these dragnets than them. Ha! Why do they bother? We know what "they" look like don't "we"?

What interested me most about the Zouave costumes were the pants, actually I think they're pantaloons. I wondered whether I'd like wearing pants like that, and thought I probably would. I like wearing my Utilikilt. Well, actually, I have two complaints: it's rather heavy, and my legs get cold in the winter. In any case looking at various combinations of outfits, skin tones, hairstyles and backgrounds at the Yahoo avatar site, the kilt didn't seem to push the buttons like the American Indian outfit did. I live in the suburbs and something that I notice while wearing my Utilikilt is nobody seems to notice I'm wearing it in the suburbs, but when I go to the city in it sometimes I'll get a glance. Rather the opposite of what I expected. Once when I got invited out at the last minute and had nothing clean to wear I wore a Sarong to the city and nobody seemed to notice.

I don't know where I'm going with this, except I'm sure I don't want to multiply enemies. I do wish that people could look at others as "us" not "them."

By way of Egyptian blogger Tarek's Green Data I learned about a global movement scheduled to coincide with the winter solstice. My birthday is December 21st, so I'm always on the look out for celebrations. This year is special because it will be the first ever synchronized global orgasm. Mark your calenders and you can follow the anticipation on The Global Orgasm Blog. Imagine Peace.

At TEDBlog is an important story about photographer Kristen Ashburn's first public exhibition of her photographs showing the human faces of AIDS in Africa, Bloodline. There is also a beautiful video. In it, Paddington Mazurura, a career professional infected with HIV from Zimbabwe remarks:
But we are not only talking of numbers here. We are talking of people.
It seems frivolous of me to juxtapose Global Orgasm with Ashburn's photos, even more so in the context of my silly fashion ideas. People are complicated; we're peculiar. There are so many ways of imagining ourselves. The people in Ashburn's photos are easily recognized as people. I see me in them, my sister, my mother, my father, my brother too. How can I not be moved by the distress so many people suffer? To do something requires imaging, and I'm not the only one.