Archive for May, 2009

Coal Black Harassers

May 31st, 2009

First the hawk came, like a bomber swooping six feet or so my bike helmet. Immediately behind, two cawing crows few in tight formation.

I was biking this morning on Neponset Valley Parkway when the aerial display occurred. I rarely bring a camera on a bike ride and had not today. Even if one were handy, I would not have had time to retrieve it, turn it on and get any of the scene. Rather it became a transient nature moment.

The mature red tail hawk had a squirming chipmunk that it has apparently just pounced on and captured on a tree limb beside the road. That’s when it took off with its breakfast in claws. The crows will apparently eat anything and chase bigger predators without fear.

The hawk was not impressed and headed away. It outflew its pursuers. There’d be no sharing this morning.

Captured by Capturing Cape Cod

May 27th, 2009

rosa rugosa and raindropsA seaside stroll grabbed me in Brewster this weekend. I found my index finger twitching at flowers and fungus and sailboat hulls and anchor floats. Digitizing occurred.

To see the set, click over to the Flickr stream here.

This was our church’s annual Memorial Day retreat at the Cape Cod Sea Camps. It seems we and two other church groups do this annually, although as discrete cliques.

dune fenceBy coincidence, I met a member of the other UU church attending (Follen in Lexington, MA) two days before the weekend. At the annual meeting of the UU Urban Ministry she was one who spoke of what the UUUM meant to her. She and her family volunteer at the youth programs in Roxbury and mentor a young girl. It’s a great example of living out faith rather than just checkbook liberalism.

At a session break at the meeting, I asked introduced myself to Lisa and asked whether she was headed to the retreat. She was and agreed to tell our group about her family’s involvement with the UUUM. She then did at the Sunday lay-led worship. Her husband, Hill, joined her and I hope inspired one or more of the Brookline couples to dare the inner city for some doing good. Plus, we had actually encounters beyond nodding chins among the two groups.

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For Kindness in Correction

May 22nd, 2009

“What is a mini-computer?,” asked my neighbor on the next plastic folding chair. “Is that like a Blackberry?”

Ah, the educated ignorant! Let us be kind to them in our responses, to earn the same from others who observe our own inscience.

In triple fairness, I note:

  1. She was probably 30 or so
  2. She is a lawyer
  3. She did not pull the lamest cover of I-wasn’t-born-yet

I have no doubt she must know many things I do not. That wouldn’t include much about the law. After J-school, writing for papers and magazines, and recently blogging legally related issues, I can likely walk lockstep with her there. However, she surely has areas of knowledge I do not.

Yet, I wondered how it could be that one could get a couple of college degrees and be raised in the Boston area without knowing such a fundamental economic and technological topic. I briefly discussed mainframe, mini and workstation technologies along with the huge impact DEC, Data General and such folk had for so long here.

We sat before the opening session of the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry annual meeting. The 140 or so of us are fairly bright and socially active folk. I would suppose that as a group, we read much more news than average. Thus, I wondered how she could have grown up without knowing of the fundamental drivers of the Massachusetts economic boom and cultural transformation when she was a tot. Did they not get newspapers, did she not read them, did they not discuss current events at the dinner table, or did she glaze over when business and technology were in the air?

The joy here is that among human shortcomings the easiest to overcome is ignorance. Except for the most advanced subjects, not knowing is far, far easier to correct than not being able to understand — the difference between ignorant and stupid. Share a little knowledge and everyone comes up to speed.

Amusingly though, some use knowledge as a weapon or as a test. While not exclusively reserved to the prep school/Ivy types, this is most common in those who have grown up hearing how brilliant and wonderful they are. Some of them love to correct others, even their peers. Each minutia can be a little badge on their sashes of superiority. It is obnoxious.

Life in general and conversation in particular are ever so much more pleasant without the self-righteousness and melodrama. No one needs to be shamed public because of not having learned some tidbit or not having learned it precisely in the form you did.

