Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year

I started a new blog called Incompetent Gardener. That I illustrated a post on gardening with a picture of a Cuban taxi is a pretty good indication that I make as little sense there as I do here. You are most welcome to visit that blog or not. One way or another I hope you'll grow something this year; it's a good thing to do.

The wonderful blogger Phil Jones graciously has me on his blogroll at his Composing blog. A neat feature of his blogroll is that it allows thumbnails of pictures from the blogs. I thought of that when I posted that Wanker picture in my last post. At least this post will get that picture off his page.

Most importantly I wish all the visitors who come here on occasion a very Happy New Year! May you take joy in 2009. I am most grateful to you all.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Toss Pot Wanker

The image is a T-shirt design available at Fuctup, an online retailer in the UK.

On a thread I was participating the other day concerning Obama House Parties, a commentator queried:
just a thought guys... have you ever considered you might all just be a bunch of middle aged old toss pot wankers who just talk a lot about the "issues"...
Okay deliberately didn't post a link, questions like that are ripe for piling on. One of the responses seemed to take offense at the "old" bit. I suspect that's because he'd never heard "toss pot" directed at him. I hadn't either, so consulted the Urban Dictionary an invaluable online reference site. Hum, it seems "toss pot" essentially means "wanker," so added as an intensifier.

I didn't respond to the comment on the thread. If I would, I suppose it would follow along the lines of: "What's wrong with wanking?" Heavens knows I've seen plenty of similar comments more or less directed at me, so it seems worth my while to come up with some sort of come back. I never seem to manage one. Here's my problem: On one horn I am really jazzed about commons-based peer production. On the other horn, I sure do a lot of talking--writing--and other than that it's hard to point to doing much else.

The Urban Dictionary is a good example of what can be done by peer production. It's remarkably complete and accurate all from the distributed gifts of content from many users of the resource. Consider a single entry for the word jagoff. I strongly associate the word with my locale and its charming local dialect. The definitions note the geographic use of the term, but also suggest alternate entomologies and word histories. One of the subtleties of the term's meaning is not just a jerk, but a mean jerk.

When President Bush visited Pittsburgh on Labor Day 2002, I went to greet him. At the time I thought that with enough public outcry, the nation might avoid another Iraq War. One of the signs I took, with wording specially crafted by a friend read:
Hey Bush
We Scoff
After a full afternoon behind a tall fence and police cordon, one of those infamous "Free Speech Zones," it became pretty clear from insults hurled from the other side of the fence that my high hope for avoiding war were rather too lofty. And I wonder now just who was the bigger jagoff that day? Yep, I've still got the sign to prove it.

It's too easy to be a mean jerk on the Internet. Lisa Derrick is cool. I mean I really like what she says on her blog most of the time; I don't really know her. Friday night she did a piece about the One Laptop Per Child. She wrote:
They'd like folks to donate to provide kids everywhere with a computer. Which is real nice, except potable water, food and vaccines are a more pressing concern for kids in under-developed and developing nations.
The "real nice" part got under my skin. I've read and written a lot about the One Laptop Per Child effort over the last couple of years. I think it's a project that deserves more careful attention. So I left a comment, and suggested Derrick was self-righteous. I could search the Urban Dictionary for just the right word to fit my asshatiness, but I'll go with jagoff because it's local.

After my impertinent comment at La Figa--Derrick's blog--I headed over to Daisy's Dead Air, one of my favorite reads. Daisy had just posted Part 1 of a two part post Feminists on High Horses. Two problems with the comment I left there: 1) too long and 2) my asshatitude.

There must have been something wrong with me that night. I've done far worse. The remarkable thing about publishing on the Internet is stuff you put up sticks around, maybe forever. If I ever feel too full of myself I know just were to find evidence of me being a jagoff online--sorry no links. In part 2 Daisy picks up on the subject of people being accountable. I'm so math challenged that "accountable" isn't one of my favorite words, but I agree with what she says. When we're out there online, we're accountable in more ways than people of my age, i.e. people who for most of their lives there was no Internet, tend to anticipate.

There's a lot going on in Daisy's post, but there's a part in it I want to bring up. Daisy is working class. When she was younger she was part of "very rigorous political collective." It turned out that the collective was dominated by rich kids. During one of their meetings she asked: "[W]asn't it impossible for rich kids to have the proper class consciousness?" For that she was thrown out. Going out on a limb here, I'll suggest that Daisy feels some resentment about it. She's quite dispassionate in making the point that it's not so strange really that the children of the rulers of the world would presume to be rulers in every setting they find themselves in.

I don't know if Daisy would call it resentment. Over all, especially Part 1 is a bit scathing. But her language about the double bind that the rich kids' presumptions present is quite cool. Because wealth is a factor in the issue which provoked the post in the first place, it seems to me she's tried to lay out this aspect of the discussion in a calm and rational way. But, you know, it feels really bad to be put down like that and the feelings really matter.

I'm a white middle-aged white guy, even if I consider myself poor, I've got privilege that I take for granted. Over the last few years I've tried to collaborate with a couple of friends in Uganda. This is an important part of my life, but a part I find surprisingly hard to tell about.

This afternoon I was chatting with one of my Ugandan friends online. I'd written an email to him, which after I sent it worried some of my privileged presumption was showing. The good thing is we've been corresponding for years, and have developed strong regard for one another, so I didn't worry too much. What he told me in our conversation really moved me, but it's hard to relate because it's got to the feelings part of the double binds created by unconscious privilege.

He talked about how years ago he worked as an organizer in Kenya. He said people really listened to him there. A big part of the willingness to listen to him came from his being from a different place. Then he talked about hearing tributes to Christina Jordan of Life in Africa and that part of that respect came from something like what he'd experienced in Kenya; she wasn't from there. It's hard to relate a conversation, but the meaning I felt from what he wrote was how discouraging it feels when you are poor and put down over an over in little things everyday. My friend is courageous, but told me he felt fear. The fear comes from being told in so many ways you're no good. And his point was how hard it is to organize among people who feel the same way.

I've read lots of what Christina Jordan has put up online over the years, and participated in online social networks she's participated in too. She has been enormously transparent in all she's done. My friend has heard me mention Christina, but doesn't have the same experience of knowing what she's written over time. I hope he comes to see that the Ugandans who are running Life in Africa are confident and competent. Nevertheless, the point my friend was making about the sort of paralysis poverty causes in people is something not lost on those who've worked long and hard with Life in Africa. Getting over the hurdle of people thinking they have nothing to offer is tough.

Sometimes I despair that my online collaboration with my Ugandan friends has yielded not much. I can't dismiss it because, if nothing else, there are genuine bonds of affection. Still there's precious little tangible to show for it.

I turned 53 on the winter solstice. I think Daisy is younger than I am, but I've seen her use the word "old" to describe herself. I prefer the word "experienced." I know Daisy is experienced. Over the past year of reading her posts, I see she's adept at naming her fears and thereby conquering them. I felt my friend was taking a big step in revealing to me the fear he sometimes feels. We all know about fears, it's part of being human. Unfortunately it's probably also a part of being human to exploit the knowledge that we've all got fears. Some people are masters at it and most of us clumsy and unthinking at one time or another.

All of us can create something good. Every one of us has something important to give. What any one of us has may be small, but taken together it's a large amount.

Too many of us live lives in dire need of the essentials. Buckminster Fuller liked to say we live on Spaceship Earth. We've got to find ways for every person here to have enough while recognizing the confines of our little blue planet. Fuller demonstrated doing more with less in so many different ways. Designing ways to create value, to provide us with what we need, by doing more with less is one way. And it's an approach that fits nicely with a confidence in the creative capacity of everyone. But the most popular way of looking at needs in a limited world, one Spaceship Earth, is to imagine that it's fundamentally a problem of distribution. At least here in the USA the plan follows: making yours so the other are left without. There are so many reasons to think that the zero-sums strategy of taking yours before everyone else gets theirs ultimately leaves everyone the loser, but that's a whole other post.

For the purposes of this post I'll just say the zero sum game feels bad. Of course people feel all sorts of ways, so many ways that our feelings often seem unruly. What makes World Wide Web so engaging is we're reading and writing, both consuming content created by others, and making content of our own available. It's pretty hard not to have feelings or not to let our feelings show. A thick skin helps to negotiate around the world, especially around the online world. Ultimately I suspect a compassionate heart is better. Far from getting in our way, feelings can guide the way. It's better if "we give a fig" as Lisa Derrick suggests.

