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My Newest Music Crush [Jul. 24th, 2008|11:52 am]
[mood |artistic]

Like many of my favorite finds, I heard this once randomly -- in this case at Kan Zaman on Haight st -- and just had to find out what it was.

I give you Balkan Beat Box. http://www.balkanbeatbox.com/ has samples.

Sort of, what? Hip-hop influenced reggae/ska with an Arabic horn section. Oh, and Klezmer riffs over dub basslines.

In terms of arrangement and production they remind me of Gogol Bordello, and it turns out that this is not a coincidence, as ex-Bordellian Ori Kaplan leads the line-up. After that, they're a mishmash of international musicians -- and the music totally sounds it. Awesome.
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Oh Calculus! [Jun. 13th, 2008|01:09 am]
[mood |creative]

eyes summing over
when will you take my measure?
please integrate me
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Chrome Graffiti on the Temple Walls [Apr. 14th, 2008|05:23 pm]
My god, it's like lace reaching into the sky! I mean, I'd seen pictures, but this, actually standing here in Durbar Square, Katmandu, watching the pagodas silhouette the dawn-- it's a fairy tale. This place can't be real. Here, let's climb the steps. Oh. There's graffiti at the top. The sun rises, shadows form. The traffic arrives with first light. And now the square is filled with belching diesels and kids on scooters, and vendors selling cotton candy and mobile phones. Also illuminated is every other building, the surrounding sprawl of hideous brick boxes. Katmandu, 21st Century. The pagodas cower before the hot, flat, smoggy light of the present time.

But no, he assures me. This is progress. This is change. Before, there was nothing, he tells me. We lived in the village, in the dirt.


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Teachers [Apr. 8th, 2008|04:52 pm]
[mood |awake]

I have arrived in Pokhara, Nepal. This is a town in the central region of the country, on a lake at the base of the Annapurna range of tbe Himalayan foothils. Needless to say it's gorgeous here. So was the ride, a broad (for Nepal -- one lane each way) flat road threading through the hills. I plan to stay here for probably two weeks, including a walk into the mountains. I want to see Annapurna. It's a 7-9 day trek to Annapurna base camp and back, with lodges every night. One of the charms of Nepal is that it's still not possible to drive to the vast majority of places.

I was reminded on the ride over just how different this place is from home, just how different people can be. I stopped at the top of a little pass in an isolated village for lunch. I saw the restaurant from the road, which is to say, a dark wooden shack with rough tables inside and people eating rice and curry off of metal plates. I pulled up, pulled off my helmet an sat down. All eyes were upon the foreigner, or his shiny and expensive bike. I gestured to the old woman who ran the place that I wanted lunch, pointing to someone else's plate and to my mouth. I hate not being able to speak the language, but I go through so many countries that I almost always can't.

A young man approached me and began talking in clumsy but clear English. First he asked me where I was from -- they all do. He asked me what I was doing there and where I was going. He asked me what I wanted to eat for lunch. Then I started asking him questions.

He's a teacher. Trained at university, then moved to this little rural town to run the school.

Five or six men watched us talk, wide-eyed. They were dressed in essentially rags. Farmers, one might say, but 80% of the population farms rice and maize just to eat. A normal group of village men.

"I moved here because I wanted to teach the people," he said. "I teach them to read. If you cannot read, you can have no knowledge."

The men said something among themselves, laughed in my direction. I was reminded, again, what ignorance is. These people know nothing that someone hasn't told them. They've never picked up a newspaper, much less a book. Television and radio and rumor are their sources of information. All the myriad tools at my disposal for understanding and exalting in the world around me -- science, politics, philosophy, poetry, economics -- they have none of them. I reminded myself that this is not unusual, that this is the situation of billions of people, a substantial fraction of the world's population. They've barely ever seen foreigners, or even people from a different town. From conversations with such people in the past, I know that they probably mistrust and possibly resent those outside their caste or ethnic group and want to ensure that "their people" are in power at all levels. I know that the women are treated as little more than objects.

I have so much respect for the millions of unthanked teachers of the world.
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Road Rhapsody [Mar. 30th, 2008|03:57 pm]
[Tags|, , ]
[Current Location |Itahari, Nepal]
[mood |ecstaticecstatic]

The border traffic between Nepal and India turns out to be mostly bicycles and trishaws, local people just strolling between their two countries. I love relaxed borders. They're best when there are no computers involved. My favorite was Morocco to Mauritania: just a wooden shack in the middle of the desert, where the immigration man slept on a cot and got up to write your name in a book when you entered the country. Nepal was a little more organized, with a nice concrete building, but still strictly paper. And you had to look for the sign that said "immigration" and pull over. I could have just kept driving.

So a passport sticker for me, and then breakfast. I sat down at an omelette stand outside the immigration building and gestured for two eggs. A young Nepali named Darshan sat next to me and started chatting. First he asked where I was from, all of that. It got more interesting when I started asking him if there was anything to see between the border and Katmandu.

"Do you believe in miracles?" he asked.

