Monday, October 30, 2006

Irreducible Complexity

How does it feel
How does it feel?
To be on your own
With no direction home
Like a complete unknown
Like a Rolling Stone?

-Bob Dylan

I posted recently about the undercurrents of the religion v. science debate raging in certain elements of the blogosphere, and now, the NYTimes confirms the discussion carries through in other media, with many of the current best sellers lying firmly in that category. Along with documentary films and non-fiction, people want to consume their media with more interest in how it will effect their lives in the here and now. Stories are great, and I am reading one now that is highly entertaining (more on that later); but it would appear a momentum is swinging towards seeking out truth, in whatever form that can be absorbed in. More than just authors promoting their work on tour, it seems the desire is their to cut through the crap and get real about certain things. Too much deception will do that.

Along with Jon Stewart, Bill Maher seems to be one switched on and funny guy (at least to me anyway). With the "New Rules" segment on his show, and regular blog, he has some very poignant comments. Especially about why in the hell they are drug-testing librarians. Dear me.
As long as they still allow people like that to satirize what needs to be satirized, then I suppose all the civil liberties in that country have not yet been abolished in the name of fighting terror. How do you fight a noun, anyway? With a verb?

OneGoodMove seems to be still posting these handy clips, but the days of mass circulation from the likes of YouTube may be over. Fun while it lasted, but that's corporate life for you.

In the What's-Wrong-With-This-Picture-Dept: Ford Auto Company posts a $5 billion dollar loss in the last quarter, while Google continues to please investors with a $750 million dollar profit. That's per quarter, folks. 3 months.

I remember hiking in the Cascade mountains many years ago, with the majestic Mt St Helens and Glacier Peak always in view. It was a great place to be in the fall, with apple orchards on the eastern side for some between-semester income during University days, and the San Juan archipelago on the western side with all its hidden isles and great sailing. The Mountain Larch is one of the striking icons of these ranges, a gorgeous golden display on a deciduous conifer that now draws walkers and hikers at this time of year up to witness the fall color "Cascade Style". Must see area.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Sympathetic Vibrations

"And it taught us more about living
Than we ever cared to know
But we came to find the secret
And we never let it go"

-Van Morrison

Now I know why they called it a cursor. Mine blinks defiantly at me on the screen in front of a grey day, almost taunting me to try and figure out what to write. There is nothing to figure out, and once I had gotten that, words and ideas emerge much easier.

I have written a bit lately about another great internet story, YouTube, a wildly popular user-friendly site that oh, just plays 100 million video clips a day for a hungry audience, and the bright young guys that just sold it to Google for a billion and a half and some change. These are not just tech stories or get-rich-quick American success stories either. These entrepreneurs and purveyors of a very disruptive technology called user-generated content, are the vanguard of the revolution in media that has been taking place over the last few years. A revolution taking place that effects the way we do just about everything in our lives. Particularly if we communicate, create, share, or otherwise collaborate with anyone on just about anything. Good luck to them. If you are interested in some of the videos that were posted over the year and a half of its independent life, drew huge audiences, and finally the attention of Google, NPR has an article and links to some of the most popular here. And they are not all frat-boy type prank videos, but mainly clips from mainstream media that gained massive sudience share by way of their uniquely simple platform and distribution.

It is not without its challenges however for the new owners, who have copywrite issues galore to deal with, and have already pulled 30,000 clips for that reason.

A Free Hugs campaign is something I definitely would not have seen anywhere else, and happy to have it forwarded. Worth a look.

Elsewhere in cyberspace, ominous clouds of greed appear to be gathering around the concept of Net Neutrality and cooperative commerce by none other than the providers of bandwitdth, (i.e. corporate media conglomerates) who apparently would like to enhance their position both financially as well as physically by deciding what content would be best for us to consume. Bill Moyers has an excellent article here, and a short video clip is here. Watch this space. It may not be the same for much longer.

Spring in New Zealand is a real hit-or-miss affair. We have the droves of "day trippers", boaties and other tourists out on the island looking for sunshine and creating long queues at the ferry terminal this weekend due to the Labour Day Holida. Sure enough, it is raining so hard right now, I can hardly hear Bob on the stereo. Great for the farms. Not so for holidaymakers trying to entertain the hordes of kids with boardgames I imagine.