You remember Lisa Derrick? She's the blogger I accused of acting self righteously in re her opinions about One Laptop Per Child. Did you click any of the links to the Urban Dictionary? Maybe you've been there before, or already know our language is rich in words to ridicule. It seems pretty clear the Internet is speeding up the creation of new words to ridicule others. We're making our feelings known online and perhaps that's not so bad. Maybe the engagement with others can help us develop a more evolved emotional intelligence. Maybe we'll learn that our happiness isn't something we can take from others for ourselves, but rather something we can have only by creating it with others.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Photographs on the Internet

That's Alex the cat. She lives with us and often sits on my lap while I'm surfing the Internet. I adore Alex. I've never had a cat that would hug and nudge me so. If that weren't enough she's made my father adore her too. That he's got her to worry over and love makes me love her all the more.

There's another cat here whose name is Barney. Barney is a wonderful companion cat, and I love him for somewhat different reasons. He's got a great work ethic and is gregarious. He's a buddy, but surprisingly shy; where Alex will look at me with her big eyes and let me look back, not so much for Barney.

One of the reasons I've got a photo of Alex is that despite her affectionate nature, she's always sure to make herself unavailable when people come to visit. Many have heard tell of Alex, but few have actually seen her. Right now she's laying a little distance from me and giving me a look that says: "You're up to something, and I'm not sure I approve." I really am not sure she'd approve of my posting a photograph of her, because she takes such effort to protect her anonymity.

Phil Jones posted a link to a talk by Kevin Kelley, Predicting the next 5000 days of the Web along with an essay Phil had written a while back. Kelley observes, from the perspective of one who was paying attention right at the beginning of the Web, that what's emerged in the first 5,000 days is really surprising. And he notes we're not surprised by it. It's become all so second nature to us. But he offers that if past is precedent our predictions about what the Web will look in the next 5,000 days probably won't be what we think.

My last post was seen by some as an argument for the legalization of marijuana. I really didn't intend to make that argument, mostly I was surprised that a respected intellectual like Juan Cole was making the argument and pointed to that. Then using the subject of hemp to jump off into a little talk about natural fibers. The deal with the Internet is all these links. Links to me linked back to my last post which was considered inappropriate for young audiences. Quite honestly, the last thing I want to do is lead. I most certainly do not want to lead young people astray. So it was no problem to remove my little icon that I was following a particular blog, so to make it less likely young people would see this blog. But it did get me to thinking about young people on the Web today.

First of all it seems to me the fears were a bit overwrought because even if a young person were to stumble upon this blog, my tendency to prattle on pretty much assures their visit will be quick. Secondly, kids involve themselves differently from people like me whose life experience is overwhelmingly weighted to times when there was no Internet.

I was looking at photos family members have put up at Facebook the other evening. Sometimes the Internet can provide and overdose of cute. I was enjoying the photos so much, studying the faces of babies and pets I'd never met. As you most certainly know, you can't really look at a picture of a baby's face without your own face taking on the shape it would if you were looking at the child face to face. So my face wore a big smile even as a few tears were rolling from my eyes.

A few of my friends' children have friended me at Facebook. I'm not exactly sure why, but I think it may have something to do with keeping loosely tethered to their pasts as they chart their independent lives away at university. Managing the privacy settings at Facebook really isn't as obvious as it ought to be. It's easy for everyone using Facebook not to realize how stuff can travel in ways you don't expect. I suspect that many of these young people do know how to set privacy levels to keep stuff they want private but just don't bother to most of the time. Anyhow, in my Facebook newsfeed I can sometimes see photos in sets put up by friends of friends. I almost never click on those photos to see them in context. Even most of the photos my friends' kids put up I don't rush to see, because I'm not the intended audience. The point is that many young people today have long experience with the Internet and take their exposure more easily than old folks like me do.

Kids expose themselves more easily and are exposed to all sorts of stuff online. John Husband reports today on research, Imagining the Internet: A History and Forecast. Husband helpfully collects some of the quotes, and there's this one:
"Children will grow up with the knowledge that their every move is being watched. This is a recipe for killing the kind of independent thinking that creates innovation."
That sounds ominous, and I'm not sure it's necessarily so.

Ethan Zuckerman's blog is as far as I'm concerned is a "must read." On the righthand side is a list of categories and his category labeled xenophilia offers a whole bunch of posts about how the Internet can stunt the development of independent thought and what we can do to prevent that. Zuckerman introduces the sociological concept of homophily which boils down to "birds of a feather flock together." Xenophily is sort of the opposite number to homophily and means love of the different or foreign. In a wonderful post from this spring, Homophily, serendipity, xenophilia he makes a good case for how homophily makes us stupid. I think the warnings about children growing up knowing they're being watched and that inhibiting independent thought is related to the problems of homophily. Zuckerman acknowledges that xenophily is hard; it's just hard to care about another part of the world. That's where serendipity comes into play, people can be surprised to discover the unfamiliar yet interesting.

Zuckerman's writing on the subject is very much worth checking out. My sense is that many young people who have grown up with the Web are rather primed to expect serendipity. Although, Zuckerman has been busy building bridges that allow for serendipity right from the start of the Internet, so when he says it's hard to do it, I'll take him at his word. But his insights do present a dilemma and challenge for adults concerned for the future of our kids. There's so much we'd like to protect them from, yet to prevent their following bridges, to quash serendipity, is to put them at a disadvantage as they move forward.

The last quote Jon Husband culls from the research about the Internet is this:
"It is better to be actively, thoughtfully and humanly adapting technology than to be creating inertia to resist it."
Yep, the Internet means "we'll have to rethink a few things" as Michael Wesch said in his famous YouTube video The Machine Is Us/ing Us. For those willing to watch an hour long video, Wesch's address at the Library of Congress this summer, An anthropological introduction to YouTube is just great. What the Internet will look like in the future is hard to predict, even while smart people all over seem to be making predictions lately.

It's not always easy to read a photograph. One of the fundamental problems is that a photograph represents such a tiny moment in time. Yet we tend to impute more meaning into photographs than we should. People have been looking at photographs as far back as the 1820's and they're ubiquitous now. Yet after all this experience we still have a hard time reading photos. But I think most people know this and hold a bit of skepticism in reserve. The stream of exposure our lives and creations online present is perhaps something our experience with photographs can inform us. BAGNews Notes is a blog dedicated to analysis of news images and support of photojournalism. Up at that site is a picture of young Barack Obama during his Occidental College days. The photo will be in this week's Time and I'm sure we'll see it around quite a lot. I won't be surprised if the photo is used as a sort of cautionary tail for the kinds of photos kids shouldn't put up at their MySpace or Facebook pages. I don't think that will serve much purpose; the kids are already exposed.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Pot and Other Tragedies

Odetta passed away on December 2nd. The image is from a screenshot of a beautiful recent performance of House of the Rising Sun, made and uploaded by mmazur1o5.

Odetta's voice has always stopped me in my tracks and made me listen. I'm kind of a slow learner and only recently discovered how powerful Search is at Last.FM. In addition to wonderful wikis for artist descriptions, Last.FM lets you look at the artist by tracks. There are 18 pages of tracks for Odetta. It's astounding to me how many of those songs I know, if not necessarily performed by Odetta. I'm sure my singing voice is pretty awful, but lots of the folk songs are ones I've sung at the top of my lungs at various times in my life.

When it comes to folk songs I feel old. With my limited exposure to young people it seems to me their knowledge of music is encyclopedic. I've heard mix tapes children of friends have made for their parents and they're full of surprises, obscure songs from long ago. When we were kids we listened to records, but then CDs came along. So it's not exactly right that these kids can make such great mixes because they know their parents' record collections. Well, obviously they do know what their parents listen to now, but that doesn't account for the Way Back Machine affect they seem to manage. It seems the kids are in tune with a vibe, they know what will tug on our heart strings even if they don't really know the songs or associations that play their magic. For people of a certain age, folk music is inextricably bound to hopes for social change.

With the economy as it is along with other disasters times look rather bleak. Now is a time to sing out. Music can make us feel better, music can restore some hope within, if even for a short while. I'm not sure what "Americana" means, but that's a tag applied to Odetta's music, and it seems to fit. A listen to Odetta sings forth not just songs Americans have listened to over the years, but songs we've sung ourselves.

