Behind the scenes

I changed my underlying url today. It’s not something many other people would see, but it’s been on my to-do list for…years. I also sorted through the variety of things that are broken in unfortunate attempts to make things better. There’s a few key things broken WordPress and web-coms tools more generally in relation to Facebook. It’s rescoped some of my goals.

First Post, as short as most, with two inspirations and a lie.

Transmissions may be spotty, and accompanied by random photography, all mine.

A time for tinkering

There’s something starting here. I’m not sure what exactly, but it definitely doesn’t end here. But I’ve been putting it off for too long and it’s driving me bonkers. I’m going a bit native. I have shiny new widgets care of the IndieWeb community, beautiful contrarians whose ‘selfdogfooding’ is a generative form of participant observation. I theoretically understand how they work. I don’t yet know how to get them to work.

Simultaneously, my bio and and ego are getting a community overhaul with the XR Studio crowd.

I have some goals in mind. I’ll list them tomorrow. For today I’m flossing one tooth.

Science Fiction Day 2018

Hallmark does invent some holidays.  Sometimes that’s a good thing, for instance, today is Science Fiction Day.  Hurray! Read some, write some, watch some, play some.  I’m celebrating with option B, write some!

Please enjoy this post-holiday tribute to the day, and the fine work of the teams who discovered this gnarly fungus that eats plastic.

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The Toy Farm

Miriam Lueck Avery

When Mom bought the toy farm I thought it would be fun. I thought I’d get first pick of all the deliveries. But the piles of broken dolls and Lego bricks and fast food tchotchkes overwhelmed me. And, we needed the money from every pound of plastic mulched.

Into the trenches they went. We shoveled the heavy fungus-laden dirt over them. Once a week Mom churned it with a big backhoe.

It was two months before I saw the first mushroom ghost. Some toys, they had this plastic that I guess was delicious to our fungal livestock. Ghostly threads of fungus outlined the fashionable toys of years past. Eaten. Replaced. Remade.

I got so freaked out I tried to convince Mom to sell the farm. The pale memories of toys filled my dreams. I tried to beg out of my chores on the farm, which worked for the dead months of November and December.

But January came, and the spring cleaning bump. I couldn’t hold out any longer.

Then, one day, I found her. More eerie than the rest. Also more perfect. The curve of her cheek was dense and soft. Her hair was a delicate fan of pale threads. I thought her name was Mycella. I took her home; dressed her in real doll’s clothes. We held a tea party and invited Mom.

I wasn’t afraid anymore.

 

For the Love of Place (Dispatch from the Steinbeck Center)

Last month Chris humored me for a trip to the National Steinbeck Center, a quirky exhibit in the heart of Salinas, California. It’s densely packed, verbosely curated, and delightful. Museums are places of discovery and reflection for me, and I set upon this one with a question.

John Steinbeck is up there among my very favorite authors, and is certainly my favorite among the non-genre literary writers. My question was: why? What is it about Steinbeck that I love just so much?

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I love nearly all his books, but East of Eden has the distinction of being my second favorite novel (after Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed of course). Unlike Liza Hamilton’s bible, the eye tracks in my copy of East of Eden are uneven. I’ve been toting around the same dog eared and pencil annotated Classics Edition since high school. The first few dozen pages are especially worn. When I was traveling most intensely for work, about five years ago, I would carry it with me as a cure for homesickness. Steinbeck’s ode to those dry hills, and the wet years when people forget the dry years, remains my perfect reminder of California. Continue reading

Walking the Right-Of-Way

This is a post about trains. Also about innovation. But mostly about trains.

Wikipedia: Right-Of-Way

I. A Victory Celebrated

I’m celebrating a victory for public transit. Yes, of course I’m consumed by rage about the U.S. pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement (maybe). But I’ve been acting locally to promote public transit in one way or another since I was 16, in the face of NIMBY assholes. Victory on local actions is what gives us the wherewithal to keep pressure on the global struggle.

So the Feds finally approved funds for the grand Caltrain electrification project after many months of struggle. Continue reading

Published! ‘Incorporating Care in Silicon Valley’…

My esteemed colleague (and mother) Jan English-Lueck and I have officially been published in the most recent issue of the Anthropology of Work Review. There you can find our article, sadly behind a pay wall.

We ask: is the vaguely California-Buddhist (but mostly utilitarian) “caring” of Silicon Valley corporations a good thing? We answer, very academically: maybe, sometimes, someday. But today, it mostly stands in agonizing juxtaposition with horrendous inequality.  If some by long-shot thoughtful stars align…yes someday it could be some definition of good. We are trying to force some alignment from our humble positions. Join us?

If you think that seems interesting, this article is worth a read.

Here’s the abstract:

The struggle for labor rights is often one of asserting embodied care. Workers negotiate for rest and safe physical conditions. In the United States, further embodied care is translated into health care and family leave benefits. In Silicon Valley, while labor still struggles in the service and manufacturing sectors, professional high-tech work constitutes another set of challenges and expectations. Startup culture draws on the university-student lifestyle—where institutionalized care includes a broad palette of wellness care, cafeterias, and structured recreation. So it is not surprising that yoga, massage, food, and managed fun made their way into high-tech workplaces of the late twentieth century. Increasingly, however, that corporate care is a requirement, not a perquisite, of progressive companies recruiting elite workers.

Effective care requires personal awareness and corporate surveillance in order to be effective. Corporate responsibility in Silicon Valley workplaces embraces discourses in which worker productivity and care intertwine. This care is not evenly distributed or available to all workers, but still points to an emerging set of corporate care practices. Knowledge workers are expected to work more intensively, and employers sustain them by providing care. That logic of care shaped the social experience of both care providers, such as chefs and concierges, and workers, who learn to be the subjects of such care. Based on two decades of fieldwork in companies from Apple to Yahoo, this article outlines the uneven evolution of Silicon Valley’s corporate care.

And here’s an excerpt, which I think is within the limits of what I’m allowed to post here. Specifically, the prologue, which I wrote based on field notes from one of the more surreal experiences of my entire life.

A deep bell sounds at the hands of a brown-robed monk as hundreds of people bow their heads over trays carefully balanced on their laps. It is the fall of 2013 and the corporate dining room of an iconic Silicon Valley company is transformed as rows of workers, vendors, and guests sit in silent contemplation. Thich Nhat Hanh, renowned mindfulness teacher, leads the room in a guided meditation over the vegan lunch of subtly spiced Southeast Asian vegetables and rice. We are participants attending a workshop designed to cultivate a wonder of food in the larger ecosystem and an awareness of the act of eating.

The teacher asks us to savor each bite. He asks us to contemplate how dietary choices like these can heal a climate-disturbed planet. He asks us to consider the life of these plants, and all the human hands—farmers, cooks, and workers—who made it possible for us to eat the plants in that moment. Thousands more watch this performance through cameras placed around the room, possibly eating on their own, in homes and offices around the world. The organizers, chefs, and workers convinced that technology and compassion could do more together than apart, invited the monks to give their peers a transformative experience and to enlist allies.

Four months later, presenters from that same corporation, while reporting on that experience and the larger effort around mindfulness at the Wisdom 2.0 conference, were interrupted by an onstage protest. Local San Francisco activists waved signs reading, “Wisdom Means Stop Displacement” and “Wisdom Means Stop Surveillance.” The company’s efforts to care for its own workers and the planet, though literally fashioned on “noble intentions” drawn from Buddhist and secular compassionate practice, are mired in an inescapable context of a system that produces economic inequality and unequal access to physical resources. Diverse stakeholders contest the values around information flows and privacy. The ubiquitous computing that fuels the Silicon Valley economy also produces a panopticon of available information, which changes the lives of its workers and the communities in which they live. Those care practices also require a degree of self-disclosure and behavioral observation to be effective. If an employer wants its workers to be at “peak performance,” it needs to know how to promote that productivity year after year, and how to help its workers attain it for themselves.

‘Logan’ Makes Caregiving Heroic

We’re used to seeing superheroes balancing saving the world with protecting their beloved.  Logan is a superhero movie of a different stripe.  Wolverine is no longer a gonzo loner reluctantly adjusting to teamwork and love triangles.  He’s now an aging icon of the sandwich generation caregiver: painfully devoted to a father figure deep in cognitive decline, and suddenly saddled with a rebellious daughter figure with special needs.  He must protect them from a hostile world, while protecting the world from their formidable but poorly controlled gifts.

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Professor Xavier and Logan (Fox)

I cannot overstate how much I loved this movie.  While my ‘Arrival’ review sits in my drafts box struggling with profound revelations and weird grammar, this one was running through my head as the credits rolled.

