October 31, 2007
Great Literature & the Passing of Seasons
Like this time of year in New England (and also when I lived in London and Amsterdam, although I never had a back porch in Europe), you become aware that fall is passing and winter is around the corner.
I can see it in the backlit corners of my heavenly Buddhist haven which I created behind the house - small but serene, covered with plants and herbs. The color of the morning sky changes and you can smell it in the air. The turning of seasons.
While I absolutely love the heat, fall is probably my favorite time of year, particularly when you hit an Indian summer day and are surrounded by bright orange, yellow and red leaves and children whizzing past you on their bikes. This year, I pressed a batch of New England picked leaves between wax paper, just like a ten year old child. It was a precious two hours.
There's something else I notice with the change of seasons, other than the evident coolness of the wind. It's the moment when I close off my back porch (even in San Francisco), which noticeably warms up the rest of the house. Right before and during this time, my reading spikes. I tend to read more at home in the fall than any other time of year.
While I probably read close to as much in the winter and spring, it tends to be on airplanes or hotel rooms rather than on a cozy couch by a fire or on a patio surrounded by living creatures and Veronica, my flowing vibrant hanging plant that would be a redhead if she were human.
My friend Mark -- the same Mark who opened up his lakeside Cape Cod bound house for all my Boston vicinity friends to eat and drink recently -- gave me a huge gift now close to twenty years ago. Mark birthed a dynamic and engaging co-ed book group, largely because of the attitude he brought to it and the type of people who magically appeared because of it. It was here that slow food, slow wine, and reading great literature became a must.
Some of the people in this original group came from homes that chewed on great literature in their daily lives. Daughters and sons of english teachers or renaissance people. So, unless they felt the need to rebel against everything and everyone from the primary years of their lives, its logical that great literature would carry over into their adult lives.
I was raised by my grandparents, who 'believed in reading' and even encouraged it. My grandmother was too busy raising children, grandchildren and far too many men in the family to read the classics later in life, although she constantly talked about novels and authors she admired.
My grandfather on the other hand, read every aspect of news he could get to on a regular basis, but never took up novels until he retired. And then, they constantly flowed into the house and there were books on coffee tables, side tables and next to the bedside lamp.
My father never reads -- anything from what I can tell. Everyone has the one or two things that feed their souls and for him, it is talking to people and talking to people. If he isn't surrounded by people, telling stories or jokes and buying a round of drinks, you can see the light dim in his eyes. They lose their spark, he grows bored and gets easily distracted.
It's no surprise given our background. My great grandmother who was born in 1892 and raised me for chunks of my life, was driven by the exact same thing. She got involved in politics, and one of her four husbands was a local politician as was my Uncle Alton, her oldest son. (interestingly enough, both were also professional tailors)
Despite the fact that she raised four sons, she was always external. When she was at home, just like my father, she spent her time 'getting organized.' The kitchen table was full of clutter, the kind of clutter that fills an academic's desk, everything that is, except for books.
It was remarkable that she knew precisely where things were at any given moment. I went through this same experience recently at my father's flat. His kitchen table seems to house everything that I keep deeply hidden in closets and drawers. Getting him a book on Feng Shui won't really help since he doesn't read.
I get all the same traits from every character on that side of the family, except for perhaps the messy kitchen table. I thrive on connecting to people and while I'm a terrible joke teller, I absolutely love storytelling.
YET, if too much time goes by without reading great literature, I start to feel it in my bones. It's a cranky kind of feeling, not unlike the feeling you have when it has rained for months on end and you long to see a burst of sunlight.
I finished Kurt Vonnegut's A Man Without a Country this morning, which isn't even close to a favorite book nor is he a favorite author. But he inspires a very informal conversational tone, as if you're having coffee in a diner with an old friend. And I align with a lot of his thinking, which makes me feel connected, just like soap operas do for those who don't read.
