Sunday, December 06, 2009

Interesting Times

"May you live in interesting times." Is a a well known curse, and such times are now. They were yesterday too. Sometime in early December I stumbled upon the Fujian Tulou. I think I was looking at links about Madame Chaing Kai-shek and discovered a reference to the Hakka people of China and had never heard of them. From thence saw the references to Fujian Tulou which were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.

Architecturally these buildings are interesting, and the other pictures from Fon Zhou's Flicker stream are worth a look. They are built of massive rammed-earth walls with some of them dating back to the 12th Century. These compounds were defensive structures protecting congregations of about 300 families. Unlike modern apartment buildings almost everywhere, there were no "deluxe" units; everyone got the same. So the heritage is not just a building but a way of life which has persisted for hundreds of years.

I fret about all sorts of things, consequential and not so consequential. Of the former sort the twin predicament of peak oil and global climate change stand out. I'm very thankful to John Michael Greer for casting these as a predicament rather than problems to be solved.
The question that has to be asked is whether a modern industrial society can exist at all without vast and rising inputs of essentially free energy, of the sort only available on this planet from fossil fuels, and the answer is no. Once that’s grasped, other useful questions come to mind – for example, how much of the useful legacy of the last three centuries can be saved, and how – but until you get past the wrong question, you’re stuck chasing the mirage of a replacement for oil that didn’t take a hundred million years or so to come into being.
Back in the 1970's there were two periods of sharp rises in oil prices in the USA in 1973 and in 1979. In both cases the proximate cause was political, and in both the economic ramifications were pronounced. As a young person at the time the realization that oil was a finite resource was brought home and I was eager to imagine appropriate responses. I did a lot of failing around, but nothing terribly productive as my peers established themselves in careers. Over the years I never thought that what I'd found out about oil as a finite resource back then was wrong, but events sure didn't turn out like I thought they would.

I don't know how long Business Week keeps it's content online, but in this week's edition is a story, Endless Oil: Technology, politics, and lower demand will yield a bumper crop of crude. The piece ends:
A nasty oil shock is always possible. But the case for bountiful oil is strong.
My own reaction to the story was that if there is a strong argument to be made, the story hadn't accomplished it. Then again, I'm no expert. Something I noticed about the expert opinions quoted in the article is they came from Cambridge Energy Research Associates. My general impression of CERA is the research they provide industry is premised in economic methods.

Lately the whole field of economics is in crisis. Back in early September Paul Krugman wrote a piece for The New York Times Magazine, How Did Economists Get It So Wrong? which has been much discussed online. In this weeks The New Yorker John Cassidy has a piece After The Blowup: Laissez-faire economists do some soul-searching--and finger-pointing which deals with the consequences to the Chicago School of economics. The article is online only for subscribers. Much of the negative reaction to Krugman's piece in particular is in the form of "No we didn't!" Cassidy's piece presents some economists squarely in this camp, but many more economists are coming around to admitting that the finacial crisis does indeed suggest a failure. Perhaps "crisis" is too strong a word to describe what's happening within the economics field, and the more gentle construction is that the economic crisis "raises questions." Even the willingness to ask questions seems an advance in the field of economics.

John Michael Greer's post linked to earlier makes the point that mostly we've failed to ask the right questions. Perhaps as a field economists are forced to question whether they've been asking the right ones. So far I've seen too little engagement with the predicament of peak oil and climate change in the economic field. What's troubling to me about the Business Week article is how speculation is translated into positive fact. I'm left unconvinced.

Ah, but that leaves me wondering, while thinking our predicament is dire: What am I gonna do?

I don't have a good plan. The New Year is always a time for thinking anew, whether I want to or not. It's the middle of the month of January already, so I figured I'd put up my question to remind myself to start asking questions, and to start to do something. If nothing else the Fujian Tulou remind me that people in other periods of predicament responded in ingenious ways. Perhaps I can respond creatively too.

Happy New Year everyone.

Thursday, November 26, 2009


If it's mentors we're nominating, I think I'd be about the last picked. Not the last probably, because I certainly never want to hurt anyone. It's not as if I don't have anything to share. Mentors are supposed to be trusted counselors to the inexperienced, and for what it's worth I've been experienced. Oh wait, maybe that's a disqualification for being a mentor? Anyhow,the main reason I'd be so far down on the list is I lack a certain wisdom. Wisdom, it seems is not only knowing what is right and and true, but also being able to put an action to it. That's the part, the wisdom, I lack.

Among the blogs I read are several that pursue the subject of peak oil from one direction or another. Most observers concerned about the ramifications of being on the downside of Hubbert's peak also seem to be quite hep to the consequences of global climate change too. For my part I'm convinced of both, but sometimes reading what I do gives me a big headache, and other times heartache. What I really want to hear is that everything is going to be alright, but I think otherwise.

Dave Pollard has a post up What Happens Nest: A Timeline for Civilizational Collapse. Here's a snippet:
A number of readers have asked me for an "elevator speech" that describes how I think our civilization will collapse by the end of this century. Being more of a "picture" person I decided to try to answer that question graphically. The result is shown above.
Go there if you think you can stomach it. It's a compact post which lays out the predicament we find ourselves. My usual response to articles like Pollard's, although I substantially agree with them, is paralysis. What am I to do?

When I start writing blog posts, I have a general idea for the direction they'll take, but the post almost never seem to go that way, or at least travel a straight path in that direction. The inspiration for this post was the delight I felt reading an email from a young Ugandan lad with whom I'm supposed to be in a mentoring relationship. So far, mostly it seems we talk past each other. But in this email he told me not to forget to include a poem for him. I don't write poems, but I had been including poems written by real poets in previous emails. To get feedback that he thought this a tradition worth keeping up pleased me. I enjoy searching for poems online and selecting something I like and think he might too. In short I felt sense of gratitude for how, even though it's hard to point to any real practical gain in the relationship, his presence enriches my life.

I started out saying I'd be among the last chosen to be a mentor, but in reality I was invited to take part. I participate in a social network called Ned and I think that the page about the Butterfly Project can be read by anyone. The point is that it's not only the relationship with the student I'm paired with that's gratifying, but also the online relationship with other students and people interested in the project.

So, this post began with the idea of convincing others to consider mentoring a young person. And I certainly wanted to link to a very dynamic set of Web pages at Tutor/Mentor Connection.

Well, then my mind started to wander. Oh and the tendency for my mind to wander is yet another reason I'd rank myself low on the list of possible mentors. A certain degree of concentration is necessary and negative examples really are never as effective as positive ones. I hit upon the notion of experience in defining what a mentor is supposed to be. From there I went to Youtube and watched multiple renditions of Are You Experienced. In the background for trying to write a convincing post is this gnawing feeling of paralysis in the face of apocalyptic dread. The sense of purpose the young students in the project have is quite the antithesis of this feeling. They want advice about how to proceed with tangible projects, and the gratitude I feel for their optimism and determination makes me want to be sure the advice is good.

One thing even a little exposure to teens quickly assures is they can smell a phony in a heartbeat. That's why "Do as I say not as I do" never succeeds as a strategy. Of course there is something quite real about apprentice relationships. The Cynefin Framework is a simple model to describe situations. It's really quite simple, there are: simple, complicated, complex, and chaotic situations. Apprentice relationships are especially good for complicated situations where there are best practices to apply. Most trade involve very evolved sets of skills, the trades are complicated and it takes time and concentration to master them. I think when people think about mentoring relationships we most often think of the transmission of best practices. But so many of the pressing problems of today seem complex or even chaotic. While students might not really be thinking outright about complexity, really it's simpler when someone tells them what to do, in the face of complexity thinking for themselves is going to be more useful in the long run.

I neglect this blog. Part of it is that I can't imagine why anyone would read posts that start out going in one direction but end up meandering all over the place. The simple solution to that problem would be for me to stop doing that. Alas, I wish I would, but I'm not sure I can. It's also a relief not to imagine that I actually can convince anyone of anything, even if I seem to start from that premise. The blog started with the premise of convincing people to consider ways they could be of service to people in Africa, especially online. Over the years of this blog, I've certainly questioned the wisdom of this premise, but never questioned the value of the friendships I've made. I don't write much about my contacts in Uganda because often the conversations are private. It's one thing for me to tell about myself, but quite another to tell about someone else.

