“Very rigorous maritime engineering standards”

BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg says that he does “care about the small people.” CEO Tony Hayward says, “I’d like my life back” (he barely had time to watch his 52-foot yacht “Bob” compete in a race off England’s coast). And to the House Oversight and Investigations sub-committee on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill: “I wasn’t involved in any of the decision-making…we drill hundreds of wells around the world.”

I’ve recently learned where they’re getting their material. As John Clarke and Bryan Dawe say, the industry adheres to “very rigorous maritime engineering standards.”

Tracking the Oil Spill

The New York Times has some interesting interactive graphics and multimedia on the oil spill in the Gulf, e.g., Map and Estimates of Oil Spilled in the Gulf of Mexico. Be sure to use the “Play” button to see how the spill has developed between April 22 and today.

The story of how this has happened and the ongoing saga have much more impact than figures about “millions of gallons,” especially when estimates vary widely and change frequently. But it’s clearly working its way up the list of the world’s largest oil spills.

As the world continues to demand more oil, producers enter even more treacherous situations. Even if we had good oversight, instead of the cozy relationships we now see between regulators and industry, we’re likely to see more such disasters.

Libraries for netroots activists?

Netroots is a term that describes political activism organized through blogs, wikis, social network services, and other online media. Jerome Armstrong used it first in Netroots for Howard Dean (2002) on MyDD.

The netroots can be a powerful alternative to traditional media and organizations. Often though, the change that activists promote never happens, can’t be sustained, or can’t scale. Netroots talk doesn’t always lead to action.

It may seem to strange to turn to libraries as a solution. Aren’t libraries all about books and old stuff, not the new participatory culture of the net? Aren’t they determinably neutral, both unwilling and unable to engage with the kinds of change activists seek?

In fact, libraries already play a crucial role to support activism of various kinds. And they’re already deeply entangled both with how we go online and with how we find what’s not available there. They’re not only a supplement to the netroots, but a necessary resource to bring netroots activism to life.

If you go to any public library in the US at opening time, you’ll see a group of people waiting to enter. They’re of all ages, ethnicities, and genders, dressed in formal business attire, sports clothes, or old rags. Some may be waiting to check out a book or video, but most are waiting to go online to read their mail, connect with friends, check the news, hunt for a job or apartment, shop, book travel, or do any of the many other functions that reveal how much the net has infiltrated our lives. For them, the library is the face of the net, and the only, or at least the best, way of connecting with it.

Moreover, libraries can provide substantive data, e.g., on the climate, business trends, local history, political processes, art, and more, which is not always available online; text resources, including books, journals, magazines; videos and software; and repositories or archives of local activities. They also offer meeting spaces, and sustainable local points of contact. These resources can expand enormously the knowledge base for netroots activism, something that can turn strongly held views into evidence-based arguments and uncover duplicity in corporate or government bodies.

Libraries also offer reference services, which is important since the deep web holds several orders of magnitude more information than the surface web, and non-web information is much more than that. Libraries also offer instruction on accessing all of these resources, data, and services.

Beyond finding information, libraries increasingly offer opportunities to create and house community-designed or collected resources. For example, a collaboration between Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School (PACHS) in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood and the Newberry Library in Chicago led to a student-curated Puerto Rican history exhibit at the Newberry: Puerto Rican History through the Eyes of Others.

As a means of finding information and tools, a venue for creating resources, a place to learn, and access in the first place, libraries can help turn netroots talk about activism into real action in the world. Of course, most libraries are devoted to principles of open access for all. As a result, what they offer is available to groups large and small, but also to groups on opposing sides of an issue. This means that despite all the power and innovation of the net, much of the action is still, if not increasingly, found in the library.

Outside lies magic, Part 1

Gesa Kirsch recently pointed me to John R. Stilgoe’s, Outside lies magic: Regaining history and awareness in everyday places. It’s a refreshing call for becoming more aware of the ordinary world around us. Stilgoe urges us not only to walk or cycle more, but also to use the advantages of those modes of transport to see the world that we usually ignore.