I hope my row mate has the chance soon to mention the wonders of the 1980s, when technological and economic marvels, mini-comuters, powered the glories of Route 128 and the Massachusetts Miracle.  She’s a UU. I’m sure she’ll spread the information gracefully and in the spirit of knowledge.

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Lock It, Take It or Lose It

May 18th, 2009

thief as ratCost center two returned from the University of Rochester with enough detritus to heap the mini-van window to window, plus a bike hung off the back. As we began to bike together, I noted that he had neither the mirror nor the headlight I had screwed or bolted onto his two-wheeled vehicle before he left.

For me, I use strap-on headlight and mirror. Then again, I’m a tech writer and anal-retentive sort. I have no problem remembering to take off those, plus the snap-in pump when my road bike is out of sight. There aren’t too many college freshmen that tight.

My son had not noticed the accessories were missing. The theft is not good, but I was more concerned that this meant that 1) he (as Conan Doyle had Holmes say) saw but did not observe  and 2) he had been riding in city traffic without using his mirror.

His response was one of wonderment. How is it that a research university populated nine months a year mostly by well-off, bright, suburban sorts would steal? Moreover, Uof R has many cyclists and many filled bike racks, quite literally next to every class, dorm and function building.

Probably no student there was too poor to afford a bike light and mirror. So, my son further wondered why they would steal his. On top of it all, these thefts required a screwdriver and pliers or the right sized wrench.

My mother had a tale of her own such awakening. On her first long train ride as a teen college student, she left her purse hanging from the seat back. She dozed off and someone made off with her spending money. As she told it, “I was just a dumb country girl. It never crossed my mind that people with steal from each other in plain sight.”

For the bike parts, the stereotypes may hold. After all, stereotypes are based on historic realities most often and many have some truth deep within them.  One such is that poor people steal what they cannot afford, often feeling resentful and entitled for what others have. Another is that rich people steal because they feel privileged and find taking something and inconveniencing others an amusing diversion. Having been a college student myself way back when, I’m perfectly willing to get even simpler — pour two or more beers into a student and you shouldn’t be surprised when alcohol drowns the ethics and conscience critters hanging around.

So for the fall, it won’t be as bad and sad as fearing to let your kids play outside for paranoia about evil people stalking, stalking. Yet, my son will have to build in new security rituals.

I’ll provide a third mirror. He fell and broke one before heading off the college. I’ll also ride with him this summer and train him in using the mirror all the time. I’ll take him places like restaurants where we add to the locking routine. He’ll have to take the loose parts off the bike and replace them before heading home. I can model that behavior well enough. It is a mild distrust I have and have acted on for many years.

In terms of loss of innocence and disillusionment with fellow humans, this is pretty low level. I am still a little sad that the rituals would be necessary and wise.

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First at El Oriental de Cuba

May 16th, 2009

Many love El Oriental de Cuba in Jamaica Plain’s Hyde Square…except….

…you can’t get a damned seat. The medium-sized Cuban restaurant is so popular that you had best bring a friend to chat up or a book to read while you wait.

My Boston City Councilor, John Tobin, is among those who lament being able to visit, to smell the spicy and sweet glories of the comida cubana there, but not sit down. As Steve Garfield’s video blog shows, he was among the many celebrating a reopening after being inexplicably firebombed. John’s picture is on the wall with other celebrities and politicians, but he still would have to wait. Lunch or supper, there’s a line.

Cost center two and I solved that for us this morning though.  We were the first two customers.

As has been my wont for 29½ years, I headed to the Haymarket.  He’s back from his freshman year at college and likes to go too. When he was younger, there was a diner-like restaurant there on North Street, Mike’s, where we’d have breakfast as well. That’s yet another small and soulless Dunkin’ now. We have to head down to Vicky’s in Dot or one of several diners in South Boston.

Today, after gathering the vegetables and fruits, I needed some Hispanic goods and headed to Hi Lo in Hyde Square.  I figured a mixed neighborhood with Hispanic and WASPy types would have breakfast places. I knew Sorella’s was there, but that’s a deal and often crowded at opening.

