|Epidemic News: ProMED provides up-to-the-minute news on epidemics around the world. When the legacy media stop covering the Marburg outbreak in Angola because there’s nothing “exciting” new to report, this site keeps covering the story. No film, no heart-rending stories, just the facts.
See Where Your Blog Readers Live: GEOLOC offers an applet that will show you at a glance (see example at right) on a world map where your current and recent blog readers live. Only in French for now, but that’s what Google Translations is for.
Read Up on Complexity Theory: Stephen Wolfram has an interesting take on complexity theory and how seemingly ‘simple’ algorithms can generate complex systems. I don’t particularly agree with his view (more about that later), but it’s compelling reading and the whole book is online free of charge. (Thanks to Rayne Today for the link)
Even More Awesome Satellite Photos: If you’re already bored with Google Maps, check out NASA World Wind, a complete graphics engine (you’ll need a high speed connection and lots of hard drive space to download it) that offers a more global and less urban-focused collection, with some interactive and educational features as well.
Campaign for Environmental Literacy Needs Your Help: If you’re an American reader, please visit their site and complete the online letter to your elected officials to urge restored funding for environmental education. You know, the stuff Bush doesn’t want you to know.
What Richard Dawkins is Up To: I’m more of a Gouldian (the late Stephen Jay Gould) than a Dawkinsian, but I greatly admire Dawkins’ courage and eloquence in taking on the religious loonies and their papered-over creationism fraud called ‘Intelligent Design’. In this Salon interview with Gordy Slack, Dawkins talks about what he’s doing and what he’s up against. Here’s a great resource on Dawkins, if the interview piques your interest.
What Edward Norton is Up To: In this interview with Amanda Griscom Little, from Grist magazine, the iconoclastic Norton talks about his work on the National Geographic environmental special Strange Days on Planet Earth, and some of the other very down-to-Earth eco-initiatives he’s working on. This guy knows how to work a room, and we need more like him. The Strange Days link above has a lot more, for those that missed the special on PBS.
April 30, 2005
April 29, 2005
|Perhaps once a year I discover a book so remarkable that I end up highlighting passages on every page. I’m just reading one such book now, Straw Dogs, by London School of Economics professor John Gray, which I will present a review of on Monday. Here’s a poem by Robinson Jeffers included in the book, just to give you a flavour. I can’t find a record of which reader recommended it to me (there’s no search capability for the Userland comments server), so whoever did so, thank you!
Lots more on Monday.
Many people have asked me about the Cairn Terrier. How about memory, they want to know. Is it IBM-compatible? Why didn’t I get the IBM itself, or a Kaypro, Compaq, or Macintosh? I think the best way to answer these questions is to look at the Macintosh and the Cairn head on. I almost did buy the Macintosh. It has terrific graphics, good word-processing capabilities, and the mouse. But in the end I decided on the Cairn, and I think I made the right decision.
Let’s start out with the basics:
Just on the basis of price and weight, the choice is obvious. Another plus is that the Cairn Terrier comes in one unit. No printer is necessary, or useful. And – this was a big attraction to me – there is no user’s manual. Here are some of the other qualities I found put the Cairn way out ahead of the Macintosh:
Admittedly, these are peripheral advantages. The real comparison has to be on the basis of capabilities. What can the Macintosh and the Cairn do? Let’s start on the Macintosh’s turf- income-tax preparation, recipe storage, graphics, and astrophysics problems:
At first glance it looks bad for the Cairn. But it’s important to look beneath the surface with this kind of chart. If you yourself are leaning toward the Macintosh, ask yourself these questions: Do you want to do your own income taxes? Do you want to type all your recipes into a computer? In your graph, what would you put on the x axis? The y axis? Do you have any astrophysics problems you want solved?
Then consider the Cairn’s specialities: playing fetch and tug-of-war, licking your face, and chasing foxes out of rock cairns (eponymously). Note that no software is necessary. All these functions are part of the operating system:
Another point to keep in mind is that computers, even the Macintosh, only do what you tell them to do. Cairns perform their functions all on their own. Here are some of the additional capabilities that I discovered once I got the Cairn home and housebroken:
This last capability is related to the Cairn’s strongest point, which was the final deciding factor in my decision against the Macintosh – user-friendliness. On this criterion, there is simply no comparison. The Cairn Terrier is the essence of user-friendliness. It has fur, it doesn’t flicker when you look at it, and it wags its tail.