Intrepid blogger and University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole wrote an atypical piece this week State Universities versus State Prisons; And Marijuana Legalization as a Solution. Well, I guess I'm showing my age again, but the post really popped out at me. Where I live, in Western Pennsylvania, there are lots of towns and townships named Hempfield around. Clearly growing hemp is a part of the regional history, indeed it's an important crop in American history. The shorter version of Cole's piece is that Americans are imprisoning too many of us at a cost to our education system as well as distorting our society in other awful ways. I agree with him that decriminalizing marijuana is one way to begin to redress this sad situation.

Drug use is dangerous, real people are hurt. Drugs are also an enormously profitable criminal enterprise which are distorting politics all over the globe. The Christian Science Monitor had a piece earlier in the week about cocaine transshipment in Ghana and drug money in the presidential election. Drugs are an important and complex problem that deserve more attention and more creative approaches.

I like gardening and find plants fascinating. Seems to me people who want it should be allowed to grow pot. On the other hand the commercial uses of Cannabis as a fiber and oil seed crop definitely intrigue me. During the 1930's American forests were indiscriminately logged, and oddly the national criminalization of pot played a part. During the first part of the 20th Century most states had laws regulating the sale and use of pot as a drug. But the national scheme for criminalizing it essentially destroyed the commercial culture of hemp as a fiber and oil seed crop. The Wikipedia article Legal history of cannabis in the United States provides a good overview of a complicated history. The connection with the forests is that wood pulp paper interests triumphed over paper made from annual fibers.

Despite my position in favor of decriminalization of marijuana, I'm not holding my breathe. That a mainstream professor like Juan Cole speaking out publicly in favor of legalizing pot rather argues against my premise. I'm afraid when it comes to pot it's an issue I care about but rather wish others would fight the battles about decriminalization. So it pleases me to no end that Juan Cole has stuck his neck out about the issue. Many countries, for example our neighbor to the north, Canada, have managed to separate the issue of marijuana and hemp as a fiber and oil seed crop. A similar sensibleness here doesn't look anywhere near on the horizon.

We ignore the importance of annual fiber crops at our peril. There are so many that are entirely legal and research on their practical uses is seriously needed. So I am pleased to discover that the United Nations has declared 2009 The International Year of Natural Fibers.

One fiber plant I'm high on--not that way--is Kenaf (Hibiscus cannabinus L. One of my favorite families of plants to grow are hollyhocks, of which Kenaf is a giant member. The plant hails from Africa but is already grown in the USA. Many of the areas that it grows well here don't have a long enough growing season to produce ripe seeds. This plant has a great deal of potential for useful products, some of them even without a whole lot of high tech infrastructure. There is some infrastructure in place for Kenaf paper and cardboard making in the USA now.

Anyhow, I hope that the International Year of Natural Fibers spurs on some conversations about the importance of natural fibers for more sustainable production and I'll have something to write about in the coming year about it.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has produced a video about the Kivu crisis in the DRC called Condition Critical. I'm not sure how to get as many of my friends to watch it as I can, but I sure will try. The video is made from great photographs and video clips, and much of the narrative is people directly telling their stories. The war is so tragic and there's an odd desensitization that happens where we might know a bit about the conflict but never put a human face on it. This video is great storytelling and in a short amount of time conveys a lot of information.

Speaking of folk songs, being reminded of them by Odetta's passing, some of our songs are songs from the times of slavery and some from the time of our Civil War. The songs contain our memories of suffering and yet the very songs foster hope and social change. Songs help us to feel empathy with others. To be human we must face suffering. I suppose it's a bit cheeky to say that many Americans my age can't think of folks songs without a memory of the smell of pot smoke.

More than any other time of the year the times leading up to Christmas, and during the holidays, is a time for singing together. I look forward to singing and hope others will sing along. In our singing we'll take joy, but also sing for all those suffering in the hope we can as people find courage and conviction to end suffering as we are able. I hope for songs that help us always to take notice. When a great artist dies like Odetta dies, there is sadness. I also feel a sense of gratitude for their contribution which lives on.

Update: Daisy left a comment and leaving the comment reminded me that I was negligent not to provide a Hat Tip to LarryE and his great blog Lotus--Surviving A Dark Time for the link to the video of Odetta's performance. I'm too lazy. I'm sorry not to have linked nonetheless because the communities that emerge from blogs and comments are really important to me. Sorry for my neglect LarryE!

Monday, December 01, 2008

World AIDS Day

It's late in the day on World AIDS Day and I'm still not sure how to commemorate the day.

It's the 25th Anniversary year for the Pitt Men's Study. I started participating in that shortly after it began. Two years ago I wrote about giving a speech in a speech class shortly after giving my blood and fluid samples in the Pitt Study. One of the main things I wanted to get across in the speech was the importance of confidentiality to assure an effective public health response. In that University Times article I just linked to Charles R. Rinaldo one of the chief researchers of the study remarks about his regrets:
He said his research team walked a fine line between wanting to grab people by the shoulders and shake them to alert them to the danger, and the desire not to intimidate, insult or disrespect their choices in life. “Maybe if we had been more fear-inducing … maybe we would have saved more from infections, more lives.”
Maybe if they had been more fear inducing, but I'm not so sure. At the time the fears about social stigmatization were acute. That's why my speech was pleading for confidentiality in the public health response.

The principals at the Pitt Men's Study have other regrets. Their sample was overwhelmingly white. The same small town phenomena that allowed the recruitment of so many in the study, also revealed how isolated the broader community of Pittsburgh is along racial lines.

Looking back all of us wonder why we haven't done more to stop the spread of AIDS. AIDS is a preventable disease. Why, why we ask have we been so ineffectual in preventing new HIV infections? While the preventions are simple actually employing those preventions prove not to be quite so simple. Prejudice and intolerance stand in the way.

Unprotected sexual intercourse is a primary way that HIV is transmitted. In much of the industrial world the disease has hit men who have sex with men and intravenous drug users hardest. In the developing world the demographics of HIV infected persons looks quite different.

Sometimes this difference can be hard for AIDS activists to talk across. For example my friend Nathan's organization the BSLA has a program to assist widows caring for dependent orphans get more money from agriculture. A key part of the program is AIDS prevention education. They are aided in this effort by The Slum Doctor Programme out of Bellingham, Washington. Many of the Americans involved with the Slum Doctors are were AIDS activists here before becoming involved in their out reach in Kenya and Uganda. I don't remember the circumstances exactly, but in discussions an American in discussions with the BSLA said "You can't say that, some of the people helping you are gay."

The other side of the coin comes from a friend in Uganda, the capital city Kampala. He was moved to do something about the suffering caused by AIDS. For him the issue couldn't be divorced from the extreme prejudice against same gender loving people. He tried hard to attack the prejudice and misinformation and was knocked down hard by the government for that. Public discussion of homosexuality is not tolerated. In thinking about my friend's experience, I'm so grateful for Gay Uganda's great blog, his courage for speaking out and the dialogs he's entered into. Of course trying to count the ways I'm grateful for all the work Sokari at Black Looks does, I loose count. But I count first how she has helped to provide a voice for same gender loving people across Africa and has highlighted the real issues involved.

Just recently my friend in Kampala found out about Ryan White. He asked if I'd ever heard of him. Well, of course I had. Ryan died at age 19 in April of 1990. It's hard to believe that he's been gone almost as many years as he lived. Ryan was diagnosed with AIDS when he was just 13. He gained national notoriety in his fight to attend regular school like an ordinary kid. Something I love about kids is their highly developed sense of fairness. Anyone who's been around kids will know: "It's not fair!" is a common complaint. What was so extraordinary about Ryan White was his confidence in knowing he was right. That confidence allowed him to confront the taunts and vile rumormongering with compassion and truth. He taught Americans not to hate. Almost 18 years after his death Ryan White's story still provides a beacon of hope that prejudice can be lessened and people can be real.

Across the world courageous individuals have risked social isolation and abuse to announce their HIV+ status publicly. Their genuine faces make AIDS prevention more urgent and effective. They also provide voice for AIDS treatment programs. There are very real and lasting solutions being implemented in conjunction with the treatment of AIDS. In Rwanda TRACnet, a system of computer and mobile phone technology presages improvements possible in developed countries. So much has been accomplished, but there is still so much to do!