Reading the 'greats' doesn't just give you connection, it gives you inspiration, laughter, reflection and outright joy. And always, above all else, it nutures and strengthens the mind, constantly reminding you to feed your soul and then share that knowledge with others who are in need. It's the essence of life. That and love.
It's why we're here. If you haven't noticed, giving is so much more pleasurable than receiving and if you have only received, then you won't understand this.
So, Vonnegut made me laugh today; it's what he claims he loves doing most. (BTW, he despises people who uses semi-colons so not only am I defying this rule while praising him but I likely used it incorrectly).
He tells us that Shakespeare wasn't a good storyteller, and that the reason Hamlet was such a masterpiece is because it doesn't hide from the truth. Hamlet shoved 'truth' in our faces at every turn.
The bitter sadness of life, the irony, the wisdom we learn after we fail to hear the truth, and then of course, are forced to live it. And so all I'm thinking about all afternoon is TRUTH. Thanks for that Vonnegut.
And then there's another amusing reference and also another truth. He writes, "And then we have contraptions like computers that cheat you out of becoming. Bill Gates says, 'wait till you can see what your computer can become.' But it's you who should be doing the becoming, not the damn fool computer. What you can become is the miracle you were born to be through the work that you do."
Long live those who give up fame and fortune to write and in doing so, inspire and give back to so many.
October 30, 2007
The House Was A' Shakin' Tonight
My house just shook for what felt like ten minutes. Obviously it wasn't ten minutes but when your house shakes, even 20 seconds can feel like a lifetime.
It was the most 'vibrant' earthquake I've felt since I moved to San Francisco. Frankly, the others were so small, I really didn't even feel them. A blink in the night. You mainly notice the smallest of tremors from a shift of items in your house, i.e., a painting that is crooked on the wall, a bowl in your kitchen has moved slightly or there's a sprinkling of dust on your windowpane.
Given that nothing fell off the walls or broke, I figured that the magnitude was likely small. I went to Google for data within minutes, an obvious reaction, particularly when you're sitting in front of a PC when it happens.
I have always hoped when a "big one" hit, whether its here in San Francisco or elsewhere that a) I wasn't alone and b) that for XJ*H's sake, I wasn't in front of a computer.
I want to be in nature even though its probably not the safest of places. Safe nature, whatever that means in the context of earthquakes, but most definitely not in front of the controlling PC. If its really the BIG one, my last memory on this earth must NOT be staring at Windows.
Interesting. The last hour shows a small red blip (1's and 2's out of 7) whereas the last day shows a 5 out of 7 in the South Bay closer to San Jose. I didn't feel a thing yesterday. Did they mix it up? That 5 was not 24 hours ago but less than an hour ago and it extended to San Francisco and right under my house.
October 28, 2007
PopTech 2007 Photos
John Sculley and Bob Metcalfe who were two of the early founders of the event. Like the rest of us, they were standing in the rain outside the tent that housed buckets of ice cream, an annual PopTech tradition...
John Maeda, world-renowned graphic designer and artist at MIT (also in the rain :-)
John Legend, his passion through his fingers and voice moved me into another galaxy
The Brooklyn Marching Band took over the last session, bringing a few of us into the aisles to boogie down (including yours truly)
Five redheads posing for a shot outside Tom Levine's house. L to R - Zoe Keating, ABC's Teri Whitcraft, Renee Blodgett, and speakers Louanne Brizendine and Shiela Kennedy.
Renee Blodgett, Richard Frankel and Meredith Leslie Kendrigan
Patti Hillis has the coolest glasses
The energy of Elizabeth Streb is irresistable
Jamis MacNiven from Bucks of Woodside showed up
Charles Swift has courage. Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) in the U.S. Navy, Judge Advocate General's Corps, he was most famous for having served as defense counsel for Salim Ahmed Hamdan, a former driver for Osama bin Laden.
Bora Yoon performs
Cecily Sommers takes a great portrait
Chris Luebkeman of Arup Foresight & Innovation. Arup’s foresight and innovation division encourages companies to think about global drivers of change, and how these could influence their strategies.