Like nearly one in five adults in the U.S. Logan is providing unpaid care.  Like 40% of those caregivers, he’s a guy struggling with the clash of macho culture with the drive to relieve the suffering of someone he loves.  Like two-thirds of caregivers today, he’s working to support a household.  And like 17% of caregivers today, his health is poor and getting worse.  These are all 2015 numbers from the NAC/AARP report on Caregiving in the United States. The prevalence and impact of caregiving, and the number of folks like Professor X struggling with Alzheimers and other forms of dementia, are all projected to rise steeply between now and the movie’s setting in 2029.

It has enough gore to earn its hard R rating. But there are moments of such truth and tenderness I cried, a lot.  This is a movie for the coming decade.

 

​”So many particulars. So many questions.”

So many questions, indeed. 

This poem I encountered at SJMoA this weekend reminds me of why I’m marching Saturday. We workers, paid and unpaid, need allies who don’t blatantly lie to us and convince us to act in harmful ways.

It’s a reminder that singular individuals, be they heroes or villains, are overrated. This game was made for you and me. 

A Worker Reads History, Bertolt Brecht

A Worker Reads History, Bertolt Brecht

Magic Mushrooms, Mourning, and the Death of Carrie Fisher

Two pieces of news have got me thinking about death (again).  Most immediately, mere hours, I learned that a heroine and icon Carrie Fisher joined the stunning ranks of Great Voices who didn’t make it out of 2016.  The other I’ve been sitting with for a while: the confirmation with a second, more robust trial that psilocybin, the active compound in magic mushrooms, is a cure for “existential anxiety.” In other words, a cure for the fear of death. The latter is great news.  The former is deeply sad, but we’ll all get through it.

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You see, I am not the kind of futurist who thinks that indefinite life extension is desirable, let alone a good idea for society.  I think that death is necessary, and that fear of death is natural.  Grief is a compound emotion, the elements of which vary for each moment it’s experienced and each person who experiences it.

Continue reading

Breathe. Move. Feel. Connect. Act.

The last month has been a difficult one for many, including myself.  Each morning since November 8th has been hard.  Our new surreality presents us daily with some doors closed on the future, and newer, stranger, sometimes apocalyptic ones opened.  Meanwhile, my own labyrinthine relationship with my mind-body imbalance has continued: some days are better than others.

I have relied on a five pointed star of futuring  self care:

  • Breathe
  • Move
  • Feel
  • Connect
  • Act

Breathe

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This may seem super basic to people who have not struggled with anxiety.  However breathing is not to be underestimated.  It is the one thing that we control, but are constantly in danger of forgetting completely.  I frequently forget to breathe.  I’ve been appreciating my Spire recently. It’s a nifty little device, although like many non-fitness wearables its still finding it’s stride.  The Spire measures depth and frequency of breathing.  When I forget to breath, it has a distinctive vibration that reminds me to do this most basic of self-care activities.  It also has integrated Thich Nhat Hanh-led meditations from his Plum Village retreat recordings.  I’ve been starting every morning with this as a grounding and centering facilitation.  When the world is chaos, it helps to hold on to any encouragement to not let the chaos in to one’s center.

Move

Again, those who do not suffer from depression may be experiencing a new sensation: actual difficulty getting out of bed in the morning.  Those of us who have greet this feeling cautiously, as an old but not well-loved friend.  Any movement can break the spell.  People ask me why I pace: this is why.  I’m wiggling my big toes.

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Feel

 I’m not sure how I’m feeling. This section will be updated soon!

Connect

Ditto. 

Act

I ran across this excellent post, How To Help The Cause When You Need Help Yourself. The takeaway, for those who would prefer not to wade through a meditation on self-care in perisuicidal states, is this chart:

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Act.  In whatever way you can today, with full an compassionate recognition that some days are better than others.

That’s how I’m dealing.  How are you?

Tall trees! (And the futuristic cities in which they may live)

In the future, I expect my cities to have trees.  You may or may not have thought about this expectation, and you may or may not agree.  But if you do, there are many actions required to ensure that future cities have trees.

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Vincent Callebaut: Asian Cairns

This may not be on your radar of urgent environmental issues in the current political climate.  But our long-term future cannot be driven only by urgency.  We have to act out of aspiration too.  In the short term (0-20 years) that means fighting ridiculous vandals who cut down trees; prioritizing keeping trees alive during our long California drought (or your local climate calamity); and supporting local ordinances that protect old trees and forests. It means valuing their natural and economic benefits.  In the long term (50-200 years) it means re-imagining human habitats such that trees can thrive alongside, above, below, and within them.  I want my arcologies and mega-structures and futuristic dwellings on earth and in orbit to learn from and incorporate trees.  Tall trees!

You may now drop the needle on this post’s eponymous sound track, “Tall Trees” by Crowded House.

Let’s start by looking at some actual tall trees for inspiration…   Continue reading

Face the Future with poetry, art, and love

Last week I had the absolute privilege to be one of two dozen game masters (community managers and sense-makers) on the largest Foresight Engine the Institute for the Future has ever run: Face the Future, under the capable leadership of Jane McGonigal and experienced execution of Sara Skvirsky.  Furthermore it was a little like group therapy given the timing (right after the 2016 election) and the audience (high school students and teachers involved in Facing History and Ourselves, a group dedicated to teaching how the holocaust and other genocides depends on the decisions and silences of everyday people).

The topic could not have been more timely, or more provocative: the future of empathy. Take 10 to watch the provocation video at least, with content developed by my frolleague Jamais for the New Body Language edition of Future Now magazine (again, links forthcoming). I run down my three blog posts on the game blog below the fold.

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Invisible Tattoos: In search of intimacy in the panopticon (updated)

High off the creative rush of Inktober 2016, I wrote a short story the other day.  I wrote it in the world of my desk-drawer-half-written-novel, in which the San Francisco Bay Area of 2115(ish) is blanketed by a soaring, window-filled arcology.  I’ll get back to that ambitious undertaking eventually, but nothing stops me from worldbuilding in the meantime.

It starts like this:

Stories about people’s tattoos are the worst. Listening to them tell about the pattern and the inspiration is boring, repetitive, and whatever meaning they capture on a person’s skin is utterly opaque to any other person. The aesthetics though, can be pure. Clean. A statement of commitment. A moment of clarity captured forever.

No one asks me about my tattoos during my work day, or even out at public clubs with friends. It’s not that they’re hidden under sleeves or skirts, though some are. They are not for common display. Their aesthetics are private; selective. And they are not drawn in ink, but in light and cells.

You can read the full story here.

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The futurist debt I owe to the Institute for the Future for this story stems from two streams of work: the soon-to-be-released New Body Language research I led (UPDATED: listen to my release podcast with Mark Fraeunfelder!), and it’s continuation under my colleague Bradley Kreit Everything is Media.  We drew on signals from cutting-edge DARPA funded research on implants, artists and hackers, and entertainment both popular and fringe.  We also included my talented colleague Jamais Cascio, who has long explored the notion of the panopticon and it’s participatory incarnations in the present and nearish future. My contribution this year was to think about the implications for intimacy, hidden meaning and interpersonal care. The contrast of these two streams of foresight research beg the central question of this story: in a world where everyone could be watching all the time, what would you do to have an utterly personal, strictly intimate experience?

But I was also inspired by extracurricular science and art.  The morning I wrote this I was reading about this fascinating study about how plants use light. This small finding, about how light may be beamed from leaves to roots, helps us get closer to understanding how living organisms perception of wave-based energy (light, sound etc) interacts with chemical signaling (molecules in host and symbiote tissues) to go about the business of living and growing. Signals of light excite plants and set of more chemical signalling than photosynthesis.

I’ve also been thinking quite a lot about the skin microbiome, both professionally and on my own.  Throw a little CRISPR on humans and epidermal chimerism in there, and you get the possibility of a tattoo that altered the substance of human skin and its interaction with different fungi and bacteria.  In other words, tattoos that are completely invisible unless excited by certain kinds of light and promicrobial mists.

Finally, we’re already in a world where privacy is something that you pay for (one way or another).  Private clubs have been the work-around for a variety of intimate experiences, up to and including sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  What would be more intimate than sharing invisible tattoos and dropping acid with 20 strangers with whom you share nothing else?

 

 

 

 

 

Getting my voice back

The three readers I have will know that I started this blog in part to overcome a fear of public writing. (I suffer from no fear of public speaking – stick a mic in my hand and I’ll present for hours.) The fact that I have not pressed *publish* on this blog in 3 years is a testament to both the triumph of that fear, and simply different priorities in my life at the time. Also Facebook took over my online presence for a time. But I’m back. Recently I’ve found my writing voice again. I’m going to try to do some catch up in the posts that follow.

My Inktober 2016

I’ve never done Inktober before.  I haven’t really done ink drawings since high school, when I briefly launched myself into pen-and-ink pointillism.  And then stopped because imitating an ink jet printer is not fun.

