Sunday, May 31, 2009


It's been on my mind. It's in the air.
Here are highlights from Alex Pang's "Tinkering to the Future." (I found it via Boing Boing.)
  • Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
    • Tinkering is about seizing the moment: it is about ad-hoc learning, getting things done, innovation and novelty, all in a highly social, networked environment.
    • What is tinkering? Discovering that certain snack tins can be used to make an antenna that extends the range of your wi-fi network, using electric toothbrush motors to power small robots, building a high-altitude balloon that takes video of the edge of space, are all examples of tinkering. It is technical work and a cultural attitude.
    • Tinkering is customizing software and stuff; making new combinations of things that work better than their parts; and discovering new capabilities in or uses for existing products. Despite its fascination with things and bits, it is resolutely human-focused: you don't make things 'better' in some dry technical sense, you make them work better for you. Tinkerers modify everything from cars, computers, and cellphones, to virtual worlds and computer code. They are driven by a desire to experiment, to make existing technologies more useful, and to customize them to better suit users' needs.
    • According to MIT professor Mitch Resnick, tinkering might look at first like traditional engineering, but it is very different. Both are about designing and making things; but engineering tends to be top-down, linear, structured, abstract and rules-based - a highly formal, organized activity, meant to be carried out in (and in the service of) large organizations. Tinkering, in contrast, is bottom-up, iterative, experimental, practical and improvisational: informal and disorganized, accessible to anyone who is willing to learn (and fail) and it doesn't follow any plan too closely.
    • The realization that users are often innovators – that they find new uses for, extend the capabilities of, and expand the appeal of existing products – has further empowered tinkering. Tinkering can also (somewhat paradoxically) be a protest against consumer culture and corporations: in an era of restrictive, end- user license agreements, cracking open a case can be defended as an act of resistance.
    • Tinkering is an amazingly powerful way to learn. It is not about mastering dry, arcane bodies of knowledge: it is about learning how to use your hands, materials, and tools, scrounging stuff and ideas, learning from others and your own mistakes.
    • Tinkering has found fullest expression in personal computers and electronics. There are good reasons for this.
      In the last thirty years, personal computers have evolved from programmers' toys to word processors to entertainment platforms to social media, thanks in part to the efforts of users.
    • The costs of computers and memory are continuing to fall and the demand for digital flexibility and connectivity is growing; aging populations in the advanced world want devices that will help them stay healthy and independent; countries want technologies to monitor emerging threats; companies want to be able to more precisely manage their supply chains and resources; and people show an inexhaustible appetite for connecting with each other.
    • As the digital infrastructure of pervasive or ubiquitous computing is woven into more everyday objects, more of the world will be tinkerable. And not just more individual objects. As we start to give technologies greater capacity to work together, to self-organize and share tasks, we will start to see tinkerers working with groups of technologies, rather than single objects. We will also see people tinkering with environments filled with sensors, smart dust computers and other technology. Already architects and activists talk about hacking urban infrastructures and tinkering with cities: in a few decades, the descendants of today's car customizers could be working with city blocks.
    • The world's problems are fiendishly complex. They are [...] a mix of complexity, urgency and uncertainty. They are too complex to be reduced to simple (albeit potentially very difficult) scientific problems; they are too important not to act on, even if we don't have all the information; and it is sometimes not clear if we can ever have certainty about what to do.
    • These are problems that cannot be entrusted to technocrats or elites: complex problems have to be solved collectively. In such a world, the only way to make a better future is to have people learn to create their own futures: to develop the capacity to solve problems, to see the consequences of their actions, and to be able to act now in ways that help them reach a better future.

Posted from Diigo.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Case for Working With Your Hands -

The following highlights are taken from the New York Times article by Matthew B. Crawford, with excerpts from his book, “Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work,” published by Penguin Press.
I've meant to edit this--process it, analyze it--for a year now, and I know now I won't have the time. I still think it's worth publishing the highlights, if only to draw people to his book.

