Thursday, April 12, 2007

So It Goes

Victor Papanek from Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change

Writer Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. died Wednesday night, April 11th. His books were important to me and my generation. So I've been enjoying reading pieces that mark his passing. 3Quarks Daily links to a half dozen: here, here, here, here, here, and here.

On Tuesday I went to a visitation for a friend who died. Such a sad occasion, for she was a most beautiful and charming friend, still madly in love with her husband and their lovely children. It was nice to see so many long-time friends. We are all in a state of shock still imagining ourselves too young to die of disease. Many of us have known each other for over twenty five years, and my thoughts turned to our youth together in the early 1970's.

Eric Hersman has been running a series called African Digerati where he's been interviewing African technologists. It's a great series and his blog White African is always information rich. His most recent post in the series was with Ethan Zuckerman. Zuckerman says he doesn't "really qualify as a member of the African Digerati," but his contributions to the Afrosphere make him a significant contributor.

I was particularly interested in this exchange:
What do you see as the biggest advantage or opportunity for African technology development?

Something that’s very important in technology research is problem selection. If you choose a boring problem to solve, you get boring technologies. If you choose a fascinating problem and are able to solve it, you can start a revolution. Right now, there are much more interesting problems in African technology than there are in the developed world, in my opinion. I think that smart computer science students around the world should be looking at the developing world for challenges to address – power usage, wireless networking, non-verbal interfaces, computer-based systems for microentrepreneurship. It’s a huge advantage for African innovators to be surrounded by interesting, worthwhile problems.
Reading perhaps more into Zuckerman's answer than is proper, my sense of it was that creating solutions applicable to the developing world is smart because those solutions will be useful everywhere.

The jump from my friend's death to Zuckerman's point about "interesting problems" is a long one. What I'm thinking about is how, back when my cohort was younger, we were indeed engaged by interesting problems. Back in the day most of us would have liked the idea of ourselves as "counter-cultural." We hardly turned out that way.

When I was in college Papaneck's book Design for the Real World captured my attention.
There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a very few of them. And possibly on one profession is phonier. Advertising design, in persuading people to buy things they don't need, with money they don't have, in order to impress others who don't care, is probably the phoniest field in existence today. Industrial design, by concocting the tawdry idiocies hawked by advertisers, comes a close second.
None of us flinched reading lines like that; instead, many of us really did respond: "Right on!" Our ecological understanding sometimes wasn't very deep, but there was no mistaking a passion about it.

Looking around the room full of mourners I wondered, "What happened?" I drove down to the funeral home with a friend. On the way back home she remarked about what could have been. She was referring to the political follies of the years, but there's no escaping the fact most of us played along.

It's the construct of telesis that stuck out in Papanek's Function Complex diagram when I read the book almost thirty years ago. Telesis isn't a word I've run into much since. Merriam Webster defines:
progress that is intelligently planned and directed : the attainment of desired ends by the application of intelligent human effort to the means
Papanek relates telesis to design:
[C]ontent of a design must reflect the times and conditions that have given rise to it, and must fit in with the general human socioeconomic order in which it is to operate.
As a generation we wanted to run counter, but in our designs lacked the creativity to fashion a fit with the socioeconomic order in which we function that was anyway more ecological. In fact, we seem to have fallen for precisely the program--"It's the system, man"--we once so enthusiastically mocked.

Vonnegut's writing always seems so simple, but the ethical dilemmas he exposes are never so black and white, us and them; but nuanced. General humanness and the socioeconomic order are problems that won't go away and are the subject of much of Vonnegut's storytelling. We have to navigate through them, and Vonnegut showed that harsh judgments aren't a particularly useful way to do so.

Something about online social networks and all the content people put up on the Web is how blindingly stupid too much of it is. Geez! At least that's my reaction when reading some of what I've contributed. I'm not an African blogger, but I do want attend to the Afrosphere. The beauty of the Web is contained in the dialogs. It's worthwhile participating. But when we do, our local perspectives, our telesic baggage, influences us to such an extent we often can't see how wildly inappropriate our designs and solutions are in different contexts.