I hedged. I hate questions like that. You can't say no without being a square. But we got that over with and then Darshan told me about a man who has been meditating in the jungle for three years with no food and water. Says the discovery channel even did a documentary on him, had cameras 24/7 for weeks. Gave me the name of the little town, and an address there.

"Do you know this man?" I asked of the name he'd written in my notebook.

"He is my father."

So I will go to Piluwa, I will stay with Darshan's father and I will hike into the jungle to see this holy man. If he's really there. At the very least I will get a chance to visit someone's home.

Just then a dour man in a beige suit approached and greeted Darhsan with "Comrade!"

"He's the head of the local comittee," Darshan explained. "We're Maoists." The Maosists in Nepal, you may remember, have been known to kill their way to power. The man sat down with us and eyed me suspiciously. Darhsan asked me if I was religious. Another question I hate.

"I have no religion. Or maybe all of them. I respect relgion, I just don't like people who say they're the only ones with the truth."

"Yes," said the Beige Maoist. "The truth is in here," and he patted his heart. "Peace comes from within." I stared at the strangely spiritual communist for some time; when I got up to leave he bid me a warm farefull and safe journey.

And I was on the road again, the road away from India and deeper into Nepal. Tall forest on both sides, obviously planted, but beautiful. A remarkably well maintained road, but then, they don't have that many. Highway 1, the main East-West artery of the small country. Bicycles, trishaws, women keeping the sun off themselves with umbrellas, men eating lunch at the side of the road. Little motor traffic. An age-old Asian paradise, a scene from centuries ago. This is what India was supposed to by like. My tires whirred in the bright sun and I rode at a contented pace, happy to be there. Every so often the forest opened into brilliant green rice fields. I love rice fields. They're beautiful.

Going 80 km/h down the straight and idyllic road, the bike suddenly started losing power. It felt as if one of the wheels was dragging hard. Did I blow a tire? Destroyed a rim? I just had the rear wheel rebuilt, after breaking four spokes on the potholes of my last leg. This wasn't supposed to happen. Fight. Keep it upright. Pull over to the side. Wow, it's really jammed. No wobble, but no control either. Like I'm dragging something on the ground. Brake. Is that worse or better? Lean, damint. Too late. Shit. Going down.

The bike slowly fell over onto the crash bars at about 20 km/h. I stepped off it. I don't recall how I broke my fall, but would later discover that I wasn't hurt in the slightest. That's what riding gear is for.

The engine cut out and the rear wheel spun helplessly...

Gasoline started leaking from the overturned tank in a steady stream. The cap apparently doesn't seal.

I can't lift the bike on my own. I know this. It looked undamaged, but it wouldn't look too good if it caught on fire.

Fortunately, a couple Nepali men saw me go down and rushed over. They helped me get the bike upright. The gasoline stopped flowing. Shaken, I pulled off my helmet and gloves. It was too damn hot to wear them when I wasn't moving. I dragged the bike over to the side of the road and put my helmet down. It rolled down the derm. Someone retrieved it for me. I took my sunglasses off and dropped them.

Then I looked at the bike. Both wheels seemed intact. But something was lodged between the front fender and the wheel. A tangled, smoking mass of black plastic.

Shit, that was the guard at the front of the fender, wasn't it? But how...? My bike had jammed on its own fairing and ground it to slag.

I wiggled the fender experimentally. It was loose. I pushed it down and the front edge caught the wheel. Oh. Shit. That's possible? I reached for the bolts holding it in place and discovered that they turned under my fingers.

"Take your bike to my house," one of the men was saying in a lovely accent. Not the thick English of South India. Not the lilt of North India. But a soft, modulated English. "You can check it there."

"No, It's okay. I'm a mechanic. A small mechanic." I smiled at the crowd, now half a dozen boys and men, curious and concerned. Still a little wobbly on my feet, still feeling the jittery after-effects of the adrenaline pulse, I unstrapped my tool bag and took out a shiny wrench. In twenty seconds the bolts were tight.

Vibration slowly disassembles a motorcycle. Tonight I am going to go over my bike and check every single bolt.

I mounted, got my gear on, waved, and was off again. Now without the little front fender guard. My bike looked a bit stunted. Kinda dampened the aesthetics. I lost an exhaust heat shield somewhere in Karnataka. Then the whole muffler exploded a day out from Calcutta, repaired into an ugly mess of welding. My right luggage rack has cracked. My machine is slowly falling apart.

This afternoon I watched my trip odometer roll over 4,000 kilometers. I've come a long way.

But the bike was fine and I sped between the fields and the forest once more, enjoying the sounds of the wind and the engine. The scenery is better here, I decided. More open land, less crappy little cinder-block towns. There are over a billion people in India, and they're all scrambling to join the middle class at the same time. The highways are turning into dirty strips of suburbia. Not so here, I reflected. Broad shaded avenues, not too much traffic, long empty swaths between towns. Everything I wanted in a motorcycle ride.

I came across another stretch of tall trees lining the road. Beneath some sat men enjoying their lunch. A narrow grassy field rand between the road the forest beyond. I found a tree I liked and pulled over, unstraped my lunch.

