Dave Pollard's chronicle of civilization's collapse, creative works and essays on our culture.
A trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.

May 31, 2006

Expertise Finders: Illumio, Privacy, and Better Ways to Find People

Filed under: Using Weblogs and Technology — Dave Pollard @ 17:35
yellowpagesSeveral people have sent me the NYT article on Illumio, the new peer-to-peer expertise finder from Tacit. It’s worthwhile, I think, looking at how Illumio works, and then thinking about whether it does, or doesn’t, meet the enormous need for “know-who” knowledge.

Illumio is based on Tacit’s data mining tool. It tries to achieve a delicate balance between (a) unearthing relevant documents and e-mail relationships by scouring subscribers’ hard drives, and (b) protecting subscribers’ privacy. Here’s how it works:

Groups: You set up Personal Groups of people whose documents and “know-who” you might want to canvass from time to time. They are sent an invitation to be part of your group (and, if they’re not an Illumio subscriber, an invitation to subscribe and download the tool). If they accept, they are giving Illumio the right to essentially run Google or Microsoft Desktop searches (depending which they have installed on their machine) on their hard drive, but only in response to requests from people whose Group invitation they have accepted. There is a plan to add Shared Groups, that will be centrally rather than personally managed, later.

Requests for Files, and Requests for Introductions: Once your Groups are set up, you can then launch either a search for files on a particular subject, or a request for an introduction to an expert.

  • If it’s a search for files, the hard drives of the people in the Groups you’ve chosen to canvass will be scoured, using Group members’ desktop search tools, and Illumio will rank the quality of responses it gets. If it has searched someone’s hard drive and found a good match, it will send them a pop-up instant message indicating who has requested what, and suggesting which files on their hard drive appear to meet that request. They can choose to acknowledge the request and send these files and/or other selected files to you immediately, defer the request until later (there is a Dashboard in Illumio that shows requests pending, both yours to others and others’ to you), or dismiss your request. They can even ‘tell’ Illumio that they’re the wrong person to request this information from, so it ‘learns’.
  • If you’re looking for introductions rather than files, you key in any relevant business card information (a specific name, company, position or expertise you’re looking for), and Illumio will scour the hard drives of the people in the Groups you’ve chosen to canvass looking for matches in e-mail communications and address books. Rather than asking them for a document, in this case Illumio will send them a pop-up IM asking them to make an introduction to the relevant experts it comes up with, to you. Again, they can accept, defer or dismiss the request.

The system is reciprocal: You can make requests of those in your Groups, and they can make requests of you. On the surface, it seems innocent enough. The Desktop search tools it uses can be user-controlled to limit the search to only selected folders, so if you have confidential information it won’t be visible to Illumio. And while it looks through your e-mail archive and address book for names and other business-card information, it doesn’t retrieve entire e-mails. However…

One of the investors in Tacit is the CIA, through a little-known government spy tech company called In-Q-Tel. This is more than a supplier-customer relationship, and it’s a bit disturbing that the NYT didn’t talk about it in their article. The fact that the Illumio logo is an eyeball staring through a keyhole doesn’t help either. Given the Bush administration’s propensity for illegal wiretapping, and (we find out today) preemptively exempting itself from over 750 laws, why should we believe Tacit president David Gilmour’s assurances that Illumio won’t be used to scour our hard drives for anything the government deems ‘significant’? The short answer is: We probably shouldn’t. It’s a shame that Tacit chose to get into bed with the devil, because even if this software is clean, it is now suspect. 

So the question becomes, if a company without dubious government connections were to introduce a tool like Illumio, (a) would people trust it, and (b) would it do the job of finding needed “know-who”?

My answer to the first question is probably not. Software like this inevitably runs into the conundrum of reciprocity: We all want to access other people’s information, but we don’t want others (especially people we don’t know well) to access ours (without our specific, one-off approval, anyway). File sharers have gotten over this. After initially turning off uploading so they can download files without reciprocating, they get a twinge of guilt, double-check their anti-virus software, and turn on uploading. When nothing bad happens, they breathe a sigh of relief and leave the door open, confident that only that folder labeled Shared can be accessed by others.

Instant messaging involves less trust than file-sharing, but it too makes some people nervous. Some people just prefer to have an ‘unlisted number': They can dial out, but no one can dial in. Within corporate firewalls, where it’s only the company data at risk, and where the IT department can be blamed if anything goes wrong, Tacit’s tools have been used for years. But even in such controlled situations, many companies have outright rejected any tool that would open portals to anything on personal hard drives. Of the six large companies I know best, one is using Tacit and the other five looked at it and rejected it on security/privacy grounds.

Even cookies, those undecipherable pieces of code that allow websites you access to recognize you automatically without having to re-key ID and passwords, are viewed with great suspicion by many.

I suggested in a recent post that, starting with file-sharers and cookie-users and IMers, we could establish an open peer-to-peer expertise finder by opening up access to our Address Books alone. This would involve conscripting certain fields in the Address Book record to be used to rate our own and others’ expertise according to our own personal folksonomy. Then, companies with search expertise (Google, Yahoo etc.) could mine that information (and only that information) to create “know-who” search tools. At the time I believed this made more sense than a top-down ‘managed’ social networking app, no matter how brilliantly thought out, that required us to maintain information in some central place, and to learn to use a fairly sophisticated tool. We’ve tried that, and it doesn’t work. Tragedy of the Commons, too busy being inefficient to learn how to be efficient, and all that.

Let’s go back to the problem we’re trying to solve. Say I’m looking for:

  1. Local Suppliers: Someone to supply and install (or teach me to install) a solar swimming pool heater;
  2. Business Partners: A group of people to form an enterprise that would teach people, organizations and communities how to live more simply, sustainably, and self-sufficiently;
  3. Customers: Some customers who need or would value the above enterprise;
  4. Life Partners: Members for a new intentional community to be located in place X; and
  5. Virtual Suppliers: Someone to migrate my blog over to a new platform.

If I managed to get all 1850 people in my address book into appropriate Groups, how would an Illumio-type product handle these “know-who” searches?

The obvious thing about these real-life examples is that finding an ‘expert’ is all about establishing a relationship, and that requires some ice-breaking, nurturing, and evaluation that is as much emotional as rational. I’ve won clients and assignments that I wasn’t the most expert at, simply because I already had a pre-existing relationship, or because the initial chemistry was good. And vice versa. It’s all about trust.

Illumio attempts to use my Personal Groups as the judge of that chemistry: If it ‘decides’ that Jo Smith is a candidate for one of the five searches listed above, it will first ping the people in my Groups where that name turned up, asking them to give me an introduction to Jo (and, by implication, to confirm that, in their trusted judgement, Jo would in fact be a good candidate).

My guess is that, because search #1 requires someone local and quite specialized (and few people in my address book are local), Illumio would turn up no Jo for #1. An e-mail to any of three of the Yahoo/Google groups I belong to would probably be faster, more effective, and easier for everyone.

And because #2, #3 and #4 are so broad, anything Illumio came up with for these searches would, I suspect, be useless, little better than random picks from all the FOAFs of the people in my address book. At best, the request might pique the curiosity of the people in my address book (or at least the 150 I know well ;-) sufficiently to get them to recommend someone, drawing on vastly more information than anything that could be found on their hard drives. And I could get the same thing by just sending an e-mail to those 150 people.

Illumio would probably come up with a bumper crop of candidates for #5, but then so did my mere mention of this possibility on my blog. Until we get much further into a Gift Economy, the need for tools like this to find peer assistance will not be great.

I can see more value for Illumio in business organizations that need to draw on expertise outside their organizations (because the expertise is not present or is not immediately available) inside. These would be one-off situations with short time horizons like the need for a facilitator or subject matter expert. So for organizations already using Tacit’s product internally, I can see the value of them encouraging people in their employees’ external networks to sign up for Illumio. That, I think, is the real market for this product.

I confess that the address book-based expertise finder I proposed in my earlier article wouldn’t do any better than Illumio for the five “know-who” searches above. It suffers from the same limitations — too impersonal and too little context. And it’s too far ahead of the peer production / peer assistance curve.

So what would work? What’s the best online solution for each of these five types of “know-who” search? Here’s my guess:

  1. and 3. For finding local suppliers, we need Local Consumer Networks: This is what craigslist and its imitators (and the classified ads and yellow pages) are trying to do. Right now what all these tools lack is trust. What we need are tools that enable us to assess both the quality of local suppliers and the reputation and credibility of recommenders in these networks. Kinda like a ‘local’ of the Consumers’ Union. There are some betas out there trying to offer that, but they’re hopelessly underpopulated. Who knows, these could even evolve into reciprocal Gift Economy and Peer Production networks. And as for finding customers, in this brave new world, you don’t find customers. You make it easy for them to find you. Marketing and advertising are just for the big guys, and their influence and advantage are fading. The key is to do good work, and then get your customers to recommend you, both person-to-person and through these Local Consumer Networks. It’s all about reputation.
  1. and 4. For finding business or life partners, we need Open Space Invitations: The Internet gives us access to millions of potential partners, and Open Space gives us a mechanism for inviting people to meet and explore partnership opportunities. All we need is a platform for offering these invitations, and a lot of help learning to craft them properly.
  1. Finding virtual suppliers is different from finding local ones. For a start, there are a lot more to choose from. As oil prices rise, it will make more sense to find local suppliers of physical goods. But as technology continues to improve, it will make more sense to use virtual suppliers for anything that can be supplied as bits instead of atoms. We have seen something of a revolution in the supply of goods that can be supplied as bits (information and entertainment especially). But when it comes to service (as anyone who has struggled with a ‘help desk’ will confirm), virtual is still synonymous with awkward and suboptimal. To make virtual service comfortable and effective, we need (tired of me saying this yet?) Simple Virtual Presence.

Five different types of “know-who” needs, three different solutions. And none of them, alas, is provided by existing or imminent social networking tools and methods. But we’ll get there. Unlike the prevailing oligopoly markets, the new Internet-driven markets are truly responsive to need. I predict that within a year we’ll have powerful models for all three solutions. And getting “know-who” will become awhole lot easier.

May 30, 2006

The Challenge of Building Community

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 13:04
buildcommunityWe’re starting to discover that the only effective way to make the world better is from the bottom up — by creating or evolving self-sufficient communities. As we saw in New Orleans, and as we see with failed states and failed cities everywhere, top-down political and economic solutions don’t work; when they change anything at all, they seem to make matters worse.

But creating community is not easy. In Creating a Life Together Diana Leafe Christian describes some of the challenges of intentional communities — finding members, creating honest consensus, resolving disputes, finding the right place to live, keeping it sustainable. This is tough work, and most intentional communities that do work are, well, rather pathetically small. It almost seems as if, as soon as you put more than a certain number of people into one interdependent group, you need hierarchy to keep things in order. Why might this be?

