Tuesday, December 25, 2007
I'm currently visiting my mom in SoCal for the holidays. Hating the SoCal traffic and ultra-sprawl. In a couple of days, we'll head to Arizona to see the in-laws.
One weird thing we encountered while walking around the neighborhood here was a megachurch. It was a convention center-sized campus with a huge sanctuary, twice as much parking as a Wal-Mart, and a cafe and two retail spaces. It was like a big-box store for God! It's still being built and isn't yet open for worship services.
Other recent activities:
Attended two Messiah Sings - one hosted by my choir and also the Stanford one. The one we host has a better level of audience musicianship, but the Stanford one is more like a big, festive community event. Also, Sugar Daddy can accompany me to the Stanford one because they have a pick-up orchestra for instrumentalists like him. In fact, the Stanford Messiah Sing has become quite a tradition for us - we've attended it for the past few years.
Also, Sugar Daddy and I are slowly getting over our nasty colds.
I finished another piece of my volunteer web project for New Dream.
I ended up pouring a lot of time into a homemade Christmas present this year. One of my pastimes is wild edible plants, and last year I gathered leaves from California bay laurel trees, dried them, put them into recycled jars with labels I designed, and gave them to friends and family who cook with bay leaves. Well, this year I got a little more ambitious. While we were at the Calstar weekend astronomy outing at Lake San Antonio this past October, I gathered a bunch of valley oak acorns from our campsite. I decided to prepare them by adapting a couple of traditional recipes that originally used chestnuts. The end result was jars of Ghiande al Liquore (Acorns in Spirits) and Glands Glacees (Candied Acorns), which I'll give as gifts to some friends who also have an interest in wild plant foods. It was a fun project but more messy and time-consuming than I realized...it takes a long time to shell that many acorns, and also the candying process took 4 days and involved a lot of sticky sugar syrup. Also it was kind of an experimental thing. The brandied acorns take 2 weeks to cure so I haven't sampled them yet and don't know how they turned out yet. I did try the candied acorns and they are a little bit more firm than chestnuts would be, but I like the flavor (although Sugar Daddy thinks they have a woody taste). Well, at least these gifts are going to people whom I know will appreciate the novelty and the experimentation, even if they taste weird :)
Sunday, December 9, 2007
Engineering, Support, and Management positions at Benetech (Palo Alto, CA)
Please reply to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please see the links below for more information, and if you are interested, send a cover letter/resume to email@example.com. Also, please pass this on to other folks you think might be interested...
The Benetech Initiative - Technology Serving Humanity
Benetech's Bookshare.org project just received a major five-year award from the Office of Special Education Programs of the Department of Education to fully support - for free - all schools and students with qualifying print disabilities in the United States, with access to the Bookshare.org collection of accessible electronic books and to software for reading those books.
To support this award, we are hiring for the following positions:
* Technical Project Manager (#TPM)
* Collection Development Specialist (#CDS)
* Customer Support Specialist (#CSS)
* Education Outreach Coordinator (#EOC)
* In-House Scanner Validator (#IHSV)
* Build & Release Engineer (#BRE)
* Software Engineer - Java (#SEJ)
* Web Site Engineer (#WSE)
* Web Site Developer - Intern (#WSDI)
* Director of Marketing (#DM)
* Accounting Clerk (#AC)
* Administrative Assistant (#AA)
More information is available at
OICW - Menlo Park, CA - They assist folks with training on computer equipment to prepare them for jobs and provide ESL classes. They also work with youth to take them in for after school programs.
OTX West - Oakland, CA - They refurbish old computers and "sell" them to people who volunteer with them by providing points for volunteer hours toward refurbished computers (very interesting concept). They also provide computers for schools and do computer literacy classes.
Well, the major disruption in our lives lately is that the landlord kicked us out of our apartment for the last two days to fumigate our building. We only got a week's notice, and we also had to remove all food, toiletries, houseplants, and valuables from our apartment. When we returned yesterday morning, I took a shower only to discover that the hot water had been turned off. Yikes!!! Talk about motivation to move out! Other news:
Planning a lunch get-together with some of my former co-workers; looking forward to catching up.
Spent Thanksgiving on the central coast with R. and her family. Had a delicious dinner there, spent quality time with their charming and tireless kiddies, helped them put up Christmas lights, and even got a deluxe car wash and wax by F.!
Went to a recital by mezzo-soprano Malin Fritz at Stanford.
It's been a long while since I indulged my taste for science fiction, so I picked up The Year's Best Science Fiction anthology from 2005 at the library and have been staying up late to devour its 652 pages. Great writing, but disturbingly, all of the stories are dire and gloomy. Even the one funny story I've encountered so far is black humor. Authors in 2005 don't seem to be imagining a bright future for us.
I resigned my volunteer position as a Project Leader for Hand On Bay Area. This decision has been nagging at me since last fall. In recent years, it's become a toss-up about whether the sense of reward outweighed the small frustrations and the time investment. But sometimes you receive signs about what choice to make and when to make it. The recent leadership transition and ensuing disorganization at Bread of Life where I coordinate a volunteer team was a clear sign to me that it's time to move on and reclaim that time and energy to invest in a new nonprofit career.
L. was previously at Yahoo, worked for Groundspring (nonprofit donation website), ended up heading CiviCRM. He brought along his co-leader, D., who was in social services, got into tech by way of PC consumer software development, and later on to Groundspring and CiviCRM.
Check out: PICnet, Democracy Abroad(?), CivicActions
Tech consulting for NP sector: ONE/Northwest (L. thinks highly of them), CTCnet in San Diego, others - generally geographically-based.
CiviCRM is not trying to become another Salesforce.com (sales-cycle-centric CRM).
NP sector is not as tech-savvy as for-profit sector. However, more forgiving/understanding than for-profit clients of for-profit companies: they understand about severe time and resource constraints.
Check out NetSquared (I have been...)
OSS world vs. NP software world: there's some overlap, but it's not huge. Note that a lot of software target to the NP sector is closed-source - e.g., Groundspring
One way to divide up the nptech world:
- Tech-focused nonprofits or for-profits whose "customers" are (mission-based) non-profits; i.e., they provide software and/or tech consulting to NP clients
- "End-user customer" nonprofits (i.e. mission-based) - so the tech roles in this kind of org are: volunteer techie, accidental techie, dedicated tech staff
D. recommended that I start out with an org that fits profile #1. Why? This provides exposure to a wider variety of NP orgs, and their business practices and requirements. Through learning and direct observation, I could start to absorb and formulate my own general best practices regarding NPtech.
On joining an existing consulting group:
- Has similar advantages to option #1 above
- Opportunities for mentorship/learning/experience
- Often geographically distributed; members are usually contractors rather than employees, so there is more flexibility (and uncertainty???) regarding hours
CiviCRM business model:
- Part 501(c)3, part LLC (to help it be a financially sustainable enterprise)
- Goal is for core functionality to meet 80% of common requirements, remaining 20% is customization that ISVs can do.
- Try to make it fairly customizable
- A familiar model...a lot like enterprise software in the for-profit world. That's why L. says that the distinction between NP software and for-profit software is a bit artificial (although some applications are strongly associated with the NP sector) - "it's all just software"
- Each CiviCRM release attempts to incorporate the most commonly requested features, and also the "well, duh" features (user suggestions that make perfect sense, but weren't thought of initially)
- When CiviCRM LLP is involved with projects, it generally acts as a subcontractor; it is not directly involved in client-facing engagements. There are a few exceptions, e.g. if a NP has a dedicated tech staffer/intern who can commit to working with CiviCRM to implement functionality in a sustainable, maintainable, best-practices way.
- Challenges in the RFP process: the up-front cost of "doing it right" is quite a bit more than "doing it fast". Consultants who are only concerned with "doing it fast" can put in a low bid, but their solution will be less sustainable/maintainable and may in fact cost more in the long run. (Boy, isn't this a universal truth...)
- Case in point: some ISVs using CiviCRM build their solution as a "quick hack" that solves the immediate problem but ends up being difficult to maintain--and so they eventually get tired of maintaining it in the codebase! One of CiviCRM's big challenges.
