Archive for February, 2008

Eyes Wide in South Africa

Cape Town from Table Mountain

Greetings from South Africa! I’m here at the first ACM conference held on the continent (DIS 2008) to present my work on games in virtual worlds (paper). You know I had to come. And let me tell you, it’s been an eye opening experience.

South Africa is a fascinating place — a mix of backgrounds from African to European to Malay, and so many more. Gorgeous rural landscapes punctuated by massive cities. New ideas everywhere the eye looks: clothing, food, advertising, architecture. 11 official languages (but, thankfully, pretty much everyone speaks English).

I mean, I’ve been to Africa before but being in a place where you can easily communicate really changes your perspective. In fabulous Senegal, I could pick up affect in French and Wolof but it’s a different thing entirely to be able to have a conversation and start to find out who people really are. I got to it.

At first blush, Cape Town seems to recovered remarkably in the years since the end of apartheid in 1994. I’ve seen less job segregation here than I did in Atlanta, for example. But peak behind the scenes (or, in my case, behind the wheel of a tour van) and that painful history starts to creep back in — from a tourguide’s inadvertent and unfortunate commentary on “informal settlements” to the clear lingering class distinctions between white, colored, and black in housing as we traveled the countryside and walked through city neighborhoods. We’re told anyone can live anywhere now, but that’s clearly bound by income and the end of apartheid did not magically re-distribute the money. And it didn’t re-distribute long held prejudices, either.

It was interesting to see fear in the faces of some well traveled folks making their first trip to Africa. Would they be robbed? Would the infrastructure be falling apart? Would the plane fall out of the sky? It was nice to see those fears evaporate when we hit the ground. (I’m sure checking in to hotels like the opulent and insane Extreme Sports Hotel didn’t hurt, either.)

Somehow, though, I didn’t have the same fears coming in. Perhaps that’s because I’ve been to Africa before. It’s not the naive notion that Africa is one country but rather that, to me, simply being back on the continent — anywhere on the continent — feels a lot like coming home. Being African American can do that to you.

For more on African roots, see Are You Sure You’re Black?

Who Cares About Climate Change?

Don’t worry, be happy. In October, famed environmental scientist James Lovelock (author of the Gaia theory) commented bluntly on the planet’s future, saying we’re so far beyond the tipping point that all the brakes in the world won’t matter:

“Our future,” Lovelock writes, “is like that of the passengers on a small pleasure boat sailing quietly above the Niagara Falls, not knowing that the engines are about to fail.” And switching to energy-efficient light bulbs won’t save us. To Lovelock, cutting greenhouse-gas pollution won’t make much difference at this point, and much of what passes for sustainable development is little more than a scam to profit off disaster. “Green,” he tells me, only half-joking, “is the color of mold and corruption.” (rolling stone)

Grim, no? And we have to hope he’s wrong. But, if there’s a key to all this, it’s not scaring the living shit out of people but rather giving them specific things they can do that matter. Even if they’re big things. A recent study found as much.

And people everywhere are making important steps towards reducing their carbon footprint. A few days back, The Times reported on a suburbanite’s struggle to decrease his carbon footprint and, more generally, how even small changes in population density can have a big impact.

Still, some of Lovelock’s argument does resonate. We all have to know in the backs of our heads that just changing lightbulbs and carpooling to work isn’t going to save the planet. Those are good short term steps to be sure, but the real solution is something far more profound and challenging to the status quo — everything from fundamentally altering how our communities are structured to breaking with the culture of consumption. That’s where we start to get major pushback from special interests and truly challenging ourselves.

Perhaps Mark Lynas put it best:

With scientists telling us we need to stabilize global emissions by 2015 in order to keep rising temperatures within relatively tolerable boundaries, there is a pressing need to shift the energy direction of the entire global economy, not tinker at the margins. Massive public pressure now needs to be put on world governments to negotiate a successor treaty to Kyoto which dramatically reduces emissions within a 20-30 year timescale. And that is something that big business still has a hard time contemplating. (adbusters)

There are many heartbreaking stories in developing countries, but one of the lessons I always come home with is one of re-use, repair, and re-invention rather than rampant consumerism. When you don’t have the means to buy buy buy, you discover clever ways to make what you have work. (See Design for the Other 90% for examples.) That’s something we desperately need to learn from. And fast.

What’s going to save the planet? Nothing short of a radical rethinking of the way we live. The challenge is convincing ourselves to see it as an opportunity, not a threat.

images via tim & sue and mladen penev

9rules Talking Heads Strike Comedy Gold


I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect from the Superstream but, after last night, I’m a believer. What is the Superstream exactly? It’s 3 video feeds (one for each of the 9rules owners: Mike, Scrivs, Tyme) and a chat room for the rest of us. Were the triad like a lot of other dot com crews, the thing would be like watching paint dry (how can we drive shareholder value today?). Fortunately, they ain’t.

The conversation ranged from serious relationship talk to a broad variety of SxSW misbehavior to the mysterious opening and shutting of the door behind Mike and, oh yeah, exactly what orifice do the gold flakes in Goldschläger exit from, anyway? But mostly it had the ring of a group of friends blowing off steam after a long week. A bunch of seriously funny friends. Mike had the hysterical faces (and break dancing) on lock, Paul did filter free monologues (and twitters), and Tyme injected just enough sanity into the mix to make it all hold together. With the rest of us in the peanut gallery egging them on, it produced comedy gold. How do I know? Well, I tuned in at 11pm thinking I’d be done by midnight. Next time I looked up it was 2am. And my sides hurt.

If personality is king, the triad has it in spades. More of that, please.

Dates and times are hard to come by and announcements can happen minutes before the actual event but, if last night is any guide, keeping an eye out is worth it — even if you do pay for it the next day. Did I mention we all did shots?


Update: More on last night’s events in 9rules Notes.

The Obama Upset

It’s been a season of upsets. First we were stunned to see massive favorite Roger Federer fully dismantled by Novak Djokovich (who?) in the Aussie Open. Then the “unbeatable” Patriots lose to an unlikely Giants team in a thriller of a Super Bowl. And this Tuesday, Barack might just upset Hillary and get a whole lot closer to being president. Or not.

When it comes down to it, there seems to be little more than a hair’s difference between the two on policy. Sure, we might trust Hillary more on health care because of her work as first lady, and she’s certainly amassed an impressive amount of Hill savvy over the years, but it also gives her that “part of the problem” establishment glow.

If Clinton’s got the inside angle, Obama has claimed the grassroots. It’s telling that nearly every New York subway station features a legion of superyoung Obama supporters spreading his message. (Clinton’s are nowhere in sight?) And the past week saw the one-two punch of artists like Will Adams and Shepard Fairey putting people in the streets. But where’s the experience?

I’ve been on the fence forever. Where Obama truly inspires, it’s Clinton who’s shown she can execute; and diversity wins either way. Lately, though, I’ve come to think we need to dream again. In this age of intensely uninspiring government, we need someone who can make us believe in the executive once more — and remind us of the bigger things. If the past is any guide, that person sure looks like Barack Obama. Let’s hope, then, for yet another upset today.

We previously wrote about Obama in The Last Black Senator and Holidays in Cambodia.

Update: Hey, split down the middle is good, too. :-)

images via obey

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