A friend sent me a link to Infinite Family an organization which allows people all over the world to become mentors for AIDS orphans in Southern Africa. I think it's great. The Web site has a short introductory video. One statistic jumped out at me: 75% of the households in Zambia are caring for orphaned children. All over Africa the care of orphans is a great burden.

The request I hear most often from community based organizations in Uganda is assistance for school fees. The need is so great that you can find many great ways to support organizations in providing school fees. I'm really a fan of community to community solutions. Ask around among your friends and I bet that one of them at least is involved with a program to assist children affected by AIDS world wide. Most of the orphaned children do not have AIDS. Some, of course, are in orphanages, but many more are being cared for by extended family. Providing assistance for school fees is an enormous help. School immediately changes children's lives for the better, and has so many long term benefits too. Life in Africa has a program for assisting with school fees. Kayiwa Fred's Kampala Junior Team too.

I have no money and feel overwhelmed. So if you're like me, we just have to be creative in figuring out ways to help. We must not forget the those suffering as a result of AIDS. Clearly one person can't do much, but we can all do a little. The many of us doing something adds up to a lot.

Sometimes when the talk turns to AIDS a speeches about personal responsibility come out. Personal responsibility does play an important part in slowing the spread of AIDS. Too often, however, the speeches seem designed as a rationalizations for not doing anything. The attitude is: "It serves them right to suffer." But even for those who feel that way, the numbers of people affected through no fault of their own is huge: women raped as part of armed conflict, HIV free children orphaned by AIDS, people infected by medical equipment, and on and on. AIDS is a human disease and like all illness affects people; people not so different from ourselves.

All of us can do a part to prevent the spread of AIDS, and to heal the terrible toll the disease takes in all of our communities. The theme of World AIDS Day in the UK is Respect and Protect: Together we can end HIV prejudice. Now more than ever I think: Yes we can!

Monday, November 10, 2008


Khawuleza means go quickly, and it's the name of one of the songs Miriam Makeba is known for. Sadly Makeba passed away on Sunday. She was the final act in a concert near Naples organized in to support writer Roberto Saviano in his stand against the Camorra, a mafia-like organization.

I've already lost the link, but one of the obituaries I read said the audience was still clapping for an encore when the call went out for a doctor in the house. Here's a conventional news obituary and the very touching statement on her Web site.

To me Miriam Makeba is a larger than life figure and I'm sure my memories are pieced together not entirely accurately. Certainly it is true that Makeba died as she lived: an activist courageously supporting justice with her song. I hold the memory of her passing that she died with the sounds of affectionate applause as she quickly passed to a better place.

There are some lovely videos of Miriam Makeba on YouTube. I marked Khawuleza as a favorite quite a while ago. And I've searched Pata Pata over and over. That link was taken from Brazilian telivision and helpfully notes that Severino Dias de Oliveira, known as Sivuca was playing the guitar, and he seems to be playing in the Khawuleza video previous. Sivuca died last year. He collaborated with Makeba during her early career and arranged Pata Pata. He was a great artist and there's a truly wonderful video from Swedish TV in 1969 playing the accordian and vocalese.

Makeba was an International star in a way seemed so remarkable to me as a boy. I think I saw Makeba on the Ed Sullivan show, maybe not, but somewhere along the line encountered the Click Song. Discovering that clicks are a part of the Xhosa was one of those factoids that delighted me as a kid.

I'm not sure that as a boy I had much sense of geography. I was at least familiar with world maps and music drove my curiosity. Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66 were popular and Mas Que Nada was something of a revelation. I was prepubescent, so there was nothing sexual about it, but these, what we might call world music songs today, made me want to move and dance. I wanted to move my hips! Indeed one of the reasons I've searched for Pata Pata on YouTube is for the dancing. I've searched and can't locate it, but it seems to me that one of those old videos of Pata Pata has a break with a young girl dancing. I thought from the looks Makeba gave the child it must have been her late daughter, Bongi. I don't think so because she was too young and the dates don't really match. Still I mention the dancing because Makeba's songs and the few Brazilian songs that I heard as a child suggested a different way of dancing I'd never imagined before. I delight in seeing the dancing now.

A few summers ago I saw Miriam Makeba play at Hartwood Acres a county park near Pittsburgh which is one of the best venues for live performances I know. My sister and her children were visiting from Florida and we filled up the car to attend the show. My father is a Jazz buff and it was fun to see Evelyn Hawkins, then the new music director for the local Jazz station dance to Pata Pata. With radio voices we rarely know what the people look like. Ah, but Dr. Hawkins danced a dance like I would have dance top Pata Pata as a child.
"When they hear Pata Pata begin to play everyone gets up to dance."
Makeba collapsed after singing Pata Pata a song that spans generations. Daude's take on the song from around 1997 proves it's irresistible. I danced in the year 2000 with Miriam Makeba singing Pata Pata. It's very sad to have lost that voice.

Koranteng Ofosu-Amaah has a new toli up that's not to be missed. He's scanned many images from Drum Magazine, circa 1969. There's a whole set at Flickr. Koranteng is a wonderful storyteller, so the stories about Drum Magazine seem a heck of a lot more interesting than my recent curiosity about old Yankee Magazines. Obviously time moves on. All of what memory serves isn't very clear, but surely is important. I have no memory of Ghana in the late sixties, but the window into the times Koranteng provides is a very worthwhile excursion.

Time indeed goes quickly. Perhaps one use for reflection about the past, or at least some digging into the media of the past, is to see how alive with potential the present always is. So much water has run under the bridge in forty years time, and so many tears. Still, as we look at the life of Mariam Makeba there are so many tears, but triumph as well. She returned to South Africa after a long exile. Nelson Mandela became the duly elected president. Some dared to dream a new world. We can thank them by dreaming a better future and leading good lives.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Obama World

It's heading into Friday morning here and I'm still a little gobsmacked by Barack Hussein Obama's win.

I shared Tuesday night's television in the company of friends and got home late. I was curious about local tallies and went online--the race I was interested in wasn't called until hours later, at about 4 AM. Clearly going online was a bit obsessive. But when I turned on my computer there was an Instant Message from a friend in Kampala thanking me for voting and leaving the message "Yes we can!." And another friend from Uganda got online and excitedly joined in celebrating the victory. And it all made me very happy.

Something about Obama's win is there's a explicit command directed at me and others:
Stand up and do something useful!
It's not simply statement: "A change is gonna come!" rather it's a challenge: "What change will you make?" The latter is exciting, but requires some lifting.

Yesterday and today I've been reading reactions online. There sure are some smart people out there. I like smart people very much, but find them intimidating. There's some truth to the intimidating part--to make timid--but there's also some truth to a different response to smart people and that's inspiring--to stimulate action. So I've read some great posts, and feel a bit intimidated that I could say anything as good. Still it does seem worthwhile to say I'm inspired by Obama.

By an odd quirk of common usage the adjective "eloquent" when applied to a black person in America is often loaded with a quality of damning by faint praise. The broad brush attack on Obama was built on top of this subtlety: "Oh sure he can talk real pretty, but who really is Barack Obama?" Obama's words have moved me throughout the campaign. Picking out highlights in my mind I thought about the Speech in Philadelphia, A More Perfect Union, but in fact I was hooked on his speeches even earlier. I am reminded right now of blogging about will. i. am.'s Barack Obama music video and a comment left by The 27th Comrade which read in part:
I can't help seeing how nearly Stalinist America is. Kids wake up to recite old speeches, be told they live in the Greatest Country in the World, that their Freedom is better than anything, that they should be Lucky to be Americans ...
Do you spot any difference between that and George Orwell's 1984? Any whatsoever?
I got pointed to a great essay today by Rob McDougall via zunguzungu. McDougall's post is here. McDougall is a Canadian historian who teaches US History to Canadian students. His observations about the election are so smart the essay is worth reading entirely. Something he said put into perspective the songs, poetry and music that's been running through my head the last couple of days. And really it goes to the point The 27th Comrade makes, in a more gentle way:
Being a Canadian living in America, Bercovitch said, was like being Sancho Panza in a nation of Don Quixotes. There was a secret everybody knew but him, a music everybody else but him could hear. Remember, Sancho Panza is Quixote's pragmatic sidekick. Sancho knows that Quixote is delusional and deranged--where Quixote sees dragons, Sancho sees only windmills--but he comes to envy his master's world of enchantment.
I do hear the music and they are American songs. McDougall's observation helps me to understand how sometimes absurd it all must sound to outside ears. I'm very fond of the fact that McDougall tries to help his students make some sense of it:
But I like my students to at least try to hear the music. To imagine themselves Americans for a day. To contemplate the possibility that words like "all men are created equal" might be bigger and more noble and enduring than the flawed men who wrote them. Like George Lucas and the original Star Wars.
McDougall surmises that our American capacity to suspend disbelief is not a bug but a feature.
Anyway, I guess I must be a lost cause. Revoke my Canadian citizenship. Because last night, for a few hours at least, I totally bought the myth. Like Walt Whitman, I heard America singing.
It's been a happy thing to read posts on the election from people outside the USA which say in so many words that they too "heard America singing."