On the client mix for consultants and other NP technology providers: currently, the distribution of nonprofit clients tends to skew towards the progressive side, although more churches/religious orgs are starting to enter the mix. There is presently a BIG boom in environmental NP clients.
D. and L. were both agreeable when I asked if I could contact them later to hook me up with organizations and consultants who could give me CiviCRM experience. D. suggests that I keep an eye out on the CiviCRM community forums for the occasional "help needed" request as well as for the educational discussions. L. offered to put me in touch with TechSoup. They are actively recruiting for a Drupal/CiviCRM developer. L. thinks this could be a good introduction to the nonprofit and open-source worlds.
Friday, December 7, 2007
Studying voice is difficult, more difficult than I ever imagined it to be. I'm now of the opinion that those who train to become world-class singers work every bit as hard and require as much brains, talent, and skill as those who train to become world-class baseball players, rocket scientists, businesspeople, etc.
Taking voice lessons is a little like taking violin lessons...from a blind violinist...while wearing earplugs. The teacher can't directly see your instrument or how you are using it. They can only diagnose what you're doing (or not doing) based on how you sound and a handful of other external cues, relying on their experience and intuition. Teacher and student work together to relate what the teacher sees/hears to the physical sensations and actions the student is creating or experiencing as she produces the sound. Teacher then uses abstract or concrete verbal imagery to guide the student in producing an improved sound. Add to this the fun fact that a singer doesn't really hear herself properly; she sounds different to her audience than she does to herself, so the teacher also needs to serve as a pair of "trusted ears" that can give external feedback.
For me, progress is in unpredictable fits and spurts. I'll shed blood, sweat, and tears for weeks and weeks, working on some aspect of technique, not understanding what is going awry, puzzling over what the hell I am doing, not knowing when - or if - I will ever figure it out. Then I'll have a wave of blinding insights that catapult me forward. At least that's how it's been so far. It's a roller coaster and I always pray that salvation will be right around the corner.
But the proof is in the pudding. For all the anguish and cussing and swearing that goes on in the practice room (and believe me, I can get quite profane in there), I think I'm singing better than I ever have. There's plenty of stuff I still need to work out, but I feel like I'm at least aimed in the right direction.
Other recent singing-related stuff:
Updated my repertoire list.
Performed in choir concerts this past weekend. The program was "A Bach Family Christmas". I ended up landing the first soprano part in the "Suscepit Israel" trio in the Bach Magnificat. A solo aria would have been nice, but maybe I'll be ready for it at a later time. I'll be happy if I can just gradually make some progress up the soloist food chain in my choir. Anyway, I think I did a respectable job at the concert - not my personal best, what with performance nerves and the technical things I'm sorting out, but not overly shabby for where I am.
Attended and enjoyed a recital by a student soprano at Stanford. It's so educational to me to watch fellow students perform, observe their strengths and weaknesses, and try to apply that knowledge to my own singing. Also, it's a good place for me to get repertoire ideas that are appropriate to my skill level.
Watching the recital made me think, "if she can do it, I can do it!" Also, the whole audition and solo process for the Bach choir concerts made me realize that I need to get more public performance practice under my belt. I'd like to start small-scale and low-key, though. I've been thinking about where to do this. Maybe the NATS student recitals are a place to start, and I'm curious about the Fortnightly Music Club. I should go check out the scene at both of those. Also, there's the possibility of putting together a salon recital or house concert with friends. I could also bite the bullet and probe my teacher about a studio recital or other performing opportunities...but I'm afraid that if I open that can of worms, I may bite off more than I can chew!
Started recording my lessons, auditions, and performances. I read on NFCS that a lot of voice students do this for self-evaluation purposes and also to take notes after their lessons. It's been very enlightening so far.
The Inner Voice - autobiography of Renée Fleming, contemporary American soprano. I don't yet have an informed opinion on her voice, but I found the book interesting. Some parts are sugar-coated (probably a prudent move in the singing business), but there is lots of voyeuristic detail on her training and the evolution of her technique, the business side of singing (often glossed over by those who want to promote the "high-minded artist" image), and a blow-by-blow account of what it's like to perform at the Met, the backstage area and crew and etc. And no backbiting celebrity tell-all gossip.
Callas at Juilliard: The Master Classes - Transcripts of superstar soprano Maria Callas' master classes in 1971-72. Still waiting on top of my reading pile...
Susan Graham - Songs of Ned Rorem - I don't have an extensive knowledge of the American art song repertoire, but I love what I've heard so far, and especially composer Ned Rorem. I wanted to hear more of his stuff and get repertoire ideas for my lessons.
Liebeslieder-Walzer - burning the music into my brain for the Fortnightly rehearsal this weekend.
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Photo courtesy of MykoWeb
Some updates on my recent activities:
On the nonprofit tech career front: talked with S., to whom I was introduced by Gunner at Aspiration. Unfortunately, due to various circumstances, his plan to bring on more people didn't materialize...however, he was friendly to talk with, offered to pass my contact info on to others, and at my request gave me lots of useful advice about the nonprofit tech sector.
I attended Gunner's talk on "How to Find Software for Your Nonprofit", the first Net Tuesday event I've attended. Pretty fun.
I got contacted out of the blue by D. who leads a major open-source nonprofit software project. He saw a message I posted on a discussion board asking about nonprofit tech career transitions and got in touch. I'm looking forward to talking to him later this month about his experiences.
I've also made some good progress on my volunteer web project for New American Dream on their Alternative Gift Registry. I emailed their IT guy an update and some screenshots. So far he seems happy with what I've done. He was also very appreciative, which I have to admit made me feel good. Money is great compensation, if you can get it...but appreciation isn't half-bad, either.
On the musical front: Whew. Busted my butt working on the pieces for the solo auditions for our December concert featuring the music of J. S. Bach and family. Just did the auditions on Monday night. Can't say that I covered myself in glory, but neither was it a train wreck.
I turned a corner during last month's voice lessons, making some good breakthroughs...but now I'm back to slow, struggling progress...
I got recruited into a small ensemble to sing the Liebeslieder Waltzes by Brahms at the Centennial Concert of the Fortnightly Music Club. It'll be a good opportunity to sing in a small ensemble, which I haven't done since college. And, I won't have to wear the dreaded blue dress!
I'm happy to report some progress tackling the subjects in my Music Curriculum for Self-Study. I've managed to pick up some IPA, and have internalized more learnings about German diction. This afternoon, I got worked over by the ear training software station at the Stanford music library. It kicked my butt. I'm drilling on recognizing chord progressions by ear. My brain is fried.
Attended a couple of concerts. One was the Stanford Symphony and Marching Band's annual Halloween concert. Very fun, but oh my god, after hearing the marching band drummers inside an auditorium, it took a few hours to get my hearing back. I also went to Sugar Daddy's concert with the HP Symphony, "From Schubert to Star Wars". Applause for Sugar Daddy - yay!!!
Went on an out-and-back day hike on the Rhus Ridge trail, looking for boletus mushrooms (to gawk at, not to eat or get high on :-) . Funny thing, we hardly saw any on the leg out...but on the leg back, along the same stretch of trail we passed earlier in the day, we started spotting them all over the place.
Finished reading the new book Get Satisfied. Reading this book actually made me feel serene. Highly recommend this book!
Got an update from Hands On Bay Area about sending volunteers to this Coastside Alternative Gift Fair. Turns out they won't be able to do it, since the fundraising aspect of the gift fair falls outside of their policy, and also due to low volunteer attendance for events in Pacifica. Too bad! I suggested to the gift fair people that they contact One Brick.
Made an executive decision to keep my personal & work-related blog reading down to five hours a week, max. There's lots of good stuff on blogs, but they're a real time suck (heh, do you enjoy the irony of reading that statement in my blog?). I need to prioritize.
Sunday, November 4, 2007
Almost all people are genuinely good and want to leave the world a better place.
Sure I've heard celebrities say "my goal in life is to leave the world a little better than I found it," and I've seen polling data that the vast majority of the American public is on the same page, but the reason I believe it is because of a random conversation I had on a D.C. street corner five or six years ago. It was during a globalization conference and I had made small talk with a man standing near me--John. Triggered by a placard calling somebody "evil," John said: "I really don't know if there are any bad people in the world, but I do know this: I've never met a single one in my life."