I finished the book, and am writing now, in the antipode of his call to walk and observe. I’m cramped in an airplane seat near the end of a four and a half hour flight. Stilgoe would say that I should still take the opportunity to observe, to learn, and to make sense of my surrounding, but instead I’m counting down the minutes until we land.

The chapters—Beginnings, Lines, Mall, Strips, Interstate, Enclosures, Main Street, Stops, Endings—lie somewhere between prose poems, history lessons, and sermons about the everyday. They remind me of John McDermott’s summary that John Dewey “believed that ordinary experience is seeded with possibilities for surprises and possibilities for enhancement if we but allow it to bathe over us in its own terms” (1973/1981, p. x).

To appreciate the book, you need to follow Stilgoe as he discovers nature, history, urban planning, ethics, social class, and more through cracks in the pavement, vegetation, telephone poles, roadside motels, angle parking, and other seemingly forgettable objects. The real point is not his own findings, but the demonstration that slowing down to look can open up worlds of understanding.

He shows the value of a camera, despite the lament that “ordinary American landscape strikes almost no one as photogenic” (p. 179). He recognizes the dread of causal photography (‘why are you photographing that vacant lot?’), but ties it to “deepening ignorance” (p. 181). This ignorance makes asking directions dangerous: People question us back, ‘Why do you want to know?’

Stilgoe says, “discovering the bits and pieces of peculiar, idiosyncratic importance in ordinary metropolitan landscape scrapes away the deep veneer of programmed learning” (p. 184). Unprogrammed exercise and discovery leads to a unified whole that reorients the mind and the body together. Someone else may own the real estate, but “the explorer owns the landscape” (p. 187).

Stilgoe’s prescription is simple:

Exploration encourages creativity, serendipity, invention.
So read this book, then go.
Go without purpose.
Go for the going.

See Outside lies magic, Part 2.

References

  • McDermott, John J. (1981). The philosophy of John Dewey: Two volumes in one. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Originally published 1973)
  • Stilgoe, John R. (1998). Outside lies magic: Regaining history and awareness in everyday places. New York: Walker.

Youth planners in Richmond, CA

I was fortunate to have a visit with youth planners at the Kennedy High School in Richmond, CA on Wednesday this week. These were students studying their own community and developing plans to improve it. They’ll be presenting these plans to the Mayor next month.

What I saw is part of Y-PLAN (Youth — Plan, Learn, Act, Now), a city planning program run by UC Berkeley’s Center for Cities & Schools. Deborah McKoy is the creator of Y-PLAN and the center’s founder and executive director.

Sarah Van Wart from the UC Berkeley I School was my guide. She and two undergrads, Arturo and Sarir had been leading the high school students in a community planning exercise. They first examined their current situation, using dialogue, photos, and data. They then considered alternatives and how those might apply to a planned urban development project.

The development will include schools, housing, a park, and community center, but the questions for city planners, include “How should these be designed?” “How can they be connected?” “How can they be made safe, useful, and aesthetically pleasing?”

On the day I visited, the youth had already developed general ideas on what they’d like to see in the development. Now they were to make these ideas more concrete through 3-D modeling. Using clay, toothpicks, construction paper, dried algae, stickers, variously colored small rocks, and other objects, they constructed scale models of the 30 square block development. One resource they had was contact sheets of photos of other urban environments. They could select from those to include as examples to emulate or to avoid.

I was impressed with the dedication and skill of the leaders of the project, including also the teacher, Mr. G. But the most striking thing was how engaged the young people were. I heard some healthy arguing about design, but I didn’t see the disaffection that is so common some high schools today.

My only regret is that I wasn’t able to follow the process from beginning to end. But from the rich, albeit limited, glimpse I had, the project is an excellent way to engage young people in their own communities, to use multimedia for learning and action in the world, and to learn how to work together on meaningful tasks. It’s a good example of community inquiry.

Sara Bernard has a more detailed article on the project on Edutopia, which includes an audio slide show:

Audio slide show: Putting Schools on the Map Slide Show
Putting Schools on the Map

References

Bernard, Sara (2008, October). Mapping their futures: Kids foster school-community connections.

