Sunday, December 16, 2007

Watch the author of Fast Food Nation on Fora.TV

I recommend very highly this interview of the author of Fast Food Nation and other important works about the reality of the American economy.

His work serves to illustrate his two most important points. First, he argues that the economy's structure, more than any "evil" power-brokers, that depresses the wages of the poor and middle class, and neglects consumers' safety. He offers the example of a CEO who supports unfair wages to protect his or her corporation's profits. Were this person replaced today, the new CEO tomorrow would have to keep doing the same thing. Its the structure of our economy's laws and regulations that force corporations to behave as they do.

As another example, he recalls speaking with meat packing executives appalled by the conditions of their workers. But as long as any competitor is allowed to abuse employees for the sake of profit, other companies will be forced to do so. Or face losing their businesses.

His second point regards the mythology surrounding the "Free Market". Many corporations and political leaders advocate for diminished government regulation of health standards, environmental standards and wage standards in the name of the "Free Market". But Schlosser points out that even 100 years ago, a pro-business republican administration (Teddy Roosevelt) recognized that left to their own devices and abandoned to the pressures of unregulated competition, corporations themselves would destroy their own markets. Free markets, America understood a century ago, require structure and boundaries to remain free over time.

Of course, Schlosser says all this better than I do, so please check out the video.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Tonight at rehearsal

Tonight at rehearsal for Anything Goes the male voices were, as usual, a great deal quieter than the ladies'. The women, especially the younger school-aged ones were pretty confident with their parts, even when reading them for the first time. The guys sat nervously and affected macho poses while trying to make sure that wrong notes were too soft to be noticed.

The effect endured when we took a break. Many of the women chatted and most of us men sat with our arms folded or eyes buried pointlessly in sheet music. Real men, we all know, aren't "chatty" (Although research shows men and women talk equally much - manly stoicism is a story we tell and impose)

What difference does our hard concepts of masculinity impose on our government and culture, I wonder? At the least, our community theater might be better. At best?

Friday, August 3, 2007

Carnival of Conflict 4

Thank you for the excellent posts this month. The Carnival's contributors have highlighted a spectrum of conflicts from the political to the personal. It strikes me that in these, as well as in posts from other editions and from all over the internet, we bloggers tend to be very explicit. Our political commentary is direct and we say precisely what we mean.

Where is the place for illusion in our arguments and critiques? We like to use short metaphors from the arts ("political theater", grandstanding") and and other sources, but even in our metaphors we tend to like our phrases to only mean one thing at a time.

Is it something to do with the medium of blogging? Did we just not learn the art of
storytelling as children? As you go through the posts this month, perhaps you can think about how we are writing, and how that might shape what we say.

And perhaps the ways in which we choose to fight shape the outcomes of our battles.


Esther Garvi argues that hate won't bring justice in African politics in Love vs. Hate.


What would Jesus do about health care in America? Tracee Sioux argues for universal care as a Christian value.

The United States has had many "Foundings", and Ashok considers two of the earliest in his post, For Resolution: In what way are the Founding Fathers religious?

YID with Lid considers NGO accountability in Israel in the post, New Israel Fund to NGO Monitor: How DARE YOU TELL PEOPLE THE TRUTH!

Steven Silvers discusses the departure of two anti-WalMart political leaders for Presidential campaign jobs. Is he right when he suggests WakeUpWalMart defections might mean union-backed activist groups have done all they can do"?
Democracy vs. universal suffrage by Gavin Putland calls for a new kind of electoral college to rationalize democratic politics.

Lucynda Riley shares an article from the Seattle Times about standardization of schoool curricula in her post, This is why my son is homeschooled.

Is the filibuster a good tool or a grandstanding device in the US Senate? Mad CKane , in her song parody, Yet another filibuster song parody (The Full-a-Bluster Song) , says that the GOP can like it or dislike it, depending on what's convenient.

In Democratic Letter Writers Don't Think and The Writer Who Cried Wolf , Adam Graham criticizes a left-leaning letter to the editor.

Indigo Warrior introduces us to a new blog in Welcome to my Blogspot and shares a conviction about civic responsibility.

Bill Dvorak philosophizes on Politics: the choice that determines humanity's fate

Doug Ragan encourages the right wing to keep taking advantage of the Internet for supporting grassroots politiking on the immigration debate in What Everyone Missed in the Immigration Debate


There is A Bear in the Neighborhood! and Sheppard Salter asks what to do about it. Laws, safety, doubt and fear all mix to present a dilemma. Could the bear situation also be a metaphore?

Article Syndication: The Sky is the limit so explore and aim for the sky by Mike Harmon offers strategies for spreading your message to readers through the internet.

Kristie Watson discusses the difficulty of resolving arguments when love and money are both involved, and the importance of compromise. The post is Marriage vs. money

Laura Young offers advice for how to stay cool in difficult interactions in Money, Honey, Part 2: Never Assume...

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Pres. Hugo Chavez's threat

CNN's story yesterday about Venezuela's Hugo Chavez: Chavez calls Honduran cardinal 'imperialist clown'

The story itself isn't too surprising, but it reminded me why I think President Chavez is a negative force in the Americas.

I agreed with some lefties' optimism about him when I visited Venezuela in 2006 for the World Social Forum (a gathering of thousands of activists for networking and workshops). One of the crowning events was a rally with Chavez and Cindy Sheehan and other luminaries. Before the rally I could believe in Chavez' role as a liberator and warrior against the tyranny of Western capitalist oppression. It was easy to see and hear about the good things he's done for the country, not least of which is overturning the western idea that national success lies in ever greater reliance on free markets and corporations. Plus, Chavez was hosting the Forum, which focuses exclusively on how nonviolent, diverse activism. It seemed to me he really was categorically different from the way the US Administration likes to portray him.

However the rally was chock full of military symbolism. Chavez's supporters wore red berets. Dancers even attacked with foam swords a black cloth with symbols of corporate logos. In one biography of Chavez, he explains that one goal of his Bolivarian revolution is to ease distinctions between the military and civilians. One one hand this means the military is expected to help civilians more, but one the other hand, it seems to me this philosophy threatens to militarize the entire society.

And the news of Venezuela's treatment of the freedom of the press keeps getting worse. And will Chavez willingly relinquish power, or will he keep amending the constitution to keep himself on top?

In the end, I think neither side is right about Chavez. He's not a bloodthirsty dictator, exploiting the people. But he's not a savior of the left, either. It may be that in his conviction about what is right for his country, he cares more about the ends of achieving justice than the means.

And if the best progressive leaders in history have taught us anything, its that lasting peace must be achieved peacefully, and lasting justice must be achieved justly.

Monday, July 23, 2007

CNN Debates unpredictable?

Watching the coverage of the CNN YouTube debates, Mr. Cooper and the other pundits seem to be talking a great deal about how the debate format, featuring questions from YouTube users, is a victory for popular participation in politics. "Ordinary people" are able to ask their questions. The debate, they argue is more 'genuine' and unpredictable because the People are asking their questions.

But really? 2,900 people submitted videos. CNN picked 37 to show to the candidates. How unpredictable could they be, when the debate organizers can pick the questions they want to ask from such variety.

