Monday, November 25, 2013

There's Always More Than One Solution To Any Problem

My hubby and I were on the road the other day when we saw the scene in the picture playing out. Talk about re-defining the meaning of the words "Tractor Trailer"!

There's always more than one solution to any problem. We need to remember that. These farmers, for example, needed to move the trailer - a job that is by no means inexpensive when you do it through 'traditional' methods - hiring a big rig moving company. But they used the resources they had on hand, some teamwork, and accomplished their mission.

One way we can start reclaiming our economic power is to start practicing solving problems for ourselves. Rather than default to calling in the pros, do you have the skills, ability, creativity, or resources to fix the problem yourself?

You might not need to move a house trailer - but you might need to fix the dripping kitchen faucet or do some other home repair. Taking on these tasks, you may find yourself surprised with what you can actually do for yourself! Get in the habit of appointing yourself your first go-to repair company. After a year, you'll be amazed at what you've done, and how much money you've saved.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Five Things You Should Know About Firewood

If you're new to heating your home with wood, you may be surprised to learn that the process isn't as simple or automatic as you might think. There's a lot to learn about firewood, and the more you know, the more effective you'll be at keeping your home warm. Here are five points to keep in mind:

Conserve Energy: Quality Counts: While every tree burns in a forest fire, not every tree does an equally good job of heating your home. When you're cutting wood, you're going to want to concentrate on those trees that are good firewood first - these would be fruit woods, harder woods - and leave the not so great wood, such as softer, wet woods - for when you have excess energy or no choice.

Don't Burn Up Useful Trees if You Can Avoid It: While fruit and maple trees produce magnificent firewood, these trees are likely to be of more use to you as a source of fruit & maple syrup. Think ahead, because once the tree is cut, it's cut - you can't put it back up!

There's No Shame in Buying Wood: Using a woodstove doesn't mean you commit to procuring every bit of fuel on your own. Buying wood from neighbors & local vendors is a good way to keep money in your community & out of the hands of big corporations.

Make sure to compare prices, and keep an eye to make sure that what you've paid for is what's actually delivered. A face cord should measure 8 foot long, 4 feet high, and however wide you've agreed to with your firewood dealer. It's a really good thing if the firewood you buy actually fits in the wood stove you have, otherwise, plan on doing a whole lot more cutting!

Approach Downed Wood With Your Eyes Open: When you're out after firewood, discovering that a tree has fallen over, been snapped off by the wind, or has dropped large branches onto the ground can feel like you've got a winning lottery ticket. However, before you do the happy dance, check the wood out.

Some wood may have be too rotten to be useful to you -remember, decay is an inevitable natural process! - and other wood may still be burnable, but so full of bugs that you won't want to store it in the house. Finally, wood that has been laying on the ground, depending on variety, can drink up water like a sponge, which makes it useless as firewood. 

Stove Maintenance Is Important: Some types of firewood, especially pines, create creosote that clings to the inside of your chimney. Creosote is extremely flammable, and chimney fires are no joke. It's much better to prevent a fire than to try to recover from one! Regular cleaning of your chimney, the safe disposal of ashes, and other stove maintenance tasks are an essential part of burning your wood safely.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Points of Post-Consumerist Philosophy

Buy less, do more. We are impoverishing ourselves, individually and as a nation, buying things we don't need and don't actually want. If you have closets, garages, and storage lockers full of stuff you're not using, you don't need any more stuff!

Educate yourself continually. Ignorance makes you vulnerable. It is easy for people to take advantage of you, rip you off, and abuse your rights when you're not informed. Choosing to be ignorant means saying "Here, other people in the world! Why don't you run my life for me?"

Depend as little as possible on others. No man is an island, and it's impossible to do everything in this world entirely on your own. However, you should be very mindful of what you're choosing to have other people do for you. You may be better off doing it for yourself.

Make purchases mindfully. An aware consumer makes better choices than a consumer who is functioning on auto-pilot. Think about what you buy, where you're buying it, and why you're buying it. Make sure your purchases are in alignment with your belief systems. Think about what things cost to produce and market: if you're paying an exceptionally low price for something, you can be sure that someone else is paying dearly, generally in terms of their labor/quality of life.

Make creativity central to your life. We were given imaginations for a reason. Creativity is as vital to our well being as physical exercise. It doesn't matter if you never 'learned' how to be creative: something as a simple doodle can be the gateway to an innovative solution to a tough problem. Humanity survived & thrives because it is innovative and has the ability to transcend history, seeing beyond what has always been done. This power is inside each of us: don't think it belongs to ivory-tower academics and government think tanks. But you have to use it, or you will lose it.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Autodidact Alternative: Best Practices

I believe that education is a life long process, and that attending college shouldn't be. Education empowers us. The more we know, the better decisions we can make. The more we know, the more enjoyment we get out of the world.

Every moment of every day should be devoted to either enjoying your life or improving it.That means education is essential. When we can afford to have other people teach us, we have to teach ourselves.

Here are some best practices to help make that happen:

  • It is more important to listen than it is to talk. Make a point of shutting up and give your attention to what other people have to say regularly. If you actually listen to what's being said around you, you can learn an amazing amount of stuff.
  • Take steps to remember what you've learned. When you learn something new, tell someone else about it. Write it down in a journal. Blog about it. Think about it when you go for a walk or work out. Turn the idea over in your head. We don't necessarily remember things automatically. It takes effort, repetition and time spent with a new concept for it to 'sink in'.
  • It takes time to learn stuff. Give yourself time. We live in an instant-access world, where every bit of information available is just a click away. We have developed very unhealthy expectations of instant comprehension and instant understanding. People think very, very fast - but I'm not sure that thinking fast necessarily equals thinking well. Practice developing your attention span.
  • Let your interests be your guide. It is easier to educate yourself when the pursuit is fun. If you're slogging through something because you feel like you have to, there's a layer of resentment and frustration built in that's not helping you. This is your life. Focus on learning the stuff you personally find fascinating.
  • Question everything. When you're reading a book, research the author. Are they well-regarded? There are different schools of thought within every discipline. Don't just latch on to the first one you encounter and regard that as the absolute truth: try to familiarize yourself with many different voices to expand your understanding. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

5 Tips For Walking Around Safely in a Rural Area After a Flood

If you are in a rural area that has just been through a significant flood event, you may find yourself in a spot where you need to walk to where you want to be rather than driving to get there. Here are five tips you can use to keep yourself as safe as possible in that scenario:

1. Wear Sensible Footwear

If you are at home and have the ability to choose what footwear you'll use for your journey, take advantage of that opportunity. Choose your shoes carefully. You want shoes that have really good traction and are easy to walk in. Thick soles are better than thin soles: sharp objects, broken glass, and other hazards are common in a post-flood environment even in the countryside. Rubber soles are good in the event that you encounter downed power lines. Pick shoes that protect your feet as much as possible. Boots are probably best, with sneakers a second-choice. If you can at all help it, don't try walking out in flip-flops or barefooted.

2. Bring Bottled Water With You

It may seem ridiculous to be carrying a bottle of water with you when the whole landscape is flooded, but you need to take steps to prevent dehydration while you're on your journey. Never, ever, ever drink flood water! It is not safe. If you don't have bottled water with you, bring what you do have- soda, juice, etc. This is especially important if you know you are going to be walking many miles.

3. Carry A Big Stick

It is a good idea to bring a long stick with you - think a broom handle or something similar. There are a few reasons for this. You can use the stick to help you balance, you can use the stick to test the landscape, you can use the stick to ward off unfriendly dogs. It is much better to have a stick and not need it than it is to need a stick and not have it.

4. Be Careful Around Any Dogs You See

Even dogs that are normally loving and friendly can be freaked out by a natural disaster. This could lead them to act in hostile and aggressive ways. Dogs that are injured may lash out at you: if you see a wounded dog and you're not someone who already has vet rescue skills and knows  how to deal with hurt, scared animals, leave the dog alone. It will be hard, but the last thing you need to do right now is add being bitten by a dog to your list of problems. Be very careful around any dogs or other animals you see while you're on the road.

