Wild Green Yonder
Saturday, May 25, 2002
Bug Real TV
Check out these Insect Telepresence projects, where tiny cameras are mounted on cockroaches to give a bug's eye view of the world.

(from bOING bOING)
Thursday, May 23, 2002
Like the 60s?
Had drinks last night with Joel Garreau at the Post.

Joel's beat is predicated on the idea that "while there's been amazing technological change" over the last decade, "the media hasn't been reporting any corresponding social change," and that if the last two decades of wild innovation and a booming economy (the 20s and the 50s) were any guide, "we're headed into a social revolution comparable to the 60s in seismic scale, but totally unrelated to it in nature or style."

Things we kicked around: the open source movement, the fights over copyright and patent, planetary environmental management, biotechnology, terrorism, extended lifespans, the singularity (particularly my idea of a social singularity - a singularity not of tech-empowered post-humans, but tech-empowered social institutions), why video games have become a bigger industry than movies, blogs, raves, hacktivists, the WTO protests, why Millenial kids don't seem to rebel against their parents, the networked effects of birdwatching and the dynamics of the urban revival. It was one of those conversations.

Off to NYC.
Wednesday, May 22, 2002
"For the good of mankind, we must stop ordering stupid drinks."
I've never been a huge fan of hard alcohol. Margaret Berry's The Case for Cocktails may have changed my mind. It's my duty to drink Mojitos, dammit, my duty.
I think we've gone insane about copyright and patent in this country in general, but the idea of "patenting" genes just fucking drives me up the wall. It seems the most profound form of enclosure of the commons we've seen since they started building fences round meadows and sending shepherds to the poorhouse factories. Evil. And this MP3 scheme is evil *and* underhanded:

'Companies doing genomic research, like Redwood City's Maxygen, have a problem. To make money, the companies feel they need to control the rights to the DNA sequences they uncover. But patenting these sequences is ethically and legally tricky.

'So, Maxygen's scientists and lawyers are proposing a downright odd solution to this pickle: Encode the DNA sequences as MP3s or other music files and then copyright these genetic "tunes."'

(from Boing Boing)
In DC. The place resembles an armed camp: crash barriers around most of the important public buildings, tons of cops and security guards everywhere, and of course lots of soldiers. Passed the Pentagon coming in, and saw the cranes still at work repairing the damage from the 9-11 attack. Huge flags and placards saying things like "Never forget!" in many of the windows.

What makes it surreal is that it's a magnificent Spring day outside. The sun's out, the flowers blooming, the lovers walking hand-in-hand and the school kids playing in the park.
Monday, May 20, 2002
Back in the land of sporadic access, so posting will be irregular.

I'm off to DC. Atlanta be damned. Savannah will have to wait. Give my regards to Charleston. I'm destined to cross the Potomac tonight.
Friday, May 17, 2002
Thursday, May 16, 2002
Pogo wrong?
In response to my post about wealth and the environment below, Wendi sent me an email with this quote from Barry Commoner:

"Pogo's analysis of the environmental crisis - we have met the enemy and he is us - is appealing but untrue. It is true, of course, that the householder who discards nearly 200 pounds of plastic trash annually has struck a blow against the ecosphere. But often the householder has no choice; after all, milk is no longer sold in returnable glass bottles [most places]. Moreover, the decision to produce the plastic in the first place was not made by the householder, nor does the householder benefit from the profits that motivated that decision."
Wednesday, May 15, 2002
It feels like the end of summer school. I'm sitting in Joe's living room, listening to the rap coming in through the open door (some guy on the street is working on his car), with the fan making lazy rotations, and the air hot and humid and barely moving, and I'm packing.