I love the format, and I think its very exciting, but in itself its really no less orchestrated than traditional debates. What the format does is shows us the next steps to take - bring citizens deeper into state politics and local politics. Leaders should craft policies that make it easier for citizens to participate and harder for money to talk.

The YouTube CNN debates is a great start, and from steps like this we start rebuilding American democracy.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Blog Carnival #3 - Text Only

Welcome to the Carnival of Conflict's 3rd Edition - Text Only

Most of the conflicts that submitters write about this month are domestic. And I think that leads to an interesting idea about the times we live in. The conflicts around us today tend to be pretty clearly political ones, in which the line between domestic and international is grey. Take one common topic for this Carnival, the war in Iraq. The fighting is completely real, but who still believes it will be resolved through force alone?

Its comforting to believe in non-political contests between rivals' brute strength. For Americans, it is a narrative structure that has served us well in the past, because it makes political questions, questions of identity and culture, much easier. If its us doing it, its right. Maybe its a tactic societies have always used. Probably binary systems of one society coherently struggling against another have never existed, despite the myth. This month's posts seem to confirm that there are not issues that only pertain to "us", an "other", or a clear conflict between these two. When Hakim Abdullah asks, Is Islam Compatible with Democracy? the answer matters to societies on every continent. When Grey Swan asks Are we too tolerant? the answer is important in inner cities as well as in the prison cells of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

The politics of fear, Ian Welsh's topic in Ok, Once More: No Existential Threat , are useful to cast individuals into playing their parts in the old two-sided story. But as Muse points out in How about... Rebuild Sderot Underground? there is no national bunker to seal one society off from the rest of the world. No nation is an island (even those that-technically-are islands), and conflicts between nations are also domestic conflicts as well.

An old poem gives a lesson. In the Iliad , Achilles is the symbol of physical strength and there is no man, not even mighty Hector that can stand against him. But religion, embodied by the fractious greek pantheon, brings him down. It is Odysseus, the most cunning politician of the Argives that finally defeats strong-walled Ilium by tricking them into creating their own defeat. Even all those centuries ago, a poet tells us that conflict is shaped not by arms, but by thought.

I hope you enjoy the Carnival, and please join the discussion!


Is censorship right? by Pooj.

Hakim Abdullah asks, Is Islam Compatible with Democracy?

Close Guantanamo demands Anja Merret. There is no excuse, she argues, for the mistreatment of those in American custody in Cuba.


Undercover Black Man shares Songs of Negro patriotism , exploring the relationship between race, power and war.

In Is Politics Reducible to Rhetoric?" Ashok tries to untangle politics and rhetoric with help from Machiavelli, the sophists of Greece, and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
When the media hurts by Alfa King deals with freedom of the press.

Ian Welsh speaks out against the politics of fear in the United States in Ok, Once More: No Existential Threat

Muse offers a solution to calm fears of terrorism: make everyone live in and underground bunker. The article is How about... Rebuild Sderot Underground?

Partisanship in Congress and divisions caused by the immigration reform bill are Troy Stouffer's subject in Republican Backstabbing and Political Suicide .

Mad Kane targets Mr. Giuliani for parody in The GOP's in for a Rudy Awakening

Hell's Handmaiden finds what she shares in common with a soldier in Me and the Guy in the Army

Are we too tolerant? by Grey Swan discusses how society should respond to memorials to victims (who were sometimes perpetrators) of violent crimes in inner cities.

Lucinda Riley writes about executive privilege and the Bush Administration in This is shocking .

William Dvorak makes a case for anarchism in The Political Norm of Centuries .

eHarmony complaint proves once again that lawsuits are a great way to generate serious publicity for extremist silliness by Steven Silvers is about the press' response to a lawsuit about sexual orientation descrimination.

The legacy of 'Macaca' is alive and well for The Richmond Democrat in this post on YouTube politics and George Allen.

Freethought community still united by vjack


Chris finds totalitarian and Maoist tendencies in behavior on the web in Wushu and the Second Cultural Revolution

How to complain and get a good result by Paul Michael

A poem from a dead boy by Ken Nubo offers wisdom on living life in the moment.

Male v. Female Spirituality by Brandon Peele examines how people relate to spirituality and philosophy.

Sheppard Salter identifies More Scams that Sabotage the Simple Life

Thanks for coming to the carnival, and I look forward to your responses.
Find out about submitting your work to the carnival here.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Read Ehrenreich's Article

Her article in The Nation is a fun read as well as an important one. Her point in a nutshell is that the staggeringly vast inequality of America's economy is bad for our economy and our society.

Its no surprise that the ridiculous class differences in the US are bad for democracy, but Ehrenreich also points out that it is bad for the economy too. We talk about sustainability a lot these days, (see for more on this topic) and an economy that concentrates wealth and power in an increasingly small group at an accelerating rate is not a sustainable economy.

My favorite quote from the article: "As the Times puts it: "It's as if every household in that bottom 80 percent is writing a check for $7,000 every year and sending it to the top 1 percent."

But what to do about it? Is it enough to just increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans? There are plenty or corporate jobs that people just wouldn't do if they couldn't make scads of money doing that a good thing or a bad thing?
Are there other strategies that should be used instead/as well? Could there be changes to legal codes governing corporations?

The article is a good read, and a good thought-provoker, too.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Farming co-op?

I'd like to write more about this idea later, but I'd just like to throw it out there tonight to see if anybody knows any resources I should look at...

What if we started in the county a farming cooperative? Howard County, like many counties, is hemorrhaging farmland, and none, I suspect, is safe from the endless thirst of housing developers to build mcMansions. What if instead the County acquired farmland for community farming?

People would sign up to perform tasks associated with the farm, from working the land to administrative tasks, etc. They would be paid in credits, which would be cashed in for a proportional share of the farm's produce.

This could be a terrific pedagogical tool, allowing students to participate in a project that gets them outside, working on a project with real tangible results and tangible applications of the chemistry, biology, math and other lessons they learn in school. And working side by side with other community members, the farm would help get kids and other community members reconnected to each other.

Also, since work would be by the credit system, and the farm would be open to all who cared to register, people could be very flexible about their schedules, and work as little as they like.

It sounds like a very challenging project to organize, logistically and legally...but I think the potential benefits are pretty substantial. Has something like this already been put into practice?

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

"Art for sale"

A new picture I made today:

"Art for sale" is the name. I'm not actually trying to sell anything.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Habermas article about free press

Jurgen Habermas, one of the foremost theorists of civil society today, argues in How to save the quality press? for state support of the free press.

The core of his argument is that markets, which once supported the independence of the press and its role in a healthy public sphere, now threaten the independence of the press and its role in democracy. When media outlets must be as profitable as possible in order to survive, they will cease to provoke, to introduce new ideas to the public sphere (or the state agenda). They will simply be mirrors that reflect and then reinforce the preconceptions of an increasingly uncritical public.

Habermas states his argument very well, and we can see around us examples of what he fears. Jon Stewart of the Daily Show continuously levels criticism at CNN and other major news outlets for selling news as a consumer commodity and not as a public good. Flash, fear-baiting and celebrity chasing are all tactics media outlets chasing dollars must turn to for survival.