We were out of Hi Lo with our necessities a few minutes before 8 a.m. and looked catercorner at El Oriental. Hot damn, the front door was open.

We strolled in, commenting to each other on the door paint that reads that it opens at 8 a.m. We really hadn’t paid attention on previous visits.

The waitress was not there, but they didn’t shoo us. Instead, we started with a malta for him and a café cubana for me. We ordered from the tiny breakfast section, forgoing our usual Cuban sandwiches, plantains and other more standard fare. He had a chorizo omelet and I a veggy one, each on smashed Cuban bread. We rained own the red and habenaro hot sauces.

When the coffee arrived, the elderly man said that it was (he searched for the precise English) very, very strong. I could get a cup big cup of regular coffee if I wanted it. I didn’t and reveled in the bitterness and thickness.

Regardless, my son and I don’t mind being the only customers in a restaurant or in having lunch at breakfast. By the time we finished, two Latinas took a table. They didn’t seem to mind either. I thought of asking if they came in part because they knew they could get a seat before 8:30 a.m. I suspect that was unspoken.

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Walking the Empathy Path

May 12th, 2009

Like it seems everyone else, I have been musing on the loud and sudden screams at President Obama wanting his Supreme Court nominee to have understanding and empathy among other traits. It’s personal as well as political in this house.

My middle son is empathetic. From his early childhood, I recognized how he feels the pleasures and agonies of others. In a culture that values rugged decisiveness, that can have mixed results.

Sadly to a parent, he can be upset by things that others would feel are simply not their problem, rather someone else’s. Yet, that same empathy is a sine qua non for deep friendship. Punching a suffering buddy in the biceps and telling him to gut it out doesn’t cut it.

Rather than dissuade him from feeling for others, I have tried to foster that behavior. I have told many that from his childhood he has been where mature and emotionally realized adults should be as they develop. Unlike most people, he doesn’t have to slowly grow into sensitivity and consideration exclusively from his own misfortunes. Along the way, he can be more easily hurt and elated.

As unusual as real empathy is, the empath has a secure place in fiction, particular science fiction and futurism.  One that most of us have seen is Counselor Troi of Star Trek. She has a rich emotional and intellectual life because of her ability, but she also feel more pains and pleasures from others.

For me, it was a slow awareness of the obvious. I feel my son’s empathy because I too am empathetic.

My sister remarked that this had long been obvious. My beloved maternal grandfather seemed to have a particularly fondness for me among the grandchildren as a result. He too was aware of, felt for and cared about others beyond the logical and measurable.

With that belated realization in mind, I found some newly recast memories. For one, a big one, among my acquaintances, I have always been uncomfortable with slapstick. The pratfall in the opening of the 1960s Dick Van Dyke Show made me squirm.  I was positively put off by the eye-gouging of The Three Stooges. Intellectually, I knew those were actors, but I projected into the sufferers. Likewise, in 60s and 70s comedies, the frequent humiliation of the characters was all too much.

With local, touchable humans, I had a reputation as sensitive. I figured I was sympathetic, which is what I learned in church after all.  Yet, to observers, I now hear that it was considerably beyond sympathy. It was all I knew.

People can and do function without empathy. After all, it can literally and figuratively be quite a pain. On the other hand, empathetic types can and do learn to deal with their extra and deeper feelings.

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Why Read Personal Blogs?

May 11th, 2009

A favorite UU minister has had me thinking again about the intrinsic nature of blogs. He basically asked me why anyone would care about the small or even momentous very personal details here.

That written in his email,  he noted that he, as a long-term friend, did care about the tales here of my broken leg/operation and recovery. For a taste, “All in all, I found your blogs very interesting, but frankly, interesting only to me.  I especially appreciated the combined efforts of the whole family to get you to the Haymarket.  However, I wondered who else besides those who love you really gave a damn?