After my accident, I sent most of the contents of my car down to my post office here, general delivery: books; notes I'd made for the trip; a favorite coffee mug, two pots, a knife, a bottle of hotsauce and some spices; a stack of antique postcards; a pile of clothes, ranging from a suit to the black swim trunks I'm wearing now; the kit bag Allan bought me in Guatemala (contents: toothbrush, almost flat tube of toothpaste; scissors, razor, a tiny mirror with tattoo art – hibiscus flowers and leaves around a heart bearing the banner "Amor" – painted on the back, aspirin, vitamins, sleeping pills, tiny first aid kit, two condoms, a Grolsch bottle-top that has doubled as a roach clip and a FuseBall matchbook); my backpack, tent, sleeping bag and assorted gear; a deck of cards; a road atlas into which my friends Robert and Robbyn pasted pictures of themselves and a little dialogue bubble coming from Seattle saying "Come home soon!"; Mardi Gras beads; my entire CD collection, a bag of tapes, a boombox I bought for $5 off some Mexican guy in El Paso; various financial files, a rolodex and my Thinkpad; and, for some strange reason, no less than eleven variously-sized empty stuff-sacks (they say the bag was probably the first tool, older even than the hand-ax). The second leg of the this trip, I'll be traveling by plane, train and bus. So I have to fit everything I'm taking in two bags. Everything else gets boxed and shipped back home, or left behind, or thrown out.

I leave tomorrow. Tomorrow morning we'll wake up, drive sixty miles towards the mainland, and watch the sinking of the USS Spiegal Grove (a smaller ship than the Vandenberg) which is also being bottomed to make a reef. I may meet Jacques Cousteau's son there. Then I head up the Keys Friday to Miami, and I'm underway again. On the road again, shooleeboop...

Tuesday, May 14, 2002
"Whatever else superheroes are, they are first and always commercial properties..."

A depressing truth, but still, Jim Henley makes some fine points about the Spiderman movie. I love this paragraph:

"Spiderman is a movie (and a comic) to warm the hearts of liberals. Its highest good is employing power for the sake of others. Over on Letter From Gotham, Diana Moon wrote "The best movie superhero ever is Humphrey Bogart as Rick, in Casablanca." I don't know if Diana had seen Spiderman at the time she wrote that, but in some ways, it and Casablanca are the same movie. Rick and Peter both send their true love packing: they have duties. The problems of Peter Parker don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. You're not supposed to say it, but Casablanca was a, well, a commie movie. (A great commie movie, mind you.) It's not just well-made anti-nazi propaganda; it's well-made Popular Front propaganda."

(found via Electrolite)
Monday, May 13, 2002
Simple, yet futuristic, these biogas pods brew natural gas for developing world villages out of biomass, such as animal waste. Kinda cool: round, bright orange, they have that whole disaster-relief aesthetic I love so much.
Sunday, May 12, 2002
Shift magazine has a pretty good series of profiles of "Green Innovators" in the current issue. Mostly faces that those paying attention will be well familiar with, but still worth a peek.
Okay, this is how out-of-date our space program is: NASA's buying old shuttle parts on eBay.
Saturday, May 11, 2002
Thinking in Pictures, Not in Words...
I love reading writer's notebooks and journals, and the workbooks of poets. Creativity in draft is sometimes more powerful than the finished piece. I like to look at how other people work themselves up to an idea before they write it.

I've just been learning in the last couple years that visual artists do the same thing with their sketchbooks. I am of course intrigued. And envious: I must learn how to sketch, to paint, to shoot a decent photo. To talk in pictures.
Friday, May 10, 2002
"Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising." - Cyril Connolly (from metafilter)

Thursday, May 09, 2002
The Final Frontier, c. 2002
So, on my way up the coast I'm planning to stop by the Kennedy Space Center, if I can swing it, and do a little thinking about what the whole vision of space exploration once meant to this nation.

Earlier today I was talking with Bruce, who said "Our space program has become a hollow symbol, like one of those giant Stalinist statues of the worker and the peasant, full of rust and crumbling brick. We're shooting these 30 year old shuttles off into orbit in some weird ritual, like it actually meant anything anymore."

I'm still enough of a geek to thrill to the idea of real space travel, terraforming and encounters with alien races (though I don't expect to see any of those things in my lifetime if they ever happen at all), but I have to admit he's got a point. I mean, God, they couldn't pay me enough to get on that creaky space station with the run-away mutant molds, the broken toilets, the toxic air and the space junk hurtling by at 17,000 m.p.h.
I'm working on a piece for the New York Fawkin' Times Magazine!

More details as appropriate.
Tuesday, May 07, 2002
I love visual representations of systems. I'm a sucker for Tufte's books.