5. Test The Terrain and Choose Your Footing Carefully

As you go walking along, you're going to need to pay a lot of attention to the path you're choosing. Avoid, as much as possible, debris and rubble. Treat any downed power lines you may see as if they were totally lethal to the touch, because they very well may be. Stay out of the water as much as possible, especially moving water.

Use your stick to test the terrain - is the ground firm and secure, or does it seem likely to collapse under your feet at any second? Choose the firmest footing you can find. As much as possible, try to stay to the center of roadways, away from edges that may be crumbled or weakened. When you come to bridges, before you cross that bridge, take the time to look it over and ascertain to the best of your ability whether or not that bridge is secure before you trust it with your life.

Be aware of the landscape around you. Landslides can happen after a flood event. Make sure you're looking uphill and down as you walk along: be aware of your surroundings. If the road has been completely washed away, you have to be very strategic about how you're going to proceed. Bear in mind that if you need rescue, rescue units will be looking where houses and roadways were FIRST, if you're way off in the woods somewhere, it may make it harder for search and rescue units to find them. Trust and use your judgement!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Every Purchase Is Political

There is some argument about the exact numbers. Some economists say that consumer spending is responsible for 70% of the US economy; others put the numbers closer to slightly more than half. Either way, one inarguable fact remains: it is our purchases, mine and yours, from the morning cup of coffee to buying a new vehicle or even a house, that drives this country.

We're paying for all of it, directly through taxes and indirectly through participation in the marketplace. We pay for the roads; we pay for the schools; we pay to shore up all kinds of industries, from agriculture to energy to transportation. We pay for the military. We pay for what the military does.

We pay for what the military does in so many ways. We can't have this conversation without stopping to consider, to pause and actually imagine what it would be like to be one of the so many young wounded veterans, men and women who in many cases aren't even 40!, who have lost their arms or legs or eyesight or mobility or ability to think clearly or enjoy peace of mind. Who then come back to medical care and financial support that is without a doubt less than they deserve. We're told that there's no money to provide better.

But there is money, apparently, to start another expensive conflict in Syria. I stand here before you and tell you that I have no idea whether that would be money well spent or not. I see the videos of people suffering from gas attacks, and it seems to me impossible that we stand by and do nothing while these atrocities go on. At the same time, it seems as if the whole world (including people inside of Syria) thinks that the US military taking action would only make things worse for everyone.

It's too bad we don't have the equivalent of Special Forces in diplomacy - elite negotiators who could strategically and tactically create peace with the speed and enthusiasm with which we wage war.  With all the money we're spending in this country, why aren't we funding efforts to create peace?  To train people to understand and resolve conflicts, to help create a world without want and suffering?

But I digress. There's no sense in talking about what we could be doing with our collective money. We need to focus our attention on what is being done with our collective money right now. And we need to decide whether or not we're comfortable continuing to contribute to those decisions with our financial support.

You have to pay your taxes. There's no way around that legal and I believe moral obligation. However, we can and should be talking with our representatives about those taxes regularly. I think we've completely lost sight of exactly what we're paying for. I know I have. Informing yourself about what is being done with your money seems like a sensible idea.

The other side of the equation is consumer spending. Our country started with a demonstration of personal economic power creating political change. Today, boycotts are a tool used with some degree of success by both the Right and the Left.

I think it's time to remember that every purchase we make is political. Every dollar we spend contributes to the government and the actions it is taking. If you like what the government is doing, you should spend enthusiastically. If you don't like what the government is doing, maybe you don't want to buy as much stuff.

It's your decision. Just be aware that you're making it.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Before the Frost: Gathering Wild Apples

It's all about buying less and doing more.

Yesterday our region was under the first frost watch of the season. It's early - more than a week early - and our garden is nowhere near done. So there was scrambling going on: I picked the few tomatoes that had started to turn color, and harvested all of the cucumbers. 

I never grew birdhouse gourds before, so I had to research what needed to be done about them due to the approaching frost. (Turns out there's not much I could do at this point but cross my fingers and hope for the best!)

We covered the tomatoes that were still green with sheets of plastic, braced up on an impromptu framework of scrap wood, pvc pipe, and a metal tipped pole.

That took care of everything I'd put in the ground. It was time to take a look at what Mother Nature provides.

Foraging: Gathering Wild Apples

I have a great interest in wild foods and foraging - a passion that I must admit is not shared by my husband, who remains perpetually wary that I'm going to poison everyone. If you know anyone like this, I have to recommend wild apples as a great 'gateway food' - berries are of course the top choice, for I've never met anyone who can resist  woodland strawberries.

On the edge of our property is a big old apple tree that isn't wild as much as it is feral. I'm sure someone planted it once upon a time, but it hasn't had a lot of regular attention since then. This year, we've had a lot of rain, and the apples got huge.

Wearing my trusty boots - the apple tree is on the edge of a bog, and did I mention we have had a lot of rain - I went out and gathered as many apples that looked to be of decent quality as I could reach. You'd be surprised how an apple tree that was completely untended could produce so many apples!

They're not store perfect, but you have to let go of the idea that any wild food you pick is going to be store perfect. In real life, free from any human 'help', apples grow in a wide array of sizes and shapes; they're not all perfectly 'apple shaped'. Some had lots of spots and wind burn; others were clearly the home for hungry bugs - those I left alone!  Even passing those by, in about half an hour, I picked the two bowls of apples you see in the picture - more than enough for an apple crisp and some apple sauce for the family. They have some small spots, but nothing you can't easily cut out with a knife.

I made the apple crisp last night. It was delicious :-) If I'd had to buy those apples, it'd cost me about $8. Instead, they were free for the harvesting, and it was a nice way to enjoy a sunny - if surprisingly cold! - September afternoon.

Gather Ye Roses While Ye May

When I got back to the house, I discovered that my husband made one last minute before the frost happened. You can see the bouquet of yellow roses (my absolute favorite!) in the pic.

Sometimes the simple life is a really good one.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Three Thoughts About Technology

On Morning Joe this morning, it was reported that there's now inpatient treatment available for internet addiction. Wikipedia tells us that internet addiction is excessive computer use that interferes with daily life. Joe seems to think that this is a problem largely for children and grandchildren, but I'd argue that some parents and grandparents are struggling with this issue as well. People don't know what to do if they're not online.

One of the stats I use a lot at work is that more than  half of us have added checking Facebook to our daily routine. Even before we have our coffee, we're going online to see what has happened in our family & friend's lives. It's so important to observe other people's lives - when do we have time to live our own?

Thought number two: there was a tremendous rainstorm here last night, with thunder and lightning and torrential rain for a short period of time. Our power stayed on. But it made me think about the amount of knowledge we all store on electronic devices. Books work when the power goes out. The computer doesn't.

Obviously, the ultimate place to store knowledge is inside your head. That's portable, always accessible, and doesn't take up storage space. But we all have limited capacity. I certainly don't remember everything I need to remember to maintain our household on a typical day. It's smart to have a low-tech copy of all vital information, in case the power does go out.

Third. The first thing I saw on the TV this morning was Feed The Children's infomercial, raising money to provide for American children living in poverty. Later on, on the news, I saw a story about the millions of Syrian refugees, including the unprecedented level of children, who are living in camps. 
So much of survivalist philosophy & education is centered in a hunker-down mentality; I wonder if there's not a need to prepare yourself to live as well as possible if you have to take your family on the road and flee whatever bad thing has happened. We need to have a conversation about moving away from warfare, natural disasters, even economic dead zones.

Technology can help us access economic resources no matter where we are (assuming one can access the web) so I'm no Luddite - there's no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater - but we need to use tech to lift us out of poverty & improve our circumstances; not saddle us with addictions and keep us from being successful.

Monday, September 2, 2013

How To Count Your Blessings

Part of the reason we feel compelled to buy so much stuff, all of the time, is that we've lost the ability to be content with what we have. In fact, many of us don't even know what we have! Our closets are packed, our basements are piled high with boxes we haven't opened in years, we rent so much storage space for our stuff that self-storage is now a $22 billion dollar industry in the US.

Imaging what we could do, individually and collectively, with that $22 billion dollars. Would we have as much debt? Could we fund better schools for our kids? Would it be easier to help make sure our neighbors don't go hungry or senior citizens don't freeze to death?