We have always been candid to the point of bluntness with each other. We’ve known each other for over 20 years from when he was interim at a church where I chaired personnel and was about to take over the board. We have chased a lot of polity issues around the trees, as well as sharing many meals and drinks together and with our families. He has never felt he had to play the kindly padre with me.

He’s the good type of 92-year-old too. He’s paid attention and is no Abe Simpson.  While we disagree on some events and people’s behavior, he has always been insightful, analytic and open to discussion. We should all age so well that we end up with a bucket full of experience and related wisdom to dip into as needed.


So, I’m back to that question that bloggers squeezed their soggy teabags over a decade ago. If an individual post or a whole blog is personal, who will want to read it and why?

I fretted about that too. Reading the Pew reports on who blogs, why and what type, I was surprised to see how much of it was the chatty stuff so common now on Facebook. Cruising with my mouse, like clicking Next blog in Blogger or the equivalent in a directory, I was astonished too see the granularity and apparent trivia of so many.

For example, I knew someone who had a blog full of mini-anecdotes and almost indiscernible images of his two cats. Someone I worked with had a blog dominated by his wife’s photos of, quite literally, every restaurant meal they ate.

Meanwhile, the tiny weeds of technology, politics and even reportage were getting more numerous and vigorous. These other blogs, whether individual or community ones, had purpose and heft.

I started nearly six years ago with a marriage-equality blog, Marry in Massachusetts.  I can’t seem to restrain my fingers and have covered much more in political terms, a lot of it unrelated to the original theme. The name is less accurate but it remains progressive politics.

Likewise, I joined with a couple of other pinkos in a weekly podcast based blog, Left Ahead!  It is also not a ain’t-my-kitten/girlfriend/house-cute sort of thing.

This blog seemed necessary when more personal topics were creeping into Marry in Massachusetts. Readers here know this will be more intimate and occasionally philosophical. I don’t avoid the effects of being a liberal, a UU, a spouse and parent.

Very Different Strokes

Yet, as I contrast various blog types, I think back to pre-blog days when I erred badly in a UU church men’s group. My church was in downtown Boston (Arlington Street, or as it was known at the UUA across the Boston Public Garden and Common, the UUA chapel for the number of staff who belonged). We shared some group meetings with the similarly liberal Paulist Center.  The joint men’s group was one and worked fine, once the Catholic contingent adjusted to the reality that UUs tend not to charge for R.E. meetings, where they put a fee on every activity.

The first meeting had maybe a dozen from each of us.  I blundered early as each of us went around the seated circle saying why we were there. The ASC is a seriously social-activist church, which attracted my wife and me from the beginning. I said that and then — drum roll and cymbal clash — said I was not in the church for music or drama (also strong at ASC), with the implication that they were less meaningful.

While the Paulist crew grunted and nodded in understanding, two other ASC men turned colors. They were in the choir and lambasted me. They considered music their worship and said it was equally as important to human well being as  feeding the hungry and so forth. They had heard my type before and would not let it pass.

Thus, I think of blog varieties and readers. The voyeuristic and gossipy sorts remain ubiquitous and beloved. Whether it’s people we know or celebrities, who among us has no interest in someone else’s life?

At the Keyhole

Oh, I know another UU who doesn’t. A great friend over 30 years despises blogs, including mine. Apparently the New Republic convinced him that they are dangerous, unreliable and mentally toxic. I saw the effect again last week when three of us gray or bald types shared some bar stools. One had taught me about comminuted bones. He discussed some posts here and his following the obvious and internal progress of healing. The other said he had not and would not read about it.

I can imagine not looking at a friend’s blog, but that is not my style. I would want to know and would find that kind of self-indulgence fine. Like my minister friend, for someone I know and love, I do care about such posts. Moreover, for my most personal posts, I do try to do a bit of sermonizing to spread the intimate out to the larger world.

As a sidebar on the matter, that same minister has said many times that I should plan on a divinity degree and a retirement career of ministry. He and I preached together in the ASC, as I did with the incoming minister who is still there.