Not quite the beginning of the camping season, most will find themselves supporting our local economy in the cafes or pubs today, before overloading the hopelessly under-resourced ferry system, which has at least 2 or 3 boats out of commission on one of the busiest holidays of the year. I think they blew another engine last week or something, I can't remember, it happens so often. Which is why I stay out here as much as I possibly can. Kayaks work well.

In grittier parts of the world, there is now a consensus of sorts that the debacle in Iraq, which many informed journalists have been declaring a disaster for the last 2 years, is finally reaching a Tipping Point, and major changes will ensue. Oh really? This Guardian article sums up the wasted bloodshed and political fallout in the U.S. as well as Britain.

Our local cinema is showing The Power of Community, How Cuba Survived Peak Oil again, a powerful doco detailing what happened in Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I like the approach that was taken, finding innovative and collaborative solutions on a local level to problems that seem too large on a global level.

Dwelling still in the realms of the global, I haven't been flying much recently, more due to timing and the hassles involved than anything else (though I would like to think I remain conscious of the carbon dioxide released from jet aircraft). Carbon trading is meant to be an incentive for us to "balance" the emissions we create from our activities with those that reduce those emissions. In case you are interested in how much CO2 is released on a flight from A to B, this Climate Care site is one that can inform you on such details. My sisters wedding in California next February now appears to be more expensive than I first imagined.

The Green Jet Setters have one more PR issue to deal with as a result.

Still, all one has to do is spend a few hours in the sun on a warm summers day down here in New Zealand, and it will become rapidly apparent something is not working in the atmosphere, and needs immediated attention (as will your skin from the super strong UVs).

A bigger picture of the Spinach/E.Coli problem in the States recently from besteselling author Michael Pollan (Botany of Desire and The Omnivores Dilemma).

And finally, for those of us who like to read alot, there are now (surprise!) digital readers that will download and carry lots of books around for you in yet another gadget. So far, not such good reviews, and personally, I like the feel of paper pages, rather than the scrolling a screen which often drives me mad on the computer. This review in Slate Magazine asks if the new Sony Reader is the new iPod for books. Er, not quite.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Cultural Momentum

"Relationships of ownership
They whisper in the wings
To those condemned to act accordingly
And wait for succeeding kings.
And I try to harmonize with songs
The lonesome sparrow sings
There are no kings inside the Gates of Eden"

-Bob Dylan

Yesterday, whilst mowing a large hillside of weeds in the tractor and listening attentively to the latest Eckhart Tolle offering The Findhorn Retreat on the trusty iPod, it occurred to me just what was happening. A nest of Pukekos was scampering for a hasty retreat, lest it come to rest under the tractor. Yikes! All safe and sound in the end with some NASCAR type driving. Tolle, the soft spoken German and author of the best selling non-fiction Power of Now, has in this latest recording continued sharing his conceptual thinking on presence of mind and the difference between form and formless. If you believe there is more to life than living, and more to death than dying, it will be understood and received with familiarity. If not, you won't make it very far through the 4 CD set.

Staying in the world of personalities, although most definitely in the worldly sense; two men I have come to enjoy listening to for their sense of humour and wit, as well as timing and intelligence are on this clip together. Yes, Jon Stewart on the David Letterman Show. Jon talks about his family, having the President of Pakistan on his show, and a few other tidbits. From the site of choice for the agnostic crowd, One Good Move.