In gatherer-hunter communities, there was lots of space for community members to get away from each other temporarily, and lots of space between communities. Evidence suggests that such communities or clans consisted of about 150 individuals (depending on the ecosystem) which operated via a ‘fission/fusion’ social system, where the group continually split up into smaller, constantly changing (likely to vary and optimize individual learning) ‘foraging parties’ or bands of 30-50, and then re-formed as a cohesive group. The theory is that 150 is the maximum number of individuals you can get to know well enough for meaningful social interaction, and beyond that the group starts to splinter into a more self-manageable size.

Tribes consisted in turn of several clans, and comprised 1000-2000 individuals. Bands were the optimal size for short-term collective action, clans for mutual knowledge and learning, and tribes for buffering (to optimize inter-tribal physical and cultural diversity and to minimize inter-tribal conflict, both Darwinian advantages). Interestingly, early villages and early professional armies were usually the same size as gatherer-hunter clans, and military platoons the same size as gatherer-hunter bands. The clan defined the boundaries of both collective intellectual (recognition and distinction) and physical (mutual grooming and love) behaviour.

Today we find ourselves born into societies that have no band, clan, or tribal cohesion. Instead, at the micro-level, we have substituted the nuclear family, much smaller than a band and too small to comprise a self-sufficient functional unit. And at the macro-level, we have substituted the state and corporation, hierarchical and multi-tiered constructs much larger than a tribe, and too large to function as an integral unit.

One could cynically surmise that the nuclear family was devised deliberately to be inadequate for self-sufficiency, so families were dependent on and non-threatening to the inherently dysfunctional corporation/state. One could also cynically surmise that the corporation/state is a purely cultural construct designed to organize, suppress and keep individuals from seeking more natural and effective forms of organization, by presenting them with a simple, monolithic pyramid scheme and promising them the moon and stars (fame, fortune, sex, salvation, happiness) if they dedicated their lives to climbing the pyramid.

It has been suggested, for example, that the Great Wall of China was built not to keep Mongol Hordes out, but rather to keep stooped and malnourished rice-paddy slave-families from fleeing back to the more natural life and tribal social organization of Mongolia. Once you mess with the natural band/clan/tribe cohesion, it seems, you need a brutal, hierarchical, inherently undemocratic political and economic machine to keep individuals divided and in line.

The history of our civilization has been largely one of pioneers fleeing the ghastly tyranny of the hierarchical corporation/state, slaughtering gatherer-hunter societies in the ‘unincorporated’ lands they fled to, and then, as their numbers grew, replicating the hierarchical corporation/state themselves, and then constantly warring with other corporation/states. Now we have run out of places to flee to, and, thanks to immigration laws, we do not even have a choice of which hierarchical corporation/state to ‘belong’ to. Our resultant anger, frustration and impotence is acted out with distressing frequency in both family violence and corporation/state violence.

So much for the dismal history. Let’s turn to the present and the future. Theoretically, the modern equivalent of the band should be what I have called the Natural Enterprise, a non-hierarchical partnership of around 30-50 people working towards a mutual goal of providing a living for themselves. Not all that different from the hunting bands going out to round up grub for the rest of the clan, is it?

And, theoretically, the modern equivalent of the clan should be the Intentional Community, a cohesive group of about 150 people comprising several bands, who love each other (you can’t spend 15-20% of your life physically grooming people you don’t love) and live together, their society cemented by rites and shared principles.

But most entrepreneurial businesses strive (either for ego reasons, or because their flawed organizational structure requires them to) to grow far beyond band size, without limit. And most intentional communities fail to sustain membership of much more than a dozen, far below clan size. Why might this be? Have the instinctive social dynamics that governed us for three million years been forgotten, or do they no longer apply? After three million years of making a living with 30-50 cohorts and living with and loving 150, why are humans suddenly so incapable of making a living in a small group and loving a large one?

Maybe it’s a lack of practice. Working in groups of 30-50 and living and loving in groups of 150 may be instinctive, but we lose our instincts if we don’t practice them.

Maybe it’s because we’re brainwashed, culturally conditioned by peers and media who say small business can’t compete until and unless it gets big, and by religions and politicians who say it’s wrong to physically love more than your family and wrong not to intellectually love your state.

Maybe it’s because civilization is now the only life we know, and like Lucky the dog, we keep returning to an abusive and unnatural way of life because we can’t imagine anything better.

Or maybe it’s because there is no longer space and time for pioneers to rediscover our natural social ways, and hence there are no natural models for others to emulate. Even modern gatherer-hunter cultures, now so astonishingly different from our monolithic culture that we can’t conceive of ourselves living that way, are so compromised by civilization’s encroachment on their land and depletion of their resources that their culture has been altered and pushed to the edge of extinction. There are no natural models left. There is no ‘unincorporated’ land left, clean, undeveloped land with good soils that pioneers can move to and take the time to evolve intentional communities in. In our ubiquitous globalized civilization, we must live every day with the fear of not having enough, so there is no time to imagine a better way to live.

I’ve read everything I can get my hands on on intentional communities, and what strikes me most is that their failure, just like the failure of so many new-age business models, is a failure of imagination. The intentions are good. They invest a lot of time and energy in research, and in trying to make it work. But when they run into difficulties, they keep falling back on ‘conventional wisdom': we need a council, and committees, and voting and non-voting shares, and strategic plans, and legal agreements, and to borrow lots of money; we need to work harder, and to wait until conditions are exactly right. I appreciate that creating a new community is scary, but the social, political and economic failings of the old system are exactly what got us into this mess, and incorporating them into the new models is just asking for the same terrible results.

Perhaps what is needed to overcome this failure of imagination and the resultant relapses into old-model orthodoxy, are some guiding principles for the new models. These might include:

  • Reject all the practices that have made the old models for community and enterprise oppressive and dysfunctional: There will be no voting, no shares, no political hierarchies, no work assignments, no lawyers, no laws, no titles, no delegating, no private property, no regularly scheduled meetings, no money changing hands. If you feel you have to have some of these things, don’t even start.
  • Do lots of research, and have lots of conversations, but don’t plan, improvise instead. One step at a time, taking things as they come, finding creative workarounds without compromising, without stopping.
  • Trust your instincts. If you’re troubled about something, talk it out, figure out why, get it out there. Don’t suck it up. Life is too short for stress. Discharge it.
  • We are all equal. The value of our ideas and opinions is all equal. The value of our time is all equal. If you can’t accept that, get out.
  • Never compromise with The Man. Once you prostitute your principles to get something accomplished, you’re hooked, and you’re no different from the billions caught in the old model.
  • Don’t grow too big. Beyond 150 people, the community needs to self-restrict membership. Members who don’t like that should leave and start other new communities.
  • Stay sustainable. No degrading of the land. No expansion of development. No taking more than you give back.
  • Be a part. The community must be within a natural ecosystem and intensely aware of and respectful in its ‘part’-nership in that ecosystem. You can’t learn to live a natural life unless you have natural life all around you to learn from.
  • Learn about and use Open Space. This is how non-hierarchical, gatherer-hunter cultures have always self-managed. Invite. Open yourself to possibilities. Listen. Learn. Converse. Share. Let understanding emerge. Then just go and do what you’ve learned needs to be done.
  • When you’re stuck, get together with others you love and trust and imagine possibilities. Think outside that horrific, stifling box. Study and imitate nature. Create your way out.

Not easy. But isn’t this worth striving for, more than anything else? Or am I just a hopeless idealist?

Because of the ubiquity of civilization and its oppressive rules and restrictions, the new model will need a sponsor, someone to run interference for us, deal with The Man so we don’t have to. A George Soros type, perhaps, who will, no strings attached, donate the land and buffer the members from the politicians and the lawyers and everyone else who will be threatened out of their skin by this new model.

Suppose we succeed. Suppose this new model community of 150 people proves to be sustainable, perhaps even without the ongoing need for a sponsor to buffer us from the fear and loathing (and envy) of civilized humans. Suppose the natural enterprises of this community allow the community members to be completely self-sufficient, independent of the rest of the world, trading only its surpluses to the outside world in return for occasional luxuries for its members. Suppose the love and joy among members of this community are so startling, so awe-inspiring that it causes the students studying the community, and the film crews telling its story, and then the people watching the story, to long for a similar life, to realize there is a better way to live. Then what?

Even if it were replicable, even if there were enough sponsors to bootstrap many more communities to follow this model, I think it unlikely that it would replace our civilization culture. We are not all pioneers, and many of us who aspire to be have acquired too much of the baggage of civilization to ever be able to live a natural life. To the extent that the copies of the model community compromised its principles, they would fail. And there is not enough land to accommodate more than a tiny fraction of today’s human population in such an extravagant, natural manner.

So why do it? Three reasons:

  • To give us hope. The latter part of this century is going to be grim. Knowing there is a better way to live, that can work, will be important to those struggling with the collapse of civilization. At least they will know there is a chance for their children to learn from their, from our, mistakes.
  • To serve as a post-civilization model. Life after civilization will be unplugged and pedestrian. It will be useful for its human inhabitants to have a model, one that works in such circumstances, to follow.
  • To make us think and imagine. We learn from being shown, not by being told. The success of this model could make us radically rethink many of the things we do today. Not enough to save the world, but enough to make life genuinely better, more egalitarian, more meaningful, happier. Once we start to trigger people’s imagination of what’s possible, we may be astonished at the improved quality of life some focused human imagination could produce in a surprisingly short time.

I like the ‘how to build community’ bookmark reproduced in the illustration above. It certainly can’t hurt to do these things. But I don’t believe there is any chance that we can bring about sustained change within existing communities, even if to some extent these activities are paid forward for awhile. Things are the way they are for a reason, and that reason has a billion tons and thirty millennia of inertia. It makes more sense, I think, to walk away from that inertia and to try to build something new.

That’s all I’ve got. As you’ve probably guessed, I’m trying to think my way out of the inertia of my own life. I keep hoping that an opportunity to do something this important will fall in my lap. Not likely to happen. Courage, as I keep saying, is doing what you have to do. Sooner or later, I have to do something.

Image: By Karen Kerney for Syracuse Cultural Workers

May 29, 2006

What Should We Invest In If the Economy’s Going to Collapse?

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 15:40
Since I wrote the two-part article on the Great Depression, several people have asked me for thoughts on what to invest their money in, a ‘safe harbour’ when currencies and economies go into collapse.

Many investors have been buying stocks of resource companies, metal commodity futures, and stocks of so-called ‘blue chip’ companies that have done well in previous recessions. The problem with these investments is that (a) these stocks are mostly denominated in US dollars, and (b) speculation has already pushed their prices up to possibly unsustainable levels. Bonds pose a similar problem: If interest rates spike, bond prices have to fall to push yields up to competitive levels.

