Sunday, March 25, 2007

Culture Shifting

"People are crazy
Times are strange;

I used to care
But things have changed"

-Bob Dylan

Here are two powerful articles worth your time, both excerpts from books I have recently read. The first one here is by Michael Pollan, and it articulately sums up the food system in the USA: Fast, easy, cheap. He also explains how (and why) corn is slipped into nearly 25% of the items in your local supermarket, subsidized by the taxpayer to give out empty calories fast, easy and cheap. You get what you pay for...

For more, visit his website.

The other is by Bill McKibben, author of the new release Deep Economy, which is just about as brilliant a wake up call I have ever read. He challenges the prevailing wisdom on economic growth, and shows in example after example, how more does not necessarily equal happy. He is a strong advocate of local economies, and the power behind communities. His article here has very salient and timely points from the book.

Ever since Rodney King let out those simple words "Can't we all just get along people?" in the middle of Southern California riots so many years ago, I always think about it.

One either gets along, or not. Situations change, people change. Different people definitely do things differently.

If it is true that "we don't see the world as it is, we see the world as we are", then getting to know how others are, might be a good start to getting along.

The World Values Survey is one place to find out more about those who live in this world with you, their values, beliefs, and how they are. Neat map, too.

For instance, on the subject of drugs, there are many different ways people choose to intoxicate themselves, or relax however you view it. Not many of them would be good for you, but there are some that are clearly less harmful than others. Depending, of course upon usage. These latest British studies reported in the Guardian, are rightly putting spotlight back on the likes of alcohol and tobacco, so long having the free ride, because of their legal status. Dangerous is dangerous, and these experts are rating what is and what is less. Interesting stuff.

If you are old enough to remember Soupy Sales, then you will most likely want to click on this link to see a short clip of him that explains why he is laughing so hard...

Could it be an unrehearsed surprise (in the form a stripper), greeting him on the usual closing gag was just a bit too much? This guy was alright. Very early days of T.V. comedy

Whole Foods, that cathedral of "organic" foods in the States, gets a once over from a British journalist on the eve of its entry into the U.K. They are nice supermarkets, as supermarkets go, and they certainly have their legions of fans, but are they really doing all they can to source local, fresh food, or are they the green version of Wal Mart?Watch this space.

Bill Maher is a pretty funny guy, and he pushes his satire right to the edge sometimes. I do not watch his show, as it is not carried here in New Zealand, but what I do see, especially his New Rules segment are quite good. Here in this YouTube clip he decides he has had enough of having his patriotism challenged, and asks whether the current president is even a patriot.

Well, you know it had to come. Perfect for the Japanese, that love to talk and smoke, this Cigphone has everything you need right at your fingertips. A must have gadget, I will not have..

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Reading Writing and Eating

" Eating is an agricultural act"

-Wendell Berry

I love writing.

I don't put pressure on myself to come up with ideas to write about, or set any deadlines to meet, which means I will probably languish in the realm of under paid and under published for an indeterminate amount of time.

But that is OK.

It is more the process (and challenge) of putting together the myriad of ideas and thoughts streaming through, seeing how they can be communicated articulately that is most enthralling to me. I takes me out of my self for awhile, and opens the window of concentration a bit more. It is good practice.

As Julia Cameron says bluntly in her encouraging
Right to Write:

"Not writing creates self obsession. Self obsession blocks connection with others. Self obsession blocks connection with self."

For her, writing is a way of life, one that I have not yet really entered. Flirting as I do with it, the temptation is growing to make a more concerted effort to enter that world. She is a great example and lively inspiration in her books.