Never met a single bad person? Sounded like John was either born yesterday, living in a plastic bubble, or completely disengaged from social issues of consequence. Well, he wasn't born yesterday--John was easily in his fifties--and as we talked, I realized he hadn't lived in a bubble either. He had grown up black in 1950s America, experienced the horrors of war in Vietnam, and spent several harrowing years homeless on the streets of Philadelphia. An organizer with ACT UP, John was leading a large contingent to demonstrate against our government's inaction in the face of a global AIDS epidemic. John was definitely, passionately engaged.
But there was one line that John wouldn't cross--to call any politician or CEO "evil." He was eager to share his experiences and concerns, but he was also ready for a true dialogue, not a simple dismissal.
I figured if John could have such faith in humanity, then I should too.
Prioritize a positive, bridge-building approach.
I first saw the power of our cross-partisan appeal when former New Dream President Betsy Taylor appeared on Crossfire in 1997 to promote our Simplify the Holidays campaign. The other three participants, Geraldine Ferraro, Tucker Carlson, and Pat Buchannan, initially came out with guns blazing against the campaign, insisting it was bad for the economy. They also expressed particular furor over Buy Nothing Day, a complementary campaign run by the group AdBusters. Then Betsy noted: "We used to have a Buy Nothing Day" every week. It was called the Sabbath." Something clicked and Buchannan went from attacking to solidly defending the campaign. Weird, but cool!
Monday, October 29, 2007
Last Saturday, I went to the How to Make the World a Better Place conference for people (beginners or experienced) who want to work towards positive social/environmental change. I was floored by how awesome and chock-full of goodness this event was. Can you believe, a completely volunteer-run all-day conference with more than 30 sessions to choose from, a bound notebook of all the session handouts, and it took place like two blocks down the street from where I live, and cost all of $20 and included lunch and a snack? Also, most of the presenters and conference-goers were local, so it was inspiring to see how much social change expertise is in my neighborhood, and also the large number of local people interested in social change, even if they are new to it.
The documentary film they screened was awesome; it highlighted several successful grassroots social change projects done by people in Palo Alto and Sunnyvale.
I attended the sessions on successful local community changemakers and fundraising. Met some interesting possible contacts and had good conversations.
- What is XAMPP, why it is useful, and how to set it up
- Basics of Subversion source control system; how to set up a repository
- A little bit of the SQL flavor specific to MySQL
- Basics of phpMyAdmin
- Some tools to use for debugging PHP, and how to set them up (Eclipse PDT, Zend debugger)
- All the little idiosyncracies and wonky stuff related to the above tools that they never mention in the documentation, so you have to troubleshoot it yourself or figure it out or ask someone who knows. That is such a huge part of the software engineering profession :)
Turandot (Giacomo Puccini) - Nilsson/Tebaldi/Bjoerling/Tozzi/Leinsdorf
Cosi Fan Tutte (Mozart) - Te Kanawa/Murray/Hampson/Blochwitz/McLaughlin/Furlanetto/Levine
Rinaldo (Handel) - Bartoli/Daniels/Hogwood
Little Women (Mark Adamo)
Divas, Volume 2: 1909-1940 (Nimbus Records)
The Art of Arleen Auger (Koch International Classics)
Il tenero momento: Mozart & Gluck Arias - Susan Graham
David Daniels: Handel Opera Arias (Virgin Veritas/EMI)
Wagner: Operatic Scenes and Lieder - Kirsten Flagstad
Wolf Lieder - Bostridge/Pappano (EMI Classics)
One goal of my listening lately is to learn what the spectrum of soprano voices sound like, how they fit into fachs (voice/role categories), and figure out where my voice fits in the spectrum.
Another goal is to get familiar with a few works in the standard operatic literature, so that when someone on the New Classical Singer Forum mentions an aria, I can recognize what opera it's from, who wrote it, and what kind of voice sings it. This also comes in handy for researching and choosing new repertoire for myself.
I am fast losing my prejudice against opera. It's not all viking horns, bombastic voices, and tenors who sound like all the veins in their neck are standing out. There's a lot more diversity of sound and style within the opera genre than I realized. I can find operas that I enjoy listening to and singing parts of.
I think I'm also beginning to see why solo professional classical singers emphasize opera, as opposed to other forms of vocal music. Since it takes weeks to months to mount an opera production, which may then run for several weeks, and since singers get paid by the performance(? and per rehearsal?), it is the professional classical singer's bread-and-butter. And it is arguably the most demanding form of vocal music, in terms of technique, interpretive/acting ability, and definitely stamina--so if you can manage to do opera well, you can certainly handle concert/oratorio/song recitals. (Although art song has its own subtle nuances that challenge the singer and require mastery.) Also, once you learn a role for one production, you can audition it around and hopefully perform it at several other opera houses--a decent return on the time and effort invested.
The opera Little Women was pretty amazing. It is a modern opera, in English and written by an American in 1998. The musical idiom is a contemporary one, but not jarring or painful (at least to my ears :) - just some spicy dissonances and harmonic structures :) It's based on the book, but unlike the book, the focus is on the conflict between Jo and the passage of time/growing up. A heartrending portrayal; I could really relate.
I'm marking the PHP basics as done for now, obviously that will be an ongoing learning process. Recently, I bought books on Drupal as well as PHP and MySQL. I downloaded Drupal and CiviCRM and started playing around with Drupal (a popular website system for nonprofits).
Bumped up the Coastside Alternative Gift Fair on the to-do list. I got in touch with Hands On Bay Area and tried to contact the Coastside Alternative Gift Fair people, with the intent of organizing a Hands On volunteer team to help out at the gift fair. Not much is happening in that quarter so far; the gift fair people have been difficult to get hold of. I'm going to try to reach them a couple more times. I hope it works out, but I won't be heartbroken if it doesn't pan out this year. I can still attend as an individual volunteer, and there's always next year.
Also bumped up the "grand decluttering" list item. In reality, I notice that I've really been doing this a little at a time--going through a closet one day, dropping clothes off at Salvation Army, freecycling stuff.
Some other recent exploits:
Playing phone tag with S. Allen Gunn from Aspiration put me in touch with him regarding a possible nonprofit web gig. Hope I can get hold of S.; he did say he's been hosed.
Went on an edible plant hike led by a Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District docent. Realized that I probably have enough expertise now to lead an edible plant hike. Some things I ate from our hike: manzanita berries, yerba santa (chewed on it), bay fruits, bay nuts (the seed inside the bay fruit), and naturalized grapes (cultivated grapes that escaped from an old settlement in the mountains and are now growing wild--very tasty). No ill effects :-)
Had breakfast/lunch with different friends every Friday for the past three weeks.
In a whirlwind fit of inspiration, wrote a personal finance article about discretionary spending and how to choose the purchases that are most likely to give you true fulfillment. The article will appear in the January/February issue of the Simple Living Network newsletter.
Sang two concerts this past weekend.
Preparing to audition some Bach solos for the winter concert.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
I need your help for She's Geeky Session: What's It Really Like To Work As A Techie for Good?
Thursday, October 4, 2007
You have a dream inside yourself, and it's an impossible dream. That's why the Creator gave it to your crazy ass. If it was easy, she would have given it to someone else!
Monday, October 1, 2007
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Several weeks ago, I had a spazz while standing in the toilet paper aisle at Whole Wallet because I was once again forced to choose between being frugal and being green. In this case, the choice was between the inexpensive regular TP (made of newly chopped-up trees) and the Seventh Generation recycled TP (which costs an arm and a leg). The "cheap vs. green" thing really gets old after a while.
I did some shopping around so I can at least get the best possible deal on eco-friendly TP. My findings are posted here: Recycled Toilet Paper Price Comparison
Tuesday, September 25, 2007
I'll summarize some of the information and advice I got from Gunner:
Ecology of the nonprofit tech sector:
- Paid positions
- Dedicated tech staffers at nonprofits
- "Accidental techies": nonprofit staffers who wear the techie hat out of circumstance or neccesity
- Nonprofit and for-profit companies that provide software or tech services and whose primary customers are nonprofits
- Self-employed contractors/consultants whose clients are nonprofits
- Unpaid positions
- Tech volunteers
- People who work on open source software for nonprofits
- Build a portfolio of websites, on a volunteer basis if necessary.
