Friday, January 30, 2009

Web Relationships

The picture is a screen shot from a VideoNation YouTube video called A City Made of Waste by Laura Hanna, Molly Schwartz, Sean Kim and Nathan Meir with music by Brent Arnold. The video shows how San Diego's urban sprawl encroaches on Tijuana's informal land use patterns. As a flow of people go north in search of dollars urban waste moves south.

Whole houses built in the sixties in San Diego are razed to make way for McMansions. In some cases the houses are moved and in Tijuana raised on steel beams so there's useful space under them--future potential for ground level businesses like taco shops. For whatever reasons my aesthetic sense is skewed towards these improvisational buildings. I look at them and think, Yeah, I could live there.

This video has lots of cool information in it, but perhaps what is most significant is how it identifies and documents a single solution to a local challenge. The video helps to provide a context for how this solution and how solutions of this sort can be identified:
These start-up, informal settlements gradually evolve or violently explode out of conditions of social emergency. It is not the 'image' of the informal that is important here, but the layering of its socio-economic procedures.(my bold)
As far as my thinking goes regarding the current economic crisis goes, we're in deep trouble. The very disconcerting part is that it seems the way we believe things ought to be is opposed to the necessary planetary ecology to sustain that vision of "ought."

I'm not preternaturally optimistic, I am always on the look out for reasons to be optimistic; if for no other reason than feelings of dread tend to immobilize me. Commons-based peer production is a model of economic production that gives me some optimism. Online, of course, for every optimist there's a pessimist to either help to maintain balance or to assist in a downward spiral of despair. It seems unfair to present John Robb as an example of pessimism because my reading of his temperament is that he's probably much more predisposed towards optimism than I am. Robb's Global Guerrillas blog makes clear that peer-production surely isn't all on the upside. But it seems no matter how you look at it, the social web makes a difference in this realm of socio-economics; it's just harder to point to the differences that really make a difference.

The Web was all a twitter about an executive for the public relations firm Ketchum, James Andrews, making a snide remark about Memphis, Tennessee in his Twitter stream--Twitter is a micro-blogging platform which allows people to post frequent, but short messages (140 character limit)--the day Andrews was to meet with Ketchum's huge client Fedex. Some in Fedex's marketing management were following his stream and took offense. It's not clear to me, perhaps instead some of these in-house marketing took to the "offense" for political reasons. Anyhow the whole flap was used as an example of how we should all be wary of what we put up online.

I thought in reading over the remarks about the flap they revealed a sort of cultural divide. There were plenty of comments along one side the line essentially: "Stuff happens, whatever;" and on the other side lots of schadenfreude delighting in the irony that a PR pro would make such a stupid mistake. I put up a lot online. I'm a fifty-something and not very tech-savvy; the point is putting stuff online is commonplace nowadays, almost everyone is doing it. My sentiment is more the former than the latter.

Many of my age cohort are quite resistant to joining social networking sites like Facebook and a big part of the resistance, it seems to me, is precisely that they'd be shamed by something like Ketchum's Andrews did. Generally such sentiment isn't express as a fear they themselves have, but as a fear they have for their children using online social networks; a fear their children will bring shame upon themselves.

As an old guy, I find that participating in online social networks are an interesting mirror. I pretty needy and want people to like me. It only takes a little while online to discover there are plenty of folks who probably don't or won't like me. So it's a curious thing for someone who really doesn't want to annoy others to discover that sometimes I really do. I can't hide behind a defense of simply being misunderstood, indeed my own ignorance and misunderstanding is part of what makes me so annoying. I do try not to be mean to others online, but meanness is all around.

Susan Mernit connects an incident where Michael Arrington of Tech Crunch was spat upon at the DLD Conference in Munich with an essay by Jason Calacanis, We Live in Public (and the end of empathy). Arrington's account of the event was posted under the title Some Things Need To Change.