Clearly, there are millions of blogs with lots of room for the personal and political and many other types. In UUPDATES alone, I find all manner of splendid reading.  To the question who cares, it seems many of us do. Finding and bookmarking the blogs we want to care about regularly is time consuming but gives a good return.

I have not returned to that blog filled with pictures of plates that couple had set before them. Most blogs in my RSS reader are political and news based, but I do have diversions to the personal. Moreover, while most bloggers are not good writers, some who deal in the personal craft their posts better and a few regularly rise to the level of literature. Those are wonderful surprises.

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Fabulous, Disappearing Utopia

May 6th, 2009

Brook Farm is gone, mostly. The tour is still worth it though.

The pre-Civil War utopian community in West Roxbury left fewer than one building and little trace of its noble effort. Yet, it’s right there off Baker Street. You can walk the grounds trod by such Transcendentalists as Horace Greeley, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Moreover, the huge piece of puddingstone probably used as a pulpit in the 17th Century by Rev. John Eliot to convert the Native Americans is very much there.

The sure-it-was-here thing is much more common in Manhattan than Boston. In the former, you are more likely to find a plaque commemorating was used to be there than the actual building or artifact, if any trace at all. Boston is much better at keeping the real thing for the literal among us who’d like to see and touch the original.

Brook Farm though is shade with mere glimpses and hints of what was. There’s the barest foundation of the Margaret Fuller cottage (she visited frequently but was never a member of the farm) and some rubble. Mostly though, the unkind farmland that yielded poor crops remains.

It is a National Historic Landmark, the commonwealth preserves it for its wetland and other physical value, the Roxbury Historical Society (no website) owns the Pulpit Rock portion, and the West Roxbury Historical Society has worked for 25 years to protect and restore it. You can visit on your own and there are occasional tours. We just joined about 100 others for one as part of the WR library’s series of food-related events.

There And Not

You won’t find reenactors dressed as 1842 Unitarian ministers holding forth. You won’t find a gift shop. Importantly, you won’t find much evidence of the six-plus year effort to establish an agrarian utopia there.

print shopThe one building that remains was from three decades later. It’s in bad shape, although it apparently will get a rehab.

It is fascinating in itself, while having only a geographical link to Brook Farm. After the 1847 closing of the utopian community, Boston bought the land and set up an alms house for the poor. Six years later, another Unitarian, James Freeman Clark bought the land, but he ended up turning it over to the commonwealth as a Civil War training ground. Then a couple bought it after the war as a boarding house.

What finally took was when German-American brewer Gottlieb Burkhardt opened an orphanage for Lutheran kids. He sold part of the land to found the Gethsemane Cemetery (still perking) and had the print shop built. It trained the children in a marketable trade, churing out Bibles and tracts. That ran from 1872 through 1943.

Roaming the Grounds

bftour1.jpgOur tour heard first from the contract architect working on reconstructing the shop, while the WR historical folk keep trying to shake loose the long promised funds for the job. J. Michael Sullivan (shown with our tour guide from the historical society, Bob Murphy) figures the foundation is savable, as is much of the vertical wood inside. The windows and floors will need replacement. The roof has already been changed into wood shingles.

Oversights, miscalculations, misfortunes and blunders killed the social experiment, it became obvious as we walked and listened. The ideals and fancy buildings were grand enough, but the mundane details were too much.

The central idea was why this was part of the library’s food series. The Transcendentalists were to develop their whole selves in the endeavor. They would all share hard work, intellectual and philosophical pursuits and communal recreation. The plow, psalms and poems would balance.

The realities were harsher. No one was a farmer and it showed. The land was typical rocky, loamy Boston ground and so-so for crops. They really had no idea coming in how hard farm work was. Moreover, as ministers and relatively well-to-do swells, they didn’t have the business sense required to make a profit from their veggies, fruits and animal products.

There were the predictable conflicts in personalities and family cultures. However, fire really did them in. The buildings, one by one, burned. The largest, the Phalanstery burned totally when it was just about finished. They had not insured it and were ruined as a corporation.