The Wikipedia entry for writer and 2001 Nobel Prize winner in literature V.S. Naipaul has the following quote from Joan Didion:

"The actual world has for Naipaul a radiance that diminishes all ideas of it. The pink haze of the bauxite dust on the first page of
Guerrillas tells us what we need to know about the history and social organization of the unnamed island on which the action takes place, tells us in one image who runs the island and for whose profit the island is run and at what cost to the life of the island this profit has historically been obtained, but all of this implicit information pales in the presence of the physical fact, the dust itself... The world Naipaul sees is of course no void at all: it is a world dense with physical and social phenomena, brutally alive with the complications and contradictions of actual human endeavor... This world of Naipaul's is in fact charged with what can only be described as a romantic view of reality, an almost unbearable tension between the idea and the physical fact..."

Naipaul himself takes a more sweeping approach recently in a Guardian article about his roots and the lands whose histories he dissects:

"But writing was my vocation; I had never wished to be anything but a writer. My practice as a writer had deepened the fascination with people and narrative that I had always had, and increasingly now, in the larger world I had wanted to join, that fascination was turning into a wish to understand the currents of history that had created the fluidity of which I found myself a part. It was necessary for me as a writer to engage with the larger world. I didn't know how to set about it; there was no example I could follow."

Exactly. There rarely is any example to follow, and that is why I love writing. Yes, there are many published as well as unpublished wordsmiths out there, and I enjoy reading as many as I can. Reading gives me almost as much pleasure as creating through the written word. But the process of writing, - the transformation of personal direct experience and idea into language and narrative, the words that are chosen, the magical flow of subliminal energy out through the hands to what can be read and interpreted - that is a hard example to try and follow.

Any complete reader or writer would have had experience with the Grand Dame of publishing, the New Yorker, and now one can get all their back issues (over 4,000) on one convenient hard drive. Great. Call me old fashioned, but half the fun of those magazines is to flip the pages and see the cartoons amid the writing and hustle bustle of one of the greatest cities. I take the occasional article from them, but to read a screen for too long is not easy. Thats why those e-book readers won't take off. I don't know anybody that actually enjoys looking at a screen for very long periods.

Subject to both a book and a documentary, the Wild Parrots of San Francisco are getting a bit more protection from the city, to ensure their habitat stays intact and their fame grows. That is a good news story. It is the simple things that can bring so much joy.

Meanwhile, over in Australia (way over - West Australia in fact), this guy netted a cool $20,000 for riding a monster wave near the Margaret River. He would certainly be double-stoked - to be both alive, and to be a winner. Well done.

Whilst still in San Francisco (where else?) a new subculture of neo-nomads, who fancy themselves a bit like the Bedouin, like their coffee strong and their wireless free, and are doing business the way they want to in wired cafes around the city. It used to be the garage or dorm room was the success story for tecchies, now it looks like the place of choice for successful new start-ups will be some wired cafe in the back streets of the Mission District. Wait for it.

Remember this lady? The fired NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak, part of a love triangle of astronauts that went awry, tried to kidnap her rival and well, basically lost the plot.
The before and after pictures speak volumes about either the air up there, or why some people should definitely stay on the meds..

And you thought your job was stressful!

"It was written I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice."

- Joseph Conrad
Heart of Darkness

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Two Monks and a Turning Tide

Two monks were arguing about a flag.
One said: "The flag is moving."
The other said: "The wind is moving."
The Buddha happened to be passing by.
He told them: "Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving."

Mind is moving. And does it cover some ground.

It has taken me a few days to re-connect all my bodies from the rigors of long haul flights and doing family large in the States, and except for its minor physical setbacks, the trip has left me mentally and intellectually invigorated.

It feels as though the tide is turning.

Sympathetic vibration is not a term I use frequently, but it seems to encapsulate much of the feeling I got recently in the States from those whom I spoke, from the places I visited, and what I read. It has been a long 6 years, and the momentum for change, the drivers for change seem in place and almost like an idling race car at the starting line, ready to roll.

In particular I refer to the inextricably linked lifestyle of excess fossil fuel consumption/global warming/ industrial food system that has been chugging along at a totally unsustainable rate for the last 60 years with disastrous consequences. George Bush's administration have in some ways ironically helped the catalyst for change by "throwing fuel on the fire", instead of looking for ways to dampen the flames. It is now a raging inferno, and many more can see it, including some in his own political party.