I'm about as far away from Michael Arrington and Jason Calacanis, two very prominent Internet entrepreneurs as one can get. So it's fairly easy to dismiss their concerns about the ruthlessness of online social interaction as something that really only applicable for the highly connected. But Calacanis's discussion of a new disorder he identifies as "Internet Asperger's Syndrome (IAS) made me think the better of dismissing it. Calacanis writes:
The threats we've seen against women online are a warning sign of what's to come--we're all going to face this aggressive behavior and we're all going to withdraw from these communication services.
Calacanis stopped blogging last year, going to a limited subscriber email list instead. I'm only able to read his essay because he posted it online, not because I'm on the list. But the observation "we're all going to withdraw" hit pretty hard, because I have high hope for the possibilities of online sharing. was an online social network. I ended up there on the tail end of it's existence. I also participated at and still do. Both of these communities feel prey to a sort of rot that both Arrington and Calacanis are pointing to. Calacanis points out "[H]ow we treat each other does matter. It matters because, without empathy, our lives are shallow, self-centered and meaningless." But neither Arrington nor Calacanis have got the answer how to get that through our thick heads.

Monday, January 19, 2009

So, What Else Is New?

In which I ramble aimlessly among diverse topics.

The picture is a video capture of Nanci Griffith singing Boots of Spanish Leather from Transatlantic Sessions 2. I find the performance achingly beautiful, as marvel once again how a young Bob Dylan could have imagined this song. I guess screen capture is a bit dodgy, well for that matter an awful lot of the videos up at YouTube are dodgy. It's pretty hard to buy either CDs or DVDs of the Transatlantic Sessions here in the USA. CDs and DVDs in the PAL format are available at MusicScotland. I take the cheap way and am grateful to those who've uploaded songs to YouTube. There are lots of videos up, and a good tip to search "Transatlantic Sessions."

I got around to the Nanci Griffth's performance because I was looking at photographs of Obama's pre-inaugural train ride from Philadelphia to Baltimore. I remembered someone remarking they loved train travel because they got to see people's backyards; where they really live. In one of those shots there are a couple of guys standing on the roof of their back porch waving at the train. The silly thought that wandered in was: "I wonder if those guys are black?" Because I couldn't tell I thought of Julie Gold's song From a Distance:
From a distance, there is harmony,
and it echoes through the land.
It's the voice of hope, it's the voice of peace,
it's the voice of every man.
I especially love how Griffths sings the verse:
From a distance you look like my friend,
even though we are at war.
From a distance I just cannot comprehend
what all this fighting is for.
Cut from The Obama Inaugural Celebration Concert was Bishop Gene Robinson's A Prayer for the Nation and Our Next President, Barack Obama, but it's worth reading nonetheless. Old commie Pete Seeger singing Woody Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land with a children's choir and Bruce Springsteen. What is so wonderful about the video is how when Seeger shouts out the subversive lyrics:
Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn't say nothing --
the camera moves to Obama who looks not altogether happy. Who could have predicted Pete Seeger would be a little subversive? Oh well, I'm sure he expected and indeed part of the joy of the concert is exactly that there have always been many streams converging in the American experience. And because this song gets sung everywhere, Mavis Staples can sing Freedom Highway and it resonates across all sorts of boundaries.

funknroll makes some great videos especially highlighting the secret history of women in rock and roll. His video of The Staples Singers 1965 Freedom Highway has images that make a person of my age pinch myself. My dad will be 87 in a few days and it's striking to me that Martin Luther King, Jr. would have celebrated his 80th birthday a few days ago had he not been shot down. Time passes quickly.

Seeger's gleeful look as he points out that one side of the Private Property! sign has got nothing on it and that's ourl land couldn't be more timely. The Nation has a video up called The Commons which is quite swell with clever animation and music. The video also introduced me to On The Commons a very cool Web site.