The piece certainly dovetails with the turn my own life is currently taking. I want to write about the origins of "Jessicello," and so this post will have to remain as is--a series of excerpts from the original article. Lazy blogging, I know, but where did I ever say I was committed to anything more? I've got chicken tractors and renewable flooring to research...
  • When we praise people who do work that is straightforwardly useful, the praise often betrays an assumption that they had no other options. We idealize them as the salt of the earth and emphasize the sacrifice for others their work may entail. Such sacrifice does indeed occur — the hazards faced by a lineman restoring power during a storm come to mind. But what if such work answers as well to a basic human need of the one who does it? I take this to be the suggestion of Marge Piercy’s poem “To Be of Use,” which concludes with the lines “the pitcher longs for water to carry/and a person for work that is real.” Beneath our gratitude for the lineman may rest envy.
  • The trades suffer from low prestige, and I believe this is based on a simple mistake. Because the work is dirty, many people assume it is also stupid. This is not my experience.

  • ...satisfactions of the work to be very much bound up with the intellectual challenges it presents
  • I landed a job as executive director of a policy organization in Washington. This felt like a coup. But certain perversities became apparent as I settled into the job. It sometimes required me to reason backward, from desired conclusion to suitable premise. The organization had taken certain positions, and there were some facts it was more fond of than others. As its figurehead, I was making arguments I didn’t fully buy myself. Further, my boss seemed intent on retraining me according to a certain cognitive style — that of the corporate world, from which he had recently come. This style demanded that I project an image of rationality but not indulge too much in actual reasoning.
  • As I sat in my K Street office, Fred’s life as an independent tradesman gave me an image that I kept coming back to: someone who really knows what he is doing, losing himself in work that is genuinely useful and has a certain integrity to it. He also seemed to be having a lot of fun.
  • After five months at the think tank, I’d saved enough money to buy some tools I needed, and I quit and went into business fixing bikes.
  • The work is sometimes frustrating, but it is never irrational.
  • And it frequently requires complex thinking. In fixing motorcycles you come up with several imagined trains of cause and effect for manifest symptoms, and you judge their likelihood before tearing anything down. This imagining relies on a mental library that you develop. An internal combustion engine can work in any number of ways, and different manufacturers have tried different approaches. Each has its own proclivities for failure. You also develop a library of sounds and smells and feels. For example, the backfire of a too-lean fuel mixture is subtly different from an ignition backfire.
  • As in any learned profession, you just have to know a lot.
  • It would probably be impossible to do such work in isolation, without access to a collective historical memory; you have to be embedded in a community of mechanic-antiquarians.
  • There is always a risk of introducing new complications when working on old motorcycles, and this enters the diagnostic logic.
  • The attractiveness of any hypothesis is determined in part by physical circumstances that have no logical connection to the diagnostic problem at hand. The mechanic’s proper response to the situation cannot be anticipated by a set of rules or algorithms.
  • There probably aren’t many jobs that can be reduced to rule-following and still be done well. But in many jobs there is an attempt to do just this, and the perversity of it may go unnoticed by those who design the work process.
  • Mechanics face something like this problem in the factory service manuals that we use. These manuals tell you to be systematic in eliminating variables, presenting an idealized image of diagnostic work. But they never take into account the risks of working on old machines. So you put the manual away and consider the facts before you. You do this because ultimately you are responsible to the motorcycle and its owner, not to some procedure.
  • What you need now is the kind of judgment that arises only from experience; hunches rather than rules. For me, at least, there is more real thinking going on in the bike shop than there was in the think tank.
  • Put differently, mechanical work has required me to cultivate different intellectual habits. Further, habits of mind have an ethical dimension that we don’t often think about. Good diagnosis requires attentiveness to the machine, almost a conversation with it, rather than assertiveness, as in the position papers produced on K Street.
  • Cognitive psychologists speak of “metacognition,” which is the activity of stepping back and thinking about your own thinking. It is what you do when you stop for a moment in your pursuit of a solution, and wonder whether your understanding of the problem is adequate.
  • The slap of worn-out pistons hitting their cylinders can sound a lot like loose valve tappets, so to be a good mechanic you have to be constantly open to the possibility that you may be mistaken. This is a virtue that is at once cognitive and moral.
  • I sometimes barter services with machinists and metal fabricators. This has a very different feel than transactions with money; it situates me in a community. The result is that I really don’t want to mess up anybody’s motorcycle or charge more than a fair price. You often hear people complain about mechanics and other tradespeople whom they take to be dishonest or incompetent. I am sure this is sometimes justified. But it is also true that the mechanic deals with a large element of chance.