Anderson Cooper said it well during his interview on the Daily Show. Stewart criticized the glitz of CNN television with its 3-D animations, scary-voiced announcers and melodramatic reporting. Cooper replied that you have to play the game. When your ability to report - your ability to communicate with the public - depends on the money you can bring to the station, the winner is going to be the one who feeds news consumers what they want.

Habermas' proposed solution is state support of the media to protect its ability to report honestly. And after reading the article, I'm inclined to agree.

Carnival of Maryland, 8th Edition

Though she is but small, she is fierce

says Helena about Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream. This edition of the Carnival of Maryland shows that the Old Line state is likewise small but home to many fiercly dedicated to a wide variety of pursuits, from nature to politics and from gaming to graduation.

Which highlights a classic connundrum of our age. How are we to celebrate and promote diversity of perspectives and then draw particular lessons from what we have experienced? Each of us, after seeing these posts, understands "Maryland" a little differently. For me, I feel a little closer now to the state's urban life - its baseball, its bookstores, and to its local government. How do the posts of this edition influence your perception of Maryland?

Derek theorizes about Blizzard's Next Move: The Future After Starcraft II

Images of one of Maryland's best known migratory bird species at Geese in the summer by The Ridger.

Stan Modjesky considers contemporary literary culture from a book-seller's perspective in Book-burning in Kansas City.

A 50 year plan: Social Security by Michael Swartz provides an analysis of social security.

Alwitt Xu provides a list of CSS resources for web design at CSS Tools Collection.

Soccer Dad expresses sympathy for the travails of Orioles' manager, Sam Perlezzo in Embattled.

Exhasperated with overcrowded schools and irresponsible development, John Harris proposes, Wicomico County should enact a building moratorium.

John Harris also shares his perspective on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan in Let us finish our mission.

Commencement by therapydoc explores the author's complicated relationship to graduations. We love them, we dread them, we anticipate them eagerly, and they bore us silly. Why, in the end, do we do it?

Joyce Dowling writes about events in Prince George's County including a Juneteenth even on Creating a Jubilee County: Price George's Co., MD.

Joining the celebration of Rachel Carson's centenary, Pinenut writes about Carson, her connection to Silver Spring, and the events commemorating her life today in Rachel Carson's Silver Spring.


I hope you have enjoyed the Carnival of Maryland, and I hope you will consider submitting your work to the next edition. Find out how here.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Anti-Globalisation Protest in Germany

The BBC runs a story today about a large protest rally in Germany to protest the upcoming G-8 meeting there. These protests happen fairly regularly, and the question on the minds of many is: does it work?

Or perhaps more accurately, most have decided their answer to that question, and far too many have decided, NO, protest rallies are not effective at changing policy.

But its not too difficult to see that demonstrations are more effective than they get credit for being. It seems to me they serve three primary purposes.

1) Expose policies as contested: Many CEOs and right-wing think tanks would have people around the world believe that laissez-faire economic policies are generally accepted by the peoples of the developed world as the right way to run international economics. But these policies are not clear cut and there is not consensus about them. A protest demonstrates to undecideds that there is a debate to be had on a subject, and that their participation in the debate is important.

2) Build connections and solidarity within a movement: When thousands of individuals participate in a single rally together, they are likely to strengthen the ties of ideology that bind them. At the rally they may make new contacts with other activists, learn and develop new ideas for further action, and deepen the cultural appeal and strength of the movement. Consider the prevalence of different kinds of political theater during rallies: giant puppets, people in costumes, etc. These are designed to look good in the media, but also to strengthen the social bonds among protesters. Then when marchers go home, they are full of new ideas and energy for carrying the movement forward.

3) Support elites' efforts to change policy: Perhaps the best example of this was the famous Battle in Seattle , when protests helped create an atmosphere in which negotiators from developing countries were more able to resist the pressure of concession-hungry G-8 negotiators. Maybe protests are unlikely to change the minds of those dead-set to oppose them. But they can certainly shape the opinions of those in and out of power who have yet to take an active role in a debate.

So will the rally in Germany be effective in these respects? Tens of thousands of people think so strongly enough to go there. For now, at least, I'm willing to take their word for it.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Learning about art and power

Today I'm starting research about the relationship between art and power for a short essay.

It seems now that it is a relationship defined, like so many other relationships, by contention among competing forces. There is art that provides alternatives to state power, and this kind of art tends to be emphasized pretty heavily today - art as emancipation for sub-altern groups.

On the other hand many kinds of art have also been defined by ruling classes - the tradition of portrait painting was, at least at first, produced by artists for the wealthy.

One thing that seems pretty constant. Artists, practicing skills that do not directly produce the goods they need for life, need support from other parts of society. Long ago, metal-working artists practiced their craft (and perhaps even invented their craft) for the benefit of kings and nobles. At other times society or wealthy patrons have taken it upon themselves as a collective to support artistic endeavors. In the latter case, artists tend to be more free to do work that is not for the benefit of any particular individual or client, but is rather directed at all of society.

Many questions emerge. What about this artist/not-artist dichotomy? Can people include artistic production in their lives without being solely artists? Is that a possibility that modern digital media make more available or less available than it has been in the past? And would it be positive or negative to have more self-supported amateur artists?

And the boundaries of "art" a YouTube video art? Could software be art?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Carnival of Conflict #2

Welcome to the May 29, 2007 edition of the Carnival of Conflict. Thank you to all who participated this month. We have great posts, and I look forward to the discussion.

For information about the Carnival including a description, archives and instructions for submitting your own posts to the next carnival, visit here.

Iraq is on the minds of many in the Carnival of Conflict this month. Some, such as Anja Merret and madcap discuss the war explicitly. Others are concerned with related issues of international and domestic strife. Faisal Devji considers the relationship of Islam and Christitanity in Europe. Tim , Doug Ragan and Mad Kane are writing about domestic conflict that stems from the war, continents away from policy-makers and some of the citizens concerned about it. (Which asks the question, "could the citizens of Iraq, the US, the UK and other nations talk to each other?)

Other carnies write about other conflicts. Alfa King's topic is labor organizing. Samir poses for the internet age a question that has been on the minds of democratic theorists for centuries. Is it so great to let the people decide? Who died and made us king?

For all the strife around the world and in the pages of this carnival, I think we see here a pretty good example of why democracy is something in which we should continue to engage. John Harper explains his belief that violence takes more shapes than we realize. Even not trusting a person can be a form of violence, he says. Violent conflict, then, is a pattern that reappears at every level of our society, from military conflict in Israel and Palistine (and over Jewish identity) to college campuses to emotionally abusive inlaws. Violent and destructive conflict takes many forms, it seems, but it is one principle repeating in many contexts.

Could it be that strategies for managing interpersonal conflict, such as those discussed by
Chris and CA could help channel conflict in other forms? I think that making this connection among different kinds of conflict is a powerful argument for democratic forms of government.

Democracy, or more simply the ability of individuals to participate in questioning, improving and celebrating society, gives us the chance to understand the perspectives of those in each part of our society. Through discussion (and blog carnivals) violent conflict can be a seed for productive conflict such as respectful debate over ideas and principles.

Thanks so much for your posts this month, and as always, I hope you'll join the discussion below. (And include your comments about how to make the carnival better!)