As usual I've blathered on too long already, and I have a final point in mind. Before I go on to that I better mention the picture, an album cover from the 1970's and a song you can listen to at Youtube. I put it up because I thought I was going to riff off another of my favorite posts of the last couple of days by numerian at The Agonist. Instead, I'll just link to that. It's about this peculiar American music we hear too.

The final point is the posts that impressed me today were of the sort that we need to roll up our sleeves and get to work. There's a reason bloggers so often link to What Digby says. What Digby says in that piece is if we want President Obama to make effect important change, we'll have to make him do it. We've got to make it work. Chris Clarke makes a similar point in his essay On centrism. Stirling Newberry raises the flag in his post For Equal Marriage. In fact, Digby, Clarke, Newberry and many others have been saying as much for years. But for a person like me, slow and a little lazy, the American music that McDougall spoke about is ringing loud in my ears now.

Along the election trail Barack Obama told the story of an encounter with a council woman in Greenwood, South Carolina named Edith Childs. I've listened to his account several times and if you can view videos you can watch and hear him tell the story here. I don't get tired hearing the story. A big part of it for me is Obama's description of Edith Childs, with her "big hat, looks like she's coming from church." It's a sort of image etched on my brain, so that even while I have no idea what Mrs. Childs looks like, I picture her from that description. Edith Childs it turns out is famous for her chant: "Fired up!" and everybody says Fired Up! then she calls out "Ready to go!" and everybody sings out "Ready to go!" Obama speaks of that encounter and how it moved him:
One voice can change a room, and if it can change a room, it can change a city, and if it can change a city, it can change a state, and if it can change a state then it can change a nation and if it can change a nation it can change a world."
My task, the task for all of us, is to find our voice and use it.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Atomic Energy

In the center of the old Yankee magazines is a centerfold. For a very nominal price you could send a self-addressed stamped envelope for an unfolded copy, suitable for framing. This one is "Old-time Lane, Parsonsfield, Maine" by George French from the September 1968 issue. Today is an "Indian Summer" day, bright in the morning it's now clouded over, but it is still warm. And the colors are of autumn.

Studs Terkel died on Friday at age 96. Terkel made oral histories. He was on the radio for over forty years and wrote books of oral histories. The Chicago History Museum has a wonderful Web page that provides lots of links to some of Studs Terkel's recordings. I feel rather pleased that his recordings are being preserved, because they are a unique window onto American history.

I often go to the grocery store on Saturdays. I listen to the radio when I do, to WYEP-FM generally. WYEP-FM is an independent community radio station which plays the adult alternative format. They stream. The weekend features long-running shows with community DJs. In the afternoon is the Soul Show with Mike Canton and Stephen Chatman. The trip to the store catches about 3 songs and some chatter and 3 and some on the way back. It's a blast for me. Partly it's the nostalgia, also a good part is the banter of Chatman and Canton. Remembering takes storytelling, and telling stories again and again.

WYEP's audience is firmly adult now. I'm fond of it because I remember when the station started in the neighborhood I lived in at the time, back when I was youthful. Nowadays the cool station probably is WRCT, at least it's the freeform station in town. But I don't receive it well where I live. Perhaps the premiere freeform is WFMU in the USA is WFMU and regardless of your musical tastes WFMU's Beware of the Blog is worth checking out.

My minimal contact with young people today suggests to me that young people know a lot about music. They seem to know what their parents like and a host of obscure players and genres of music, hence the playlists at WRCT. My favorite show is Dubmission with host Kerem and if you're into playlists the Dubmission list would be worth getting emailed to you weekly. That Dubmission is coming up on its tenth anniversary on air makes me think I don't have a clue about young people today. I still like music and lots of it.

Right now as I write, I'm listening to Last FM and I truly do enjoy being able to explore music on sites like YouTube. But there's something essential in the human voice. I'm happy there's a radio station that I can listen to that features real voices. Of course there's too much to listen to online. David Dye's World Cafe is on lots of local radio stations or you can listen by stream. This American Life produces great stories. Again the program runs on many stations and streams. There are so many great blogs too which provide great stories and music in context.

In Native tradition is the Twisted Hair, the storyteller who kept the traditions alive. Twisted Hair hasn't visited me, and that's not my tradition anyway. Although I must say that I do love Native American stories very much. Stories are nonetheless very important to people all, and there's nothing like hearing a story with ones own ears. So it is with sadness that I note Studs Terkel's passing. I will miss his humane voice.

Somewhere I lost the plot.

The title is Atomic Energy and comes from my nostalgic reading of old Yankee magazines. There's a story about Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power in the April 1968 issue. There's a short statement by members of Anti-Pollution League. I wish the black and white photos in the magazine scanned better because it's quite charming to see pictures of the regular people. Henry Peterson was chairman of the League. He was a retired from Federal Civil Service. Mrs. Thomas Panzera is pictured making phone calls with a big bottle of rubber cement on her desk. Here's the gist of the League's argument:
So far, nuclear energy is being used only on a statistically insignificant scale. The real development is yet going to happen. There will be a continuous traffic of radioactive substances from the "hot" chemical plants to the nuclear stations and back again; from the stations to waste processing plants; and from there to disposal sites. The slightest accident, whether during transport or production, can cause a major catastrophe, and radiation levels throughout the world will rise relentlessly form generation to generation.
John McCain has called for the construction of forty-five new Nuclear power generation plants by 2030 as a cornerstone for his energy policy. Blogger Dr. Ducan Black at Eschaton contends that many Republican policy positions are taken simply because "They piss liberals off." He makes a good point, but like it or not all of us are simply going to have to come to grips with energy issues.

Thankfully election day is just a few days away. I've got my fingers crossed that Obama will win. I dread having to listen to John McCain and Sarah Palin very often. But, I've enjoyed checking back at Palin as President Web site which they promise will be updated until election day. The slogan "Drill Baby, Drill!" really pisses me off; it strikes me as wishful thinking. Jim Roddey is a local Republican big wig who's often on TV. Early in the year, while the candidates were still running in the Primaries, he repeated often: There's plenty of oil and gas if only the environmentalists would let us drill for it. Roddey is one of those endangered "moderate" Republicans and has a reputation for being smart. Taking that "smart" part into account, I figured he was simply being disingenuous. The scary part is I think now he really believes it. And it would seem that such simple minded and erroneous thinking pisses liberals off only adds to his certainty! Even if Barack Obama is elected on Tuesday, they'll be plenty of Americans who think that the solution to our energy demand is just one wish away.

Earlier this year Mother Jones did a feature on the nuclear option. It's worth checking out, indeed as other reporting on the subject Mother Jones has published. For the thirtieth anniversary of mass arrest at the Seabrook, NH Anti-Nuclear protest, Mother Jones put a a photo essay of the protests. There are stories about nuclear power generation we ought to tell, if for no other reason than to disabuse ourselves of the notion that nuclear is a simple solution. The story of Vermont Yankee reveals the challenges of both "too big to fail" and what a couple of decades of deregulation has wrought. Earlier in the year journalist Christian Parenti questions What Nuclear Renaissance? Nuclear power is a long story and not one that's easily taken in.