But this was a really fun experience. I had one friend, one family member, and one colleague playing along.  That helped.  Here’s my favorite:

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I’ve set the whole collection to public in this FB album. I enjoyed playing by the rules, starting and (with two exceptions due to travel) finishing each drawing on its assigned day.  While early on my husband was critical of the idea (“real writers and artists practice every day, not one month a year”) he was quickly converted to the wisdom of giving working stiffs like me an opportunity to rediscover talents I had let lapse.

For me, Inktober revealed surprisingly large pockets of my day that were available to creativity.  I had lost them to TV, video games, staring at the ceiling, and occasionally exercise.  I’ve only finished four ink drawings in the month since then, but that’s still 4/month more that previously.  I’m not waiting until next year to make art that I enjoy making.

It prompted me to explore nature photography, to look at abstract concepts more concretely, and to see what is actually there.  In other words, it helped me “see with ever more perfect eyes in a world in which there is always more to perceive.”

Mutants, Mindfulness and Muddled Tenses 

In my line of work, it’s understandable to occasionally be confused about tenses.  Lately, when that happens, I think about Isaac Azimov. More accurately, I think of a weird French animated film from 1988, Light Years aka Gandahar , the English translation of which Azimov happened to write. The tag line in English was, ” a thousand years ago, Gandahar will be saved.” The plot involves time travel, duh. But what made the biggest impression on me as a child was the way Azimov translated the speech of the Deformed, mutant Gandaharians who aid the protagonist in the various eons of his quest. For example:

There seemed to be no present tense in their language. A thing “was-will-be.” The concept of the present is just an anomaly in the continuity of what was in the past, into what will be in the future. This tickled my nerdy little mind as a child, in between bouts of utter distraction by the cracked out synthesizer laden soundtrack. Whenever I’m feeling despondent about some quality the present lacks, I think about history and when that quality was, and the future and when that quality may reemerge.

Mindfulness, inverted.

Learning how to practice mindfulness has been a struggle for me, as my teachers seem to discount the future as a distraction from the present. The future is…well, really pretty important to me. This has caused some bouts of rebellion, against myself in my attempts to re-wire my brain into something generally more resilient.

Vivian and I used to debate whether there was such a thing as “mindful futures thinking.” We generally concluded “no.” But I think the long view of the Deformed, their fusion of acceptance and patience, is that elusive idea of mindful futures Viv and I were searching for. (Although I didn’t remember it clearly enough at the time to make my case. I’m reading Ready Player One now, so my head’s all twisted around the 80s sci-fi of my childhood. The rest of the 80s pop culture references sill allude me.)

When I started writing fiction as a child, I almost always wrote in the past tense. It was just easier that way.

When I started writing as an anthropologist, the past tense was the way to go for almost everything, except for brief vignettes or seriously highfalutin theory.

My current challenge is learning to write well in the present tense. The perpetual, perfect, perplexing, maddening present that infuses every sentence I write with a question lingering in my mind about WHEN IT TAKES PLACE. Take this meta paragraph, which describes how I have-will give scenario presentations:

I walk up on stage. I’m thinking about my first line. It’s in 2012, in the present. I’m thinking of my fifth line. It’s in 2022, in the future, and I have to bring the whole audience with me. In four sentences, we have to know we are here and now, and then agree to believe we’re some other time, some other place. I’ve done this before, many times. Sometimes it worked, others, not so much. When we talk about the future, all sorts of traps get sprung in people’s heads. We try to get around them. I’m trying to get around them. I’m trying to bring people into the future, while fooling their brains into listening to it for long enough to suspend their disbelief that the future won’t look like that and that won’t happen and just…imagine. The future is now. The future is the present.

If all the tenses in that paragraph confused you, welcome to my life. Unless you write futures, you have no idea. If we’re now in 2022, how do you talk about the now-past-then-future, say, things that happened in 2018?  If you lapse into past tense here, you’re likely to give your audience temporal whiplash, and generally lose the non-native speakers completely.  The solution here is to stay in the present tense, carefully dancing around pseudo historical land mines.

But despite all that challenge to our tense constructions, scenarios let us wrap our heads around futures. Even if they’re wrong, less likely to be accurate, less plausible, than other forms of foresight, they’re more tangible, and I think in many cases, more useful, in my opinion.  But is it the best solution to the tense problem when writing and speaking serious futures?

When I first started interning at IFTF, I discovered the challenges of writing in the future tense. Tenses. At that time, there were hardly any scenarios in the recent IFTF cannon. A vignette here and there, a lone report, but mostly there were forecasts. Descriptions of trends. Reports from the perspective of the present about future possibility.  There’s the strong forecast tense, ” this will happen.” There’s the weaker iterations, “will likely/may/might happen.” I got the hang of these pretty quickly. But there’s some really interesting evidence emerging that there may be some drawbacks to framing futures in this way, with the strong distinction between present and future.  My colleague Gabriel Harp gave this a much more thorough and nuanced treatment than I will here, under the provocative heading, “Does talking about the future make it less likely to happen?” Now this research is based in cross-cultural linguistics, which is all kinds of fascinating, and makes my muddled tense rant above seem shockingly ethnocentric.  Dr. Sohail Inayatulla has some pretty awesome lectures on his youtube channel  about cross cultural concepts of the future and how they shape thinking, which is similarly all kinds of fascinating.

In short, “what is the best tense” is totally the wrong question.  Even “how can we keep this not confusing” isn’t nearly ambitious enough.  The real question is, how do you know, based on your audience, what the most provocative, comprehensible and persuasive tense will be?  How do you develop cultural agility for futures thinking?

 

 

 

++?????++ Out of Cheese Error. Redo From Start.

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~Terry Pratchett, Interesting Times

Why? Because:

People who didn’t need people needed people around to know that they were the kind of people who didn’t need people.
~Terry Pratchett, Maskerade

Yeah. You read that right.

Likewise, bloggers who don’t need readers need readers around to remind them to blog even though they don’t need readers. (Thanks Winchester.)

Wanted: Adaptive Encouragement

Or, Health Horizons S&T Map Blog Posts, New Year’s Edition.

I am sick, writing in bed, but that seems to be good, since I don’t really want to do anything, so I might as well write.

Bang! Posted.

 

It’s that time of year again. The global holiday of January 1, and with it, the annual ritual of self-improvement: setting New Year’s resolutions.  It’s a time when we’re called on to reflect on our lives and the behaviors we might want to change—and bombarded with ideas on how to do so.  It’s the time of year that makes me crave the realization of one of our Science and Technology forecasts: Adaptive Encouragement.

Adaptive encouragement: From self-quantifiers to life doulas

 Imagine a digital advisor that interprets your raw health data and offers continuous support along with interactive data visualization and recommendations for changing—and maintaining—daily routines or medications. 

 Embodied in intelligent programs, mobile devices, and the cloud, a life doula (like a birth doula) will remind us of our goals in moments of weakness. It will offer suggestions and encouragement in context to help us make healthy choices. 

 This kind of adaptive, personalized support will improve chronic illness management with automated diet tracking, in-home blood marker monitoring, and realtime analysis of genetic, metabolic, and protein data.

A quasi-intelligent automated system that takes the heavy lifting out of learning about your habits and changing them? Sold!

This vision is part of a future when roles like life coaching are automated and extended through ever-present technology.  It also points to the possibilities of adapting care systems to optimize the well-being of people with chronic ailments: rather than a slap on the wrist at the doctor’s office, you get a gentle vibration to get you out of your chair and moving.  Haptic feedback and sensitivity, emotional support and peer interactions are the future of this softer side of mobile health, beyond the expert-fed prescriptive reminders. This is a future of gentle nudges to show us the actions that will help us increase our capacity for well-being, but also remind us to do nothing when that’s what’s really best for us.

Our colleague Alex Charmichael over at the Quantified Self wrote this forecast, and I’ve heard it echoed in the desires of my of the quantified selves I’ve been interviewing for our project for the RWJF building and refining the QS Guide to Self-tracking Tools. For those of us who generally only embark on self-improvement binges once a year, there are a lot of lessons and tools we can learn from both the continuous and episodic efforts of the QSers.  One tool I learned about in interviews that might be of particular interest to New-Years Resolvers is Health Month—a game that helps you focus on making progress towards your goals on a daily basis.  (The game starts promptly on the first of each month, so start on Jan 1st to get credit for your progress!)

Most importantly though, one of the key lessons I’ve heard that’s especially crucial for  new years resolutions is self-compassion in all your self-tracking and self-improvement efforts.  Shame and frustration at little slip ups can do a lot of harm—so this year, try staying future-focused and forgiving.

Writing, death, and vat-grown kidneys

Hey, wasn’t I going to blog more and stuff?  Did somebody die or something?

Oh wait.  Actually, yes.

So my SB challenge and so many other things have been on hold for the past week.  I’m not done grieving, and won’t be for a good long while, but I do need to start writing again.  My kick in the pants came from the realization that it was Viv’s turn to do the regular blog post in our blogifying map forecasts series.