Sitting in the shade, drinking a bottle of water and eating cashews and dried apricots in the hot, still air. Watching people go by on bicycles. Surprisingly little litter for a third-world country. Suprisingly little traffic, a blessed relief from the fumes and the honking. Passersby waved, and I waved back. The apricots were tart in my mouth, the water cool. Heat haze shimmered around the cooling engine of my bike, my steed. No guidance but a 1996 map I'd stolen from the guesthouse in Darjeeling. I was glad to be alone and unsure of my destination.

Nepal! Katmandu! Names more magical than India! The Himalayas and girls riding bicycles with parasols and a monk in the jungle who doesn't eat, and yaks and sherpas and a kinder, gentler Buddhist peoples. They'll all be buying iPods soon enough, but until then, I roll on through the green fields. Today I felt like I stepped out of my old world, like I might discover anything at all. Today I fell in the best way. In so doing I lost my fear of falling, at least for a little while.
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Back on the road, almost [Mar. 10th, 2008|02:43 pm]
[mood |busy]

I went to Sri Lanka. I learned to surf. (That may be an exxageration, but I did make it up on the board fairly reliably.) I went back to Auroville, attended their 40th Anniversary celebration/rituals/events, and delivered a big ol' talk about how they can use online software in their community.

They're really into consensus as a governing method, but of course you can't actually do that with 2000 people and no software. So I'm trying to convince them to put their political process online. Wikigovernment? I'll definitely be writing more on this topic, and about Auroville which is, in many ways, a toy society. Just perfect for a mad social scientist like me.

Now I'm in Villipuram, a medium-sized town which is not, I note, listed in the Lonely Planet. That means there is absolutely nothing here to do or see, except, well, India. Whenever I look outside my window, my jaw drops. I overlook one end of a street market. There are often cows out there. The people sure wear colorful clothing. Not everyone has shoes. Computer equipment is sold next to banana leaves, which are used as plates here, of course. Guess I'm gonna have to write more about that too.

I am here waiting for a train to Calcutta. My bike and I are boarding this train to cover the 2000 kilometers in a reasonable amount of time, money, and energy. I can do about 300km per day on my bike here, so it would be a long drive, and most of the things I want to see are up in the North anyway. Darjeeling. Varanasi. Rishikesh. Oh, and Nepal. "Kathmandu" is still a magical childhood name to me.

I hope the roads are less busy up there. I'm really starting to despise Indian traffic, mostly because it's a direct threat to my life.

So in this interval I've been writing and researching. My current topics include the role that community currencies actually play in a local economy, and the possibility of very large-scale decision making methods using online tools. What I want is to understand the outlines of a post-democratic political model. Might some sort of wiki-government be possible? Along that line, I've just completed a little article on why Wikipedia works so well: http://www.equivocality.net/why-does-wikipedia-work/

At least, those are the things I'm willing to talk about publicly ;)

I miss you all terribly much. My time here is running out, I can feel it. In practice, I think this means a couple more months. I can't yet describe all the ways I have changed, and anyway I won't know fully until I return.

- Jonathan
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Oh, Jesus [Feb. 23rd, 2008|03:07 pm]
[mood |dorky]

Courtesy of the brilliant liberalsmustdie.com
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The Fourth Annual Equivocality Writer’s Travel Scholarship [Feb. 22nd, 2008|05:07 pm]
[mood |bouncybouncy]

(please repost/remail)

The Fourth Annual Equivocality Writer’s Travel Scholarship
(from http://www.equivocality.net/writers-travel-scholarship/)

Once again, we’re doing the Writer’s Travel Scholarship. Once again it’s very simple: you write something, and if it wins you get a round-trip ticket to anywhere in the world. Really.

In the contest announcements for previous years, I penned elaborate discussions about why I would do such a thing. Why it might matter. This year, I don’t feel the need to explain why I think writers need to travel, and hence why I would want to support that. If you don’t already know, that’s an even better reason to go abroad. Instead I’ll just say:

I think travel is good. I think writing is good. I think it is important that writers travel.

As before, I would like to make it clear that I am not specifically calling for travel writing. Write about your pet dog, if you can do it in an interesting an enlightening way. This contest is not about travel writing but writers travelling.

On to the details:

* Applicants must submit a short piece, 10,000 words maximum. Fiction, non-fiction, whatever, poetry or prose, on any topic.
* Also tell me a little about yourself, where you would go with your free ticket, for how long, and why. You can’t ever have been to that country before — I impose this restriction to encourage people to go somewhere new, rather than using the ticket to visit their overseas girlfriend. Also, you don’t have to write about your destination. I just want to know why you want to go there.
* Email entries as an attached document in text or Word format to wts (at) equivocality (dot) net by April 30th 2008. They will be judged by myself and my writer friends, the winner to be announced on May 15th 2008.
* To keep things fair, I will not consider pieces I know to be written by friends or acquaintances. What this means is that if you know me, you must anonymize your submission (including your email address!)
* Entries must be previously unpublished, there is a limit of one entry per author, and the ticket is limited to $2000 US. I will work with you to book the cheapest available round-trip ticket, based on departure and return dates given to me by the winner. I will try to accomodate these dates and other preferences as much as possible, but I reserve the right to shift each date plus or minus up to a week, and to make other choices such as routing and airline, in order to find the best fare. Other travel requirements, such as additional destinations or an open return date, may be accommodated if the winner wishes to make up the difference in cost.
* By submitting a piece, you grant me (Jonathan Stray) limited web-publishing rights, specifically the right to display it on equivocality.net and any other sites of I may have some degree of editorial control over. I reserve no other rights. If someone sees your work here and wants to publish it, fantastic.
* All decisions are final, and by submitting a piece you agree that I am under no obligation to award any prize at all. The idea is also to fund a developing writer who might not otherwise be able to afford to travel, so please keep this in mind when considering whether to apply. I have no funding, no committees, no mandate. I’m doing this just because I think it’s a good idea, so let’s keep it simple.