As this article explains, and as the chart above from that article shows, some Western governments have recently been deliberately underreporting the true rate of inflation (which is likely at least 6%) for political reasons:

  • to improve labour contract negotiation position, 
  • to reduce COLA clause costs, 
  • to inflate consumer confidence, 
  • to encourage indiscriminate borrowing and spending,
  • to reduce the cost of rent agreements, and 
  • to artificially suppress interest rates and hence cost of government and corporate debts

Once investors in bonds come to realize this, they will demand double-digit returns on such investments, potentially cutting the price of these investments in half.

Commodities and alternative currencies have had similar speculative run-ups to those of resource company stocks, so these investments are also not for the faint-of-heart. But leaving your savings in US dollar denominated investments is even more dangerous, since the US dollar is the most over-extended and most vulnerable currency. And real estate in most areas is absurdly overpriced — far beyond its replacement cost — and in a downturn real estate is also illiquid, hard to convert to cash when you need it.

So what do you do with your savings? And if your entire net worth is tied up in real estate, what should you do?

I’m neither an expert in investments nor an expert in economic forecasting, so I wouldn’t presume to tell others what to do with their hard-earned money. What’s more, I’m not sure the economic collapse is as imminent as some would have you believe. This house of cards has a lot of carefully-placed cards holding it together, and it could last a while yet.

All I can do is tell you what I’m investing in myself, and thinking of investing in myself. We’re exceptionally fortunate: We have a house on a large piece of land which would cost considerably more to replace than what we paid for it. We have no debts. I have a fully vested defined-benefit (fixed guaranteed annuity) pension that (barring a complete economic meltdown) will kick in in a few years. Most pensions are now, or have been converted into, defined-contribution pensions (like IRAs and 401(k) plans) that in an economic collapse will be relatively worthless. This is what Bush wants to convert the US social security system to, transferring all investment risk in the case of a Depression to the citizen/employee.

Despite our good fortune, we’re not personally out of the woods, not by a long shot. Pension plans can go bankrupt. Living out in the country, we’re close to farms but far from most employers and customers. When the electricity goes out, we’re without heat as well as light. And living in Canada, we can’t live without heat. Like most North Americans, we’ve made out living with our heads, not our hands, so we’re poorly equipped to make and fix things ourselves if we need to.

So here are ten things we’re looking to invest money and time in, all stuff that would be valuable in a Depression:

  1. Our own self-sufficient Natural Enterprise: a sustainable business we can run from home, that will be viable even with $10/gallon gasoline (i.e. our customers will be close by, physically or at least virtually), that people really need, and that will not require incurring debt to launch and operate
  2. Windmills and solar panels: to get us off dependence on the grid and non-renewable energy sources
  3. Energy conservation: insulation, energy-efficient appliances and lightbulbs and other products that can reduce our energy costs
  4. Stuff that doesn’t need maintenance or replacement: if it doesn’t have a useful life of at least 20 years, we don’t buy it (when we have a choice)
  5. Know-how: learning how to do things for ourselves: carpentry, home repair, sewing, vegetarian cooking, and other skills that make us less dependent on others whose services we may not be able to afford in a Depression
  6. Health and physical fitness: self-awareness, self-diagnosis, self-treatment, and self-knowledge to stay healthy and fit and look after ourselves as much as possible when we’re ill
  7. Being creative and disciplined to stay out of debt: buying less, and only what we need, creating our own entertainment, spending an evening a week ‘unplugged’, doing more stuff in (and collaboratively with) our wonderful little community, buying with cash not credit, doing more things that are free (cycling, picnics etc.)
  8. Building social networks: finding people who will do things for you and with you on a reciprocal basis rather than at market price, who will tell/show you how to, or help you do something instead of doing it for you, who will trade (surplus) or share (expensive and rarely used) stuff with you, etc.
  9. Creating local markets: finding what our neighbourhood wants and needs (e.g. organic produce, hand-made clothing, a competent electrician or plumber) and what each of us has to offer, and linking them up
  10. Permaculture: land with soil that isn’t so polluted or exhausted it depends on fertilizer made from Middle East oil to grow anything on, or on pesticides, herbicides and imported water to be viable; and learning how to sustainably and naturally steward that land

A lot of these things cost next to nothing, but require a fair bit of time. I’m learning that one of the keys to resiliency, which is what we’ll need most of all in a Depression, is willingness to give up time to save money. When your time is charged out at $200/hour, or when you’re paid $50/hour, it’s easy to shrug off tasks that on the surface don’t seem to be ‘worth’ that much. Why do something yourself when you can pay someone $20/hour to do it for you, better than you could do yourself? Because it makes you dependent. And when the Depression comes and you can’t afford $20/hour, you won’t have learned how to do it yourself.

And time is much cheaper than we think: Every minute we spend walking, cycling, exercising, adds three healthy minutes to our lives.

Investing in these ten things could also make us more dependent on the Internet than we are already. Many readers thought I was unnecessarily worried about the Internet going down in the next Depression the way phone service did (tens of millions cut off for non-payment) in the last one.

I respect the fact that the software of the Internet is resilient and relatively low-cost. My concern is the related hardware, and keeping it running. When the utilities start laying people off, blackouts and brownouts will become more frequent, and last longer. Electricity and telecom costs could soar relative to average incomes, making the Internet an unaffordable luxury for most. The physical infrastructure of the Internet — servers, networks and systems — won’t be maintained if everyone is out of work. And the shoddy computer hardware that most of us are forced to struggle with could easily become too expensive to maintain or replace.

So I’m worried about the Internet, and while our investments in the ten things above will be largely Internet-dependent, I’m also looking at a Plan B that will work even if the networks go down.

If readers have other thoughts on ‘safe harbours’ for investment for when the US dollar, and hence the global economy, goes into free fall, I’d like to hear them. Is gold really a safe investment? What’s the least expensive way to move your savings into Euros? Where else are you moving your savings?

I really hope I’m being unduly pessimistic about all this. The value of any currency is, after all, strictly psychological — it’s worth whatthe people who own it think it’s worth.

Just like in 1929.

P.S. For those who have been asking about my progress with the Shangri-La Diet, my latest update is here.

May 28, 2006

What Makes a Blog Popular?

Filed under: Using Weblogs and Technology — Dave Pollard @ 11:06
A couple of years ago I asked myself that question, did some research and came up with the What the Blogosphere Wants More Of list shown at the bottom of my right sidebar. Since that time, as the chart above shows, my blog’s popularity has increased steadily: 1500 people subscribe to my blog via Bloglines (the leading RSS subscription reader) or Rmail (the leading RSS e-mail subscription utility) alone. According to Sitemeter (the leading web traffic utility), my ‘average’ reader spends 2m30s reading my blog. That’s several times the blogosphere average, and collectively (excluding my subscribers, whose reading time is unknown) people spend between 60 and 70 hours per day reading How to Save the World. That’s pretty astonishing, as it’s more than the attention some community newspapers get*. Talk about responsibility!

But in the past year or so, some newer blogs have surged past mine in popularity. One of my favourites is Kathy Sierra’s blog Creating Passionate Users. Kathy recently asked her readers why her blog has become so popular. She has received over 100 insightful responses.

For those who don’t have the time or patience to wade through them, here is my synthesis of what her readers said, in approximate order of frequency and passion of mention:

  1. Engaging (Style): Light, friendly, conversational, down-to-earth. Real, not preachy. Personal, passionate, fun, fresh. Doesn’t take itself too seriously. Creates a sense that “we’re all in this together”. 
  2. Accessible: Simple, tight, articulate, interesting, easy to read. Compare Kathy’s writing to mine using established readability criteria:
How to Save the World Creating Passionate Users
Average Characters per Word 5.1 4.6
Average Words per Sentence 25 (ouch) 18
Average Sentences per Paragraph 5 3
Flesch Readability Score (target 60-70) 35 62
Flesch-Kincaid Reading Grade (target 8-9) 12 9
  1. Useful: Practical, broadly applicable, not just informative. Actionable.
  2. Original: Unique, fresh, stuff you can’t find anywhere else.
  3. Uses Images Effectively: Graphics that are attractive, valuable, easy to understand, amusing.
  4. Thoughtful and Thought-Provoking: Brings a unique point-of-view. Provides context. Not afraid to be provocative, but not in your face about it. Not knee-jerk or dismissive. Carefully worded. A conversation-starter — gives you something to talk with others about, and to send to others to invite them to a conversation.
  5. Generous: Respectful, giving, modest, no bullshit or condescension. 
  6. Focusing on What’s Important: Asks and answers the questions others are asking themselves, or should be asking themselves. Gets to the point.
  7. Positive: Upbeat. Enthusiastic. Energized. Makes the reader feel good, empowered.
  8. Credible: Not beyond the author’s competencies. Reinforced with relevant, valuable first-person stories.
  9. Just the Right Length: Not cryptic, cute, obscure or verbose.
  10. Honest: Not afraid to tackle complex issues or admit not having all the answers. Candid. Reasonable. Balanced. Open. Genuine.

I can hear some well-established bloggers, both A-listers and those struggling in obscurity, reading this list and dismissing it. “Not my style”. “Not edgy enough”. “Who has time for this?” “I do this, it’s just not appreciated”. “Doesn’t apply to my genre of blog”.

But this is the future of blogging. Not off-the-cuff simplistic echo-chamber rants about things the author doesn’t really know anything about, but instead, journalism as invitation to knowledgeable, actionable, interesting conversations. In this kind of journalism, insight trumps mere cleverness, what it means is more important than what happened, and collaboration, consensus and resolution are valued over scoops, scandals and vituperation.

If you’re a blogger (or any other kind of journalist), try this: Score yourself honestly on a scale of 1-10 on each of the twelve criteria above. Then, for any criterion for which you’ve scored yourself 7 or less, identify one step you could take to improve that score. Keep the list in front of you while you write your blog posts. My list (gulp) is as follows:

Criterion #1: Re-read each article as if it were my side of a conversation. If it’s stiff, forced, or strident, loosen it up.
Criterion #2: Don’t publish any articles until their readability scores are in target range. It should average less than 20 words per sentence, with a readability score >60 and grade <11).
Criterion #7: Think about the readers who are going to collectively spend 60 or 70 hours reading this article. Ask myself if I’m giving them enough to reward their attention.
Criterion #9: Without compromising honesty, focus on what’s possible. Be kinder to my readers. Don’t make them work so hard.
Criterion #10: If I’m writing about something I know little about, or writing just to organize my thoughts, be upfront about that and ask myself whether my synthesis, my second-hand information, is really more useful than simply directing to readers to people and written work by those who know much more about it than I ever will.
Criterion #11: Make it shorter. I need to become a much better, more ruthless self-editor.

With so many bloggers out there, it’s getting harder and harder for new bloggers to get attention. Kathy has shown that it’s possible, and how to do it.

The toughest of the twelve criteria, I think, is #4. By its nature, journalism is first-person stuff, and rehashing other people’s news and material just isn’t enough to be truly and consistently original. The only advice I would presume to give (and to take more often myself) on this score is to get out more.