Anja Merret asks What about the war in Iraq, Mr. Brown?

madcap considers war-time rhetoric in Berlin by Christmas or Just Forget About It

Islam's role in Europe is the subject of Christendom's Muslim Midwife: Part I by Faisal Devji

Tim reacts to a proposal of Senator McCain for a new approach to international peace and conflict in Senator John McCain Envisions A League of Democracies


Adam Graham wants to Politicize Everything

Union Leaders demonstrate as NPC holds its first meeting by Alfa King

Sammy Benoit says Tom Friedman is Only Trying to Protect the Jews

Ted Reimers discusses Ways to Increase Security and Safety on College Campuses

Samir asks about democratic fundamentals in Tyrannis Populi: Who are 'the people' anyway and who says they are always right?

If This Is True, My Head May Explode by Mad Kane

Jason Kirk parodies the gun control debate in The Oven Control Debate

Doug Ragan writes about conflict in the US legislative branch in Bush's Approval Rating at 33%, Congress 29%

Bill Towson asks, Is the Military Outdated?


Withholding Violence by John Harper

Tim Abbott explores a balance between avoiding and seeking conflict in Elephants in the Room

Chris discusses a visual model for dealing with interpersonal conflict in Breaking the Drama Triangle

Alwitt Xu provides a CSS tools collection.

Good Riddance Rosie O'Donnell by Tracy Coenen

Sheila C. introduces her family in My In-Laws Rolled In a Gigantic Nutshell of Chocoloate-Covered Psychosis

Business life lesson - conflict resolution by CA

Thanks for coming to the carnival, and I look forward to your responses.

Find out about submitting your work to the carnival here.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Public Sphere on a Dead Man's Chest: Politics of the Pirates of the Carribean

Maybe Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is not transcendent political theater, but when I saw it today, I couldn't help but think that it carries a message (intended or not) to today's political climate.

On face value, the politics are simple. An evil corrupt and powerful official is trying to brutally and ruthlessly kill the heroes. The heroes (this is an American film) represent freedom, the oppressed, liberty, etc. etc. This is a perfectly traditional dramatic conflict, although today, it is a little bit subversive. Compare Pirates to the upcoming The Kingdom . The Kingdom seems from the trailer to be an example of a different kind of traditional American film story. Virtuous G-men go into somewhere dangerous to clean out the evil-doers. In these years when dissent from the Government line is considered disloyalty and nearly sedition, telling a story about smelly and drunken but virtuous outsiders resisting and overcoming an evil authority is downright radical.

And the plot thickens. Who is the villain? Not just "The British", a favorite punching bag for American anti-authority films, but an unholy usurpation of British state power by a for profit corporation! (A rejected name for the film was, I've heard, Halliburton on the High Seas )

There are all sorts of things to look at. For example, it seems to me that the pirates could be a kind of middle class. They'd done some pretty terrible things (including enslaving the spirit of the oppressed - Calypso), and no one doubts their devotion to limited self interest.

Also, does Davy Jones have a place in this discussion? Or does his role not extend into the political battle that is happening in the movie?

And the final moral? The pirates unite in the end, but what really saves the day is the heroism of the two cleanest and whitest pirates, Elizabeth and Will. Can the downtrodden never create free social and political space for themselves without defectors from the elite class?

Set sail for liberty. Har, har har. *groan*

Thursday, May 24, 2007

House of the woods: Zero-footprint architecture?

Here is a visual aid to help explain my question/idea.

What if buildings had to leave the ecosystem of the place they are built on the same? So if you built a house in the woods, you'd have to let the woods stay. Only very limited chopping down of trees.

I think it would help us deal with climate change if our culture and built environment were to ease the boundaries of built/wild, or inside/outside. Or perhaps it would be better to say we should let the outside inside. Suburban sprawl is a kind of example of the built world encroaching farther into the unbuilt. Today we need to use our formidable talent for design to reverse the flow - let the outside come into our homes and buildings.

This picture is concept art for one such building. A forest home, with stiff panels for easily constructed and customizable walls, struts to keep it off the forest floor, and a hard top with sealed holes to allow the house to be built around the trees.

A moment reveals plenty of problems with this idea, but maybe ideas like this one could spark debate and discussion over how to do the necessary: reduce the footprint we make as a society, and reduce our cultural propensity to force the natural environment (and even our own natural bodies and minds) into regular shapes with right angles.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Lennon Documentary: stories of the revolution

The 2006 documentary The U.S. v. John Lennon stirred feelings in me that I think reflect a great question in the American Left currently. People like me have heard stories about optimism crushed by reality. We've heard about touchy-feely naivete. Middle class kids getting their kicks by smoking pot and rebelling against their parents. Unrealistic. The words they used are tainted with the negative light on these activists: "love", "peace", and even "activist". These are the narratives through which we understand the protest movements of the Viet Nam war years.

And these narratives are the ones through which mainstream American culture understands the politics of those days.

There are alternative narratives like the documentary. Democracy in the Streets which I wrote about last month is another counter-narrative. These show another perspective and another set of stories and experiences. There was real intellectual force to the left. And this force was beyond simple anti-war and anti-establishment. Certainly there were real problems. In the operation of political power, hypocrisy and abuse can happen. Miller's book gives a good explanation of some of the problems that developed in the student protest movement. But real vision was present as well. In the documentary Lennon appears in footage calling for peace. He calls for peace everywhere: in the world, in the city, in the bedroom. Everywhere.

So it turn out that social transformation like we talk about today was the goal of some. They hoped to transform people and our social and cultural machines such that we could stop producing the many kinds of violence that appear at every level of our societies. What happened? Why are most narratives today that the peace-niks failed? And why are the peaceful themselves marginalized?

Lennon said at a concert, (I'm paraphrasing) so what if flower power didn't work? We start with something else. He also said that people make a mistake when they say they see kids getting bored with "activism" and think the revolution is over. The revolution, he said, the peaceful transformation of every aspect of society, will take a long time. The stories tell us that ideals of the protest movements were wishy washy and have passed away. But maybe those are just stories. "War is over, if we want it".

Easy web application design

Scratch is great, and YahooPipes it cool too (although am I the only one who still finds it to have a decent learning curve?). But we still need progress in the 'easy web application design' department. I've been trying to get Ruby on Rails to work, but the tutorials are written for people comfortable with using the Terminal on macs. And usability and command-line interfaces do not often go together.

Is there something that can make web programming as intuitive as the programming of Scratch? or does the computer future depend on educating the public on the methods of object oriented programming and control-view-model architecture?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

This old revolution

The protagonists of the revolutions I know anything about tend to come in two general forms. First, there is a disgruntled elite that, while powerful, isn't as powerful as it would like to be (the new upper class of merchants in America in the 18th cen., the middle class in France in the 18th cen.). Second, they empower a large but previously disenfranchised group to upset the political structure that both groups perceived as deleterious.

We could even put this model in sort of socialist terms, if we were so inclined. In a given power structure, there is a group with excess social labor (labor for effecting social change) and a group with excess social capital (a new class with new wealth and aspirations). Put together excess labor and excess capital and you get growth.

Lets look at today. Some have talked about a green "revolution". Technology will "revolutionize" the way we interact with the environment. Many also talk about a kind of social revolution, reforming government to be more democratic, transformingourselves, our communities, our cities, our farms, our businesses -- everything.