Good Luck!
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Untitled [Feb. 21st, 2008|02:01 pm]
[mood |inscrutable]

lying on the deck
my mouth opened to the rain stars
I was happy again to be alone

no interest in the feast below
I said it told myself
perhaps that was the truth

so I sailed my little boat
on the night sea
sometimes spotting ships
sometimes trading treasures
I hoarded stories given stolen
and counted myself king

and shy against that wall
I was emperor of oceans
and no one knew to tell me no

yes an emperor I used to be
and sometimes don those robes
I find inopportunities
like parties
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Writing That Moves People: More Thoughts on Blog Comments [Feb. 20th, 2008|02:49 am]
[mood |hopefulhopeful]

I've read the comments on my last posting, and first of all thank you all for posting them. Not only did they feed my enormous ego, but they were actually quite insightful.

I think I've been missing a key point about involving the reader: there has to be room in the dialog for them to reply. Long ago I finally realized this in conversation, and now I occasionally actually, you know, listen to people. (Part of this was due to running across a definition that I've long since lost the source for: "truly listening means letting the other person change you.")

But in my writing, there's often no talking back. It's a captive audience; I can say whatever I want and you can't interrupt. I forget sometimes that ultimately the process of communication is about what is going on in the reader's head, not mine. Telling it like it is, according to me, is just a lecture, and no one likes lectures.

Ultimately what I want is to inspire passionate curiosity in my readers. I need to learn to write in such a way that I leave questions, not answers. Because I sure see a lot of questions out here.

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Thoughts On Blog Comments: I Had A Threesome In Goa [Feb. 17th, 2008|04:04 pm]
[mood |cheerfuldramatic]

Skippy's latest post, a shameless but completely understandable attempt to garner more comments on her LJ entries, has got me thinking. Why, indeed, do Mooflyfloof's comments on kitchen appliances and annoying nieghbors garner dozens of comments, while my profoundly deeply insightfully profound rants on the structure of society mostly fall on deaf ears?

Well, because there's not enough drama in them, probably.

There is drama in them for me, because I've decided to take the problems of civilization personally. But that was a choice I made simply for motivation's sake: it's hard to get out of bed in the morning to go to work on such problems, unless you let them provoke a deep emotional response in you. In effect, I've constructed a little circuit in myself that goes like this: "You just got robbed by someone from the ghetto? Are you pissed about that? Yeah? Really! Good! Maybe you should figure out how not to have ghettoes any more!"

I am beginning to think that intellect doesn't actually move people.

I'd give you a link to a very interesting paper which describes some very careful experiments concerning how people actually decide -- not say they decide, but actually decide -- to donate money to charities. I'd tell you that such donation turns out to depend on turning off analytical thinking. I'd go into great detail on all the amazing ways that modern psychological research is redefining the way we think about ourselves -- but really, all of you just want to know who the two women were in Goa.

Go on, tell me I'm wrong.

Psycho-social analysis may tickle our brains, but that's not what we REALLY want tickled. All our higher-order desires are constructed out of lower ones.
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It Has Come To My Attention That I Am Being Taken Seriously [Feb. 12th, 2008|10:51 am]
[mood |amusedamused]

Several people have written to me that they don't really understand the tone of my last post here ("The Final Fuck You To High School.")

It's devastatingly dry sarcasm.

The point of that post was how amusing it is that Facebook has managed to replicate high-school social dynamics all over again for adults. Only this time, because you can't be seen to be hanging out with the cool kids after school, we have an actual voting system for "who is most popular".

How humans make me LOL!

And how much of what we do and worry about is really just "monkey politics"! (Thank you Brendan for this phrase.)

I'll admit that on further reflection, my amusement may not have come across. You know, I am starting to understand that a lot of people perceive me as serious. Which is funny all by itself. Probably this means I should keep doing it.
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The Final Fuck You to High School [Feb. 11th, 2008|02:55 pm]
[mood |sillyvictorious]

Facebook tells me I have been voted #1 most popular among my friends.

I would like to send out a big "nyah-nyah" to the following people, none of whom I've seen or talked to in over a decade:

Nah, forget it. I'm above that. I'm not a hater.