I think online collaboration is useful and rewarding. I also believe I've got to be more serious about making more in person collaborations. What my readers think, and hope to do, is for them to discover; although I have a keen interest in hearing about it. My sense about the complex and chaotic situations we all face today is there are no silver bullets, certainly not one big and simple fix. Doing everything we're suppose to is what got us in the fix we're in, so doing more of it even more earnestly isn't going to get us out of it. The best approaches, if they come along at all, won't come from the center.

Apart from the students in the Butterfly project my interlocutors in Uganda aren't so young, but they are younger than I am. Everything we've done together has been to try to create something good with all sorts of attendant concern that maybe it's not so good at all. There's little money, there's ordinary problems on the ground, sickness and health, progress and setback, and constant reminders of how vast the territory of my ignorance really is. I suspect my relationship with the Butterfly project will be more of the same.

I linked to the Tutor/Mentor site because there are so many really thoughtful articles there. Most people when they're thinking about collaborating will think closer to home than Africa. I know of no better site than the Tutor/Mentor Connection to find out more about collaborating with young people regardless of where you are. At the site are hundreds of pages which plainly explain many types of relationships. And you won't go far before discovering that the Tutor/Mentor Connection has a distinctively wise approach. It's much too simple, yet I'm tempted to say that the key ingredient is the importance of relationships. All relationships don't resolve into us and them, indeed the best relationships begin and end as we. Along the way there is good we can create with others, even if at the end there's no real escaping our predicament.

The photo is of a fungus growing under a butternut tree a few weeks ago. It looks like a brain don't you think?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

G20 Pittsburgh Summit

I followed the news of G20 on Thursday and Friday evenings by obsessively updating Twitter search. I'm not very swift when it comes to learning computer stuff. For example I use Open Office Writer frequently and have for years. I'm appalled that I still don't know how to do rudimentary things with it: What are styles? I also seem incapable of being succinct about any subject; probably revealing my ignorance of most subjects more than anything. So while I'm happy to look at my Twitter stream, I don't put up tweets.

Earlier this month I learned about riots in Kampala early through updates at Facebook. I know some folks in Kampala so I was keen to find news, but little was available. So I turned to Twitter searching #Kampala. Because I read some Ugandan blogs, some of the persons putting up tweets were known by me. Following retweets, people copying tweets they find relevant so their Twitter followers will see them, I was able to identify trusted sources; following friends of friends. The riots were very worisome and as it turned out some of my friends were affected by the violence. It probably is a little strange, but the flow of tweets during that crisis was engaging. I tend to stay up far too late, so I was getting real time updates.

Appfrica "is a web portal for the latest news related to African innovation, education and entrepreneurship in technology." Incredibly quickly after the riots Jonathan Gosier, CEO of Appfrica Labs,wrote an incisive piece about citizen reporting of the event with thoughts about how to make such reporting more useful, entitled Asynchronous Info, Disjointed Data and Crisis Reporting.

I was eager to use Twitter as a source for information about the G20 Pittsburgh Summit. In advance of the event I followed people and planned aggregators at Twitter. But when the pedal hit the medal, the generic search #G20 seemed the best way to follow events. Posts at times were coming fast and furious, and as a "Trending Topic" the thread included Spambots. Still it was easy to identify credible sources, even when I hadn't known about most of them in advance. I was quite impressed that reporters from various mainstream news outlets were participating in the stream.

People were listening to the police radio and tweeting what they heard. For example a tweet was broadcast that four hooded actors were at a certain location with the added directive: Leave Now! The other side of the coin was that at one point the police dispatcher remarked that their Twitter intelligence was pretty good! Network research scientist Valdis Krebs wrote for One Web Day:

The technology that gives You the power to organize,
also gives Them the power to watch.
I'm not sure where that leads us, but it was hard to miss during the action.

Because I know Pittsburgh well, I was able to place addresses and to recognize places in photos and videos, even the grainy ones taken with cell phones. On Thursday there were some windows of businesses broken. A friend of a friend put up photos on Facebook taken from inside her place of work across the street from the action. The photos were good enough to use for identification of the perpetrators. Probably the most serious of all the property damage done was done by one guy from California. My father was incredulous about the report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I reminded him of the location of the banks damaged and pointed out that the corner had to be one of the most photographed in all of Pittsburgh. If there were more involved they're certainly on tape and can imagine no reason the authorities would be holding back.

The photograph is from Mark Knobil's G20 photoset at Flickr. Mark is an accomplished cinematographer. I love his still photographs and often enjoy them best large. Prior to the event we were talking in a group of friends speculating what might happen at the G20. I suggested that the police probably wouldn't let marchers go beyond a particular street. I pegged it about right, what hadn't occurred to me at the time is what it would mean for the neighborhood where Mark lives. I suspect he was more prescient than me. His photos from his neighborhood move me because I love the part of the world where I live. His photos are brilliant in general, and if you want a sense for what Pittsburgh looks like you can really get a feel for it exploring his posted photos of the region.

There was lots of press touting the transformation of Pittsburgh from a sooty industrial town to a greener high-tech industrial base. This article in The Christian Science Monitor is a good example. But what the articles fail to convey is how painful the collapse of the steel industry here has been. Coping with that transition has been a defining effort for people of my age locally. It seems as though I'm reaching for something other than "misery loves company," but perhaps there is a bit of that in our local character. At least there is a shared experience of loss and attempting to make tranformative change.

Seeing the city reflected through the lens of international attention has been interesting to me. I'm eager to get together with others to talk about the experience. I wonder if anyone else was paying attention to Twitter? My hope is the G20 has stimulated our thinking about what we might do together. We've come along way as a region, but surely there's a long way still to go.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Windmills and We20

The picture is the book cover of a book by William Kamkwamba and Brian Mealer. The book has gotten rave reviews--I particularly enjoyed Ethan Zuckerman's review and like to link to Zuckerman's blog just because it's always so smart. If you're thinking of buying the book, buy it at Amazon from this link so your purchase will help to fund the Moving Windmills Project for community initiatives in Malawi.

I'll get back to William Kamkwamba in a moment, but first a detour. The G20 Pittsburgh Summit begins tomorrow morning. In the lead up to it I remembered a Web site set up in advance of the G20 Meeting in London called we20. We20 is a great idea, it's a platform for small groups of people in communities all over the world to share locals plans relevant to their economies. I began talking up having meetings with my friends. As it turns organizing isn't my forte. Still over the last month or so when I've gotten together with friends the subject has come up.

The idea of making plans and sharing them online is really the important part of we20. But looking back over the "meetings" over the last month or so, I realize now that planning is a stage that comes after quite a lot of discussion. Something else I've come to understand is when you get together in small groups to talk about the economy, the talk gets quite personal. The conversations turn to our relationships, and most of that seems the last thing in the world to put on a public Web page. Nevertheless, plans are specific must relate to our real personal lives.

Last night I attended a meeting. Some of the conversation revolved around protests and the city's response. Some of the meeting was around global monetary issues like proposals for instituting a Tobin Tax in the context of Oxfam's proposal How to find $280bn for poor countries this weekend. We were able to sustain conversation about global monetary issues and global issues in general like climate change and commodity prices for a while. But in a small group of friends it's hard to sustain such talk for very long without the dire reality of our own situation coming to fore. The relevant question, and what we20 is all about is: "What are we going to do?" And there are no ready answers to that question.

Last night and in a previous meeting we touched on the issue of whether we face problems to be solved or a predicament. That way of framing comes from John Michael Greer by way of Sharon Astyk's The Pedagogy of Collapse. Astyk has a brilliant post today that sums up the hard dilemma we were facing last night that there's no easy change possible. In her post Dreaming a Life she notes that baby steps are all well and good, but babies quickly learn to walk, and faster than we'd like, to run! Our lament is being stuck in baby steps.

I bet that most we20 groups coming together have to start with these sorts of discussions. How to move them forward towards making actual plans, is something we've yet to discover. But I hope that even as the G20 Meeting is over and gone, discussion will continue and we find some way of making plans.

