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Archive for November, 2010

In a New York Times article otherwise spent bemoaning the unnecessary glamorization and compensation of those on Wall Street despite their obvious errors and shortcomings William Cohen committed one of my hated pet peeves yesterday.

Despite the very dire consequences of the latest financial crisis that Wall Street perpetrated on the world, America cannot seem to shake its infatuation with Wall Street bankers and traders.

We continue to shower them with riches, prestige and glory. We make movies about them. We write books about them. We seriously overpay and then envy them. This year alone, while millions of others suffer from the Great Recession, bankers and traders are expected to be paid — incredibly — another estimated $144 billion in compensation and benefits. Accordingly, Wall Street remains the No. 1 destination for our best and brightest.” (Emphasis mine).

Later, he says:

Why do we seem to excuse one insider-trading and pay-for-play scandal after another? Why haven’t we woken up from our generational slumber and realized that we would be better off rewarding real engineers, not financial engineers?

To this I would add: why do we persist in referring to those who are drawn towards an industry known for its insider-trading, pay-for-play scandals and lack of morals our “best and brightest”?

It seems too obvious to debate but I’ll unpack the words separately anyway.

By “brightest” Cohen can only mean, presumably, “having the best university grades” or perhaps “being most recruited out of university”. But grades in what, recruited by who? A tight set of qualifications in specific degrees are generally what gets one to Wall St and determines who gets recruited for these lucrative positions. Clearly physicists are left out of this equation, and doctors, engineers (who Cohen himself seems keen on) and historians. Philosophers? Feggedaboutit. The qualifications for this title seems self-referential: they are the brightest because they are who Wall St wants, so they must be. And this, of course, is the myopia Cohen himself is railing against.

But putting “brightest” aside, “best” is more offensive. Anyone so drawn to Wall St simply because “bankers and traders are expected to be paid — incredibly — another estimated $144 billion in compensation and benefits” could never be our best. Our best are out there taking risks, creating value and helping people. They are starting or transforming companies, organizations and, yes, governments. They are working on the hardest problems of our times, helping our society move towards greater justice, equality and prosperity. They are entrepreneurs, artists, activists, visionaries, leaders, facilitators.

And you know what? Our best don’t do it for the money. They are not drawn to the lure of obscene and undeserved compensation, or profits earned from moving money around, from tricks or loopholes. Our best are drawn to the challenge, the cause, the need. They do what must be done because there is no-one else to do it. They work on behalf of their family, community, nation or world, not for their own fame or greed.

So I welcome William Cohen’s call for “the courage to return Wall Street to a less exalted place”, and hope we can start by ceasing to refer to bankers and stockbrockers as our “best and brightest.”

Image from Sad Guys on Trading Floors.

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Thanksgiving is perhaps my favourite American holiday. The practice of stopping and giving thanks for what we have in our lives is important, and something we do too infrequently. The in-practice more universal Thanksgiving practice of eating as much as possible in the company of family and friends is also a highly-attractive element.

This is my third thanksgiving in America and despite my lack of family here I’ve never been without an invitation to share the occasion with others. It was through just such an invitation that we met many of those who would become close friends in Washington DC. This friendship and generosity that has been repeatedly extended to us is something I am deeply grateful for.

There’s so much I’m grateful for this thanksgiving, perhaps because my life has been more difficult than usual these past couple of months, throwing into sharp relief things I sometimes take far too for granted. A little adversity sometimes helps us see things more clearly. Having things removed makes us aware of how much we really value them.

I’ve never really minded the sensation of missing people for this reason. I like having people to miss. Missing is a complex emotion but in part this longing for another is a sweet thing, for it indicates the presence on this planet of another worth longing for. This obviously has its limits, but as I miss my family and friends in Australia, another cluster of dear friends in DC and others scattered across the globe I tell myself of how fortunate I am to have these relationships, to have met this extraordinary community I have around the world.

I am grateful both for these friendships which mean so much to me and for the opportunities I have had to travel, to explore, to meet so many new people. I am grateful to have ended up here in San Francisco for a time, to be meeting the incredible people I’m finding here. None of these relationships replace those that came before as it becomes easier than ever to maintain relationships at distance, to find those you miss and spend new time together.

These last couple of months have been kinda rough for me. I am so grateful for those who have reached out and let me know you are thinking of me. It means so much. And I’m grateful for all those who have made introductions and helped me find new people and opportunities in a new city.