Eric Hersman responded to a comment I left at on his post with the Zuckerman interview:
I’m particularly in agreement with his belief that Africans are responsible for making Africa better. It’s up to those educated techies in the diaspora to apply their years of experience to solving Africa’s technological problems. Many of these technological problems, once solved, will likely solve a number of economic and social issues as well (my opinion).
Eric seems to be saying a number of things, not the least of which is coming from a perspective of a diasporian. I may be wrong, but I took it that he was also pointing to the problem of people in the West designing inapt solutions, ignoring the importance of place to functional design. I don't deny Eric Hersman's concerns, but I also think that Zuckerman's "worthwhile problems" is a critical and fascinating point.

Zuckerman wrote a provocative piece, The moving circus, the post-national, the Global Soul and the xenophile which inspired Joshua Goldstein on In An African Minute to respond. I'd like to put myself in a line with these two, but feel obliged to point out that I'm goof and neither of them are. Still, we're three white Americans who follow and participate in the Afrosphere. I'm a product of the Baby Boomer Generation, Zuckerman, I presume, a Gen X Generation guy, and Goldstein Gen Y.

Zuckerman wrote:
Xenophilia believes that the world is made of diverse, culturally and socially different, yet interconnected spaces, and that the ability to encounter these different spaces without getting on an airplane is one of the most exciting aspects of the 21st century.
Goldstein makes the case for the "Local Soul," but observes:
Local Soul is no longer enough. We know that our (local) way is not the only way, and for personal and creative reasons it is necessary to reach beyond the bounds of the Local Soul.
And he asks: How can we balance the tension between the necessity for a deep understanding of our place with a growing need to expand our boundaries toward a Global Soul?

The question is such a good one in that Goldstein focuses on "a balance" and not reduced to an either/or bifurcation. Balance seems the core of Hersman's emphasis on African responsibility for solving challenges in Africa, tilting the weight towards the Local Soul. And Zuckerman's point about the importance of interesting problems, and how smart computer science students around the world should pay attention to solving African challenges concerns balancing this tension, perhaps by tilting the weight towards the Global Soul.

So Kurt Vonnegut has died, one of the Greatest Generation. As much as those of us Baby Boomers rail against the notion, we're getting old and our influence waning. That realization is a small part of the shock we all felt with my friend's passing. Being among my friends, so many of them have created some very good things. As the sad sack among them, my yelling: "Sell outs!" would be ridiculous. I wouldn't say that, in any case, but I'm enough of a Boomer to know that the accusation still carries a sting. That seems a very good thing. My generation holds within a deep critique of the socioeconomic order and a vision for a more just and ecological way of living. Vonnegut was very influential in helping to shape that vision.

Rene Dubos is often credited with the maxim: Think Globally, Act Locally. Dubos, was part of a generation before Vonnegut's but coined his famous maxim while an adviser to the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972. Sociologist Lester Frank Ward, a couple of generations older than Dubos coined the word "telesis." There's not an imaginary straight-line that connects the generations, rather threads which extend to and beyond. Dubos's meaning in "Think Globally, Act Locally," isn't far from Zuckerman's view of the world which is "diverse, culturally and socially different, yet interconnected spaces." And the mission of World Changing where Zuckerman is a board member and contributor bears a thread that extends to Lester Frank Ward's vision of telesis.

Vonnegut's last book of is entitled, A Man Without a Country. Vonnegut's meaning isn't precisely what Zuckerman is referring to in his The moving circus post, but a a thread of humanism connects them. Many of the essays in the book are available online at the In These Times Web site. Cold Turkey is worth reading. Something that's reassuring is that even while wisdom comes from experience, a wise man like Vonnegut doesn't claim to have the meaning of it all figured out.

Verlyn Kinkenborg in The New York Times suggests that for those of us who read Vonnegut's work twenty or thirty years ago, our sense of those works now is a bit disquieting. She writes:
So you get older, and it’s been 20 or 30 years since you last read “Player Piano” or “Cat’s Cradle” or “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Vonnegut is not, now, somehow serious enough. You’ve entered that time of life when every hard truth has to be qualified by the sense of what you stand to lose. “It’s not that simple,” you find yourself saying a lot, and the train of thought that unfolds in your mind as you speak those words reeks of desperation.
But then she concludes:
And yet, somehow, the world seems more and more to have been written by Vonnegut and your life is now the footnote. Perhaps it is time to go back and revisit that earlier self, the one who seemed, for a while, so interwoven in the pages of those old paperbacks.
When I gathered with my friends earlier this week to grieve for our friend's passing, I remembered us when, and those memories were comforting.