At William Kamkwamba's blog today there's a post annoucing that his TED Talk in Oxford earlier this year is up. The talk is about six minutes long, but had me cheering loudly. A couple of years ago William spoke briefly at TED Global in Tanzania. At the time Mike McKay a blogger who was working with Baobab Health in Malawi and had helped to get the story of William's remarkable windmill out expressed concern that people take care with all the attention to William. Things seem to have worked out well, perhaps because William has been too busy at school to pay too much attention to the hype.

William was only 14 when he built his first windmill. He was 19 when he spoke in Tanzania and he's 22 now. At his blog William says he's proud of his recent talk. And I felt so proud of him too listening to it. The old saw about genius is that it's "10% inspiration and 90% perspiration." In the last couple of years William has put in hours of hard work. I was so moved by his presentation and exhortation to other to try and make. He directed his words to poor people, but the rest of us should listen too.

The problem that I face along with my friends and our informal meetings is we're quite invested in living in ways we know are ultimately unsustainable. The conundrum is how to find a path towards a more sustainable way of life. We've figured out little parts of the puzzle, but are still far from making a comprehensive plan, or even a modest plan in the right direction. That's quite a different sort of situation that William was facing which led to his building a windmill, nevertheless he provides an inspiration that much can be done even when faced with very difficult situations.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

May Peace Prevail on Earth!

September 21st is the International Day of Peace. It's also the first day of Autumn and the time of the breaking fast of the fast of Ramadan as well as the Jewish New Year and High Holy Days; Eid Mabrook, and L'shana tova to my friends.

I did a post on the subject of Peace Day at my Hats For Health blog. I suppose it will turn up in my sidebar eventually, but there's the link in case. I really hadn't planned to write a post of the subject here today, but I am a bit anxious to have my last post get buried. Really my naiveté astounds even me sometimes. Generally it's not a good idea to poke hornet's nests, and the subject of Internet scammers is one fine nest.

Today is also the first day of autumn. My dear Aunt Ruth is ailing, and my father calls his sister everyday. She often isn't very responsive, and his response is to ask even more questions. So sometimes he looks for a poem to read to her rather than to bombard her with questions. Tonight he was looking for September and I found it for him online. It fits the season here in the USA very well:

The golden-rod is yellow;
The corn is turning brown;
The trees in apple orchards
With fruit are bending down.

The gentian's bluest fringes
Are curling in the sun;
In dusty pods the milkweed
Its hidden silk has spun.

The sedges flaunt their harvest,
In every meadow nook;
And asters by the brook-side
Make asters in the brook,

From dewy lanes at morning
The grapes' sweet odors rise;
At noon the roads all flutter
With yellow butterflies.

By all these lovely tokens
September days are here,
With summer's best of weather,
And autumn's best of cheer.

But none of all this beauty
Which floods the earth and air
Is unto me the secret
Which makes September fair.

'T is a thing which I remember;
To name it thrills me yet:
One day of one September
I never can forget.
He was uncertain of the author of the poem. We thought perhaps it was Leigh Hunt, but actually the poem was written by Helen Hunt Jackson, and neither of us knew who she was.

The theme of my post over at the Hat blog is something along the lines of "Slacktivist Unite!" Silly, I suppose. What any of us can do seems such a small thing. Learning a bit about the life of Helen Hunt Jackson from the Wikipedia article was inspiring. Well into middle age, after suffering the death of her two sons and first husband she traveled West in search of a cure for TB. There she met and married a wealthy Railroad executive. After hearing a lecture by Chief Standing Bear she dedicated her life to redress of the injustice of the treatment of Native Americans.

I believe each of us makes a difference.

In my house growing up before meals we'd sing a song, a simple grace. The custom came about because my mother was active in Girl Scouts for many years. As a young boy I'd accompany her to a summer camp she led for a week in the summer. I can remember day times with my brother, but not much about the Girl Scouts. We must have been babysat at night somehow. But my sister well remembers singing Let There Be Peace on Earth, and Let It Begin with Me. I must have sung it too,but don't have clear memories of it, just remember the song. Searching the videos at YouTube ought to have a dire cute attack warning label. There are very many beautiful children's groups singing it. This version done by PS22 Chorus is so lovely.

Children indeed show us a wisdom beyond their years, but they're just kids. And if kids can get that peace begins in everyone of us, we can grok that as adults too.

Autumn is a beautiful time of year and a good time for taking stock, a time when all over the world people contemplate how they can make peace. Somewhere in all our hearts we know that's what we ought to do. Oh, but it's hard and it's complicated, I know. Still on this day and everyday, I bid you peace. Especially on this day, an International Day of Peace, may peace be with you.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Find the Other Ones

Right on this blog's masthead is:
To Promote Voluntary Service to African People
You might have noticed that I haven't said anything about that for a long time. I want to get back to that purpose today.

I'm not sure what's wrong with me, but for whatever reasons when I write online I feel a need to preface my points by noting how imperfect and inadequate I am. I see other people doing this sort of thing too. I suppose it has to do with pecking orders and at least getting a place even if it's a low rank. What I have in mind for this post get into some controversial issues. I want to preface this post by saying I'm a nice guy. Even positively awful people probably believe that of themselves, so my saying it is nearly useless. Still, all my life I've tried to do little harm to others. While I've not always been successful, doing no harm is very important to me.

I like social networking sites, the social Web seems on balance a positive development. Long time readers will know that my interest in trying to be of service to Africans was influenced by a book by Robert Rodale called Save Three Lives: A Plan for Famine Prevention. The book was published in 1991 and right after the galley proofs were approved Robert Rodale was killed in a traffic accident in Russia. One of the basic premises of Rodale's plan is famine prevention must be a localized effort. He thought that in general people knew what needed doing locally and the way to prevent famines was to empower regular people to do what needs doing. Rodale invited us to think small to have as a mission to make a difference in three lives, instead of the mission to save Africa or to save the whole world. Many small efforts combined would make a big difference.

That's the theory. I read the book soon after I got online in 1999 or there abouts. A rather late adopter of computers, I was very impressed by the Internet. I noted that Rodale's book was written before the World Wide Web, and was inspired by how the Web could implement more effectively a dispersed approach toward famine prevention. Of course every technology is complicated and for every intended purpose there seems a shadow of unforeseen negative consequences. Perhaps the ratio isn't so equal, at least I hope for the positive side to outweigh the negative. Nevertheless there's always a downside, and worse it's not always easy to tell in the short run what's good and what's bad.

I made contact with Magumba Nathan in Iganga, Uganda around this time. I learned from him about his life and the challenges in his community. There'a big gulf between our experiences, so I tried to learn more about Uganda in many ways. I was also interested in the concept of using the Internet to connect people and muster needed resources. I stumbled upon Christina Jordan, an American in Uganda who was well along the way on this Internet path. A few years latter through Christina's work I got introduced to an online social network called The Omidyar Network still exists, but the social network does not. The tool set of the old ONet lives on at Ned along with some of the participants at the old site. Christina has left Uganda and is pursuing new endeavors now.

Earlier this month Christina Jordan wrote a great blog post Do We Matter Online: Empowering Marginalized People on the Internet. Christina makes some very good points, perhaps the most important is:
empowering people means helping them believe that they matter, and that what they have to offer has value.
What's different about her essay is she talks from the perspective of regular people living in the Third World encountering the Internet. And Jordan expresses how important nurturing trust is.

I was excited to read the post because trust is not so simple because it's something built over time. Part of the reason for my not blogging much about Africa recently has to do with this. I haven't lost interest, it's just much of what I'm doing is with friends and isn't really something public. Of course Nathan's efforts with his community organization the BSLA are something that should be publicly known. I've got the gist of them, but I'm afraid because I'm so far away I'll get the description a bit wrong. And I prefer that his community tells their stories. Be that as it may, when I read Jordan's post I thought of a trend I'd noticed online of young men especially from Ghana chatting up foreign men on Gay social networking sites.