Ultimately any exploration of gratitude must come back to those who matter most: my parents, sister and wife. Within the magical web of connections that is this big little world they orient my life. They are the reason I am here in San Francisco trying to live my dreams. The reason I dream at all. In ways both practical and profound they have helped me believe in my own power to create the future, because I know they will always be there to support me, that it’s okay if I fall because they will help me get up and get going again. Thank you guys, so much, for everything.

My gratitude for all that I have is informed by my knowledge that so many have so little, that countless children grow up without either the opportunities or the support structures to live their dreams. That’s why this Thanksgiving I’m supporting Epic Thanks, a “global celebration of gratitude and giving that honors inspirational changemakers who create hope in our world.” Find out more at www.EpicThanks.org.

What are you grateful for?

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Burning Man 2010 from Satelitte

Burning Man is famously difficult to describe. It is so many different things to so many different people: a huge rave in the desert, a spiritual journey, a temporary community, the world’s biggest sculptural art exhibition, a survivalist gathering, a place to discover new parts of yourself, for grieving and letting go, for exploring, expressing and sharing.

It’s hard to summarize all of that for people who haven’t experienced it for themselves, hard to link your individual stories to this larger context, hard, in a way, for even an experienced burner to make sense of it all, the unique jumble of experiences, emotions, observations, visual stimulation and desert living. Every year I’ve gone I’ve aimed to write about my experience but every year I hit this wall and the gap since the festival grows and eventually I give up. But this year, as my camp-mate Elly would say, “I’m doing it!”, very late but sooner than never.

Steel flowers

What Burning Man is, fundamentally, is festival 2.0. Just as web2.0 is a platform for user-generated content Burning Man is a platform for user-generated experiences. The Burning Man Organization ensures that the very most basic infrastructure exists for the event to take place: roads, medics, port-a-potties and, of course, the Man. But everything else that makes a festival a festival is created and provided by the participants themselves: the music, art, venues, workshops, performances. All of it. Some of the major art works get grants to assist them to create their pieces, but this rarely covers costs and never covers labour.

What’s more there’s no vendering at Burning Man. No commercial food stalls. No souvenir stands. You cannot even buy water, despite our location in the middle of a desert. Everything you and your camp need to survive you need to take in yourselves: water, food, structures, bikes. (You gotta have bikes. Burning Man is ten miles across, way too big to walk around.)

That’s not to say Burning Man doesn’t have bars, restaurants, café’s and food stands. It does. It has not only everything you’d find at any festival (music, art, food) but also the things you’d find in the coolest part of a city: venues, restaurants, art galleries, spa’s, mini golf, roller disco’s. These hundreds of venues, events, parades and happenings across the city are created by autonomous groups of participants and everything they provide is gifted. Just like web2.0 what makes Burning Man tick is generosity. And all of this takes place in one of the harshest places on earth, the Black Rock Desert in Nevada.

Truly, it is a miraculous, empowering and inspiring thing.

This year K and I and an amazing group of friends from around the world came together to create a first-time Burning Man theme camp: More Carrot. Theme camps are the official interactive zones of the city. To qualify as a theme camp you must have things at your camp for other people to participate in. If selected as an official theme camp you get placement in a prime location in the city (ours was amazing, only a block from Center Camp) and the right to arrive early to set up. You can read more about the our name and formation here.

More Carrot got great placement

In thinking about this year’s event, and its theme of Metropolis, we felt that an essential element to any great city was access to fresh, local, organic food. And because this is Burning Man we decided that we would create this ourselves. From Tuesday-Friday during the event we hosted the Black Rock City Farmers Market (Black Rock City is the name of the city formed by Burning Man. For the week it exists it’s the third-largest in Nevada). We distributed over $1,000 worth of fruit and vegetables, about 80% of which were sourced from local farmers in Nevada, most of it organic. In addition to the market the More Carrot camp featured a chill-out dome, dj set-up (including power), 20 ft tower, communal kitchen and extensive décor and shade. The front of our camp featured the Illuminatrix project, which invited anyone to submit animations which ran on a screen created by a 19×19 array of ping pong balls with multi-spectrum LEDs inside. Like so:

The 25 members of our camp flew in from six countries, convening in Reno where we had rented two houses in which we do the pre-construction for our camp including building the farmers market stall, the bike rack and two giant glowing carrots. There was storage and truck hire to organize. Hundreds of litres of water and hundreds of dollars of fruit and vegetables to pick up and get to the site and, in the case of the perishables, keep fresh for almost a week.