I see blogging morphing considerably in the coming years from interactive journalism to genuine conversation. When that happens, the rules will change and a new set of criteria will apply. In the meantime, my kudos and thanks to Kathy for being a great role model for successful blogging. Thanks, too, to her thoughtful and articulate readers for telling us why she is such a great one. And most of all, thanks to my own readers, for their patience as I strive to become one, too.

*The number of ‘inbound blogs’ (other bloggers linking to me in the last 6 months) per Technorati has dropped off. However, David Sifry of Technorati has acknowledged that this drop-off doesn’t make sense and is investigating. If you use Technorati data to assess your blog’spopularity, stay tuned.

P.S. Readability scores for this article: Average Words per Sentence 12. Readability 50. Grade level 9. Getting closer!

May 27, 2006

Links for the Week – May 27/06

Filed under: Working Smarter — Dave Pollard @ 14:52
Cartoon by Charles Barsotti from The New Yorker. Buy his amazing cartoons here, or his new book here.

Global Politics and Economics:

War is the Health of the State: “It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense. The machinery of government sets and enforces the drastic penalties; the minorities are either intimidated into silence, or brought slowly around by a subtle process of persuasion which may seem to them really to be converting them..Minorities are rendered sullen, and some intellectual opinion bitter and satirical. But in general, the nation in wartime attains a uniformity of feeling, a hierarchy of values culminating at the undisputed apex of the State ideal, which could not possibly be produced through any other agency than war.” A wonderful essay on how power-mongers use war to stifle dissent and individuality, by Randolph Bourne — written almost ninety years ago. We never learn.

European Futurists See Dollar and Global Economic Collapse Imminent: A new economics group Europe 2020 is watching the data and sees the collapse moving to its second phase this month. Their report also tells you the seven consequences this will produce by year-end: accelerated collapse of the Dollar, internal social and political crisis in the US, Iran/USA/Israel military conflict, increased global inflation, stop of the process of trade and economic globalisation, accelerated emergence of new regional/continental blocs, and rebalancing of world assets’ comparative value. Thanks to reader Melinda Fleming for the link.

Planet of Slums: Excellent report by Mike Davis in New Left Review on the staggering demographics of flight to the cities worldwide and the global explosion of slums that offer their residents nothing — no economic viability or opportunity, no political representation, no essential services, no hope. A global tinder-keg. Thanks to Phil Jones for the link.

Global Food Supply Near Breaking Point: Industrial agriculture is capable of producing much more food than it does, but it is indebted to the ‘market economy’ and hence only produces what customers are willing to pay a handsome margin for. That margin does not go to the farmer, of course, who must make ends meet by selling off land bit by bit for suburban sprawl. It goes to the ConAgra/ADM/Cargill oligopsony that controls the market. When the poor can’t pay, the oligopsony reduces supply of food staples and instead produces luxury foods — highly processed, overpackaged, extravagantly expensive and wasteful to produce foods that the rich will pay for. As a consequence, just as supply and demand of oil is now teetering on a delicate balance of ‘just enough’ supply to prevent price spikes, by pushing all wells into overdrive, supply and demand of food teeters on a delicate balance of ‘just enough’ to keep both farmers from demanding higher prices and the oligopsony’s wholesale buyers from demanding lower prices. For the past five years, Stephen Leahy reports, global food supply has hence been dropping rapidly, and that, combined with global collapse of fish stocks, looming water scarcities, exhausted soils, soaring cost of oil-based agricultural chemicals, the vulnerability of homogenized, zero-diversity crops and farmed animals to disease, and the ravages of global warming, have resulted in the ironic situation that a world capable of producing much more food (if it reverted to local ownership, production and distribution models, permaculture, and basic foods rather than farmed animal foods), is now producing too little, and will be largely unable to produce more when it is needed. Thanks to Dale Asberry for the link and the one that follows.

Dueling 9-11 Conspiracy Theories: Follow the dots from a Mexican flight with 5.5 tons of cocaine, to the disgraced US defense contractor Titan Corporation, to Abu Ghraib, to criminal congressman Duke Cunningham, to a store in Venice Florida owned by a mysterious Lebanese man named Makram Chams, to a demand by Chams for $22 million for work done for Titan in Saudi Arabia, to Zacharias Moussaoui, to Mohamed Atta, to a tall mysterious visitor dressed in Armani and shades, to Max Burge, the owner of Huffman Aviation that trained Atta to fly and who co-owned a gambling operation with Chams, to a trunk filled with gold. We will probably never know the truth, but this conspiracy theory claims the trail is made murky by a competing theory (the towers crumbled from the bottom, not where the planes hit; the plane that allegedly hit the Pentagon quickly disappeared without a trace) financed by arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. My head’s spinning.

Cargill Wrecking the Rainforest: Speaking of the global agribusiness oligopsony, Greenpeace charges Cargill with destroying the Amazon rainforest to grow soya to feed European farmed animals.

Bill Moyers Apologizes to Future Generations: Another great Moyers speech. Excerpt: “We’re sorry. We’re really sorry for the mess you’re inheriting. We are sorry for the war in Iraq. For the huge debts you will have to pay for without getting a new social infrastructure in return. We’re sorry for the polarized country. The corporate scandals. The corrupt politics. Our imperiled democracy. We’re sorry for the sprawl and our addiction to oil and for all those toxins in the environment. Sorry about all this, class of 2006. Good luck cleaning it up.”

Countering the Climate Change Skeptics: DeSmogBlog writes up and deconstructs the blather of global warming deniers.


Women’s Peer-to-Peer Services Network: Writer/healer Indigo Ocean has co-created Phone-Buddies.com, a mutual support network by which you trade the services you offer, hour-for-hour, for services of other women in the network. It’s like file-sharing for services, and it’s a great example of the Gift Economy at work. The give-and-take is not formally measured, but self-managed using the honour system. A wonderful, imaginative and very promising model.

Intuit’s Scott Cook on Innovation: Great notes from blogger Antonella Pavese on a recent talk by Cook about innovation. Thanks to Innovation Weekly for the link.

Create Your Own National Budget: France is laying out how they develop their budget on their website, and inviting citizens to see if they can do better than the politicians and civil service. Ah, the Wisdom of Crowds! Thanks to Collision Detection for the link.

Cutting Out the Bank Middleman, Continued: Further to my post last Saturday, Salon’s Farhad Manjoo explains the workings of Prosper.com, a virtual money-lending institution. This could have all kinds of benefits — most notably coming to grips with our addiction to debt, and combatting the rampant usury of financial institutions. Another step towards what I have predicted — business becomes a World of Ends, and those in the middle are toast.

What Makes a Blog Popular?: You want to know, just ask the readers of one. Over 100 absolutely amazing comments in this thread celebrating the soaring success of Kathy Sierra’s Creating Passionate Users. Reading through these is the best 90 minutes any new blogger (or blogger whose audience is not increasing) can spend. I’m going to use it next week to update the “blogosphere wants more of” list on my right sidebar. Brava, Kathy.

Canola Oil: Brilliant Healthy Innovation or Genetically Manufactured Scourge?: Well, both, it turns out. The erudite Umbra Fisk at Grist tells you why you should buy organic canola oil.

Pause for Thought:

Anne Lamott on Parenting: The inestimable Anne Lamott, guru of writers everywhere, tells Salon the heartbreaking and all-too-common story of how her loving son has become churlish, distant and angry.

May 26, 2006

Beyond Hope: The Radicalization of Derrick Jensen

Filed under: Preparing for Civilization's End — Dave Pollard @ 11:32
prisonDerrick Jensen’s book A Language Older Than Words left me physically shaken. I read it, about five years ago, in one sitting, in 36 hours without sleep, and more than once I threw it down as if I’d been stung. It is horrifying reading, but worldview changing. Its message is that civilization is inherently violent and relentlessly destructive and repressive, and keeps us all in line through hierarchy, threatened scarcity and learned helplessness: “the fear of not having enough“.

Since then, I’ve read everything Jensen has written, joined his discussion forum and occasionally exchanged e-mails with him. At first I found his pessimism discouraging, but he’s been on the front lines of environmental activism for years, so he knows what’s really going on. Over the past five years, I have grown increasingly radical in my views on the changes we need to make, and what it will take to make them, but I’ve always been a few steps behind Jensen, who has no qualms about responding to violence with violence when other methods fail, and who has occasionally chastised those who merely talk and write about the need for change for “sitting back and theorizing and spiritualizing and hanging out and not actually doing anything”.

I recognize that I’m one of those people, yet I haven’t changed. Fifty four years old and still not ready to put my money where my mouth is. I criticize the technophiles and humanists who preach that technology will save us, or that a growing global human consciousness will save us, but I’m no better than them. They may be apologists for inaction, but I’m the personification of inaction. (This is not a plea for your appreciation — I accept that my blog helps a little by getting its small readership more aware of what is happening and what is needed, but this is surely not enough).

Last year I made peace with myself, acknowledged that I am who I am, vowed to do more within the communities of which I am apart — the lovely protected piece of wetland where we live, my neighbourhood and my family and my professional and blog networks, to do what I can to make life and Earth a little better, to follow my Genius of Imagining Possibilities and my Purpose of Fomenting Change. I acknowledged that all of this will not prevent but only make the crash of civilization a little less horrific for those I somehow touch, but still I cut myself a little slack.

Jensen’s long-awaited next (and perhaps last?) book, endgame, has just been published. This month’s Orion magazine has an excerpt, and I’m taking the liberty of reproducing it here, both because it is impossible to condense his powerful message in a review, and because I wanted to respond to each of the points he makes, so I have framed the excerpt as a ‘conversation’ — his words in black, my reply indented in red (I think that will that work in RSS feedreaders). I hope it will encourage you to read Jensen’s work, buy the 2-volume endgame, and think, or even better act, on his ideas. So here goes:

Beyond Hope, by Derrick Jensen

The most common words I hear spoken by any environmentalists anywhere are, We’re fucked. Most of these environmentalists are fighting desperately, using whatever tools they haveóor rather whatever legal tools they have, which means whatever tools those in power grant them the right to use, which means whatever tools will be ultimately ineffectiveóto try to protect some piece of ground, to try to stop the manufacture or release of poisons, to try to stop civilized humans from tormenting some group of plants or animals. Sometimes they’re reduced to trying to protect just one tree.

Here’s how John Osborn, an extraordinary activist and friend, sums up his reasons for doing the work: “As things become increasingly chaotic, I want to make sure some doors remain open. If grizzly bears are still alive in twenty, thirty, and forty years, they may still be alive in fifty. If they’re gone in twenty, they’ll be gone forever.”