I kept quiet about this line of thinking, but then by happenstance Ethan Zuckerman wrote a post Gay sex scams – and community responses – in Ghana. Every time I read a post by Zuckerman I end up on a journey of clicking links, one leading to another. Zuckerman came to write his post from reading an article at Global Voices. I cannot recommend highly enough subscribing to their email update--at the top of the page is a subscribe button. Anyhow the post there is Africa: Preventing blackmail and extortion against gays . Both Zuckerman's and the Global Voices pieces are worth reading. Both deal with the issue of fraud, in other words the perspective is more or less from the perspective of the foreigner not the Ghana money boys.

When I've talked to friends about being of service to Africans online, the issue of frauds always come up, so it's an important topic. But I thought of the subject after reading Christina Jordan's piece which emphasizes trust the other way around. Ghana money boys on the Internet is a subset of online cyber sex. There's much of that's clearly wrong about it, but I'm not so sure it's all wrong. In any case talking sex online is something that's done a lot and a common beginning of exchange between people from different places. For good reasons most people are freaked out about talking about this sort of Web behavior. In regards to the online fraud and Web sites to combat it Zuckerman remarks:
It strikes me that this story can be read either as an extremely depressing narrative about how human beings treat one another over the Internet, or as a testament to the power of virtual communities.
Oh yeah, what people do is often quite depressing, we're a bundle of contradictions. Obviously the harm done online isn't what is done in person. It's easy to go on a rant about sex tourism and that line might provide some sympathy with the fraudsters. From both Zuckerman's and the Global Voices pieces I clicked on lota of links, I'm not sure how I ended up at, but I did. From a page on that site on tips for gay visitors to Ghana, I got a big chuckle reading:
Of course there are also legitimate Gay boys who sincerely look for a partner and who really do like white (older) men. Miracles happen.
For better or worse, hope springs eternal, and people are still looking for miracles. Over the years I've talked with male, female and trans people outside the USA online which start from the premise of looking for love. The Ghana boys have interested me in particular because there are so many involved.

Sometimes jumping out of the game results in a quick insult and end to it all. But sometimes the guys are quite happy to drop the gay pretense and cut to the chase about their efforts to get money. I'm sure there are some really awful guys involved in all of this, but most of these guys aren't awful. My concerns are usually the other way around, thinking about the terrible people they'll meet online. I have been impressed with the way the guys work in Internet cafes. Whatever you think about what they are doing, it's hard not to notice they're learning about computers and the Internet by doing it.

The wonderful William Kamkwamba has a new book out The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope. I've been loving reading the reviews of the book because his story so inspires me. Following his blog he recently posted The Doers Club. He writes:
The Doers Club will work on inventions. The first is a steam engine that I want to make using a tin-foil solar oven. As they say, it's still on the drawing board.
Alright, I know I'm sometimes the fool. I also know I seem incapable of concision in my writing. In advance of Maker Faire Africa I'd tried to talk up the event and the notion of a maker culture to a bright young newly-wed in Ghana who wanted me to help him to do "one bad thing," meaning these Gay online scams. My presentation made no sense to him, and he's left me alone since. That's not the first time I've talked with young people in Africa about ways to use the Internet to create something good. These conversations don't always start out from a dating pose, not at all, but sometimes do.

Just recently I sent an email to a guy in the Gambia along these lines, I haven't heard back since. I procrastinated writing the email, thinking it a fool's errand. It probably was, but I wrote it anyway because something like William Kamkwamba's idea for a Doers Club really does excite me. There's a great deal of potential for Doers Clubs. They would have to have an on the ground component, but they also could have an online component. I think they might be a way for establishing more constructive engagement across boundaries.

The faker quality from both sides on online social networks around sex and dating has two sides to it. On one is the willingness to suspend disbelief, to believe miracles will happen. One the other side is the built-in skepticism by both parties. Perhaps the whole enterprise is irredeemable. "Find the other ones" was a retort Timothy Leary gave a reporter who asked what people are to do after they've "turned on, tunned in, and dropped out." One way or another people are using the Internet to find the others.

Writing all of this makes me think I should start a Doers Club on social networks I visit. Clearly, some social networks are more respectable than others. Going back to Christina Jordan's post and focus on marginalized people, I don't want to encourage people in the Third World to imagine that getting someone outside where they live to fall in love with them and send money or send a ticket to them to America, Germany or elsewhere. Still, lots of people are placing a bet something like that happening. Would a Doer's Club break the spell of possibility and therefore be avoided? Possibly, but there is also a store of goodwill, people want to love and be loved. We all know there are many kinds of loving.

I'm not sure I actually will start such a club. But I do believe that the "urge to merge" or Timothy Leary's "find the other ones" is profoundly human. There's much that's really bad going along with that, as well as the very best of what it means to be alive. Necessary attention to fraud shouldn't blind us to our goodness; in fact it's our goodness that needs extending.

~The photo is an image made of this Bazugu Bucks from Webpages As Graphs. Nothing really to do with this post, but an interesting graphic toy online.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Almost a Plan

Great news from the folks behind the we20 Web site, full details here. They're holding a contest and your we20 meeting could receive $1000 to enable your plan:
To mark the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh (24th and 25th September) host a we20 meeting and you could win US$1000 to make your ideas a reality!

Remember, the basic idea for we20 is to have your own G20 meeting to discuss a problem and to create a plan to overcome the problem. Your we20 meeting could produce a plan for your local area or a wider plan with national or global goals. You may have an existing project to invigorate; ideas to develop; or are looking for a fresh approach to a local challenge. Check out previous we20 meetings and previous plans if you need inspiration.

The competition is open to people anywhere in the world so start organising your we20 meetings!
If you followed along, you already know I think we20 is a great idea. But you've also gather that I'm not much of and organizer. I had a loose invitation to friends over the last week, and the result was two we20 meetings of sorts that fell short of making any plan. So I've not posted anything at the we20 site, but thought it useful to tell about these meetings. I suspect others trying to get a plan together will find something a bit similar happening with their initial attempts too.

The first meeting was just a couple of friends stopping by after they had gone to the fair. We talked about the physical constraints that the economy is facing. In An Open Letter to the Queen found at the Transition Culture blog, the Archbishop of Canterbury is quoted:
“It has been said that ‘the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment’. The earth itself is what ultimately controls economic activity because it is the source of the materials upon which economic activity works”.
Well put, so the three of us discussed not consuming so much. I think we started out thinking this from a positive direction, even in mocking tones about ridiculous consumption. But this tone quickly shifted about to the fact that lots of consumption is reduced simply because so many people don't have jobs and incomes. It's hard to feel sanguine about that. And we felt stymied about what to do, and what plan to make.

On Saturday night I went to a friend's house, there were five of us there at that meeting and I had the news about the $1000 prize. Even if we couldn't come up with a plan, we thought perhaps we might know people capable of getting a proper planning meeting together. In our meeting we talked about Carbon and energy as global problems. We also talked about the nature of the G20 Summit to be held in Pittsburgh September 24–25. Pittsburgh is a fairly small city and the geography is challenging with hills and the confluence of two rivers. So some of the talk was simply about the inconvenience the summit is sure to cause as well as what sorts of responses to it make sense. In this regard we mentioned Web sites and initiatives. We also talked about the WTO Meeting in Seattle ten years ago. If there was a consensus it was about the importance to "Think globally, act locally." That agreement made us all favorably disposed to the we20 idea, but no closer to making a plan.

While there was no group plan put into place at either meeting, genuine connections were made. We all began to think about initiatives others we know are excited about, and little ways that we can respond, for example positng content at myG20 or posting questions via HeyG20 at Twitter. We also talked about who among the people we know really could get a group of us together to hammer out a plan. Like the first meeting with two friends, this second meeting began to attend to the practical realities of financial hardship among our friends and the larger community.

Here's what I take away from the meetings. First I think everyone is very much in agreement about if not reducing consumption at least reducing the impact our consumption makes. It's significant I think that at both meetings gifts of home grown produce were exchanged. Second, the economic distress of people we know weighs on us. That's not a simple issue. In some ways talking about that specifically feels like gossip. Certainly not malicious gossip, but there's a hesitancy to say too much. In some of the cases the situations are people running through their savings just to live. There's a presumption that at some point the economy will turn and they'll get back to doing something like they used to do.