I started writing it and then I stopped.  I decided to share her words instead.  It still took me most of the day to track down links and proof and whatnot. It was both cathartic and helpful to tiptoe around the cognitive dissonance of writing about forecasts bathed in optimism bordering on hubris with ruminations on mortality rattling about my brain.

Here’s the post:

Replacement parts: “We can rebuild him, we have the technology”

Regenerative medicine will replace, restore, maintain, or enhance tissue and organ functions, dramatically improving patients’ health and quality of life, and potentially reducing the cost of their care. Tissue engineering will heal diabetic foot ulcers, reducing the need for amputations; organs grown in a lab will ease our dependence on donor transplants; and tendons, cartilage, and bone regrown with autologous cells will be used to repair injuries and joints. Advanced prosthetic devices and biomechatronic-based limb replacements will interface with the body’s nervous systems to give users a range of natural function and movement.

 When we first presented this forecast at a conference, our colleague Vivian told a story that illustrates the potential, and some possible pitfalls, of the growing capacities of regenerative medicine. It was part of a complicated dance of vignettes and exposition with Vivian, Bradley and myself that will remain one of my fondest memories of working here.

Viv presenting, by Rachel Hatch

Image by Rachel Hatch

Of course, when you get sick enough, you end up having to go to the doctor for help.

That’s what finally happened with Eric, who has Type 2 Diabetes.  He is a very successful 56 year old lawyer.  He has a history of working too much and not taking very good care of himself.  He was overweight, ate poorly, and didn’t track his blood sugar levels consistently.  As a result, he has had some serious complications from his illness.  Last year, he developed a foot ulcer that just wouldn’t heal.  The doctors had to amputate his foot.  His eyesight also deteriorated because of damage to his retina.  And his doctors have been warning him that he may need to go on dialysis.  Eric’s body is failing him.

Remember that TV show in the ’70’s?  The Six Million Dollar Man?  Do you remember the show’s tagline?  “We can rebuild him. We have the technology.”

Continue reading

One for the road and I’m back on the town…

…with a spoon full of sugar to help the medicine go down.  (The Constellation’s Southern Gothic has been my soundtrack to life the last few weeks.  It’s getting weird up in here.)

Welcome back, therapy blog.  Oh, didn’t I tell you?  I started this blog partly as exposure therapy for my fear of public writing.  That’s also part of why I’m so inconsistent about actually posting things.  I’m surprised it isn’t more of a thing in this day and age, but there are apparently other “scriptophobes” out there.

HOWEVER…I picked this as my first game of the SuperBetter beta I managed to squeeze into, so dagnammit, I’m gonna be writing (here and at the orders of magnitude more trafficked IFTF blog) in the next six weeks, come hell or high water.  My epic win is around posting consistently, but seeing as how I’m studying quantified selves at the moment, I’m thinking of tracking and keeping mission journals of minute/word count ratios as well.

Consider this my first skirmish against a minor henchman: Scorn of Off the Cuff Posting. Take that back to your foul master, Auditor Perfecto.  Score one achievement: Admitting You Have a Problem.

Optimizing Healthspans: branching paths of longevity and death post up

This took me a uper long time to write, resolving my conflicting feelings about extreme longevity as a topic.  This is another one of the Science, Technology and Well-being 20202 Forecasts.

Again, full post available here.

To clear up your first question, (what’s a healthspan?), by healthspan we mean the length of healthy, quality living. In the last hundred years we’ve seen a dramatic lengthening of our life expectancy, and radical life extension hopes to lengthen our lifespans, but what we’re grappling with now and in the next decade is optimizing our chances of those added years being happy and healthy.

So, how will we do that?

 Flickr user kevindooleySource: Flickr user kevindooley

Continue reading

Programming Immunity post up

This was a post about one of the handful of forecasts boldly written last year by my colleague Alex Carmichael, which it fell upon me to perform, promote, and continue investigating from our recently released forecast map on Science, Technology and Well-being.  I must admit that I am personally less technologically optimistic than many of the forecasts on that map.  With this forecast, my own personal experience with immunomodulators is that we are still at the blunt instrument, barely-know-what-we-don’t-know stage of understanding, more than a decade away from precision interventions for anybody, let alone brad accessibility.  Luckily the week before there was a major breakthrough in this area: the first success of gene therapy, which promised to be just around the corner back when I was in high school biotech classes. And what this therapy did was effectively re-train patient’s immune systems in a specific, fine-tuned and persistent way.  So, maybe this forecast is on a much shorter horizon than I originally gave it credit.

Excerpt from the full post:

Our immune systems are the key to humans’ profound resilience in the face of all the other organisms around and inside of us.

Over the last few decades we’ve made great strides in understanding the workings of various parts of our immune systems, as they function normally and as they get jammed up in strange ways. This forecast posits that over the next decade we’ll be able to put this knowledge to striking use: honing our immunomodulation therapies, mainstreaming the maturing promise of gene therapy, and hacking our immune systems to accelerate our resistance to all kinds of infections.

Continue reading

Deciphering a Meal

Momentous news! Maybe. The USDA has graduated from geometry into (okay, still pretty symbolic) imagery today as they released the new food guide, which lays the 19-year-old food pyramid to rest.

But aside from the purported question of how to convey to Americans what to eat, this image actually does something more specific, and I think, more important. By depicting our choices on a dinner plate, the USDA has pulled our conversation explicitly to meals.  Everyone understands the structure of meals.  But meals are not the only way we eat.

When I saw that image, my nerdy brain went immediately to one of my favorite articles by classic British anthropologist Mary Douglas: “Deciphering a Meal.” A structuralist, her focus is on boundaries, comparisons, and the operation of ordered elements in social contexts. This results in the delightful dizzying table here, where she maps the grammar of meals (in a decidedly English way, from continental breakfast to high tea to nightcaps).

And (although she is actually depicting in weird ven diagrams what is fit to eat) these images in their resonance to her discussion of what actually appears on a plate in a meal had a profound influence on me when I was studying charity meals as a social phenomenon in school.

In “Deciphering a meal,” Douglas’ major foil for the unit of the meal is “drinks,” structurally and socially distinct from meals in a number of interesting ways.  But, for today’s issues and question the more pertinent contrast is meals and snacks. Much of the food industry thrives on snacking–what doesn’t fit into the unit Meal. I’ve actually heard as a research question in RFP’s “what are the new ‘eating occasions’ for X?” These things fit into the old food pyramids, however elliptically.  They are not eaten off of plates.  They are eaten out of wrappers, out of bags, out of cleverly designed dispensers to fit into all the nooks and crannies of modern live that are not sitting down at a table, with a dinner plate, and eating a meal.

I think it will have legs.  It uses patterns and logic that have solid cultural foundations, that I’ve heard echoed from women arranging their daily meal on a chipped plate at a soup kitchen to enthusiastic design students hoping to curb obesity.  And I agree with Marion Nestle when she notes that there’s more science behind this than any previous incarnation.  But I think it’s also important to remember that meals are only one element of our daily menus.

Wonder

But wonder is a response, an attitude of mind and heart, a graced completion of a circle between observer and observed.

-Lyanda Lyn Haupt, Crow Planet

Just beautiful. That book has stolen my imagination and tucked it into a nest somewhere with other bits of shiny and distressed twigs.

I’m only writing about buses and jet lag because I can’t figure out how to make my presentation work with what I really want to talk about: earthquakes, uprisings, and crows.  You think people will actually stick with me long enough to wind our way back to well-being from there?

This is not a blog post.

I have more half-written posts right now than I can count.

Okay, that’s not true, and hanging out at the Quantified Self conference almost all weekend reminded me that I can usually be more specific, always.  I have FIVE partially written blog posts, ranging from incoherent jottings to fully formed hostages to my perfectionism.  (I also know, lightheartedly, that I spent twelve hours of my long weekend engaging in what I would categorize as “work,” I got a paltry 125 minutes of sunshine, received five business cards, lost three of them, and have only 247 words of the ~1000 words of my talk that I really want to have at least drafted by tomorrow.)  With that, you know why this post is what it is, and not the above-mentioned five actual pieces of thinking.

Personal Uses of Environmental Data

What can you actually do personally with environmental big data as a private scientist? As a curious person?
Gary Wolf asked in his breakout co-hosted by Carlos Ouguin, of all of these kinds of big data that are available or will be available about our world, what’s meaningful for people like us (quantified selves)? How is the quantified world useful to the quantified self?
This is a post about the first QS Conference Continue reading

Dancing in the Park

A teenager in yellow jeans shifted a little into a shadow of a dance step, furtively mimicking the handful of more exuberant men and women twirling and gesturing gracefully in the center of the clearing. A man in a suit sits on a bench, flipping through the music on his karaoke machine, filling the area between three large trees with a few bars at a time of music both grand and pop. The dancers are unconcerned, continuing their movements and tailoring them every minute or two to the new music.


