Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Why I Voted for the Stem Cell Initiative: Supersimple Ethics

Opponents of stem cell research would like the rest of us to believe that their objections to the burgeoning field are purely scientific. "Embryonic stem cells have not created a single useful human therapy," they protest. It looks like that tired excuse is on its last legs. A researcher at the Christopher Reeve Research Center at UC-Irvine has made paralyzed rats walk by injecting human stem cells into their crushed spinal cords. Human trials are expected in 2006. Considering researchers have only been working with these cells since 1998, I think this qualifies as excellent progress.

Obviously, the fight against the use of human stem cells is not about science, but rather about the issue of aborting early-stage human embryos, an issue of morals and ethics. A long discussion on this issue with my great uncle, a priest and monsignor in the Catholic Church, on Christmas has made me want to clarify my position on this issue a bit more. But first, a little background on personal experiences that have brought me to where I am.

In the spring of 2002, six members of my residential life team from USC were in a brutal car accident on the Santa Monica Freeway. Stalled in the fast lane behind a car out of gas, they were rearended at high speed. Injuries in the car ranged from bumps and minor fractures to punctured lungs and torn spleens. My good friend R. was paralyzed from the chest down. I spent an interminable, delirious, and nightmarish night in Cedars-Sinai Hospital watching one of the greatest givers of joy and sunshine in my life, a model of goodness and humor, lie motionless on an ER examining table. I watched heavy-handed neurologist prick her sides, checking for feeling. "Feel that? Feel that? Feel that?" "Ow!" Then he marked her with a sharpie. I cried in the waiting room.

When I voted for the California Stem Cell Initiative, I voted for my friend, R. I voted for therapies that might help her walk again. Maybe I left some potential people -- those embryos harvested for research -- out in the cold. Those little balls of cells don't enter into my moral calculus, though.

This was a case where I tried to use the supersimple basis of all ethics: the golden rule. I chose to use the "strong" version of the rule -- not "Treat others as you wish to be treated" but "Treat others as they wish to be treated." The corollary of the strong golden rule is that one should be able to trade places with the person affected by an action one takes. I couldn't trade places with R. if I had voted "No." I couldn't cut off a promising avenue of research because of our cultural hangups about abortion. I wouldn't want to trade places with her if my vote helped defeat an initiative that might cure her/my paralysis.

On the other hand, trading places with an undeveloped embryo is logically impossible. I have an independent mind-body embedded in an environment of friends and work and sights and sounds. An embryo has no sense organs, no mind, and no existence independent of its mother. It's basically an organ of the mother. I can't put myself in an embryo's shoes because it has no shoes.

We must pursue all types of stem cell research -- embryonic, adult, umbilical, etc. -- simultaneously. We must cure my friend R. and hundreds of thousands like her.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Rocking the Education System

The way we organize and perform education in this country is broken. Generations of rules and habits have split knowledge up into little bits. We examine pebbles instead of rocky beach landscapes. Words on a page put real-lived-life into cozy genealogical compartments. Human touch is taxonomized into a dim gray cloud of abstractions.

Now when our teaching methods crush our natural learning instincts only a radical departure, a complete reorganization of the institutions can equip our young and old learners with the tools they need to remake the world and earn a living in a competitive world. And I think it can happen. My solution? Just walk away and let the dinosaurs die. Build up an alternative educational infrastructure and let the old wither away. Home schoolers are doing it and indie consultant-entrepreneurs too. It's time we let the kids go.

Smash the strangling grip of teachers unions. Give kids and their parents universal education vouchers and the right to choose so that schools join the modern innovation economy. Refocus on modern rhetoric: the business plan, the scientific paper, the flash animation, the google search, the cold call, and the op-ed. Chase goals and projects like figuring out how a car works by building one. Let students learn about cities by designing and gaining approvals for a mock real estate development.

In the movie School of Rock, a group of prep school kids joins a washed up slacker rock musician (the hilarious Jack Black) to put together a rock band. For four weeks that's all they do. Social studies is replaced with the complicated cultural history of rock music's development. Figures like Hendrix, Marley, and Johnny Ramone are recognized as the heroes they are in the modern epic struggles against colonial oppression, warmongering, and the rest of society's reactionary squares. After studying the complicated family tree of psychedelic rock to punk, the kids spend the rest of the day playing and writing music. Kids that can't sing or play an instrument get security detail or take over management and promotion duties. No one fails this class because it's impossible. Each child gets to play on their own strengths.

This is an integrated method of education where the bodily skills of singing and dancing and playing are not divorced from the intellectual requirements of understanding the flow of history or the logistical acumen of producing entertainment for consumption. This can work with any subject. Let's return to my mention of a mock real estate development for another example.

The class could design and develop an apartment building over shops or a public library with an attached skate park. They'd have to go through all the approvals, fill out the bureaucratic forms for building permits, and understand the importance of how contracts govern business relationships. Daily debates could examine how we should balance local ecology, wildlife habitat, and farmland with new homes, auto malls, and big box stores. Kids are natural dreamers that can help us develop integral visions of pomo-prosperity that harmonize human2human and human2earth interactions. With the NIMBY's locked in ugly battles with the evil black-suited real estate developers, I think kids can help break the logjam of how we can build human settlements -- i.e. we can drink 3 minute lattes and still have safe spawning grounds for salmon.

Kids are given schizophrenia by splitting the school work day indiscriminately -- 40 minutes here, half hour for lunch, and another 90 minutes there. Hustling them about in hallways, burdening them with piles of meaningless textbooks, we deprive them of the natural process of discovery. Big brained mammals like us learn automatically. We learn language and how to tie our shoes from imitation and adaptation without the slightest effort while subjects like mathematics come with fatal difficulties -- mostly because its teaching is utterly divorced from the natural-sensate world.