  • Moments of elation are counterbalanced with failures, and these, too, are vivid, taking place right before your eyes. With stakes that are often high and immediate, the manual trades elicit heedful absorption in work. They are punctuated by moments of pleasure that take place against a darker backdrop: a keen awareness of catastrophe as an always-present possibility.
  • Contrast the experience of being a middle manager. This is a stock figure of ridicule, but the sociologist Robert Jackall spent years inhabiting the world of corporate managers, conducting interviews, and he poignantly describes the “moral maze” they feel trapped in.
  • Like the mechanic, the manager faces the possibility of disaster at any time. But in his case these disasters feel arbitrary; they are typically a result of corporate restructurings, not of physics. A manager has to make many decisions for which he is accountable.
  • Unlike an entrepreneur with his own business, however, his decisions can be reversed at any time by someone higher up the food chain (and there is always someone higher up the food chain). It’s important for your career that these reversals not look like defeats, and more generally you have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of you.
  • Survival depends on a crucial insight: you can’t back down from an argument that you initially made in straightforward language, with moral conviction, without seeming to lose your integrity. So managers learn the art of provisional thinking and feeling, expressed in corporate doublespeak, and cultivate a lack of commitment to their own actions.
  • Those who work on the lower rungs of the information-age office hierarchy face their own kinds of unreality
  • In some of the titles I was assigned, articles began with an abstract written by the author. But even in such cases I was to write my own. The reason offered was that unless I did so, there would be no “value added” by our product. It was hard to believe I was going to add anything other than error and confusion to such material.
  • My job was structured on the supposition that in writing an abstract of an article there is a method that merely needs to be applied, and that this can be done without understanding the text.
  • I was always sleepy while at work, and I think this exhaustion was because I felt trapped in a contradiction: the fast pace demanded complete focus on the task, yet that pace also made any real concentration impossible. I had to actively suppress my own ability to think, because the more you think, the more the inadequacies in your understanding of an author’s argument come into focus. This can only slow you down. To not do justice to an author who had poured himself into the subject at hand felt like violence against what was best in myself.
  • The quota demanded, then, not just dumbing down but also a bit of moral re-education, the opposite of the kind that occurs in the heedful absorption of mechanical work. I had to suppress my sense of responsibility to the article itself, and to others — to the author, to begin with, as well as to the hapless users of the database, who might naïvely suppose that my abstract reflected the author’s work. Such detachment was made easy by the fact there was no immediate consequence for me; I could write any nonsense whatever.
  • Your hands are sliced up from twisting wires together, handling junction boxes made out of stamped sheet metal and cutting metal conduit with a hacksaw. But none of this damage touches the best part of yourself.
  • But despite the beautiful ties I wore, it turned out to be a more proletarian existence than I had known as an electrician. In that job I had made quite a bit more money. I also felt free and active, rather than confined and stultified.
  • A good job requires a field of action where you can put your best capacities to work and see an effect in the world. Academic credentials do not guarantee this.
  • Nor can big business or big government — those idols of the right and the left — reliably secure such work for us. Everyone is rightly concerned about economic growth on the one hand or unemployment and wages on the other, but the character of work doesn’t figure much in political debate.
  • Labor unions address important concerns like workplace safety and family leave, and management looks for greater efficiency, but on the nature of the job itself, the dominant political and economic paradigms are mute. Yet work forms us, and deforms us, with broad public consequences.
  • In the boardrooms of Wall Street and the corridors of Pennsylvania Avenue, I don’t think you’ll see a yellow sign that says “Think Safety!” as you do on job sites and in many repair shops, no doubt because those who sit on the swivel chairs tend to live remote from the consequences of the decisions they make.
  • Why not encourage gifted students to learn a trade, if only in the summers, so that their fingers will be crushed once or twice before they go on to run the country?
  • There is good reason to suppose that responsibility has to be installed in the foundation of your mental equipment — at the level of perception and habit.
  • There is an ethic of paying attention that develops in the trades through hard experience. It inflects your perception of the world and your habitual responses to it.
  • An economy that is more entrepreneurial, less managerial, would be less subject to the kind of distortions that occur when corporate managers’ compensation is tied to the short-term profit of distant shareholders.
  • Ultimately it is enlightened self-interest, then, not a harangue about humility or public-spiritedness, that will compel us to take a fresh look at the trades. The good life comes in a variety of forms. This variety has become difficult to see; our field of aspiration has narrowed into certain channels. But the current perplexity in the economy seems to be softening our gaze.
  • Our peripheral vision is perhaps recovering, allowing us to consider the full range of lives worth choosing. For anyone who feels ill suited by disposition to spend his days sitting in an office, the question of what a good job looks like is now wide open.