But as Al Gore states emphatically in his Oscar winning documentary "An Inconvenient Truth", it is "moral issue rather than a political one". That really got me thinking. I have a daughter, she will someday have children, and what is it that we will be leaving them in terms of a planet? What kind of biodiversity? What kind of atmosphere? What kind of society?

Although Gore has his fair share of critics (both about the message and the messenger) no one in my opinion has done more in terms of educating and raising awareness of the causes and solutions to the most pressing issue of our times than the man who won the popular vote for presidency in 2000. He may be leaving a larger carbon footprint at the moment, but his message for action is getting through, and that will reduce everyone else's (including his) in critical mass.

Partly because there is a new race on, and partly because of the Oscar success, he is everywhere in the media now. Rolling Stone explains why he should run again, and how he can win; The Guardian argues those who criticise him as hypocritical need to look at the bigger picture; and The New Yorker sums up his overall situation quite articulately as usual.

Back here in New Zealand, food miles are a big issue for our growers, and as I have often written, the food traveling around the globe is not going to last. Start getting used to eating what is in season. Time magazines cover story this week is calling local food the "new organic". Our Prime Minister is weighing in big time, positioning the country as a sustainable and efficient place in which to purchase produce, most of which is shipped by sea. Perhaps. But this is political posturing for the most part, in order to do something about a growing fear from our food exporters that they may be cut out of important markets in Europe etc. She may be correct that we do have more efficient production methods due to our favourable climate, but is missing the point really. Why are we exporting our kiwis and apples to Europe, and buying ones from Chili and California in our supermarkets? Our lifestyles and habits need to change on a personal and societal level, and the markets will respond.

To protect the markets by continuing to support unsustainable practices is the same thing the U.S. did after WWII with all the extra ammonia nitrate. As Michael Pollan explicitly talks about in his best seller The Omnivores Dilemma, a new industry was set up to utilise all the leftover chemicals from the war and it essentially replaced agriculture. , As efficient as it may have been in producing more food and reducing prices, we might as well have been sipping petroleum directly, for it has had about the same results economically and physically .

When I say the tide is turning, it comes from the heart of change in the U.S. the State of California, and from there, the Bay Area has always been a leader in social and cultural issues. Local Food Challenges such as the one Locavores have instigated have done much to raise the awareness of those in the outlying areas how they can eat in season, and where they can get the food they need any time of year. Both the SF Chronicle and the Pt Reyes Light, places I have just recently visited, have articles here and here supporting their efforts. Brilliant.

Whole Foods, the once proud and mighty chain of stores leading the organic movement in the States, is even coming under increasing fire from many sides as it tries to reconcile its growth with the original core values of supporting local farmers and providing quality organic food.

Again, Pollan from Omnivores Dilemma in describing Big Organic now in the States:

"For better or worse, these are not the kinds of farms a big company like Small Planet Foods or Whole Foods does business with today. It's simply more cost-efficient to buy from one thousand-acre farm than ten hundred-acre farms. That's not because those farms are any more productive, however. In fact, study after study has demonstrated that, measured in the amount of food produced per acre, small farms are actually more productive than big farms; it is the higher transaction costs involved...The industrial values of specialization, economies of scale, and mechanization wind up crowding out the ecological values such as diversity, complexity, and symbiosis".

And so it goes. Buyer beware.

Once Wal Mart decided to start selling "organic", one had the suspicion there would be a direct effort to manipulate the focus from local and quality to price and distribution as the main driver. Sure enough, that it what has happened, and in the world of food politics, one has to move quickly to counter such efforts. These local groups and blogs are doing a wonderful job of disseminating critical information.

Can you meet
all your dietary requirements within a 100 mile (160km) radius?

Something to think about and plan as we start to enter a new paradigm around living on this earth in a way that will allow others to use it after us.