This was just the beginning. This is what I came here, to Purple Bamboo Park, to see. This was my first day “off” in a week of interviews and facility tours across Beijing, two to three each day. Today I spent walking—over 8 miles all told—visiting places that people we interviewed mentioned as significant to their well-being. Time and again we heard that the “health dances in the park” were where someone got out to, socialized and exercised. So here I was, in this enormous park that is only the seventh largest in Beijing, looking for dance.

I had been wandering around for hours, watching joggers wind through the bamboo groves, parents and children and elders using the public cardio and self-massage equipment. I was actually on my way out, ready to give up, when I stumbled on this scene in a clearing, surrounded by benches and coat racks, with a few dancers and their audience.

A discordant blare broke the mad rhythm of the indecisive karaoke box.

There was another speaker on wheels in the clearing, louder, indicating they were ready to provide the music now. The style was older—chanting choirs and a vaguely military rhythm. The handful of pioneers dancing to the light of the setting sun became more synchronized in their movements. As they danced, a cluster of a dozen people approached the new music master with friendly greetings, then fanned out to join the dancing. (Adding more videos when I get around to editing them. I took a lot of video. Video is slow.)

As twilight set in I was now swaying on the edges of a sizable group of thirty or so people, arrayed roughly in a grid, stepping and swaying and gesturing in unison. Sometimes they would rearrange, and the men and women would trade-off in some pre-determined pattern. Another few dozen people were on the outskirts like me, swaying and stretching and bouncing in a more partial mode of participation. The ages now ranged from 16 to 60.

I noticed I could hear other music now. I skirted the group and wound my way to the next clear spot—a wide plaza by one of the park gates. There fifty or so women with bright red pom-poms and fans did their own choreographed thing. As I watched them someone set up another karaoke machine on the bench on the other side of the widening path from me, and before I knew it there were 3-4 couples doing competition-level ballroom dancing in suits and dresses, with a fast-gathering circle of fans. Just beyond them in the gathering gloom, over the heads of men clustered around dimly lit games of mahjong, was yet another dance area in a wooded courtyard, filled with several dozen couples swaying.

A gregarious autodidact approached me, eager to practice his English. He was in his mid fifties, all smiles over a gray Mao jacket. I asked him if this was a typical turnout for a Tuesday night in the park. He asserted that this was typical every night it didn’t rain—even in the winter people dance in coats. “The everyday people, you see, the workers, not the cadres, they can’t afford to go to fancy cinemas, things like that. This is real entertainment. And it’s free! Free for everyone. Every night.” (It’s amazing how just a few years variation in age between the cohorts in their 40s, 50s, and 60s makes all the difference in whether someone speaks the language of the cultural revolution with caution, irony, sincerity, or nostalgia. After a while the conversation turned to wages, housing, family, and the comparative necessities of a good life in the US and China.)

When I lived in China as a child, I dimly remember the early mornings in the park filled with people practicing tai chi in large groups; marching and dancing with my pre-school classmates in our yellow Transformers jumpsuits. And I’ve read Judith Farquar’s extensive and nuanced analyses of the park as a site of civic life, biopolitics, and embodied nationalism. But dim memories and scholarly imagining didn’t quite prepare me for the scale, the rigor, the total experience of hundreds of people gathering nightly to dance in public.

And in the back of my head, some distance away from my observe-describe [and participate just a little] ethnographer’s brain, I kept wondering,

“WHY CAN’T WE DO THIS BACK HOME?”

People dance a little at street fairs, at concerts, they pay to dance in clubs, in gyms. There are flash mobs and performance artists and the self-consciously alternative Burning Man frequenters. But why can’t teenagers and elders dance in any park, any time?

What would it take to get anybody to dance together as if nobody was looking, for free, in public, any night of the week?

Seriously. Any ideas?

May Showers.

I’m sitting on my patio right now, surrounded by my latest attempts to grow some beautiful and tasty things before the spider mites kill them, listening to the rain.  I’ve spent a lot of time out here the last few weeks, enjoying my favorite smell (rain on pavement) and sound (rain and wind on tree leaves), reading, thinking, and writing.

Sometimes it just does take five months to get around to your New Years resolutions.  I resolved back in January to write a post about my intent to write more.  Ha!  Truth is I’ve been in a survival mode over the last several months, desperately clinging to some semblance of work-life balance and chasing inspiration across one (or more) too many projects.  But I am emboldened by the last few weeks, which were dominated by the beautiful words DONE and NO.  I’ve traveled halfway around the world and back, gone from about 12 outstanding tasks to 5, and said “no” successfully no less than four times, which is some kind of record for me.

And, unlike previous bouts of emerging-from-under-the-rock syndrome, I feel like the words are more uncorked by my relative productivity than spent.  I hope I can turn this into a new norm.  Knocking on wood.

Which Resilient Future? As many as we can imagine.

This essay is cross-Posted from Shareable.net, and teaser over at the Future Now blog.

Image: Flickr user billaday

“I’ll be dead by then. Shot.”

Large brown eyes stared back at me as he spoke, with a sincerity and certainty that tied my stomach in knots.

I was learning that it’s really hard talking to twelve-year olds about the future, particularly this little guy. Thinking ten years out is a stretch for many of the adults I work with at the Institute for the Future. And now my colleagues, and our collaborators at Collective Roots and East Palo Alto Charter School, had set out to help a class of seventh graders envision their futures—their actions and their surroundings—in a decade.

Most students placed themselves in their charter school’s vision of their futures: attending college, getting a job, considering careers, caring for family members (all scenes embellished richly with high-end cars). But not this guy. We went around and around trying to find a story he felt was plausible that didn’t include his untimely demise. He had witnessed enough friends and family members die in random and arbitrary situations arising from poverty and urban violence, that he considered it inevitable that he wouldn’t survive past his teenage years.

How could a child live without hope for a future? What can “resilience” possibly mean in the face of such a personal future?

Image: Flickr user deadair | Ricardo Wang

Resilience is generally defined as the ability to bounce back from disturbance and to cope with adversity. With roots in ecology, psychology and materials science, the concept has gained currency in the last few years as an alternative to clinging tight to stability, amidst rampant volatility at every scale.

Resilience builds upon foundations of sustainability, embracing the core idea of not letting the demands of the present starve the needs of the future, yet without the demand that we preserve or conserve the past. Faced with the inability to sustain our past, we reinvent ourselves for a new context. Resilience asks that we envision alternative futures—including and especially transformative ones. Resilience is intimately connected to the practice of creating futures. The Resilience Solutions Group at Arizona State University defines human resilience, in part, as a “sustainability of purpose.” It is not enough simply to bounce back: one has to bounce forward into hope and purpose.

But how do we, and my young student, create hope and purpose in the context of an uncertain and deeply unsettling reality? And how does this sense of purpose infuse large-scale systems with many diverse and evolving parts? To answer those questions, we not only need to understand the importance of imagining the future, but also how resilience hinges on the concept of diversity. IFTF Research Fellow Jamais Cascio includes it in his take on the principles found in most resilient systems, and I think it is one of the more central ones.

Diversity is a key element conferring greater resilience to collectives and communities, according to the Resilience Solutions Group. In a collective, community, or organization, diversity of roles and respect for the capacities that allow individuals to fulfill those roles is the kind of diversity associated with greater resilience. That is, people turn their difference into purpose for themselves, creating both more resilient individuals and more resilient communities.

What I propose is that we need more than this kind of diversity for a resilient future. We need diverse alternative futures. It is these alternative futures that link the resilience of individual lives to the resilience of large-scale systems. Ecologists will tell us that diversity, in the sense of biodiversity, is essential to the stability and resilience of ecosystems.

There are a number of sound hypotheses for why this is the case, but the “portfolio effect” provides an especially useful analogy. In this interpretation, biodiversity increases resilience as suites of species pursue different responses to environmental perturbation. This response diversity increases the chance that at least some responses will be effective, thus allowing the services in that ecosystem to weather disruption if not without interruption, then with quick recovery. Alternative futures ask us to discern these diversities of roles, purpose, strategy, and outcomes in our lives and all around us.

At IFTF, we most often create alternative futures with organizations: companies, government entities, professional societies, etc. We present forecasts and scenarios of the future and help our clients think through alternative strategies that would serve their organizations’ purpose within different perspectives on the future. We encourage them to consider diverse external forces as well as technological and social innovations that could transform them from within.

Key to this is the idea of purpose. For most publicly held companies, their ostensible purpose is clear: to maximize shareholder value. In a world where the major institutions of daily life—our commercial enterprises—are focused on this single-minded purpose, the task of creating resilient futures through diverse strategies has been taken up most intensely thus far by individuals on one hand and larger communities on the other.

This mural by Mona Caron imagines the past, present, and shareable future of Market Street in San Francisco. Photo by Michael Rauner Photography.