One of the participants is an attorney in the Family Court system in the County. She pointed out that the group homes which care for clients she supervises haven't been paid in two months because Pennsylvania is the only state yet to pass a budget. Presumably some legislation will get passed. But the subject of the group homes led to discussion of the demise of many other private-public partnerships which have been lost in the financial crisis. Longstanding and well-regarded institutions have closed, probably never to open again.

With people taking turns adding details to this line of talk, the dilemma of friends trying to avoid foreclosure, and to rescue any bit of their savings on hopes of an economic turn-around gained added weight. The uncertainty about what we can take for granted made us wonder how to make a plan.

A small plan which addresses consumption issues is worthwhile and something perhaps to work towards. But the more engaging problem of how to respond to the economic distress of good friends we know more daunting.

Even without hammering out a plan, we20 is an idea that helps focus attention. Nobody wants to advertise their financial problems, but convene a group and I think it likely you'll hear about problems you didn't know about. Even rosy economic projections predict little job growth two years out. John Robb points to a graph from Calculated Risk showing employment as a percent of the population. He notes that it's almost back to the "levels 'before' women entered the workforce en masse." Robb adds "Hilarious." but such gallows humor is probably an acquired taste. The effects of unemployment are being felt widely. The effects are quite particular. No plan may come easily from your meetings either, but I suspect the meetings will change perspectives.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Big Knob Fair

The Big Knob Grange Fair is coming up, September 1st through 5th. It's only a hop skip and a jump from my house, so you can visit me too if you plan to attend. The fair is really quite a delight. One of the things I enjoy so much is the the timing of the fair, for young people it's the last big summer fling. The picture wasn't actually taken at the fair, it's at a cousin's farm, but the old farm equipment displayed at the fair is alway one of my favorite attractions. The fair really is a way to connect with local agriculture. And it's a chance to meet some of the fine people who make their living plying the land.

Using a blog to think out loud is a sure way to make a blog unreadable. If any followed along even a little bit in my last post, you'll know I've been trying to think of a way to organize a we20 event. There's something pathetic about my inability to get anything together.

I had it in mind to pitch the event at a gathering of friends. I didn't. It was nice that a friend stopped by prior to it and we had a good long talk. The trouble was that my pitch sounded to him very much that I wanted my friends to make a plan for what I should be doing. That follows pretty logically from the fact that I can't seem to do anything I'm supposed to. But that's really not what I had in mind. Another issue is when I think of a small group, or think of my "community" I tend of think of people who might miss me a little when I die. Days after our talk my friend sent me a short list of people I should look for collaboration with. I'm not sure any of them really would care much if I died, but my friend is probably right that what I have in mind for a we20 meeting would make better hay with them instead of my more economically secure friends.

Recently I read one of those The Guardian debates. This one was between George Montbiot and Paul Kingsnorth. The debate, Is there any point in fighting to stave off industrial apocalypse? provoked a headache probably because it resonated with a rather persistent debate in my own head. Debates in my head tend to just go around in circles, so a good thing about debates in print is they suggest further development of the ideas. And in the last few days I've read or watched videos which have gotten me out of the rut so to speak.

What I can't figure out is whether or not any of my friends ever think about an industrial apocalypse? A couple of years ago I read or heard something regarding Peter D. Ward's book Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future (now remaindered). The point was made that our present trajectory of atmospheric Carbon could result in the extinction of all flowering plants. Needless to say, all people would become extinct prior to flowering plants. But the thought s of flowering plants going extinct filled me with such grief that for at least a few days after hearing it my actions were as if I was in a vat of molasses. I write off my reaction as a sign of my mental fragility, even still I wonder if sometimes my friends don't suffer when they encounter in one way or another evidence of the limits of planetary ecology and life on Earth?

I think they must at times. So when I think of economic conditions and getting together with a small group for discussion and for making a plan--no matter how small--the premise: What do we do now that we know there are limits? is central to what we'd talk and plan about. That premise makes me sound like a Cassandra. I don't think I'm trying to persuade, rather I'm curious about how others are feeling. What I gather from feedback is they aren't feeling up against any limits.

From Sharon Astyk's blog a really good post The Pedagogy of Collapse introduced me to a distinction made by John Michael Greer between a predicament as opposed to a problem to be solved. Astyk writes:
The obvious model predicament is death - something that can be addressed and handled in a whole host of ways, some productive, some not, but that can never be solved - we all die. How we approach our deaths, how we view them, the contexts in which they occur - these details matter enormously, but none of them approach the status of solution, eliminating the basic problem.
The debate between Monbiot and Kingsnorth seems to me to have generated more heat than light. Perhaps one of the reasons I tend to get blank stares from my friends when I bring up the topic of limits is they presume I'll launch into some millienialist rant about a coming apocalypse; or at minimum boor them by telling them how sad I feel about the state of life on Earth. I'm optimistic, however, about the possibilities for viable and humane responses whether we face problems to be solved or predicaments. It's our responses that seem most worth talking about. But how to begin the conversations?

When we got together my friend made some very good suggestions about what I could do about my economic situation. The implicit message is that what I do will have a lot more effect than what I say. As I already mentioned he also gave me a list of people I know that will probably be more receptive to my dour outlook. So that's good advice, and probably qualifies as a mini we20 gathering. My next plan is to tell as many of my friends as possible about the Big Knob Fair and hope to see at least some of them on their way to the fair.

One last link to offer is a 40 minute video of Slavoj Zizek at YouTube. It a debate with Alex Callinicos on the topic "What does it mean to be a revolutionary today?" at Marxism 2009 from early July of this year. I also watched the Callinicos video. Oddly each of their responses to each other are on their respective videos without them offering the questions. It's more compact that way, but also a bit hard to follow. I'm hardly a revolutionary! Nevertheless found their remarks, especially Zizek's commentary quite interesting.

If you plan a trip to the fair, please stop by, I'd love to see you.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Rambling about we20

On Saturday night I was out to visit friends. I was amused by a comment about my online profile picture, to the effect that I'm not really so ugly in person. Some of the conversation that evening was about the Internet and how tricky the balancing act of online and offline life is. It's not just about time, but more importantly who we are and how we imagine ourselves to be.

I love Sharon Astyk's blog Casabon's Book. I was looking at her site today and marveled at the clarity of her statement of what the site is about:
Depletion and Abundance are just two sides of the same coin. We're no longer speaking of the future when we talk about climate change and peak oil. So now the project is to accept depletion, and still find a good and abundant way of life, not just for ourselves, but for those who will come after us. We can do this - it is one heck of a challenge, but we have to find a way, so we will. That's what this site is for - finding a way forward.
Last time I wrote here, I said I'm no good at making plans. It's true, I'm not, but I'm still eager to get something together around the we20 initiative. This coming Saturday I'll have a chance to see some of my friends again, and I'm trying to develop a pitch for a we20 meeting the following weekend at my place.

When I think about economics, I think about it from a global environmental frame. With my friends, I often discover I'm really out of sync with their perspectives. Most of the time feel at a loss as to what to say. I want to get together with friends to talk about as Astyk puts it: "finding a way forward" and don't quite yet know how to make that happen.

When I talk to friends about climate change and peak oil, I never get feedback that neither is real, but the discussions always seems to dead end. My friends are busy people doing what they need to do, which in America requires lots of driving around. I talk too much and don't listen enough. Proceeding from the assumptions of climate change and peak oil isn't going to happen unless everyone in the group actually talks about those issues.

Present tense, when we're speaking about economics,mostly we're concerned with making enough money to provide for ourselves. Unemployment is an issue among some of my friends, and it's a subject that we're loathe to talk about. Sharon Astyk's statement about what her blog is about brings climate change and peak oil into the present tense. So how to have a meeting that starts from this presumption is challenge number one.

I've lived in the greater Pittsburgh area for most of my life. I'm very happy that I have old friends, people who've known me for a long while. Really, we share a great deal in common, even if my politics have always seemed on the fringe. My politics have never been terribly coherent. Back in the 1970's a definably leftist cant in politics was often expressed. Some of the leftists seemed fairly conservative to me then, and grew more so. Actually having to get a job seemed to turn their heads around pretty quickly. One way or another we all had to make lives for ourselves.