[This reminds me of the protests of denial from those who we hold up as paragons of courage. Courage, they say, is just doing what has to be done; there is no other choice. Committing oneself to a life of activism isn’t a matter of self-sacrifice, it’s just getting your head out of your ass long enough to see what has to be done. The problem is, we don’t really want to know. If I really wanted to know, I’d be out now protesting the Canadian cormorant slaughter. I am afraid that if I went I would end up getting arrested, and getting others arrested, because I wouldn’t be able to sit by passively and just witness it. I then imagine other protesters complaining that I have undermined their movement. But perhaps my violence would be not only warranted, but necessary?

The real reason I don’t want to know, though, is that I have seen activists, doing what they must, disappear from public view. There is so much to be done that every tiny focus of work that must be done — the saving of one small species, the fight against one single development, the effort to stop a single atrocity — becomes a full-time job. I don’t want to disappear. I think I would drown. I think the realization of how little one person can really do would kill me.]

But no matter what environmentalists do, our best efforts are insufficient. We’re losing badly, on every front. Those in power are hell-bent on destroying the planet, and most people don’t care.

Frankly, I don’t have much hope. But I think that’s a good thing. Hope is what keeps us chained to the system, the conglomerate of people and ideas and ideals that is causing the destruction of the Earth.

To start, there is the false hope that suddenly somehow the system may inexplicably change. Or technology will save us. Or the Great Mother. Or beings from Alpha Centauri. Or Jesus Christ. Or Santa Claus. All of these false hopes lead to inaction, or at least to ineffectiveness. One reason my mother stayed with my abusive father was that there were no battered women’s shelters in the ’50s and ’60s, but another was her false hope that he would change. False hopes bind us to unlivable situations, and blind us to real possibilities.

Does anyone really believe that Weyerhaeuser is going to stop deforesting because we ask nicely? Does anyone really believe that Monsanto will stop Monsantoing because we ask nicely? If only we get a Democrat in the White House, things will be okay. If only we pass this or that piece of legislation, things will be okay. If only we defeat this or that piece of legislation, things will be okay. Nonsense. Things will not be okay. They are already not okay, and they’re getting worse. Rapidly.

But it isn’t only false hopes that keep those who go along enchained. It is hope itself. Hope, we are told, is our beacon in the dark. It is our light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. It is the beam of light that makes its way into our prison cells. It is our reason for persevering, our protection against despair (which must be avoided at all costs). How can we continue if we do not have hope?

We’ve all been taught that hope in some future conditionólike hope in some future heavenóis and must be our refuge in current sorrow. I’m sure you remember the story of Pandora. She was given a tightly sealed box and was told never to open it. But, being curious, she did, and out flew plagues, sorrow, and mischief, probably not in that order. Too late she clamped down the lid. Only one thing remained in the box: hope. Hope, the story goes, was the only good the casket held among many evils, and it remains to this day mankind’s sole comfort in misfortune. No mention here of action being a comfort in misfortune, or of actually doing something to alleviate or eliminate one’s misfortune.

The more I understand hope, the more I realize that all along it deserved to be in the box with the plagues, sorrow, and mischief; that it serves the needs of those in power as surely as belief in a distant heaven; that hope is really nothing more than a secular way of keeping us in line.

Hope is, in fact, a curse, a bane. I say this not only because of the lovely Buddhist saying “Hope and fear chase each other’s tails,” not only because hope leads us away from the present, away from who and where we are right now and toward some imaginary future state. I say this because of what hope is.

More or less all of us yammer on more or less endlessly about hope. You wouldn’t believeóor maybe you wouldóhow many magazine editors have asked me to write about the apocalypse, then enjoined me to leave readers with a sense of hope. But what, precisely, is hope? At a talk I gave last spring, someone asked me to define it. I turned the question back on the audience, and here’s the definition we all came up with: hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency; it means you are essentially powerless.

I’m not, for example, going to say I hope I eat something tomorrow. I just will. I don’t hope I take another breath right now, nor that I finish writing this sentence. I just do them. On the other hand, I do hope that the next time I get on a plane, it doesn’t crash. To hope for some result means you have given up any agency concerning it. Many people say they hope the dominant culture stops destroying the world. By saying that, they’ve assumed that the destruction will continue, at least in the short term, and they’ve stepped away from their own ability to participate in stopping it.

[I have received a lot of e-mail recently from readers who think my writing has become too ‘hopeless’, too resigned to the enormity and impossibility of the task of ‘saving the world’. The title of my blog was originally intended ironically. Over time, as my study of the state of the world and the possibilities for changing it evolved, it ceased to be so. I became hopeful. And then as I learned more, I became pessimistic, despairing. Not enough to stop blogging, but enough to try to instill readers with a more realistic sense of what we can hope to accomplish. To some extent this blog’s title has again become ironic.

I’ve lost some readers in the process. The world is complex, but people want it simplified. They want simple answers. As I’ve become less hopeful, I’ve realized there are no simple answers. There are not even complicated answers. The only answers are horrifically complex ones, hopeless ones. Answers that say We’re fucked, no matter what we do, but we still have a responsibility to do what we can anyway. Ugh. Who wants to hear that?]

I do not hope coho salmon survive. I will do whatever it takes to make sure the dominant culture doesn’t drive them extinct. If coho want to leave us because they don’t like how they’re being treatedóand who could blame them?óI will say goodbye, and I will miss them, but if they do not want to leave, I will not allow civilization to kill them off.

When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to “hope” at all. We simply do the work. We make sure salmon survive. We make sure prairie dogs survive. We make sure grizzlies survive. We do whatever it takes.

When we stop hoping for external assistance, when we stop hoping that the awful situation we’re in will somehow resolve itself, when we stop hoping the situation will somehow not get worse, then we are finally freeótruly freeóto honestly start working to resolve it. I would say that when hope dies, action begins.

People sometimes ask me, “If things are so bad, why don’t you just kill yourself?” The answer is that life is really, really good. I am a complex enough being that I can hold in my heart the understanding that we are really, really fucked, and at the same time that life is really, really good. I am full of rage, sorrow, joy, love, hate, despair, happiness, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, and a thousand other feelings. We are really fucked. Life is still really good.

[Well, maybe. For many of us, it is life’s promise that is good. It’s what we could become. It’s the potential. Many of us daydream our lives away, buying lottery tickets, imagining ourselves on American Idol or the New York Yankees or surrounded by adoring admirers in thrall to our sexual magnetism, or living vicariously through our children, or through ‘successful’ or beautiful people we know, or even through complete strangers (celebrities). As I keep saying, the scarce resources we most crave are appreciation and attention, and most of us have no hope of ever getting much of either. So we cling to our dreams, the possibilities we know are really impossible. For many of us, life is not really good. It is only the promise that it could be that keeps us going.]

Many people are afraid to feel despair. They fear that if they allow themselves to perceive how desperate our situation really is, they must then be perpetually miserable. They forget that it is possible to feel many things at once. They also forget that despair is an entirely appropriate response to a desperate situation. Many people probably also fear that if they allow themselves to perceive how desperate things are, they may be forced to do something about it.

Another question people sometimes ask me is, “If things are so bad, why don’t you just party?” Well, the first answer is that I don’t really like to party. The second is that I’m already having a great deal of fun. I love my life. I love life. This is true for most activists I know. We are doing what we love, fighting for what (and whom) we love.

I have no patience for those who use our desperate situation as an excuse for inaction. I’ve learned that if you deprive most of these people of that particular excuse they just find another, then another, then another. The use of this excuse to justify inactionóthe use of any excuse to justify inactionóreveals nothing more nor less than an incapacity to love.

[True. But things are the way they are for a reason. We all judge others by ourselves, and that’s not fair. The excuse for inaction isn’t the desperate situation, it’s the refusal to accept that it’s desperate. And of course that reveals an incapacity for love. Our culture beats the capacity for love out of us, makes us numb, fearful, hard-hearted, insensate. The loss of capacity to love isn’t something to be ashamed of, or something we have control over. It’s a coping mechanism. Derrick Jensen doesn’t need it, despite the fact he’s been beaten more than most of us. Bravo to him for that. He’s strong. Most of us are not. And it’s unfair of him to be angry or impatient with people who are weaker than he is. We are what we are, and we do what we must, not what we can. Most of us, if we were honest enough to admit it, are mostly dead. Much of the sensitivity, the capacity we had when we were children, is gone. I know that’s an outrageous and offensive notion, but I think it’s true.]

At one of my recent talks someone stood up during the Q and A and announced that the only reason people ever become activists is to feel better about themselves. Effectiveness really doesn’t matter, he said, and it’s egotistical to think it does.

I told him I disagreed. Doesn’t activism make you feel good? he asked. Of course, I said, but that’s not why I do it. If I only want to feel good, I can just masturbate. But I want to accomplish something in the real world. Why?

Because I’m in love. With salmon, with trees outside my window, with baby lampreys living in sandy streambottoms, with slender salamanders crawling through the duff. And if you love, you act to defend your beloved. Of course results matter to you, but they don’t determine whether or not you make the effort. You don’t simply hope your beloved survives and thrives. You do what it takes. If my love doesn’t cause me to protect those I love, it’s not love.

[Ah, love. Tom Robbins says the greatest challenge in life is learning “how to make love last”. Nothing lasts forever. Love is our body’s way of getting us to do things it ‘thinks’ we must. It consumes a lot of energy. What John Gray calls biophilia, the love of all life on Earth, is still a part of us, and we renew it from time to time when we reconnect with the Earth, with Gaia, but it is now well-sublimated, and we cannot afford to feel that much for something that is dying, quickly, inexorably. Love exhausts and consumes us. We cannot afford to love the Earth that much. It is too much suffering. Most of us, finally, to be able to go on, to live, have to turn away.]

A wonderful thing happens when you give up on hope, which is that you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn’t kill you. It didn’t even make you less effective. In fact it made you more effective, because you ceased relying on someone or something else to solve your problemsóyou ceased hoping your problems would somehow get solved through the magical assistance of God, the Great Mother, the Sierra Club, valiant tree-sitters, brave salmon, or even the Earth itselfóand you just began doing whatever it takes to solve those problems yourself.

When you give up on hope, something even better happens than it not killing you, which is that in some sense it does kill you. You die. And there’s a wonderful thing about being dead, which is that theyóthose in powerócannot really touch you anymore. Not through promises, not through threats, not through violence itself. Once you’re dead in this way, you can still sing, you can still dance, you can still make love, you can still fight like hellóyou can still live because you are still alive, more alive in fact than ever before. You come to realize that when hope died, the you who died with the hope was not you, but was the you who depended on those who exploit you, the you who believed that those who exploit you will somehow stop on their own, the you who believed in the mythologies propagated by those who exploit you in order to facilitate that exploitation. The socially constructed you died. The civilized you died. The manufactured, fabricated, stamped, molded you died. The victim died.