Who are the actors in this revolution? Corporations and think tanks are quite active. For all the democratizing potential of Google, its still a ginormous corporation. "Going green" is not for everybody - it only works if you can afford not to eat processed and easily accessible food. And if you can afford expensive hybrid cars and renovations. And the internet is only good for civic participation for those who care to use it that way. Its easy to talk about politics on the internet if you want to , but are non-political people being drawn into civic life online? As Heather Hopkins' post (which i've cited way too many times) demonstrates, PLENTY of people using social internet tools are not voting. Is it safe to say that if they are not voting, they are not likely to be having other kinds of political influence either?

Maybe we have a disgruntled middle-to-upper-class elite, one that wants to redesign cities and cars and lifestyles. But these (we.) are the enfranchised, seeking to be more enfranchised. Is that enough to save democracy? To save the planet?

Friday, May 18, 2007

Fight me!


is a Giant Robot that has Enormous Tusks, Black-and-White Stripes and a Computer for a Brain, is Easily Confused, and can turn Invisible.

Strength: 11 Agility: 3 Intelligence: 9

To see if your Giant Battle Monster can
defeat speeker, enter your name and choose an attack:

fights speeker using

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Working on story-sharing

not much today - I'm learning a little about php and xml, (and Ruby on Rails ). The goal is to write or at least design an application for sharing stories of life in Columbia, MD. The ultimate goal is to use citizen journalism here to develop the community's ability to discuss and make decisions collectively. Democracy needs deliberation and the skills and infrastructures and habits of participation.

Right now I'm trying to figure out the design - php? javaScript/XML? Ruby on Rails?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Good Job MySpace

Clearly, we want internet spaces to be safe for their users, and sex predation is a particularly disgusting form of online violence. But when "North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper said 'it's sad that MySpace is going to protect the privacy of sex offenders over the safety of children",( CNN did he really think sex offenders were the only issue?

MySpace takes the position that it will only disclose private information "when proper legal processes are followed." The Attorney Generals of several states did not follow those processes when they sent a letter to MySpace requesting the information.

We want an internet safe from predation, and we also want an internet in which private information can only be shared with third parties (including the government) through open processes enacted by accountable individuals. MySpace is not choosing sex offenders over children. It is choosing rule of law over rule of government officials.

Many in government today seem to feel that as representatives of the law, law does not apply to them. Thank you, MySpace, for taking a stand for individuals' rights.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Scratch from MIT

Have you played with Scratch? If not, its a program developed at MIT to make it really easy to program animations. Below is a video of how it works, and you can visit my first project. It came out a little goofy, though. That's the problem with Scratch, so far. Its still kind of buggy and idiosyncratic. Hopefully future versions will fix user interface problems like what challenged me. But its a great introduction to the genre of everybody-accessible computer programming. Should we be planning to include more rigorous tech literacy in our school system? We do basic things, like how to use word processing and navigate desktops. But when should we introduce code concepts like loops and logical branching?

Here's Scratch's video to explain itself.

If you have got videos to share here, post them in the comments section.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Web usability - for community, creativity, or commerce?

On the BBC today is a story, "Web 2.0 Distracts from good design" . "Web usability guru" Jakob Nielson's point is that web 2.0 dynamic content is so trendy today that many sites are overlooking good design. Sites are adding too many tools for enabling community and content creation, and cluttering themselves. Since the vast majority of users are not content creators (90% of users), sites shouldn't cater to them. Mr. Nielson says, "Most people just want to get in, get it and get out." Instead of catering to the minority, sites should focus on quickly giving the information users are seeking.

I think Mr. Nielson (or at least this story) misses the point of web 2.0. The potential of dynamic sites and web applications that enable community-building and content creation is not that this is something that everyone already knows how to use and looks to the web to do. The potential of web 2.0 is to CHANGE how people use the web. Transform it from a place people go only to find information. Web 2.0 design should focus on helping users learn to create content - helping people feel comfortable with the idea of publishing their work online or with the tools for doing that.

Given this goal, Mr. Nielson does have a point. Too many bells and whistles are intimidating, and could drive users away, or back to their old web habits of simply consuming information. Web interfaces should be simple (see Google and Twitter for good examples). But they should be simple not because they should make it easy for people NOT to get involved in content creation and online community.

Today's web sites should draw users into community and online creation, and teach them skills to make online community a positive part of their lives. 90% of people do not have to be shut out of web 2.0 because they don't already like to use it.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Puget Sound Activism on YouTube

Here's political theater's internet cousin: People for Puget Sound, an environmental protection group, have published soap opera parodies on YouTube. My favorite part of this one is at the end - what on earth is squirting out of that creature's head?
Do these videos work? It got me to visit their site.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Just read Wright, Ronald: A Short History of Progress

This book explores, from a thorough and scholarly perspective, the modern myth of progress.

Progress, Wright explains, as mainstream Western culture has understood it, is a belief that history moves in one direction. Technology advances, humans become more moral (more civilized, less barbarian), and while there may be accidents, unregulated markets lead a march into an ever brighter future. An individual 100 years from now will almost inevitably be better off than one today, because of the march of material progress.

Wright doesn't dwell on this, but he does point out that this myth is clearly a fiction even today. There are plenty of groups starving around the world now who were perfectly well fed one hundred years ago. And "progress", as we define it, includes a relentless centralization of money and power into the hands of an ever-smaller group of elites. Our continued accumulation of material goods (or rather, the continued accumulation by a tiny ruling class) can only continue as long as there is capital in the form of water, air, land, flora and fauna to take. And when there is nothing left to take from the Earth's existing natural capital? Our civilization will be in a lot of trouble.

And what's more (and the main point of the book): this trend isn't even remotely unique to 'modern' civilization. One large, highly complex human society after another has followed the same path. And one after another depleted its resources, collapsed into infighting over the remnants, and eventually dissolved.

Our society is not different in that plenty of others have followed the pattern: exploit to grow, deplete, implode. But we are different in that previously, civilizations have been local. When the Roman empire fell, other non-Roman parts of the world were still flourishing. But our modern civilization holds the entire planet in its grip. In its economic reach, in its ecological reach, and in its military reach. If things go bad, they go bad for everybody.

Its a short and intense read. I did it in two days and couldn't put it down. And it left me with a driving sense of urgency. We shouldn't wait for technology to save us. We shouldn't wait for our elites to save us. We must now, with the tools we have now. In our cities and towns, we must get together and figure out how to stop exploiting the environment we have. As Wright puts it, the Earth is an investment. We need to live not off the capital, but off the interest.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Joining Twitter and MySpace MyVote

Well, I decided to try Twitter. I don't expect to use it a lot, cause I'm not really in a Twitter-ing community...That is something I think doesn't get discussed a lot in the blogosphere: The idea of blogging still seems a little silly/unintellectual/nerdy/some combination of those to a lot of people. And its also inconvenient to many, as well - you have to be able to send a lot of text messages to use it when you're not at a computer. And text messages in the US are not as cheap as they might be. Twitter, then, must be a tool mostly for those who've got some cash to spend.