Early this month Morgan Meis wrote a remembrance of Leszek Kolakowski. Meis discusses an essay "How to be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist." I loved Meis's essay so much I wanted to find Koladowski's essay online too. I found it.* Morgan Meis writes:
It's impossible to be a conservative/liberal/socialist. Except that Kolakowski did it.
My hunch is most of my friends politics is actually rather along the lines of Kolakowski's Conlibsoc, even if they've never heard of Kolakowski. But there are no Conlibsoc candidates on the ballot, and our talk is usually more present tense.

The point of going on about politics is that Pittsburgh will host the G20 Summit on the 24th and 25th of September. I do have my eyes cocked for various responses to the meeting. It is an important event. As I say, I'm not particularly political, but whenever the subject of the G20 comes up, it seems there's a presumption of political activism on my part. I think my friends aren't willing to acknowledge just how lazy I actually am. Of course I do value political dissent and would be happy to engage in discussions about Seattle 1999. But geez, that was ten years ago. The interesting challenge that we20 puts forward is to make a plan; to talk about now and in the future.

I was hunting through the archives of Transition Culture for ideas and came upon an exercise for visualizing the future. The idea is four characters talking at a 2030 class reunion, the premise they were young people then and my age in 2030. Cards with statements about the characters are to be distributed in the audience so they can join in asking questions about "what was it like?"

I like the idea, but need to modify the exercise so that it can be done without people preparing as actors. Still, the exercise provides a good framework for discussion to think about the present from a future perspective. Many of my friends have children in their teens and twenties now. We are all intensely concerned about them and their futures. So that's rough idea about how I intend to get the ball rolling.

A regular practice Sharon Astyk follows on her blog is to provide updates. The format of the updates follows:
Waste Not:
Want Not:
Ate the Food:
Build Community Food Systems:
I love the list and that people who read the blog often join in the comments with their own updates. I doubt any plan we come up with will be exactly like hers. Still it really ought to be a plan that can be measured in actions taken during a week. Sharing what we do can motivate us to keep on doing and motivate us to do more.

* The excerpt references that it's from Kolakowski's book Modernity on Endless Trial. From that essay I went to the homepage of Mr. Bauld's English. A note on the bottom of the page reads:
Send comments to Brian Bauld, who has just retired from Amherst Regional High School, Amherst, Nova Scotia, in the summer of 2003.
Mr. Bauld created an incredible online resource! I've saved it for my own study, and also to recommend for someone I know who's dropped out of school and is looking to take her GED and get into college.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Make a Plan

The first hints of autumn's approach are here. The Goldenrods are just beginning to bloom and the Joe Pye Weed. Goldenrods are so common here most people think they are all the same, but actually there are at least sixty species in our area, so the blooming period is extended. Singing insects have begun their chorus too. A friend gave me a stack of zinnia seed packets last Christmas, so I'm enjoying an abundance of blooms in vibrant colors. The zinnias are also very attractive to butterflies.

We've had plenty of rain of late so growth is lush, especially the weeds abounding. My garden is a mess. That's more or less the intention, but every year I try to imagine it not being quite such a mess. I do look at the garden with a forward eye to next year, but making plans always seems easier in the Spring. In the spring I can see where some stone is, even if I can't figure out how to move it. In the summer it's all under a thicket of bramble so getting the stone seems impossible. Yet when I look at the garden now I want stone to play with now. I look out and want less grass to grow, but feel daunted by the challenge of growing anything but weeds. Summer is a lazy time. The signs of autumn's approach shake me from my torpor, if only a little.

The truth is I'm no good at making plans.

Last Friday I had a night out. I visited with a friend in the late afternoon then we met her brother and mutual friends at a restaurant. My friend's brother is a psychiatrist who works with war veterans. I'm a bit prejudiced about psychiatrists. Having gotten to know my friend's brother over the last couple of years I've come to see him as a fine physician, a humane human being and someone I like. He and my friend who's a district attorney in Family Court, have the most high-pressure jobs of the group. We sat at an outside table and I'd brought along a bouquet of zinnias for the table. I would have happily spent another hour drinking and talking, instead we went to a movie.

I rarely go to see films and sometimes I love them. We saw The Hangover which I thought awful. The movie was disturbing to me and it was unsettling to dislike a comedy so much. Am I really humorless? Both the folks with high-pressure jobs thought it funny and just the ticket for the evening.

At the dinner conversation: the subject of politics had come up. I do read about American politics. But the context of my reading about politics is framed by concerns summed up in a blurb from James Howard Kunstler's book The long Emergency:
The global oil predicament, climate change, and other shocks to the system, with implications for how we will live in the decades ahead.
In other words I spend a great deal of my time with my hair on fire.

My friend's brother had never met the couple who joined us for dinner. He was apprehensive at first and a little peeved at his sister for not telling him they'd be coming too. Apparently he's got a similar sort of prejudice about attorneys as my prejudice about pyschiatrists. We all got along well, and the political conversation was polite with no disagreements. I didn't want to come off as a raving lunatic. Still throughout the conversation about politics the question pressed in my mind was "How do we cope knowing the gravity of the crises before us?"

Dave Pollard posted a beautiful post on Monday, We Were Here where he very much captures my unease prompted by the political talk:
They (and perhaps all of us) are afflicted with a new kind of endemic dissociative mental illness. The dissonance between what we 'know', in some primeval way (like the wild animals who sense an impending storm or earthquake or 'hear' noises outside conscious perception), and what we 'think' based on the day's news and on the conversations we have about the needs and events of the moment, is utterly inconsolable, irreconcilable. So we try to ignore that dissonance. We pretend it isn't real.
Posting Pollard's quote might seem as if I'm projecting the disassociation onto my friends, so I want to be clear to own up: the dissonance is mine. I suspect my friends feel it too, but it's awfully hard to talk about. I don't know how to initiate the conversation.

Today on my Twitter stream I got a gentle prod from we20 to actually do something in advance of the G20 Meeting in Pittsburgh during September. we20 is politically neutral. The idea behind the site is quite simple. Use the we20 Web site to announce a meeting of a small group of people, say twenty. Then as a group hammer out a plan to do something around finding solutions to the global economic crisis and post that. A splendid and constructive idea. My plans for a July meeting fizzled, so I better get moving for one in August.

Oddly just prior to seeing the we20 tweet I'd been surfing the Pittsburgh G20 Resistance Project group at Facebook which has almost 500 members. The organization's Web site is here. I noticed that Paul Massey of we20 had left a wall post there, so I didn't feel a need to tweet it. Indeed I felt unsure I wanted to join. There's was a twinge of paranoia about it, you know, landing on a no-fly list--not that I plan to fly anywhere. More generally I've never been a good leftist, going way back it being a radical always seem too much work for a lazy guy like me. Quite specifically I have no interest in trying to disrupt the G20 Meeting.

From the looks of the Facebook page most of the participants are younger than I. I'm glad the kids are talking. I'm very interested as to what they have to say too. These days I seem more aware of a generation gap in the way the generations speak. Of course whatever the generation, some ideas seem very wrong, promotion of violence top of my list of wrongness.

In August Congress recesses and it's one of the few times of year representatives hear from their ordinary constituents in person. The issue of the day is structural change to our health care system. Health services are paid for primarily through private insurance schemes. Outside the USA the prominence of the profit motive in medicine here may be hard to fathom. Insurance, Big Pharma, and business groups are investing full force to influence the direction of the changes to the system. Public relations companies have been busy trying to organize for the August recess. On tactic being promoted is the disruption of public meetings with representatives. This irritates me because our elected representatives seem out of touch enough as it is.

I'm tired of argument. It's not that I don't think politics is important, because of course it is. What I long for nonetheless is politics that breaks through the dissonance between what we know and feel. The challenges humanity faces are heartbreaking. There must be a space for conversations enabling enough trust that we can reveal our hearts. we20 seems a great idea to me: Small groups and an intention to make a plan. The idea enforces enough intimacy to be real. I know I can't make a plan alone, perhaps together we can.

In August thoughts of cold winter are not far away, but there's still time. It's a good month, so I'll have to pick a date for a we20 meeting. How does August 22 sound?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Response in Collaboration

'you come from the poor South, where my soul began; in that high sky your mother is still washing clothes with my mother. That's why I chose you, companera.'

pablo neruda

A friend participates in a collaborative blogging project they call The Four. And they are inviting responses to the quotation.