Cultivating The Art of Contentment

An essential element of deciding when and how we're going to spend our money is learning how to be content with what we actually have. Frankly, I don't think most of us are very aware of what we have: we're too busy working to accumulate more, more, more to pay attention to the items we interact with every day.

But we can change this. Our parents & grandparents talked about 'counting your blessings' - and even today you see lots of people who are really into gratitude. They keep gratitude journals listing three things they're thankful for every day, for example, or make a point of telling someone that's made a difference in their life how much they matter.

I think these are great practices. They're just not enough if we want to enjoy life more and buy less stuff. For that, we've got to focus in on the tangible world, intensely and often.

This is how it works. As often as possible, when you're using an object or item, say out loud one of the benefits you can identify about it. For example:

Boy, this pen writes nicely!

I love how well the brakes on my car work.

This shirt is really comfortable.

This toothpaste tastes good.

I can fit everything I need to into my tote bag!

You might feel a little silly at first when you start this practice, but over time, a funny thing will happen. As you get in the habit of recognizing and articulating what you like about the possessions you have, the drive to replace them drops off significantly.

In fact, you might even wind up a little happier. I've found this happens especially with items I use all of the time. Let's take the coffee maker. Trust me, the coffee maker in this house gets a lot of use! And I think I've found every way to praise the coffee maker that there is. It's easy to use. It works fast. It makes good coffee. The coffee stays hot for a long time. There's a friendly little beep that lets me know when the warming unit is shutting off. It's easy to clean. The coffee pot is a little focal point of goodness in my life, and when I engage with it, I'm happier as a result.

It's not a spectacular coffee maker, mind you. It doesn't make espresso or lattes or wash my windows or anything like that. But it's a good coffee maker that does what its supposed to do, consistently, and recognizing and maintaining some level of awareness of this fact creates a bright point in my day.

You might be surprised how many bright points are waiting to be recognized in your day. Enjoying what we have reduces our desire to acquire more. That's essential if we want to get our lives back under control. It all begins with counting your blessings.

Friday, August 30, 2013

10 Questions To Ask Yourself Before You Buy Anything

An important step on the route to a more self-sufficient lifestyle is taking back your economic power. As a culture, we indulge in a lot of thoughtless buying. We purchase on auto-pilot, using the retail environment as a way to meet our emotional and spiritual needs. That's not always a bad thing - but we need to be aware of when it's happening. That way we can be more conscious of our economic power, and make choices that enrich our own families rather than keep them on the brink of perpetual bankruptcy.

Here are 10 questions to ask yourself before you make a purchase - any purchase, large or small! Get in the habit of asking yourself these questions, and you'll find you buy less and enjoy what you have more.  You'll also save money, which is always nice.

Before you buy anything, ask yourself:

1. Do I need this?  Not all of our purchases have to be needs, but it's important to recognize which ones are, and which ones aren't.

2. Do I need to own this? Can I derive the same benefits I expect to get from buying this item through any other method - can I borrow the book, watch the movie online, use the slide at the public playground? Sometimes you can derive the benefits desired without the cost of ownership.

3. Do I need to get this brand new? Our country has an extensive secondary marketplace. What would happen if you got the item you wanted at a yard sale, via eBay, at a consignment shop or a flea market?

4. Do I want to take care of this item? Clothes need washing. Some clothes need ironing. Some clothes have to be dry cleaned. Every tangible thing needs some level of physical care. Are you willing and able to commit to providing that care?

5. Is there something else I want more than the item I'm thinking about buying right now? Once my daughter stopped spending her chore money on candy bars, she found it much easier to save up for the toy she wanted. This lesson doesn't stop being true just because we grow up!

6. Do I need to buy this right now? Sometimes I'm convinced I really need or fervently want an item, and am forced by financial circumstances to put off the purchase. Then when I'm in a position to buy the item, I've found the driving need or want has been fulfilled in some other way. You don't have to buy something just because you were planning to - you are allowed to change your mind!

7. Do I want this? There are all things we want, and that's okay. The world is full of amazing stuff. Before you make a purchase, make sure that you're getting the amazing stuff you want. Don't settle for weak substitutions. If you're buying to satisfy a want, get what truly makes you happy. This might mean saving up for a while, but you'll find the process goes faster if you're not spending money on things that in the long run  you didn't want and don't make you happy.

8. What level of quality to I need to meet my need/want? We tend to buy as if "Only the best will do!" But we don't all need only the best, all of the time. If you're a hardcore handywoman who's actively in the process of remodeling your home, it's a smart decision to get a contractor grade screwgun. If your home improvement efforts are more in the line of hanging a picture once every year or so, it's a smart decision to get a screwdriver from the dollar store.

9. Who are the people influencing my purchasing decision? None of us live in isolation. Our purchasing decisions are influenced by the people we interact with. When I go to the grocery store, I get food my family likes. When I buy clothes to wear to work, I choose what would be appropriate for the workplace environment. Think about the times you've made choices based on what your romantic partner, neighbors, family, colleagues, or friends think. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but you need to be aware of who you're letting influence your purchasing decisions. You get to choose how responsive you are to those influences.

10. Can I make what I'm thinking about buying? Once upon a time, I wanted a Boston Creme Pie for my family. But we were tight on funds, and the bakery wanted $15 for that cake. A DIY version cost $6.50 for ingredients and my time. Once upon a time, people made all sorts of things for themselves - and today, more people than you might suspect still do. The Maker, Crafting, and DIY communities are very inspiring and good places to learn how to do almost anything. You might be amazed at the impact in your life if you choose to make just one thing you want or need. It's an addictive sensation, and will totally transform your relationship with retail.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Looking for Balance: The Need for a More Sustainable Way of Life

This morning, I read this really great article by Arianna Huffington, Burnout: The Disease of Our Civilization. In it, she articulates so much of what is wrong, really, really wrong, with our current way of life.

Her focus is on the corporate workplace, and she points out that too much time spent frantically engaged in money-making activity is neither good for the company nor its employees. There are numerous examples of employers providing mechanisms for some element of life balance - and many of these companies are very successful, national or even global brands.

She also talks about how our lifestyle is impacting us on a personal level. One stat that jumped out at me was the fact that the average smartphone user checks their device every six and a half minutes. That's 150 times a day.

I don't have a smartphone, but I'm as guilty of this as the next person. I always want to know what's in my email, on Facebook, on Twitter. I'm becoming increasingly aware of the compulsive nature of this behavior, while at the same time, puzzled. What, exactly, do I think I'm going to miss?

Personal Choices Lead To Cultural Change

I can't change the way the world operates all by myself. However, I can change what I'm doing. I need to be more mindful about the way I consume information, and how tethered I am to the internet.

One thing that really started me on this journey toward a more sustainable lifestyle was a bit in a Martha Stewart magazine that said we spend 95% of our lives indoors. That seems so incredibly, egregiously wrong.  At the same time, observing how much time I (and the people around me) have their attention focused on a small screen, is troubling.

In Syria, right now, little children are dying from chemical weapons attacks. The situation in Egypt is chaotic, and frankly, the situation in the United States is not exactly wonderful. But we don't pay attention to that when we have wonderful diverting Twitter streams full of who in the world will play the next Batman?

One of the fundamental ideas that's pivotal in creating a more sustainable way of life is learning to consider attention as a consumable resource: you only have so much, and you need to be selective where you spend it. I squander my attention, and that leads to bad choices and limits my ability to help others.

But this can change, and it will change. I'm not advocating for totally unplugging from the world - I can't support my family if I don't work - but there needs to be healthier limits than the ones I'm currently using. It's time to explore what those are.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Quote of the Day

PREPPING IS THE BIG SHORT: a bet not just against a city, or a country or a government, but against the whole idea of sustainable civilization. For that reason, it chafes against one of polite society’s last remaining taboos — that the way we live is not simply plagued by certain problems, but is itself insolubly problematic.

From the NY Times

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

What Am I Worried About? THIS is what I'm worried about


Forced Exposure ~pj
Tuesday, August 20 2013 @ 02:40 AM EDT

The owner of Lavabit tells us that he's stopped using email and if we knew what he knew, we'd stop too. There is no way to do Groklaw without email. Therein lies the conundrum.
What to do?