Joe Klein of Time magazine reports:
As Obama told me in our interview, a government-propelled transition to an alternative-energy economy will be his most important initiative. Translated into Washington terms, this means a massive infrastructure and stimulus package — in the neighborhood of $300 billion, according to the current speculation. There is a back-to-the-future quality to this: it's what used to be derided as big-spending liberalism. The Beltway consensus is that the economic crisis makes it necessary now. But public cynicism about government requires that the next President builds accountability into his spending programs. That's why the Infrastructure Bank that Obama proposed during the campaign may be crucial: it would create a bipartisan board of five governors who would judge and approve all major projects.
My memory isn't so reliable, but I think that I attended Bob Marley's last concert. I can't remember the date, whether it was in 1979 or 1980. According to the Wikipedia article on Bob Marley his his final concert at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on September 23, 1980. I definitely saw him at that venue. Some local memory was that the concert at the Stanley was in 1979 and his last concert was at the Mellon Arena. I don't know who's right. But I do remember quite clearly, and with emotion, hearing Marley perform Redemption Song. I can't but be filled with emotion when I hear this song even today. But I've always been puzzled by the line: "Have no fear for atomic energy/because none of us can stop the time." Puzzling as that line is "Old pirates yes they rob I" couldn't be more clear.

We must engage in a genuine way with the very real problems we face today. There's no "magic bullet" that will solve our energy and climate dilemma. Bob Marley quotes Marcus Garvey's words some forty years prior to penning his Redemption Song: "None but ourselves can free our minds." That's a great responsibility. Marley surely had twisted hair, and perhaps more than any other artist of the 20th Century reminded us that our stories, our past, has great lessons for us going forward. He entreats us:
Won't you help to sing, these songs of freedom

Cause all I ever had, redemption songs

Redemption songs, redemption songs
Sing out sisters and brothers! We got lots of work to do and the work needs every one of us.

Update: Per Pingting the lyric of Redemption Song is correctly:
Wo! have no fear for atomic energy,
cause none of them-a can-a stop-a the time.
I really like Pingting's take on they meaning of the lyric too.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Hum I'm not very fond of being tagged in blog tag, but I've got to admit that I do enjoy it when others play. I've been tagged and with great trepidation, I'll play along.

The first is a meme started by Natalia Antonova The 8 Homes Game: Where would you have yours, if you were as insanely rich as the McCains?

The full instructions:
Where Would Your 8 Homes Be?

List them. You don’t have to list your reasons, but if you do at least for a few of them, it would be more fun. And remember that the only rule is: the homes must be within the borders of the United States of America or else, within the borders of the country you live in, so as to utterly emulate the McCains. When you’re done, tag 8 people, so that they may join in the self-indulgence, forgetting about the crappy property market and the equivalent of The End of Pompeii on Wall-Street. You could spend your time hammering your doors and windows shut in preparation for the apocalypse instead, but it would be much less fun.
Egads! Thinking rich isn't so easy. I might say "Screw the rich!" but I've never really had much contact. There might rich people I'd like very much, but maybe not to be screwed by them.

My eight houses:
1. Thistlemoor, New Sewickley Pennsylvania
2. Manufacturing Village, Jinja, Uganda
3. Urban neighborhood, Kampala, Uganda
4. Farm in Deschapelles, Haiti
5. Sustainable resort, Goa, India
6. Resort hostel, Da Lat, Vietnam
7. Small house in Iquitos, Peru
8. Small hotel, Elkins, West Virgina

1. If I were rich one of my homes would surely be where I live now. We call it Thistlemoor and Pingting has a nice set of photos of the place. If I were rich I fix the place up a bit, insulation, windows, porch floors and stuff like that. I would also build a small greenhouse and find some way to use the old silo to good effect. But I love where I live very much.

2. Mostly I'd like places where I'd be welcomed more than anything else. If I were rich I would like to make comfortable places for my friends to live too. LOL many of my friends are online friends.

So I would start in Uganda. My friend Nathan lives near Iganga and the city focus is more towards Jinja. Jinja was once the manufacturing center of Uganda. I think what I would build there would be something that supports mixed housing and light manufacturing.

3. I've got several friends in Kampala. Part of the complexity of urban architecture has to do with the way money flows. Often the way money flows determines what gets built in all sorts of crazy ways. I'm sure I could build a nice house in Kampala. What I would like to build is a nice neighborhood to live. If I were rich I would try to build following along the ideas of Christopher Alexander in his book The Production of Houses. I don't want just a house I want a neighborhood where me and my friends can live.

4. Being rich must be really weird. Here's a story of a local rich man, now deseased:
Larry Mellon, who had left his family home in Pittsburgh as a young man to become a rancher in Arizona, became inspired by a 1947 Life magazine article about Albert Schweitzer and his hospital in Gabon, West Africa. Larry began a correspondence with Dr. Schweitzer, and with his encouragement, attended Tulane Medical School where he studied tropical medicine. While visiting Haiti to complete a malaria research project, Larry and Gwen discovered a setting for what would become their lives’ efforts.
I'd build a small sustaining farm near Deschapelles, Haiti.

5. Sustainable resorts are quite possible, I think. Going on long with my idea of connecting my houses with friends on the Internet a couple of resorts come to mind. The first is Goa, India. I'd like a nice resort village near Goa very much.

6. Another beautiful place on Earth is Da Lat, Vietnam.

7. About a year back I started checking out various social networking sites. At Hi5 I've met some really nice folks from Peru. When I thought of Peru before Hi5 I thought of the Andes Mountains. But many of the folks I've met are from the Peruvian Amazon region. I have a hard time deciding between a house in Pucallpa or Iquitos. I bet I'd choose Iquitos, if for no other reason than it's the largest city anywhere that cannot be reached by road.

8. I was born in Western Virginia. There are very many very sacred locations everywhere. But the mountains of West Virginia and Virginia are especially blessed. Along Otter Creek in the Monogahela National Forest is the most sacred ground I've ever walked. In my mind's eye I see a small cabin in the woods. But I suspect I'd like a little in near Elkins, West Virgina.

The next meme is the Seven Things Meme, seven random facts about myself. The rules:
* Link to your tagger and list these rules on your blog.

* Share 6 / 7 facts about yourself on your blog - some random, some weird.

* Tag 6/ 7 people at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blog.

* Let them know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog
1. I don't like blog tag very much! I'm a wimp when it comes to tagging others--hardly have the courage for it.

2. I like to make paper party hats.

3. I like crystallized ginger very much, have since I was a very small lad.

4. I'm wearing my hair in a pony tail nowadays. So far as I know there's not a photo of me showing it yet. It's the longest my hair has ever been. For years I cut my hair myself about four times a year whether it needed it or not.

5. I have it in mind to write a book on gardening called The Incompetent Gardener.

6. Sometimes my temper gets the better of me. The picture is taken from a page at Resiting Women.
In May 2007 in Knoxville (USA), a ARA (Anti Racist Action) clown block has disturbed a VNN Vanguard Nazi/KKK rally. Maybe the most sublime and funniest, non violent, antiracist and feminist action you have ever read about!
That's how I'd aspire to tame my temper.

7. Of all my crazy ideas one I really would like to put some action to is to organize an I Love You Day Parade. I saw the idea for I Love You Day at the old site, but haven't been able to locate whose idea it was. Still, it's the greatest idea for a holiday. What better way to celebrate than a parade!

Okay the business part. First the photo and content from Resiting Women is published with a Creative Commons Attribution--Share Alike licence. I tag: Ndelo, Linda, Norbert, Shawn4lia, Grace, Wilfred, and Amanda.

Monday, October 27, 2008

"I Tame Beavers"

Pinting wanted to know more about my raccoon problem, but there really isn't a good story about it. There's a raccoon which has taken up residence in the upstairs of that barn where there's a lot of stuff. The raccoon has made a mess of things and I've been avoiding the problem for a long time. The best suggestion I've seen is to lay out ammonia soaked rags. I've done nothing but ignore the animal. The best thing is the raccoon mostly tries to keep clear of me when I'm up in the barn. I see it but we don't exchange glances. My fear is getting bit on my butt.

The title of this post comes directly from an article from the March 1968 Yankee. An electrical engineer tells in his own words how he's gotten the beavers on his property to eat out of his hand. Beavers fell trees with their sharp teeth to build dams and houses made from logs and mud. Beavers look rather cute, see this photo by krrrista at Flickr. But I'm sure I'd think long and hard before putting food in my hand to entice a beaver to eat--yikes! Raccoons can be very cute, but this photo by nal from maimi at Flickr is precisely why I want to avoid too intimate interactions with the one in the barn.