April 28, 2005
I had barely finished writing and posting yesterday’s article about making time for Important things instead of just the Urgent, when something Really Urgent came up. I started passing a couple of kidney stones. Thanks to neighbour Doug I was whisked off to the hospital quickly, doped up with a non-steroid anti-inflammatory drug called Toradol (ketorolac tromethamine) — a non-narcotic painkiller that worked nearly as well as the Demerol (meperidine hydrochloride) they gave me the first two times I had kidney stones, and without the spaciness and euphoria — and then I was sampled and scanned to confirm my diagnosis. It took two hours from the onset of the first severe and agonizing attack (an 11 on the Richter pain scale, as anyone who’s had one will tell you) until the Toradol kicked in. When it did, I just lay there, grateful, relieved, comfortable, content — doing nothing for three hours. No thinking, no writing, no planning, no worrying, no meditating, no questioning. Just lying there with a faint smile, relishing the calm, and just wanting it to go on and on.
There’s a lesson here, perhaps: There’s nothing like experiencing horrific pain or unbearable anguish to make you oh-so-grateful for a subsequent moment of mediocrity, of unfeeling, of pure, lazy contentment. Maybe a reason that so many people are so change-resistant and so content with the status quo, at least in its quieter moments, is that they live so much of their lives in such interminable and extreme dread, ground down to feelings of disconnection and misery and helplessness and hopelessness and fear, that they are simply grateful for the brief escapes to joy or contentment. Let someone else be responsible for the intractable. Maybe those relatively few of us armed with skills, with knowledge, with imagination, are being too hard on our fellow human beings who have no such armour. Human kind cannot bear very much reality, Eliot wrote. The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, wrote Thoreau.
I’m beginning to appreciate that perhaps we won’t be able to engage the vast majority of people in our world to entertain bold changes to make life better, until we help them to make their own lives peaceful and bearable. A tall order. We merely struggle with the Machine in Our Heads, while those who have been less gifted in their lives than we, struggle with demons that we cannot fully appreciate, except in moments (like mine yesterday) when we experience them first hand. It was quite humbling.
So my article this Sunday is going to be on compassion, sympathy, humility. Not enough of these things in this world.
None of this occurred to me while I was in the hospital, mind you. And I’m now proud owner of two tiny copper-coloured calcium kidney stones that look alarmingly like kidneys in miniature.
April 27, 2005
|This will drive my fellow procrastinators wild, but here goes:
Now I could be really annoying and ask why you’re not doing these things. But this quiz isn’t to try to make you feel guilty, it’s to encourage you (in the spirit of yesterday’s post) to start something, to be generous to yourself.
Just pick one or two of the items you checked off, the ones that are most important (furthest to the right on the table at right, not closest to the top). Now list, in order, at least the first five things you would have to do, the first five steps, to make them happen. Very concrete and specific actions, that you can check off when they’re done. And break the steps down into actions that take no more than two hours each to do, as much as possible.
Now put the very first step from each item on your ‘to do’ list. And make a pledge to do one ‘next step’ from one of these items every day, or at least every week. And do it.
I’m more anal than most, but I find putting these things on my Getting Things Done list (which I’m still using faithfully and successfully, by the way) works for me. In its latest incarnation, my list looks like this, sorted by schedule date (for those not familiar with GTD, N stands for tasks with only one Next Action step, P for projects with a whole series of Next Actions, A for appointments and meetings scheduled for a specific time, and W for tasks ‘on hold’ waiting for someone else to do something):
When I schedule activities, the Urgent items (U) always seem to rise to the top, but I make room for one Important item (I) every day. It’s a pledge to myself. I’ve found there are rarely items that are both Urgent and Important, and that when I realize that an item is neither Urgent nor Important (quadrant IV tasks) it can often be taken off the list entirely.
Part of the challenge of reducing the number of Urgent tasks so there is more time for the Important ones is learning to say no. It’s one of the hardest lessons to learn, and I confess I’m still not very good at it. But when I’m forced to shift one of my Important actions to a later date, to make room for something that is neither Urgent nor Important, or which could easily be delegated to someone else, it’s teaching me when to say no.