Rheingold in Smart Mobs talked about the Japanese mobile internet model, which is oriented towards youth customers without a lot of money to spend. Contrast that to the American model - serving corporate customers who can afford to spend. And different cultures emerge around these models. One is accessible and appealing to mass society and the other, while appealing, is very elite. If the web 2.0 is to deepen democracy, it has to be available to everybody, not just people who ALREADY have political power.

One idea in this vein: Heather Hopkins found that MySpace users are less likely to vote than others. Maybe we could launch a campaign to use MySpace to get people to vote and talk about the elections?

Anyway, here is my Twitter badge.

Monday, May 7, 2007

If you haven't discovered, I recommend you check it out. Its social internet radio, organizing artists, genres and more with tags.

Here's an example of one tool: I typed in Allman Brothers (I'm on a major blues kick, now that I'm learning guitar) and it created a channel of music from artists that have been identified as similar to the Allman Brothers.

Enjoy. I love this tool so far.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Urban Campus: People-centered cities

Please read Green Streets at BLDG BLOG. I think it hits on a change to our urban/suburban landscape that is both vastly transformative and very do-able.

Imagine a scene: You're traveling to Washington DC, visiting the Smithsonian, perhaps. But you don't drive all the way downtown. Instead you park in a tourist satellite parking lot and hop on the metro into the city. And when you're there, there is hardly another car to be seen. Most streets, formerly for cars, are now exclusively pedestrian thoroughfares, planted with trees and small flower gardens. A few streets are still open for big trucks to make deliveries, and above-ground trams supplement the underground metro. This is a city that doesn't belong to the automobile any more. Its cleaner. Its air is healthier. Its quieter. People have the right of way.

There are many examples of streets closed to automobile traffic in American cities. Streets can close for special events, and car-streets can close more-or-less permanently to become pedestrian walkways. Silver Spring Maryland has a very successful downtown area with one such street, and it is easy to see how the walkway drastically improves the area's appeal.

Cars are divisive in so many ways. Philadelphia is a case study. The Vine Street Expressway and I-95 bound the city on the east and north. I-95 prevents almost all growth beyond it. And Vine Street created, and still maintains, a border between wealthy and poor areas in Philly. They also have a tendency to cast others as obstacles. Other people get in your way in parking lots, in heavy traffic, in drive through lines. There are plenty of places where the presence of others is a boon - a club, a lecture, a play. But its hard to think of situations where the presence of a lot of other cars is positive.

I think the time is here for us to get together with our communities and reduce our reliance on autos. We can develop the technology, the infrastructure and the policy to do it. We just lack the will and leadership, so far, to get together and work out practicable alternatives.

I'm going to spend some time looking for resources, advocacy groups and research that deal with issues relating to this. If you know of good info, please share!

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Videos of Presidential Candidates: Clinton at Rutgers from

I'll be trying to find as many online videos of Presidential Candidates as I can and posting them to Talk Lab. I hope you'll help collect them too. To see all the videos, at least until there is a better repository for them, go to the Candidate Video label on blog posts.

This way, whether its on YouTube,, CSPAN, or anywhere else, we'll have a single source for finding candidates videos, and talking about them too :)

If you know of videos I should include, please let me know, through the comments section or email.

Here's the first: Senator Clinton speaking on Women and Politics at Rutgers University. She does a good job with this speech. The first big chunk is weighed down by tributes of various kinds. Senatorial shout-outs, as it were. But later, when she starts talking about her two main points, she is animated, interesting to hear and even entertaining and thoughtprovoking.

The two main points:
1) Women are a vital force in American Politics.
2) Politics matters. Social change through politics really happens, despite popular myths to the contrary. She gives excellent stories and descriptions of of how political change has improved opportunities for women even during her lifetime.

ps. I recommend skipping a lot of the beginning announcements and tributes. You've heard all that before.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Carnival of Conflict, First Edition

Welcome to the May 1, 2007 edition of the Carnival of Conflict. Thank you to all who participated in this Carnival, and we look forward to your responses.

For information about the Carnival including a description, archives, and instructions for submitting your posts to the next carnival, visit here.

This Carnival begins with a song. Madeleine Begun Kane's Serenade For The First Sufferers (Political Song Parody) draws creation from conflict. Her satire confronts a deadly serious issue: the monstrously hollow sympathy she sees in the Bush administration for those sacrificing and dying for them. But humor disarms the monster and gives us the space to discuss the problemsas they really are.

Creation out of conflict is a pervasive theme of this edition, as well as the notion that conflicts have a profound influence on producing the political character of a society. The posts here react to a wide variety of conflicts. Writing about issues from global political strife to personal transformation, these bloggers illustrate that conflict (whether political, personal, and in one case, even physical) can be fertile ground for new ideas, deeper reflection, and more nuanced conversation.


TheGoodGovernor writes about the structure of democracy in A framework of politics and democracy - Part II Democracy relies, the author articulates, on many forms of opposition - political dissent, diverse parties, economic competition and more.

Phil for Humanity identifies conflict between human society and our environment in How long can the world sustain the world's population? To a question like this, there is no single answer to be found. It seems to me the point of such a question is guide inquiry, not end it. Is describing a framework of democracy similar?


Al Nye's Senator Collins whines on YouTube criticizes the Senator's position on the Iraq war and her response to criticism (she posted on YouTube). Here is good and bad of the politics of a democracy like TheGoodGovernor describes. Political fights can be ugly, but when democracy works well, those fights are fodder for public conversation.

Michael Boldin offers a perspective on responsibility for the military's actions. And he goes on to argue that standing armies themselves often become a tool for states to create armed conflict. They do this, he argues, to perpetuate their own authority. Conflict here is productive, but not in a positive way, according to most measures. His post is Leaders don't kill people.

Council Elections May 2007 by Save the Ribble illustrates another kind of contention in democracies. Politicians want a citizen group's supporters and the group wants its autonomy from electoral politics. Every influential group must negotiate this relationship with institutional power.

Santhros tackles the war in Iraq with Do we need more troops in Iraq? The question of American policy in Iraq has proven to be a divisive one the world over. But it also fuels new kinds of citizen cooperation and debate across state borders.

Whether sex education has a place in schools is, according to Good As It Gets, a major debate in India today. Good As It Gets argues a position in favor of supplying kids with information at Its all about sex baby. The debate is a useful metaphor for democracy in general. "Information is power," the author says, and values, power and political manipulation all intersect in debates like this one.

Chris Gragsone presents his perspective on a debate that shapes American politics - gun control. In his post, Guns are not the issue, he argues that without guns, criminals can still be violent, and crime in society will persist.

Yid with Lid , in French Jews Should Get Out of France While They Still Can , argues that antisemitism is increasing in France. Like many others, this is an issue that involves many kinds of conflicts and other social mechanisms - racial politics, power consolidation, economic frustration, and more.


Chris discusses using conflict in an explicitly nurturing way in his post, Conflict Resolution: A casualty of non-violent martial arts. Genuine physical conflict in a training space is the key for developing a host of skills for managing and resolving conflict outside of the space. Forbidding conflict inside the dojo robs it of its instructive role.