Wikipedia has a complete rundown of the brief glories and deep fall of Brook Farm.

Our tour guide, Bob Murphy, noted that while many historians call the experiment a failure, it had lasting positive aspects. Other similar agrarian communities took their lead from it. Some of the Transcendentalists continued with the ideals, personally, from the pulpit and in their writings. One of the members, Isaac Heckler, was inspired to found the Paulist Fathers. In short, their crops were of the intellectual rather than the edible variety.

Today, the grounds make a splendid walk. You can continue all the way to Millennium Park (what my family calls Mt. Menino for its trash heap foundation) on trails. The area near the entrance (670 Baker) has parking and is a better starting point.

The president of the Gardens at Gethsemane, Alan MacKinnon, seems to love his affiliation with Brook Farm. He even barbecued for the dozens of us that day. His office has maps of the park area (and restrooms). The print shop is across the path.

bbirdhouse.jpgIt’s a good walk and a grand place for a picnic. Walk the main path a few hundred yards to find the meadows to the left. Coincidentally, we learned that a group promoting bluebirds has installed several houses for them around this meadow. We saw bluebirds there.

On the right of the path, shortly before the meadow is an odd brick structure built into the hill. Murphy noted that he used to tell people it was an armory from the Civil War period. He subsequently found that it was winter storage for corpses until the ground thawed.

Up the hill from the meadow are trails that lead to Pulpit Rock and the Greek-cross shaped Fuller House foundation. You pass through a section of the cemetery on the way to the unmistakable (15-feet high or more) rock Eliot used.

If you don’t head to Mt. Menino, it’s a short but pleasant walk. Bring a picnic basket and perhaps some Hawthorne or Emerson.

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Crawling Toward Good Food

May 4th, 2009

slowsnail.jpgIf Yuppies and DINKs and snooty suburbanites attach themselves to Slow Food®, that’s okay by the Italy-based HQ and equally fine with the NYC-based U.S. arm. On the one hand, the organization has noble and worthy goals; on the other, it has a deserved reputation as an elitist’s hallmark.

As a damned good cook and serious food lover, I am aligned with much of what SF seeks.  At its most basic, it is intended as an antidote for the fast-food culture and cuisine. As a relentless egalitarian, I have avoided them because of the cliquish reputation.

I dragged my 15-year-old to the recent lecture at the West Roxbury library as part of its elaborate food series of events. It did nothing to inspire either of us, certainly not to join SF at museum-membership prices ($75 a couple/$60 a person per year). Yet, I remain conflicted.

First note that SF Boston‘s events head, Nicole Nacamuli, is no sales type. “We don’t do a great job signing up new members,” she told the eight or so of us there. She was refreshingly candid, with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. She noted that there was a quarterly little SF magazine for members (online only for students), but “to get it is really not a reason to sign up.” Instead, she said that members do and should join because they believe in what SF does.

Snail Business

For those who ask what exactly SF is about, the list is plain and fitting the times. It includes:

  • Defense of Biodiversity. Identifying and saving foods, including animals, at risk from a culture of mass agriculture.
  • Taste Education. Everything from encouraging family meal preparation and enjoyment, to tastings and food workshops, school and college programs and co-programs with chefs. Also, SF also founded and runs the University of Gastronomic Science in Italy.
  • Linking Producers and Co-Producers.  From the local fair to the national product showcases and conferences, SF gets food professionals on the production and purchase sides as well as customer together to taste and become familiar with edible and potable offerings. 

At a higher level, SF has three catchphrases — good, clean and fair. That would be really enjoying your food, “created with care from healthy plants and animals,” biodiversity fostered with ecologically sound growth and harvest, and reasonable compensation for the food producers.

sflogo.jpgIn practice, we may also begin seeing the snail logo on restaurants that comply with SF’s mandates for food and wine produced in the right ways, ideally locally. (The SF site is really, really snotty about its trademark. I claim fair use here as educational illustration. )

Some European restaurants already sport the snail in the window to show their support for and practice of following SF’s aims and guidelines. Apparently, this is in the works for the United States as well. Nacamuli said that the Boston bunch has been talking with the NY folk. She doesn’t expect the first snails to appear for at least six months.