What to do? I've spent the last couple of weeks trying to figure it out. And the conclusion I've reached is that there is no way to continue doing Groklaw, not long term, which is incredibly sad. But it's good to be realistic. And the simple truth is, no matter how good the motives might be for collecting and screening everything we say to one another, and no matter how "clean" we all are ourselves from the standpoint of the screeners, I don't know how to function in such an atmosphere. I don't know how to do Groklaw like this.
Years ago, when I was first on my own, I arrived in New York City, and being naive about the ways of evil doers in big cities, I rented a cheap apartment on the top floor of a six-floor walkup, in the back of the building. That of course, as all seasoned New Yorkers could have told me, meant that a burglar could climb the fire escape or get to the roof by going to the top floor via the stairs inside and then through the door to the roof and climb down to the open window of my apartment.
That is exactly what happened. I wasn't there when it happened, so I wasn't hurt in any way physically. And I didn't then own much of any worth, so only a few things were taken. But everything had been pawed through and thrown about. I can't tell how deeply disturbing it is to know that someone, some stranger, has gone through and touched all your underwear, looked at all your photographs of your family, and taken some small piece of jewelry that's been in your family for generations.
If it's ever happened to you, you know I couldn't live there any more, not one night more. It turned out, by the way, according to my neighbors, that it was almost certainly the janitor's son, which stunned me at the time but didn't seem to surprise any of my more-seasoned neighbors. The police just told me not to expect to get anything back. I felt assaulted. The underwear was perfectly normal underwear. Nothing kinky or shameful, but it was the idea of them being touched by someone I didn't know or want touching them. I threw them away, unused ever again.
I feel like that now, knowing that persons I don't know can paw through all my thoughts and hopes and plans in my emails with you.
They tell us that if you send or receive an email from outside the US, it will be read. If it's encrypted, they keep it for five years, presumably in the hopes of tech advancing to be able to decrypt it against your will and without your knowledge. Groklaw has readers all over the world.
I'm not a political person, by choice, and I must say, researching the latest developments convinced me of one thing -- I am right to avoid it. There is a scripture that says, It doesn't belong to man even to direct his step. And it's true. I see now clearly that it's true. Humans are just human, and we don't know what to do in our own lives half the time, let alone how to govern other humans successfully. And it shows. What form of government hasn't been tried? None of them satisfy everyone. So I think we did that experiment. I don't expect great improvement.
I remember 9/11 vividly. I had a family member who was supposed to be in the World Trade Center that morning, and when I watched on live television the buildings go down with living beings inside, I didn't know that she had been late that day and so was safe. Does it matter, though, if you knew anyone specifically, as we watched fellow human beings hold hands and jump out of windows of skyscrapers to a certain death below or watched the buildings crumble into dust, knowing there were so many people just like us being turned into dust as well?
I cried for weeks, in a way I've never cried before, or since, and I'll go to my grave remembering it and feeling it. And part of my anguish was that there were people in the world willing to do that to other people, fellow human beings, people they didn't even know, civilians uninvolved in any war.
I sound quaint, I suppose. But I always tell you the truth, and that is what I was feeling. So imagine how I feel now, imagining as I must what kind of world we are living in if the governments of the world think total surveillance is an appropriate thing?
I know. It may not even be about that. But what if it is? Do we even know? I don't know. What I do know is it's not possible to be fully human if you are being surveilled 24/7.
Harvard's Berkman Center had an online class on cybersecurity and internet privacy some years ago, and the resources of the class are still online. It was about how to enhance privacy in an online world, speaking of quaint, with titles of articles like, "Is Big Brother Listening?"
And how.
You'll find all the laws in the US related to privacy and surveillance there. Not that anyone seems to follow any laws that get in their way these days. Or if they find they need a law to make conduct lawful, they just write a new law or reinterpret an old one and keep on going. That's not the rule of law as I understood the term.
Anyway, one resource was excerpts from a book by Janna Malamud Smith,"Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life", and I encourage you to read it. I encourage the President and the NSA to read it too. I know. They aren't listening to me. Not that way, anyhow. But it's important, because the point of the book is that privacy is vital to being human, which is why one of the worst punishments there is is total surveillance:
One way of beginning to understand privacy is by looking at what happens to people in extreme situations where it is absent. Recalling his time in Auschwitz, Primo Levi observed that "solitude in a Camp is more precious and rare than bread." Solitude is one state of privacy, and even amidst the overwhelming death, starvation, and horror of the camps, Levi knew he missed it.... Levi spent much of his life finding words for his camp experience. How, he wonders aloud in Survival in Auschwitz, do you describe "the demolition of a man," an offense for which "our language lacks words."... One function of privacy is to provide a safe space away from terror or other assaultive experiences. When you remove a person's ability to sequester herself, or intimate information about herself, you make her extremely vulnerable....
The totalitarian state watches everyone, but keeps its own plans secret. Privacy is seen as dangerous because it enhances resistance. Constantly spying and then confronting people with what are often petty transgressions is a way of maintaining social control and unnerving and disempowering opposition....
And even when one shakes real pursuers, it is often hard to rid oneself of the feeling of being watched -- which is why surveillance is an extremely powerful way to control people. The mind's tendency to still feel observed when alone... can be inhibiting. ... Feeling watched, but not knowing for sure, nor knowing if, when, or how the hostile surveyor may strike, people often become fearful, constricted, and distracted.
I've quoted from that book before, back when the CNET reporters' emails were read by HP. We thought that was awful. And it was. HP ended up giving them money to try to make it up to them. Little did we know. Ms. Smith continues:
Safe privacy is an important component of autonomy, freedom, and thus psychological well-being, in any society that values individuals. ... Summed up briefly, a statement of "how not to dehumanize people" might read: Don't terrorize or humiliate. Don't starve, freeze, exhaust. Don't demean or impose degrading submission. Don't force separation from loved ones. Don't make demands in an incomprehensible language. Don't refuse to listen closely. Don't destroy privacy. Terrorists of all sorts destroy privacy both by corrupting it into secrecy and by using hostile surveillance to undo its useful sanctuary. But if we describe a standard for treating people humanely, why does stripping privacy violate it? And what is privacy? In his landmark book, Privacy and Freemom, Alan Westin names four states of privacy: solitude, anonymity, reserve, and intimacy. The reasons for valuing privacy become more apparent as we explore these states....
The essence of solitude, and all privacy, is a sense of choice and control. You control who watches or learns about you. You choose to leave and return. ...
Intimacy is a private state because in it people relax their public front either physically or emotionally or, occasionally, both. They tell personal stories, exchange looks, or touch privately. They may ignore each other without offending. They may have sex. They may speak frankly using words they would not use in front of others, expressing ideas and feelings -- positive or negative -- that are unacceptable in public. (I don't think I ever got over his death. She seems unable to stop lying to her mother. He looks flabby in those running shorts. I feel horny. In spite of everything, I still long to see them. I am so angry at you I could scream. That joke is disgusting, but it's really funny.) Shielded from forced exposure, a person often feels more able to expose himself.
I hope that makes it clear why I can't continue. There is now no shield from forced exposure. Nothing in that parenthetical thought list is terrorism-related, but no one can feel protected enough from forced exposure any more to say anything the least bit like that to anyone in an email, particularly from the US out or to the US in, but really anywhere. You don't expect a stranger to read your private communications to a friend. And once you know they can, what is there to say? Constricted and distracted. That's it exactly. That's how I feel. So. There we are. The foundation of Groklaw is over. I can't do Groklaw without your input. I was never exaggerating about that when we won awards. It really was a collaborative effort, and there is now no private way, evidently, to collaborate.
I'm really sorry that it's so. I loved doing Groklaw, and I believe we really made a significant contribution. But even that turns out to be less than we thought, or less than I hoped for, anyway. My hope was always to show you that there is beauty and safety in the rule of law, that civilization actually depends on it. How quaint.
If you have to stay on the Internet, my research indicates that the short term safety from surveillance, to the degree that is even possible, is to use a service like Kolab for email, which is located in Switzerland, and hence is under different laws than the US, laws which attempt to afford more privacy to citizens. I have now gotten for myself an email there, p.jones at in case anyone wishes to contact me over something really important and feels squeamish about writing to an email address on a server in the US. But both emails still work. It's your choice.
My personal decision is to get off of the Internet to the degree it's possible. I'm just an ordinary person. But I really know, after all my research and some serious thinking things through, that I can't stay online personally without losing my humanness, now that I know that ensuring privacy online is impossible. I find myself unable to write. I've always been a private person. That's why I never wanted to be a celebrity and why I fought hard to maintain both my privacy and yours.
Oddly, if everyone did that, leap off the Internet, the world's economy would collapse, I suppose. I can't really hope for that. But for me, the Internet is over.
So this is the last Groklaw article. I won't turn on comments. Thank you for all you've done. I will never forget you and our work together. I hope you'll remember me too. I'm sorry I can't overcome these feelings, but I yam what I yam, and I tried, but I can't.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