More and more communities are exploring alternative visions of the future, focusing on the services supporting everyday living. The transition town movement is an aggregation of local communities imaging new possibilities for their own futures. Alternative food production systems are exploring not only narrow bids for self-sufficiency, but also the unique strengths and boundaries of foodsheds, and the complexities of regional integration and support. Experiments in alternative currencies and manufacturing systems similarly question the wisdom of centralization, creating and evolving abundance of new roles and relationships. These visions and practices play a role in increasing the resilience of these communities and those that learn from them. Consciously creating these transformative futures is the core methodology that the foresight network Resilient Futures holds up to hasten this possibility.

And while these experiments may not supplant the institutions and organizations that have so shaped our society over the last century, they do point to transformative futures. In these futures, in order to be more resilient, organizations hew to larger and more diverse purposes than shareholder value. It is not so much that any single one of these experiments holds the key to resilience, but they add to our portfolio of responses to a turbulent future. They potentially cushion the core services of our society from disruptions, be they imminent, ongoing, or remote.

Another notable thing about all of the experiments described above is that they are futures that are collaboratively created and practiced. Numerous participants can consider more radically diverse futures than a single mind could manage. A few years ago Jason Tester and Rachel Hatch, colleagues of mine at IFTF, set out to imagine the future of care-giving with United Cerebral Palsy. It is a topic both emotionally heavy and extremely timely, and it took creativity on their part to find a way of collaboratively generating diverse alternative futures of care-giving with people who are tired, taxed for time, and too often stigmatized. They created a scenario of a fictional town that needed to learn how to care for its residents—amidst rapidly dwindling resources for public services and rampant feelings of social isolation. Suggestions poured in from all over the country, indeed internationally, for alternative forms of care-giving that give each of us new roles to play. The result was a vision of the future where the burdens of “care-giving” give way to “caring.” Distributed practices allow us to share our diverse strengths to create a more resilient way of caring for those in need.

Image: Flickr user nothing to hide

But that still brings us back to our young student in East Palo Alto who expects to die before he’s grown. One critical problem he’s facing is that he can’t see an alternative future. He’s locked into one view of his future. While perhaps honest with his experience, the future narrative he constructed left even less room for growth and transformation than his peers’ consensus view of their personal futures, regulated as they were by charter school, teachers, and parents. We coached all the students in imagining transformative events, considering unexpected twists, personalizing broad future forces like climate change and evolving food systems. And we kept coming back to this young man offering him what we thought might be possible alternative stories for his future. All the while we asked ourselves, “Is it possible to use the future as a way to change his future?”

Just when my colleagues and I thought he had bested us with his despair, he finished his story. He found a future he could live in. While we were helping other students with plot points and grammar and chestnuts of futurity, he wandered over to a small group of girls who were each telling their future stories in the same scenario. He finished his own story with aplomb, moving to the posh suburb of his classmates’ aspirations, working a fun and safe job, and “not smoking, doing drugs, or going to prison.” He found a transformative future, anchored not in any of the futures we offered, but in a future shared with his peers.

Thanks to Kathi Vian, Jamais Cascio, and Alex Zautra for conversations that inspired this piece.

Thanks also to Jeremy Smith for asking me to write this, and to the editors over at Shareable.net who found the awesome images!

Nature Rocks

A while back I spent 15 minutes staring at this thing trying to figure out what it was.  I was on a hike at Uvas Falls, an obscure park outside Morgan Hill with great bugs.  (The trail is also home to one of those fantastic ladybug orgies.)  But it was a wet spring, and the waterfalls covered the trail in places, so it was all about the water bugs.   It’s not a waterbug.

It’s a caddis fly larva.

According to Mr. Gordon Ramel at Earthlife.net,

The Trichoptera have been known to fishermen since they advent of fly-fishing and to the entomological for a longer time. Mouffet the author of the first English book on entomology (the ‘Theatrum Insectorum’) writes in 1658 of the great variety of ‘cados worms’ to be found in rivers and streams. The name possibly arises from the ancient name for a travelling cloth salesmen who pinned samples of their wares to their coat, they were known as ‘cadice men’ and it is possible the name ‘Caddis fly’ is a reference to the cases many Caddis-fly larvae build from bits of debris. The Latin name ‘Trichoptera’ comes from the Greek ‘Trichos’ = a hair and ‘Pteron’ = a wing, meaning hairy winged which is a good description of the adult or imago forms.

Also that

There are about 7 000 named species world-wide of which over 400 occur in Europe and about 190 in Britain. Fossil Caddis flies have been found as far back as the Cretaceous.

There are dozens of those species in California, but my best guess based on fish and wildlife maps is Diplectrona californica. This nerd’s curiosity is sated.

Human-Centric Futures, Part II

At long last, I resume. So, in Part I we talked about the big useful buckets that are good to think with in human-centric futures: age effects, cohort effects, and period effects.  They sound straightforward, but how do you know which is responsible for something you see now,  or imaging in the future? Since this is about human-centric futures, I’m going to start with the most human-centric effects, aging and cohort.

The only way to learn the difference between aging and cohort effects is to practice and reflect and practice some more.  Start with yourself and work your way out.  How have you changed over the course of your life?  What kinds of experiences and cultural modes do you share with other people your age?  Which of those things that you share with your cohort are different from people of other ages?  What factors do you think lead to those changes?  What events wholly external to you have seriously impacted different points in your life, and did they affect just you, or many people?  For instance, some popular coverage on elderly Americans and the digital divide will use age-language, like “people over 70,” but those statements will lose accuracy in a few years. As a technology strategy director for a health care client pointed out to me in an interview for a project, it’s far more accurate to say “people born between 1940” when referring to most of these issues.  Sure, there are some age-related barriers to technology use: accommodating reduced dexterity and eyesight, for instance, but contort and familiarity with communications technology formats is a classic cohort effect. Continue reading

Eco-Risk Artifact from the Future Post is Up

Years ago my colleague Jason Tester coined a term for a visual forecasting format: artifacts from the future.  They’re pictures of what it might be like to encounter some future force in an everyday situation, in the minutiae that are archaeologists’ usual trade.   Recently, my team and I have been doing a series of blog posts explaining and showcasing the artifacts we made for our newly public Health and Health Care 2020 Map.  Here’s a bit from my latest entry in this series:

Myriad minutiae in our environments impact our health in countless ways.  While we can look at this from many perspectives, one is to identify the risks in our environments, to empower us to avoid, change, organize and agitate around them.

This artifact from the future challenges us (from the perspective of a passerby on a Milwaukee sidewalk) to make the invisible visible: to share places at patterns in our lives that stress us out.  If we looked at the mash-up online that this poster advertises, we could validate our experiences, find ways to avoid particular places for our own health. Or, we could focus on the experiences of others that surprise us, ad be more considerate and caring as we move through places that stress out our neighbors and fellow citizens.  It posits that the ability to quantify and visualize the health impacts of our surroundings will increase our interests and engagement with eco-health issues.

HC2020 Artifact, Eco-Risk Tracking

IFTF HC2020 Artifact, Eco-Risk Tracking

In other awesome news, our Health Horizons’ BodyShock The Future contest scored more entries than a white house challenge on a similar topic.  There are some pretty fun ideas in there.

Human-Centered Futures, Part I

Futures thinking can be awfully disembodied sometimes.

Sure, we talk about people all the time. Sometimes in “artifacts from the future,” there’s a hand holding some gadget. Some of us talk about embodiment as something important: embodied learning, embedded selves, etc. But that is different from looking at actual people. I’m not saying that people-centric futures don’t exist, but they’re more scarce than I would like.

Some time ago I embarked on a quest to figure out how to do human-centered futures work. This was before I started delving into anticipatory anthropology as an established whacky little sub-discipline stemming back to Bob Textor and Margaret Mead, thoughts on which will comprise a future post. In various ways, I’ve been trying to answer: how do you put people into futures thinking? This is the first post of a series in which I will take a stab at some answers.

For one, you involve everyday people—either as research informants, participants, and/or co-creators. The popular euphemism among some of my colleagues is “bottom-up futures,” ethnographic futures that take their insight and foresight from the details of people’s everyday lives in the present. This doesn’t mean that I, as a futurist, just regurgitate the future visions that people share with me. That’s interesting—I elicit them, especially if I’m using formal ethnographic futures research (EFR) techniques. That part’s like a backwards oral history.

But I also ask myself two primary questions: what will this person bring with them into the future, and what might they find when they get there? Continue reading

Breach!

Like a whale or a turtle, to the surface, for air, and then back down to the deep.

Whale Breaching

Flickr CC/ joeforjette

Yes, I’m alive.  Yes, I’ve been writing things in the last 2 months.  No, I haven’t been writing ANYTHING here.  My list of things to write about has evolved its own sentience and is threatening to steal my lunch money.  Most of my gross word-count over the past six weeks will not see the light of day, in public at least, for another year, which always makes me a little sad.