- As an intermediate stage, offer flat-rate projects. These are attractive to nonprofits because of the fixed cost, but note that you assume all of the risk of cost/time overruns. (Flat-rate projects are also a good option for more experienced people who are good at estimating exactly how much time the project will take.)
- It takes years to build a reputation.
- Experience in the nonprofit sector is important: if you have built websites in the for-profit sector, nonprofits may believe that you are capable of building websites, but they may not necessarily trust you to be able to do it in the very under-resourced nonprofit sector.
- Radical Designs - web development shop based in SF
- Picnet - has an office in SF; consider applying as a support/maintenance engineer for entry-level experience
- Democracy in Action - Java house. East Coast HQ, but they have a small West Coast office in SF.
- Fire drill websites - Build a nonprofit website in two weeks; let them know up-front what functionality they can and cannot expect from the website.
- Technology selection - what is the right stack for a particular nonprofit to use, given their size and characteristics?
- "Intake" work for birthing a website - see below
- $75-100/hr: "Activist" rate for web work; people who are not in it for the money and who want to keep it affordable for the nonprofit community
- $100-125/hr: High-end "activist" rate for web work; Groovy development
- $125+/hr: "Capitalist" rate; charging what the market will bear
- $200-$400/hr: (!!!) "Capitalist" rate for Ruby on Rails development
- This was a pleasant surprise for me. Combined with a live-below-your-means lifestyle, these rates should be sufficient for me to make a non-negligible income while also having enough time for other pursuits and volunteer projects. I do need to take the extra tax bite for ICs into account.
- Many need organizational development
- Know when to walk away. Identify no-win situations and relationships that have reached the end of their useful life.
- Nonprofits can play mind games - they are masters of the passive-aggressive guilt trip and may try to guilt you into continuing a relationship as a volunteer/employee, even if it's not working out
- Organizational politics - as in any org, there may be internal groups that wrangle, oppose each other, and want completely different outcomes
- Not brutally efficient like the for-profit world
- Set your own terms. Be proactive and propose a project/task, rather than waiting for them to assign you something. Make sure the scope of the project is limited and well-defined, rather than open-ended. (This advice may not necessarily apply to all volunteers, but it definitely applies to someone in my situation, who has a strategic purpose for volunteering and needs to make sure that the unpaid volunteer engagement is a fair exchange of my time for valuable experience that I need.)
- If you leave the nonprofit, don't screw them. I.e., if you decide to part ways (because the situation is not working out, you have been offered a paid job, you need to acquire other types of experience, or any other reason), leave their website/technology in a good enough state so that they can continue to use it and so that it will be easy for someone else to pick up where you left off. Be professional, don't burn bridges, part as friends.
- Technology audit
- Website audit
- Volunteer and pro-bono work can build your reputation with the org, add to your experience/skills, and help you get to know each other and see if it's a good fit.
- However, you don't want it to erode the possibility of future employment
- Choose a high-value deliverable
- Limit the time frame and scope. Don't make it open-ended, you may open yourself up for exploitation.
- Be ready to walk. It's like dating: even if you like them a lot, you shouldn't act too desperate :)
- If the pro-bono project ends and they ask you to continue working with them but don't offer to pay, there is code language you can use in such situations that basically tells them "I need to pay the rent"
- Even if you like the org a lot, there is value in working with a variety of different orgs.
- Most nonprofits still don't have a website! (Then again, many nonprofits don't have the funding for one! Or, they might be all-volunteer shops run by a guy or two in their spare time.)
- Good consultants are booked 3-6 months out!
- Technology stacks are now mature enough that nonprofits can safely adopt them (e.g. CMS)
- If you can apply technology to facilitate fundraising, you are golden! (e.g. fundraising widgets)
- Facilitation. Asking questions. Gathering requirements. This requires more time and effort than in the for-profit world
- Dealing with organizational politics
- "Intake" work (requirements gathering, etc.) - there is a great need for people to do this, since a lot of techies shy away from it and prefer to just do implementation
- In the for-profit software world, "QA Engineer" is one entry path for eventually becoming a "Development Engineer".
- In the nonprofit software world, "Support Engineer" and "Maintenance Engineer" are the analogous entry paths.
- Nonprofits that come to you and say, "We need technology X". Why?!?! Start with needs and requirements, not with technologies.
- Overengineering; custom code. Techies who come in and create a custom code website just for experience, then leave (and leave the nonprofit screwed).
You may have skills you didn't realize you had. For example, as a developer I have gone through several release cycles for a large-scale enterprise product - this translates to project management experience! Be on the lookout for transferable skills that I already have, and chances to acquire new ones.
Most nonprofits don't need the full-blown "scalable robust" solution. Most nonprofits can't even afford the solution that actually addresses their needs. So, there is an art to choosing and delivering a solution that 1) meets a few of their most pressing needs, 2) is maintainable by non-tech-savvy staffers (or future consultants), and 3) leaves them a path for growth.
Nonprofits make decisions at a glacial pace - including hiring decisions. Be patient and be prepared to wait.
"M*A*S*H" model - stabilize the patient. When you start with a nonprofit to do their IT work, first attend to the places where they're bleeding. E.g. are they doing backups?!?! Cheap/easy/kludgy backups are better than no backups at all.
If you are weak in graphic design, you can partner with someone with strong design skills.
I should go look at the resumes of other nonprofit techies.
Get some skin in the game! Gunner has connections with a lot of nonprofit web consulting groups and can hook me up with shops where I can get experience.
I need to consult my internal compass and decide what I'm passionate about: nonprofit engagement ("intake" work may be the best fit), nonprofit impact (there's a high-impact opportunity at a Drupal shop), or technology (there are opportunities for Ruby on Rails developers to create all sorts of custom bells and whistles for nonprofit websites).
If I go the Drupal route, Gunner knows C. from Floatleft on the East Coast who could be a great mentor for work/life balance issues in the nonprofit web development.
Gunner put me in touch with someone who's doing Drupal/CiviCRM websites for nonprofits who needs some extra help and is willing to work with someone with my experience (or lack thereof). I need to set up a meeting with him to see if we can work out a mutually agreeable arrangement. I also need to think about what I want to get out of this experience so that I can bring it to our discussion.
Friday, September 21, 2007
Speaking of neighborhood sharing, I signed up for a website called Neighborrow that makes it easier to borrow and lend books, videos, music, games, tools, and everything else with your neighbors, friends, and colleagues. Check it out - they have many local sharing groups, and even if there's not one in your area yet, it's very easy to create one and invite your friends to join!
Thursday, September 20, 2007
"Una donna a quindici anni" from Così fan Tutte - W. A. Mozart
"In uomini, in soldati" from Così fan Tutte - W. A. Mozart
"Deh vieni, non tardar" from Le nozze di Figaro - W. A. Mozart
"Ganymed" - F. Schubert
"Leise flehen meine Lieder (Ständchen)" - F. Schubert
"Sure on this shining night" - Samuel Barber
"Oh, had I Jubal's lyre" from Joshua - G. F. Handel
"Frère! voyez!...Du gai soleil" from Werther - Jules Massenet
"Go, lovely Rose" - Ned Rorem
"Little Elegy" - Ned Rorem
"Per la gloria d'adorarvi" - Giovanni Battista Bononcini
"Lachen und Weinen" - Franz Schubert
"Vittoria, mio core" - Giacomo Carissimi
"How beautiful are the feet" from Messiah - G. F. Handel
"Suscepit Israel" from Magnificat - J. S. Bach
"Virga Jesse floruit" from Magnificat - J. S. Bach
"Quia respexit humilitatem" from Magnificat - J. S. Bach
"Et exultavit spiritus meus" from Magnificat - J. S. Bach
"O del mio dolce ardor" - C. W. von Gluck
"Sento nel core" - Alessandro Scarlatti
"Come raggio di sol" - Antonio Caldara
"Lasciatemi morire" - Claudio Monteverdi
"Vedrai, carino" from Don Giovanni - W. A. Mozart
Friday, September 14, 2007
This podcast rocks. The presenter really knows her stuff. She discusses a ton of topics, including résumé writing, whether degrees/certificates are worthwhile, volunteering as an entry path, compensation, and mistakes to avoid.