Project- and team-based education that concentrates on a single enterprise like a battle of the bands or a real estate development can help stop the unnecessary atomization of knowledge. Projects return the pleasures of craft and vocation to complex knowledge domains like entertainment and city building. The webworld prizes connections and integration, it's time our education system did the same.

Inspired by 21st Century College: An Outline, the ideas of Gregory and Mary Catherine Bateson, Buckminster Fuller, and many long conversations with Ket.

UPDATE: I thought this list of the top 1,000 things to know from marketing guru Seth Godin was pretty cool. We've got some good overlap.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

A Picture Stops a Thousand Lawsuits

Designing graphics to convey a complicated idea about the urban experience in real three-dimensional space is a non-trivial task. Information designers that can tell a simple story about how the built environment effects our lifestyles and moods. Not in my backyard has disabled us from making intelligent choices about the places we live and work. Public conversations have become split into absurd positions pitting imagined evil black suited real estate developers versus nature, mom and apple pie. They can only be resolved in endless lawsuits. Why not concentrate on building beautiful places?

The animation comes from City Comforts Blog, a site that examines the best solutions for living well in cities. How do you "read" this graphic? What does it say to you about the world? Look at the little person, surrounded by cars or framed between building or street. Where do you cars belong in our hierarchy of needs? Out front or in the back? Or should we eliminate cars altogether like my friend, Ket ("parking lots are stupid. silly humans.") might like?

There's no right answers to these questions. But the strength of the graphic is that it helps you start asking questions about how the new apartment building or Wal-Mart Supercenter will change your neighborhood. It offers a shared reference point to base rational public discussion and decisions on.

Now there's no denying numerous benefits to both layouts. The suburban design gives first dibs to people in cars and the urban one to people on foot. But both are about people. Cars are both peaceful individual enclaves and makers of aggression and separation. Driving is fast and convenient -- point-to-point, no transfers, no waiting, no walking. Indoor air conditioned place to air conditioned place, cars are comfortable and efficient ways to get around.

Walking gets our hearts pumping and slows things down so that our senses can gorge on falling cherry blossoms and the smell of coffee on a sunny sidewalk day. I think people want the sensual city of walking and the speed city of driving in its convenience and comfort. There are design solutions that can incorporate both.

Our cities are constantly remade. Hollywood yuppies disguised as starving artists displace the poor from gritty downtown industrial districts. Farmland and forests get gobbled up by sprawl. We can make choices about how that happens. Talking about the choices we have in our landscape in flux is made smarter and easier by graphics like David Sucher's. It allows us to sidestep confusion, obstructionism, and name calling so we can concentrate on building great collaborative cities.

Living Fearlessly

I'm not sure why I've been psyched out of blogging lately. Letting fear get in the way of the stories I want to tell I think. I've left the cacophony of opinions, observations, arguments, love and hate that make me up all swallowed up and snuffed out. Not lacking desire but choosing inaction. My lack of posting nags my mind. I think "I really should be writing" while I distract myself with reading and blogsurfing. I entertain myself watching thoughts dance and play and then flitter away like dead leaves in the wind. I suffocate myself with online information overload the way others do with television. Detached and passive as a sponge I float over life bemused, inspired without perspiring. Dabbling in puzzle and curiosity to avoid direction. I want to stop planning and start improvising. I want to let flow flow and stop overthinking and over-researching everything to death. Viva la spontaneous post.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Marijuana Activist Marc Emery Free, For Now

Marc Emery, a public example of the cruelty surrounding marijuana incarceration, is again free after a 61 day jail sentence for passing a joint (first discussed on this blog here). The video "Welcome Home Marc!" shows a leader energized by the sacrifice he made for the movement to stop the oppression of pot people in Canada. All the great freedom movements have required a charismatic leader to be jailed to energize the populace and bring the oppressors' cruel actions into public ridicule and outrage. Nelson Mandela spent 28 years behind bars to fight apartheid in South Africa, Gandhi pursued debilitating hunger strikes for Indian independence, and Marc Emery wrote inspiring blog entries (like here and here) condemning Ashcroft his henchman, the prison guard unions, and the corrupt cops and the drug lords they feed off, for what they are: evil.

That's right, the War on Some Drugs is completely, unequivocally evil, a human rights disaster, and a phenomenal waste of money. Conservatives like George "Axis of Evil" Bush and Ronald "Evil Empire" Reagan brought evil back into our politically correct public lexicon. So when I look at the destruction of families; the monopoly profits for terrorists and organized crime; the street wars that pit kids with AK-47's and RPG's against the police in destructive competitions of brutality; AIDS, cancer, and chronic pain patients imprisoned for using the only medicine that brings them relief, I can find no other word for it but evil, irredeemable, hideous, hypocritic evil.

War without end, without an exit strategy or hope for victory can bring nothing but tragedies like this one:
Quadriplegic man dies while jailed for pot possession
Jonathan Magbie, a 27-year old quadriplegic resident of Maryland, died in a Washington DC jail on September 24, after being sentenced to 10 days imprisonment for possession of marijuana.

The marijuana conviction was a first offence for Magbie, who was paralyzed from the neck down at age 4 after his school bus was hit by a drunk driver. Since then Magbie had been under almost constant nursing care, and got around on a chin-operated wheelchair. (A year after his injury, a young Magbie had met President Ronald Reagan during a White House ceremony commemorating National Respiratory Therapy Week.)

[Read the whole thing and don't forget the Washington Post articles.]
Can we not see this for the insanity it is? Are quadripalegics true threats to our safety or are they greater threats to the puritanical status quo? The War on Some Drugs is the lastest in a series of government efforts to eliminate minorities and freethinkers, to consolidate power and squelch dissent. There were the witch trials in Europe that destroyed centuries of herbal healing knowledge, the Nazi death camps for Jews, the concentration of Native Americans in reservations, and black slavery in service to the idle agro-aristocracy. All demonized peaceful, productive people in the service of wicked ideologies.