I've thought about the quotation enough to know all I can come up with is a sort of stream of consciousness. Aha! That's all I ever seem to come up with.

I suspect that Neruda was speaking quite clearly about geography, but like many people nowadays my experience and that of my mother were spread out in various locations. So my impulse was to take the meaning as a metaphor for a deep familiarity between persons.

A few words stuck out: mother, soul, companera.

One morning my mother woke up and said she didn't feel right and wanted to go to the hospital. Her complaints weren't very specific. In the hospital emergency room, if I remember properly, the doctors didn't finger anything specific either. She was old and weak. But they admitted her anyway. Within a day it seems clear now in retrospect that she entered a dying period. And, indeed in a week she had died. It was a week my father and I and then later my sister Sharon sat in vigil. Altogether it was an eventful week. There was much happening in my mother's mind, it was obvious to see that, but not so obvious as to what. The stories didn't always make much sense and anyway are too hard to tell because the stories and the feelings so intertwined.

There is something she told me which moved me very much and I like to share. At one point she looked at me and said,
"It's uncanny, when I look at you now, I see you now and as a baby and a child, a handsome teenager; I see you as you have always been at once."
I put quotation marks around it, the words probably weren't exactly that, but those are the words as I recollect. Her vision of me reminds a little of the curiosity that I can look at photographs of me, no matter what age I am in them, and see myself in the photograph. Well, even at my age, it still seems a little odd to look in the mirror and see myself, and that I always do recognize me. Odder still that I'd recognize a wolf looking back at me in the mirror as some people do. The point is that in recognition seems something of a mystery, at least to me.

I loved my mother very much and felt a sense of grief that nobody else would ever see me as she was seeing me then. She knew me before I knew myself and nourished me all along. With all my sadness, there was also a smile, partly a curious one. I couldn't imagine how she was seeing all of the me at once, clearly her sight was physics amended. And a smile because in her telling me what she saw, she made clear to me a cord connecting us together through time.

Neruda also makes such cords visible.

My thoughts turned then to what it means for the invisible to become visible. My mother said what she was seeing, and I'm sure she was seeing what she was saying. But for myself, when I'm saying a cord was made visible, I'm speaking in metaphor, seeing as a way to say something was made plain.

In the bathroom where I shave my face, there is a window that looks out onto the vegetable garden. We don't bother with a fence, so animals do visit the garden and eat there. I often see woodchucks in the garden. They have burrows against the foundation of our house. Really, I'm not sure how many animals occupy these dens, many. I can look out the window at them, but the geometry is such that it's not easy for them to see me in the window. With their backs to me and intently eating, somehow they still know when I'm looking. I imagine that I can tell when someone is looking at me too. I wonder what sense it is that receives the message of someone looking? And how is it that we can sometimes look at a stranger to us and know we share a familiarity? I think sometimes we can.

"Where my soul began" seemed so easily understood that I didn't pause there, instead turning my imaginations to "that high sky." I wonder about places I've never been, and Chile of all places is rich for imagination. My soul seems so specific, objective and precise, but on further reflection I know nothing of souls.

The photograph is of Blind Wille Johnson. I snagged the photo from a page a graduate student in history at San Fransisco State University by the name of Corry Dodson for a course "Computer Methodology For Historians." I like the pages and of course the photograph. What the photograph of Blind Willie Johnson has to do with the meaning of soul, is his haunting song Won't Somebody Tell Me What Is a Soul of a Man (YouTube video). I also like very much Bruce Cockburn's version of the song which can also be heard at YouTube.

The question doesn't have a good answer even when the question makes sense. Something that makes any definition for soul difficult is that I'm rather attached to my soul as you are to yours. Souls are personal and private. Our souls are also entwined with those who've come before us and we'll leave after us in the sense I was suggesting that my mother's vision of me made a cord between us visible.

I very much like the part of the quotation: "in that high sky your mother is still washing clothes with my mother." I don't know whether he wrote this as an old man, whether his mother was dead or alive. It doesn't seem to matter much, in that this entwining of souls seems removed from ordinary time; a relationship not a thing.

Our souls are the root criterion of life and there is a universe of souls. But I can't say what is a soul of a man.

I like the word "companera." Alas, I only speak English and my tongue is so often tied as it is. In a lazy way I render "companera" as "partner." In my imagination, I'm sure Neruda is speaking of his love too.

In my imagination I have my love, but not really. Still my imagination is so vivid that in one who is my love is mutual recognition, like children whose mothers wash clothes in that high sky.

Summer is such a lovely time. Still with steps on ground soft from a summer rain, a chorus of song birds singing vespers in the twilight, the smell of sweet grass in the air, and blossoms everywhere, I can feel melancholy. In the summer it's hard to take such feelings too seriously, if for no other reason than to hear the squeals of children playing in the distance which always raise a smile.

I love the poem I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. It doesn't take long to read, or you can hear Angelou recite it accompanied by music by Buckshot Le Fonque if you're inclined towards YouTube as I am.

The caged bird sings of freedom. Surely my life is a life of great privilege. But a caged bird sings and in that song is an understanding of soul available to us all, no matter how privileged. Our souls pine and yearn for the unattainable. The slightly bitter quality is necessary as our souls are in creation.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Myopic Visionary

Nothing came of my we20 gathering. The Repower America organizer bailed out which made it easy for me to let the whole thing slide.

On the morning of July 4th my dad topped off the gasoline tank in the car. The gas he got must have been mostly water, in any case the car conked out at the end of the driveway. The car still isn't fixed, so I've been more isolated than usual this month. That's just a cop out for not trying harder to get a group together to talk turkey about what's going on and what we might do together in response. The biggest hurdle I can't seem to leap is a feeling of lacking credibility.

On a different theme, I've been thinking more recently about a generation gap between Baby Boomers like me and younger folks. I like younger folks and it's nice to cross paths on the Internet. Part of the gap as I see it has to do with different approaches to new communications technologies. And then there's how the Internet puts me in touch with things I probably wouldn't have noticed otherwise, like pictures on Facebook.

The daughter of friends put up pictures from a music festival she attended last weekend, and because I'm friends with her at Facebook I get to see sets of pictures of friends of hers where she's been tagged in photos. I don't know the kids in most of the pictures, but I knew some of their parents when I was their age. One of the dads' picture was posted. I haven't seen him in years, in fact seeing his picture made me think of meeting his dad so many years ago. I don't really know what's up in these young lives, but the pictures make me think about when I was young.

Lots of people I knew then have done remarkable things in their lives. For others life descended in a downward spiral. I'm not sure what the report about me looks like. I'm not much more together now than I was back then. That gets to the nub of my credibility problem.

My mailing address now is Freedom, Pennsylvania. Back when I was in my early twenties it was Large, Pennsylvania. I much prefer Freedom. Large was an unfortunate trauma. I was very convinced that the energy crisis required people to find new ways of living. I was very excited about the work of The New Alchemy Institute and the notion of housing as a means for food production. My mother purchased a derelict property in a coal mining company town, a patch town. Some of this time I spent trying to invent a more self-reliant sort of life style with this house. It all went to hell in a hand basket. I feel sure the stories could be told in a hilarious way, failure is after all quite funny, but even now that episode of my life is painful enough that I've never had it in me to tell the stories in a funny way.

One very nice thing about being older is having old friends. Of course my friends know some of the stories from at Large. Because the story of Large had a lot to do with acting on predictions about energy shortages and energy costs, part of the fail has to do with how wrong my predictions turned out. That's not changed my general pessimism about energy today. But some of my friends have heard me spouting off about the energy crisis for over thirty years now. And, well, what have I got to show for it?

Yesterday thinking more or less along these lines I remembered a book I have from the early 1980's called The Integral Urban House. I was nowhere near as systematic as the folks who created that place, but something very much like it was what I was aiming for. It's cool to see the book is still in print. I wondered about the house now. According to this news article from late 2007 the Integral Urban House is just a house now.