Nonprofit Boot Camp debriefing. We both met helpful and inspiring people. I got some useful info from the sessions; less so for P., she felt that the target audience was not what she expected. There was an awesome podcast from last year's bootcamp; will post the link later.
Living in a cultural locus. The city has a higher density of population and cultural events (and social change orgs, for that matter), but we do have a number of resources available to us in the South Bay and Peninsula. Moving to Palo Alto or Mountain View might help in terms of getting closer to local cultural stuff, as well as just being closer to the city.
Job listings. I've started assembling feeds of job listings: non-profit tech jobs from Craigslist, Idealist.org, and NTEN; non-profit general jobs from Craigslist and Idealist.org; and corporate part-time/contract tech jobs at Craigslist and Monster. I should also look at The NonProfit Times, both for job listings and for general info about the sector. It's educational to look both at job listings as well as the résumés of non-profit workers (which you can find at Craigslist or LinkedIn).
LinkedIn - good for professional contacts/networking and keeping in touch with former colleagues. Facebook and MySpace are more social and skew younger.
Speaking gigs as a way to promote a good cause and gain exposure for ourselves, especially career-changers like us who need to network and make connections! We tend to undervalue our knowledge and experience if we're not "expert talking heads"; we should learn to value this knowledge and share it with others.
Volunteer work; Hands On Bay Area and OneBrick. Both great organizations, I've been a Project Leader with Hands On for many years now. However, I think Hands On may be less suitable for P.'s goals because the projects don't afford frequent exposure and interaction with the staff and because they don't do much in the advocacy area of the environmental sector; they're really more about service. Finding an enviro org and volunteering for it directly on a regular basis might be a better way to go.
P. is looking for a book that describes the non-profit employment sector; what kinds of jobs are there? From what I've seen, every corporate job has a non-profit analog, but it's not clear to me yet what are all the categories of jobs that are unique to non-profits.
C6 - a group that meets in Cupertino at the Chinese restaurant near Blaney and Stevens Creek, they have interesting speakers and take a deliberate approach to job networking.
Women's Environmental Network - Bay Area networking and career development org for women in the environmental field.
Green Drinks - an environmental happy hour. Groups worldwide; local groups are in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Silicon Valley.
See if I can hook P. up with B. and J. from YMOYL. P. would like to talk to people who are financially independent, or very close, and learn what their investment strategy and portfolio is like. (B. if you're reading this, would you be game? I know you're really busy at work right now, but perhaps in a few weeks?)
Pass along any job listings that I think might be a good fit for P.
Help P. find connections if she identifies an enviro group to volunteer/work for
Check in with P. about résumés next time we meet
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
The simplified Grieg piece I posted about earlier might actually be approaching “vivace”.
Light at the end of the tunnel.
Likewise, in my piano exercises, my fingers are starting to play dominant seventh chords in different keys and inversions with a greater degree of ease. That’s a first for me.
It’s nice to feel like I’m making some progress.
Well, fall is here and I finally got in touch again with the IT guy at Center for a New American Dream about working for them.
The good news is that, since I last spoke with them, they got together the budget to create a new position on their technology staff.
The bad news is…they hired someone else for it. On top of that, this more or less wipes out any remaining budget they have for compensating contractors…like myself.
Ouch! Ouch! Ouch! That hurts! I’d be lying if I said it didn’t.
That said, it’s still early in the game. I need some time to react and get my new game plan together, but I think I still have a Plan B, C, D, ... up my sleeve. Good thing I’m currently on hiatus from work life and its attendant stresses, and am living a relaxed and happy life at present. Otherwise, I do not think I would be handling this news so well, I’d be probably feeling a lot more rage and heartbreak. Who knows, maybe it will hit me later. But I do find that stress makes me more likely to blow situations out of proportion.
But for now, I will indulge myself just a little bit and jump up and down in anguish for a couple of hours this afternoon. This may also call for Ben and Jerry’s, or Haagen-Daaz. But I think by tomorrow I’ll be ready to move on and plan my next move.
Friday, August 31, 2007
I've spontaneously had the "buy new Prius vs. keep old car" discussion with a number of different friends now, so I decided to gather a bit of information on it. The question I'm mainly concerned with is whether the energy savings of driving a Prius outweighs the energy cost of manufacturing it.
The "Hey Mr. Green" advice column and mailbag from Sierra magazine claim that the energy required to manufacture a new car is equivalent to 1000 gallons of gasoline and that a Prius recoups its energy outlay in about 50K miles, but the author doesn't cite much in the way of sources.
An advice column from Wired says essentially the same thing as Sierra. The Wired author also makes the case that buying a hybrid supports the growth of clean tech, and helps build the perception of hybrids as a mainstream car (as opposed to an elite treehugger yuppie car :)
I admit I didn't spend much time googling, but I was a bit disappointed not to find a more detailed lifecycle analysis of the Prius and its manufacturing costs. However, I did find a high-level comparative lifecycle analysis of the Prius published by the Rocky Mountain Institute as a rebuttal to the controversial CNW study that claimed that a Prius has a greater environmental cost than a Hummer.
According to the EPA, a 2007 Prius gets 46 mpg and my 1999 Civic with 58K miles on it gets 27 mpg. Assuming that the energy cost of manufacturing the Prius is indeed equivalent to 1000 gallons of gasoline, I calculated that at my current rate of driving, it would take nine years for me to recoup the energy costs of a new Prius. Moreover, in the last 5 months I have been averaging about 180 miles a month. This glacial pace of driving is not going to last forever, but if it did, it would take 30 years to recoup the costs! As Mr. Green from Sierra magazine says, "If you don't drive much, it may be better to keep the old car". I think this speaks volumes about "just driving less" as being the ultimate fuel efficiency strategy.
|Transportation Mode||Vehicle||CO2 emissions (lb/mi/passenger)||Scenario|
|Car||1999 Honda Civic DX||0.145-0.725||Personal driving, 1-5 passengers.|
|Bus||New Flyer D60LF Bus||0.29-0.58||VTA Route 22 on El Camino, Stanford to Sunnyvale. Extended-length bus at 25%-50% capacity.|
|Air||Boeing 747-400||0.365||United Airlines flight 870, Sydney to San Francisco. Long-haul flight at full capacity.|
We always hear about how bad air travel is for the environment. Surprisingly, it turns out that a car carrying two people emits about the same amount of CO2 per passenger-mile as a full 747 on a long-haul flight...however, the real impact of air travel is due to the distances traveled. The distances involved in flying are so much greater than those for driving - by flying roundtrip to Australia, I traveled more than double the miles I'll probably drive this entire year. According to the climate calculator at climatecrisis.net, short-haul flights emit more CO2 per passenger-mile than long-haul flights, but of course they also cover less total distance.
Passenger occupancy matters. As seen from the table, solo driving is not very good per passenger-mile, but once you start to pack people into your car, things start looking better. The same goes for the bus - if it's pretty empty, it's not much better than taking your car. This has implications for transit policy.
To sum up my learnings, measuring emissions in pounds CO2 per mile per passenger is a useful yardstick for apples-to-apples comparisons, but to understand total CO2 emissions, one must also compare and take into account the distances involved. Also, passenger occupancy can make all the difference in whether mass transit is better than driving.
I wanted to crunch numbers for some other modes of transportation, but either couldn't find data or ran out of steam. My spouse was curious about the numbers for Caltrain, motorcycles, and motorized bikes, but I think I'll leave that as an exercise for him :) Also, I wanted to do regular-size buses and Amtrak trains, but was unable to find good source data after Googling for a few hours. For a ballpark figure for buses, though, the Milwaukee County Transit System states that the average diesel-fueled bus in their fleet gets 4.5 mpg. Diesel has an emissions factor of 22.384 lb/gal, so assuming there are 15 people on the bus, you'd get 22.384 lb/gal ÷ 4.5 mpg ÷ 15 passengers = 0.33 pounds per passenger per mile.