Katie writes about a very personal and well known conflict: debt. In today's economy, there are good reasons for avoiding debt, and good ones for incurring it (education, investments). What to do? Many turn to advice in the public sphere. Katie's blog caters to those seeking financial advice who are also interested in using their money in socially responsible ways. The post is An age old idea still rings true...just hard to accomplish

The last post will echo the first - with satire. Jon Swift responds to the recent uproar over Alec Baldwin's insults directed at his daughter. Clearly, he explains in Alec Baldwin's Daughter is a Disgrace , its the kid's fault.

There are many shapes to conflict, and there are many ways we react to it. In this first edition, we've started to talk about a few of them. What needs to be said next?

Thanks for coming to the carnival, and I look forward to your responses.
Find out about submitting to the carnival here.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Can YouTube improve politics?

This video is evidence of the moment we have today - to develop a new kind of participatory, responsive and responsible politics. But this is just the very beginning of the process. Does a dorm room interview indicate elites and non-elites engaging in two way conversations? Or is it just evidence of a new kind of elite? An i-lite? (grin)

Religious conflict in US Society

This conference from features three religious leaders and formidable intellectuals. They spend the hour of their conference discussing religion in American society and politics today. There is much in what they say that is worth extensive discussion. What I choose here to mention, I choose more because it's what I remember from watching the video yesterday, than from a decision that its the most interesting point.

I thought Rabbi Michael Lerner's point about secularism as a religion was an interesting one. He argues that a secular, science-based world view is one religion among many. It isn't based on anything more fundamental than any other world view. Many have rebutted this point on the grounds that secularism a) doesn't preclude religious faith, and b) follows different rules for establishing truth (religious truths are established, and science is a recognition that scientific truths are mostly unknown)

There is a public sphere argument for distinguishing secularism and religion as well, and that discussion fits well here. A secular society, whose institutions do not give explicit preference of one religion over another, will be more successful in establishing a public sphere where groups of many faiths can interact on equal footing. A secular approach to governance is not a religious approach. Instead it can be a meta-religious approach, in that it allows the creation of a space for organizing how religions interact with each other within that space.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Youth vision for Columbia's future

Wednesday I had the pleasure of attending a meeting organized by U Maryland senior, Brandon Koch, to build youth participation in Howard County Politics. The ten present offered a variety of perspectives. Most were young college students or recent graduates like me. Three adult community members came, one long-time Columbia resident and one new arrival from Illinois. The third was Mary Kay Sigaty , County Council Member, District 4.

We sat for over an hour and a half talking about how Columbia should develop in the next years. Should we have a dense downtown? What would it look like? How do feel about Columbia now? I was particularly interested in the discussion of identity. Role models for successful downtown areas such as Annapolis and Old Ellicott City are special for their distinctive architectural, cultural and historical identities. It seemed to be a consensus that Columbia develop based on its unique personality (or maybe townality?).

What is Columbia's personality? Like any culture it is open to contention. It is what we make it to be, and every moment residents, by their actions, remake it. One reocurring theme was that we did disliked development for only the sake of profit - development, we felt, should contribute to the overall life and values of the town. Concern for diversity, accessibility, and other principles should guide development as well as the need for profit. I hope that meetings like this will continue and multiply. And I hope that the rest of the County Council pays attention too.

This could be a moment, in Columbia, to learn whole new ways of building participatory local government. By talking to each other and listening to each other about how to make our town better - more prosperous, more welcoming, more beautiful, more environmentally friendly, etc. - we can develop that unique personality that makes Columbia such a good place to call home.

New segment: That movie's got class!

So we all know that Hollywood is a tremendous money-maker, and one of the most well-known emblems of American culture. But Hollywood (and the rest of America's film industry) has a relationship to society that reflects and influences society all the time. In fact, movies and the rest of us have always had an ongoing conversation about American values and politics.

But today, how much do we think about that conversation? How much do we participate in it explicitly? There are plenty who talk about how terrible it is there is so much sex and violence on the screen. Conversations usually don't go much farther than that.

Introducing, "That movie's got class". In this irregular segment, I want to talk about particular movies, and things they reveal, suggest and advocate for American society. Of course, its a movie, and there could never be a definitive statement about what is or isn't in a film. But its worth thinking about, and its worth thinking about how our own lenses shape what we see in films, and how films shape the lenses through which we see the rest of the world. For example, I'm particularly interested in how films deal with the struggles between poor, marginalized groups and powerful, dominant ones. That's where the name of the segment comes from.

Please feel free to suggest movies to talk about. If you want to write your own analyses, thats great too. Just send your link to me.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Carnival of the Liberals

BogsBlog , an excellent source for political commentary, and host of this Carnival of the Liberals included a post from this very blog. Its a diverse and well chosen edition of the Carnival, so be sure and check it out.

Host Pete Bogs suggests I might have a response for Spitfire by Lill Hawkins . Her contribution to the Carnival describes her frustration with those who, like her son, feel uninspired and unable to change the world.

She responds with the plain facts that explicitly changing the world is possible. Once there were no spittoons, until people decided they'd had enough of spit everywhere. We could add many, many cases of a few dedicated individuals who were able to convince and cajole an apathetic populace to change their ways. It'd be worth collecting a compilation of such stories, if it weren't that there are so many.

The myth is not that one person can change the world - the myth is that she can't.

But as Lill points out, the perception remains that one against the world is old-fashioned and too difficult to be worthwhile. How can social activists deal with that perception?

I think this is a question important enough that it deserves not an answer, but a conversation. I have a couple ideas to get the ball rolling. One I'm stealing from Alexis de Tocqueville. He says that people need to have particular skills and habits to participate in civic life. And these skills and habits must be learned and taught. And futhermore, they are often learned through other kinds of associations. A person used to working with others in one kind of association, like a sports team, a club, or something else, will be ready to bring those tools to the table when confronted with problems that require civic participation and association. Soccer on saturday mornings may be better for our democracy than we realize.

Second, I think people can be drawn to or pushed away from civic participation by the culture of civic participation. If its appealing, fun, entertaining, and sociable to participate in the civic life of a community, maybe people will be more likely to do so. We found at college that the best way to get students to our political discussion was to make them fun. And sometimes, they liked us enough to come back to the boring ones!

There are many sides to these issues, so I hope you'll read the sources: the Carnival of Liberals and Lill Hawkins, and continue the discussion.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Madison quote from Smart Mobs

This quote from Howard Rheingold's Smart Mobs was, I thought, pretty provocative. So does the Library of Congress - its the words of James Madison it inscribed in its marble walls:

"A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy: or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives" (205)

I think its a complicated quote. For all its rosy "knowledge is power" rhetoric, it also is not too far away from justifying all kinds of oppression and condescention rampant in western European culture. I mean, "knowledge will always govern ignorance"? If the principle of subjugation called "white man's burden" ever needed a motto, this would work pretty well.

But on the other hand, it says some great things to our current society, too. In our society where intellectualism is equated with nerdy elites out of touch with reality, and where many view science and education, and spending money on them, as superfluous and silly unless immediate financial returns are possible, its helpful to hear this voice from America's past.

Its okay to be thoughtful and to be a leader. Its okay to be thoughtful and to be a citizen. In fact, our democracy, Madison says, depends on our citizens having the tools and resources to think critically, to be skeptical, to question and to dissent. Our democracy requires us to learn to accept being wrong, to consider new ideas, even transformative and radical ones.

