Saturday, November 29, 2008

A moment of solitude....

This has been a really odd extended weekend. It's been delightful in that I've had the opportunity to spend some wonderful time with some great friends (and eat myself silly, but we won't go into that). I successfully did some chores, prepped for the upcoming holiday season and all it's attendant obligations and commitments. That of course will be an ongoing task. I've also reflected on how our lives during this season is a flutter, as we bolt from one place to another. It was nice to be able to take some time out and relax. I spent Friday participating in buy nothing day. And successfully accomplished that.

I also reflected on the tragedy that occurred in New York, when a temporary worker was trampled to death at a Wal-mart as shoppers pursued black friday madness. Human beings are strange creatures, but we are creatures nonetheless. When imperiled we too will act like wilderbeasts escaping predators. And obviously some sense of peril, or want, or lack permeated the crowd that they would not get theirs. But instead of something life sustaining, it was the pursuit of life draining machines. On a more somber note, I also realize that in these festive times, feelings of loneliness start to creep out. It is interesting how difficult it is to be alone and not feel lonely for many. But in both ways, the pursuit of a TV and the pursuit of a partner tap into those basic needs.

So much of our consumption, and our way of life taps into those needs. Somewhere in our industrialized existence, we started identifying with stuff to complete us or fill our time, or that's what I suspect. This week, I visited many friends who have wonderful places, large for themselves and it made me think. How much is too much. This isn't to knock their lifestyle, but it made me think how do we form our norms.

If our norms are stuff, and our worth is stuff. Then the tragedy of the weekend makes sense. If our norms are something else, then what happened this weekend is an aberration. Our planet may not need our science, it may need our psychotherapy.

Why do you think shopping for non-essentials causes a frezny?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Something to be Thankful for.....

I probably won't have a chance to blog until after Thanksgiving so I thought I take a moment to think about what we can be thankful about right now. For many people the world is an immediately challenging place, loss of job or out of control bills is straining many people to their limits. At the same time, our planet is facing a challenge as it's environment is taxed to the limits. It does seem like the world is spinning out of control and tomorrow looks questionable.

I posit that this will actually be the best of times. First and foremost, a crisis focuses the mind and the spirit. If you are aware of how limited your resources are, you tend to be more alive focusing on what you do. You become mindful. When you didn't have to think and swipe the credit card you weren't active. Now in your life you are making choices, real choices.

In the irony of the moment, you may find yourself with an abundance of time. Now is the time to rebuild yourself and take the long view. It is a time for deep thinking about how to change yourself and the world. When Nelson Mandela was locked up he spent much of his time strengthening his body, and hence is mind. Right now is the time to grab a book and think deeply. Ask yourself what are the things that you can do to make yourself more efficient. Here are some suggestions:

1) Learn how to cook, you can buy better ingredients, local ingredients and make healthier goods then going out to processed warehouse mass market food.
2) Learn to fix your car and your bicycle. One of the challenges in our disposaworld is that we don't have an understanding of how our machinery functions, understanding it allows us to fix it or more importantly combine it in new ways
3) Learn to Teach: Understand what is going on in the world and tell others.

That you have that option, no matter where you are means something. That is something to be thankful. Do something that some will thank you for, and that is a reason to be thankful.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Why it's been hard for me to blog lately....or the 5 stories of green blogging.

As you can tell, my blogging has been light. If you read the usual suspects, techcrunch, wired, etc. blah blah blah. Blogging is so passé, no longer the thing to do. I'm suppose to be microblogging! Waxing poetic in 160 characters, tweeting away or writing poignant status messages. Whatever, it's the usual crapola of sloppy thinking. We should no longer be writing novels because short stories are better, the haiku is the future, etc. They are all different forms with validity in different contexts. The trouble with my blogging doesn't so much rely on the death of blogging (which is really just public journaling in its various forms), my new job which has sucked all my time (somewhat true, but on the flip side it's so engaging I don't leave exhausted unlike previous jobs -- see the soap opera of my former employer Yahoo! of which I hope survives) or illness.

No it's none of those. The reason I struggle with blogging about the environment is that it's become incredibly difficult to meaningfully contribute to the conversation. In looking about articles or ideas to blog about there really is a paucity of new things to contribute. There are only five types of green blog posts:

1. The world is coming to an end. - These stories focus on scientific studies that reveal that yes the climate is changing, that such and such is impacting global warming. At this point, any contention on this point is left for debating clubs. The question now isn't a matter of kind, but degree (no pun intended). Citing new reports doesn't add to the conversation. That leads me to the next story..