Here's another one: in this case A Picture of Weblogs, linked together into a pattern based on how many links go to and from them. Mindblowing.
Sunday, May 05, 2002
Key West, Where the Fun Never Ends
Went for a quiet night last night: dinner (Cuban roast pork... Mmmm...) and early-to-bed. I've got so much to do that a good night's sleep is pretty much a neccessity.

But this was not be. About one a.m. I woke to sirens, a strange smell and a pounding on the door.

Yep, there was a fire next door. The firefighters put it out quickly enough, but it took me hours to fall back asleep.
Thursday, May 02, 2002
Just a Thursday Afternoon in Key West
So, it's been one of those days where the writing comes slow, and any excuse to procrastinate is a fine one. I went to Fausto's to get sandwhich makings, did some Web research on coral reef ecosystems (and then some more "research" touring the blogs and reading the papers), organized my notes, transcribed an interview, and was all but ready to start cleaning Joe's kitchen (any port in a storm) when Joe and I decided it was time for a well-earned smoke break.

No sooner do we step outside, though, than a big blue van comes screeching to a stop five feet from the door and a whole SWAT squad pours out, stage-whispering "go! go! go!" I'm talking the real thing here folks. I'm talking kevlar vests and helmets, faceplates and shotguns, a battering ram and M16s. I'm talking overwhelming force. They rush out, not saying a word to us, and covering each other with raised weapons, storm the house across the way. Boom! we hear the door go down. Shouts. A baby crying hysterically. More cops arrive, and big burly guys in "CUSTOMS" jackets, all with their weapons drawn. A helicopter circles above.

Now there's this whole Al Sharpton thing happening right outside my door: crowds of outraged black people (whole families, complete with grandmas, strollers and little girls sitting on the sidewalk playing jacks), three cars of ominous-looking dudes parked down at the intersection, doors and trunks open, blasting rap at window-rattling volume, more cops than I've seen since the WTO, and guys being led away in plastic handcuffs to the angry shouts of the neighbors.

Who can write with this kind of bedlam erupting? It's like I woke up in Jenin.
Wednesday, May 01, 2002
Hot Times
The first three months of 2002 were the hottest on record, and, according to ice core samples, probably the hottest for at least the last 1,000 years, British scientists reported Friday.
"Luxury, Damn'd Luxury and Vice"
Being here in Key West has reminded me how much I suffer from what David Brooks terms an "income-status discrepancy." That is, I have opportunities incongruent with my earning power. I manage to find ways to enjoy hobbies I can't afford (like snorkeling reefs and appreciating art), to live in expensive places on a negligible salary, to get myself invited to parties in homes on which a down-payment would take several lifetimes of my current income.

And I have to admit I often enjoy my stints of tourism in the Land of the Investors. It's always flattering to be invited, after all, and who really dislikes luxury? You may agree with me that chasing luxury is a silly thing to do with one's life, that, as my friend Marie has it, "the biscuit ain't worth the trick," but when a caterer in a black collarless shirt hands you a caviar-smeared imported cracker, do you toss it back in his face? I didn't think so.

I try not to judge the rich folks I meet on moral grounds, first of all because I live in a moral Glashaus myself, but also because I know deeply, intuitively that LP Smith's line, "To suppose, as we all suppose, that we could be rich and not behave the way the rich behave, is like supposing that we could drink all day and stay sober," is absolutely right. "The rich are not like you and I" – Fitzgerald. Hemmingway – "Yeah, they have a lot more money." Very few of us, given 50 mil, would handle it well. New money, in which this country is aswim, is never a pretty thing.

Environmentalists are even more at pains to refrain from judging the wealthy. Take, just as one instance, the Ecological Footprint quiz. An "ecological footprint" is a clever metaphor for attempting to determine how much a person's lifestyle impacts the environment. The quiz asks you a number of questions (about your driving habits, the size of your house, whether or not you eat meat) and then tells you, generally, how many acres of land it takes to support the lifestyle you lead, and how many extra planet Earths would be required for everyone around the globe to live the way you do. Clever idea. Usefully illustrative. Huzzah.

But oddly enough, the questions on the quiz are decidedly skewed towards middle- and upper-middle class American audiences. For instance, while there is a question about how large your house is, there is neither a place to enter the fact that one owns more than one house, nor to input a home size larger than 10,000 ft2. I know several wealthy people for whom both are true. Nor is there a place to note one's ownership of a 55' yacht.