What would you do if you had more ‘free’ time? Enough said.
April 26, 2005
|The Idea: The Gift Economy is built on generosity, not charity. But we live in such a complex and unnatural world that we really have to pay attention to understand the crucial difference.
Do you cringe when you see those tear-jerker ads for charities? You know, the ones that feature emaciated and destitute children or abused animals, trying to make you feel so guilty you open your wallet? Now, how about the guys in the street with the “please help” signs, the plastic containers, the squeegees, sometimes with dogs or kids in tow?
Charity comes from the Latin word meaning heart, love. Its modern use is steeped in religious convention: Charity was the extension of love of God to love of His subjects. This is a long-standing practice of arm-twisting, benevolent extortion, one step removed from the ‘collection plate’. By contrast, philanthropy is from the Latin words meaning ‘good to man’. The poor and middle-class were coerced to give up their money from fear of God’s wrath. The rich did it voluntarily because they were ‘good peeps’. Nothing much has changed in two thousand years. Charity is not about giving; rather, like any hard sell, like advertising, like the stuff in the previous paragraph, it’s about taking. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there’s anything morally wrong with what they’re doing — we all have to do what we have to do, and most charities do wonderful, thankless, underfunded and underappreciated work — I’m just describing the pitch for what it is.
Now, the word generosity is interesting. Guess where it comes from? The Latin word meaning to start or give birth. It’s not really about giving or taking, it’s about starting something.
To tie this back to The Gift Economy, when scientists or doctors share information at a colloquium, when technologists collaborate on Open Source projects and give their work-product away, when bloggers and discussion group participants spend hours sharing information and insights with others, this isn’t charity, or philanthropy, it’s generosity — they’re catalyzing change, they’re trying to start something.
In case the tear-jerker examples in the first paragraph didn’t make you uncomfortable enough, here’s a couple more to think about. Consider the pharmaceutical company that has invested a few million in a new drug that works out successfully (many don’t). They know that, because there is no other drug with similar effectiveness, they can charge whatever they want. They decide to charge $100 per pill. The government health plans in many countries pay, and the product is a cash cow for the company. Unfortunately, for those without medical coverage, and for the Third World, the price is out of reach. The company agrees to sell special lots of the drug to the Third World for $20 per pill, if a consortium of governments agrees to cough up another $40 per pill — both the governments and the company are then ‘out’ $40 per pill, in the interest of international good will. How does that strike you? Some may see this as corporate philanthropy, while others will see it as extortion of governments and subsidized charity. It’s not generosity.
Now consider the case of file-sharers. Millions of individuals decide to share their copies of music and videos with those who may not be able to afford them. At the same time they sample some music and videos shared by others that they themselves could afford. In some cases they like what they hear or see enough to buy commercial copies of the artists’ other work, and to pay for tickets to see them live in concert. What category does this fall into, in your mind? To some this is seen as simple theft, while others may see it as generosity — file sharing has certainly started something.
Let’s see how these morally complex situations might have played out in the Gift Economy, rather than the Market Economy that gave rise to the difficulties described above. In a Gift Economy, those with expertise in pharmaceuticals would recognize the need for a new drug. They would self-organize a consortium and ask governments to fund the research in part on a successful efforts basis: If the research fails to produce a useful drug, the governments are out only the out-of-pocket costs of the work plus a subsistence wage for the researchers. If it succeeds, then the consortium members receive a significant bonus — a motivation for diligence and success, but more importantly a thank you for their gift to society — for their generosity. Everyone in the world gets the drug for what it costs to deliver it to the patient, which varies by cost of living from a penny in the Third World to perhaps fifty cents in the West. The governments are ‘out’ the entire cost of the drug’s development — perhaps $1 per pill spread over the many more patients that benefit from it. That’s still much less than they would have paid under the Market Economy scenario. And it’s more than offset by the reduction in treatment costs that the drug prevents. Yes, the governments are out the tax dollars on the profits and executive salaries that no longer exist, but we’ll get to taxes in a minute. And, yes, I know governments are big and corrupt and inefficient, and I’ll get to that in a minute, too.