But Candy, if you're out there: I bet you'd talk to me now, baby. 'Course I wouldn't talk back 'cause I'm just too cool for you now. Facebook says so.
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Some Bastard Stole my Helmet! [Feb. 9th, 2008|05:23 pm]
[mood |aggravatedaggravated]

I went to a little party last night, hung out with some folks and spun some fire inside the cozy little forest bubble of Auroville. As usual I parked my bike outside and hung the helmet on the handlebars. And someone stole it.

Those fuckers.

Who steals a helmet, anyway? No one WEARS helmets here, why would anyone steal one?

It may be a bubble full of white people in a beautiful landscape, it may be a very restricted community of "spiritual" people, but it's still India.

Damnit, I liked that helmet. It had a blue visor and these awesome sparkly stickers of Ganesh on it that I bought from a street vendor in Mumbai. It cost over $100, not including the Autocomm headset inside it which is also history. Plus it fit my head. Here's the best part: I can't get a helmet without riding to a big city where there are good shops, but I can't ride my bike anywhere without the helmet.

One of those moments that shatters your illusions. And why am I convinced it's an Indian, and probably a poor villager rather than an Aurovilian, and what does this say about me, and about the effects of social inequalities. Facing all these things is what I'm here for, I guess, but, god damnit -- my fucking helmet!

Screw this, I'm going to Sri Lanka next week. (Yes, really. Visa run. No, I'm not worried about terrorism -- still way more concerned about traffic accidents, as I should be.)
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Thoughts on Auroville, Consensus and Civilization [Feb. 7th, 2008|09:57 am]
[mood |Beard-Stroking]

This is a phase in my life where I am trying hard to understand how civilization is constructed. I want the fundamentals. I want the basic building blocks of human societies, impossible I know, but there are patterns here, and five thousand years of research to catch up on. I want to be able to offer something better than "the system is flawed." I want to be able to suggest how to improve it, and have some certainty that my suggestions are good ones. Or at least be sure of which way I'm voting on that proposition, and why.

This is one of my main reasons for being in Auroville. Although I have strong gut reactions of "you're doing this all wrong" on several fronts, I'm beginning to see the outlines of some delicate balances here.

For example, I believe fairly firmly that there is a fundamental, perhaps willful, ignorance of economics here. Those who work for core Auroville "units" receive a "maintenance" of 5000 rupees per month -- about $125. It's not much, but your housing is free, so it's enough to live. It's also not intended to be a salary. It's not quite linked to work as such, and you don't really have to work if you don't want to in Auroville. This is lovely, in a way. It's an ideal about how one spends one's life. Work should be a joy, not an obligation.

Of course, the reason this is possible is that gazillions of rupees are pouring in from external donations and government grants. Auroville needs a plan for economic self sufficiency, but this would involve too much talk about money. There is stiff resistance among most people – even with my very sensible IT-trained friend Min – whenever I raise the topic of "economics." People don't want to talk about "making money" or "tax rates" or "deficit" or "being able to afford the things we want," because the citizens of Auroville are supposed to be above all that. Except that all of these things already exist here, they're just called different names. I think I shall have to try to find new language.

But, I have to respect the fact that everyone is trying, consciously, all the time, to have a civilization "not ruled by money." It's just that I think that one important step towards this is simply to live in an abundance of everything, and this requires solid economic planning and actual technical knowledge.

My (volunteer) work is going well. I have completed drafts of the text of two of the eight panels for the Aurobille Environmental Exhibition which is supposed to be installed by the 40th anniversary of Auroville, Feb 28. I've gotten a firsthand taste of the collaborative process in two meetings with Nicole of the Visitor's Center. She feels very strongly that the exhibition needs to be very focused on the Auroville story; this old Frenchwoman was there in the beginning when it was nothing, when it was desert. The original people here reforested (it's impressive!) and built a town out of nothing at all. It must have been an intense experience, and Nicole brings all the attachments of that experience. What she doesn't have is perspective. Min and I successfully argued that the exhibition should be have a broader perspective. My opinion is that not many visitors will really care that much about the development of one little town, but if we can show that the problems faced here (erosion, water supply, energy generation, waste disposal, sustainable architecture) are in fact a microcosm of the global problems, we will have succeeded.

I have also set up collaboration tools. To wit, yesterday I set up a mailing list and a Wiki where we will edit the panel text. In some ways the project is not really long or large enough to justify such sophistication, and anyway the people working on it are not familiar with such tools so I don't expect that much gain. The real point of this is to experiment and learn about how people learn to use such tools, and also hopefully to introduce them into Aurovillian thinking. Auroville needs proper IT tools and infrastructure badly. In my San Francisco life all my social and political interactions are dominated by online tools, and it's certainly changed things, I think much for the better. Given Auroville's mission, the potential for such tools here is enormous. I keep thinking about a Wiki for all the knowledge collected here, and for collaboration and consensus building generally.

Could you build a (web) tool specifically designed for people to come to agreement? How would it work? Would you track points of view, points of disagreement and maintain a discussion thread for each one? This seems overly polarizing to me, as well as a vast simplification of the nuance of position, but something like this is worth a try. If we believe that large-scale consensus building might be the next step beyond majority democracy, then we need to be researching tools for fast distributed consensus-building. The internet is a great gift to humanity, and we're really just at the beginning of understanding how to use it.