Wikipedia has a table comparing fuel efficiency for different transportation modes. However, with all the different vehicles using different fuels and different assumptions (like driving traffic patterns and passenger loads) and then translating all of that into CO2 emissions, I wouldn't buy into that table unless I'd scrutinized how they came up with their numbers.
The gory details of the car, bus, and plane calculations follow.
1999 Honda Civic DX Automatic Transmission
|Combined fuel efficiency:||27 mpg a|
|CO2 emissions factor:||19.564 lb/gal b|
CO2 per mile per passenger (1 passenger) = 19.564 lb/gal ÷ 27 mpg ÷ 1 passenger = 0.725 pounds per mile per passenger
CO2 per mile per passenger (5 passengers) = 19.564 lb/gal ÷ 27 mpg ÷ 5 passengers = 0.145 pounds per mile per passenger
VTA Route 22 on El Camino, Stanford to Sunnyvale:
New Flyer D60LF Bus c
|Passenger load factor:||0.25-0.50 g|
|Fuel efficiency:||2.50 mpg e|
|Fuel type:||Diesel f|
|CO2 emissions factor:||22.384 lb/gal b|
CO2 per mile per passenger (0.25 load factor) = 22.384 lb/gal ÷ 2.50 mpg ÷ (62 seats × 0.25 load factor) = 0.58 pounds per mile per passenger
CO2 per mile per passenger (0.5 load factor) = 22.384 lb/gal ÷ 2.50 mpg ÷ (62 seats × 0.5 load factor) = 0.29 pounds per mile per passenger
United Airlines flight 870, Sydney to San Francisco:
|Passengers (3-class configuration):||416 h|
|Maximum fuel capacity:||216,840 L h|
|Maximum range:||13,450 km h|
|Fuel type:||Jet A-1 i|
|Fuel density at 15 °C (60 °F):||0.775-0.840 kg/L i|
|CO2 emissions factor:||3.16 j|
Maximum total CO2 emitted = 216,840 L × 0.840 kg/L k × 2.204623 lb/kg × 3.16 = 1,268,937.118 pounds
Maximum distance traveled = 13,460 km × 0.6213712 mi/km = 8363.656 miles
CO2 per mile per passenger (at full capacity) = 1,268,937.118 lb ÷ 8363.656 mi ÷ 416 passengers = 0.365 pounds per mile per passenger
a Fuel Economy Guide, US EPA
b Fuel and Energy Source Codes and Emission Coefficients, US Department of Energy
c Leon Norrington, New Flyer Articulated Coaches, VTA Information Bus Enthusiasts Stop
d Diesel Vehicle Specifications, New Flyer
e Table 8, King County Metro Transit Hybrid Articulated Buses: Final Evaluation Results, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, US Department of Energy
f Appendix G, FY 2006-2015 Short Range Transit Plan, Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority
g Load factor range of 0.25-0.5 is a guesstimate based on my own personal observations.
h Technical Characteristics - Boeing 747-400, Boeing
i Jet fuel, Wikipedia
j Fuel Efficiency, International Air Transport Association
k Using the maximum density value for the most conservative estimate.
Monday, August 27, 2007
My friend P. and I attended SF Bay Area Nonprofit Boot Camp 2007 this month. This was an awesome event, highly recommended to would-be nonprofit workers/founders. It's incredibly well-run on a shoestring, so they can make it affordable ($50) to people who are just getting started.
Nonprofit Boot Camp puts a lot of its content and resources online: SF Bay Area Nonprofit Boot Camp discussion groups (including special groups for post-conference follow-up discussions), notes and videos from workshops (videos will be posted a month after the event), Flickr photo pool. Notes and podcasts from the 2006 Boot Camp are also online.
Since it's also a networking event, I brought along copies of my résumé and also created a "business card", shown above. The card is a bit busy, but it's a starting point and I kind of like it. I created another version of my résumé that leaves out the heavy technical details of my past employment and includes a list of my nonprofit areas of interest. I managed to hand out one résumé and a few business cards.
Welcome & Morning Keynote: The conference opened with an exciting Brazilian drum performance. Darian Heyman, ED of the Craigslist Foundation gave an excellent welcome speech with three main ideas: 1) Pick big problems; 2) Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate; and 3) less is more. Ami Dar, ED of Idealist.org gave an incredible, pithy keynote titled "Everything I've learned in 10 years, in 20 minutes". Everyone new to the nonprofit sector (and those who have been in it for a while) should check out this speech - it contains an incredible amount of wisdom distilled into a brief presentation.
Links to notes on sessions I attended:
- Community Building In the Real World & Online. During the opening icebreaker, I met Sharon who works in event planning for nonprofits, unfortunately I don't remember her company's name.
- A Practical Approach to Fundraising Online
- Weaving the Internet Into Your Nonprofit Strategy: Best Practices for Communicating, Campaigning, and Organizing. Led by Allen Gunn, ED of Aspiration. He really knows his stuff, and I'd like to meet with him again. I chatted with him after this session, and he gave me this realistic but very helpful advice: 1) nonprofit tech is thankless work, the "mission" people hate technology; 2) if you work with/for nonprofits, make sure you work for them in a financially sustainable (for you) arrangement; 3) that being said, good non-profit techies can bill $100/hour, decent money; and 4) Democracy in Action, a nonprofit that provides online tools for other nonprofits, develops their tools in Java and therefore might be able to use someone like me.
During lunch, we also met Kathy Chism, founder of Dream One World, a nonprofit that does lots of grassroots assistance projects like supplying a Peruvian village with locally-sourced alpaca blankets during an extreme winter and assisting children on Grand Bahama Island whose homes were ravaged by hurricanes. Dream One World is Kathy's dream, and she makes many personal, financial, and even health sacrifices to achieve it, working two full-time jobs to earn a living while also running the organization. She's looking for an angel to write a $100K check and grow the organization! For fundraising, she had success with fundraising scratch cards. One of her recent interests is "shop shifting" - getting people to shop consciously in terms of patronizing stores that give a significant percentage of revenues to charity (not just nominal amounts, like eScrip). I gave her a Wallet Buddy from New American Dream, since some of the questions on it have commonalities with "shop shifting".
Afternoon Keynote: Given by Aimee Allison. She told a bit of her life story, and it was encouraging to hear about someone wearing so many hats during their lifetime, from combat medic to peace activist! She's had difficult periods of nonprofit involvement, such as when she was a program manager for a nonprofit where she loved the mission work, but the work environment/conditions and organizational politics were miserable. She's had to be adaptable. She urged us to reconsider what it means to be in it for the long haul: your social change efforts may not bear visible fruit until the lifetimes of your children/grandchildren.
Facilitated Networking: Great format; small discussion groups of conference attendees based on interest area. My interest area was Technology, but I wish I could have also participated in the discussions around Environment, Art & Culture, Social Justice, and Volunteers. In my group, I met Jennifer G. who does web design for Emeryville Taiko on a volunteer basis and has also done some work for San Jose Jazz. She uses HTML, Dreamweaver, and something called Smarty, and she recommended learning about the first two if I want to do web development. Her $$$ job is web design for a real estate company, and (like me and a lot of us) she's trying to figure out the whole "nonprofit + making a living" thing. I also met Bill, ED of Many Hands, an org that sends volunteer teams to locations around the globe for local projects. His org runs on a shoestring; he can't even afford to hire an offshore contractor from India, so Bill wears the techie hat. Both Jennifer and Bill could use help with their current non-profit web projects; I should consider doing pro bono work with their orgs or similar orgs to build my portfolio. I also met a nice woman from SF Dykes on Bikes (and yes, she looked the part, and that was cool). She recommended that I check out CharityFocus, which has listings for both unpaid and paid positions at nonprofits.
Info Booths: I cruised the info booths at the conference and stopped at the following booths:
- Nonprofit Technology Network - For career-changers like me, they suggested checking out their webinars for self-learning. They also recommended using their local groups and affinity groups to query for job leads, contribute answers to people's tech questions (to establish my reputation/expertise), and find out if there's interest in an NTEN get-together in Silicon Valley. (They have a happy hour in the city with 10-20 attendees, but nothing in the South Bay so far.)
- TechSoup - dropped off a résumé
- CompassPoint - picked up a copy of their workshop schedule. I'd like to attend their workshop Switching Sectors: Preparing Your Leap from Profit to Nonprofit next time it's offered; it's only $35.