Back to the file-sharers. In a Gift Economy, musicians and artists and writers would readily gift their work to the public domain, under a Creative Commons license. File-sharing would become the principal way recorded artistic works were distributed. The government (yes, I know, you hate government, just suspend your reservations for a minute) would create a fund for cultural products, and would distribute that fund, up to a certain maximum per artist, to artists in proportion to the volume of their work shared online and through CDs, DVDs and books produced for those who prefer or need the harder media. Want to support your favourite author, musician, playwright or filmmaker? Just download their work and the government will take heed. No one would get rich, but a hell of a lot more artists would be able to make a living this way. And there would be much more breadth, and less formula, in what is produced. The process is inherently generous, it would start a lot more creative ideas and bring them to fruition than the constipated homogeneity and imaginative poverty that comes out of the Market Economy’s version of the ‘entertainment industry’. And Bush’s Private Ownership of Everything Economy (euphemistically shortened to just the Ownership Economy) would make all the failures of the Market Economy a hundred times worse. The so-called ‘Ownership Economy’ is the antithesis of the Gift Economy.
OK. Back to the sticking points: Government and Taxes. We all hate taxes. Why? Because they are charity. They are a means of coercing the poor and middle-class (the rich can hire expensive investment advisors and tax accountants and lawyers, and bribe big governments to give them massive subsidies and kickbacks, so with few exceptions, at least in the US, they pay, net net, little or no tax already) to give money either (a) to the rich, to ‘friends’ of the elite and to big corporations in the form of subsidies, payoffs and war spending [in the US and much of the Third World], or (b) to the less fortunate [in the rest of the West]. The answer in a Gift Economy? Don’t tax income at all, tax ‘bads’ (resource depletion, pollution, waste and hoarding) instead of ‘goods’. Putting disincentives in place for these ‘bads’ demonstrates good stewardship for the Earth and provides a simple and ‘non-charitable’, generous means of raising funds publicly to start something — like finding a drug to solve a major health problem, or encouraging a proliferation of artistic creation.
The reason we cannot today, at least in most countries, trust ‘government’ to manage the Gift Economy in the way I have described in the preceding paragraphs is that it is simply too big, too removed from the people, and has too much of a vested interest in the Market Economy and the political status quo. The solution to this, which will take time, is to break down government from the centralized state level to local self-determined communities. Each community can then decide how much it is prepared to invest in activities (like medical research and artistic creation) that benefit the well-being of its members and the rest of the world. Until then, the best way to curtail the abuses and profligacy of governments is to give them less money to play with (and taxing ‘bads’ will help, since it is likely to produce less revenue than taxing ‘goods’), so that they cannot afford military adventures, massive corporate and agricultural subsidies, and the other market-distorting activities that, ironically, keep the misnamed ‘Market Economy’ in business. We need to make subsidies (the theft of money from taxpayers for political ‘friends’), the waging of war (except under extreme defensive circumstances), and the incurring of debt (the theft of money from future generations) illegal. Government money should be spent only on generous (in the true meaning of the word — starting something) activities. If it were, there would be no need to spend it on charity. If you’re getting your medicines for pennies and your entertainment for free, and you’re a teacher, or a doctor, or a gardener, or a carpenter, or a tailor, you can organize with others in your self-selected community and gift the others in the community what you have to offer, and accept their gifts so that you need nothing. No charity, no wealth, no poverty, no ‘economic diseases’ that exist only because of lack of access to cures. *Sigh* — it’s all so possible, yet so far from today’s reality that it fills me with despair.
I’ve been reading lately about renaturalization — trying to restore native plants to local ecosystems. The challenge is that these are complex systems that evolved over millennia, and when you start to try to interfere in a positive way, the results can be unexpected and dismaying. Bear Kaufmann sent me this intriguing quote from Kevin Kelly’s book Out of Control:
Restoring an ecosystem community is coming at it from the wrong side. “When we try to restore a prairie or wetland, we are trying to assemble an ecosystem along a path that the community has no practice in,” says [ecologist Stuart] Pimm. We are starting with an old farm, while nature may have started with a glacial moraine ten thousand years ago. Pimm began asking himself: Can we assemble a stable ecosystem by taking in the parts at random? Because at random was exactly how humans were trying to restore ecosystems.