We must choose a model of public safety and health over the vindictive moralism of our current "punish the sinners" model. We must practice the same judicial forgiveness we extend to repeat alcohol abusers and drunk drivers to those who abuse marijuana, and leave the responsible consumers of the plant alone. Marc Emery is free, for now. He speaks for us. Let us speak for him, for freedom, and for peace.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Spellbound by Learning

Grab hold of your education because no one will do it for you. That's the central message of the documentary Spellbound (trailer) that tracks eight young Americans from their homes in tough urban neighborhoods and beach houses to the National Spelling Bee. They make up the entire continuum of American culture -- one the daughter of illegal immigrants in South Texas, another from trailer park rural Missouri, another the daughter of elite parents in New Haven, Conn., the college home of both our presidential candidates, Yale. They vary in privilege but none lack a hunger for learning, competitive spirit or strong encouragement from parents and teachers.

Poring over word lists in a trance, the young spellers train maniacally, like elite brain athletes. One of the kids, Neal Kadakia, had the benefits of obsessively loving Indian parents and an elite education in posh San Clemente, CA. His father stressed meditation and concentration and rigorous training methods with computers and spelling coaches. Others made due with unabridged dictionaries, notebooks, and self-authored crossword puzzles. Whatever their resource levels, the kids had a passion to work at something and get better. They provide many lessons for the rest of the world's youth.

If you don't like spelling, race souped up Civics. Design t-shirts and mouse pads and sell them on Cafe Press. If you're bored, challenge yourself more. Write your own story every day and make it heroic because anyone can erect mind obstacles and cage their hopes, but only heroes can chill, take a deep breath, and go do it anyway. Don't give into those who want to crush your secret passions. Harness the energy you find in people or books or knitting and get some extra miles out of your brain. Feed your hungry desires. Seek out the support you need. Encourage the people around you because everyone needs a team of coaches. Reach out, strive, believe.

The spelling bee hopefuls face difficult challenges in learning all the many sides English, but they come out with a better understanding of how to operate in a complicated landscape. English routinely poaches other languages for useful words like umbrella and burrito and is thus an amazing entry to the world of overlap and borrowing that drive value in today's global economy. Foreign luxuries like coffee and tobacco used to evoke mystery and power the way brand names like Mercedes and Louis Vuitton do today. Science and medicine fill books with jargon based on Latin and Greek. English is a chaotic mishmash, a cosmopolitan city of global cultural interchange, today's lingua franca -- a language for all. The ones that learn to keep up with it in all its global expressions will have incredible advantages.

A little while back Dan Sherman asked, "What's your immigrant story?" How did you sacrifice to overcome adversity? How did you push yourself and those around you harder? What desert did you cross without enough water? Each Spellbound kid had her own story of immigration, ignoring teasing "cool kids" or the dangers of the ghetto to find peace in themselves and their unique abilities. You are your own worst enemy if you don't invest in yourself.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

NeoJob: Art Enabler

Art Answers helps artists expand their repertoire from putting paint on a canvas to more complicated stuff like fire-blowing sculptures or complicated video projection schemes. Artists can concentrate on dreaming up new art, not geeky implementation details. With the growth of elaborate spectacles at opening ceremonies, Cirque du Soleil shows, and theme parks, art enablers and entertainment engineers that can meld technical knowledge with artistic vision wil be in high demand. And people wonder what's going to replace all the crappy code monkey jobs going to India. Do you want to be a Dilbert or a DaVinci?

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Taking My Dad's Consulting Business to the Next Level with a Blog

My dad took the plunge a year ago and started his own independent consulting business, called Building Commissioning. According to his site, commissioning is "The quality control component added to the design and construction process that ensures that new buildings operate the way that their owners intended." Basically, he debugs buildings. The unique proposition is that the design and building process works better when it's transparent, when the major players are held accountable for their decisions by an impartial third party. It's relatively new concept for the industry and therefore requires a lot of client education, which is why I think he could really benefit from starting a blog.

megablogger Hugh Macleod thinks the function of companies is to be "idea amplifiers." The best way to inject your voice into the market conversation is with a focused and insightful blog about how you add value to a client's assets.
Blogs are funny things. Say something smart, people pay attention. Say something dumb, you're ignored... Regular blogging can help train you to better discern between to discern between smart and dumb. Makes it easier to extend this to the rest of one's business.
Perfect! My dad is in the business of discerning dumb stuff in the design and construction of buildings. A blog allows him to tell the stories of how his clients save money when he roots out the numbskull shortcuts that design engineers and contractors use. And he has tons of stories to tell, he's been in the HVAC and district energy engineering field for years. Every job is a post. Every new story about commissioning's vital importance in green building is a post.

The best thing is, nobody else is doing it! (There's only a couple blogs that I could find that come close: ACCABuzz, HVAC Planet, and EnviroPundit.) He could become the expert blogger on the field, building reputation, trust, and visibility. Already some companies are requiring job applicants to be bloggers. Shouldn't we expect clients trying to hire a consultant to do the same? And this trend can only increase.

Other suggestions for building an online identity for his firm? Buy some AdWords. Think about revamping the website with dirt cheap services from international designers on Design Outpost or Elance (or go all out and hire the amazing Sekimori). Check out some of the sites that promote blogs for business use like The Big Blog Company, BusinessLogs, and Business Blog Consulting. Subscribe to these and other webfeeds using Bloglines. Create custom feeds with Yahoo News Search and Blogdigger for phrases that you'd like to write posts on like "green building."

I know that I love talking about my dad's business with him. I'm sure lots of potential clients would like to get in on the conversation.

Friday, October 01, 2004

The Bush-Kerry Debate Recalls Galileo vs. the Church

The debate hinged on of whether you should lead by facts or faith. The President chooses to ignore the deteriorating situation on the ground in Iraq, Kerry wants to incorporate actual data (1,000 dead, expanding insurgency, etc.) into a revised plan.