Who Can?

All that looks like good stuff. You may well wonder, what’s the problem?

Well, check here and then here for examples of the objections.

The short of it is that some SF advocates truly are snobs and the idle rich. Their conversations about food and wine can be just too precious. There was a family who wrote a book about eating locally for a year, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. Barbara Kingsolver’s book is a huge favorite of SF sorts. However, it would require having your own fertile farm in a temperate zone, no other responsibilities, and ideally a steady cash flow.

In short, that’s what some find flawed in the SF movement. At its extreme, it works for situations most of us cannot duplicate. We tend not to be filthy rich or we don’t own the family farm and vineyards. Many of us simply can’t afford U.S. prices for farmer’s market veggies and fruits, much less have the equipment, time and inclination to can, freeze, and dehydrate for the winter and spring. You’d be hard pressed to duplicate or even locate the small, agrarian communities where the range of goals is even obtainable.

Hence, there is some justification for sneering at what could be seen here as play for the wealthy who would use SF as more proof of their superiority.

But Wait

Most important, none of us has to do it all at once to support the SF ideals and practices. I’ll still go to the Haymarket and still use non-local veggies and fruits. Yet, being aware of the concepts and working toward them helps.

Let’s stay aware that most of us also have our own marks of status and form our elite subsets in this very wealthy nation. We may not be able to eat only self-grown and harvested local foodstuffs, but we tend to pride ourselves in our own specialness.

Consider religion. Episcopalians are about as wealthy as we come and have been since our early Presidents. Yet, while I live egalitarianism, I also am a Unitarian/Universalist. UUs are a privileged group as a whole…and blindingly white as well.

Otherwise, I live in Boston, which is has about as huge a pride of place as anywhere in the hemisphere. I’m a long-time Volvo driver, a dual symbol of New England and liberals.

It goes on and on. Some of us can’t get over a prep school or university. Others live in exclusive suburbs who lord of the unfortunate inner-city families. We each have our areas of irrational and divisive pride.

So, there’s no reason to suppose that status seekers would not use the SF movement. They have three or four dozen other cocktail-party bragging points as well.

That’s okay by me as well as by the SF groups. They do support the goals with their memberships and other contributions. They may even play gentleman farmer and grow plants for sustainable diversity. Good on them. Of course, we don’t have to stand around and listen to them tell us how wonderful and special they are.

In a counterpoint to the SF lecture, yesterday’s tour of Brook Farm in West Roxbury played off some of the same themes. It was a much richer presentation and a post for another day.

Among the similarities is that the utopian community of the pre-Civil War was founded by well-off elite sorts wanting to live an idealized agrarian existence. They were to rely on farming, selling their produce, and balancing the hard work with educational, recreational and philosophical activities. It only lasted six years and change and many historians call the social experiement an abject failure.

Yet, it inspired other such movements. Many of the participants also went on to found other movements and organizations, inspired by their goals at Ellis Brook.

The SF movement seems a lot better funded and not contingent on successful hard work of wealthy folk with little business experience. There’s much to be said of efforts toward worthy aims.

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May 2nd, 2009

Rely on projected PowerPoint or even worse embedded video and you have a good chance of looking like a bozo. I was front row and snorting several times in two places over the past two days as hopeful presenters were reduced to squeezing their big red noses.

The amusing aspect in both cases is that the folk standing up were fairly bright. They had some decent content. They were just defeated by the technologies. Mac or PC made no difference, nor did PowerPoint  or video.

Otherwise professional speakers illustrated what presentation god Edward Tufte described in a 2003 piece, PowerPoint is Evil, in Wired:

At a minimum, a presentation format should do no harm. Yet the PowerPoint style routinely disrupts, dominates, and trivializes content. Thus PowerPoint presentations too often resemble a school play -very loud, very slow, and very simple.