I'm probably just lost in the weeds alluding to comparison between the tension between a generations and a Global Soul and a Local Soul. But I realize as I write that using a metaphor of a balance beam and weights to compare Zuckerman and Goldstein's positions is exactly the wrong sort of metaphor for the balance involved. Quantitative measures are nonsense when the issues are the quality of connections.

Food, shelter, clothing are essentials, and we imagine these things as something we have. Perhaps the very closeness of these essentials make it easy to neglect the basic needs for clean water and the atmosphere we breathe. Water and air we all share and so it's harder to expand our attention to the kinds of cooperation necessary for them. Vonnegut in Cold Turkey says we're addicted to oil. He's right about that of course, but like addicts we steep ourselves in denial about it. That's why it's so hard for us to get our heads around Global Climate Change, and to move our butts.

One of the reasons that Ethan Zuckerman's suggestion that smart computer science student look to the developing world for problems to address seems so interesting is because it's a way to think outside the limitations of oil addiction. No doubt Eric Hersman is correct that Africans are the ones best equipped to tackle African problems. But the problems people face today include existential challenges of a global scale. What could be more global than the composition of the Earth's thin layer of atmosphere. The interesting part is the solutions to the global problem depend upon the behavior of billions of people in hundreds of thousands locales.

World Changing's Manifesto works from a premise:
that the tools, models and ideas for building a better future lie all around us. That plenty of people are working on tools for change, but the fields in which they work remain unconnected. That the motive, means and opportunity for profound positive change are already present. That another world is not just possible, it's here. We only need to put the pieces together.
Vonnegut's literary legacy presents that putting the pieces together is no simple matter, because all sort of truly lunatic combinations are probable.

Cynics in Grecian antiquity believed that virtue is the highest good. I don't really know much about history, so I wonder how the present meanings of cynic has come to be. I've seen Vonnengut called a cynic, I've seen him called a misanthrope. And I find it strange for someone who so strongly believed in kindness and loving one another to be so cast. It's the quality of the connections that matters most. I'm grateful to have been connected to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. through his paperback books. I'm delighted that others can connect to, even while he's flown the cage.

Sunday, April 08, 2007


Reading the newspaper on Friday, an article, Judge gets tough with convict who spit at officer produced a perverse chuckle. It seems that a man of whom the court-ordered medical opinion stated is "narcissistic beyond the point of rehabilitation" set out to represent himself in court over a matter of spitting on his probation officer. The judge exceeded sentencing guidelines and sentenced him to four to 10 years.

A friend sent me that photograph of me and I wanted to share it. I'm not an awfully good judge of character, especially my own. The picture captures a certain je ne sais quoi; no wait, it's pretty easy to say: I'm a goof. Partly wanting to run a picture has to do with having signed up this blog to Afrigator on the Ugandan channel. The problem is, you see, I'm not Ugandan. I've never been to Uganda, much less been to Africa. Oh and there's the unfortunate choice of "Kaunda" as a handle, and the even more ridiculous decision to post for a while a photo of me in an afro wig in my profile. Geez! What was I thinking?

The name was chosen because I was sure I'd make a fool of myself blogging and thought that some anonymity might be in order. All the good handles I'd dreamt up were already taken. Kenneth Kaunda came to mind. At the time I was hoping against hope that President Musevini would step down as Kaunda eventually did. Not surprisingly, because of Kaunda's authoritarian presidency, no other blogger had snapped up the name Kaunda. I bet I can change the name, but have figured out how to. In any case, I soon discovered doing searches from my blog quickly yielded results displaying my real name and other aliases. I was quite naive about online anonymity, or at least how to go about creating it.

Part of my mirth about the case of the irredeemable narcissist in the courtroom stems from my, decidedly unqualified, perceptions of the judge in question gleaned over time. You know, he strikes me as a wee bit egotistical; well, and maybe a tad on the narcissistic side of the scale. The Assistant District Attorney on the case said during the sentencing hearing:
Anyone who cannot control himself with the judge on the bench deserves the maximum sentence.
Note to self: Should you ever be compelled to defend yourself in court; get representation!