2. New technology saves all. - This type of story are the hopeful ones. Here in Silicon Valley these stories reek of navel gazing. If people just buy our new products everything will be awesome! These tend to be hype driven stories that provide glimmers of hope for the future, but almost all the solutions are far in the future. These however fight against the law of large numbers. The economics of new technology so meaningful to effective means it has to be licensed incredibly cheap. I am not sure we have the institutions to foster the transformational change we need. The two major technological changes that drove societal change on a mass scale were the transistor (which was given away by Bell Labs, part of the deal with which the then government regulated Bell System was received it's monopoly. It is not clear that without that grant of safety could the transistor have been successfully adopted. The other major technology giveaway that we call relate to was the internet. The technologies were all research projects given away for free. It's academic university roots. Any new technology must not only be good but it must have distribution support.

3. We are bad people. - This type of post relates to our wicked way or can also be called the guilt post. These relate to the choices we make. One of the premises of the market is that it is best when we have choices. However, the real world operates on available choices. We cannot buy things that are not available. The architecture of our lives dictates the shape of our actions. There is a really deep thread about choosing where to live to live with our values on the CarFree Yahoo group. We need to be careful not to be too shrill lest we turn off everyone.

4. The way others live - related to the previous post. This post tries to identify role models for better actions. I tend to be very positive for these type of posts because they provide a concrete model for others to use. This type of post tends to cite European models (not necessarily a bad thing). This is also called the support group post, we share our trials and tribulations so we don't feel so much like freaks. The strength of the effort, like training for a marathon is a tough one and the support of others is key.

5. The laws we live by - This last type of post focuses on laws that are either good or bad. This perhaps is the most important because it determines the available choices. This one has great impact and I recommend fellow bloggers to rally their readers to legislation and organizations that will focus our leaders to better decisions.

I know that most of my posts fall into those five categories. As bloggers we can be news services but we need to contribute new ideas or mechanisms to not echo the world as we live in, but facilitate the world we want to live in. I think the shared stories of people trying to live more green are inspirational. My challenge to myself and others is how do we come up with a higher level of conversation that drive meaningful action.

Many of the conclusions are known, how do we move to action?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Reaping the harvest of the seeds we sow...

The economy continues to rear it's uglier side,and one of the actors in our unfolding crisis is the auto industry. Having been a victim of multiple layoffs in my career I definitely feel for the pain that the workers of the big three automakers are going through. But also seeing the incredibly self centered decisions management made in the companies that failed I cannot say it wasn't unexpected. Every day we go to work placing our faith in our bosses to act in everyone's interest not only their own. Sadly the auto industry in the U.S. seemed to be more focused on executive compensation, which then fed the anger of the unions to get their cut that in this critical industry we cut off our nose to spite our face. We milked old technologies for mega profits when the fashion lasted, but when the tides changed our muscles of innovation had become fat and flabby that they weren't able to adapt since they hadn't planned or prepared. Given that so little planning happened, a sense of justice seems to be to let the big 3 fail or consolidate.

Now contrast that to the car companies that are weathering the storm better are engineering cultures focused on making things more efficient in order to reap the higher profits. Is it any accident that the car companies that are doing well, their executives have much smaller compensation packages. It does bring into question whether more moeny means more quality. Not in this case. Toyota invested in hybrid technologies and is on pace to surpass GM as the largest auto manufacturer in the world, despite spending vast amounts on research and development. This old Forbes story on Honda's engineering culture is that some of the problems they focus on are not directly related to cars, but to reducing waste and hence reducing the impact on the environment. Consider the following:

Of all the bizarre subsidiaries that big companies can find themselves with, Harmony Agricultural Products, founded and owned by Honda Motor, is one of the strangest. This small company near Marysville, Ohio produces soybeans for tofu. Soybeans? Honda couldn't brook the sight of the shipping containers that brought parts from Japan to its nearby auto factories returning empty. So Harmony now ships 33,000 pounds of soybeans to Japan.

Wow, that's thinking of using things effectively. And it's not limited to Japanese companies. In Europe, German car companies have focused on making diesel engines more effective and environmentally viable. This different world view on the investment of knowledge and experimentation has led to better results.

As we enter a new era of leadership, we need to make sure that our definition of leadership is not too small. Innovation will come from a many time horizon way of looking at the world. The big three are asking for help, but without real change it's more of the same. It's time to invest in those that have proven innovation matters, and perhaps invest in foreign companies to build engineering and manufacturing in the U.S. Since in the remedies provided, I have not heard anything except platitudes, let's start finding companies who practice what they preach, before they are asked to be heard.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

What is the American Dream?