There's a good selection of Yankee magazines from 1968. That was such a pivotal year in my life. As it's now forty years on, I've been thinking quite a bit about 1968 and the aftermath all year long. One of the ways is to read writing from the sixties. One of the best books I read this year was The Secular City by Harvey Cox. I really enjoyed reading David Hajdu's Lives and times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina entitled Positively 4th Street. I was 13 in 1968, but I still keep wondering what the heck happened because there was such a sense at the time that the times were changing. Of course they were, just not in ways I would have predicted.

Today I was thinking about muddling along and pulled a book off my self, Muddling Toward Frugality: A Blueprint for Survival in the 1980's by Warren Johnson. Clearly that book is not from the sixties, rather it was published in 1979, but goes to my question: What happened? I can find no listings for the book on the various used book sources online, it's just such a period piece I guess nobody thinks to save it. Nonetheless the ideas in the book are still important.

The book was published by Shambhala Publications and I remember being impressed with it in those days. I also remember a friend laughing and saying something like, "Only you would love a book called Muddling Toward Frugality!" Alas I haven't been very good about putting my convictions into actions. Over the last couple of years by way of the Internet I've met Linda Nowakowski. She's in Thailand, but is from my neck of the wood. Just a bit older than me, she also experienced the sense of transformative change that seemed pervasive back in the days and which has been such a subject of fascination for me of late. However, I'm sure Linda never followed my wastrel ways. She's a great student of Buddhist economics, something I'd not heard of until I met her online.

Johnson's preface begins:
If we are to enjoy this planet for a long time, we may as well face the fact that trying to perpetuate the affluent society is going to be an uphill struggle.
An early chapter in the book is "An Ecological View of History." That chapter helped to bring together a more cohesive view of ecology. I was familiar with Hans Zinsser's famous book Rats, Lice and History along with extensions of Rachel Carson's work on pesticides steming from Silent Spring. But I hadn't really put together an ecological view of history that is a widespread idea nowadays, before Muddling. Many have read Jared Diamond's, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. But back at the cusp of the 1980's an ecological view of history was something a specialist would adopt and not so widely understood as it is now.

Linda Nowakowski is busy helping organize The 2nd International conference of the Buddhist Economics Research Platform which will be held at Ubon Ratchathani University, Warin Chamrab, Ubon Ratchathani Thailand Dec. 5-7, 2008. So there's lots of current work for me to acquaint myself with, although the main thing is that I ought to straighten up and start walking my talk better.

Sokari at Black Looks recently linked to an Utne Reader list of 50 Visionaries who are changing your world. It's a cool list, remarkable people all, but in going down the list I was excited to see brownfemipower on it. I do enjoy blogs very much. I can say some unbelievably stupid things sometimes and I know it. The intersection of race and feminism is once place where I might get called out on my foolishness. I've learned to do a lot more listening and less talking in those sorts of places. Being called out is of course a way to learn; the trouble is, while I may be stupid I don't like to cause distress to others. Blundering in is not the best strategy. Learning not to be ignorant and callous towards others are high on my agenda.

I was tickled pink that brownfemipower was on the list. And while I was over there savoring her blog, it's always a time for putting on my thinking cap, what was perhaps a throw away line brought something in focus about myself. She wrote:
it’s working through ideas that i’ve been struggling with for a long time, and it’s doing through my ADD lens rather than my logical make sense lens
"ADD lens," by golly I know that lens! It would behoove me to learn a bit more about my "logical make sense lens," but that will have to wait for another time. Meanwhile if you're looking for some great stuff, I highly recommend checking out Utne visionary, brownfemipower.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


Pingting points out that there are some dead links in my posts, in particular the link the link to the African Children's Book Project. That project is something I think very important so I want to make fix it. Actually this link is to a new site which provides more information and a link to the Ethiopia Reads Web site. The efforts to publish more in everyday languages is vitally important.

Yesterday I spent the day gardening with a good friend. She's got her doctorate in psychology. I also hung out with one of her brothers who is a psychiatrist. So my thoughts went all mental.

Something about the old Yankee magazines I've recently dug out is how the Great Depression of the 1930's is never very far out of mind. One story Miss Susan's Bell revolves around a home invasion and burglary of an of a blind elderly school teacher. It's a clever story where Miss Bell outsmarts the burglar, a former student of hers. Here's how the story relates that detail:
Years ago there had been dire poverty in the village--and she had some little money. She gave of her savings then and over the years as she gave of her time, without stint, and a few respected her secret--her minister, the mayor, the town nurse. Yet, because she neither banked nor spent on herself, small town logic knew the cash had to be somewhere.
The Depression was a very pivotal event for my parents, perhaps even more so than WWII, at least the Depression lasted longer and during their school years. About the war, my mother always would recall how her graduating class provided the first officers to be sent to the war and the casualties were very high. So her generation as youths went from depression to terror and sadness.

Clinical depression is clearly different from economic depression, but I think the link is more than just metaphorical.

Right now the "experts" are telling us this current economic crisis is the worst since the Great Depression. On the news last week I saw a report about a businessman whose business was to clear out reposed houses in California so the banks could sell them. It was eerie to see how people left, furnishings, children's toys, even food in the refrigerator. The economic logic of the business meant it all went to a landfill which seemed unreasonable to me. But the big thing I took away from the report was how the people were depressed. There were probably better ways they could have left these houses, but in their mental state it was too hard to think of how, or to muster the energy to do so. Even people ostensibly secure for the moment are on pins and needles because we've got a feeling that a financial house of cards is falling and nobody's prepared.

John Robb offered terse advice yesterday:
A word to the wise: Hoard/hide cash (not in a safety deposit box since those are vulnerable). Cut consumption to the bone. Get ready.
Yikes! Robb's Global Guerrillas is good to read for one take on how to react to this situation from a policy perspective. There's no shortage of opinion on that front but there's still a hurdle among regular folks like me that's something like not wanting to talk about economic depression for fear that will bring it on. It is quite unsettling to hear really smart and knowledgeable people preface their remarks on the economy with: "I hope I'm wrong." The optimistic talk about a major slump and I'll try to be optimistic. It probably would be better if I tried being realistic!

I'm being so glum I have to laugh at myself! Ah, the connection with the visit with my friends. They both interact with people with psychological problems, and depression is not the only way people suffer. But in any case, through different approaches, my friend a therapist, her brother a psychiatrist, they both try to lead people along a path towards healing. So the question in mind was whether what they know about psychology provides clues as to how to proceed out of an economic depression? I'm not so sure about the answer, I'm not even sure whether it's a sensible question to begin with. Nevertheless after the gardening work was done, I enjoyed talking with my friend with that question in mind.

I noticed a book Women Who Run With the Wolves in my friend's bathroom. I was curious to leaf through it to see what stories the author, Clarissa Pinkola Estes had used in her book. After that I questioned my friend about whether she uses stories in her therapeutic work. She says she doesn't, but I think she does. Needless to say, she's the expert and better believed than me. In any case we got to talking about stories and she brought out some fairy cards and we did short readings for each other and talked about those stories. I was quite taken with Niniane, who goes by various names but is the well-known Lady of the Lake.

The African Children's Book Project's first book, Fire on the Mountain was an Ethiopian story told for an American audience and then translated into Amharic. After that book was published they went around to Ethiopian villages wanting to hear stories told around fires. They heard one ancient story of "biblical proportions" unique to the area. That book will be called The Lady and The Lake. There's no direct connection between the Ethiopian story and the Lady of the Lake of Arthurian Legend.

My opinion is that stories help people to respond rather than to simply react. It matters that we tell stories. Part of the charm of the old Yankee magazines is that many of the stories in them recall hardships. Another of the fairy cards we drew, I can't remember her name, centered around the observation that sorrows are like carving a chalice or bowl to hold the joys of life. Whether it's economic depression or clinical depression, a shift in perspectives can assist us towards proceeding in a constructive way. Stories provide an imaginative place for us to engage with alternatives. Perhaps stories are a way for us to begin seeing our way out of our depressions.