I'm not at all sure how clinicians make their diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. One clue that I might not raise to the level is that while the report of about the defendant did raise a chuckle, I'm well aware of my own ability to make a fool of myself publicly, so felt embarrassed for the defendant. Schadenfreund was offset by: "There but by the grace of God go I."

Living in this world seems a little crazy most of the time. And as a very ordinary American the notion of being of service to African people is something to deserving of some skepticism and inward reflection.

I was delighted to discover that Keguro has been blogging at new quarters. The man never ceases to amaze me with his capacity to peal back the layers revealing what's inside and under. In the post I read today he looked at a recent New York Times poll which asked readers: "whether 'rich countries' should help 'poor countries' with problems stemming from climate change."

Keguro notes that most people in "rich" countries are hardly rich, but then directs his attention to the rhetorical framing of the question:
Responsibility, what I would term culpability, is re-translated, through a very clever sleigh of hand, into altruism. Rich countries help Poor countries.

Recoded as altruism, culpability becomes yet another way to bolster one’s ego. Pushed to a certain illogic, the potential for recoding injury or criminality or responsibility as a form of altruism guarantees ongoing inequality and oppression.
Reading the whole post is very much recommended as is reading his blog Gukira frequently. The precision of the word, culpability, over responsibility is worthwhile. The connotation of trustworthiness in "responsible" tends to paper over the "blameworhiness" implicit in the word culpable.

Acting responsibly is of course no mean feat. How should one, privileged as I am, respond in a mad and unjust world? The strategy of narrowing ones boundaries contains a logic and even an inevitability. Broadening ones boundaries to include in sight people in the world far away is fraught with pitfalls, but also exposes one to a richness of life unavailable from a closed, provincial perspective. Without much wealth the advantages to the broader perspective would seem to easily outweigh the pitfalls. Nevertheless negotiating the unfamiliar terrain requires tact and self-awareness. Neither quality, it appears, have I in abundance.

Keguro's illuminating the rhetoric of "rich" countries and "poor" countries reminds that the problem isn't just me, but a pervasive framing, even propaganda, that shapes our worldviews, especially as Americans. Narcissism isn't only a personal disorder, but a persistent cultural expression; surely it's annoying.

Hash points to new developments at Kabissa and online social network for civil society organizations working in or for Africa. In the member spotlight at the Web site is Thembathi an organization dedicated to the support of orphans and other vulnerable children in the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa. Thembathi means hope with us in Zulu.

I bear culpability for injustices of many sorts, just by being born who and where I was. It doesn't seem fair, but there you go, injustice is a funny that way. So I have an obligation to try to help repair the world. But I'm a shirker and feeling guilty seems to motivate me towards inaction. Whereas, the invitation to hope with others moves me. My Ugandan friends inspire me to imagine Uganda's potential. Hoping with them enriches my life. Like so many of my ideas--have you seen Hats For Health?--Bazungu Bucks is a bit half-baked. Still the intention is to invite others to hope with us. I'm sure together we can create something good.

Friday, April 06, 2007


Last night My friend Nathan in Iganga Uganda sent me an IM: "What are you doing?" I told him I was looking over a list of Nobel Prize winners in Economics and asked what he was doing: "Chatting with a friend in Thailand," was his response. As it happens I was thinking about economics because an American friend teaching in Thailand is beginning some new research and sharing the process online.

A friend and neighbor is a well-regarded horseman. She's a horseman? I don't know what the less-sexists way to say it; horse trainer doesn't seem to fit her approach. I know not much about horses, and I met a friend of hers a while back who knows my friend primarily from the horses. After interrogating me to discover, I know nothing about horses, she said, "You don't have a clue who she is." My horsey friend is a polymath. Over time her friend has discovered some of the areas our interests overlap, or at least has got a sense that we actually do share some history. The friend got comfortable enough to tell me that when she first ran into me at the corner store and then at my friend's farm, she thought: "What a hick! What a hayseed."

Her first impressions of me weren't half wrong. That's why Internet conversations spanning the continents still seem so remarkable and enjoyable to me.