Tonight I had a really long phone conversation with my parents and we did what parents and children do. They give advice and I tell them how things have changed and how wrong it is. The subject of the evening was real estate, as my parents tried to convince me that with this downturn in prices, that it made a lot of sense to consider buying a house. I argued that given economic conditions, prices would probably go down. But in the end it wasn't about the value of a home but a debate about what a home means.

The premise was that if I bought a house, I'd be more comfortable. That I'd have more space. And it got me thinking is why more space makes you comfortable. While it is true that too little space can make you feel uncomfortable, it's not true that more space will make you more comfortable. At a certain point you can have too much space. And with that space, there is the need to to fill it up with stuff. Which then drives the economy. It got me thinking that American dream is very much about ownership, and with ownership comes control. But does that make you more comfortable. Does it make you feel better? If you have more, you have to manage it which causes it's own pain. We often feel that if we had more money our lives would be less stressful, but ask anyone with a sizable 401K how little stress their lives are? Granted it's a nice problem to have, but it changes our problems.

So why is home ownership so ingrained in our country's mythology, for pete's sake, it's called the "American Dream" but why is it the dream. I think one part of it is control, the freedom to do with your space what you want. However, covenants and home owners association rules are denying us that "freedom" In the course of my conversation, I explained to my mother that for me comfort was not the space that I had, but the time that I had and how much of it was mine. The dirty secret of our lives is that so much of it is committed to maintenance. Think about how much time is spent to cleaning, polishing, clipping, dusting, washing. Life is maintenance, a constant battle against the second law of thermodynamics. And having more house, means more stuff and that means having more maintenance. It's not all roses.I wonder if the American Dream of homeownership was some wicked form of industrial policy. An indebted population tends to be more pliant. I remember the line from the movie "Thank you for smoking" that went "Everyone's got a mortgage as justification for selling tobacco.

But the question persists, the American dream is a big part of country's narrative, it's part of the Anglo Saxon narrative as Britain and Australia have strong home ownership ethics. But why is the dream about owning things. I think I've been fairly discordant with my peers all my life is that ownership of material things is not important, but it's not trivial either. My American dream is about authorship, about the goal of creating something of worth and that will express something new and original. Ownership of ideas is ownership, but it doesn't benefit from space.

So why do we want castles instead of cottages? What is implicitly better about larger? We are tackling these questions as people bought more home than they needed, and the dream is now a nightmare. We have an opportunity to author our own definition of happiness now.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The rooms without....

I've started thinking about the winter, it's getting cold even here in California. I've been looking up on the topic of winterizing your home and of course Huffington Post has some tips. One of the things that I thought was missing was that in the past 10 years our homes have gotten much larger, and many rooms are rarely used if ever.

So if you have a big home can you reconfigure your home such that you heat less, and even if you have a small home can you reconfigure to live more efficiently. I like having the separation of space, but the thought of turning Japanese and living off of a futon is crossing my mind...

Well I'll think about it.....

Yes We Can!

Last night I had the opportunity to catch up with a friend on the phone. While it was fantastic to reminisce about the past when I lived back where my friend lived, the topic of Obama came up and what our thoughts on the subject were. I have to give credit to both McCain and Obama for thinking they are up to the task of dealing with the world in this current state. I only half joked that the best qualification for being President this election would have been the leader who ran away most fervently. In my experiences in the workplace I've often observed that the best managers and leaders were those who inherited it reluctantly as opposed to those who pursued it with zeal. One of my favorite lines from the movies was from "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" where in the pursuit of the grail, the phrase "for who's glory do you pursue it, his or yours?"

Yesterday on NPR Morning Edition (11/11/08) there was a story on the impact of the economy on art auctions. Does art lose meaning when it becomes a trophy. Can the same be said about leadership? That said, I remarked that I thought that Obama was going to create a notion of shared experience in overcoming our troubles. His story has been repeatedly in the sense of the proverbial "we." And I feel that the messaging will be not one of belt tightening but of shared services that we have to protect our country not out of payment but out of duty. The success and failure will be casted in terms of ourselves, which can be brilliant or dangerous at the same time. Will notions of responsibility be defined to the environment not as a government function, but as a patriotic duty.

Here in Oakland, Van Jones says that our slogan for the new administration should be "Retrofit America" in this New York Times blog post. The notion being that we create a conservation corps for the new age. Such programs are focused at youth, creating a vehicle for national service.