Between the mystical underpinnings of a New Age guru to the world of cultural transformation, my media consumption can
be called anything but limited at the moment. The book I finished this weekend, called Escaping the Matrix by Richard Moore, is a convincingly well written indictment of current as well as historical "democratic" societies; using the metaphor of the Matrix as a vehicle for the manufactured reality perpetuated by the wealthy elite to keep power. His remedies for getting out of "dominator" type societies into more "participative" societies include optimistic but very plausible local action initiatives gaining momentum for eventual political revitalisation and cultural transformation. I could comment at length on this, having been a supporter of community and local initiatives as opposed to any type of centralised governing structure for many years. It hits home when I see the genesis of the movement in my own community on this island. An excerpt from the book sums up a bit on its own:

"The situation is much different, however, when people have sovereignty over their own communities, and when they use harmonisation instead of majority rule. Under such a democratic system, there is no tyranny to protect ourselves against: each of us participates equally in the decision-making process, and our concerns are taken into account along with everyone else's...The only fixed guarantees needed in a democratic society are guarantees that communities have sovereignty, and that participatory democracy be used to decide issues within and among communities. And the best guarantee for these things is a culture based on harmonisation."

A bit Utopian? Perhaps. But, if you live in a small community, and local decisions effect your life in a very direct way, you can see often how productive it is to switch from adversarial politics to collaborative. The local food movement, and the enormously popular CSA, is just one example.

Another great example, is the just recently named winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Muhammed Yunis, and the Grameen Bank he founded to make local loans to the local poor. In the process, he created a new economic movement called Microcredit. Primarily focused on the rural, and women, it is a system devised around collaborative effort that has been successful in lifting millions out of poverty. That has got to be a good thing.

Anything is possible.
And some things actually happen.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Densely Saturated with Meaning

"Beauty is the moment of transition,
as if the form were ready to flow into other forms"

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

I don't normally write Letters to Editors, but it was a nasty day yesterday, with a Spring hailstorm that wreaked havoc on the wonderous beginning to an otherwise benign Spring. We have a passionate populus here on the island, and many are rightly concerned with the direction it will be taking with regards to future developments. So, much is played out in the 3 (yes three!) weekly newspapers that cover the changing demographics of our 8000 permanent residents. We have the pro-, we have the anti-, and we have the I-don't- care-I-just- want- to- make-money- on- my- house brigades, each reflected in their own type of periodical. One editor/publisher was spouting off about the demise of democracy hijacked by the "barrow-pushers", etc., and really needed to have a word with himself. So I helped. There's democracy for you.

Just in case no one has listened to my rants about the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, now showing regularly on NZ television, here is a video clip from a MSM source interviewing other media players who all agree that he has major influence on under 30's in the States, is one of the most trusted names on TV, and that spells trouble with a capital T for the established players. Great viewing.

Hong Kong's Standard newspaper with a view on the recent buy out of YouTube by Google.
30 million pairs of eyeballs each month! Advertisers only dream about that kind of attention. It was bound to attract interest from someone. And only 20 months old.

Whilst on video, if you are a reeeeal geek, and can figure out how to do some sort of complicated mathematical equations, Netflix will pay you ALOT of money to upgrade their rating system for DVD's so that it more accurately reflects what people like. It is a classsic upselling model that works well on the net. Think Amazon.Com's "others who bought this, also liked this..." sort of thing. Amazon does it brilliantly, I must admit.

Away from pixels and back on to the farm...No doubt the industrialised food chain is susceptible to more outbreaks of E.Coli and other bacterial problems, that are inherent in food that is sourced from farther and farther away, warehoused, and trucked, and stored, and... you get the picture. San Jose Mercury News gives the lowdown here. Business Week online jumps into the fray with the Organic Myth, being the next big ticket margin for Supermarket chains, who want it to go mainstream as soon as possible, because it is such a "growth category". Right. The problem is, if standards are inevitably lowered to make it into WalMart and Costco, then where is the stewardship of the land that is the backbone of the movement? Remember Small is Beautiful? At the crossroads, I am afraid. What is the point of buying organic if all the ingredients have been flown in from around the world, emitting tons of carbon dioxide in the process?

Also on health related topics, this oversimplified, but truthful article on water as an underrated part of our nutritional makeup form Alternet.

Finally, another great essay from the NPR series "This I Believe", on failure as a good thing, from a regular SF Chronicle columnist.

Nice to know. Hopefully not a habit, anyway.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Only The Strong Survive

"It is not a sign of good health
to be well adjusted to a sick society."