Of course, even existing proven tools are not likely to work well initially in Auroville. People just aren't sufficiently wired, both physically and psychologically. For example, they could easily have town-wide wifi coverage via repeaters but they don't. And laptops are very much a luxury item, and the population is old and therefore not all that computer-saavy. They do have an intranet however, and I'm going to go talk to the main IT guy about all this, to get his perspective.

I have also been trying to understand more clearly the relationships between individual will and societal structures. It's funny how my viewpoint shifts on this topic. In Ethiopia I talked at length to my friend Jenafir about social transformation. At that time I argued very strongly for individual responsibility, initiative, etc. I felt it was much more about single people taking responsibility for their lives; the primary problem in Africa, if one can say there is a "primary" problem, seems to me to be the almost universal sense of powerlessness. Nobody actually does anything there! Dependence is the rule. Here in Auroville, that is not the problem. Auroville is populated nearly 50% by Westerners who are used to taking initiative. Hence I find I am thinking much more about how the "system" directs people's actions. I keep wondering how to set this place up better. This is somewhat opposed to the general Auroville philosophy of "evolving consciousness", of personal development, of solving all systemic problems by first appealing to all that is high and noble in the individual; whereas my systemic investigations essentially take opposite approach, taking people as the imperfect, selfish, shortsighted, and fearful people that they are and trying to devise a societal structure that brings out the best in them.

But there is a real preference in Auroville for informal, consensus, etc. methods, as opposed to formal structure and process, and I am starting to see that this is a valid experiment. For example, there is effectively a corporate income tax rate of one third, i.e. 33% on all business "units" in AV. But this tax is voluntary. There is no law (really none of any kind here beyond the standard India legal framework) and no coercion methods available to enforce this tax collection. Does this work? Will it work in the long run as the society grows?

Must the state ultimately be backed by force? Hobbes envisioned a Sovereign with absolute power as the basis of cooperative society; a half-century later Locke claimed that we can and should have strict limits on the power of the government. What is the next step in trusting individual citizens? My sense is that most contemporary theorists still feel that the state needs to have some coercive power somewhere. Is this true? My gut reaction is "probably." Here in Auroville, I think the general philosophy would tend to answer "no". However, there are problems that Auroville has yet to confront. For example, there have been criminal acts perpetrated by outsiders (including a murder), but Auroville has yet to be forced to deal with the shock of a criminal from within. This is probably because the society is young, (relatively) rich, and (relatively) cohesive. They are also very selective in who they let in in the first place (which is a whole other topic.) But I cannot see how they will avoid the day when they discover that one of their own has been stealing from the cookie jar, or worse. Then what?

Last summer I volunteered to moderate a dispute on Wikipedia. I did this partially to learn about consensus building. I asked a veteran admin for his thoughts on this. He replied that the Wikipedia consensus building process certainly works, it's that just you sometimes get a person who won't play. This, it seems, is a fundamental problem of civilization: how to get everyone to agree to the rules, especially the rules for conflict resolution. (Consider the current international situation, where the US will not support the International Criminal Court.)

And yet, all societies are built on pervasive trust. I have been thinking for a very long time that you can often get wonderful things out of people simply by trusting them to do the right thing. Burning Man is a demonstration here, as is Wikipedia, as is the developing world in general, in a way, due to the lack of safety standards / functioning legal systems, which requires people to work things out on their own far more than in more "civilized" states. I am very curious as to what are the limits of trust and social enforcement of proper conduct and other "soft" methods of behavior constraint. It seems to me that game theory considerations often require that certain types of criminals / behaviors / free riders / nasty people have to be almost completely eliminated to prevent an arms race back to everyone-for-himself thinking. Basically it seems you have to have everyone expect a certain level of decency before that level of decency is in fact possible. So how does the bootstrapping process work? How does civilization get to be civilized?
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In Search of New Friend with Online Journal Access [Feb. 4th, 2008|08:54 pm]
[mood |mischievouskinky]

There is, I believe, benefit in saying upfront what you're looking for in a relationship, so I'll just tell you right now: I like to read interesting true things. No games. For most of my life I've had access to online academic journals through one university or another, but that has lapsed for reasons I'll never bore you with. If you would like to offer a very curious person contract-violating access to your account, I'm sure you and I could get along most charmingly. You will find that I can be very discreet. Your photo gets mine.
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Day 7 In Auroville [Jan. 27th, 2008|09:40 am]
[mood |creative]

I have ensconed myself in CSR, the "Center For Scientific Research." The name strikes me as -- well, I was relieved to hear at least one old-time Aurovillian call it pretentious. What they actually do at CSR is some amount of environmental technology research, including waste management and renewable energy. Basically they just adapt existing techniques to small scale for use within Auroville. They have a real shop and a pretty good bookshelf. It was frankly a relief to see titles like "Principles of Solar Thermal Systems" when most of the rest of Auroville seems full of books like "Principles of Integral Yoga."