In the past few years, the emphasis on patriotism has been on sloganeering, magnetic ribbons on cars and flag pins on lapels. Those actions are largely symbolic, but an effort to act toward independence from foreign oil through conservation, actually leads to independence in other things. So the retrofit of America is not just on what we put in our gas tanks, but maybe our notions of duty.

Looking over this post, I realize the linkage of our duties and economy are weak. But what I'm saying is that our environment is tied to how we buy, and what we buy. And the we is there, since an individual is not an economy, we all are.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

This water project brought to you by....

There has been a lot of attention about being green (OK a little less these days with the economic situation, no longer front and center, but the problem hasn't gone away). A couple of weeks ago I received an email from the Audubon Society about a new initiative called Together Green. The idea behind Together Green is that it is a portal and clearinghouse for green initiatives and events. In that respect, it's quite well done as a website. In addition, they also sponsor fellowships as well. Overall well done for it's aims.

What I find most interesting about Together Green is that while Audubon is administering the site and program, it appears that Toyota is the one funding the effort. Now, if you've read my posts in the past you know I am particularly sensitive to green washing. And my first instinct would be to suspect that this is a corporation trading on the Audubon good name, but when one thinks about the sponsor Toyota I thought does this make sense. Toyota's green cred among car manufacturers is top notch, while Detroit was enriching its executives while creating mass market weapons of environmental destruction (and like the financial derivatives which took out the banking industry, the love of easy profits is taking out the US car makers. Not a big surprise!), Toyota was innovating and researching better technologies such as the hybrid engine. So I suspect there is some sincerity on their efforts. Green cred is not a branding exercise, but it can reinforce a brand. So if you write a check for something like Together Green, you better be writing checks for your own house too.

So why fund someone like Audubon instead of Toyota doing itself? Well, I think just as Adam Smith is hell bent on destroying the U.S. auto industry for their sins, the notion of concentrating on your strengths may be in play here. Audubon knows advocacy and it's their core competency, so if you are going to spend a dollar, it might be more green with an organization that dedicates itself to conservation. It sort of reminds me of watching public television, when you see major corporations funding symphony concerts and other cultural events on TV. This program underwritten by so and so.

So has the model of public TV extended to the public (and is there any other kind) of environment? My worry is that in 5 years the grant runs out, I hope Audubon is thinking about planting the next seeds to keep together green, well together.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The dilemma of keeping clothes last longer...

I read this article on on how to make clothes last, and the secret is basically don't wash them. Apparently washing of clothes is what wears them out. Obviously that's not very realistic, so the article explains how to treat your clothes to make them last. I'm right now in the process of "rightsizing" right now, clearing out my apartment and figuring out what to keep and what to toss. I do get a lot of mileage off of most of my possessions. My computer is ages old, my scanner is a freecycle gem that I love and probably would have bought myself had I know it existed. Books are really hard for me to get rid of, and in fact I am in the quest for a new bookshelf and may end up making my own. Technology is hard to keep if it's general function like a computer or relies on software compatibility. But it can be easy to keep if it's single function, for instance answering machines and phones last forever.

So why do things become obsolete? There are two things

1) Normal wear and tear. The functioning stops
2) Fashion

If fashion was more forgiving of waistlines, perhaps owning higher quality clothes that are a little loose would permit or midlife bulge (of course additional exercise to fight the ever slowing metabolism is a far out option). So what is the role of fashion but a form of exclusion (or stratification)? One could call it art too.

Was Mao's one suit for everyone more environmentally conscious?

My main beef with clothing is that it's not recyclable, you can pass it down to others or use it as a rag, but the raw materials are lost. (Since so much of clothing is cotton, could you use it as fuel in biomass?)

So buy timeless clothing, and treat it well, or else wear deodorant.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Defining a voice...

Tonight I had the opportunity to sneak out of work a little early (well I also got into work early as well, which is quite abysmal for a non-morning person as myself, yes I do swim in the mornings but that's because that's a task where if you quit mid-way, well you drown -- but I digress) to hear street planning expert Michael Ronkin speak about Complete Streets initiative. Complete Streets is about requiring new street construction and retrofits to serve all constituents that are likely to use a street given the condition and location, what they refer to as context sensitivity. This means that if there is reasonable density, that roads are built to provide facilities for bicyclists, transit and pedestrians. They also need to support children, the elderly and those needing physical assistance. If you build these into our roads people will come. It creates safety, it creates life in many of our places where things were sterile. It is a "build it and they will come" scenario that actually happens.