I could go on, but even more mystifying to me is the fact that income is not even included as a question. The authors' explanation, that while "higher average incomes are correlated with larger Ecological Footprints[,] income alone… is not an accurate measure," strikes me as (though perhaps accurate) awfully namby-pamby, almost as bad as the early-90s admonitions that we're all responsible for the environment.

True enough, in its way, but some of us are more responsible than others. I remember last summer, when the Northwest was struggling through one of its worst droughts in memory, when the talk was of drastic water rate hikes and the city was hawking water-conservation like a carnie on rent day. You may have seen the photos of once-massive mountain reservoirs reduced to tepid little mud ponds. Well, some intrepid reporters raked the muck and found that a large percentage of the water used in the city (outside of industrial water usage, and that's a different mackerel to wrap) was in fact used by a small number of wealthy people with large yards and formal gardens to maintain ("waterhogs," they were promptly dubbed). While the average middle-class Seattleite was dropping rocks in the tank of her commode, these guys were sloshing foot-acres of water on their roses and imported cherry trees.

Enormous efforts go into hiding from our sight the ecological effects of our own actions. Unpleasant realities are made invisible. We don’t know (and usually don't want to know) where the water goes when we flush our toilets, or what the forest cut to make the pulp for our napkins looks like now. This is understandable, though regrettable. But the costs of maintaining the lifestyles of the rich and famous is not just invisible, they're in some ways un-thinkable. That is, luxury falls in a mental category completely outside the sphere of environmental concerns.

One answer to this problem is regulatory. We could tax environmental impact. We could require impact fees on new houses, to pay for the costs of soil erosion and disruption to the water table. We could tax the carbon in gasoline. We could more strongly graduate utility rates, like we do income taxes, so the luxuriant pay more. Being one part wonk, I could drift on for paragraphs here, floating higher and higher on the lighter-than-air perfection of abstract policy.

But let's land that zeppelin. We live in a nation where a proposed 50 cent-a-gallon gasoline tax increase (which would have left our gas still about half the price of that of most of the rest of the world) very nearly blew a hole below the waterline of the Clinton Administration. We live in a country that's willing to become an international diplomatic pariah rather than sign the watered-down Kyoto Treaty. We have a president elected by Big Oil, and a Congress in the fairly direct employ of the extremely wealthy. As Nicholas Lemann says, we have government of, by and for the comfortable. Radical, heck, even mild, environmental regulation is just not on.

Another answer is the idea of voluntary simplicity. Show people the benefits of the simple life. Encourage them to turn their empty milk jugs into planters. Give them tips on how used rags can be woven into handsome and practical throw rugs. I know I'm not being fair. Whatever. I'm not unsympathetic to the simple life. I've practiced an involuntary simplicity for years. But we're the status-seeking monkeys. The desire to shine before our peers is deeply rooted in our nature. And the things only a lot of money can get you are still the shiny stuff of choice.

Which leads us to Viridian design. Redesign everything. Make luxury sustainable. Make pollution gauche and déclassé. Make ecological style irresistible to the rich, and the rest of us will follow panting along behind. It's as good an idea as any other I've heard.

But I can't help but suspect another possibility exists (and I'm not talking about "Eat the Rich" class warfare, though I would look smashing in a Che Guevara beret). I'm still fuzzy on the details (okay, fuzzy on the concept as a whole), but I suspect that as attention continues to become the most valuable currency (and as unique experience continues to become the truly hip marker of status, and as distributed peer-to-peer efforts continue to become the model of innovative action…) a new, different set of possibilities is emerging. And always cognizant of the fact that the weight of what exists now exerts an undue constraint on our understanding of what's possible, even of what's likely, this gives me hope. Our way of life is ossified and archaic. The rich of our day are dinosaurs. Something small and fast is moving, out of sight, underneath the shrubbery.

And the next time I have a cut crystal champagne flute in my hand, I'll be thinking of small frisky mammals and smiling.

My Brief Career as a DJ
I spent a few hours yesterday afternoon at the Smallest Radio Station in the Country, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon and bantering on-air with DJ Vinny about the book and whatever other subjects we wandered into. Had an absolute blast. Vinny is one of the funniest humans I've met, and bears a fairly strong resemblance to my good buddy, NPR radioman Robert Smith.

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