How Much Does It Cost To Raise a Child? We Need To Look at These Numbers

A little over a week ago, CBS reported that it costs $241,080 to raise a child from birth to adulthood. I've spent a lot of time looking at that number, because I have 2 children, and we're roughly halfway through their rearing and there's NO WAY I've spent $241,080 on them so far, for the simple fact that I haven't made that much money.

There's a breakdown of how the USDA says we're allocating this $241,080, with a chart comparing how the same information in 1960.

I find it amazing that housing costs have only gone up 1% while the size and cost of houses has gone up exponentially. In the 1960's, a new house, on average, cost around $12,700. Today, that number is closer to $250,000.

To afford these more expensive houses, both parents are working outside the home, more often than not. We've seen the childcare expense go from 2% to 18%: in the CBS story, we see a young man who's wife makes six figures staying home to provide childcare because they can't afford it.

I'm puzzled by some of these other numbers. Why has there been a 10% increase in the cost of food; 5% in clothing, 4% in health care? Part of this may be attributable to having both parents work outside the home;  in homes where one or more parents are in the home more regularly, these costs are consistently lower.

When someone in the home cooks dinner, you don't go out to a restaurant. Yet it is commonly reported that the typical American family eats out 4-5 times a week; the US Bureau of Labor Statistics said the average American family spent $2,505 in restaurants in 2010.

And as for that growth in the miscellaneous category? In the 1960's, kids didn't have cell phones, lap tops, tablets or video games. While tech is ubiquitous among all generations, it's important to recognize that this is an expense parents didn't have 40 years ago. Today, video gaming is a $66 billion dollar industry - and most gamers start playing while they are still children.

Raising Kids When You Don't Have $241,080

Childcare, food, clothing, and health care are all controllable expenses. As parents, we can make lifestyle choices that bring these numbers dramatically down - but we have to be willing to go against what society tells us we should do, and instead do what actually makes sense for our families and our finances.

To the people who say this is impossible, I'd like to remind you that nearly half the world's population - 2.8 billion people - survive on less than $2 a day. Nothing is impossible! Although certainly we are aiming for a better standard of living than that.

I'm not advocating for a life of self-denial and no pleasures. However, anecdotal observation has shown me that the people who are spending the most on their children are not actually the happiest, nor do their children overwhelmingly appear to be more successful in the long run.

We need to be aware that numbers and reports like this serve a cultural purpose. By purporting to describe what's typical, what's average, what 'everyone else' is doing, these reports contribute to a "Keep Up With the Jonses" pressure that is killing us.  Couple that with advertising that continually tells us we're too busy to cook, that there are all these fun, brilliant restaurants, that your kids need the hot new looks for school (and a cart full of supplies for one kid, thank you, Target!), and my personally favorite, that we've got all kinds of illnesses we need to talk to our doctor about, and you get a lot of bad economic decision making as a result.

A Consumption Based Economy

Consumer spending - money that people like you and me spend in retail shops, restaurants, car dealerships, and more - accounts for 71% of the economy. But in return, what do we get? Schools that are underfunded, infrastructure that is falling down all over the place, foreign policy most people don't even know about much less agree with, and a government that spies on us.

This is not a good deal.

It shouldn't cost $241,080 dollar to raise a child. And if it did, I'd expect that child to be exceptionally well educated, extremely healthy, and prepared to change the world when they reached maturity. That's not what we're getting, even if it is what we're spending. Changes to the system are essential, and maybe it begins by buying less stuff for our children and spending more time with our children.

What Do You Think?

I'd love to hear what you think about the report that it costs $241,080 to raise a child. Do these numbers sound realistic, given your own experiences? What do you do to provide your kids with a high quality of life on a limited budget?

These are the discussions we need to be having. I'd love to see the USDA reporting in 5 years that people have brought their spending down and raised their quality of life. I think we can make it happen. But it has to start with someone saying, "No, those numbers are ridiculous, and here's why..."
When people hear that there's another way and that they can make better decisions, they can opt out of the consumer based lifestyle and enjoy their lives more. Even a small change has a positive impact, and we all have to start somewhere!

Friday, August 16, 2013

The War on Complacency

If we're really concerned about our ongoing survival on this planet as a species, there's something we have to do. We need to get people - large masses of people - to pay attention to what's going on; to really pay attention to important things, be informed and engaged and actively, critically thinking about our collective situation.

This is not going to be easy, for two reasons. This first is simple: people are kept too busy to think about anything.  They don't have the time, and by the time they have time, they don't have the energy. Participating in society as it is commonly practiced is a lot of work. We're so busy, in fact, that we've entirely lost the knack of paying attention.

We don't see what's actually in front of us. We see what we expect to see.

We don't hear what people say. We hear what we expect them to say - think about how startled you can be when someone says something 'out of character' or 'not like him!'

We go through life on auto-pilot, so focused on what we have to do that we don't take any notice of what's going on around us. That's part of the second problem, which is compounded by the fact that it's very difficult to figure out what we're really supposed to pay attention to: we're bombarded by messaging, commercial and otherwise, 24 hours a day.

Figuring out which bits of that deluge is important - much less true - is an overwhelming task; it's easy to 'opt out' and pretend you're treating it all as meaningless back ground noise.  The thing is, we're more susceptible to that back ground noise than we'd like to admit. We pay a price in terms of our energy and emotional resilience; we pay a price in terms of having our opinions shaped for us.

If all the voices you hear tell you that climate change is a hoax, you are likely to believe that climate change is a hoax. If all the voices you hear tell you that climate change is indisputable scientific fact, you are likely to believe that climate change is indisputable scientific fact.

If we don't hear any voices asking questions or expressing doubt (in either direction), we are less likely to ask questions or express doubt ourselves. If it appears like everyone else is going with the flow, we're much more likely to go with the flow too. This is a proven pervasive - not necessarily universal! - tendency in human beings.

I wonder if we can change that tendency and encourage more independent thinking. One way to do this - a valuable weapon in our war on complacency - is to ask people questions. Every day people - the people you work with, or run into at the coffee shop, or while waiting in line. Your family and friends. Go ahead and be curious. Ask them what they think about whatever - the topic doesn't have to be political or controversial, although ultimately, all things are both - and listen to what they have to say.

A lot of times you'll get people who say "I never thought about it..." but now you've started them thinking about it, and chances are they won't stop. We need little nudges and reminders to think about things outside of our ordinary, every day existence. We need reminders that the world is bigger than our own neighborhood. Most of all, we need reminders that there are as many ways to see the world as there are people, and the more different perspectives we're aware of, the better, wiser decisions we'll be able to make ourselves.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Losing Home: The Impact of Declining Social Structures on our Quality of Life

You should know who Ray Oldenburg is.  Way back in 1991, he wrote "The Great Good Place" and it's there that we see one of the first descriptions of how society falling down as retail rose. There's a lot in there about community planning and suburban development. Bedroom communities, for example, are entire neighborhoods where people retreat to sleep at the end of a workday - and then leave again in the morning for work and school.

Oldenburg identified some ways in which changes in the ways we live impact the quality of life we have. The big one is the disappearance of social structures -the formal and informal community groups people used to belong to. I realize this is a broad description, but it used to be a big category. You'd find everything in it from church membership to participation in your kids' PTA.  Some social structures were organized for very serious purposes - think of your volunteer fire department - while others were more fun, such as the community softball team.