And who is left when that you dies? You are left. Animal you. Naked you. Vulnerable (and invulnerable) you. Mortal you. Survivor you. The you who thinks not what the culture taught you to think but what you think. The you who feels not what the culture taught you to feel but what you feel. The you who is not who the culture taught you to be but who you are. The you who can say yes, the you who can say no. The you who is a part of the land where you live. The you who will fight (or not) to defend your family. The you who will fight (or not) to defend those you love. The you who will fight (or not) to defend the land upon which your life and the lives of those you love depends. The you whose morality is not based on what you have been taught by the culture that is killing the planet, killing you, but on your own animal feelings of love and connection to your family, your friends, your landbaseónot to your family as self-identified civilized beings but as animals who require a landbase, animals who are being killed by chemicals, animals who have been formed and deformed to fit the needs of the culture.

When you give up on hopeówhen you are dead in this way, and by so being are really aliveóyou make yourself no longer vulnerable to the cooption of rationality and fear that Nazis inflicted on Jews and others, that abusers like my father inflict on their victims, that the dominant culture inflicts on all of us. Or is it rather the case that these exploiters frame physical, social, and emotional circumstances such that victims perceive themselves as having no choice but to inflict this cooption on themselves?

But when you give up on hope, this exploiter/victim relationship is broken. You become like the Jews who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. When you give up on hope, you turn away from fear. And when you quit relying on hope, and instead begin to protect the people, things, and places you love, you become very dangerous indeed to those in power. In case you’re wondering, that’s a very good thing.

[I have written lately about Living On the Edge. I am not sure you need to ‘die’ metaphorically to escape the clutches, promises, addictions, reliance and false comforts of civilization. I think there is a bit of romanticism in this use of the term death, too close for comfort to the religious idea of resurrection. The Edge is a place of lowered expectations, less confidence, but most importantly less reliance on the complex systems that constitute our civilization. Hope is really about reliance, isn’t it? Reliance on those who are destroying the Earth, or on a religious belief (and our current faith in non-existent ‘free markets’ and benevolent future technologies is nothing if not religious) is really hope that ‘they’ will somehow save us. The end of reliance — especially moral and emotional reliance — on civilization is, I think, a form of liberation. Less dramatic than death, but more metaphorically honest perhaps. When we give up relying on a set of systems and ideologies (which is what civilization ultimately is) we give up hoping that it will somehow solve the problems that must be solved, or at least coped with. We give up hope in it. But we do not give up hope. We, and hope, are still alive, to the extent any of us is still alive after all the damage civilization has (as a means of trying to sustain itself rather than maliciously) inflicted on us.

I’m not strong on the idea of ‘good versus evil’. I don’t see it in nature, so I have to believe it’s a human construct, and I strongly suspect it was invented to keep us in our place, to frighten us into submission to those who make such moral judgements. I can’t blame the powers that be for inventing this construct — it’s very effective and reduces the number of people who need to be killed to keep civilization functioning. I use the term atrocity a lot, in the sense of insensitively inflicting damage and suffering on others, but I don’t believe atrocity is inherent in human nature, or in nature. You need to be either ignorant or emotionally dead to commit atrocities, and in civilization culture both are tolerated, even (in Darwinian terms) selected for. In nature they are not: If you’re ignorant you will die, from exposing yourself foolishly to a predator or eating a poison food you didn’t learn to avoid. If you’re emotionally dead you will be shunned by others in your community and you will die of exposure and solitude. Atrocity is just an unintended consequence of civilization. I’m not surprised that people respond to atrocity with anger and violence — when I am exposed to it I respond the same way. At some point I will likely choose to expose myself to it more — I am tired of not doing enough. But I sympathize as well with those who choose to hide from the terrible truth of atrocity. We are not all meant to be warriors.

I don’t want to die, even metaphorically. I don’t want to give up hope. I am not yet comfortable living on the Edge, but I’m getting there. I no longer have hope for civilization, and my expectations of myself and others are much lower than they were. We’re in for some hard times, and our children and grandchildren unimaginably harder ones. I no longer love, or live, as fully as I once did, or might have if I had been born outside ofcivilization’s terrible and wonderful hold. No one is to blame for that. Yet as I become more knowledgeable and more radical and more determined to do what I know I must, and therefore will (as little and as late as that may be), I am becoming, strangely, more at peace.]

May 25, 2006

Harper Doesn’t Speak for Canadians

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 11:53
Harper Doesn't SpeakCanadian minority Prime Minister Harper wigged out yesterday. It had been a bad week for him and his right-wing party. First he again ridiculed the Kyoto Accord, declaring that Canada had no intention of even trying to live up to it, despite the fact a large majority of Canadians support it and Canada is currently chairing the Kyoto implementation talks. International groups called on Canada to resign its chair position rather than continue to undermine the agreement, and Quebec and Manitoba announced they remain committed to Kyoto targets and called on Harper to honour the wishes of Canadians to strive to meet the targets. On Kyoto, global warming and the environment, Harper doesn’t speak for Canada.

Then the right-wing National Post invented and published as front-page “news” an inflammatory anti-Islamic story that Iran planned to force its Jews to wear an identifying coloured ribbon. The Post went on to compare Iran to Nazi Germany. When the story was revealed to be fiction, the Post was forced to retract it. But Harper didn’t wait. Citing the Post story, he issued a tirade against Iran and said Iran “is very capable of this kind of action…It boggles the mind that any regime on the face of the Earth would want to do anything that could remind people of Nazi Germany.” A furious Iran summoned the Canadian ambassador to Iran to explain the remarks. Harper came off looking like an idiot. On Iran and our views of the Islamic people, Harper doesn’t speak for Canada.

Problems in the botched mission in Afghanistan, where Harper has taken over from Bush as the rhetorical spokesman for the myth that that destroyed nation is moving quickly towards peace and democracy, worsened considerably this week. Deaths and injuries from resurgent Taliban and other anti-Western forces are soaring as promises to help Afghanistan rebuild its war-ruined infrastructure go unfulfilled — nowhere near enough money or resources has been committed for the job, which is far too dangerous to do anyway. Opium remains the country’s only functioning industry, and it is flourishing. And then an incompetent US air raid on Afghan insurgents killed 16 civilians and injured 15 others. The ‘peacekeeping’ role that Canadians support in Afghanistan is increasingly untenable, and a majority of Canadians want us out before Afghanistan becomes another Iraq. But Harper buys all the neocon rhetoric about Afghanistan being another front of the ‘global war on terror’ and wants Canada to be front and centre in that war. That’s why he has joined the Bush neocons in refusing to allow flags to fly at half-mast for Canadian war dead, and banning press coverage of their funerals. On Afghanistan and the ‘War on Terror’, and in his disrespect for our war dead, Harper doesn’t speak for Canada.

Harper’s party won a fragile minority of seats in the last Canadian election. He then struck a deal with the morally bankrupt Bloc QuÈbecois that would see the Bloc support Harper, no matter how opposed his legislation is to everything the progressive Bloc ran for in the election, in return for weakening Canada’s federalist system so that the Bloc’s goal of separating QuÈbec from the rest of Canada would be easier to achieve. A deal between two devils designed to subvert the will of the majority, including progressive Bloc and federalist Conservative voters. Harper also signed a secret back-room deal with Bush to extend NORAD, and continues to publicly support their obscenely expensive and demonstrably unworkable missile defence scheme — and refuses to reveal details until he’s ready to present the deal to Parliament. In Harper’s rabid ideological extremism (he was once a Western separatist, and has consistently concealed his true right-wing beliefs from the people of Canada in order to get elected), his ends justify any means. On federalism, on the break-up of Canada, and on getting in bed with the US on defence programs, Harper doesn’t speak for Canada.

And just yesterday Harper abandoned the traditions of open Canadian press conferences, in favour of the US ‘media management’ approach of choosing which reporters he would allow to ask questions (favouring of course those like the National Post who agree with his ideology). When two dozen reporters then walked out of the press conference in protest, Harper went ballistic, declared that the Canadian press, which has been timid in the face of his outrageous behaviour to the point of obsequiousness, had “unfortunately…taken the view they are going to be the opposition to the government…They don’t ask questions at my press conferences now. We’ll just take the message out on the road.”, and declared that he would stop having national press conferences at all. On freedom of the press, Harper doesn’t speak for Canada.

The problem is that he is presuming to speak for Canada, and the American and international press are listening and confusing his rhetoric with the views of the Canadian people. Not only does this misrepresentation hurt our long-standing reputation for humanitarianism and liberal values in the eyes of the rest of the world, it makes Canadians targets for international extremists who may mistakenly believe that we Canadians support Harper’s neocon wingnut ideology.

My message to Stephen Harper is: Shut up. You do not speak for us. Your ideological blather wasn’t even supported by the minority who voted for you in the last election. You lied to us about your real beliefs and real agenda in the election campaign. Now you are ruiningour international reputation and endangering our lives.

May 24, 2006

Getting Things Done, Happiness, and Our Strange Sense of Priority

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 16:08
I slept in today. Or, rather, I lay in bed, listening to the birds, smelling the Spring air, daydreaming, thinking about what I would write about today, trying to shut out of my mind all the other things I ‘had to do’. As a seasoned procrastinator, I knew that when those other things became urgent enough, I would haul my ass out of bed and get to them.

There is method to this madness. The decision on What To Do Next is the one we are most practiced at, and if we don’t get very good at it, we end up making a mess of our lives. I thought about the things from my Getting Things Done list. The list isn’t that long, and most of what’s on it has been there awhile and is etched in my memory), I thought about the ones I would try to get accomplished today. In the order I will probably start working on them they are:

  1. Daily blog post (2-3 hrs)
  2. Batch of fruit smoothies (1/2 hr)
  3. 5k run (3/4 hr including warm-up/down and shower)
  4. Lawn work (1.5 hrs)
  5. Clear up some of my horrific backlog of e-mail and blog comments responses (15 hrs)
  6. Two proposals for jobs/contracts that I’d really like to do but which I think unlikely to succeed, plus one proposal I think likely to succeed but that I’m not that keen on (20 hrs)
  7. Hard drive backup (1-2 hrs)

I know myself pretty well. I will accomplish #1, #2, either #3 or #4 (the other will get done tomorrow), and a part of #5 or #6. Eight hours’ ‘work’ in total. I’ll reward myself by reading or listening to music this evening.