Posted from Diigo.

Gardening with Greenzona and the Aerogarden, 2

Chronicling the garden experiments with our new camera:
From greenzona: Beans, melons, and peppers!

The greenzona compost is full of surprises. These mushrooms just showed up. (We had some unexpected, unidentified sprouts in our worm bin as well.)

Delicious basil!

Moving indoors: Here's the hydroponic garden at 11-12 weeks. It was fun to watch the tomatoes turn in four days.

We've had it nearly 12 weeks, and I've eaten most of the tomatoes in this picture. They were OK, but nothing like Sweet 100s from the Midwest, warm from the sun.

The hydroponic jalapeno plant is another story. Although I hand-pollinated all three plants dutifully, I've had all flowers and no fruit from the jalapeno.
Beautiful flowers, but no peppers. Feeling discouraged.

So greenzona=still good. Aerogarden=meh.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Gardening with Greenzona and the Aerogarden

One corner of our greenzona garden was planted from seed. Now we've got bean and melons!

This is happy basil corner! We've used our basil several times now.

Finally, the hydroponic garden at 10 1/2 weeks. Jalapenos and cherry tomatoes!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Greenzona and our garden!

Greenzona is a local business dedicated to building sustainable gardens in urban and suburban environments.

TJ, Don, Kris

It’s a small operation, true to its vision—their business unfolds organically, by word of mouth, mostly. They even do apartments, and when our neighbors told us about their own garden, I had to watch them install it. It was so cool that my husband and I are now the proud caretakers of the 20-something square foot garden on our own porch.

Our garden on day one!

Don and Zee are a couple living in Tempe whose vision of vegetable gardening for all is now coming to fruition. TeeJay and Kris have prominent roles, as well. “Everybody talks about sustainability; we want to do something about it,” Don said when they installed my neighbor’s garden.

Don, Zee, Kris, and the peppers

Here’s what it’s like to get a custom ecogarden from greenzona: Don, TJ, and Kris assess your yard, porch, wherever you have room—and design a shape and size appropriate to the space. They school you in microclimate--the particulars of your exact spot.

You consult with Zee on what you’ll be able to plant—they stick with seasonal vegetables and herbs. We went heavy on the peppers—jalapeño, habenero, and green—as well as melons and beans, basil, chives, lavender, and thyme.

Kris, TJ

TJ, the wattle, and the compost. Here, he's installing the drip irrigation system.

They begin with a rice straw wattle, which essentially defines the boundaries of your garden. They describe it as “weed and pesticide-free California straw wrapped in photodegradable netting shaped to fit varying spaces.” The result is a naturally biodegradable, flexibly tubular but sturdy border around your garden.

The local compost mix they used was like black gold. When they installed (neighbors) Amy and Kim’s garden, it was a cool day and you could feel the heat coming off the compost. TJ told me that when they pick it up in the mornings, they can see the steam rising from it. It had a pleasant, earthy smell.

Greenzona wants to make the transition to gardening easy for those with little or no experience. You can opt for the timed drip irrigation system, which Don explained works like “an erector set.” They choose the length of the hose, use what looks just like a paper hole punch to create the holes, and arrange the pieces in shapes that work for your space. This is particularly helpful if you’re an anxious beginner, for timed drip irrigation does not only spare you the time spent watering: it helps to prevent classic rookie mistakes, like over- or under-watering, or watering at the wrong time of day. The guys have experience in landscape management and horticulture graduate school, so you can trust them to make informed decisions when they install the garden.

In fact, the biggest selling point is greenzona’s customer service model. Amy told me they don’t want to leave customers with what she dubbed the “Home-Depot experience,” where optimistic beginners start a DIY project, only to find themselves discouraged at the first sign of failure. I pictured a garage full of barely used tools and materials standing as symbols for dashed hopes. Don, Zee, TJ, and Kris encourage you to call or email with questions, and there’s no expiration date on that offer. They hope to build an online open-source deal so that gardeners can learn from each other.

In the late afternoon shade

There are no guarantees in gardening—you are bound to encounter some obstacles, and these guys don’t want to leave you high and dry trying to figure out the next step.

I’ve already taken Kris up on the offer many times; at a very modest price, he set me up with my first worm-composting bin. Kris is dubbed the "worm whisperer," but that’s the topic of another post…

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Obamanomics - Redefining Capitalism

  • This piece from the Times partly addresses Obama's pragmatism and questions whether he'll be able to achieve his broader goals, but in these excerpts, I've emphasized the goals themselves.