Some Quotes from Roy Oldenburg

In the absence of informal public life, living becomes more expensive. Where the means and facilities for relaxation and leisure are not publicly shared, they become the objects of private ownership and consumption.

Life without community has produced, for many, a life style consisting mainly of a home-to-work-and-back-again shuttle. Social well-being and psychological health depend upon community. It is no coincidence that the ‘helping professions’ became a major industry in the United States as suburban planning helped destroy local public life and the community support it once lent.

 Totally unlike Main Street, the shopping mall is populated by strangers. As people circulate about in the constant, monotonous flow of mall pedestrian traffic, their eyes do not cast about for familiar faces, for the chance of seeing one is small. That is not part of what one expects there. The reason is simple. The mall is centrally located to serve the multitudes from a number of outlying developments within its region. There is little acquaintance between these developments and not much more within them. Most of them lack focal points or core settings and, as a result, people are not widely known to one another, even in their own neighborhoods, and their neighborhood is only a minority portion of the mall’s clientele.

The Rise of Retail

Nature abhors a vacuum, but nature's got nothing on a brand manager desperate to keep their job. It's not rocket science to see that people have a deep-seated need for community. If the community is no longer there, people will seek out the connection and purpose that community provided somewhere else. Retailers have stepped in to fill that gap.

Think about the classes offered at home improvement stores like Lowe's and Home Depot. In some measure, people take these classes because they want to learn how to accomplish a specific task, such as installing closet dividers or replacing a toilet. But there's something deeper going on here. When people gather, with like minded individuals, who all have a common challenge, they're forming a community. Some of the need that would have once been filled by the casual sideline conversations that take place while parents watch their kids' soccer games, for example, has now been moved into the retail environment.

We Lost Home, Too

Other thought leaders, such as Jean Zimmerman, in Making Scratch: Rediscovering The Pleasures of the American Hearth, and Shannon Hayes, in Radical Homemakers, have detailed how the erosion of community structures Oldenburg documented has extended even further.

Home, which has traditionally been the center of all human endeavors, has evolved into a place to be avoided or escaped. It's very weird: as houses get larger and larger - Bloomberg News reports that
the median new house built in the U.S. is now about 50 percent larger than its counterpart from 30 years ago - people are spending less and less time in them.

Part of this is economic. Large homes are expensive to acquire and maintain. You generally need at least 2 incomes to keep the household going. When everyone is working outside the home, there's no one left inside the home.

When there's no one left inside the home, the home becomes no more than a house -and a house as it stands is not an exceptionally compelling place to be. Retail and the entertainment industry provide an attractive alternative. For a few - or not so few- dollars, you can have an experience designed to delight you, or at least satisfy you, and don't you deserve it? After all, you've worked so hard this week, paying for the house you don't want to be in.

It's a vicious cycle. We have to be willing to look at it critically, examine our role in it, and finally, if we're going to change our lives, step off of it. I think it starts with taking home back, but it can't stop there. Isolation within the home is part of the root of this problem. We need to build communities and connections with people, both online and in real spaces, if we want things to change. We need Oldenburg's Third Spaces, free from the influence of commerce.

It's not going to be easy, but essential things never are.

Monday, August 12, 2013


I quit one of my jobs today. It wasn't a bad job, as ghostwriting gigs go: the clients are pleasant, knowledgeable people; the money decent and always paid promptly. But I just couldn't do it anymore. Here's why:

It's no secret that the world's best brands are successful because they do a great job of meeting their customers' needs. That's Marketing 101, right there. But what isn't so well understood is that human needs are incredibly complex. They have both tangible and intangible components.

That's why when winter rolls around and you go coat shopping, you're not just looking for a coat that's warm, weatherproof, and affordable. You want a coat that's stylish as your community of choice defines stylish, so you can feel good about yourself and your place in society.

My now-former clients do a great job educating business leaders about the complexities of human need and teaching them how to best meet as many of those needs as possible in the retail setting. Better, more comprehensive customer service leads to more sales, greater organizational profitability, increased market all sounds good, right?

Except for one little thing. 

I have become increasingly convinced that having too many of our needs - of both the tangible and intangible variety - met by retailers is disastrous. It's a catastrophe on the individual level, and collectively, for our society as a whole, it's a cluster-fuck of truly epic proportions.

People who can buy everything - everything from apples to aspirations, eggs to esteem, chocolate to confidence - are people who don't need to do anything. We don't need to make, manufacture, discover, or create. It all comes from the store. When all of our needs are met for us, we don't even have to think.

People who don't think make bad decisions. When we're not thinking, we make decisions that actually go against our own self-interest and the well-being of the communities we live in. Look around your circle of family, friends, co-workers and acquaintances. Look at society at large - especially as it's presented to us on the news.

Do you see a lot of good decision making going on?

The other day, I was down at a little local grocery store in my neighborhood. A young couple stopped in. They were in search of hamburger patties.

"We don't sell the pre-made patties," the proprietor told them, "But we do have the meat - we grind it fresh every morning!"

The young woman shuddered, and the young man slid a comforting arm around her shoulders. "No thank you," he said. "We'll just get some someplace else."

That young couple had a twenty mile drive ahead of them, in any direction, before they'd find a store that sold pre-made hamburger patties.  There was high quality, freshly ground beef right in front of them. But they were willing to travel a significant distance (and I don't know what gas costs where you are, but it starts at $4/gallon up here) to find hamburger patties already made for them.


I believe that the narratives we've been given by marketers - stories about what we need and who were are - hold some, if not all, of the answer to that question.

One of the most pervasive marketing messages, delivered daily in dozens of different ways, is "You shouldn't have to work so hard." It's a message that helped spur the public enthusiasm for electricity, with countless labor-saving devices that promised to free women from a lifetime of drudgery at the washboard or slinging sad irons. Decades later, we've internalized the message so completely that no one wants to do anything - even if the task is no more taxing than shaping a few ounces of ground meat into a patty.

This type of thinking is destroying us. I don't want to contribute to the problem. I want to help solve it. We can take our lives and our futures back from the marketers. We just have to remember how to meet our needs without the assistance of retailers.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Motivation Monday: The Stories We Tell Ourselves

The stories we tell ourselves about our lives dictate the type of life we're going to have. This is really important to understand, especially if you're in a place where you don't have a lot of financial resources. The one thing that you really can't afford when you're poor is believing everything people tell you about who you are and what your life is going to be like and most importantly, what you should want.

Oh I was just about to tell you a lie. I was going to say it doesn't cost anything to think for yourself. But oh baby, my sweet darling, it will cost you so much to think for yourself.  You will lose things; I have lost things and sometimes this loss hurts an awful lot. You will lose the comfort of the herd. You will lose sweet oblivion. You will lose the intoxicating fever of experience without context; the blissful heady rush that comes from not thinking things through. You will lose regard and relationships. It is a painful thing at times to see things as they most likely are, rather than how they are presented.

There is a price for the path I'm recommending, and it's not a small price. But I think it well-worth it, all these years on, and perhaps you will too.

The stories we tell ourselves about our lives dictate the type of life we're going to have.

Every day we wake up in relationship with Story. We tell ourselves, continually and subconsciously, a very powerful narrative. We tell ourselves if we're happy or not. We tell ourselves if we're competent. We tell ourselves if we're strong. We tell ourselves if we are healthy. We tell ourselves if we are beautiful. We tell ourselves if we are loved. We tell ourselves if we love others. We tell ourselves if we are masters of our fate or if we are helpless leaves in a hurricane. We tell ourselves if we trust our own selves, our own voice, our own experience, our own perception of the world.

We are not the only ones telling stories to us. Now, more than at any other point in human history, we are awash in a sea of messaging. We are bombarded by Stories. These stories tell us many things. They tell us first and foremost that we're not happy. That we're incomplete. That we're not good enough. We're not beautiful enough. We're certainly not healthy enough. These stories tell us that we are unworthy of regard, that we are managing our lives badly, that we are incompetent - unless, of course, we buy the right things. Given the right makeup, prescription medications, and phenomenally expensive college education we can buy our way into worthiness. That is how the story goes.