I met Nathan online probably over five years ago. The story of how that came about involves my horsey friend. She got me online. When I discovered all the news sources online, even ones which gave spare coverage to African issues, my cocoon of denial about the suffering of other people in the world began to unravel. I discussed issues of food security in the Eastern Horn of Africa with my friend and she said, "I've got just the book for you." The next time I visited she gave me a book by Robert Rodale, Save Three Lives: A Guide to Famine Prevention. Soon enough I searched "African pen pal" and made my first connection with Nathan.

Nathan's life is full of challenges I can only imagine. He was only seventeen when both of his parents had died, leaving him the oldest of five children. Something that's always impressed me about Nathan is how he's understood that his fortunes are closely tied to those of his community. So we've talked over the years and collaborated together on ways to do good stuff in his community.

Me, Mister Hick, Mister Hayseed, had quite a lot of learning to do about Africa and Uganda; I still do. But I wasn't so sure where to look for information in the beginning. In the last year or so the number of sources and opportunities for learning seem to have increased many-fold. Partly perhaps this has to do with just knowing better where to look, but quite importantly a number of new sites have sprung up. I'm particularly excited about a new site, Afrigator.

If you scroll to the bottom of my sidebar you'll see several buttons to various Web sites. I just noticed that the Taking IT Global Button doesn't work: I better fix that. There's a new button: Afrigator'd. I listed this blog on their Ugandan Channel. Maybe I really shouldn't have, but I suspect the ratings will allow this blog to fly under the radar.

Afrigator is an aggregator of African blog posts. I've had the feeds from Blog Africa sent to my Bloglines reader. I wonder why I've never championed that site? Probably because I subscribe to several African bloggers already and enjoy scanning through the many feeds through Blog Africa daily, but recognize that not everyone has the interest or time to do that. But my heart sank when I at read Ethan Zuckerman's excellent post on Afrigator:
Afrigator is very, very pretty and strongly suspect that it will make BlogAfrica obsolete at some point in the near future.
Zuckerman urges anyone whose blog is listed on Blog Africa to list it at Afrigator as well. I hope Blog Africa stays up for a long time because I do like the unfiltered stream of posts, because information and topics not on my radar often prove to be interesting and useful. But I especially hope that African bloggers do register at Afrigator in droves because the site is clean and provides many different ways to find posts of interest.

Blogs are such a great way to discover places because the posts are real people's perspectives. My friends now suspect I'm particularly informed about Africa. That's hardly the case, but they ask me all sorts of questions anyway. Very often the questions are about African politics. I'm a news junkie and follow American politics pretty closely. Oh man! The ins and outs of American politics are really hard to make sense of. Yes, I do pay attention to politics in Africa, but I'm a long way from really having much of a clue. I always tell my friends that there are over fifty African countries and that the continent is huge. Of course African politics is important for Americans to pay attention to, but that lens alone distorts our imagination of Africa. Reuters Africa is a great news portal for the news of the continent, and if I have the presence of mind do mention it. But blogs provide windows into business, art, architecture, technology, the African Diaspora and so much more. Blogs connect people. The people connections provide some context to begin to understand complicated issues like politics.

Afrigator's site is so clean and easy to use. One of the features I like very much is the Channels are based on countries and by the headers for each post is a little country flag. Symbols like that help me so much. First of all I have to practice a bit to recognize all the country flags. Then I make a mental note placing the country on the map of Africa in my mind. I love the tag clouds on Afrigator too.

Yesterday I noticed Microformats in the tag cloud. I'm so slow when it comes to computer stuff; for example, I seem to freeze when it comes to picking tags. But I do at least get the idea that tags and people tagging stuff is very useful. Microformats are something I have only a dim awareness about, so I clicked on the tag and scrolled through the posts. South African blogger Stii had a post directing to a great Firefox tool called Operator. I downloaded it and really love it. Among the features is that Operator will find the tags on a Web page and with a click direct you to photos at Flickr, bookmarks at or blogs at Technorati. I have a sense this is going to help me use tags more effectively than I would have otherwise.

The African blogosphere is already a very rich space and it's growing rapidly too. Afrigator is great addition to the Web universe. Kudos to Justin Harman and Mike Stopforth for bringing Afrigator online!