John Shearer, CEO of Powercast
Speaker Adrian Bower
October 26, 2007
Why I Love Hands...
I have always loved hands for as long as I can remember. People have asked me over the years what I think my best feature is. (it's usually after I make a comment telling them what their best feature is"). I have not always responded with 'my hands' but more often than not, I think of hands first.
When I think about 'why' I respond with hands, its likely because I so often observe people's hands and in doing so, think about all the things that they create.
In addition to being many other things, my grandfather loved to build things, often out of wood, but sometimes out of cement, dirt and stones. He built the stone and tiled patio at our Adirondack camp in upstate New York, the larger than average wooden picnic table that sat by the firepit overlooking the lake, the chairs that brought us from the front porch down to the water's edge, a walking and swimming dock, a series of donkey carts that housed flower and herbs and so on. The list goes on.
And he knew how to fix things. It was a remarkable thing to watch - one minute my barrette or bike was broken and an hour later, they were fixed.
My grandmother, like most grandmothers, also used to create with her hands. She crocheted and knitted sweaters, scarves, hats and gloves. In addition to being an amazing cook and seamstress, she was also a nurse (which no one really knew), a mother and a piano player.
Like my Uncle Alton and others in the family who put music first, she would play nearly every night when I wasn't practicing myself. I'd sit perched on the floor not far away and whenever I looked up, I immediately looked for her hands - what were they doing? how were they transcending that very keyboard that I banged on myself only hours before?
It's not surprising that at PopTech this year, where they seemed to have more 'performers' than previous years, I noticed the hands of these creators. How could you not? Below are a few shots I took to capture my own memories of these remarkable artists.
The hands of Zoe Keating
The hands of John Legend
The hands of Kelly Joe Phelps
The hands of Vanessa German
The hands of Bora Yoon
Some of my Favorite Voices
It's time to comment on my favorite speakers at PopTech last week. Iraqi-born Zainab Salbi was a true standout. For years, she lived in the shadows of Saddam Hussein, where she captured those days in her memoir, Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam.
After escaping from Iraq, she started helping other women whose lives had been torn apart by war. Zainab has so much genuine passion, you want to jump on stage -- any stage -- and join her in her mission.
"What I saw of war is two sides of the coin," says Zainab. "One is the front-line discussion, such as the soldiers, the guns, the fighting, the bloodshed and ultimately signing a peace agreement. War is also the backline discussion, meaning 'how do we keep life going?' The backline issues are all about life. How do keep the schools going when war is going on? Should we all sleep in the same rooms so we all die together as a family or sleep separately and take a risk."
"She adds, "we need to compete not by fighting with weapons, but by feeding people. War is about the worst of humanity but its also about the best of humanity."
And then there was Van Jones who shook the room and left people in tears from laughter one moment and sad facts the next. He is most known as a civil rights and human rights advocate in Oakland who worked for years turning things around for young African Americans who would have normally wound up in jail. Recently, he founded Greenforall, which is where all of his efforts lie.
Jones' focus is on green economic development for urban America. The City of Oakland is expected to adopt the Ella Baker Center's "Green Jobs Corps" proposal this year, which aims to train youth for eco-friendly “green-collar jobs.”
He tells us that he needs people with 'soft skills,' in other words, communications skills, that can move people off the streets and assimilate into an environment where they are able to keep their jobs.
Then there was a personal favorite, Carl Honore, whose book In Praise of Slowness I read a couple of years ago. The slow revolution touts that less is more and slow is better, which has resulted in slow architecture, slow research, slow management, slow design, slow food.
It's a movement, but not an extreme fundamentalist movement asserts Carl. "It's about relearning the lost art of shifting gears and not trying to do everything as fast as possible but as well as possible." He claims he is a reformed speedaholic and that he has comes to terms with his inner tortoise. Hmmm, not a bad idea for all of us to spend more time with our inner tortoise.
