Global Food Shortage Increases Prices

The BBC has a two-day series on global food price increases. The shortage of food has driven up prices by 70% for wheat and rice in some regions. Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank, has called for $500 million to alleviate hunger but the response has been slow and short of the request.

On a more hopeful note, however, the BBC also reports more food is appearing on the shelves in Zimbabwe, however, the country is heavily dependent on U.N. food aid. Eighty percent of the people rely on it and not everyone has access to U.S. dollars or South African rands which have replaced the Zimbabwean currency.

HP Netbook Redux

After using a netbook for a few weeks I’m tracking back to a post I wrote when I bought the HP mini. I’ve also used a Dell.

The first reaction to this machine is, "Oh, that’s cute!" And it is. Netbooks look like their larger cousins, full feature laptops. The HP was cosmetically more appealing than its competitors when it arrived.

This appearance may be a liability, however. It may lead to the expectation the machine will also do what a laptop does, and it can’t. It isn’t made to perform at that level. Disappointment follows.

Netbooks are made to access the Internet and read email. They will play video and audio files and display photos. They do these things barely adequately. To expect more is to court frustration.

I’ve carried the netbook with me on the road. Its light weight is a distinct advantage. Its performance is hardly better than a Blackberry for email, however. I actually prefer the Blackberry because it’s far less frustrating to use and does what I want with greater speed.

Typing on the netbook, even with its wider keyboard is a chore for me. My fingers don’t travel the compact space easily.Typing longer notes is a trial with too many errors. I revert to one-finger typing and I can accomplish thumb typing on the Blackberry with greater ease and accuracy.

The netbook can become overworked easily. Attempting to type a blog post, review it and make corrections can be too much. Downloading photos taxes the system. Deleting email in bulk can make you think it’s locked up. It wasn’t made for this, remember.

Controlling the scroll rate on the touchpad is hit or miss with me despite slowing it down in preferences. It easily scrolls past where I want to go. You can use the arrow keys but the touchpad is more convenient and intuitive. To do this I have to think about it. Intuitive is better .Otherwise it’s just cumbersome.

The HP will display a full screen by pressing f11. This eliminates the toolbar and gives a fuller view of a webpage. In addition, most browsers  allow you to hit control plus (still can’t figure out how to access the "plus" key) to zoom in.

I’ve concluded the netbook won’t replace my laptop on the road and that was my main reason for buying it. It does what it’s supposed to do. (Barely) It looks great. It’s wonderfully light weight. Yet with all this going for it, it doesn’t do what I need and what it does I can do with other appliances with less frustration. So it will stay home and probably collect dust unless someone else in the family takes a liking to it.

Never the less, I’ll bet these things sell by the millions because they’re so appealing. And I’ll bet many users will accept the compromises and love the frustrating little critters. Just not me.

Birds of Belize

Here’s why online journalism has an advantage over hard copy. The NY Times has a wonderful interactive feature story on the birds of Belize. If this is the kind of thing that turns you on, and for me it does, then it illustrates what we’ve been writing about here–the differences between online journalism and hard copy, and why those differences give an advantage to the online form.

The Times story combines images, sounds and words to round out a visit to Belize. It talks about environmental concerns in addition to the experience of birding.Admittedly, this could be done by a non-profit website and it would be equally enjoyable. It seems to me it illustrates, however, the value of having the resources of a major organization behind you because these provide the backup for a well-produced interactive page and ensure wide distribution.

In addition to quality writing and production, the Times brand lends trustiworthiness to the story’s content. This is an unseen value-add that’s an asset in the online environment today. I’m predisposed to doing it anyway, but after reading the story I’m ready to pack my cameras and head to Belize. I can hear the macaws calling.

Post-modern Religious Sensibility

Referring back to the earlier discussion about a Post-Christian America, I found this commentary by Judith Warner relevant. Giving her first-person views of a mixed religious childhood, she quotes Charles Darwin who said if the brain is impressed early with a belief it holds onto it with an almost instinctive quality. It remains independent of reason. Paradoxically, however, it isn’t determinative.

Warner, who is Jewish, recounts her early childhood impressions attending an Episcopal school. She says on a good day her mind fills with hymns and she can see sunshine streaming through stained glass windows.

However, she describes a religious sensibility, not acceptance of a belief system. She writes that she and many of her friends are defined by bits and pieces of experience that don’t fit into traditional categories. This mosaic is sufficiently coherent for them. "Some of us just can’t find a home for ourselves in the categories of identity that make sense for other people."