And so it is with economies, which are also complex systems. We can try to introduce a Gift Economy at the microcosm (community) level, but to the extent that community is part of a larger set of social constructs still operating under the Market Economy, the consequences may be unpredictable. But just as we try nevertheless to renaturalize our communities ecologically, that’s not to say we shouldn’t try to renaturalize our communities economically, introducing as much as possible a Gift Economy. Generously. Who knows, it might even be fun.
April 25, 2005
|The Idea: A nine-step process for setting up a Continuous Environmental Scan in your organization, or just for your own use.
In their book Jumping the Curve, Imperato & Harari introduce the concept of a Continuous Environmental Scan, which is about using modern technology’s ‘radar’ to harvest a lot of ideas about what is happening in the world in areas (geographical, intellectual, or commercial) that you care about. The best manifestation of this is the RSS Aggregator, which allows you to ‘subscribe’ to newsfeeds, weblogs, newsletters and additions to websites, and have all the content appear on a single, continuously updated, page. Alas, many of the sources people want to read are not available as RSS feeds. And while you can get either titles and headlines only, or complete articles, it is an extra step to then filter the resultant feeds for keywords.
Another approach to doing this is what are called Alerts or Profiles, which allow you to register keywords with a search engine and get daily e-mails sent to you of all news items and new articles containing those keywords. Or, if you use services like My Yahoo, you can have these keyword search results aggregated for you, on a latest-first basis, on one page you can call up when you want. These searches, though they cast a wider net, are not very discriminating, usually returning a lot of irrelevant stuff, and tedious promotional material. Even then, there are a lot of useful sources that aren’t online, or are only available for a fee, which your Alerts and Profiles will miss.
So if you want to set up a comprehensive Continuous Environmental Scan you need to put a bit more work into it, and you may have to be prepared to spend some money to access some material. And then you need to be patient and perseverant — it takes some trial-and-error to get the keywords right so you don’t get drowned in ‘false positives’ or more than you can read, and so you don’t miss crucial articles. Here’s the process I evolved to do this:
There’s no turnkey way to do this, and it takes a lot of practice. What’s amazing is how many large organizations are doing virtually nothing to make use of the immense amounts of interesting and useful information ‘out there’ in a disciplined and organized manner. It’s left up to the individual, and most individuals have neither the time nor the skill to do it. It’s a missed opportunity in many companies, and perhaps one of the reason for the dearth of innovation in our world today.
The chart above was explained in this earlier article.
April 24, 2005
you are an alien
one way or another you approach
you come in closer and you can see more direct signs of life:
and then as you zoom closer yet you see
this species has overrun the planet like a monstrous plague
the areas not covered with these grey voids
there are billions of this destructive and domineering species
their most powerful leader plots to own everything
and the followers suffer a kind of massive
no matter what they do
and now you have zoomed in so close
and see nothing
so you withdraw and watch
and then you decide what you must do
April 23, 2005
|A few sites with some interesting ideas worth thinking about:
Three Principles Behind All Creativity Tools: Directed Creativity suggests that all creativity tools have three underlying concepts: (1) Attention (focusing on things you normally take for granted, (2) Escape (get outside normal thinking patterns or preconceptions, or just get outside), and (3) Movement (explore, discover, connect, just follow ideas where they lead you).
Standards for Social Justice: Two organizations, Social Accountability International (SA8000) and the Fair Labor Association (FLA) each suggest guidelines for, and certify and monitor compliance with, standards for acceptable organizational standards for working hours, compensation and conditions, employment standards, forced and child labor, health and safety, workplace punishment, and collective bargaining rights.
Defining Tomorrow’s Company: A British group sponsored by some of the UK’s biggest companies is organizing events and debate on how corporations can become responsible to employees, the community and the environment as they are to shareholders.
Debate vs. Conversation: Alan Stewart explains why debate, the “clash of differing opinions”, is a much less effective means of sharing and transferring knowledge and ideas than intelligent conversation. I can see Jeremy Heigh‘s brows furrowing.
Caretakers for Art: Amanda Koh has a brilliant moving-to-gift-economy idea for making art affordable to everyone. Where else could it be applied?
The Worst Places in the World: Jumping on the Google Maps bandwagon, Sprol is a fascinating blog that shows aerial views of some of the horrible things man has done to our planet, with some well-researched commentary. The picture above is from this site, showing Las Vegas sprawl. Imagine how this area will do when the oil and water run out. Oh, the green, naturally, is a golf course.