I loved hearing and meeting Jonathon Harris, who truly knows the art of storytelling, one of my favorite topics. Jonathon combines elements of computer science, anthropology, visual art and storytelling, to design systems that explore and explain the human world.
Chris Jordan attacks mass consumerism, specifically focused on America. (a man after my own heart). Says Jordan, "exploring our country’s shipping ports and industrial yards, where the accumulated detritus of our consumption is exposed to view like eroded layers in the Grand Canyon, I find evidence of a slow-motion apocalypse in progress."
"I am appalled by these scenes, and yet also drawn into them with awe and fascination. The immense scale of our consumption can appear desolate, macabre, oddly comical and ironic, and even darkly beautiful; for me its consistent feature is a staggering complexity. I have heard it said that in risking self-awareness, at least we know that we are awake." Chris, all I can say is BRAVO for throwing this issue in our faces.
Now we move onto Vanessa German, who understands passion, communicates with passion, energizes an audience with her passion and physically moves with passion. Her mixed media sculptural works gather inspiration from the Kongo "Nkisi" power figures, Mexican iconography, and the many potent, tragic, and stark realities of present day life. And on top of it all, she's a poet, who uses music and her hands to bring you into her world.
October 25, 2007
B5 Advisory Board
I recently decided to join B5's advisory board. See Rick Segal's official unveiling of the rest of the team, which includes Doc Searls, Robert Scoble, Hugh Macleod and Stowe Boyd. I'm thrilled to be working with Jeremy, Rick and gang.
B5 Media now has more than 290 blogs, 15 vertical channels and over 10 million unique visitors a month. Stay tuned for more news from them in the coming weeks and months.
A Thousand Splendid Suns Shatters Your Heart
We all love storytellers. Good storytellers. When I find one buried inside a book, whether its the character or the author, I marvel in the same way I did as a child listening to one new one after another from a family member or friend.
Is it a lost art or does one merely have to return to the villages and small towns where they are more readily found? Do people not honor and cherish storytellers the way they did a hundred years ago?
Khaled Hosseini is one of those storytellers. He kept us present and begging for more in the Kite Runner and he did the same thing in A Thousand Splendid Suns. The only difference is that you could 'bear' the Kite Runner, whereas in the latter, the story is so heart wrenching that at times, you find it hard to breathe. At least I did.
The behavior of civilian men and the Taliban towards Afghan women were so brutally depicted in this book, I couldn't put it down, but I also couldn't stop crying and asking out loud over and over again, "can this be real?"
Of course, it's for real. I've seen milder cases of battered women in this country and abroad and yes, yes, yes, it's real there and in so many other parts in the world.
Reading such explicit details of emotional and physical torture over and over again takes you to the highest levels of gratitude and empathy. You find yourself saying "thank you thank you thank you" for your own life and "why why why why" in the next breath.
Since I'm finding it too difficult to write about the gory details of Hosseini's latest book, just READ IT. Trust me, you won't be able to put it down. You can also read the New York Times review here.
October 20, 2007
An Islam Dialogue
Professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University John Esposito comes onto the PopTech stage to lead a panel and dialogue about Islam. He is also the director of Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal center for Muslim-Christian understanding at Georgetown.
He gives us a taste of just how much Islam has grown by giving us some stats to think about......there are 2.3 billion Christians, 12-18 million Jews and while there are 56 countries where Muslims are a minority, it is now the second or third largest religion in the world.
Jokes Esposito, "when I announced I was going to study Islam in the late sixties and early seventies, people told me I'd never get a job. And I didn't. Then along came the Iranian revolution and I was suddenly employable and people were interested in what I had to say."
He continues, "for many of us in this room, certainly most in my generation, christianity was identified with Europe, Islam was invisible on our cognative maps. Schools barely covered Islam and the media didn't cover it at all. How many of us grew up seeing Islam centers? We didn't and still don't have a context in which to understand Islam."
When you ask Americans what they admire, it tends to be our freedoms and our technologies. Not religion.