I have been taken under the wing of an Indian man named Min, originally an IT guy, now an administrator for a great many CSR projects. I met him when he sat down next to me at a performance of Hamlet last weekend at the "Town Hall." (Never in my life have I heard so many different accents in one play, or in such strange combinations. English with a French-Indian accent, anyone?) He invited me to the office the next day and I simply told him that I wanted to study biofuels, specifically "2nd generation" biomass-to-liquid processes such as thermal depolymerization or gasification followed by Fischer-Tropsch processing. I've always liked big words. Plus, these technologies are much more efficient that standard biofuels (biodiesel, ethanol) because they use the whole plant, not just the oil or sugar, and they can also process just about any organic material including plastic. Yet they are currently poorly developed and very underused, so I want to promote them, and anyway they might be a way for Auroville to be self-sufficient in energy.

But I was getting a little lonely sitting reading papers all alone, and Min found out that I can write, and there is this 40th anniversary exhibition coming up, so... well, now I'm writing a series of panels for environmental education. This involves explaining the problems of energy, land use, food production, erosion, waste management, etc. in English that a non-native schoolchild can understand. "This might be these people's only exposure to environmental ideas," Min told me, "so let's make it good." Some of you will recall my fascination with the Simple English version of Wikipedia. This project requires the same style of writing, so I feel prepared for it. It's a wonderful writing challenge, and is really forcing me to think about and clarify the fundametnal global environmental issues currently facing us all. Someone once said (was it Feynman?) that if you can't explain it in simple words you don't understand it, and I believe that to be true.

What else can I say about this strange little psuedo-cult? Well, it's a huge (20 square km) area of mostly trees. It used to be a barren red plain, so the reforestation is the first major accomplishment of the people here. There are very few structures, as the population is currently only 2000 or so, but there a few big public buildings such as the "Town Hall" (administration and public space) and the "Solar Kitchen" (cooking heat provided by solar-heated steam from a 15m reflector). Residences are in clusters of buildings referred to as settlements, with hippie names in English and French such as "New Creation" and "Certainty" and "Reve" (dream). The architecture is somewhere between gorgeous and ridiculous, very much 60s french organic sci-fi Logan's Run. Very innovative construction techniques too, and architecture students come from all over to see it. The rest of the area is planted forest criscrossed by dirt roads, and mostly-middle aged white folks riding around on scooters. Pretty normal in day-to-day life, no group mantras or white robes or anything.

Of course, it was founded by "The Mother", and at the center is the sci-fi Matrimandir, a truly enormous faceted golden sphere with a huge crystal ball inside. There are pictures of The Mother and Sri Aurovindo somewhere on most interior walls, and the water provided at public buildings is "dynamised" by playing the Mother's mantras to it. Uh huh. It's not an ashram -- there is *also* the Sri Aurovindo ashram in nearby Pondicherry -- and Mother was specific on that, but let's say that this place definitely appeals to a certain type of person, and I'm not that.

The focus here is on inner change. All solutions are seen as coming from the inside. The external is meant to be a manifestation of the internal. Auroville is meant to be a place where human relations are no longer ruled by money, and all decisions are made by consensus.

And I'm like, yeah, but you're still going to have to decide on a system of government. And you can't get away from economics. Resources are real, and they are finite, and money is just a system of measuring them.

If I was emotionally invested in this place I'd be going nuts. There is this dream of self-sufficiency, but no one can tell me what that means. Everyone seems to understand that AV is not going to be manufacturing laptops and motorcycles, but what then? Food self sufficiency is a commonly stated ideal, and of course there are the inevitable organic farms. But not nearly enough food is produced, and even the town itself is no way solvent, relying as it does on massive external donations and grants. In economic terms, it's a sink.

Has anyone, ever, done the calculation to work out if the planned population of 50,000, or even the existing population of 2,000, could actually produce all their own food with the available land? *And* have enough surplus labor left over to manufacture something that the outside world wants to trade for, so as to obtain those laptops? Something that isn't incense and cotton garments?

I want a society designed by geeks, damnit.

In short, I am having a great time here, doing interesting work and even more interesting real-world investigations into the politics, economics, and ideology of this toy society. And the food's better than the rest of South India. And I'm writing, because I am catching up on work delayed while Ian and Slim were here, because I feel stimulated, and because there isn't a whole hell of a lot to do in the evenings. Another thing this town needs is a bar.
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Warning: Entering Alternate Reality [Jan. 26th, 2008|01:30 pm]
[mood |amusedamused]

I have ensconed myself in a guesthouse in Auroville where I intend to stay for a couple of weeks.

Briefly, this is a small town just north on Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu, India, started in 1968 by "The Mother", a disciple of the late guru Sri Aurobindo. It was, and is, supposed to be a sort of utopian town. Spiritual but nominally not about "religion", it was built to be a living embodiment of the principles of the late Guru and Mother, a place for human "unity", where "human evolution" could be perfected.

Approximately 1800 people live here. It looks, in places, like a 1960's science fiction film, all strange white angles and curves. The town plan is supposed to look like a spiral galaxy. In the center is a huge golden sphere called the Matrimandir, inside which is a 70cm diameter crystal ball illuminated by the suns rays via tracking mirrors. I sometimes feel like I'm on the set of Logan's Run. I swear I'm not kidding, and will post pictures soon.