    • Mr. Obama has begun to sketch a vision of where he would like to drive the economy once this crisis is past. His goals include diminishing the consumerism that has long been the main source of growth in the United States, and encouraging more savings and investment. He would redistribute wealth toward the middle class and make the rest of the world less dependent on the American market for its prosperity. And he would seek a consensus recognizing that an activist government is an acceptable and necessary partner for a stable, market-based economy.
    • “We cannot rebuild this economy on the same pile of sand,” he said last week.
    • For the better part of half a century after World War II, democratic capitalism built its modern framework against the backdrop of its death match with totalitarian Communism. In the two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the American model of capitalism, largely unchallenged by ideological alternatives and increasingly dominant around the world, drifted toward what conservatives viewed as a more pure form of economic liberty and what liberals came to view as misguided free-market fundamentalism.
    • But now, as the United States and other nations look for lessons in the wreckage from the excesses of that period, political leaders are confronting uncertainty about what economic structures and values should define capitalism’s next chapter. Even before the current crisis, there were calls to rethink basic assumptions about the economy. Growth during the Bush presidency was slower than in any decade since before World War II, and incomes for most families have been growing slowly for much of the last three decades.
    • Mr. Obama is stepping into the debate characteristically intent on avoiding polarizing labels, and his advisers describe his philosophy in terms of pragmatism rather than ideology.
    • They said that the president’s approach is based on a belief that recent economic cycles were driven too much by financial engineering; reserved most of the fruits of good times for the wealthy; relied excessively on foreign capital to finance domestic debt; and ultimately gave way to painful busts. Mr. Obama, they said, simply wants a more stable economic model.
    • "...the expansion is likely to be more secure and its benefits more widely shared,” said Lawrence H. Summers
    • Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative research organization, said of the administration, “They want much more of a European-style social democracy in which people are far less exposed to the vicissitudes of a market economy, and they want to have much easier access to manipulating the private-market economy.”
    • Mr. Brooks said it was “overheated and silly” to suggest that Mr. Obama was leading the United States into socialism, but that even an effort by the administration to “file off the rough edges of capitalism” would no doubt prompt a continued strong backlash from people who object to the direction the president is heading. “Of course conservatives are overstating the case against him because they want to win again, just like the left massively overstated the case against Bush,” he said.
    • ...even liberals allied with him suggest that the risk is that his ambition will prove too limited rather than too expansive.
    • “Again and again, Obamanomics, as well as his instincts in other areas of domestic policy, has been animated by a bold vision of what we need to do but has been quite cautious in practice,” said Robert Reich, who was labor secretary under President Bill Clinton and advised Mr. Obama in the campaign.
    • He would be willing to use the usual liberal policy tools to redistribute wealth after a recent period in which the gains have gone primarily to a relative few at the top of the income scale. But he would stress personal responsibility rather than entitlement.
    • ...reduce the degree to which the United States is a consumer-driven economy — or at least to develop policies that recognize the likelihood that consumer demand cannot grow at the rates it has been without being accompanied by a growing and destabilizing mountain of debt.
    • “We must lay a new foundation for growth and prosperity — a foundation that will move us from an era of borrow and spend to one where we save and invest, where we consume less at home and send more exports abroad,” Mr. Obama said in his economic speech last week.
    • Embedded in that approach is a far-reaching implication: that the rest of the world should no longer count on the United States to snap up imported goods or run up large trade deficits.
    • It is by no means clear that Mr. Obama has the policy tools needed to bring about that kind of change; we are, after all, fundamentally a consumer society.
    • His advisers point to his support for innovative ways of increasing personal savings. To drive economic growth in the place of debt-fueled consumption, Mr. Obama is banking on the emergence of alternative fuels, pollution-limiting technology, health care technology and other new industries linked to broader policy goals.
I guess this begs the question, what "innovative ways of increasing personal savings" does President Obama have in mind? The phrase makes me think of behavioral economics--in particular, the recent popular books Predictably Irrational (Dan Ariely) and Nudges (Thaler & Sunstein). On that model, we need to trick ourselves into saving more and living within our means. It's not a bad idea. We trick ourselves into dieting, exercising, and yes, saving money (by having it diverted automatically from our paychecks, for instance).

The idea that American consumerism shouldn't drive the global economy has a lot of appeal.

Posted from Diigo.