The debate hinged on of whether you should lead by facts or faith. The President chooses to ignore the deteriorating situation on the ground in Iraq, Kerry wants to incorporate actual data (1,000 dead, expanding insurgency, etc.) into a revised plan.

Bush plays the High Priest preaching a gospel of moral certainty. Other countries must follow our holy "doctrine." He repeats the ritual mantra of "staying on the offense" and the congregation nod their heads solemnly. Standing like a king over his podium, Bush declares, "I know how the world works." He forgets blowing up innocent children tends to piss people off. Every father that loses a child in this way becomes a soldier for Al Qaeda and the Iraqi insurgency. Families receiving a son or daughter in a flag covered casket wonder, "Are we doing more harm than good in Iraq?" But doubt does not enter into the liturgy of liberation and redemption played out on Fox News. His appeal is based purely on faith and emotion. But now even our few allies are losing faith. Thailand, Spain, Honduras, Norway, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Singapore have all abandoned ship.

John Kerry plays the part of scholar warrior, unafraid to point out the facts and present an alternative plan. He's Galileo to Bush's Pope. He won't allow dogmatic arrogance to prevent us from building a true coalition that should include troops from our Muslim allies like Turkey and Egypt, Security Council members like China and Russia, and other regional players like Pakistan and India. He understands a president is not just a commander-in-chief but also a diplomat-in-chief.

Kerry's said our policies must pass the "global test." This doesn't mean outsourcing our foreign policy to Geneva or Brussels but it does mean international problems (rogue regimes, WMD, terror, etc.) need international solutions. The UN is far from perfect. The corrupt system of kickbacks and corruption in the Oil for Food program is but one example. But it is the one international institution that cannot be accused of imperialism. Iraqis had no hand in the liberation of their country and are now forming a national identity in opposition to us, the occupiers, as I discussed here. Kerry can do the work to get blue helmets on the ground in Iraq. We must transition from "occupation" to "peacekeeping."

Real leaders don't stick with plans that are failing. Real leaders don't let the true target escape into the mountains of Pakistan or North Korea to quadruple its nuclear weapons capability. Real leaders don't ignore facts because they don't fit into his ideological boxes. Bush can't invoke infallibility to cover up his "colossal error[s] of judgment" and no amount of iron will or blind faith will change that. Kerry offers an alternative. We're going to see another very tight election and more good debates like last night's.

UPDATE -- Some excellent related articles:

Tales from the Bushiverse: What the debates tell us about the president's psyche. By Julian Sanchez, one of my favorite writers at one of my favorite magazines, Reason.

Camille Paglia [ed. What a brilliant bitch!] returns to cast a withering eye on Clark ("what a phony!"), Kerry ("the hair!"), Madonna ("a monster"), bloggers -- and the "delusional narcissists" in the White House who led an out-of-his-depth president into a disastrous war. From Oct-03 Salon.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Dubai: The Middle East's New City on a Hill

Running out of beachfront? Build more. That's what Dubai's doing to keep up with demand for beach houses for European vacationers like David Beckham. Dubai, a member of the United Arab Emirates, realizes oil won't last forever, so it's diversifying into tourism, media, knowledge work, and finance. Dubai is an alternative to the corruption and fundamentalism that plagues Middle Eastern governments. According to July's Wired, Dubai is The Road to Tech Mecca:
Using its short-lived oil wealth, the emirate has built "free zones," areas earmarked for economic liberalization, technological innovation, and political transparency. Among these, three sprawling industrial parks stand out. The first, Internet City, is a bid to make Dubai the Arab world's IT hub. Next is the International Financial Center, a stock market headquarters meant to match Hong Kong's, London's, and New York's, and to trump the region's 13 other exchanges. And there is Media City, home to Al Arabiya, which aspires to replace Cairo as the Middle East's media capital while broadcasting the emirate's vision of openness across the area.

With its gilded hotels and oil wells, Dubai isn't so much a city as an idea - one that can spread and revive its neighbors, just as Dubai has revived a creed that has long driven Arab history: Not Islam. Commerce.

Rather than sending young Americans to die in the desert, we should be encouraging natural human ingenuity in the Middle East. Companies that have set up shop in Dubai, including Dell, HP, Microsoft, and Oracle, are engaging in a positive diplomacy of peace by transferring technology and resources to the region.

Employing force and humiliation in our Middle East policies inflames anti-Americanism and does not serve our long term interests in the region. We lose the battle of credibility with Bin Ladenism when moderate Muslims equate America's violent methods with our peaceful traditions of free enterprise and self-reliant local governance.

True liberation in the Middle East requires what Walid Phares and Robert Rabil call a "resistance myth," their term for epic stories that inspire national pride and solidarity, like the Boston Tea Party in America or the Amritsar Massacre in India. These events help a young country solidify around a common identity so that a civil society of trust may develop. New democracies require participation and voice, not statue toppling and looting. The danger in Iraq is that
In the absence of a shared identity of resistance, religious solidarity could easily become the basis for many anti-Western Iraqis to create a new identity based on fighting the coalition. This explains the appeal of Muqtada al-Sadr's movement to radical Iraqi Sunnis and shatters the view that Sunnis will not collaborate with insurgent Shiites, and vice versa. Herein lies the danger for the U.S., especially if hostility against coalition forces becomes synonymous with a rehabilitation of Iraqi pride.
I'd rather the Iraqis rehabilitate their pride by beating the pants off slow-moving Western corporations. They too could set up free zones and luscious beach resorts.

The Muslim world wants to compete and can, if we let them. In a previous post, I discussed two Muslim-oriented brands, Mecca Cola and Halal Chicken, that plan to compete with Coca-Cola and KFC on a global scale. Competition can be the force that invigorates a resistance myth. Forget Vegas and Paris, in Dubailand we've got championship golf courses and perfect waves.