Knowledge is power, says Madison. Today we can add that nuance, compassion and introspection are knowledge.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Net Neutrality

I think its time to start talking more about Net Neutrality . In a nutshell (sorry if you're familiar with it already), the issue is that the big telecom companies that own the cables (the tubes) through which the internet's data flows have found a new way to make a buck. They can charge users differently for priority access to bandwidth - that is they can make websites pay them to allow fast access to their sites, they can make users pay them to have access to all kinds of services. The end result is an internet where, instead of users picking the most well used sites based on their content, internet service providers decide who has access to what based on how much content providers and users pay.

The magic of the internet today is that it allows anybody to contribute high quality content, and it allows anybody to choose freely what content they use. You want to use Google? Fine. Yahoo? Fine. Something else entirely? Hunky dunky. But if the big telecoms have their way, big search engines, for example, would pay for faster access. So if Google payed more than Yahoo, Google would be faster to use, and Yahoo and any other start up search engine would be too slow to compete. Goodbye, fair competition. (Well, competition on the internet is hardly equal now, but imagine how much worse this could make it!)

A much better explanation of the issue was written by Jevon at

And if you are inspired to learn more, and get involved in supporting net neutrality, visit

For the sake of executives' revenues, the internet's cultural, democratic and creative potential could evaporate. Hopefully lawmakers can be brought to their senses first.

New motto for Talk Lab

What do you think?

Talk Lab:

Creativity. Experimentation. Analysis.
Politics, culture and technology under a microscope and on a workbench.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Now with a Diigo meta-page!

So I'm trying this out - I want to add something to Talk Lab that will provide a space for conversation, not just about a particular post, but about the whole page. i.e., you'd be able to push a button and on the page would appear comments people have made about any part of it - the title, a post, a widget.

I've found one way of doing this, although its not perfect.

is a social annotation service. Its plus comments. With Diigo, you not only keep bookmarks and share them with others, you also can highlight and comment on sites. These annotations can be public or private. The public annotations are, as Diigo puts it, its like "a giant transparency overlaying on top of all the web pages."

Its not ideal, though, because in order to see the annotations, you have to sign up with Diigo. Its free (I wouldn't use it otherwise), but its a pain, if its not something you want to do anyway.

But to see this page's Diigo meta-page, use the "Diigolet" here. There is no download necessary, just drag the appropriate image to your bookmark bar. I haven't tested it yet, but they may require you to sign up to use it.

This is an experiment, so your feedback is very valuable. What do you think of this? How does this work? Do you know of better alternatives?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Smart Mobs: Impact of the mobile

I've started reading Howard Rheingold's Smart Mobs . Some of it falls into the category of future-oggling (talking about how cool technology is, how great collective action is, etc. without giving much thorough analysis), but that's to be expected. And there are also a great many interesting ideas and discussions in the two chapters I've read so far.

Rheingold's discussion is of the mobile internet - of people keeping connected to their social networks with technology. Right now that technology is cell phones, but it doesn't have to be. He, citing others, compares the difference between the mobile internet and the solid-line internet to the difference between telephones and the telegraph. They used the same infrastructure, and at first many thought the second would be just an extension of its predecessor. But because of the way it was used, it became a technology that transformed society. Could the "mobile internet" be so influential?

There are hints of the social transformation that a mobile-web-connected society might undergo. One sociologist studying youth culture in one well-connected city discussed how the constant text-messaging among teens has changed their approach to space and time. People can be late to a party and skip entirely, but as long they are still texting, they are present. There is a virtual 'place' that really matters, and being in a particular physical place is unnecessary if they are connected to the virtual place.

That seems pretty transformative. Does it get any better? Dunno yet.

Thursday, April 19, 2007, Forum on Sustainable Economy. is an exciting new addition to the Web 2.0. It is a site that offers videos of lectures from all across the country, from professors in their armchairs to conferences to actors' interviews to politicians' speeches. It also invites users to comment, add new content, and discuss on forums.

Its motto: "The World is Thinking". It (and similar programs) demonstrates there is a mass market for thoughtful, thought-provoking, educational media., linked with YouTube, could support some deep conversations.

I recommend a video that I watched. Capitalism 3.0 is a panel hosted by the California Commonwealth Club with leaders in the field of Fair Trade and socially responsible business.

They made the two most important points for advocates of a socially responsible economy:

1. There are great things happening, and capitalism IS compatible with social responsibility, and

2. But don't let down your guard - building a responsible, sustainable economy requires constant work. And there will be cheaters, companies that try to capitalize on the popularity of "organic" products or "all-natural" or "fair-trade". One speaker stressed that advocates must constantly work to raise the bar, to re-define and improve the requirements for sustainability.

The backbone of the sustainable economy is consumers choosing to buy sustainable products from responsible companies, even if they cost more.

And the other point I liked: Workplaces in a responsible economy must nurture and develop the creativity of their employees, must make their working environments pleasant and healthy. Factories for products and services are out - boutiques are in.

One last thing: Does anybody know what kind of effects all this web 2.0 stuff is having on the habit of association-forming of Americans? Is all this digital connectivity sparking other kinds of organizing as well?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Structure of Activism: Corporate or State goverance?

I wrote recently about student activism in the 1960s. Today I found a great description of student activism in the 1930s.

The activism of the 60s, it turns out, was very much indebted to that of the 30s. Students for a Democratic Society, the famous SDS, was funded for years by the League for Industrial Democracy. It was the Students' League for Industrial Democracy that was one of two founding organizations of the American Student Union. And activist extraordinaire, Walter Reuther was one of the student leaders of the movement in the 30s. According to the site, the movement boasted 500,000 participants at its height.

What brought the movement to an end? If you know, please share! It seems likely that World War II played a big part. But I suspect also that all movements, and student movements in particular have a very short active period of their life cycle. It took 20 years for students to organize on a large scale again (and it wasn't just the Viet Nam war. The student movements of the 60s started before anti-war protest was popular)

Flash forward to today: There are plenty of problems for young people to organize around. Why don't we? We have, I think, a kind of culturally pervasive distaste for formal activist organizations. The non-profits that dominate American Civil Society are organized like corporations. There is an Executive Director, a Board and a strict hierarchy of employees and bosses. Supporters are the consumers - they buy/donate the advocacy or service of the non-profit.

The SDS and its bretheren derived their organizational structure more from government. Members voted on a President, elected a Secretary, paid dues/taxes and debated and voted on the organization's actions.

Perhaps this holds part of the answer to why mass mobilizations of students haven't happened for 40 years? That's twice as long as the last gap. SDS asked new recruits to become citizens of the organization. Non-profits today ask them to be either professionals or consumers.

Today across America we have plenty of professionals, and we have consumers out the wazoo. But do we have enough citizens?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

V Tech - Small World

I came across this story in the Times of India: "Sudden death of an Indian Dream"

I thought it was poignant because of the way it illustrates how close we are to each other all over the world. I think there is something else here, too, but I am not sure what - It could be that it refutes some bloggers' cynicism that media coverage of the shooting has been hypocritical. Not just a ratings draw, this event was particularly traumatizing in a way death on a larger scale in Iraq (or Darfur, or plenty of other places) has not been.

Can we make the connection?