All I'm asking you this morning - and every morning - is to consider critically whether these stories we're being told are actually true. Consider how much you're exposing yourself to the narratives. You may think that these stories are  not touching you, but as a marketer of some experience here, let me assure you of this: if I can tell you several times an hour, every single day, that there is something wrong with you and that you need medication to fix it, eventually you will believe you are sick.

If we are going to heal ourselves - if we are going to heal each other, and our communities, and eventually the world - we need to take our stories back. It starts with what you tell yourself about yourself. You are smart, and beautiful, and strong, and capable of making yourself wholly into the person you want to be. You have come this far, and you will go much further yet. Telling yourself this is the first step in making it your own truth.

Onward, upward, forward, y'all. We have toxic prevailing cultural paradigms that need smashing to smithereens. I'm gonna need your help.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Are You Making the Effort to Educate Yourself?

I've recently become enamored of Twitter. I was sharing this with a friend, who said, "Oh, it's such a waste of time. There's nothing but garbage on there."

So I asked her who she followed.  She rattled off a few "celebrities", sports heroes and her personal friends. "Nothing they say makes my day any better."

Great content is not going to just fall into your lap. If you want to use Twitter and other social media tools as part of your campaign of self-education, it helps to be very deliberate and proactive about following people who post content that will enrich your mind and help you think.

This morning, @KofiAnnan was Tweeting. You know Kofi Annan - former Secretary General of the UN, Nobel Peace Prize winner? This is a person who has something to say, and someone who has been around enough that he knows what he is talking about. Why not follow him?

Follow the thinkers, the dreamers, the poets. Follow scientists and sociologists and researchers. People who are doing great work are willing to share what they've been doing. This is a tremendous gift - but you have to be willing to opt in and listen to the conversation.

If your Twitter feed is garbage, you have no one to blame but yourself. Fix it up! When you read an article you enjoy, take note of who the author is. 9 times out of 10 you'll be able to follow them on Twitter. If not them, at least the website or magazine that published their work. 

Make Twitter work for you. Set it up to harvest the information that will make you smarter. If you read one article from one smart person each day, by the end of the week, you're going to know more than you did at the beginning.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Be A Better Marketer: Do You Have Someone to Tell You No?

I just finished watching a train wreck of a commercial. I'm not going to name names, but let me fill you in on the concept. The owner of a local car dealership is at the wheel of his truck. As he's driving along, he continually looks up at the camera - clearly mounted on the passenger side visor - and in a demanding tone, tells the viewing public that if they're not buying their car from him, he wants to know why. He gives his personal cell number, assures people he'll answer the phone himself, and then we go to the dealership logo. The entire time, his attention is clearly divided between the camera and the highway he's driving on.

Yeah, that's real safe!

Conceptually, there's nothing particularly wrong with this ad - chances are you've seen variations of it thousands of times. But execution really is everything. A noticeably distracted driver is not the best choice to sell cars! This man's tone of voice was aggressive, not inviting. He didn't look good, sound good, or reflect well on his business.

Be A Better Marketer: Looking Bad is Entirely Avoidable!
Advertising is never free. Even in this small market, a television commercial is a significant investment for the small business owner. Before you spend that money, you want to make sure that you're making a wise decision. This requires an essential step: having someone who can tell you "No!"

What this car dealership owner clearly needed was someone on his side to take a look at the commercial - BEFORE IT AIRED - who would say "Dude. You're a great guy, but this commercial's just not working. Why don't we try it again? You'll be just as effective - and a whole lot safer and more focused! - if you're standing in front of one of your trucks instead of driving. If we change a few sentences around, you'll sound friendlier and less scary, too!"

It's important to understand that the TV ad rep is not going to do this for you. Their job is to sell ad time. They don't care if your ads are good, bad, or indifferent: they just want you to buy a bunch of them. The same dynamic is at play when you're buying print advertising, radio advertising, or doing online advertising. Some reps are better than others, but it's always, always, always a bad business decision to leave the responsibility for your company's image in their hands. That's yours, and you need to own it.

Everyone needs a second set of eyes to look at their work. In this instance, it was very clear that this dealership owner was handling production duties on his own, probably to keep costs down. The skills you need to be a great car dealer are not necessarily the same as the ones you need to be a great commercial producer.

Have a trusted employee, colleague, or friend review your all of your advertising before it goes live. This should be someone who is both sensible and confident enough to tell you "No way!" when an ad will make you look bad. It can be hard to hear that the ad you worked so hard on is a stinker, but it's much better to hear that before your market has seen the ad! Money spent on crappy ads is money wasted, and in this economy, who can afford to do that?

Monday, June 17, 2013

Reading Between the Lines

There's a PSA running on Quebec radio that goes something like this:


"Yes, my air conditioner is broken."

"Lady, this is 911. For emergencies."

"Yes, my air conditioner is broken and it's getting hotter in here by the minute. My address is 6595 Any Street."

"I understand, Ma'am. We'll send someone over right away."

Then it cuts to a message about you can call for help with domestic violence.

A not-unrelated story: a friend, detailing the physical and emotional abuse that led up to the dissolution of her relationship, shared a story where her partner broke her cat's leg by throwing the cat across the room. She said, "The vet knew. And probably also knew that I was in a DV situation before I did. "She fell" sounds a lot like "I walked into a door" or "I fell down the stairs".

How much of our ability to save each other, to care for each other, to break the cycle of abuse, is dependent on our ability to read between the lines. It's not enough to hear what is said. You have to hear what is meant. Sometimes that means listening for the words that aren't there, the things that aren't said.

There are reasons his is difficult. The first is that we're collectively not in the habit of paying attention at all. Never mind listening to what isn't said, we don't hear what is said. We're not present in our conversations. Sometimes we don't even know who we're talking to at all:

There are reasons we don't pay attention. We're busy. We're overwhelmed. We have places to go, people to see, important things that require our attention more than what or who we're currently engaged with. We live our lives on autopilot: how many times have you driven a familiar route - let's say from home to the office - only to realize you didn't see anything along the way? Our minds are continually occupied and this keeps us from living the lives we're supposed to have.

The 911 dispatcher gets thousands of calls a day - some of them from people who are calling because their air conditioners *are* broken, which is generally outside of 911's scope of service. It takes a cultivated awareness to pause long enough to think "Maybe something else is going on here!" and discern the meaning behind the words.

Vets, like other health care providers, are forced to see more and more patients in less and less time to make their revenue model work. It takes experience, compassion and a cultivated awareness to stop long enough in the normal course of events and say "Cats don't just fall like that. What's really going on here?"

There's very little education in our lives about how to develop our awareness, to discern the meaning behind the worlds, to look a little deeper. But that's exactly what we must do if we're going to change the lives we live, the lives other people live. If we're going to build a better world, we need to start paying attention.

Monday, June 3, 2013

On the Latest IRS Scandal: Do Good Management Practices Apply Only To People We Like?

Right now, on my desk, I've got a notice saying I need to pay the IRS nearly $2,000. The tax man is not my favorite guy right now - I don't think anyone ever likes to pay taxes.

That being said, I'm more than a little uncomfortable with the coverage surrounding the IRS conference expenditures. The agency has reportedly spent $50 million dollars for 220 conferences, over 2 years. That works out to roughly $227,000 per conference, although some conferences cost far more (one is reportedly $4 million!) and some obviously less. The IRS has 106,000 employees, according to Wikipedia.

One piece of information I haven't seen so far is how much is spent on conferences by other government agencies of comparable size over a similar time period. Numbers without context aren't tremendously helpful. I would like to see an agency-by-agency breakout of this information, and I bet other people would too. Just saying "Oh, they spent $50 million!" is good for whipping up the emotion - $50 million being spent by people you don't like just sounds terrible - but we can't forget that ALL of the money the gov't spends is taxpayer money; not just that spent by the IRS.

But that's not even the biggest part of the problem. The troublesome bit is the outrage leveled at the fact that the IRS employees were participating in team building exercises. Some of these exercises were fun! They involved dancing! People were visibly smiling and having a good time!