I believe I mentioned in a earlier post about Robert Patterson's writing about the Boyd Conference as being very worthwhile reading. Just in time for Obama's Inauguration Patterson has an important post There is Hope - But maybe not what you think!. Patterson lays out where we stand and what lays ahead. Peak Oil changes our assumptions, and Patterson presents the case for orderly energy descent.
I think that our best chance is to work full on towards establishing local resiliency - where we shift more control back locally in energy, food and money. Where we link our local efforts to be more resilient to those of others who are doing the same. Where we look also to power of relationships to build a more effective approach to health and to education.
Patterson is concerned that Obama will hew too closely to conventional wisdom. That's probably inevitable. But I do find that Obama is encouraging people to leverage the MyObama Web site to make house parties for local activism. There really is much we can do and the Transition Culture movement all over shows people can do it with good spirits and joy. Wherever we live we have much to do, and Patterson is smart to point out that acting locally in correspondence with others all over is a powerful way to proceed.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Threads in the News

Lately the weight of news reports has felt very heavy. The news of Israel's war on Gaza City especially so. I don't have any special insight on the matter, but feel a need to say that the news is very heavy.

It felt very good to darn gloves, a pair of long underwear, patch a pair of trousers, and sew on a few buttons. Very simple things really and have nothing much to do with the news of trouble all around. It's an imperfect world and of course human relations are very much more complicated than a pair of gloves or piece of clothing. Yet there are threads which connect us. Every metaphors fails in some way or another, still I wonder: Are there ways to darn the holes in the fabric of humanity?

I still read the local paper every day and most days watch PBS Newshour as I prepare supper. The American press covers Israel/Palestine conflicts in a certain well-worn "fair and balanced" way. Western journalists have not been allowed to report from Gaza.

But like many Americans I get the news online too. One big difference is how part of the experience of news online involves the commentary by readers of the posts. Sometimes it seems it's the commentary is the most disconcerting. What the Internet commentary allows is a less polite version of the poles the press attempts to straddle between and that just seems an untenable position for news reporting.

Sunday night on the NBC Nightly News there was a report of reports of injuries to civilians in Gaza caused by white phosphorus artillery shells fired by Israel. I was surprised by the report because it seemed very much "off script" for American news outlet's reportage about the conflict. I have searched MSNBC and don't see any mention of the reporting there. However The LA Times did report the story today. And MSNBC does provide links to "More views on the crisis." From there there's a link to a story about it at Aljazeera. Online the use of white phosphorus munitions have been discussed for days. Such that Wired published a piece on January 6 laying out the case against illegal use of the weapons. Today's UK Times story helpfully identifies the weapons used as American made by looking up the serial number on shell visible in a photograph they published last week.

Sam Bahour published a piece at TPMCafe, No Other Option?!. SholomA is a frequent commenter in threads there. His arguments and especially his way of argument often raises the hair on my back. At least he uses a name contrary to the multitude of comments on threads elsewhere--no anonymous comments at TPM--which parrot a certain style of pro-Israel talking points. It seems after a while surfing through comments an "ignore" filter gets established as umbrage gets rather tiresome. Still, SholomA got through my filter with this comment:
BTW, this is happening today and somehow nobody watches "at the appalling death and destruction" in Congo.
"This" in SholomA's comment refers to rape as a tactic in war. I'm not sure what part of his comment got through, but I think it was the "nobody watches" part. When it comes to the Democratic Republic of Congo--Congo-Brazzaville is a separate country--the lack of memory as well as so little attention is haunting.

I do follow news, but there are so many gaps in my knowledge about conflicts in Africa that I won't even pretend I understand what's going on. Over Christmas there were reports of massacres in northern DRC by the Lord's Resistance Army. The reports about the LRA involvement sent me searching for various sources. I do frequently read Uganda's Daily Monitor online for example. Over the fall I'd been following the troubles in the Kivus region of the DRC. And as peripheral background know that 2009 will be a pivotal year for The Sudan. It's difficult to form a regional perspective about the conflicts, but the steady focus on conflicts as discrete happenings looses all context.