Ken Wilber vs Stan Rowe: The field of ecological philosophy/psychology has two main streams of thought. The more popular one is espoused by Ken Wilber (A Theory of Everything), a very bright but annoyingly arrogant thinker who argues that all animate matter in some sense a ‘member’ and in other senses a ‘constituent’ of a hierarchy of communities. An alternate point of view is espoused by the late Stan Rowe (A Manifesto for Earth), who argues in favour of the ‘deep ecology’ model that the Earth is a single super-organism of which each living creature is simply a part. A recent article in Trumpeter by Michael Zimmerman contrasts and tries to reconcile the two views. It’s heavy-going stuff but every once in awhile theoretical discussion can be enlightening, and these guys are intellectual heavyweights. I bet Jon Husband has something to say about this.
April 22, 2005
The Idea: Whether you live in the country or the city there are opportunities to renaturalize your community, and in so doing transform and enrich it ecologically, physically and psychologically.
We had the great pleasure this past weekend of a visit and tour by wildlife biologist Natalie Helferty. The purpose of her visit, which I negotiated (thanks to Natalie for volunteering her time, and to Richard Procter of the local Green Party for helping me find her), was to acquaint us with the natural ecosystem in which we live, especially the local wetlands. We are extremely fortunate, as the aerial photo above shows, to live in an area where nature and wilderness coexist somewhat harmoniously with human habitation and human activity, an area on the Oak Ridges Moraine peppered with kettle ponds scoured out by ancient glaciers. It is home to a wide variety of wildlife: beavers and muskrats, woodchucks and skunks, wild turkeys, whitetailed deer, grey wolves, great blue herons, red foxes, spring peepers, and geese ‘superfamilies‘ with their dozen or more adorable and obedient goslings.
But while we were mostly focused on mammals and birds at the top of the food chain, Natalie had us focus at the bottom — at the plants that essentially create the ecosystem and sustain the rest of its life. Specifically, she told us which of the species of trees, shrubs, sedges, grasses, flowers and other flora were native to the Oak Ridges Moraine and which (an astonishing number) were not. She suggested the best thing we could do for all of the inhabitants of our lovely little community would be to renaturalize the plant life — to weed out some of the invasive species that keep the ecosystem out of kilter, and to seed and plant native species. This is difficult for the same reason all of the other significant changes we need to make in our world will be difficult — to get from here to there, things may have to get worse before they can get better. Short term pain for long term gain is not a very popular mantra in our modern civilization. Renaturalization can’t happen overnight — you need to prepare the ground for it, and let nature take its course slowly, going through some possibly shabby, messy-looking intermediate steps before the beautiful, natural, sustainable ecosystem can be fully restored. We have one neighbour who’s already started — no lawn, and only natural plant species planted. The largest business in our town, Husky Injection Molding, has won many awards for keeping the expansive grounds around its large plant planted only with native species, and those grounds are lovely — and sustainable. Most of the neighbours have stopped using pesticides and some now use only organic fertilizers, sparingly. Most lawns are only watered when re-seeding. But the idea of having no lawn is stressful to many, and the transition from uniform-cut lawn to natural vegetation will be much more so — and could invite some backlash from those concerned with ‘property values’. Natalie says the ‘English lawn’ originated with British aristocracy as a status symbol of nobility — for people who were so wealthy they could afford to have their land ‘do nothing’, and that ill-conceived vanity continues to this day.
But what do you do if you live in a city, with concrete and steel everywhere and no place to start, or even imagine, renaturalization? Perhaps the best place to start is brownfield areas. Not only are they low-valued, they are the ugliest of our urban landscapes, and hence we might be more tolerant of the intermediate messiness as nature, with our newly-knowledgeable support, reclaims these lands as oases of true wilderness in the contemporary city desert.
One step at a time.
(More articles on renaturalization here, here, and here. But this is a very local project. Chances are you won’t get much idea online of what your area looked like, and what plants it contained, in its natural state. You’re going to have to do some real research. Photos are all from 2004 — the top one is from Google Maps, the goose picture is from Bernd Heinrich, and the rest are mine, taken in our neighbourhood.)