It would be interesting to have performance assessments of the IRS employees before and after these conferences, both self-assessments and objective third party assessments. Because here's the thing: team building exercises, morale boosting drills and the like are all designed to improve performance. They're a tacit acknowledgement that all work is performed by people, and people have complex emotional and psychological needs. When you take steps to meet those emotional and psychological needs, your employees perform better. This is not rocket science. This is Management 101.

For example, let's look at police officers. Due to the nature of their work, police officers are regularly exposed to traumatic events. That's why good police departments make sure there's counseling & support services available for their teams. Healthy, strong bonds between police officers not only provide for better law enforcement, they keep every one safer.

IRS employees are probably among the most hated professionals in the country. They have a thankless task that is complicated and ever changing. The tax code is more that 73,000 pages long. And budget crunches (believe it or not in the context of this story)mean that there are fewer employees doing more and more work. This is not a recipe designed to deliver top performance. In fact it is the opposite: put people in a difficult, high-stress job that everyone hates them for having.

Every single IRS employee is a person. Is it such a stretch to see that these people might need some emotional support? That their morale might be impacted by having everyone hate them?

If we agree that the IRS employee teams are performing a needed function, aren't these employees entitled to the same management tools and techniques people in other industries use to get top performance from their teams? Or is good management something we reserve only for the people we like?

We can argue about the amount of money spent all day, and somewhere, someone probably is. But let's stop the discussion about whether or not it's appropriate that the IRS employees have access to the type of team building, morale building exercises that are common practice to provide employee support and boost performance in many industries. People who are treated well do better work. Retaining skilled IRS employees is always going to be more cost-effective than attracting and training new employees. If that takes a little dancing and some cupcakes, so be it.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Curiousity: How The Heck Does That Work

Yesterday, I was reading one of Chris Brogan's newsletters. He was talking about our flags - basically what defines us, personally and professionally. This is something I've been thinking about, and so on a whim, I wrote to him, and said, "I'm curious, and I want other people to be curious too. No idea how this integrates with my career, actually - encouraging curiosity doesn't seem to be a paying sort of endeavor - but it's what I wind up doing most of the time :-)"

Wouldn't the world be a much better place if it was populated by intensely curious people? Curiosity is an engine of understanding, and understanding is an agent of change.

Much to my delight, Chris wrote back, saying,"Curiosity doesn't pay. Helping people satisfy theirs does. :)"

So now I'm thinking about what tangible, offline tools do people use to satisfy their curiosity? I'm focusing on offline tools because I believe hands on engagement is essential to creating passionate curiosity. It's definitely essential to understanding.

A magnifying glass is a great example, and one I appreciate more and more as I get older. It's a simple, easy way to see the small details of things. Binoculars and spy-glasses let you see what's far away; telescopes are great for what's really, really far away. I don't have a microscope (yet!) but it is definitely the tool to examine what lies way, way, way beneath.

I think if we want to encourage curiosity in children, we need to provide them with the age-appropriate versions of these tools and send them out into the world to see what they can see. More importantly, we need to keep using these tools as we grow. We must not get so busy that we stop looking at the world around us! 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Connecting Our Attention Spans and Success: The Seth Godin Question

Yesterday, I was talking with a colleague about Seth Godin. Seth's blog is pretty much required reading in some circles, and we were talking about why he's so popular. There are times when Seth is brilliant, and there's times when he's not so brilliant - I'm pretty sure that's a function of numbers as much as anything; he's an extremely prolific author and blogger and no one hits it out of the park all of the time.

My colleague suggested one simple reason I hadn't considered. "Seth's stuff is usually really short. I can read it in a minute. Other stuff, I look at it and I know it's got value and I should look at it, but it'll take me a while to read, so I put it in a folder for later."

"Does later ever come?" I asked her.

She laughed. "Sometimes."

Wise Geek reports that an adult should have an attention span of 15-20 minutes - more than long enough for most of us to read a few thousand word article. Yet the internet has reduced our attention span substantially. Typically, we'll spend a minute online paying attention to a single item before we're distracted by something else. Some people don't even spend that much time: they're on to the next thing in less than 10 seconds.

What impact does this have on our success? Well, I think answering that question depends where you're standing. Seth Godin has done well formatting his messaging in a way in such a way to appeal to an abbreviated attention span. When you're populating a website with content, you'll get better results if all of the essential information is instantly identifiable. Non-fiction book design is steadily evolving to incorporate lots of white space, bullet points in quantity, and infographic style design to make them more appealing to the reader.

But does the rapid delivery of information give us everything we need to succeed and thrive? I'm not entirely convinced. If we're only consuming what we can consume quickly, we're limiting ourselves. A diet that consists of only food that's easy to chew and effortless to digest will make us sick in the long run. We need fiber to keep things on track. To extend the metaphor, perhaps we need the intellectual fiber. Perhaps we need to spend time with ideas, taking them in slowly, mulling them over, thinking about them, integrating them into our worldview, and only then taking action.

Doing this can mean taking action that goes against prevailing cultural norms and our own personal daily routines. Suggest to someone that they spend a quarter of an hour with a single article is to provoke an almost guaranteed response of "I don't have time to do that!"

What would happen if we found the time? If we slowed down just enough to be present in our lives, professionally and personally. Would we learn more? Would we understand more? Equipped with more knowledge and understanding, what could we accomplish? It might be worth spending 15 minutes a day finding out.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Music Meets Politics: Ai Weiwei's New Music Video "Dumbass"

I have to begin this post with an admission: I'm not the world's biggest fan of rap music. And my knowledge of Chinese rap music is non-existent. But that doesn't mean I can't appreciate the artistry and courage that went into putting together Ai Weiwei's new music video, Dumbass .

In 2011, Ai Weiwei, an artist deeply engaged in advocating for personal and artistic freedom in China, was imprisoned by his government for 81 days. In the video for Dumbass, Weiwei tells the story of what that experience was like. In an interview with Reuters, Weiwei said, ""There was one thing I thought was interesting. When I was detained, there was a paramilitary officer standing there very seriously watching me, and he asked me quietly if I could sing a song. At the time I felt extremely frustrated, because I felt terrible, and I realised that in a situation like that, these guards felt just like me, they wanted to hear songs."

Both Weiwei and his captors were powerless in that situation, subject to the dictates of a larger authority. They were trapped in different ways, even though one group - the guards - were in alignment with the system and Weiwei stands in opposition to it.

Connecting Art & Politics

Ai Weiwei is one of my personal heroes because he has the courage to consistently defy the authorities and fight for freedom. He uses his creativity to do this. Much of his work is visually oriented; installation pieces and paintings. Now there is a new music video and an album coming.

It's important to understand that rap music began as the songs of the disempowered and disenfranchised: it was the sound of the young, black, and poor in the 1970's. Over the years, rap music may have become more mainstream, but it's always remained intensely political.

It is interesting to see Weiwei adopt this expressly political form of music to express himself. There's certainly the cinematic/visual story telling aspects of the video to consider, and I think for most Western audiences who do not speak Chinese, it is the experience of watching what this great man experienced while he was imprisoned mixed up with some surreal moments - make sure to look for the goldfish in the toilet! - that will have the most impact.

Art can change the world. This is how that happens.

A song can not be unheard. Anyone can sing a song. I'm not sure how easily the Chinese people will be able to access this video - internet access in China is heavily controlled - but it only needs to get out there to one or two people who will share it with their friends. If the message is embraced, if it resonates, the song will spread. Participation in a communal cultural event creates bonds between people; a song can articulate a shared vision or in this case, a shared imperative. Weiwei explicitly calls out his countrymen - and by extension, all of us who are engaged in the fight for freedom on whatever level - to move past the expected cultural norms and do what must be done.

Fuck forgiveness, tolerance be damned, to hell with manners, the low-life's invincible. If you hear that message long enough, frequently enough, what are you going to internalize? How will your willingness to effect change be impacted? It may be that Weiwei's song is nothing more than a rock thrown in a puddle. But it may be that these are the words the people will be singing as they stand up for themselves. We may be bearing witness to the birth of an anthem that will change the world. I certainly hope so, anyway.