There's a really good blog called Wronging Rights. The blog recently celebrated their first anniversary. I missed at least half of the year's posts, and for most of the time reading it felt put off by the tone. In something of a breakthrough for my humor-challenged self, this past week I laughed out loud over the title of a post: Congo About to Get Much Needed Shiny New Rebel Group?.

Amanda Taub and Kate Cronin-Furman don't produce satire a la The Onion. They report insightfully about most serious matters. But they know that laughter can provide a space for new perspectives. Having laughed, I now find it astounding that I've read posts at Wronging Rights while being too rigid to let their brilliant posts really work on me. Part of the explanation must be how much afraid I am of letting rage grow in me. I know that rage blinds me easily. Finally I get how they use humor in their writing to allow us to admit our rage, but in such a way that it doesn't over take us.

Early New Year's morning 22 year-old Oscar Grant was shot dead by a BART police officer. On January 7th there were public protests in Oakland. Susan Mernit is a technology blogger and Oakland resident. And I started looking into the story after reading her posts. Watching one of the videos at YouTube--you'll be asked to confirm your birth date--was very unsettling. Of course it was unsettling because I'm squeamish about watching violence. But most of all the video challenged my view of the reporting of the incident. Somehow the police commentary that witnesses will see events differently--surely a truism--becomes more like: "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?"

An awful lot of the content of reporting draws the conclusion that the truth of what happened will never be known. I don't know what to make of that. Opinions tested in a wide variety of situations can become well-grounded. In a one way media model, like newspapers and television news, there's a certain confidence in the journalists themselves having tested various opinions. There are problems with this approach, what first comes to mind is a hardening of opinion towards one pole of opinion or another. Blog posts with reader commentary would seem a helpful antidote for jaded opinion making, but I see little evidence that people who leave comments are swayed by other comments much.

Perhaps we imagine a world as perfect as a brand new pair of gloves: a brand new world. Alas we live in this old and imperfect world. We speak of the fabric of humanity because the histories of people are interwoven. How then to repair where holes in the fabric have been worn and where sections of the fabric are torn apart?

I suspect there are lessons in darning to be applied. Darning consists of very simple stitches; it's not at all hard to do. It simply requires a bit of patience and a willingness to do a repetitive task for a little while until the hole is filled. Darning is not simply stitching parts together. A hole in a sock mended that way will produce an ungainly lump. To fit right the hole must be filled with woven thread. Even a tear to be mended isn't sound when the ends of the fabric are joined. If the stitching is strong, tears on either side of the repair are likely. So it's good practice to use a patch behind the tear when mending, or to extend the stitches into the fabric well beyond the tear to create a matrix. We can make the threadbare serviceable.

Making serviceable is a worthwhile objective to take from darning. Late last year Robert Patterson hosted The Boyd Conference on Prince Edward Island. John Boyd was a Colonel in the United States Air Force and an important military strategist who died in 1997. He is well known for his concept of OODA Loop which stands for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. An important aspect of this construct is that it is a loop, that is, actions feedback to the observation position in the loop. In darning the object is to cover the hole by connecting the edges of the hole with new yarn, a sort of feedback loop. I may be stretching this fabric metaphor too far, nonetheless Patterson's reporting about the Boyd Conference provides insight into ways we can begin to repair the fabric of our human interactions.

Pankaj Mishra wrote in an essay recently in The Guardian concerning the Middle East crisis wrote:
Why should we listen to fiction writers on complex geopolitical conflicts? Certainly, the previous century furnishes plenty of cautionary tales about imaginative writers - GB Shaw, Ezra Pound - making foolish political choices. Upholding toxic ideologies while remaining mostly study-bound, they invite the derision George Orwell once directed at WH Auden's poem "Spain 1937". Commenting on the phrase "necessary murder", Orwell wrote that "Auden's brand of amoralism is only possible if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled."
The sort of commentary I've been reading online often does suffer from amoralism that Auden derides.