- J. Krishnamurti

I love American sports. They may have alot of their geopolitical and social priorities all twisted up in fear and greed, but man, do they do sports! Although admittedly, nothing can replace the "beautful game" of football, and in particular the European clubs, the Americans get pretty close with their playoff seasons in both basketball and baseball. Ever since coming down to the Antipodes, the flow and athleticism of rugby has surpassed girdiron or "American Football" for me, but the very uniquely American baseball and basketball showcase individual talents superbly. That can also be a problem for them on the world stage, as their is so much talent, that when they compete together representing the U.S., apart from the familiarity of their clubs, they do not do well. However, there is such tangible passion from the fans, great action, drama, and tactics that highlight the tremendous effort and concentraion that goes into being a professional athlete. These guys are focused. I have often wondered what it would feel like to walk off a stadium with 50,000 people applauding and congratulating your efforts in securing the victory for the home team. Adrenaline surging through the veins is the "juice" that keeps them going like nothing else. Some decide to artificially inject, but why take a needleful of it, when it is freely available after a great performance?

I have been to a couple of new sites recently that may be of interest to some, and certainly has me appreciating the hard work and imagination that goes into creating these entertaining and informative interactive media. Imagination Cubed allows one to draw and share artwork with others collaboratively, which would have all kinds of educational uses, especially to younger ones perhaps just getting their confidence in artistic endeavours. Qunu gives instant real-time help online for those tricky tech problems that may be slowing down your productivity at the keyboard, or just plain annoying you(yes, I have been there). Experts donate their time, and from there, it is up to you to get what you can from them. Both of these came from a great show on BBC called Click, keeping us abreast in laymans terms, with the fast paced world of IT and all its spinoffs. Great presenter and format.

Also worth sharing are a couple of very good docos that are available at, if not your local NetfLix or video shop. One is about the soul singers of the 60's and 70's from Stax records like Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and the like, some of whom are still alive and performing, with all the amazing energy and rythm of 40 years ago. Only The Strong Survive, is an entertaining and informative DVD I would recommend to anyone who loves the old R&B and soul from the USA. They made it, and are still going.

The other is a PBS documentary called The Persuaders, all about the innovative and insidious efforts marketers are making in these times to separate you from your money. In this age of YouTube and MySpace, advertisers increasingly require a dialogue with consumers in order to keep their attention, rather than just broadcast messages at them. This kind of emotional branding helps sort out the clutter for us, so we know just exactly what we want. Products and services that reflect our values and lifestyle, and of course, they have just that. Yeah right. The best line in the whole film is someone defining what the secret of real persuasion is: Inducing a person to persude themselves. OK then.

On a totally different note, and one closer to my passion, would be the elegant and ephemeral work of Andy Goldsworthy, and Scottish artist whose sculptures made in collaboration with the natural world around him is shown brilliantly in the film Rivers and Tides. A truly great documentary, that I enjoy every time I see it.

There are some cultural highlights of a visual nature for your library. Before leaving this post, I must share one article which seemed to sum up well the futility of madness involved in recent shootings of Amish schoolgirls. From The Australian, as well as other sources, the media reports seem to focus on how the Amish have been able to accept and forgive such an horrendous violation of their peaceful lives. Perhaps even though they are not immune to the violence all around them, more people now realise why they choose to live the life they do. And how it helps them to stay together.

Whatever works.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Spring Shape-Shifting

"Reality is relative to the measuring apparatus."

In my regular wanderings through this virtual zeitgeist known commonly as the internet, the flavour of discussion often drifts towards the age old showdown of religion v. science. I don't know if it is as a result of the rise in fundamentalism, both in the Islamic and the Christian worlds, or the evolutionary demographic of the web-savy. It seems as common on news sites, as blogs, or threads to any number of articles and essays. It is almost as though the scientific community has decided to make an orchestrated attempt to bring reason, facts and evidence back into the dialogue, as a response to the perceived increasing dominance of religious based thought and infuence in international affairs. And it is not moderate religious thought, but extreme. Think Evangelical or Taliban. Either way it spells intolerance.

Scientific American has this summary of some the latest books on the debate.