Thus, to call these self-differentiated individuals religious seekers is to misconstrue their religious makeup, a point made by a commentator to my post. It presents a dilemma for religious groups who see their mission to evangelize from within a coherent belief system.

For example, Warner describes her daughter’s rejection of her invitation to attend a Unitarian church. “Enough harm has been done in the name of religion . . . I don’t want to be a part of it,” her daughter replies.

It seems to me Warner’s comments underscore the complexity of the human religious terrain today. She provides insight into how religious sensibility is formed, how it recedes and how it is rejected. The individuals she writes about respond with emotion and reason and are secure in their responses.

Her daughter’s views are consistent with research that reveals outright rejection of religion by many young adults today. Others are skeptical of religion and religious groups.

Warner is characteristic of what researcher George Barna dubs the “mosaic generation.” He applies the description to teens born 1984 and later but it applies more broadly in a secularizing culture. Among other things, they are comfortable with contradiction, eclectic with regard to faith, open-minded toward the beliefs of others and morally pragmatic.

This is a new religious landscape.

After Newspapers Die How Will Global News Be Reported?

Update : If newspapers die "hyperlocal websites" are positioned to take their place to report neighborhood news according to this NY Times article. New ways of underwriting journalism are being explored as traditional mass circulation print journalism contracts. Some contend it’s disappearing. is a non-profit, member supported form of community journalism.

Sara Perez writes and provides a video about saying the future of journalism will be radically different. However, as I assess this model I note it has produced 19 stories since its inception in November. These are membership assigned stories. Members determine content by anteing up funds for a reporter to research and write.

That’s not a huge number compared to the coverage of a daily newspaper or a major news website. The stories concentrate on local issues. That’s a good thing, but it leaves open the concern about how international coverage will be sustained.

As for other funding models, David Weir comments on cuts at both NPR and Newsweek which have different funding sources.

It used to be difficult to understand why something happening in Somalia should be important to people in Nashville or Omaha. The distance was so great and the Horn of Africa seemed inconsequential. At least, I heard that from time to time. (I’ve never agreed with that thought. I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t interested in global news, even in my youth.)

We know differently now. Caught in a global financial crisis, we’re beginning to understand that our lives are interrelated in complex, often invisible ways. The world has shrunk. What happens on the other side of the globe can affect us at the speed of the Internet.

At the same time newspapers are cutting global reporting and television, having never been really strong at it, covers the hot spots and almost never gets beyond that style. This raises the question of how global news will be collected and reported.

It will be mostly digital. In fact, it’s already digital. Every website potentially serves a global audience. Certainly blogs have filled in a gap in some parts of the world and social networking has been used to inform and mobilize people but it’s not a primary source of content. Whether magazines can make it is up for grabs.

So how will those who want global news get it after newspapers as we know them die?

David Weir has been writing about the decline of traditional print journalism and the business models of successful alternative journals. He also points readers to which seeks to become an alternative global news source.

A statement on that site explains it’s a for profit venture depending on advertising, syndication and Passport memberships which are subscriptions to premium content and services with some interactivity.

It’s a harbinger of what’s to come, the testing of new business models through different forms of financing including subscriptions, grants and advertising. What’s still unclear to me, and a lot of others, is how to reach the critical mass necessary to be sustainable. If it doesn’t exist today how will it be attracted in the future? And if not critical mass, then what?

In an age of fragmentation and specialization we have to scramble because we’re experienced with a mass market model that began in the 1900s and shaped our economics for more than a century. And that has come crashing down.

The successful alternative models Weir points to are all local. They are community newspapers augmented by effective websites, however, some comments on his posts say even  these have had advertising revenue siphoned away by Craigslist.

Magazines that are surviving do so by reaching niche markets. Is global news a niche market? Will we move to a completely different form of information beyond civic and political such as the sharing of best practices by those with particular interests. That’s the wiki model of interactive sharing in knowledge communities. I’ve seen it applied globally around community radio and literacy with some success but it’s functional information not interpretive.

These are only two of many questions yet to be answered. In a world that desperately needs greater understanding I hope we find a way to sustain the collection and distribution of quality reporting and analysis. We need it today more than ever.

Recession Anxiety

Update : Tour operators are offering guilt-free vacations.

We talked about canceling our vacation because we felt guilty. My spouse and I had more than one serious conversation about taking a vacation right now when so many are experiencing so much real economic pain, losing jobs, struggling to get by and experiencing the emotional trauma that comes with this recession.