Pankaj Mishra's essay is worth reading in its entirety. He compares the Israeli author David Grossman and Indian author Arundhati Roy; how both "choose not to be somewhere else when triggers are being cocked and pulled." I believe that people everywhere can be instruments of peace. But the work of mending is a practical endeavor that requires people who will place themselves in between the tear or the hole in the fabric.

Via Amitava Kumar read an op-ed by Mukul Kesavan in India's The Telegraph In Violent Slow Motion: As an awful sort of nationalism, Zionism is not unique. If there are some rents in the fabric of humanity we're in no position to place ourselves in the middle of, there still is much we can learn from these conflicts and attempts at repair. Kesavan draws parallels from the Israel/Palestine conflict and conflicts between Hindu nationalists and Indian Muslims.

Mattias Haqberg interviews Mike Davis in Eurozine, The new ecology of war. Davis brings home the fact that the great hole in the fabric seen in Gaza today is not unique. Davis observes:
"If Southern California has any significance to the development of the world's cities, it is as model for life in the protected enclaves."
Those gated communities around the world, highlight the gaping disconnection of most urban dwellers to the global economy. David points out the great danger: "Global epidemics and global terrorism are two problems that principally emanated from the slums."

The news is dreadful, but attempting to repair the fragile fabric of humanity's interwoven existence seems the dignified response.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Darn it!

Originally uploaded by gershamabob

We had a good old fashioned winter snow storm Friday night and on Saturday. I very much wanted to go out because I knew an old friend I hadn't seen for a long time would be there. But I fretted about the weather and the driving conditions. I did go to the party and to my surprise the line of snow that had blanketed the area where I live and north of us, seemed to end abruptly just a few miles down the road. I didn't bring any contribution to the party, wanting to make a beeline to it. That faux pas was noticed. My guilty feelings seem well worth it for seeing my old friend.

Old friends are a great benefit of becoming older. My friend is thinking of creating a new business. I always love a new opportunity to brainstorm and I think I've got some interesting things to say about the business. I also know that my tendency to think aloud can drive people nuts. So it's a good thing to have some history with this friend. He knows how I can pelt out ideas, and it's encouraging to me that I believe he knows that what I say not always a haphazard jumble.

The party ended at a reasonable hour and I returned home without incident. I stoked my fire and the house wasn't as uncomfortably cold as it often is. I felt wide awake and put on some music. There was a basket of laundry the needed to be folded. I quickly discovered that many of the items of clothing in the basket were in need of some repair. Even before that I knew the gloves I'd worn in the evening had a few holes in need of darning.

My needle skills are quite limited. Even such as they are I find them handy. My body is remarkably average and the good part of that is there often are lots of good clothes cheap that will fit me. The slightly awkward part is that cheap pants in my waist size are often too long in the inseam.Something I can do moderately well is to do a blind hem stitch to adjust the pants length. I'm not really into laying out money right now even for cheap clothing, so that means it's worth my while to repair some of the clothing I own. I'm wearing a sweater now that's been darned in several places. I didn't even match the thread color too well when I did it, but once the sweater is on me, it seem it would take an eagle eye to notice the repairs.

I looked online for some information about darning. It's one of those things that easy enough that even I can do it, but for some reason people seem afraid to try. gershamabob's perfectly illustrates a good darning job done. Pat Oehler at der Erste Zug made a great page about how to darn a sock. The School for Advanced Research (SAR)also has a page on mending. I was happy to find out about SAR because I'd never heard of the place. Their site, Pueblo Indian Embroidery is quite interesting. It doesn't have much to do with repairing cloth, rather having to do with passing along culture.

Repairing cloth is something people all over have done through the ages. It seems to me that lately in the USA most people have come to scorn repairs and preferring much the new as perfect. Yet there is something quite pleasing about making repairs, perhaps we could come to think of wearing clothes made more perfect by repair.