- Dreamfish - customized social networking website for individuals/orgs involved in nonprofits/activism. They are still a new effort; I asked for the two-minute overview, but was still unclear what they offer that's different from other social networks, or even whether they're for-profit or non-profit.
- Young Nonprofit Professionals Network - didn't get to talk to their booth staff, so I'll check out their website. Looks like a professional society.
Self-Reflections at Boot Camp:
- For me, it's not about the work, it's about the cause. I'd rather do non-tech work for the specific cause I want to champion, than do tech work for a cause that I like but am not as passionate about.
- However...I need to consider what kinds of jobs/organizations I'm open to working for, in the course of "paying my dues" in the nonprofit sector.
- I'm a good information broker - I acquire tons of information in my activist areas of expertise and connect it to the people who most need/want it. I should consider a nonprofit job that utilizes this skill of mine.
- I need an elevator pitch, or (dare I say it) a sound bite to describe to others, in a sentence, what I'm interested in doing.
- I should bring my list informational interview questions to events like these. If I run into a subject expert, it will help me pick their brains more effectively.
- Check out Change.org, CharityFocus, Six Degrees
- Read notes, watch videos of workshops I didn't attend
- Check out notes/podcasts from last year's event
- Follow up with TechSoup on résumé (done - got the standard "HR dept is currently reviewing your résumé to see if it matches our needs" reply. If I want to pursue further, I may go through my friend who works at CompuMentor)
- Set up meeting with Allen Gunn of Aspiration
- Review the resources available at NTEN, TechSoup, and YNPN
Thursday, August 23, 2007
I just slogged through a piano practice session. I lapsed for a few weeks this summer, but have been back on track for the last week. Currently working on:
Schaum Book D: #11 and #12, kiddie versions of pieces by Rachmaninoff and Grieg. Despite the significant dumbing down of the excerpts, I am struggling…the Grieg is definitely nowhere near “vivace”. This is where persistence comes into play. I play the problem passage slowly 10x with the left hand, 10x with the right hand, 10x with both hands, then maybe try it a little faster, then move to the next problem passage, then repeat the whole process the next day, then the day after that…
Dozen a Day, Book 3: Group II, Exercise #5. Good news is, I finished the Group I exercises since the last time I posted about piano. Group II has a lot of block chords, so every day I play the exercises in a different key so my fingers can get used to different chords and inversions in different keys. I think it’s helping.
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Traveling in Australia was a good opportunity to learn how another country in the developed world is responding to the environmental challenges of our times. These are some of the impressions I gathered about how their society is addressing the issues.
On transit: Melbourne has a very convenient, privately-run tram system. There are even two free trams that circle the city, serving tourists and downtown workers. There are also commuter trains and buses, although one Melburnian I met thought poorly of the bus service. The downtown area is walkable for a reasonably mobile, active person--it reminds me a bit of Boston in this regard. At Tullamarine Airport the high-capacity, convenient, efficiently-run, and relatively inexpensive Skybus Super Shuttle will take you between the airport and your hotel's front door.
Bike lanes in Melbourne are colored bright green:
Very occasionally I would see a short concrete barrier, either curb-height or waist-height, between the bike and car lanes. Once, I saw a bike lane marked on a (wide) sidewalk. Cyclists do have a presence on the city streets, and they seem to make out ok, although I did witness one minor cyclist-driver altercation. I was surprised to see the kinds of public places where people would park their bikes; they must not have as much bike theft as other cities.
Central Canberra seems more spread out than central Melbourne. It's a newer city. The suburban sprawl seems more visible (especially when you're viewing it from the observation deck at Telstra Tower, I guess). I did meet two researchers at Australian National University who commuted by bike from their suburb; their rides were less than 30 minutes.
While in Oz, I may have spotted a few Toyota Prii, but more noticeable to me was higher percentage of small cars on the road. By "small", I mean bigger than a Mini-Cooper but smaller than a hatchback. I even saw a billboard advertising the teeny-tiny Smart Cars made by Mercedes-Benz. Any of these small-ish cars would be great to drive on Aussie roads, especially since some highways have narrow lanes, and there are fewer big, intimidating SUVs to share the road with (although SUVs are still present).
Our rental cars were small four-door sedans (Corolla-size). You can rent even smaller cars (and they are cheaper), but they are manual transmission, which neither of us can drive. The average gas price in Melbourne works out to about USD $4.02/gallon.
In Far North Queensland, many locals (and tour operators, and car-renting tourists) drive Land Rover-type 4WD vehicles because the highway and rainforest roads are largely muddy and unpaved north of Cape Tribulation. Taking the car ferry across the Daintree River north towards Cape Trib is like entering an alternate tourist dimension: after that point, it seems like the only vehicles you see on the the Captain Cook Highway are tour buses and tourist rental cars. I have mixed feelings about the tour buses. On the one hand, it's like mass transit for travelers. On the other hand, it makes the sensitive rainforest ecosystem accessible to larger volumes of tourists. Also, I have a personal dislike of the tour bus experience (drive, stop for 15 minutes, take some pictures...repeat ad nauseum).
Australia is much more diligent about water conservation. Of course, most of the center of the country is inhospitable desert, but a more recent and pressing concern is the current drought in the eastern states. It's the worst on historical record. Many water conservation measures are being taken. Low-water-use toilets are used universally in Australia. They have a "half-flush" button and a "full-flush" button, and they also flush differently--the water gets poured/dumped into the bowl rather than swirling around from the rim.
One of the rainforest park facilities we used had a composting toilet. All in all, Aussie toilets are great--they're a real piece of water-saving engineering, and if I were building/remodeling a bathroom, I'd get one (the manufacturer, Caroma, exports to the U.S.)
The hospitality industry is also trying to save water. Like in the U.S., some hotels only change sheets/towels on days that you request it, to avoid laundry-related water usage. The tropical Daintree area is not affected by the drought; nevertheless, the Epiphyte B&B where we stayed used a rainwater cistern for its water supply, and requested that guests be conscious of their water usage.
Recycling and Waste Reduction
Incredibly, everybody, but everybody in Melbourne carries around these reusable green cloth bags and uses them for shopping instead of plastic bags:
It's downright heartening. There is even a official government campaign in the state of Victoria to "Just Say No" to plastic bags:
Finding recycling bins while traveling in Australia was hit-or-miss. A few public places had them, many didn't. At the Cairns airport, not only did I not find any recycling bins, I could hardly find any regular trash cans (or "rubbish bins" in Australian). Maybe they aren't provided because they're a "security risk". Or perhaps they are trying to reduce waste and janitorial costs by having air passengers follow the "pack it in, pack it out" philosophy?!?
Energy and Efficiency
One disappointing observation I made was the low adoption rate of energy-efficient compact fluorecent lights (CFLs) at the places I visited. Most establishments were still using incandescents.
The one exception was the Epiphyte B&B; I think they were using regular fluorescent lights (and actually a lot of candles, too, which conserved electricity while adding ambience). They have a strong motivation: the B&B is run on solar energy collected from solar panels on the roof and stored in a battery bank on-site. They ask guests not to use high-wattage personal appliances like hair dryers to avoid draining the batteries.
Magellan Observatory, where we stayed for a weekend, also runs on solar and green power. The observatory itself, including the telescopes, run on power from solar panels on the observatory roof, which were installed by the eco-friendly proprietor. The cottage where we slept uses grid power, but the proprietor has elected to enroll in a plan with his utility company where he can pay a small amount more for electricity from renewable sources.
Housing and Development
Surprisingly, while driving past the outer fringes of some metropolitan area (either Melbourne or Canberra, can't remember), I saw a housing development with the biggest McMansions I have ever seen, bar none! Bigger than any I've seen in an American city. Each house looked like its own little office building. I only saw one development like this, though.
In Queensland, Cairns is built up like a little Miami, but towns further up the coast have more restrictive development codes. For example, in Port Douglas they don't permit buildings to be taller than the palm trees, and there is a no-development zone along the shore that is a few hundred meters wide. Also a factor is that the government owns much of the shoreline.
Central Melbourne has a fair amount of high-density housing. It's a built-out city with a long history, so no surprises there.