An excerpt from Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion:

Fundamentalism And The Subversion of Science.

Fundamentalists know they are right because they have read the truth in a holy book and they know, in advance, that nothing will budge them from their belief. The truth of the holy book is an axiom, not the end product of a process of reasoning. The book is true, and if the evidence seems to contradict it, it is the evidence that must be thrown out, not the book. By contrast, what I, as a scientist, believe (for example, evolution) I believe not because of reading a holy book but because I have studied the evidence. It really is a very different matter. Books about evolution are believed not because they are holy. They are believed because they present overwhelming quantities of mutually buttressed evidence. In principle, a reader can go and check that evidence. When a science book is wrong, somebody eventually discovers the mistake and it is corrected in subsequent books. That conspicuously doesn't happen with holy books.

Maybe scientists are fundamentalist when it comes to defining in some abstract way what is meant by 'truth', but so is everybody else. I am no more fundamentalist when I say evolution is true than when I say it is true that New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere. We believe in evolution because the evidence supports it, and we would abandon it overnight if new evidence arose to disprove it. No real fundamentalist would ever say anything like that.

It is all too easy to confuse fundamentalism with passion. I may well appear passionate when I defend evolution against a fundamentalist creationist, but this is not because of a rival fundamentalism of my own. It is because the evidence for evolution is overwhelmingly strong and I am passionately distressed that my oppenent can't see it - or, more usually refuses to look at it because it contradicts his holy book. My passion is increased when I think about how much the poor fundamentalists, and those whom they influence, are missing. The truths of evolution, along with many other scientific truths are so engrossingly fascinating and beautiful; how truly tragic to die having missed out on all that! Of course that makes me passionate. How could it not? But my belief in evolution is not fundamentalism, and it is not faith, because I know what it would take to change my mind, and I would gladly do so if the necessary evidence were forthcoming.

Or this from Sam Harris, author of the new book, Letter to a Christian Nation:

The conflict between science and religion is reducible to simple fact of human cognition and discourse; either a person has good reasons for what he believes, or he does not. If there were good reasons to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse, these beliefs would necessarily form part of our rational description of the universe. Everyone recognizes that to rely upon "faith" to decide specific questions of historical fact is ridiculous—that is, until the conversation turns to the origin of books like the Bible and the Koran, to the resurrection of Jesus, to Muhammad's conversation with the archangel Gabriel, or to any other religious dogma. It is time that we admitted that faith is nothing more than the license religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail.

What is our "rational description of the universe"? I don't know. Many are worried in places like the U.S. about the increasing overlap of Church and State. But even with these well known and respected writers and thinkers, intolerance is not far below the surface in their passionate pleas for rationalist, evidence-based thought. The rest is dogma, and has no place. How boring. How UNsatisfying.

I agree that taking something on someone's word, or blind faith in a concept is dangerous. Action without purpose ends up becoming ritual. Rituals become dogmas, and the whole spiral carries on for generations. But what these "scientists" need to understand, in their endless quest for proof and evidence to support the existence of something that may be beyond understanding, is that individual direct experience is as much evidence as one needs. But the experience may only be available to one who has tried the "experiment". I don't need a license to believe something, regardless of whether it is reasonable or not. And I consider myself a "reasonable" person. There may be other, or different scientific methods or experiments that have stood the test of time. Only when we can accept that this universe may not be all there is, will we be able to see a wider perspective, and tolerate those who believe in that which cannot be proven. For those who have gone beyond, it is not necessary either to be believed by anyone or to prove anything. It is the scientists that need to prove. They wave their "scientific method" around with as much fervour as those who wave their holy books.

As Evolution and Intelligent Design battle for the minds of the next generations, perhaps it could be that evolution is an intelligent design? Perhaps it is precisely because we can see the proof for species evolving, it will motivate us to seek more proof, however that comes, for the reasons why. Could something as intricately interwoven and beautiful as this universe be as random as a big bang?

Some thoughts to ponder as I take my daily walk, and listen. Much the same as this contributor to NPR's This I Believe series. More listening can only help us to communicate better.

And that has to be a good thing.