Sure, chasing after BMWs and iPods might taint the purity of pre-modern Muslim culture, but is that really such a bad thing when compared to harsh Sharia-law penalties like cutting off the hands of thieves? Are the bare mid-riffs of sexy Arab pop stars worse than caging the self-expression of women under an anonymous burka?

Let's stop the horrors of dismembered civilians in the streets of Falluja and Baghdad. Taking Dubai as a model of openness, we can refocus our efforts on investing in transparency and markets all across the Middle East.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Cub Scout Popcorn

Scouts on Tour
Cub Scout Popcorn takes specialty popcorn sales to a new level with a simple online store featuring a cute blog post about the group's sales training skits. Barriers to building fund raising sites like this are disappearing. With some help from one web-savvy dad, payment processing by eBay currency PayPal, and blogging software like MovableType, these kids are learning the technologies that will drive their future careers. Kids can adapt to the economy of the future if we let them play with the right tools. And as an Eagle Scout that used to dread selling popcorn door to door, I can tell you spamming friends and relatives to a simple online store is a major step forward.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Logos are the New Tea Leaves

Undecided Voters Brand Association
Brand names have added diversity to our vocabularies for years -- think of new verbs like "google" as in "I googled that creep at the bar and it turns out he really does own a startup dog resort" -- but now advertising sages are using brand association data to help predict the election. Who needs tarot and astrology when you've got state-of-the-art psychographic data for political fortunetelling?
Among undecided voters: Kerry appears to have the advantage because undecided voters tend to associate him with certain brands based more on their positive than their negative attributes: Apple is "young" and "hip", Target offers "value for everyone", Starbuck's is "young" (but also "elite"), but on the negative side, BMW is "expensive"
The BMW association will turn out to be the most harmful for Kerry. The freeways of coastal Blue States are clogged with luxury German engineering, but the vast blanket of Middle America Red States find it hard to connect with the French-looking liberal Massachusetts senator schussing down the ski slopes of Sun Valley or windsurfing off the coast of Nantucket. While both candidates come from equally aristocratic backgrounds, Bush has the monopoly on down-home swagger and the plain talk that gives him such mass appeal.
Bush is associated with the positive attributes of established mainstay brands like Bud Light, IBM and Ford ("reliable", "humble", "heritage", "solid")....Samuel Adams is "trustworthy" and "patriotic"
Bush's association with a mantra used to avoid consumer options overload -- "Sam Adams, Always a Good Choice" -- may override the Kerry-Apple urge to "Think Different" in this election. Most consumers won't pore over a listing of two hundred imported beers, preferring the Sam Adams "good enough" option. Most voters won't seek the facts about the nonexistent connections between Saddam and Al Qaeda or our spiraling deficits. Voter laziness plus Kerry's dismal charisma factor equals most voters sticking with the status quo.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Indian Bookmobiles

Originally uploaded by error 402.
How do you get a copy of your favorite classic Gandhi treatise when you live in rural India, miles from the nearest Borders? Try a Digital Bookmobile or kitaabwala:
Helped by the crowd, 70-year-old Roopwati hobbles toward the van and demands Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's My Experiments with Truth. The van doesn't keep a copy but there's an easy way to remedy that. A command is given on a laptop, the signals are relayed and received by a dish antenna with KU band.

Then, it's printed and bound all in a few minutes. For a little less than Rs 20 [$0.50], the village woman gets the book she wanted saving an arduous journey possibly to a library or bookshop in nearby Delhi. Welcome to the world of Digital Bookmobiles.
That's right, for the cost of a pack of gum, you can get access to any book in the public domain that they've scanned into their system. This new tech is unlocking whole new worlds for India's poor:
"Books are the key to knowledge but they are no use if we hold on to it. Therefore, the moral of the story is digitise and replicate,'' says Dr Om Vikas who heads the Digital Library of India Initiative.
I love his napsterized reasoning: "digitise and replicate." Remember information wants to be free, if we let it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Too Much Truck or Too Cheap Gas? The CXT

Originally uploaded by neuralchemist.
Despite dismal sales of GM's Hummer this year, International Truck and Engine Corp is releasing the world's biggest consumer truck, the CXT (Commercial eXtreme Truck). The 14,000 pound behemoth is "built on the same platform as dump trucks and snowplows" and boasts enough cargo capacity to "put the Hummer in back and take it with you." I guess Arnold will have something to tote his in when he moves to Washington.

Judging by the blistering, red-faced rants that are already percolating into the blogosphere this is most definitely "too much truck" for most. There'll be accusations of sexual inferiority complexes, maniacal egotism, and, of course, the selfishness of those who ignore the rising costs of our petroleum-addicted economy.

Personally, I don't care what ridiculous vehicle people choose to buy, as long as they pay the true cost of driving the monsters. And that goes for everyone. Gas should cost between $5.60 and $15.14/gallon to cover the costs of kids with asthma, time lost in traffic, corporate tax breaks, and questionable military adventures in the Middle East. Don't get mad at the soccer mom driving alone on the freeway in her new H2 (or, ugh, CXT). Get mad at the politicians that quietly pick our pockets through taxpayer sponsored corporate subsidies for the defense and petroleum industries.
Via my homepage, Planetizen.

Carnival of the Capitalists

This weeks Carnival of the Capitalists is up at Good stuff on how the little guys are gaining ground in the sports world, how Google might make micropayments work, and the effects of depreciation law on job growth.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Work Club: Offices for Free Agent Clusters

Originally uploaded by neuralchemist.

Today's entrepreneurs are devouring large corporations from the inside. Fed up with the inane, creativity-crushing policies of their pointy-headed managers, more and more workers are striking out on their own and opening up businesses on kitchen tables, in basements and in funky loft apartments.