Apparently we’re not alone. Recession anxiety is widespread according to an article in today’s New York Times and it comes in many forms. Many of us are plagued with everyday, on-going anxiety and decisions about the future.

As for my spouse and me, we wavered. We weighed pros and cons. We beat ourselves up. And, finally we went.

Both of us have jobs with a fair degree of stress and we agreed we needed time away. We had planned for the vacation and set aside funds, so it wasn’t taking away from necessities, it wasn’t running up credit card debt and it didn’t take the place of our giving to the church and charitable groups.

A couple of years ago I was admonished publicly to take time off. The board of directors made it clear. Frankly, it was embarrassing then and it’s embarrassing now to remember and write about. But this, too, came into our conversation.

Not taking time off would not change the global financial situation one iota, of course. Yet, it might make us feel better–or would it? Would we disengage and refresh ourselves by staying put? Would we feel we had done the right thing, even if we didn’t feel better after doing it?

So, we went. I’m glad we did. We both needed time away to clear our heads, rest our bodies, take in something new and replenish our emotional reserves.

But the doubt didn’t dispel easily. As we boarded the plane, she looked at me and whispered something about still feeling guilt. I said, "I know." And I really did because I felt the same.

Sunset off Grand Case Watching the sunset later that evening, listening to the ocean waves gently break I felt a sense of peacefulness and gratefulness that helped ease some of the doubt. Over the course of the next few days it nearly dissipated as we enjoyed our time together, relaxed and let the cares back home separate from our minds. Everyday, however, I said, "This was the right thing to do." As if saying would make it even more true.

I know today it was the right thing to do. I’m better at work and I’m thinking more clearly because I took time away. I really enjoyed taking pictures of butterflies and looking at the beauty of the ocean. We walked and swam and I feel as if I have more energy for the tasks at hand today.

But still, I waver. I even wavered about sharing the photos of butterflies with staff. Not because they were bad, or it was wrong, but because I was concerned about what they would think about me taking a vacation at this time! Wow, the punishment we visit upon ourselves–at least that I am able to visit upon me.

So however you read this–the musings of an obsessed workaholic, or the ramblings of an anxiety-riddled neurotic writer–I get it about recession anxiety.

I hope you enjoy the photos of the butterflies anyway.

Post-Christian America?

The loss of the political agenda of the religious right and Christian dominionists is not a marker for the demise of Christianity in the U.S.

Writer Jon Meacham apparently felt the need to clarify further the point of his cover story in Newsweek which was provocatively headlined The End of Christian America .

Meacham’s demurer isn’t a concern here. What intrigued me as I read the remarks of Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, is how different I respond to the same dynamics that he’s concerned about. The issue of how to live a meaningful spiritual life and make it inviting for others in a post-modern, secularizing society is real. One need not be naive or unrealistic about that. More people seem to be opting out of Christian faith and that’s a significant concern.

But the interweaving of politics with theology over the past several years has muddied the waters and also caused real harm to perceptions of religion and religious communions.

However, the broad principles of social justice, as distinct from the specific ethical issues that were written into the Republican platform, still remain strong and I hope will endure. So the fact that the political agenda of the religious right has been solidly rejected does not spell the end of Christianity. It spells the end of a political and social agenda advanced by one of the many branches of people who identify themselves as Christian.

I am encouraged by a new-found and growing sense of urgency in my own denomination. It’s expressed through reaching out to new people, tackling the killer diseases of poverty, addressing poverty, recruiting and training new leaders and living with greater concern for the whole of creation including concern for the environment.

I came away from a couple of meetings in the past two weeks with uncharacteristic optimism. Those who know me well are sucking air right now asking, "what’s happened to him?"

What’s happening is I’m seeing signs of awareness that the church (as it is represented by this particular denomination) needs to be relevant and to engage with people in an authentic, life-enhancing way. I hear concern about how the church provides opportunities for people to become servants in faithfulness to their religious convictions as followers of Jesus. And I hear sensitivity about language and culture and how the church talks with people who want to find purpose and meaning in these difficult times. And I see action that is energizing and fresh.

This is important and whether it results in renewal, transformation or completely new forms of religious communities and expressions, it’s exciting and encouraging.

We’re not facing the end of Christianity, nor its demise but there are urgent reasons for some of us to change and seek new ways to be faithful and relevant in the world today. The rejection of the public agenda of the evangelical right is instructive, but not a measure of the relevance of Christian faith to life today. Whatever it’s importance, the evangelical right is a branch of the Christian community, not the whole of the community in the U.S. much less Christendom across the world.

