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.