But what about in-the-flesh human community? The water cooler laughs about William Hung's heart-melting and side-splitting rendition of "She Bangs" the night before on American Idol. Getting the perfect referral to ace Friday's pitch while waiting at the elevator. Workers that hunker down too long at home sacrifice the unexpected windfalls of daily human interaction in an office.

So the agent needs an office that's not an office, a "third place." The solution might look a lot like Gate 3 WorkClub in Emeryville, California:

[WorkClub is] a collection of all the services you ever imagined to make your life easier - professional administrative assistance, computer support, marketing, business services, training, coaching, and more. It's a beautiful environment to work in, custom designed with a diverse variety of spaces to fit almost every work-style and preference.

In other words, it's the office, outsourced. Toss out your manager for the encouragement of a coach. Jettison the geeks from the IT dungeon for your own computer services consultant. Choose only what you need from a menu of services, you're in charge after all.

The modular environment includes lounges for sipping morning lattes with co-entrepreneurs, seminar rooms for classes and conferences, and a rooftop zen garden for morning meditation or afternoon chillouts. The cube farm is replaced by "touch down spaces" zoned by a "gradient of noise levels" including Buzz, Hush, Inner Sanctum, and Privacy Booths. And of course, there's plenty of team work spaces for brainstorming the next venture.

One other brilliant feature is the Lab. It's a space for usability engineers, ethnographers, lawyers, broadcasters, and others to do their thing:

  • Software and hardware usability tests
  • Marketing focus groups
  • One-on-one interviews
  • Depositions
  • Jury testing
  • Talking head interviews
  • Qualitative research of all kinds
The work environments of the past are entering a new stage of evolution. Gate 3 offers a new hybrid of public and private -- a voluntary space -- a place you go by choice to do what you choose, where invention sparkles and conversation flows.

And remember (the first) Gate 3 is only one node on the network, more will follow. When boundaries dissolve you can answer emails in Starbucks and edit video in the park. The great Upholstery Wall of the Cubicle won't stop the world's net-nomads from pursuing opportunity wherever and whenever they find it.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Free the Political Prisoners of the War on Some Drugs

Originally uploaded by neuralchemist.
A new study out from the Department of Health and Human Services (full report) shows drug use is still at record levels despite stepped up enforcement measures like arresting state-sponsored medical marijuana pharmacists and depriving HIV/AIDS and cancer patients, epileptics, and chronic pain sufferers of the medicine that gives them relief.

The pharmacist was revered marijuana botanist and author, Ed Rosenthal, who was officially deputized by the City of Oakland, California to provide medical cannabis under California's Compassionate Use Act (Prop. 215). The busted operation was a nursery of small plants patients could take home for growing a personal medicine garden. For providing safe access to one of God's plants and a legal medicine, he was condemned to a Kafkaesque trial where none of the information about his official government duty was presented to the jury. Jurors were infuriated when they learned they had convicted a man who couldn't defend himself:
"It is the most horrible mistake I have ever made," said juror Marney Craig, a 58-year-old property manager who voted to convict. "I feel like we were sheep, we were manipulated."
Marney's reaction would be everyone's if they understood the facts about marijuana. It's harm potential pales in comparison to alcohol. Death from teen binge drinking, bourbon-fueled domestic abuse and drunk driving are a few of the costs of this legal drug. Cannabis is non-toxic and has never caused an overdose.

Another public morality play posing as a criminal prosecution is the current imprisonment of Marc Emery in Saskatchewan, Canada. Emery was jailed with a trafficking charge for passing a joint after a speech he gave. Emery is a devoted legalization activist and entrepreneur from Vancouver, British Columbia. He's also a selfless philanthropist that plows most of the profits from his magazine, online tv station, and seed catalog into the BC Marijuana Party (includes Marc's prison blog), legal defense funds for persecuted medical patients, and one of the world's most innovative heroine rehab centers. A fiery but hopeful interview with Marc in prison can be found here.

Stop wasting tax dollars on making 700,000 arrests a year (one every 45 seconds) that only succeed in ruining the lives of citizens who choose to smoke and those who take the risks to serve them. Our farmers would be happy to grow medical and recreational marijuana. It's already one of the nation's top cash crops. A nation that produces artery clogging Big Macs can surely let struggling farmers grow an herb for laughter and health. Bring it into the open. No more gang killings in the street for territoy, put it in the grocery store, locked up next to the liquor and cigarettes.

We have to choose peace over war, knowledge over propaganda. Ask for the strength to be a peacemaker, to refuse silence, to open your mouth. Peace means that the free minds of responsible adults make decisions about what to put inside their bodies. Peace means depriving criminal syndicates of monopoly profits that prohibition gives them (Remember Al Capone?) and letting farmers, health clinics, and small business make an honest living.

Let the appropriate social strictures that we have for other legal drugs (e.g. "Don't drink alone.") promote safety for marijuana use. Don't let minors buy pot, but don't lie to them either. We have enough sons and daughters dying in a faraway desert, no more dead for drugs on the streets:
War - I despise
'Cause it means destruction

Of innocent lives
War means tears
To thousands of mothers how
When their sons go off to fight
And lose their lives
It's time to stop trampling on human freedoms with ideologies of fear. It's time to legalize marijuana and end the War on Some Drugs.


This is a test post from flickr, a fancy photo sharing thing. I'm going experiment with it for posting images since I'm not a big fan of Google's Picasa-based BloggerBot service. We'll see how it works.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Tool: Sending Really Big Attachments with YouSendIt

Sending bulky print-ready digital photos or massive PowerPoint presentations via email is a headache. Corporate Outlook Exchange servers choke on big file sizes and Hotmail and Yahoo accounts always seem to bounce too. If only everyone had GMail. Until they do, try YouSendIt, a free webtool that emails a hyperlink to your file after you've uploaded it to their server. Super simple!