Says Kuttab, "technology has done a lot to improve freedom of expression in the Arab world. Before, you could pretty much say anything about any other Arab country freely -- any other country except for your own. You had this situation where print and broadcast media was open except for open coverage of what is happening in your own country. The custom agents are the real censors."
Sarah Joseph then enters the dialogue. As an editor of Emel magazine, a Muslim lifestyle magazine and a regular commentator on British Muslims, she has spent the past ten years lecturing on Islam both within the UK and internationally.
There are so many complex issues around Islam. The confusion and anger within both Christians and Muslims. How do we peacefully bridge the two? When things are this complex, people are searching for simple answers and they're not there. Not in general. Not now.
The Crutch Dancer
Today, I was inspired by Bill Shannon, who I'll refer to as the Crutch Dancer, mainly because as a dancer myself, it is what first resonates with me. Bill is much more than a dancer who uses crutches however. He is a conceptual, interdisciplinary dance and media artist who performs solo as well as with groups. Bill considers his work rooted in street/club culture.
Bill is a dancer who didn't want to give up dancing, so when his disability re-emerged later in his twenties (he's now 36), he created a new art form where crutches became an extension of his body and his art.
Performance art became a tool for him, not just to dance but to do things people do every day, like pick up a bottle off the ground and so on.
"Crutches are an extension of the body," says Bill. For someone Bill who learned about his disability and had to deal with it as a child, he was more rapidly and naturally able to embrace the disability culture, which doesn't say 'I give up, this sucks.'
You look at what you can do with your disability and the extensions you use when you're disabled to improve your life or simply have fun, i.e., this is what I can do on crutches, this is what I can do in a wheelchair and 'isn't this cool?'
As a kid, you play. Says Bill, "you're not stressing and thinking, oh my god, its over for me. You learn to play and this can extend into your daily life."
He also talked about what it feels like being treated as a spectacle in a public place as a disabled person, and how he decides to respond as a result. We also saw visual examples of peripheral fluxuation and inverse peripheral fluxuation -- again, responses directed from the non-disabled to the disabled person.
Lastly, we witnessed some of his performances on video, which included flying down a railing using his crutches as well as dancing down a series of stone steps and then moving onto a skateboard where he continued to combine hiphop-like movements on wheels.
Touch: An Underused Ancient Modality
Primates were remarkably observant, weren't they? Early primates learned from each other by paying attention to our most basic senses, much more so than we do today.
We learned from each other through observation and through touching one another. Primates are extraordinary and unusual among mammals in that our sense of our environment has largely been through vision and touch. Equal to touch is hearing and far below that is our sense of smell. Touch is part of our legacy as primates for the past 40 million years.
Anthropologist and professor Nina Jablowski is on the PopTech stage talking to us about touch. She asks us to turn to our neighbor, someone we preferably don't know and touch their skin, hold their hand, observe their skin, all without saying a word.
And so we did. I've done this kind of thing in workshops before, but never one that has been led by an anthropologist. If you have ever tried it, you know that its an awkward exercise EVEN if you're comfortable with human contact.
We don't really touch anymore. We don't observe through touch anymore, at least not on a daily basis. We use touch in the bedroom, we use touch when we hug children or a parent, but not necessarily to learn from each other or observe each other.
Says Nina, "humans are self-decorating apes. We do it with great intention and meaning. Cosmetics are used to highlight features that are sexually attractive and we have had the ability to make tattoos for over 5,000 years ago.
She encourages us to really think about not forfeiting your primateness when we communicate with others. "The depth and breadth of that bandwidth is extraordinary and even with most advanced technology cannot give us the feeling and the connectedness that ancient and well-adapted modalities from 40 million years ago.....like touch."
She ends with two photographs of people hugging and asks us to make sure do it today. Touch. Hug. Engage. And observe while you do it. "This," she says in a tender voice, "is truly what it means to be human." She certainly knows how to invoke a reaction, particularly from an audience that spends so more time physically connected to machines than humans. Check out Nina's book: The Skin: A Natural History.