One of the more interesting statistics is that people's commutes have stayed relatively constant over the years, about 23 minutes, but what has changed is the speed and hence the distance that people travel. Another interesting statistic is that the vast majority of freeway trips are two exits, meaning that they are short trips. By building streets that are amenable to alternatives to the automobile, they will be used. The legal scholar Lawrence Lessig who specializes in internet law is fond of saying that "Code is law" which refers to the architecture of the internet impacts our legal concepts. The same can be said by our real world architecture, if we create meaningful street architectures our lives follow.

As compelling as what Ronkin was saying, I was struck by the distinctive style that his presentation had as well. In an age of mass market consumerism, of mass market fashion, of mass market ideas we've lost a distinctive voice for each individual. My sense of the talk was that Ronkin was not looking for us to be converted to his point of view, since in fact the precepts he advocated required one to make judgments not follow recipes. We've entered an age of twelve step programs, five ways to get rich, 100 ways to save the world. However the real interesting question is not the 100th way to save the world, but observing the world and saying that there's a 101st that's better than the 100 we know. It's the creation of what writers call voice, what fashion calls a sensibility and art calls a style.

Our election is done, and what we is going to be asked of us is not to follow certain steps, but a need for us to ask what really matters in a deep and honest way. Our guidelines like the Complete Streets is going to be a model of engagement across multiple modes, not just one. So the irony is that we need to create modalities for all, while speaking as one, each and everyone one a different one.

Judging a book by it's cover...

Or a product by it's packaging. announced a new concept called "Frustration Free Packaging". Amazon is working with manufactures to create alternative packaging that is easy to open, non-life threatening (anyone ever start bleeding profusely from being on the losing end of a fight with a bubble pack?) and environmentally friendly.

Most of our packaging gets thrown away, so why spend a lot of money and effort on it. Amazon has the benefit that it's products don't need to be visually appealing to compete on the shelves (there are none) and as a large retailer it has the clout to work with manufacturers to get new packaging. It also doesn't have to deal with the issue of theft that brick and mortar retailers have to deal with. So it makes a lot of sense. Less plastic is a good thing. So hats off, here's to better packaging for everything.

Where fairness rules....

It's truly a historic time in the United States as Americans elect their first African American President. I saw the tears that people had at the election party I was attending, and I was choking up as I checked my Facebook statuses and written across my Newsfeed were the words "Yes We Can" Americans have chosen that government has a role, albeit a limited role in our lives. Thomas Friedman has said that choosing the right leaders is more important than choosing the right lightbulbs. Because ultimately, our leaders determine the rules by which we live by.

I hope that we have some common sensical rules that challenge and inspire us. Rules that force us to imagine the world we should live in, one of clean air, fit people, healthy food and opportunity. That's what's happened with this election. I feel that Americans say that lack of rules is not freedom, it is chaos. Instead, if we invest and that is what our best taxes go to, investments in our future, it will create a landscape that inspires us to better things.

Now that the vote is over, our challenge continues. We need to shape our world through conversation to help visualize our better place, and then we need to our sweat and toil to make it happen. We have the opportunity to reshape our rules, it's only fair.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Now that's another form of reincarnation....

I'm in an industry that prides itself on the notion of a hack. Now note, a hack is not the same thing as a hacker, and I won't go into what makes a hacker good or bad. The language of a hacker is too convoluted to be argued cogently in a blog post, others have tried. But a hack is an interesting idea in that it's a way of looking at the world. A hack is seeing an object meant for one thing and being used for something completely different. Well Green Upgrader has a great post that was forwarded to me about Buddhist monks who built a temple using one million recycled bottles. They used the bottles as building blocks and floor stones. Here are some of the uses of the bottles:

Thai monks from the Sisaket province have used over one million recycled glass bottle to construct their Buddhist temple. Mindfulness is at the center of the Buddhist discipline and the dedication and thoughtfulness required to build everything from the toilets to their crematorium from recycled bottles shows what creativity and elbow grease can accomplish.

So maybe bottle don't die, they just get reincarnated as Buddhist temples.

Why is it so hard?

Is it really that hard to create less garbage in the world. Especially when it's your daily habit. I have a particular pet peeve with people who have coffee every day at work, and every day, and I mean every day use one and sometimes two paper cups each time they get their daily cup of coffee. I mean how difficult is it to use the same cup each day. I mean, there are sinks to rinse the cup out. In the good old days, I remember beat reporters use to stir their coffee with their pencils for peet's sake. So what gives?

I don't know, worshipping at the altar of convenience may not be the most pious act. So I started a facebook group called "I use my own mug thank you" Please consider joining it and convincing other to "Chuck the Cup" Also, if anyone is reading this who knows me at work, if you need a mug. Let me know, I'll get you one. But here's the catch. You got to use it.