Bierbaum, Ariel H., & McKoy, Deborah L. (2008, Spring). Y-PLAN: A tool for engaging youth and schools in planning for the future of their communities. IMPACT: A Multidisciplinary Journal Addressing the Issues of Urban Youth, 2(1).

McKoy, Deborah, & Vincent, J. 2007. Engaging schools in urban revitalization: The Y-PLAN (Youth-Plan, Learn, Act, Now). Journal of Planning Education and Research, 26, 389-403.

Search engines’ dirty secret

I just saw a reference to a New Scientist article, Search engines’ dirty secret – 31 March 2010 about the energy use of search engines, such as Google. The author, James Clarage, who is a physicist at the University of St Thomas in Houston, does some rough calculations to show alarmingly high energy costs:

Google serves up approximately 10 million search results per hour, so one search has the same energy cost as turning on a 100-watt light bulb for an hour…We’ve all heard the future of information architecture is cloud computing. It just might be a cloud of carbon dioxide.

Tim Rustige had the same reaction I did: Yes, web searches use energy, but it can’t be that much. In New Scientist 3rd April 2010 ‘Search’s dirty secret’ he runs through some more detailed calculations to show that the energy use by Google is much less, perhaps 1% of what Clarage estimates.

Neither author takes into account the energy us of the home computer or smart phone that access Google. That’s likely to be many times the cost of what Google does. When that’s factored in, along with the costs of manufacturing, servicing, shipping, and disposing computers, it’s clear that Clarage’s basic point is still valid. There is a serious environmental impact of search engines and computers, and much needs to be done to improve their efficiency.

Climate change’s OJ Simpson moment

Bill McKibben has just written an excellent article: Climate Change’s OJ Simpson Moment | Mother Jones. Although one can read it as yet another argument pro or con on climate change, it’s even more a sophisticated analysis of how the discourse has developed over the last 20 years, in the process giving a surprisingly sympathetic account of climate change deniers.

He starts by discussing the positive reaction to his first book, The End of Nature, which was one of the first books for a general audience on climate change:

And here’s what’s odd. In 1989, I could fit just about every scientific study on climate change on top of my desk. The science was still thin. If my reporting made me think it was nonetheless convincing, many scientists were not yet prepared to agree.

Now, you could fill the Superdome with climate-change research data…Every major scientific body in the world has produced reports confirming the peril. All 15 of the warmest years on record have come in the two decades that have passed since 1989. In the meantime, the Earth’s major natural systems have all shown undeniable signs of rapid flux: melting Arctic and glacial ice, rapidly acidifying seawater, and so on.

Somehow, though, the onslaught against the science of climate change has never been stronger, and its effects, at least in the US, never more obvious: fewer Americans believe humans are warming the planet.

But McKibben doesn’t just rail agains the deniers of global warming, or pull out reams of reports, data, and arguments. Instead, he  talks about how we all respond to disturbing news and to mountains of evidence we don’t have the capacity to sort through. I felt as if he were speaking to all of us across a wide range of complex topics in the modern era–health, economics, education.

He goes on then to show how evidence alone is not the issue; in fact, its effect can be contrary to what you might think at first:

the immense pile of evidence now proving the science of global warming beyond any reasonable doubt is in some ways a great boon for those who would like, for a variety of reasons, to deny that the biggest problem we’ve ever faced is actually a problem at all.

The “OJ Simpson moment” relates to the problem that the defense faced in the OJ Simpson murder trial, in which “it was pretty clear their guy was guilty. Nicole Brown’s blood was all over his socks, and that was just the beginning.” How could they cast doubt, when there appeared to be no remotely reasonable doubt? McKibben shows how, ironically, one resource they had was the immense body of evidence against their client.

He also shows how ordinary language is shaped and changed. One reason the deniers of global warming are winning the debate is that they’re able to connect with our fear of change, of having to do something. As McKibben says:

The great irony is that the climate skeptics have prospered by insisting that their opponents are radicals. In fact, those who work to prevent global warming are deeply conservative, insistent that we should leave the world in something like the shape we found it. We want our kids to know the world we knew. Here’s the definition of radical: doubling the carbon content of the atmosphere because you’re not completely convinced it will be a disaster.