Friday, August 13, 2004

Hey Benny You're So Fine

Say it with me now, soft and slow in your most sultry bedroom voice: "Ben...Ben...Ben." Getting a little weak in the knees? Need a cold shower and not sure why? Turns out my name has that effect on people:
So what are the ingredients of a sexy name? For boys, a good name will contain vowel sounds made at the front of the mouth, such as 'e' or 'i' sounds; names with fuller, rounder vowel sounds such as 'u' tend to score lower. So pat yourself on the back if you're called Ben... but if your name is Paul you might have to work harder to snare a date.
They discovered this advantageous phenomenon by posting 24 pictures on, an online meat market where users can rate people's attractiveness on a scale from 1 to 10. When the photos were accompanied with names like Ben or Mike they scored higher than with names like Paul or Ralph. The conclusions of this breakthrough scientific work sound good to me. It's the researcher's explanation that makes me a bit uneasy:
The finding that men with 'small-sounding' names are attractive might seem counterintuitive, Perfors admits. "Front-mouth vowels imply smallness," she says. "But when girls are looking for mates, they don't necessarily want a super testosterone-charged guy. They want someone who will hang around and be a provider."
Small-sounding?! Provider? What happened to my raw sex appeal? I want women to jump into bed when I growl my singular syllable of sexiness, not size me up for future child rearing! I was thinking more along the lines of "Who's your daddy?" than Daddy Dearest. Guess you can't have it all. At least I'm not a Paul.

For more cool science, don't miss the Annals of Improbable Research's Ig Nobel Awards. One of last year's ground breaking winners was "An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep over Various Surfaces." As my friend Brad says: Science!

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Milennium Park -- Chicago

The Bean
Chicago, one of the country's most beautiful cities, just got $475 million of new jewelry, including a gigantic chrome coffee bean and multi-story video screen fountains for kids to splash in. Don't miss this amazing photo essay on a daring new public space.

Learning by Performing

Blogging is anything but a one-way medium. It's a multi-way, raucous network of conversations. Some will just lurk, read, and absorb but others will be moved to write a response in your comments or on their own blog. The sphere of chatter allows one person's thoughts to feed into all the others. We're all watching each other. We're all performing for each other. My friend Lalarene's question "Is blogging a world of voyeurism or exhibitionism?" sets up a false dichotomy. The answer when it comes to most new technologies is yes and yes, an additive world of multiplicity and choice. Look out onto the millions of connected individuals, each only a random google away from peering through the window you've opened to your brain. Welcome to the global stage where you're both actor and audience.

The public conversation allows everyday people to produce and share their own digital culture, tinkering with ideas like with a car, adding a little horsepower to a puttering argument, painting flames on an underappreciated classic. All those parts we leave lying around in our heads, a stunning insight after that third cup of coffee, a rant festering under intimidation and rules, can come out:
Blogging...blurs the distinction between the private and the doing both private and public communication simultaneously, you can save both time and effort, and that might make it economical to engage in forms of communication with oneself and with others that would previously not have been possible.
Our narcissism fools us into putting those nascent, half-formed conversations out into the world: "Hell somebody'll get a kick out of this, even if it's just my mom." Knowing how much we like watching others, we get off on the hope others might watch us.

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Synthetic Serendipity

There's a heart warming story in IEEE Spectrum about the power of teachers and collaboration by Vernor Vinge, the guy who coined The Singularity. Some clips:

YEARS AGO, GAMES AND MOVIES were for indoors, for couch potatoes and kids with overtrained trigger fingers. Now they were on the outside. They were the world.
"There are many different skills," she was saying. "Sometimes it's best to coordinate with lots of other people." The students nodded. Be a coordinator. That's where the fame and money were. But they also knew where Chumlig was going with this. She looked around the classroom, nodding that she knew they knew. "Alas, you all intend to be top agents, don't you?"
"But I have a theory of life," said Chumlig, "and it is straight out of gaming: There is always an angle. You, each of you, have some special talents. Find out what makes you different and better. Build on that. And once you do, you'll be able to contribute answers to others and they'll be willing to contribute back to you. In short, synthetic serendipity doesn't just happen. You must create it."
Good advice. Find something you're better at than anyone and build on it. Make yourself irreplaceable and surround yourself with people that bring out the best in you.

If that leaves you hungry for more you haaaaave to read Cory Doctorow's work -- razor sharp dialogue, mind-blowing technoscapes, and characters that come alive and start crawling around your head. He releases it all for free download and remixing under a Creative Commons license and sells more books because of it. He's also a co-editor for the top shelf blog BoingBoing.

Friday, July 23, 2004

Bootstrapping Tech for Social Justice

The modern economy scares the hell out of a large portion of the population. The less educated feel doomed to lifelong Wal-Mart serfdom and the elite have nightmares about training their Indian replacements. (Some choose to outsource themselves.) Others can't even hit the lowest rungs on the economic ladder after a rough life on the street, broken families, and failing public schools drain their self-esteem. To help build the personal business networks that can drive a career forward, a San Francisco non-profit called Street Tech is experimenting with social networking software LinkedIn (others maybe more familiar with its cousin Friendster) for graduates of their low-cost computer training programs:

[The hope is] to allow marginalized and disadvantaged folks to build a personal network that allows them to leap over the old boys/girls networks that have traditionally shut them out...that social networking can be used as an effective tool for social justice. (link)
Strong social networks are one of the primary driving factors towards a successful career. Anyone can learn the skills of computers or finance or real estate but knowing the right people -- building trusted connections for leads and referrals -- is essential to accessing the best jobs, most of which never hit the jobs websites.