But, basically, I’ve been thinking about how science and technology offer promise and comforting, official-sounding futures; what the hell “well-being” means in contemporary discourse, and its relationship to other ideas about ourselves like “health” and “happiness” and personal “resilience.”  I’ve also been trying to suss out what the mutually constitutive relationships are between personal resilience and resilience at the level of communities, organizations and systems.  A whole lot more of that thinking is forthcoming very shortly.

I have a some interesting events to blog about, including but not limited to Design 4 Resilience, Augmented Reality for Health DevCamp, and our own Health Horizons conference (or, whatever I noticed about what happened when I wasn’t wholly focused on putting on a good show for the benefit of others).  I swear I feed the cat more often than the blog.

Thistle Fairy and the Seven Jewels

The re-telling below is a Chinese fairy tale I loved when I was a child, filtered through my California lens of Steinbeck, and my transcendentalist lens via Thoreau. More on that after the story. The divergent palates of the Diablo Hills, and the steep Chinese landscapes that the original story canvases inspired this story. I was driving across the Dumbarton Bridge at dawn.  You know how hard it is to behold something that beautiful while driving? So I backed into describing from my observations.  And that lead to this. Enjoy.

Thistle Fairy and the Seven Jewels

It was very dark.  Only a few isolated cones of brightness punctuated the black. Slowly, edges started creeping into the world.  Things remembered their shapes as the night faded.  The world saw itself for the first time since yesterday, and it was all painted in shades of gray.

Sunrise Fairy stretched languorously in her resting place behind the gray hills.  Another morning, another long journey across the world returning color to all the shapes and beings. Why couldn’t everything remember its own color overnight? Why did she always have to make the rounds, whispering and tapping with her kit of colored stones?  Surely someone could share the load a bit. She needed help, she realized.  Her job required wonder, and she was all out of it.

She cast about, and she smelled, and then saw a tangle of jasmine filling out a hedge.

“Jasmine Fairy,” she said, “do you remember the colors of things in the world?”

Dainty Jasmine Fairy quivered fragrantly, but remained silent.

Sunrise Fairy went then to Crane, perching in the marsh on one long leg.  “Crane, you are very tall and fly very fast, do you remember the colors of the world? Would you help me remind things of their colors?”

Crane blinked slowly, and returned his head to its resting place beneath his wing.

Irritated, Sunrise Fairy went to Black Oak. One look at his gnarled silhouette, and she didn’t even bother asking.

As she stomped away, something stung her leg, just a little.  She looked down.

“I’m sorry, I was just trying to get your attention.  I remember the colors of things in the world. I can help get things going.”

Sunrise Fairy regarded the squat little weed fairy at her feet, barely reaching her knee, a tangle of jagged edges with a mop of deceptively soft-looking pale fur atop her head.  “What are the seven true colors?” she demanded.

“Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet,” Thistle fairy responded, without missing a beat.

“What is the difference between inspecting and beholding?” Sunrise Fairy persisted.

“Beholding is to see with awe. And, um… seeing not only what is but also what could be?”

“Alright, Thistle Fairy.  I think I can trust you with my jewels.  But remember, they must be given without reservation, in awe, or they won’t work right. Got it?”

“Got it,” Thistle Fairy answered solemnly.  Sunrise Fairy turned away, enjoying the luxury of focusing on just one bright tile mosaic, rather than the whole world.

Thistle Fairy hefted the bag reverently. She turned and trotted down the hill, keeping her eyes open.  Wonder can come from anywhere, she reminded herself.

She was so busy looking about that she didn’t see a big hunk of granite in her path until she tripped on it. She tumbled head over heels, and found herself staring up at the sky.  Then she saw it–there above her in the sky where it met the hills.  It wasn’t a color.  It wanted to be a color. She reached into the bad and pulled out the first stone, a bright fiery red.  She threw it up into the sky, and color blossomed.

It wasn’t exactly red.  It was more like mauve.  But it was beautiful, and not bad for a first try, Thistle Fairy told herself, smiling with awe.

She continued on down the hill, and soon spied a line of poppies just starting to open. “Orange!” she said aloud in her excitement. “Here, here, take the orange stone,” she offered the poppies.

“Oh no,” said the poppies, opening hastily in the growing light. “We’re already quite orange, we remember just fine. You should give that orange to someone else.”

Just then she saw a garter snake twist from behind a hunk of serpentine.  The black and gray stripes from his head to his tail looked terribly plain.  She offered him the orange jewel.  He flicked his tail amicably, and when she had tossed it to him, he curled his long narrow body around it.  The dull spots between his dark stripes became a brilliant orange.  The scales gleamed.  He hissed his thanks, and slithered away.

Thistle Fairy then offered the serpentine the green jewel. [no thank you,] the rock rumbled. [i do green rock well enough on my own. you should give that to someone else.]

She continued on until she came to a great stand of wild mustard alongside a winding black road.  She scrutinized the riot of tiny blossoms. She liked them–they were overgrown and rambunctious, like her. She offered them the yellow stone.

“Oh, we’re already quite yellow!  See? Fit for a painting. You should give that to someone else,” the wild mustard assured her.

Thistle Fairy perched at the edge of the road.  It smelled of tar, fresh and black.  A shimmering line ran down it in ghostly silver.  She wondered where the road went.  She had never been this far away from her patches of thistles in the hills.  On a whim, she rolled the yellow stone down the line.  It became a shockingly gold ribbon, winding with the road around the hills.  Thistle fairy smiled, and followed it.

Soon she found herself in the marshes. Well, above the marshes! Her road had become a bridge, her shining yellow line stretching across the whole bay. She looked down at the swamps, crisscrossed with low levees. She spied a frog singing under the bridge.  “Good morning! Would you like this green jewel?”

“Hehe, I’m already green sweetie. You oughta give that jewel to someone else,” the frog replied.

Thistle Fairy shrugged and gazed across the swamp, muddy and crusted with salt.  It didn’t look quite right.  In fact, it was downright ugly.  She threw the green stone out into the water–and it turned a beautiful jade color.

As she looked between the jade water and the mauve sky, she saw her home, those rolling hills, from a distance for the first time.  She knew that they would be greening soon, and later they would be gold and brown. Now they were just another shade of gray.  But she also knew she could change that this morning.  With all her might, she pitched the indigo stone to the hills.  There.  Now that was fit for a painting: mauve sky, indigo foothills, jade marsh, yellow striped road.

Caught up with the scene, she was nearly back to the hills before she noticed moving at all.  She stopped short against a plant that was almost as spiny as she was, but much, much taller.  Agave, she thought.  She looked in the Sunrise Fairy’s bag.  She drew the blue stone, and the agave, now a subtle blue, smiled quietly.

Thistle Fairy was heading up the hill when Sunrise Fairy caught up with her.  “How are you doing? I can take over soon, I feel so much better! What do you have left there?”

“Just violet,” said Thistle Fairy, holding up the stone.  “I just haven’t seen anything that needed to be violet.”

“Why don’t you keep that one for yourself?”

California Purple Thistle

Photo: Flickr CC/blueturbanphoto

Thistle Fairy shrugged bashfully, and stared at the ground around her.  The she saw the most familiar thing in her world.  “You know, I would rather give it to these Thistles.  After all, we have the same name.” She tossed the stone down into the patch of thistles, and their pale choking blossoms became a stunning violet.  Thistle Fairy’s own shock of fluff reflected them.

Sunrise Fairy nodded. “It suits you both.  Thank you for helping me this morning.  You payed close attention, and colored the world in a good light.  I hope all little children and seedlings can grow to be a little more like you.”

And as the Sunrise Fairy sped off, coloring the rest of the world as the sun rose, and everything else regained color for another day.

THE END

The original story centered on Rainbow Fairy and Morning Glory Fairy, with very blatant moral lessons: modesty, generosity, piety, and intelligence.  I think I kept most of those, with the addition of mindfulness, spunkiness, and renewal.  And the violet transformation was in the original: there is absolutely nothing autobiographical about the purple hair.  Really.

So, why Steinbeck and Thoreau?

Steinbeck taught me to see California.  When I travel I bring a section of East of Eden with me. It’s near the beginning:  the hills, the droughts, the rivers and their floodplains, the rhythm of the brown hills and the green hills across the years and across the decades.  I attribute the fact that I identify as a Californian to Steinbeck, for although I was born and partially raised around the Puget Sound, no writer from that area has instilled such a vivid and nostalgia-inducing picture in my mind of Washington, or taught me to truly see the land anew. (With the possible exception of Tom Robbins, and the house consumed by blackberry brambles.) I also love Steinbeck’s voice: I learned a lot from the solemn realism of his writing, and the painful empathy his era wrought in him.

Thoreau is another matter, not California related.  From him I get sheer transcendental awe.  I can’t really describe how important a force this is in my life.  To behold nature, to fully participate in perceiving the natural world, is to be more conscious; in other words, to see more perfectly.

*embarassingly, I had to change the title and character of this story when I realized my botanical confusion between thistles and nettles.  Thistles are the pretty ones. Drat.

