Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year

The "in crisis" blog, as Moko calls it, has made it through year one. Hoping to evolve into deeper, more analytic, more data-driven, and more solution oriented posts on the environment, development, sustainability, global culture, technology, design, and other trends and areas of focus that interest me in 2008. Friends, thanks for reading. Enjoy your New Year's Eve!

Photos from Time Magazine's 2007 year in photos, which wasn't great, but was, surprisingly, among the better ones I found. Which leads me to wonder, where are the photos that show the wonderful and fucked up world in which we live?

Tocar y Luchar

At TM's invitation, I went to see a sweet movie, Tocar y Luchar, documenting and promoting Venezuela's nation-wide program of using orchestral music lessons to engage youth, particularly poor, under-served, and at-risk youth. While I had not heard of the program previously, apparently the ascension of the young conductor Gustavo Dudamel to celebrity circles has brought the program to prominence. A brief description of the program (and link to full article:)
Somewhere around 250,000 children from all over the country, 90 percent of them from impoverished backgrounds, now participate in to El Sistema. Considering the country’s total population of 27 million, it means that one in every 100 citizens plays in an orchestra. Venezuela now has nearly 60 children’s orchestras (for children between 2 and 12), more than 150 youth orchestras (for players between 12 years old and young adulthood), 30 adult professional orchestras, more than 120 local nĂșcleos (training centers) and countless chamber ensembles.
The program, started in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abreu, is compelling and seems like a feasible approach to development that can be applied on larger or smaller scales in many countries (and seems, in that it shares models with many athletic programs, that it might be extended to disciplines other than orchestral music, as well). Of course, the current political context in which Venezuela is seen as an outsider to broader political dialogues makes it a bit hard to see through some of the commentary on this program, both positive and negative. While the movie is both sweet and inspiring, it does not tackle these political and pragmatic issues in much detail. Which leaves a host of questions, some practical, some philosophical, in the air:
  • How is the success of this program measured, in terms of development goals? The movie does an excellent job illustrating cases of poor, at-risk, and even disabled children who are empowered by the program, but the cases are necessarily a select few. Is the program successful in creating greater skills among the students, and opening up opportunities for advancement (outside of those super-achievers who get selected through the system to play in orchestras)?
  • What happens to the kids when they become adults? Does their training in music have any material impact on their well-being? Particularly, what happens to those kids who participate in the program, but aren't successful at progressing through the ranks?
  • Does having a population raised on orchestral music do anything in a grander sense to Venezuelan culture? Does the culture have a greater engagement and appreciation of music and art, writ-large, due to the experience of these children?
More questions abound, but the program is certainly inspiring and interesting, for what it has already accomplished, both in engaging at-risk youth, and re-invigorating the classical music world, in Venezuela and beyond.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

What Happens In the Meadow At Dusk?

I forget how charming and good and bizarre this movie is...

Friday, December 28, 2007

Chak De India

If I had seen Chak De India, starring Shah Rukh Khan, in an American theater, with an American context, I would have walked out. Structured somewhere between The Mighty Ducks and Miracle, Chake De India relates the story of a disgraced, Muslim ex-captain of the Indian men's field hockey team (who is disgraced for allegedly throwing a World Cup championship game to Pakistan), who returns after eight years in exile to coach the under-funded and under-appreciated women's field hockey team as they attempt to compete in their own World Cup in Australia. Predictably, the women's field hockey team is comprised of a motley cast of characters - the jaded veteran, the strong, mean, fat girl, the brawling defenders, super-talented, aloof rich girl, the hard-luck, scrappy forward. What makes this film interesting is that, beyond embodying these sports film archetypes, each of these girls also represents a regional stereotype from within India. And one of the film's strongest motifs/morals is that, in order to succeed, each of the women must learn to play for India, and their unified identity as the Indian national team, rather than the regional identities which they more strongly identify with.

I write about this film not to recommend it. It's not a good movie. But it is interesting as an example of how social mores, even simple ones, can be advanced through film. Since, in India, film and television are such popular media, dominating so much of the popular cultural landscape, film and television become important conduits for conveying political and cultural messages. By embracing an essentially feel-good, nationalist story, starring one of the biggest stars of them all, Chak De India is able to broach questions of regionalism (particularly against the poorer and more backwards states), bureaucratic inefficiency, Hindu-Muslim prejudice, and sexism. All in one movie! All while India's women's field hockey team improbably wins the world championship! With the climactic scene, where the young women overcome their differences and recognize that they are more alike than dissimilar, taking place in a McDonald's!