Farmers Market

In other words: it’s a really significant undertaking. And coordinating all of this from multiple time zones required using all our skills in online collaboration and team-building. Starting in January we invited selected people into a Google Group which was used for brainstorming and getting to know each other. Teams were formed for each project, both infrastructural (transport, power, lounge, etc) and interactive (the Farmers Market, Countless Carrots March, gifts, etc). These teams developed their plans and made budget submissions to our Organizing Committee for approval. Total camp budget was $6,250 ($250 each) but many members of the camp showed generosity that went far beyond this, providing additional elements individually. The Organizing Committee used Basecamp and met fortnightly on Skype (at 2pm SF time, 5pm DC, 11pm London and 7am in Melbourne), moving to weekly for the final six weeks.

This level of organization was necessary to manifest our vision in the middle of a desert but also because 17 of the 25 members of our camp where first-time Burners. We invested so much time and effort in More Carrot because those of us who initiated the camp had a goal that was, in a way, bigger than any of our specific events: we wanted to create a camp which was a true community; where everyone was involved, respected and included; where no one was a spectator. Burning Man is a massive platform for individual experience and participation and it was really important to us that More Carrot also reflect the Burning Man principles of community, participation, self-expression and self-reliance. In a way, this was the real project, creating this community, and the specific projects simply means to this end. They were also, of course, a whole lot of fun; a chance to play and interact and contribute to the magic that is Burning Man.

And truly, magic things happen at Burning Man, things that could happen nowhere else. My favourite only-at-Burning-Man moment this year occurred on Wednesday. I noticed that two guys appears to be working on some sort of wooden sculpture in our camp’s front yard, right between our two carrots. Intrigued, I wandered up. “Hi”. They looked up: “Hi”. Went back to their work. “What are you guys up to?”. “We’re building an onion.” Said as if this were the most obvious thing in the world. And indeed, now I looked closer, it was an onion, and a bloody good one, created by folding thin slats of wood together. These guys had come to the farmers market on Tuesday and, impressed, promised to be back the next day to build us an onion. No-one took this seriously at the time but here they were, creating an amazing 7-foot tall onion sculpture for our camp. So now instead of simply two carrots we had the beginnings of a veggie garden. What an amazing gift.

Dancing with Onion

If that’s not magical enough for you, on Monday afternoon, as the rush of people entering the event was beginning to slow down and our camp was almost finished there was an intense rainstorm, the like’s of which I’ve never seen at Burning Man. If this wasn’t surreal enough already when the rain finished there was an absolutely epic DOUBLE RAINBOW, truly the most vivid I have ever seen. Sobs and cries of “what does it mean?!” rang out across the city. Check this out:

Double Rainbow!

And then there was my favourite artwork on the playa this year: Ein Hammer! Ein Hammer was a giant metal hammer emerging from the playa surface, capable of throwing fire out from its shaft and head. But it was more than just a great piece of fire art, it was a game! Similar to the iconic carnival strength test where you hit a target with a hammer to see how high you can make the bell go this required three players to strike sensor pads with sledgehammers, with the height of the subsequent flames the result of how in-sync you hit. If you succeed the fire makes it all the way to the top and bursts spectacularly out the head of the hammer as it spins around. And if this wasn’t enough it was more than just a great fire art game, it was a fully themed performance piece with a ringleader crying out in a German accent, cheesy 80’s music and screens embedded in the desert showing the workers toiling in the furnaces beneath the surface, shoveling coal into a great fire to sustain the hammer. I had a go, it was unreal. Crazy, magical, fun.

We tried to do a lot this year, perhaps too much. Bring 17 virgins to their first burn. Run a farmers market. Host two parties and a sock wresting championships at our camp. Organize three roving events including taking on the well-established Billion Bunny March with our own Countless Carrot March. Support a team spread out across the world to work together and get amazing things done.

Black Rock City Sock Wresting Championships

And we did it! There were, of course, mistakes and hiccups. The early-entry crew discovered we were missing poles to erect the kitchen, and had to send people out of the festival to where they could get reception to send a message to the group still in Reno. Our power set-up can be improved and next year we’ll have a bigger kitchen. But this is all so minor compared to what we achieved. We were a part of building the most extraordinary city on earth, fueled by creativity and passion and community. And for carrots, of course. Gotta have your vitamin A, especially in a desert.

The response to the market, and to our other events was fantastic, and I’m super-excited to take who we learnt this year and apply it to next year’s camp.

Our Camp by Day

Thank you to all my fellow carrots who made this experience so fulfilling and so much fun. Building our camp and our community with you was an amazing experience. I can’t wait to do it all again.

More photos:
Vodpod videos no longer available.

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