As I look at the challenges faced by people of faith today I am not discouraged, I am curious, enervated and charged up. We (followers of Jesus and those who don’t) live in hard times. Many are unsettled, in pain and struggling with life. The Christian faith was born in times like these. This is a wondrous time and we are a people of hope.

The AP Takes on File Sharing

The Associated Press is taking on file sharing. In an attempt to control unlicensed use of material it has generated and protect its financial model, the Associated Press is discussing how to deal with search engines and unauthorized use of its licensed content.

I understand the problem and sympathize with the economic challenge. But the music industry took a similar approach and hasn’t exactly prospered.

What is missing is the basic premise. The kids who share music files don’t see themselves stealing intellectual property or taking from the corporate bottom line, they see themselves sharing with their friends. This use of the Internet as a way to extend community and personal relationships flies in the face of the traditional gatekeeper role of content distribution. It blows it away.

That’s what the Internet has done. It was built into the medium from its birth. See Cluetrain Manifesto , the earliest assessment of the importance of an open Internet.

So corporate control of information as manifested in the AP effort will continue and some form of payment for information will eventually develop, I suppose. But the model isn’t yet clear, iTunes and Google ads notwithstanding, and AP doesn’t sound like it’s found it.

If the music industry is any guide, reacting, controlling, cease and desist letters and lawsuits don’t make for an expanding business model.

Poverty’s Effects on Children and the Rest of Us

Poverty diminishes general health. It causes stress. And now we know it also affects working memory. We’ve known about the debilitating effects of poverty for a long time but a new study documents adverse effects on brain function.

A few years ago we lived in one of the poorer neighborhoods in a very poor town in central Oklahoma. On any warm summer night I could go out on the porch and hear people shouting at each other. The level of stress in that economically strapped neighborhood was widespread. High blood pressure, anxiety and domestic violence followed.

I grew up in that neighborhood, in that environment. We weren’t aware of stress, we just lived it. It was so much a part of our lives that we didn’t identify it as anything but normal. Poverty is stressful, but talking about stress when you’re struggling to survive seems a luxury so it goes un-noted.

When kids live with this kind of stress it takes many forms, one of which is irregular sleep patterns, nightmares and insecurity. Unless the adults are wise, dysfunctional behavior takes hold and the family adjusts to both threats to emotional maturity and physical health.

The study’s mention of impaired working memory adds another dimension. One can imagine what this means to classroom function. Most likely it means nonlinear thinking which places different demands on teaching.

I produced a video on street children in Brazil some years ago and these kids were unable to give directions to places where they hung out daily. It wasn’t inarticulateness it was life experience that caused this inability.

They lived their lives in episodes of peace interrupted by violence. They were frequently beaten, chased away from stores and parks, and shot. Seven were killed a few weeks before I went to research the video.

This episodic life made it impossible for them to construct a simple narrative such as how to walk two blocks, turn right and arrive at the bus station on the corner.

Their disordered lives were so fragmented they remembered episodes of violence but linear memory was almost nonfunctional. This effect was environmental, not nutritional. But the interrelationship between environment and health is so organic, how can one approach health and not also address emotional and economic development, education and employment, and good governance and justice. Or does that make it too complicated and leave us saying we’ll always have the poor among us and so we can forget about it?

It’s clear enough that poverty is a breeding ground for human diminishment and we need to plant different seeds than the weeds of poor nutrition, poor education and stress. We can’t allow poverty to create memory loss among the affluent. If we do, we will all be diminshed.

Butterflies on St. Maarten

Blue MetallicaA few weeks ago I had the opportunity to photograph at the Butterfly Farm on St. Maarten. They have around forty species at the farm and the garden is compact and easily accessible. This is one of my favorite places on the island, so spending time there is a great diversion.

I went in the morning when the butterflies are becoming most active. They are activated by sunlight and warm tempertures. It’s a matter of waiting patiently for one to strike the best pose and snapping away as quickly as possible. A selection of photos is at this online album.

Upon returning home in the U.S. we had a remarkably warm Sunday and my daughter walked into the garage to discover that an eastern swallowtail chrysalis that I had set aside from last summer had emerged into a butterfly. It was an unexpected treat, especially after just returning from the Butterfly Farm. Early Swallowtail

Two more chrysalises matured over the next two days, then it turned seasonable cold again and the three remaining haven’t hatched yet.