But what subconscious criteria did I use to make these decisions? And how did I decide not to do anything today about any of the other 35 items on my GTD list, which include:

  1. Research on vegetable proteins, towards inventing non-animal food proteins that would taste just like meat and dairy products and deliver the same nutrition, and hence obsolesce factory farms
  2. Research on intentional communities, towards eventually starting one
  3. Pulling together another complete chapter of The Natural Enterprise
  4. Writing more of my novel The Only Life We Know
  5. Research on podcasting technology, so I can finally get started on Blog Hosted Conversations
  6. Phone calls to resurrect my AHA! Learning & Discovery project
  7. Updating my blog Table of Contents and blogroll

In the spirit of my recent posts on self-experimentation, I tried to come up with a quantitative measure of the factors I would have considered in making these decisions to see what ‘rules’ I was using for deciding what to do next. The factors included:

L = How much I like doing these things
G = How good I am at doing these things (or how good they are for me)
N = How much this work is needed by someone other than me
A = How much this work is appreciated by someone other than me

These factors correspond to the three circles above, reflecting our Passion, our Gift and our Purpose, which to some extent determine how we ultimately ‘choose’ to make a living. The critical factors in my Getting Things Done list (in deciding what to do next) are:

U = How urgent it is that this work get done today
I = How important it is to me, ultimately, that this task or project get accomplished eventually
E = How easy it will be (will I be in the right place with the right people, energy & tools) to do this today

Time demand (how long it will take) is also a factor, but long tasks can always be broken up into shorter ones if they meet all the other criteria. What’s more, I will also do a whole bunch of other small, short tasks today, that won’t ever make it to the list. So while I didn’t want to lose track of time demand, I didn’t include it as a factor.

I looked at the 14 tasks that I had decided to do (or not do) today, and assigned them a score (2=high, 1=moderate, 0=low) for each of the seven factors above. I added in ‘reading and listening to music’ as task #15, because that’s what I know I will do this evening. Here’s what the scores looked like:

Task L G N A U I E
1 2 2 0 1 2 2 2
2 2 2 0 1 0 1 2
3 0 2 0 1 0 2 2
4 1 1 0 1 1 0 2
5 0 2 0 1 1 1 2
6 0 1 0 0 1 0 2
7 0 1 0 0 1 0 2
8 2 0 2 1 0 2 1
9 2 0 2 1 0 2 1
10 2 2 2 1 0 2 1
11 2 1 2 1 0 2 1
12 2 0 0 1 0 1 1
13 2 2 1 1 0 1 1
14 0 1 0 1 1 0 0
15 2 1 0 0 0 0 2

I already suspected that these seven factors didn’t have equal ‘weight’ in the decision on what I will do next. It isn’t as simple as adding up the totals for each row and picking the largest total. But I was surprised to discover how simple the rule was for determining what I would do today:

If U=2, do it today. If (U+E)>1, do it today if time permits. If (U+E)<2, defer it to tomorrow.

This may only be true for me. If you’re sufficiently anal to try the above exercise for yourself, I’d be interested in your findings. If it is true, that we do what’s urgent or easy, and defer everything else, this has some sobering implications. It means we don’t (until/unless it becomes urgent or easy) do what we most like doing, or what’s needed by others, or even what ultimately on our deathbeds we will consider our most important accomplishments.

The art of procrastination is pushing off difficult tasks (i.e. E=0) until they become urgent (i.e. U=2). That can require some considerable rationalization, and even some dread as U moves from 0 to 1 and then inexorably to 2. Thinking about some of the all-nighters and 16-hour-days I’ve pulled, they were usually situations where there was one large task, or a whole bunch of smaller ones, all with U=2 and no tomorrow. Of course it would be logical to see these coming and plan your time so that you didn’t face that crisis, but then we’re not logical, are we?

Some of you may wonder why I consider my daily blog post (task #1) to be urgent. I’m not sure of the answer to that, but I know I really sweat if I miss a day, and I rarely do, even if there are other urgent tasks on the agenda. Likewise, you might argue that if the blog (task #1) is urgent, then the related blog comment responses and e-mails (task #5) are urgent as well. But e-mail is one of those perverse tasks that can actually become less urgent if you procrastinate and put it off. People will eventually give up expecting a response. When I do get my e-mails and blog comment responses up to date, then it become urgent to keep them that way. But sometimes, like now, I relapse. I’m only human.

So what use is all this? I’m not sure if it makes me feel better about myself (I’m just being who I am), or worse (that string of N=0 for everything I will do today makes me look awfully selfish). If it’s true, though, at least for procrastinators, what could we do to increase the sense of urgency or ease, for the things that make us happy, for the things we’re good at, for the things that are needed or at least appreciated by others, for important things, so that they actually get done? Before blogs came along, writing a daily column and engaging with hundreds of people on the issues it covers would have been impossible. Then, the 2-3 hours we now spend blogging were spent doing other urgent or easy things — in my case mainly wasting time watching TV or reading newspapers. By increasing the ease of writing and sharing your ideas with others, blogs and other social network tools have arguably enabled us to make ‘better’ use of our time.

I’ve suggested before that the best way to make a difficult (E=0) but important (I=2) job easier (increase E to 1) is to break it down into manageable tasks, or to collaborate with others and share the load. That sleight-of-hand works sometimes, but often we can still see how difficult the whole task is, and if it’s not urgent (U=0) that still won’t be enough to get it done. 

If we suddenly discover we only have a few months to live, then doing all the important things (I=2), the needed things (N=2), the appreciated things (A=2), the things that make us happy (L=2), immediately becomes urgent (U=2), and then we do these things (if we can). Why should it take such a horrible revelation to make us start doing the things that make us happy, make us follow our passion, do what we were arguably meant to do? Just as the Shangri-La Diet ‘fools’ our bodies to believe we are less hungry than we really are, is there a trick that could ‘fool’ our minds to believe that everything that makes us happy is urgent? Living every day as if it were our last is a nice homily, but how could we actually learn, or trick ourselves, to do it? To start doing the things that are not ‘merely’ urgent?

Or are we so accustomed to urgent tasks being onerous and unpleasant that if the things that make us happy were suddenly urgent, they wouldn’tmake us happy anymore anyway?

May 23, 2006

Self-Experimentation, Instant Feedback and the Freakonomics Game

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 12:27
einsteinYesterday I wrote about insecurity and lack of self-esteem and how they lead us to go overboard seeking appreciation and attention. Another product of frail, dependent-on-others egos is learned helplessness — the belief that we’re not competent to do things for ourselves, that we have to rely on specialists, experts, consultants, or ‘leaders’ to do everything for us, or at least to tell us what to do. Even the latest trend towards ‘self-serve’ everything (e.g. Home Depot, FAQs to go through before you get to talk to ‘service’, kiosks, buffets, etc.) is driven by corporations’ desire to reduce overheads, and (thanks to outsourcing, offshoring, corporate profit-skimming and the ever-widening chasm between executive salaries and everyone else’s) the decreasing affordability of service of any kind, rather than any genuine desire to make us more self-sufficient and less helpless.

This insecurity and learned helplessness mitigates against self-experimentation, the process Seth Roberts of The Shangri-La Diet so brilliantly employs to improve his own health, fitness and productivity (and encourages us to employ to improve ours). Just to reiterate, self-experimentation is the use of the well-established scientific method using your own personal data, diligently collected every day. Instead of relying on laboratory tests performed on other people, whose bodies, minds, behaviours and motivations are inevitably much different from yours, you test on yourself, the only ‘sample’ that really counts. Those who make their money conducting formal scientific tests (often dubiously and in their own self-interest) or selling you the standardized, hyped and overpriced product that comes from such tests, obviously go out of their way to dissuade you from self-experimentation, playing up fears that it is dangerous, unscientific, even (if it involves use of substances that require an ‘expert’s’ prescription or licence) illegal. But for those not dissuaded by learned helplessness, self-experimentation can provide an excellent, inexpensive, and liberating means to make your life measurably better.

Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame points out that one of the critical requirements for successful self-experimentation is lots of immediate data — what he calls feedback. What you’re trying to do is compile persuasive evidence of a correlation between some action that you perform (such as a particular diet or exercise program) and a desired outcome (such as weight loss or improved physical fitness). The more data you collect, and the sooner you collect it after each self-experiment, the more quickly and effectively the self-experimentation will produce significant results. Because you’re only one person, you need to be imaginative (not limiting yourself to tried and true actions) and improvisational (quick to change the actions if they do not appear to be producing the results you are looking for). Formal scientific tests do neither of these things, which is yet another advantage of self-experimentation.

Let’s review the five steps of self-experimentation again:

  1. Decide on your objective: What result do you want to achieve (weight loss, better fitness, better sleep, reduced pain or stress, better work productivity, faster commute to work, better creativity etc.)?
  2. Collect base-line data: Some measurement of the current state (the ‘before’ picture) that you can compare with the final state (the ‘after’ picture) to assess whether the desired result has been achieved — for example, your current weight or fitness or stress level etc. Some measures may be objective (e.g. weight in lbs or kg) while others will be subjective (e.g. how happy or sleepy or stressed you feel) but you should try to develop a quantitative scale (e.g. 1 to 10 or 1 to 100, with some subjective terms that explain what a ‘5’ or a ’75’ on that scale means) so that you apply the measurements reasonably consistently.
  3. Use your imagination to come up with hypotheses (theories): These are ‘educated guesses’ (after all, you know yourself better than anyone else does) about what actions might lead to the desired result (e.g. reducing daily caloric intake or carbohydrates by x%, running three miles a day four days a week etc.) Imagination is critical here, if you want to succeed where others have usually failed, or where you have failed before. Things happen the way they do for a reason. Understand that reason if you want to change what is happening. Seth Roberts realized that his diets didn’t work because his body was adjusting its metabolic ‘set point’ to offset his food intake, essentially defeating his diet. It took enormous imagination (and some thoughtful research) to conceive that he might be able to fool his body to lower its ‘set point’ by consuming flavourless calories (the essence of the Shangri-La diet).
  4. Test your hypotheses (theories) by trying them out, one at a time, keeping everything else about your routine as unchanged as possible, and if possibly by collecting immediate feedback. If the feedback (data) supports your hypothesis, continue it, increase it, find out how sensitive the achievement of the desired result is to slight modifications in application — more sugar-water to fool your body, longer or shorter, less or more frequent exercise etc. If the feedback doesn’t support your hypothesis, re-think or modify the hypothesis, collect different data if you still think the hypothesis may be valid, or set aside the hypothesis and go on to the next one. This is all about improvisation.
  5. Each time your feedback data confirms your hypothesis, continue it, practice it, make it part of what you do regularly and who you are. If you find you can’t, e.g. if the diet or exercise program succeeds in achieving the desired objective but it’s simply unbearable, then go back to step 3 and come up with some other hypotheses or theories that, if they pan out, would be bearable, sustainable, natural to continue.

In his recent article, Levitt illustrates this with two examples: The use of a biofeedback machine to reduce stress and pain, and the use of a golf-swing analyzer to improve golf score. These are sophisticated technologies, but the ones you use may be as simple as a stopwatch, a measuring tape, a scale, the size of your ‘to-do’ list, or your own subjective daily rating of your creativity or happiness. The Collision Detection blog (thanks to Seb Paquet for the link) suggests that a self-experimentation chart of commuting times, to find the optimal route and departure times for your daily commute, can save you more time per year than you get in vacation time. The applications are limited only by your imagination and your determination to make your life better in some way.