In looking for info about the house online I kept running into descriptions of Sim Van der Ryn as a visionary. I really do admire Sim Van der Ryn's accomplishments, but I wondered what it takes to call yourself a visionary? I was feeling a bit snarky about it, given that in an inventory of my life, I never saw what came coming. A visionary, I'm not. Still we're far from coping with energy issues in a constructive way, so maybe I'm a myopic visionary.

I'm being hard on myself, and hard on my generational cohort. Some criticism is well-deserved. We screwed up in so many ways. I'm wonder whether young people know that many of their parents looked towards the future and thought big changes were needed? And I wonder what, if anything useful, we might tell them of our responses to that vision?

Here's what Matt Cantor the author of the news article about the Integral Urban House said of its reversion to just being a house:
The experiment could not sustain itself and I guess we all had to take the blue pill and go back to making believe that everything would continue to be fine no matter how we lived, who we killed or how much oil we burned.
Ouch! That stings! I've never seen The Matrix, but I get the blue and red pills. With age comes wisdom; I'm a bit short on any claim to wisdom myself. There's an irony too that even in selling-out I'm a sad sack. Lots of my age cohort have done pretty well by choosing the blue pill--the choice to go back to a waking sleep. Often the biggest reasons for the choosing blue over red as it were for many of us was a vision of life for our kids. What a mess.

Now the kids are grown and facing their own decisions. I suspect young people see folks my age as cynical. I'm not sure we really are. I feel quite sure we care very much about the world in which our children will live. So why is it so hard to get together to discuss what we might do together about the perilous future? I can't get a coherent story together that might lead to some collaboration among friends. I'm working on it and will try again soon to have a gathering here.

Thursday, July 02, 2009


I live near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh is not a particularly large city. It's famous as the Steel City, but iron and steel manufacturing is now so much reduced. Indeed Pittsburgh is part of the Rust Belt, places in the Middle Atlantic region of the USA once the manufacturing hub of the US. The picture was taken from the Spring Hill neighborhood facing more or less in the direction of the city. You can see the hilly terrain. Pittsburgh not a big city, it's also a city of neighborhoods, and the metropolitan area is composed of townships towns and municipalities. There's a small town flavor to the area. And I'm really in love with it.

Pittsburgh will be the setting for a meeting of the G20--Group of Twenty Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors--in September. My first reaction was of hometown pride in being selected as the setting for an international event. My second reaction was to think of Seattle 1999. The World Trade Organization held a Ministerial Conference in Seattle. At least 40,000 protesters gathered and it became a watershed moment drawing attention to the issue of globalization.

Pittsburgh is gearing up for its Independence Day celebrations and one of the local papers tells us that the Three Rivers Regatta will be a test of security procedures for the G20 event. Oh joy! Seriously, I want them to get the security right. Partly that desire goes back to my hometown pride--perhaps foolish; I would like Pittsburgh to be seen in a good light. I don't want anyone hurt. But at the same time I believe public voices should have an opportunity to speak and be heard. Peaceful assembly is essential to that, even if I won't be part of it. I probably will avoid the whole Forth of July celebrations downtown too!

I'm not an activist. Saying that doesn't mean that I don't think, nor that I don't understand that in a democracy I have social obligations. It is surely true that the matters discussed at the G20 Meeting have real consequences for me and people all around the Earth. I intend to pay attention as best I can.

If 1999 was a watershed moment for anti-globalization movement, then the 2008 run on the financial markets was a watershed moment too. In 1999 people in developing nations, labor unions, young people and disenfranchised people of all sorts began to deeply question the neo-liberal policies that had dominated world economics since Reagan, Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping. Since 2008 even the most dyed-in-the-wool capitalists are raising questions too.

The job numbers for June came out today and nearly a half million more people ;have been forced from their employment; raising the official unemployment rate to levels not seen since Ronald Reagan was president. In 1976 there were about 250,000 people in Allegheny County--where Pittsburgh is--directly engaged in steel manufacture. By 1980 there were less than 5,000. Regionally job numbers have held up better than other areas of the country in this recession. That fact is somewhat tempered by the fact the region has never fully recovered the jobs since the 1980's.

The economy sucks, people are noticing. Even though unemployment is high, there is a perverse situation that the buying power of people who are working actually increased in June. So noticing the economy is a bit more nuanced than we might think. Something working people might notice are things shared in common that are in trouble. The state is cutting arts funding; in the scheme of things a very small budget item, but one which affects many people. This summer the Pennsylvania Governors School was cancelled which for more than 20 years had brought the brightest high school students across the state together to participate in dynamic learning programs during the summer. Regional funds for libraries are being slashed among many other cuts. So even for people working feeling their money goes a little further, they see effects of the poor economy. For most of us the signs are obvious.

What is not so obvious is what to be done. More than ever people are aware of environmental limits. Take the issue of atmospheric carbon. We all know it's a problem and such a big problem that none of us alone can do much about. It's a global issue. But I also think that most Americans look at the promise of "green" jobs suspiciously. We know we take cheap energy for granted so don't know how to think about how to get out of the spin we're in. Building more houses in ever sprawling suburbs doesn't make much sense to us, but neither do all the people who were engaged in construction building them and who are now out of a job. We take it as a given that our economy depends on growth, and to our minds growth is literally fueled by fossil fuels.

In June Jason Bradford put a presentation he made at "The Generation Green Tent" during the Summer Arts and Music Festival at the Benbow Lake State Recreation Area. It's a great presentation that I encourage reading and sharing. One point he made was:
Problems with the environment or natural resources are problems with the economy because human economic systems are a subset of planetary ecological systems. Environmental issues should be the main topics on page 1 of the business section of your local newspaper—assuming you still have one.
He also makes the point that we are about off our rockers because of the cognitive dissonance over what we know and our assumptions about the economy. Perhaps in 1999 there were lots of Americans who interpreted the issues of globalization in familiar frames like: Buy American, or Don't ship our jobs oversees. But now the reality of global climate change has taken hold. The link Bradford makes between economics and environment is very real to us, even if we don't talk together about it much.

The other evening a paid organizer for Repower America called me on telephone. I must have signed a petition or given out my details at some point. My sales resistance isn't so strong, so I try pretty quickly to dispense with such calls. What kept me connected a little longer was the money pitch never began. And that left me with an opportunity to run my mouth, saying I'm not going to do anything if it means my having to go anywhere. This isn't entirely a snot-nosed reaction, transportation is something I have to plan and ration. But Pablo on the other end must have learned well in organizer's school because he came back with an idea for "Green Barbecues." The idea is to invite your friends over to talk about economic/environmental issues. Perhaps together we can do something useful. Then closing the sale, Pablo had me pick a date. The date is July 8, 2009.


In April the G20 met in London. In advance of that meeting I stumbled upon an effort called we20--that's their FaceBook page. The basic idea of we20 is for people all over to create meetings of 20 or so to discuss the dire problems we all face. And the most important part is to try to think of a plan to put actions to our words. The organization is entirely neutral, we20 doesn't take a position. What they have done, however is to create tools so that individual we20 meetings can share with others. That Web site is here. At the time I first discovered we20, I thought how smart that all was, but didn't act on it. Then recently I noticed a Tweet from we20 at Twitter about Pittsburgh and it jogged my memory.

I've committed to try to entice a few friends to my place for a Green Barbecue so that the Repower America organizer can encourage the people who show up to sign their petition. I think that's a good thing.

Almost all of my friends want as little to do with the Internet as possible. We talk about face to face being so important, but I'm not sure how many I can actually attract Wednesday night. Still, I know my friends think they should be doing something about the pickle we're all in. It took Repower America to get me off my duff, but the essential thing for grassroot efforts is for people to get together and share some intention. With these Green Barbecues, Repower America hasn't developed a way to tell the stories online like we20 has. So while my friends might not see anything about it online--including this blog post--I'm still keen on using the Internet to connect. So I've listed the event at the we20 Web site. I'll also try to report on it there and at the FaceBook page.

I maybe missing something essential, but I don't think it matters too much what we call small grassroots efforts to get together to address our challenges. But I do think it important more and more people do get together for that purpose. There are online communication tools, I think they're great and intend to explore them. Still the basic point is to get together and get to work. Our survival and happiness depends on it.