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.

A March of Haiku

1

Good omens I think

And fun conversations wait

For this lucky girl

2

A day spent in flight

A night spent deep in study

The hotel, muggy

3

Whispers and worries

Ladies stalk in high heels through

Air conditioned halls

4

Look! The Milky Way.

Careful, don’t turn your ankle.

A drink with new friends.

5

A future story

Like the ones we want to read

Someone must write it

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Continue reading

‘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.

 

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

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

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.”

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