So after getting their Microsoft Certified Professional designation, Street Tech graduates can safely and efficiently test the jobs waters online:

One of the real advantages I see to a tool like LinkedIn is that it allows the hiring manager to feel more comfortable about a referral because, in theory, the referral is coming from a trusted source -- thus making their chances for success much higher than if that same hiring manager just received a stranger's résumé on his or her desk. Second, our students can use the tool to search out numerous employers at one time and don't have to go to numerous job boards or make cold calls without first having an inside connection. Finally, the Internet is a much safer place for our folks to start out. Here they are anonymous and will not be judged by their physical experience or lack of mainstream professional graces.
Even those on the margins of society can build tribes for support. The mighty Aztecs were once a weak nomadic tribe that got bullied all over central Mexico till they found their own swamp, er, island to build their famous capital Tenochtitlan. After serving as mercenaries (entry level jobs) for the Tepanecs of Azcapotzalco, the Aztecs became the most powerful empire in Mexico. Likewise the Street Tech grads can build alliances with some key contacts online and eventually build careers that rival those who came up through more conventional channels.

Bootstrapping the ever faster, better, and cheaper tech tools allows the disadvantaged to close the digital divide. The common fear that a global technocratic elite will consistently outpace the poor and eventually evolve into a separate species does not fit the facts: the cost of technology per unit of performance -- especially the bio-info-cognotech products whose value lies in their knowledge, not material content -- inevitably drops to zero.

The explosion of mobile phone use in the developing world is a perfect example of this trend. More people access the internet through their phones than conventional PCs. Huge political rallies in young democracies like the Philippines are coordinated by SMS text messaging. Farmers in India can check daily market prices for their crops to avoid getting screwed by the local government commodity buyer.

The first generation of online social networking tools are still cumbersome, but they will improve. The disadvantaged will have to play catch up against those born into better circumstances, but they'll have better tools to do it with. Our greatest challenge comes back to equipping learners with the meta-skills like critical thinking and communication they need to quickly and creatively adopt the best new tools, a good subject for another post.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Fast Food World

Bashing the worldwide expansion of American fast food brands is a favorite sport amongst anti-globalization activists, but it looks like Americans aren't the only ones with their eyes on global franchising supremacy. Indian entrepreneur Dheeraj Gupta has launched his own concept to bring cheap and tasty food to the masses. His product is a traditional favorite called vada pav, a batter-fried mashed potato with bread and chutney. His brand, Jumbo King. The company's competitive edge? Hygiene and automation:

Easily the most hygienic vada pav seller in the city. The wares are untouched by human hands before you reach hungrily for one. Stainless steel machines are used to cook, mash and peel potatoes. While the bread is caramelised, the vegetable oil is changed every few hours and filtered water is used. The vada pav comes wrapped in paper, with a little onion on the side.
Gupta already has three outlets located near busy train stations -- another trick he learned from Ray Croc who always said McDonalds was in the business of real estate first and food second -- and has plans for many more.

Another example of locally-grown brands poised to give the Americans a run for their money is Halal Fried Chicken in Paris, France. Halal Chicken offers the city's many Muslim immigrants extra crispy meals they can trust. Halal, like Judaism's kosher rules, specifies rules for the care, feeding, and slaughter of animals for human consumption. The Marketplace report on this new phenomenon mentions that KFC has been halal for over three years but doesn't publicize the fact. Do they want to avoid tainting their brand as something "those people" eat? Seems like a bizarre marketing choice, but I've heard racism can be as strong in France as here in the States.

These aren't the only bright shining knights battling the forces of free market colonialism and the global consumer monoculture. Another French Muslim company called Mecca Cola looks to cash in on anti-American sentiment around the world. The company's founder, Tawfik Mathlouthi, puts it this way:
It is all about combating "America's imperialism and Zionism by providing a substitute for American goods and increasing the blockade of countries boycotting American goods."
Agree or not with Mr. Mathlouthi's assessment, boycotting American products is a more productive method of dissent than blowing up buses on the streets of Jerusalem. The cola, which comes emblazoned with the slogan "No more drinking stupid, drink with commitment," has enjoyed brisk sales and might have led to the 40% decline in Coca-Cola sales to Saudi Arabia in the first quarter of 2002. And taking a cue from generous American social entrepreneurs like Ben & Jerry's, the company donates 10% of profits to charities operating in Palestinian territories and 10% to European NGOs. 

These developments demonstrate that globalization is more an additive than destructive force. The consumer gets Coke, Pepsi, and Mecca Cola. If she doesn't like the taste or values of a brand there's always alternatives. Foreign brands that fail to modify their products for local cultural conditions will lose market share to nimble, home-grown brands that understand what makes the country's consumers tick. In the end, everyone gets cheaper, better tasting, and more culturally sensitive products.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Eckotek: Wormhole to Knowledge, Fun, and Adventure

In this space called Eckotek, I push back against the information onslaught by spinning my own mix of global culture, presenting my own takes on the toughest problems of the day, and spreading my vision of a world animated by artists, entrepreneurs, and learners.

The project is borne of my refusal to be a passive receptacle for of other people’s stories, some hungry eye balls to be tickled by cathode ray tubes. My voice will not be drowned out by the dopamine-draining buzzzzz of the mediasphere and its cable news fearmongers and reality television hallucinations. The fear and ignorance that mutilates innocent children and beheads infidels will not sway my hope in humanity’s limitless capacity to invent cooperative/competitive solutions.

Many blogs choose to specialize on a specific knowledge domain but I have waaaay too many interests for that. Instead I'll be a crack you trip on heading elsewhere in a Google search, a flash in your peripheral vision, a whisper that infiltrates your own thoughts and interests, a wormhole to transport you from one knowledge universe to another.

As in the fleshworld, I'll wear many hats here -- Capitalist Shark sniffing out the Next Deal; Party Ethnographer exploring the mysterious confluence of music, place, and chemical; SciTech Junkie on the lookout for the coolest new breakthroughs; and Policy Wonk proposing solutions for our world's many woes. I welcome your comments and suggestions here at the site, but rampant comment spam might disable that in the future. Even better, start your own indie publishing empire at Blogger to engage in the blogospheric dialogue. Make your mark in the electronic sand and then encourage someone else to.

Enough introductions, let's go play.