Emotional Networking (Crosspost)

Here’s the piece I wrote over the weekend for the Health Horizons blog.  I didn’t get to meet them, but on Friday I listened rapt and gawked at the webex of Emota.net, our neighbors in Palo Alto who are doing some seriously cool stuff. It’s on the HH and Future Now blogs HERE.

I just got a note in my email.  My aunt is busy with her own appointment, and nobody had yet volunteered to pick my uncle up from the VA hospital tomorrow, after he recovers from surgery.  Hey, it’s a Friday.  I can take off a little early to pick him up, and get him to my cousin’s place over the hill.  I respond to the email, volunteering. In a grocery store across town, my aunt’s phone chimes in her purse.  On the tray attached to my uncle’s hospital bed, a digital picture frame brightens, and my little bobble head avatar floats forward and let’s him know he can expect me when it’s time for him to check out.

I could live with this future. A couple years ago, the same arrangement would have taken at least a dozen stressed-out calls between my aunt and my mom, my mom and me, me and my five cousins, me and my aunt, and finally me at the VA with my mom, trying to find my uncle’s room in the biggest dead-cell zone in the valley.  At the end of the day, while everyone’s relieved when the surgery goes well, everyone has a headache.

This streamlined future of ambient, collaborative caregiving isn’t quite here yet, but today at IFTF we heard a fantastic talk from one of our neighbors, Emota.net. They’re bringing this future to life. They’ve coined their discipline “emotional networking, which complements existing telehealth solutions to address not just clinical health, but emotional and social aspects of elder care.” They’re building a platform that can operate across numerous devices, and facilitate the convergence of multiple communications media to bring different generations together.

The purpose is to distribute caregiving practices among a support network of family, friends and care professionals, while giving this network a tangible presence in a person’s everyday environment.  It takes “ambient co-presence” to a functional extreme, creating a gentle convergence of email, updating services, and virtual worlds. Image that you’re hanging out on your grandma’s kitchen table, tossing her hearts and flowers on a break while she reads your status updates (if she’s so inclined). And she bobs around in an app on your desktop, or phone, or tablet. If she needs help, you’ll get a notice, or if she’s really sick, her nurse will get a notice.  Otherwise, you’re just there: framed on the table with her other family, friends, caregivers.

This all sounded awfully familiar.

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Myr in Wordle

Delicious is a crappy research tool.  I can usually find something faster by searching it on Google than by digging through my moderately massive library of links.  However, the one thing Delicious is good for (besides the occasional project-specific tag-based RSS feed) is Wordle.  I was really excited when I had enough momentum for a cool looking and fairly accurate jigsaw-thingie of awesomeness everyone seems to have nowadays.  I even sortof look like a specialist from this angle. That’s an artifact of my colleague Brad and I using delicious to catalogue our entire bibliography for the first year of the Global Food Outlook program*.

Yay, Friday.

*I'm co-director now am I? That's gotta be a misprint!

De Kas. Or, a long post for a longer meal. (updated)

To eat a meal like this is to live like it’s worth never dying.

*quotation corrected, found the napkin on which I scribbled it.

And how.  Diana recalled her father describing such exquisite meals thus, as we chomped our way through five courses over four and a half hours at Restaurant De Kas. They tried to give us a sixth, another round of delightful perenappelstroop-filled muffins, I think because my incessant picture-taking and absurdly detailed question-asking had given them the impression that I was some kind of Canadian food critic.  Ha! No, kids, all of 20 people read my blog (and I love every one of you).  But seriously, if you’re in Amsterdam and in the neighborhood of Frankendael Park and have a couple hundred euros to drop on the best meal you’ll have all year, go to Restaurant De Kas.

We arrived just at sunset, to discover that the storks on that huge chimney-thing in the park were in fact read, huge birds.  We were still buzzing with appreciation of color, composition and emotion that are the requisite take-aways of the Van Gogh Museum.

We were also still giddy with freedom, leftover from our epic escape from Corporate Netherlands, ironically located in the bucolic Dutch countryside. But basically these culminated into bliss:  sitting in a gigantic greenhouse lit by Chihuli-like jellyfish lamps and fireplaces was exactly where the cosmos meant us to be at that place and time.  There’s a profound contentment that comes with that knowledge.  It’s a taste that permeated the olives and crusty, not-to-be-triffled-with bread and the first few glasses of wine.

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Civilized Travel

Now this is civilization.  Plant-covered walls.  Free wi-fi.  Cheese. Wine.

It’s almost impossible to worry about anything here in the lounge at the Heathrow Airport.  Which is very good, since yesterday (the very long yesterday before the very short today) I was literally making myself sick with worry.  I’m not even exactly sure what I was so worried about.  Was it the presentation I’m giving Tuesday in a meeting room in at twelfth century castle?  No, I think I’ve got that down.  Was it the client? Okay I won’t go there. I don’t know.  This place encourages me not to remember.  It says, rest, and sometimes work, and generally pay attention to the more pleasant aspects of the insanity that is global business travel. Half my Sunday may be pawned until Thursday, but life is good.

Ever More Perfect Eyes

As of now, I’ve settled on this as a name for this blog (in lieu of my first, third, and any number of impulses toward more cynical, ironic or flippant names).  A quick note about where it comes from:

“We have ever more perfect eyes in a world in which there is always more to see. See or die.”
—Teilhard de Chardin

At least, that was how I encountered it in an epigraph of a book I was reading.That’s actually a condensed, slight misquotation.  The full line in context is much less pithy (according to my favorite modern translation):

“Seeing. One could say that the whole of life lies in seeing — if not ultimately, at least essentially. To be more is to be more united — and this sums up and is the very conclusion of the work to follow. But unity grows, and we will affirm this again, only if it is supported by an increase of consciousness, of vision. That is probably why the history of the living world can be reduced to the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes at the heart of a cosmos where it is always possible to discern more. Are not the perfection of an animal and the supremacy of the thinking being measured by the penetration and power of synthesis of their glance? To try to see more and to see better is not, therefore, just a fantasy, curiosity, or a luxury. See or perish. This is the situation imposed on every element of the universe by the mysterious gift of existence. And thus, to a higher degree, this is the human condition.”

—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Human Phenomenon, trans. Sarah Appleton-Weber, p. 3

Yeah, I then tracked down the book and read it, in two translations.  Occasionally I can go on a philosophy kick, it’s allowed. And that book is a trip, I recommend it.  Some sections are knock-you-on-your-ass profound, while others let me understand why when I Googled the quotation I stumbled on a psychadelic hippy poster.

In this passage I get caught up in the encouragement, the humility, and the imperative.  First, I take “seeing” as a shorthand for perception more generally.  Perfection of perception here is I think both a scientific and a theological concept (Tielhard was both a Jesuit philosopher and a paleontologist).  It’s accuracy, detail, scope, understanding, appreciation, and finally synthesis.  But I take a page here from Thoreau’s distinction, “do not observe, behold”: perception includes awe and gratitude. In a scientific sense, perfection is accuracy and understanding; in a theological sense, perfection is a measure of closeness to God.  This is a continuously ongoing process, elaborating “ever more perfect eyes. Our abilities improve and Teilhard asserts that this improvement is limitless. We will never reach that state of perfection but we will always, if we do not ignore or deny what we see, get closer to it.    But, “there is always more to discern.” No model is perfect, no perspective truly whole.  If we could achieve that we would not be “as gods,” we would be gods.   And finally it’s not just for scholars and wankers and blathering in cafes, but a vital imperative.  Blindness, denial, ignorance, unwillingness to improve are lethal luxuries.

As a species our only chance of survival is to perceive more, to think better, and to act on what we learn. And as individual people, that’s also our best shot.

In the beginning…

There was WordPress. And then there was me, and you: my own little corner of the internet.  How sweet.

I’ve always wanted to own a blog—but always also hated blogging. It’s like those proverbial puppies you take home and convince your mom to let you keep.  You have to feed it.  Take it on walks.  Pay its vet bills.  Keep it from killing too many squirrels.  Keep it from attracting trolls.  If you’re good you give it to a friend or something.  If you’re bad you leave it in a Dumpster somewhere.

Well, now I try again.  I like cats, maybe a kitten will work better.

Hi, little kitteh.  I’m Miriam, and this is a place for me to collect my musings.  I’m an anthropologist and a futurist (why must “anticipatory anthropology” have just SO many syllables?) and an Easily Distracted Generalist. I work at the Institute for the Future, forecasting about health and well-being and food systems.  I’m married to an Archaeologist who also thinks about food systems (I get the live ones, he gets the dead ones).

The next several posts will probably be pretty scattered, as I point to a bunch of things I’ve written recently elsewhere, repost writings I like that got mired in failed blogs past, and generally get my footing before things settle into normal.  I have very little idea what normal will look like, but I promise to feed it this time, for real.