Is such a movie successful in changing people's opinions about India? It isn't a particularly insightful or subtle treatment, but I'm not sure insightful and subtle are the ways to sway popular opinion in India. And, of course, it's hard for me to tell, sitting in New York.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Lazy Environmentalist, part 1

A small plug for checking out The Lazy Environmentalist, a show on NPR, a website, and a book that I am currently paging through. I'll have more to write once I finish leafing through the book and have some more time on my hands, but in the meantime, have a look...

Little Politics

I haven't been paying much attention to politics the past few weeks, but as we are about to turn the year and really engage the political frenzy, I wanted to chip in with a few comments. First, I found the above clip of President Bill Clinton being interviewed on Charlie Rose on TPM, which I found interesting, for many reasons:

- Talking Points Memo characterizes the clip as Bill Clinton "taking the gloves off" in calling Obama's readiness to be president in to question. Somehow, I didn't actually read it that way. Although I haven't seen any of the remainder of the episode, so perhaps I lack context, I was surprised about how much concession Clinton made to Obama's political skill and the comparisons he made between himself in '88 and Obama in '08. The general impression I get is much more, I am doing my duty as part of the Hillary campaign to dis-credit Obama, but, "yeah, he really is good and could be really good for the country." Hitting a man as being "symbolic of change" and "risky" just don't seem like big political hits.

- Clinton makes the point that Obama would simply represent a "symbolic" change, and has not proven himself as an agent of change. But isn't that precisely what America needs? A symbolic change in leadership? While the domestic political problems that Clinton articulates (education, health care, focus on education and primary research to re-establish a competitive knowledge workforce) may be addressed by strong management, aren't the BIG international problems (America's standing in the world, climate change, terrorism) in need of a fundamental symbolic change, representing not only a new approach in politics and governance, but a declaration through vote by the American electorate that they get it about these problems?

- The role of thoughtful statesmen really suits Clinton well, allowing him to show off his intellect, his understanding of and genuine excitement for politics, and allows him to avoid some of the "Slick Willie" veneer that made him eminently electable but occasionally untrustable.

For full disclosure, my current stack-rank of the Democratic field is as follows, although I find everyone mentioned perfectly acceptable:

1. Obama
2. Biden
3. Edwards
4. Clinton

Additionally, I am sure I would have a better appraisal of Hillary if she weren't at all related to Bill -- mostly because I don't think elongating the 20 years of Clintons and Bushes in the White House is the right thing for the country, in its symbolism or in practice.

Monday, December 10, 2007

No Bubble!

I wish I hadn't lived this dream before...

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Story of Stuff

First, a bit of a goof on globalism that we pulled together back in the old SPR days. While our low-fi comedic ramblings may or may not be that funny, I am still constantly shocked at how much cheap, disposable stuff you can buy in New York, and how the economics of extraction, production, labor, and transport can scale to make a $3 umbrella a viable product.

With that silly context setting, I'd urge you to check out this animated movie "The Story of Stuff," which Professor ND forwarded to me. Annie Leonard touches on a number of powerful themes, that I think are constantly missed in public dialog about sustainability, civic responsibility, and the power that people have, as consumers, in influencing their world. Specifically, I think that while a lot of people feel trapped and fed-up with our consumerist culture -- the need to buy, the lack of durability of products, a keeping up with the Joneses mentality -- and I think Leonard does a good job articulating that, while you may feel trapped, there is a legitimate choice you can make, to opt out of the cycle of consumerism. Secondly, it is important to frame the materials economy as a cycle, recognizing that the choices that are made - by consumers, by politicians, by business people - all have impacts both upstream and downstream in the cycle. Positive choices can be amplified to be even more positive, and unfortunately, the same holds true for choices with negative consequences.

While I am not always enamored by the slight shrillness of people who are active advocates in the sustainability movement, and some of that occasionally bubbles to the surface in this video, I think, in general, The Story of Stuff is a very thoughtful and engaging overview of our consumer-driven materialist culture, and should be broadly forwarded, to people who care about these issues, and probably more importantly, to people who may not know to care about them.

Additional resources worth checking out:

Free Range Studios - the design firm responsible for the production of The Story of Stuff, who apparently have a very cool charter.
The Center for the New American Dream - I haven't kept close tabs on this non-profit, but when I was paying more attention five or six years ago, they were doing a great job communicating how the objectives of adopting a more sustainable lifestyle were very much aligned with quality of life aspirations that are core to the classic "American Dream"
The Global Footprint Network - Another non-profit that focuses on trying to raise the public and political awareness of how the material flows in our economy, driven by consumerism, impact global sustainability.