Sure, it’s easy to find I-hate-PowerPoint sites and I have my own aversion to people reading slides jammed with words when the audience has long since finished digesting the content. Yet, that was not the most obvious difficulty at both the Investigative Reporting/Freedom of Information workshop yesterday and the Slow Food Boston presentation today.

Some very nice people with some worthy information taxed the audiences severely. They had not tested their shows, either software or hardware in the setting. As happens all too often, video, sound or computer connections failed. The reliance on technology was yet again misplaced. It was compounded by the addition of the newish media video, sound and online material.

In the auditorium at the Boston Globe,  the workshop folk were fairly comical in their serial failures. The room has all the warmth and intimacy of a college survey-course class with a deep well up front for the professor. The telescoped focus on the speakers made the delays and blunder all the more obvious and intense.

Hot-shot Salon correspondent Mark Benjamin was one. He doesn’t need self-esteem classes, so he probably doesn’t think there was any problem, much less that anything was his fault. The showpiece of his session on getting information from the military was a grainy and often dark video shot with a helmet camera in combat. That was understandably of poor quality.

Yet he and some troubleshooters had the devil of a time getting the sound to play. The audio was even more important than the visuals.

Fumbling more were Matt Kauffman (Hartford Courant), Joe Bergantino (veteran TV news guy and now at Boston U.),  and Judy Rakowsky (free-lance after 14 years at the Globe). There were videos that wouldn’t start or those that started with no sound or that ran with one of two sound tracks audible or ran at ear-bleed volume. There were the wrong websites. There was the inability to use hotlinks in Word.

It was a technology clown car.

The delays piled up…10…20…30 minutes. The audience squirmed, giggled, and occasionally commiserated. Too many of us have given an off-course presentation and we’ve all attended them.

Then today at the West Roxbury library, a lone Slow Food lady, events volunteer  Nicole Nacamuli was caught. She’s nice. The library staff are nice. Together, they just couldn’t get their projector and her PC to put the signal and PowerPoint on the screen.

As at the workshop,  the audience watched as otherwise competent people bumbled and failed. After much delay, she admitted she had only yet another PowerPoint show. She had notes and hit the podium to do it the old fashioned way.

So, as I frequently ask my sons, what can we learn from this?

Technology Slavery

Most obvious is that hardware and software have a lot of ways to fail. The projector can fail. It’s $200 lamp can blow with no handy replacement. Your room or building can lose power. Your laptop drive can crash.

Software can be more insidious. Particularly if you’ve incorporated video with sound or count on accessing an online server, there are many ways for failure and only one for flawless presentation. Working well on your desk with built-in speakers is not the same at in a big room with someone else’s projector and sound hardware.

The laptops and projectors and sound systems are almost ubiquitous. We like to think they just work and keep on working. Yet, think back to how many times you’ve been in a room when something went wrong.

So, we can learn not to use the technologies unless they really add to the presentation of the content. We can learn to have an alternate way of delivering the show, as the Slow Food woman did. Perhaps most basic, we can learn to be there in advance and test our laptop and show with the visual and audio system in the room.

Eyes AND Ears

My PowerPoint and other presentation rants include, “Do not read your slides!” If the only thing you can do is recite your bullet points verbatim, give ’em a handout and don’t bore them. You can be pretty sure they can all read on their own.

At the FOI workshop, too many speakers relied on squint-making slides with lists of URLs or other resources. Those belong online or in a handout.

After being in too many presentations, I found the memorable ones never, ever use crowded slides. Instead, they put ideas up in a few words or a graphic. Then they use the slide to open the glorious box of related ideas and facts. Oral is the operative word.

On the other end, Tufte‘s best work can present elaborate and analytic material brilliantly, sometimes even with presentation software. Most of have never had his resources, much less his keen design understanding. We simply can’t wow with brilliance.

What we can do is talk to the slides.  A graphic or phrase on a slide will give the audience something to watch will you spin your magic web of words, data and concepts. They’ll love you for it, particularly if you make the real presentation available online or on paper.