Picture credit: Painting by Vincent Van Gogh, On the Threshold of Eternity. Source.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Ghost Stories

The story from an August 1969 Yankee this morning was entitled Spirit Capital of the Universe which apparently 100 or so years ago was Chittenden, Vermont. The story is about William & Horatio Eddy. The Wikipedia article gives the gist about the facts in the article, but the "neutral tone" that Wikipedia misses some of the fun of the magazine article. Yankee is a good source for ghost stories and I remember as a boy seeking them out to read. Indeed the illustrations to the article I picked up today seem familiar to me now.

I have no idea what to make of ghosts and find it rather convenient not to be much bothered by them. Over the years my sisters' and brothers' children have come to visit here in the summers. Now most of them are adults. A few years back I heard that while they enjoyed these visits they also often found them terrifying. Then a while back I mentioned this to one of my sisters who in turned wondered why I should be surprised; afterall, "You're the one who told them all those ghost stories." I hadn't the faintest idea what she was talking about and let her know that. She just rolled her eyes. And another time I had the same discussion with my niece. No ghost stories huh? "What about the one... and another one, and another one?" Well, this time there was no denying those were my stories and I had told them after all.

New England surely has no monopoly on ghost stories, but it's no slouch as a region when it comes to them either. I've always been interested in the number of old buildings around that were Spiritualist Churches. And of course New England is quite famous for witches. I couldn't imagine that I'd been the source of so much terror to my darling nieces and nephews growing up. I feel quite sure I hadn't meant to terrify them. But that my now adult niece could recite so easily from memory the the stories I'd told busted my pretences completely. So when the story about Governor Palin and the witch hunting Pastor Muthee made the rounds it was hard for me to get into high dudgeon about it. We all compartmentalize what we think about and it would seem we put ghost stories way back in our mental closets. Sometimes it's a bit embarrassing to get them out and sometimes we worry about the cold water that might get poured over them. But still we hardly ever really discard them; rather store them way back in our mental closets until we might use them once more.

I have no ideas how to connect ghost stories with a couple of links to share, so I won't even try. Emeka Okafor at Timbuktu Chronicles links to a great article about open source hardware in Wired. Phil Jones linked to SomeRightsReserved a site where designers post blueprints for making things. Both of these developments may be on the edge or periphery of things right now, but I strongly suspect they'll make it to the middle before too long.

Okafor makes the point that open source hardware could be a real boon to African manufacturing culture. That's a good point, but also as the reality of job loss begins to settle in here in the rich countries, many smart people are going to be scrambling to make some income. We're accustomed to talking about outsourcing here in the USA, but the discussion of social media and how it might impact our making a living is just beginning. I said a couple of links, but I'll make it three. Susan Mernit posted a great post Susan sez: Social media must haves for the recently laid off. I liked it because while I frequent all sorts of social media online, I'm really quite stupid and haphazard about it. Her straight forward post suggested to me ways I could be smarter about it. That may be wishful thinking on my part,still it's a great primer on the subject.

Naturally there are great differences and distances between people in developed economies and in developing economies. But there are fundamental challenges we all face and new tools and models of work are available to people all over.

Grace Ayaa--oh here's a fourth link--posted a great post from Kampala A little light in the shadows about her visit to learn more about the Kampala Junior Team. I was so moved by the post. First of all because Madam Ayaa does so much on behalf of her fellow Ugandans and I'm so happy to see her blogging to tell her stories. Oh and what a great story teller she is! And secondly the idea I've been mulling about the last few days is how to make some money to help support the Kampala Junior Team. Her post encourages me not to give up on that. I need encouragement and I think others do to. I'm beginning to see how these social Web tools can make a big difference here and abroad. Together we can create something good in small increments.

The Wired article about open source hardware suggests that this sort of distributed effort can actually speed development. But it's going to mean we'll have to rethink a few things.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

School Days

I'm still leafing through old Yankee Magazines. This morning with my coffee I read passages from a diary of a schoolteacher from 1912 when Miss Amy C. Jarvis was just 19 and set out from near Boston to Hancock Massachusetts to become schoolma'am.

Just before the article is a small photo essay of New England school houses. The most forlorn of all is the one shown--sorry for the poor quality of the scan. I was surprised to see the schoolhouse was in Kennebunkport, Maine, a place famous for the Bush family's summer compound along with many other opulent estates.

The legendary Yankee thrift stems in part from the difficulty making a living in New England. The winters are long and hard, the soil often poor and sandy and settlements isolated by geography.

When Miss Jarvis arrived at the Pittsfield train station she was met by a Mr. Jones, the driver of a stage. The early entries recall the journey to her lodgings with stops along the way:
So we jolted along, stopping now and then for him to deliver packages and newspapers to people along the route. He is the errand boy and takes his time visiting with each one. No doubt he told them who was his passenger was and where she was going to teach. When we started going through the hills it was nearly dark and quite cold, so he wrapped me in a pungent horse blanket which kept me warm. The houses were miles apart and no lights except those shining faintly from the windows. We met few travelers and it was very still.
Before being taken to her accommodations Mr. Jones stopped the stage at the White's homestead. Mr. White was the president of the school board and they were to take supper with the White family.
Mr. White then spoke of my new position. 'We've had awful bad luck with that school up thar. Five teachers in five years, and they ran the last one out bodily...I had to go and git her back. The kids need ploughin' under. Think ye can do it?' He looked at me skeptically, so I said timidly, 'I can try anyway.'
The "ploughin' under" bit made me laugh because I once tried my hand at teaching and the students got the better of me.

The whole article charmed me. I was impressed with Miss Jarvis's courage and the general good temper of the families she lived and worked among. Her home was near Boston and at the end of the school year did not take up a commission for the next year so she could return closer to home. The students at her schoolhouse attended until they were in ninth grade. In those days children 14 or 15 were expected to begin their working lives at that age. A few of the incidents related in her diary suggested the older boys were chomping at the bit to get on with it.

Those boys reminded me of a story book my New England grandmother sent me for Christmas when I was in third grade, The Grandma Moses Storybook. Although the book is worse for wear, I still have it as a treasured possession. Grandma Moses, Anna Mary Moses was born in 1860 and died at the ripe old age of 101 in 1961. She began painting in her seventies and became an acclaimed American folk artist. The storybook contains poems, stories and speeches which complement the prints of Moses's paintings. As a boy I was fascinated with these stories of olden times.

One of the stories is School Surprise which is excerpted from Laura Engalls Wilder's book Farmer Boy a book depicting a year in the life of Wilder's husband Almanzo's childhood.

Almanzo Wilder's boyhood school apparently suffered some of the awful time the community of Hancock was having keeping teachers.
'The Hardscrabble boys came to school today, Royal tells me.'
'Yes,' Mr. Corse said.
'I hear they're saying they'll throw you out.'
Mr. Corse said, 'I'll guess they'll be trying it.'
Father drank his tea. 'They have driven out two teachers,' he said. 'Last year they hurt Jonas Lane so bad he died of it later.'
'I know,' Mr. Corse said. 'Jonas Lane and I went to school together . He was my friend.'
Suitably for a children's book the showdown between Mr. Corse and the Hardsrabble boys turns in Mr. Corse's favor in a dramatic scene where he pulls out a blacksnake ox whip and gets the better of them. Those olden days were rough and tumble it seems and providing education a struggle.

It's easy sometimes to forget the struggle, but one is constantly reminded of it by communities in the developing world. It's a struggle that's ripe for people all over to join in.

I saw a page yesterday, the African Children's Book Project which really pulled on my heart strings. Piers Elrington, and his good friend in Ethiopia Selam Negussie undertook a project to publish an adaptation of an Ethiopian story by Jane Kurtz called Fire on the Mountain in Amharic, one of the languages broadly spoken in Ethiopia. They contracted an Ethiopian artist to do illustrations and produced a run of 5,000 copies of their book. Most of the run was distributed free to school children, most of them whom had never seen a book written in their own language before.

They want to do more books. I hope they do. But I understand well the dilemma of Piers that what to do next to make more books happen isn't so clear. Here's what he says:
What can you do to help?
At the moment not a lot, but if you are interested to help, pass the details of this blog to everyone you know, give me feed back and ideas, find me a lawyer who knows how to set up a charity who would like to give his/her time for free and keep checking this page for any new information which will be coming slowly over the next few months.
Thanks for coming and reading this far if you did,
I hope to hear from you.
Got some feedback for Piers, then don't tarry, run to his place and leave a comment.