The level of availability of organic foods in Melbourne didn't seem much different from home. Interestingly, I once ordered ginger ale at a restaurant, and it turned out to be organic. It wasn't specially labelled on the menu, and I didn't have to request it specifically; it just was. So that was a little bonus. It was really good ginger ale, too; you could taste the fresh ginger. (They call it "ginger beer" but it's nonalcoholic.)
I spotted a "Slow Food" banner on the back of a Melbourne tram--but on closer inspection, it turned out to be an advertisement for some convenience food being marketed as "just like" home-cooked, slow food. However, there is a Slow Food chapter in Melbourne which purports to be the largest in the world.
Our B&B hosts in Queensland got a real kick out of serving us tropical fruits that were grown locally. I'm sure part of it was the pride and pleasure of introducing newcomers to a staggering array of exotic fruits and literally giving them a taste of the local heritage. Whether food miles and the Eat Local movement had any influence, who knows. All I know is 1) it's kind of neat to see the banana plantations and other tropical fruit plantations growing by the highway; 2) passionfruit, golden kiwis, custard apples, and lady-finger bananas are all very yummy; and 3) speaking as a North American, it is an rare gastronomic delight to eat fresh tropical fruits that just came off the tree a few hours ago, as opposed to sitting on a container ship for days beforehand.
Habitat and Wildlife Preservation
Aussies seem to take the preservation of their wildlife and natural habitats pretty seriously. Australia is indeed like a parallel universe with respect to its flora and fauna; evolution in isolated conditions has resulted in strange and unique wildlife. Aussies are aware of this rich biological heritage and other natural treasures like the Great Barrier Reef and the World Heritage rainforests. They are also aware of episodes during colonial times and also more recently when introduced species wreaked ecological havoc (rabbits, foxes, cane toads). They have also seen many of their unique species go extinct due to human activity and even deliberate extermination (the Tasmanian tiger).
Steps are being taken, such as designating species as protected or endangered, restricting development in some areas, and enacting other policies. One of my blog readers commented that Aussies have the most stringent regulations for development and water. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, the rainforest in Daintree National Park is so strictly protected that the park actually has very few trails and is mostly inaccessible. Even the various private owners of the surrounding land seem to do a good job caring for the piece of rainforest that they own, often maintaining it as a private preserve and conducting tours.
Like many other nations in the developed world, though, Australian efforts towards wildlife and habitat conservation have to contend against factors that accelerate habitat destruction, such as population growth in some areas, urban sprawl, and pressure from increased tourism.
Speaking of tourism, eco-tourism is big here--I saw lots of evidence around the Daintree area and Great Barrier Reef. However, it was unclear to me whether "eco-tourism" here refers to tourism operations conducted in as green and environmentally-sensitive manner as possible, or if it just means any tourist activity related to the outdoors/nature/wildlife. Given the number of venues being marketed as "eco-tourism", I suspect it's often just the latter.
The Great Barrier Reef is an interesting case study in the complex issues of eco-tourism. Consider the snorkeling outfit we went with, Wavelength Reef Tours. They bill themselves as an Advanced Eco Accredited Tour Operator, whether or not that actually means anything--I haven't researched who does the accrediting and how. They participate in a program called Reef Watch, a community environmental monitoring project. They educate their passengers about the reef's ecology and how it is affected by global warming, e.g. coral bleaching. And yet with the sheer numbers of people who visit the reef, it's hard to believe that Wavelength together with all of the other tour boats are not having a collective impact, possibly negative, on the reef. It seems hard if not impossible to run a zero-impact tour operation: you are bringing large numbers of people out on the reef to interact with its ecosystem, you are burning fossil fuel to get out to the reef (if on a motorized boat) and for people to fly into the area to visit the reef (including myself, I know). But when talking to the boat crew, it's also clear that the reef is important to them, and not just economically. There is something special and wonderful to them about getting to go out on the reef every day, becoming intimately familiar with its wonders, and then sharing those wonders with newcomers. There is a very real and sincere concern on their part about the ultimate fate of the Great Barrier Reef.
Media and Public Opinion
I read an issue of Melbourne's daily paper, The Age, and noticed that a few of the editorials and letters to the editor were taking potshots at the concept of global warming. That was just one day's opinion section, though; I can't say it was a representative sample of the population at large.
When it comes to sustainability, the city of Melbourne seems to experience the same contradictions that I see at home and in other metropolitan areas in the U.S. On the one hand, people carry cloth shopping bags and ride the trams, and there are highly visible public campaigns about water conservation and other environmental issues. On the other hand, I think I read a statistic somewhere that claimed that only 10% of Melbourne workers commute by a method other than car.
A couple of the innkeepers at the places we stayed at were really on the sustainability bandwagon. Both of them were living in less-populated, rural areas, if that is of any significance. The owner of the Magellan Observatory mentioned that he would like to solarize the rest of the buildings once he's saved enough money. He also provides a recycling bin in the cottage and requests that guests sort out their recycling. He does not feel that the current political group holding power in the Australian government is doing enough to address sustainability. At the solar-powered, rainwater-supplied Epiphyte B&B, our host informed us that that the actual owner of the B&B is currently away at university in Adelaide. He is pursuing advanced studies in international relations, with an eye toward working for an NGO.
Tourism and Travel
Our trip gave me a chance to reflect on my own choices and experiences as a traveler. Of course, the major choice for me, given the extremely CO2-intensive nature of flying, was whether to go to Australia in the first place. I chose to go because I didn't feel like I could pass up this opportunity. A self-interested choice; not something I can justify from an environmental standpoint. My spouse is making a conscious effort to minimizing flying by being more selective about which conferences and business trips he really needs to make. Fortunately, he is at a point in his career where he can afford to be a bit more selective. However, the Melbourne conference was deemed necessary, and so I tagged along.
I've been asked whether I purchased carbon offsets for flying. This may come as a surprise, but I am lukewarm about offsets as they exist today. I was soured by my initial experience with the offset market. A few years ago, I read the fine print on a brochure from NativeEnergy and realized that what they were offering at that time was not an actual, measurable reduction in CO2, but a chance to donate money to their for-profit company in order to finance a wind energy project that may or may not get built at some unspecified time in the future. I'm all for renewable energy, but I hate deceptive marketing. NativeEnergy folks, if you're trying to raise capital for a wind energy project, just call it "wind energy capital investment". Don't call it an "offset" unless you're ready to tell me exactly how much carbon is offset when I write the check. And while you're at it, consider calling your "donors" investors and paying them a return, especially if you're for-profit! (end rant) Anyway, my doubts about the current offset market are eloquently summarized by this letter to Co-op America and this CNN.com article. I'll continue to reevaluate the market as it evolves, but for now, I am not sufficiently convinced about offsets.
Although jet fuel consumption is the biggie, I did observe some other opportunties for greening air travel in small ways. For example, I had never stopped to think about how much trash is generated on a long-haul flight, what with all the meals and beverages multiplied by the number of passengers on a 747. Maybe I should start bringing a travel mug on board, and write a letter to United asking them to switch to compostable tableware and food service containers.
Airports could get into the act, too, since their food service operations are a large source of disposable plates, napkins, cups, etc. Surprisingly, though, I noticed that a few restaurants and cafés at Australian airports did use real china. In particular, cafés were most likely to do this; I suspect it's due to the strong "coffee culture" there.
Moving on to ground transportation...I actually looked into renting a Prius. For a Prius, Budget was asking more than double the rate of an economy car. No thanks! We opted for a small car with good mileage instead. I think they must just keep a handful of Prii in their fleet and charge through the nose for them.
And as for sea transportation in the Great Barrier Reef: if I had to do it over, I'd consider taking a sailboat instead of a motorized boat, to reduce fuel consumption. And I'd rent a wetsuit for comfort and to avoid sloshing as much sunscreen off of my skin and into the ocean. I enjoyed my visit to the Great Barrier Reef immensely, but in the bigger picture, it's yet another choice that I can't necessarily justify from an environmental perspective. For one thing, it is a sensitive ecosystem that receives a huge volume of visitors. For another thing, the irony of emitting coral-bleaching CO2 while flying to Australia to see the colorful corals is not lost on me.