Imagination. There’s the rub. We live in a world of imaginative poverty, where our education system goes out of its way to crush our imaginations. Our work lives (for most of us) give our imaginations no exercise, and we associate imagination with childishness, daydreaming and impracticality. But Freakonomics would not have been the phenomenon it has become if it was just a book of statistical correlations. The book shows Levitt’s extraordinary imagination. To explain this, and to give you some practice stretching your imagination, I’ve invented something I call The Freakonomics Game. The objective of the game is to come up with the Unconventional Theory that just might explain why something happened, or is happening, that no one else would have imagined to consider. So, when violent crime in American cities plummeted in recent years, conservatives explained this by pointing to tougher sentences, capital punishment, more cops on the beat, and even more devout religious belief. Liberals explained it by pointing to tighter gun control and more outreach and social programs for inner city youth. Levitt found none of these correlated. The Unconventional Theory in this case was the famous Roe vs Wade decision a generation earlier, making abortion much more readily available to urban women who weren’t ready to have a family (or a bigger family), who therefore, presumably, didn’t bring children who might live desperate lives and/or have an innate or learned propensity for violence, into the world. This has outraged conservatives and liberals alike, and it showed great imagination to even think of it. But the data correlates very strongly.

Another example: Seth Roberts had tried everything to improve his restless sleep and insomnia. All the obvious hypotheses failed the self-experimentation test. And then Seth thought: What if our bodies are still genetically like the Cave Man’s, the result of the first 2.97 million of the 3 million years of human evolution on Earth? For that 2.97 million years humans were gatherer-hunters, on their feet for most of their waking hours. What if our sleep patterns haven’t adjusted for our ‘recent’ sedentary life-style? His imaginative Unconventional Theory was that by spending most of the day on his feet, like his ancestors did, he might better prepare his body for a natural night’s sleep. When Seth self-experimented with this (he now works all day at a standing-height desk with a fatigue-reducing cushion under it) it worked. When you think about how well you sleep after a day hiking, this isn’t a surprise, but it still takes imagination.

Ready to play the Freakonomics Game? OK, here’s one to try. Some recent studies have indicated that soccer and hockey stars are twice as likely to have been born in January or February as in November or December. What’s the Unconventional Theory that likely accounts for this (hint: it’s not astrological)? There are actually two Theories, and if you can guess either of them you have a good imagination. Think about it, and then peek at the note at the bottom of this article to see if you were right.

Now you’re ready for some serious play. I’ve taxed my imagination and come up with an Unconventional Theory for each of the following seven observations. I’ll disclose my theories in a later post. Give your imagination a workout and see if you can come up with one or more compelling Unconventional Theories for each, post any of them in the comments to this article, and we’ll let other readers be the judges. Who knows, your Unconventional Theory might be revolutionary, and change the way we look at things, or even make millions of people’s lives better.

  1. When people are quizzed about their creativity, they claim it is highest (a) when they’re in or near water, (b) when they’re in motion, and (c) just before falling asleep or just before/after awakening. Why would this be?
  2. Seth Roberts’ work refers to extensive research (and some personal experimentation) that suggest that sleep deprivation elevates mood and may alleviate depression. Why would this be?
  3. We appear to become easily addicted to substances that are healthy or even essential in moderation but unhealthy in excess, and when we get addicted we tend to need more and more to get the same ‘high’. A recent experiment indicated that birds in captivity can get quickly addicted to sugar-water, craving more and more to the detriment of their health. Why would this be?
  4. There is some evidence that very intelligent people are the ones most prone to procrastinate, and to fail to keep New Years’ resolutions. Why would this be?
  5. Here’s an article that reports on a dramatic drop in teenage pregnancy and teenage abortions in the US. Conservatives claim this is due to effective ‘family-values’ abstinence programs. Liberals claim it’s due to better information about and use of contraception. But there’s lots of evidence that neither of these is the case. The author of the article ascribes it to lower sperm counts, but, as we all know, it only takes one. Is there a better Unconventional Theory? (Thanks to Dale Asberry for this link)
  6. Here’s an article that reports an epidemic of rare cancers and even rarer auto-immune diseases in the small community of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. Residents blame water, air and soil pollution due to pulp and paper effluents, uranium and other mining, and now the disastrous Tar Sands development nearby. Business interests say the water has been exhaustively tested and is fine, and blame the poor diet in the remote community, exacerbated by the prohibitive cost of trucking in fresh fruits and vegetables. What’s your Unconventional Theory?
  7. You probably know that Harper’s magazine and others have been providing increased publicity to the groups who insist HIV is not the cause of most auto-immune deficiency diseases, and that there must be another cause, probably not viral or microbial, to account for so many people dying of auto-immune related diseases who do not have HIV in their bodies. Many of the diseases on a sharp upswing (e.g. severe allergies, asthma, autism, and ADD/ADHD) also do not appear to have ‘natural’ causes. While some blame human behaviours, or chemical residues (mercury etc.) there are some reasonably compelling studies that refute viral, microbial, behavioural and toxic chemical causes for the dramatic increase in these illnesses, while others assert (less convincingly) that it’s all due to ‘increased awareness and reporting’ of them. Is there another possible cause for one or more of these illnesses (no one Unconventional Theory is likely to explain all of them) that we’re overlooking?

Unconventional Theories for sports stars being born at the start of the year:
(1) Cutoff date for most age-categories in amateur sport is December 31. So in any class, the January kids will be up to a year older, bigger, and more coordinated than those born in December of the same year. Guess which kids will therefore tend to get more play and more attention from the coach?
(2) Levitt suggests another possibility. If December 31 is the cutoff date, and you’re an ambitious parent, maybe you might be tempted to lie about your kid’s birth date by a few months to push him or her into a more advanced, ‘serious’ class with older kids that will force him or her to work harder and learn faster against tougher competitors, especially if he or she is a bit big for his or her ‘real’ age.

Einstein, pictured above, once said “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.

May 22, 2006

Insecurity and Status-Seeking

Filed under: Our Culture / Ourselves — Dave Pollard @ 16:50
Today’s post is a teaser for a major article I’m working on for tomorrow that draws together self-experimentation, ego, imaginative poverty, procrastination, lack of innovation, addiction, freakonomics, feedback and learned helplessness. Stay tuned.

We had brunch today (it’s a holiday here in Canada) with a group of neighbours, and got to talking about how Europeans (many of our neighbours are first-generation Canadians who often return to their country of birth, principally in Europe) of all ages and social classes have become obsessed with their personal attractiveness. This manifests itself, they said, in:

  • Preoccupation with physical appearance: youthfulness, lack of wrinkles or other ‘imperfections’, ‘healthy’ tans, zero fat, appropriate posture and ‘pose’, not a hair out of place etc.
  • Preoccupation with wearing the ‘right’ (in the perception of their ‘peers’) clothes: brand names, appropriate and fashionable colours and fabrics, no wrinkles (unless the fabric calls for them) etc.
  • Preoccupation with knowing and being seen with the ‘right’ people: the rich, famous, and popular
  • Preoccupation with observing and judging others: standing (or in restaurants, sitting) where they can see others and others can see them, taking note of others’ facial and body language when first attracting others’ attention (doesn’t matter whether they are strangers on the subway or people they know well), ‘all the right moves’, passing (often disdainful) judgement on others (through eye, facial and body language, whispers to one’s clique followed by knowing, put-down glances towards others, etc.)

This all struck me as very juvenile, so I was surprised at the unanimity of views of our brunch group that this now extends even to those in their senior years. At first I thought this might be a defensive reaction to the fact that most of us North Americans, frankly, are pretty sloppy dressers compared to most Europeans. But they said this held even to immediate relatives ‘back in the old country’.

So I asked what they thought was behind this strange and neurotic behaviour, which I have observed here (and have been told is common) among teenagers at school/the mall and among twenty-somethings in bars and other singles gathering places, but not among older or ‘married’ people (our children said it was a great relief when they married, or began living common law, that they didn’t need to ‘bother with that stuff’ anymore).

My neighbours had never thought about the cause for this ‘crazy’ behaviour, so I tossed out some candidates: vanity, a warped sense of values, low self-esteem — aha!, they said, that’s it — it’s insecurity. What are they insecure about?, I asked. One neighbour told me “It’s like they never grew up. Marital fidelity isn’t as strong a bond or commitment there as it is in North America, so they’re still trying to impress the opposite sex. And when you’re always looking at others, sizing them up, it becomes a habit, you notice them sizing you up as well, and there’s a whole tacit language that builds up around that, a language of judgements that label you without a word being spoken. That’s very intimidating, and it takes a pretty big ego to ignore or brush off an endless crowd of people looking at you disdainfully, telling you that you don’t measure up, that you could and should be doing better. It’s tyrannical, but that’s the way it is, just like with teenagers here.”

I was still perplexed. “I can see the point in continuing to look after your own health and fitness, and quietly complimenting or even harmlessly flirting with others, even into old age. It’s harmless, it’s an extra nudge to take good care of yourself, it’s fun and it’s good for the ego. But why do they need to put down others, what is the cause of the deep-seated insecurity that would drive people to belittle others just to build up their own egos. That still strikes me as pretty insecure.”

“But it escalates, you see”, she said. “If you flirt with your eyes with those you are attracted to, then when someone averts their gaze or ignores you or (worse) doesn’t even notice you, that’s a kind of put-down in itself. So to create a scale of approval/disapproval that neutralizes that, you need to add an overt level of disapproval, so that you don’t hurt people’s feelings just by not noticing them. So then, if you’re insecure (as especially the young are) you start over-using the hurtful disapproval signals to bolster your own (and your equally insecure friends’) self-esteem. If you’re on the receiving end of that often enough, it starts to get to you and you get caught up in the game as well, and you start obsessing about avoiding the disapproval signals and augmenting the number of approval signals, even if it causes you to do ridiculous things, like spending an hour a day in a tanning bed or spending 2000Ä on an outfit.”

Well, I keep saying that what we want more than anything else is appreciation and attention, so this does make sense to me in a warped kind of way. I’m also aware, since reading Impro, that dominant-submissive behaviour, status-seeking, finding your place in the social ‘pecking order’, is instinctive to all creatures including humans, for what were once very valid reasons.

I’m a sloppy dresser with a big ego who has lived his whole life in an upper-middle class milieu in a society that at least pretends to be blind to class and status, though I’m aware that I am perhaps too blind to it myself, preventing me from understanding other people’s behaviours and even their impressions of me.

So educate me: How important is all of this to who we are and what we do? Is my neighbour right in her perception of how insecurity and/or status-seeking drives our behaviour, often in dysfunctional ways? And is it insecurity (low self-esteem) that lurks behind most of this behaviour, or is it an instinctive drive to set and seek status, relative position in the social (shudder) hierarchy? Your answers have a bearing on some of what I’m writingabout in tomorrow’s article, so I’d really value your thoughts.

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