But in most places, it just looks like the semi-rural tropical plain it's built on, or the impoverished townships with which it coexists. Auroville has never been able to buy up all the land within its planned "borders", so the landscape alternates between Indian village and largely white, middle-class, wildly international (but often French!) futuristic township.

I came here because I needed a break from the intensity of motorcycling on Indian highways, needed a nearby place to relax and recuperate and eat food that wasn't rice and goo. And this seemed both peaceful and damned interesting.

I am fascinated by this attempt at an alternative city. Like Burning Man, it's a toy society, but this one is permanent. I want to know how it works. I want to know how they have addressed (or ignored) the problems of economy, justice, political power, environment, and the interface with the outside world. It's kooky, but not instantly dismissable: their alt-entergy and reforestation projects are impressive, as is the fact that they've managed to keep what is in effect a glorified international hippie commune together for 40 years. However, it's definitely way out there on the New Age Weirdo scale. I haven't decided whether or not it's a cult; probably not -- I don't see enough control of personal schedules and access to information. They believe in the internet.

Naturally, I will be writing about all this in some detail, eventually. And hopefully publish it somewhere (where? suggestions?) Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to go join the screening of the crop-circle film in the communal dining hall.
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The Incredible Sensation of Being There [Jan. 22nd, 2008|08:22 pm]
[mood |awake]

This morning I got up at 7 and loaded the bike for my first day on the road alone. Turns out it's actually easier than traveling with others, at least from a technical point of view, because I don't have to worry about where anyone else is. Navigation remains hard, because there aren't always signs, and they aren't always in English. I missed National Highway 210 somehow, and ended up on a backroad for most of the way. It was dirt a lot of the time; I'm getting better at riding that. Eventually, after much asking, someone pointed the way back to the main highway, and I ended up in Trichy after doing exactly the same number of kilometers marked on the map for the main road -- albeit over crappier surfaces.

I travelled 250km in seven hours today. This is normal here. The top speed of my Bajaj is 100kph, and it's one of the fastest things on the road. Obviously, I rarely get to go that fast.

The helmet radio system we were using has an input for music. I've been listening to ediT and The White Stripes. Sometimes, I had to rock out. Sometimes, I threw the horns with my clutch hand.

Alone on the road, flying through the countryside in light traffic, roaring through the plains and paddies and forests to the sound of rock'n'roll. Sunlight glinting off blue metal and the sparkly stickers of Ganesh on my helmet. The air was often full of butterflies, huge black and orange things that fluttered across the road. I felt the myth, I felt the idea of freedom which is the secret ideal of the road trip, especially on a motorcycle. I felt that same thrill as when I first looked up at the destination board in a Euopean train station, railpass in hand. Sure, it's been done before, but this time it's *my* dream, and I'm in it.


Butterfly goo blossomed on my faceplate.

India is like that.
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Alone Again [Jan. 21st, 2008|11:57 am]
[mood |lonelylonely]

Ian departed last night and I am suddenly, calamitously lonely.

This is unusual. Many people have asked me how I can stand to be alone on the other side of the world for so long. I usally answer that I'm never really alone: there are people everywhere, and in fact I make a lot of friends on the road, mostly other travelers who are also in freefall out here in the big wide world. But as others have long since suspected of me, this isn't quite it.

The truth is that I'm one of those people who just like a lot of time alone. This makes me suited for solo travel, and for writing. Hooray for a path that fits my proclivities.

However, it turns out that I do need people. And not just "people". Those are everywhere. What I need are those deep connections. Friends, in other words. I have a lot of conversations out here, but not a lot of really good, soul-searching, world-reforming conversations. I maintain a certain amount of contact with the people I love (mostly, but not only, in San Francisco) yet nothing, it turns out, is quite the same as being there. Traveling with Ian, I was reminded how wonderful it is to have someone to reality check and discuss your experiences with; and while I can and do write home about the things I have seen, it is precisely the inability to get across "what it's actually like" that makes travel so rewarding.

"Did you see that?"

"Holy shit."

"What the hell?"

Those are the moments I'm talking about. And then we would both form theories about what the hell was going on there, discuss it, and eventually conclude correctly that we had no idea. If you've spent time outside of your native civilization then you know what I mean.

It's a valuable experience, but I'm having one of those moments where I'm wondering what I'm doing out here. I can't say that what I'm learning is always clear. I think it becomes clear later. I saw a little of this in long discussions with Ian and Slim. I realized that the worldview that I've been developing out here is already rather well articulated. I had stories and ideas and models and knew certain things. I had a perspective which they felt was valuable. Doubtless, I will understand this far better when I return home.

Which is what, exactly? I have a home culture where I am comfortable and reality appears to make sense: the industrialized West. I have a group of friends and people who love me in San Francisco. I have a community there. To a certain extent, I don't belong there any more. To a certain extent, I've never felt like I belong anywhere. I realize that this is a totally normal human experience, but I've chosen to see it as my gift. It's the thing that makes my lifestyle possible.

But the people who support me are also what make my lifestyle possible. If I appear not to need you, it's only because you are there for me. Thank you.

I miss you all terribly, but it's not quite time for me to return.
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