27 April 2009

A Total Waste of Everything

Yesterday I sat at a voting table receiving ballots for Ecuador's latest elections. This was the first time that foreign residents were asked to sit at tables and were allowed to vote, so it was all new for me and many others. I know this may sound pre-historic to many of you, but I actually debated whether to vote or not. All of the incumbents were overwhelming favorites and the media teams up with parties to smear, defame and otherwise debunk all other candidates. It is so childish that it makes me want to give democracy a swift kick towards its long overdue upgrade so that it follows along with humanity's constant evolution.

However this is not a rant about democracy. No, this is an ecological rant. You see, people had to elect so many candidates that they were given six different ballots to fill out. Two of them had over 200 candidates each from which people had to elect 14 and 17 of them respectively, each ballot a meter long. I did a little experiment and put all of the ballots end to end and they measured over three meters in length! A ballot package was prepared for each of the 10,529,765 eligible voters, which means that a whopping (approx) 31,589,295 meters of colored paper was printed and used for the ballots!

That is not all. We had to count the 147 votes left at our table and put the results in the minutes. We had to fill in rough drafts and then double copies of the results from each ballot and then fill in summary reports of each. To make a long story short, I counted the papers and there were over 300 sheets for each polling station meant to receive 200 voters. We counted votes and filled in these minutes for 5 full hours!

So, if we add another half meter of paper to each eligible voter, this comes out to 36.854.177.5 meters of colored paper printed for one day of democracy in a banana republic! Just to have some fun with these numbers, that is 92% of the circumference of the earth, or merely 3220 kilometers short of circuling the entire world!

So, in the end we exercised our right to vote. And we wasted a lot of time, money, resources and trees! Democracy needs to evolve now!

10 April 2009

Creating a Social Business

I am starting up a business selling granola that I make. I have thought about this quite a bit and although it started as a response to a need to compliment our falling salaries, I really want it to have some sort of social purpose. The world is largely as it is because people like me have felt the need to make more money and have started profit maximizing businesses (PMB's) irregardless if that meant underpaying or cheating employees, damaging the environment, producing low quality products or using deceptive advertising. By publicly selling shares in the company they have even created a legal obligation to maximize profits for the shareholders.

Of course there have been noble attempts to assuage the guilt some feel for having done this by creating foundations that push corporate social responsibility (CSR), especially when educated consumers avoid patronizing companies that harm society. Unfortunately CSR is an inadequate response to this problem because in the end the company must turn a specific profit: this is the bottom line and any socially responsible action will never amount to more than window-dressing.

So, I'd like my granola selling business to be what Muhammad Yunus calls a
social business. In short, it is a business with the explicit objective of creating "social benefits for those whose lives it touches." It is cause driven instead of profit driven. As a business it should earn a profit, although any surplus is reinvested in the business to be "passed on to the target group of beneficiaries in such forms as lower prices, better service, and greater accessibility." Turning a profit also assures sustainability for the pursuit of long term social goals.

As I see it, then, I have basically two options:

1. Compete in the luxury market and channel a percentage of earnings to an NGO that works to truly alleviate poverty. I am on the board of directors of a Grameen replica credit and loan cooperative (La Cooperativa DeTodas) and the money my business would send their way would be used as loans for poor women to start or strengthen their small businesses.

2. Target the granola to these same low-income women and their children and together with some yogurt producing friends of mine, offer nutritious, filling and cheap breakfast and school lunch food.

Of course I could do both as they don't seem mutually exclusive. Maybe I could start with option 1 and develop option 2 as circumstances permit.

So, I would like to do some crowdsourcing here. What do you all think? Which option is better? How should I set this up so that I don't lose track of the social goals while complimenting my income? Ideas are welcome!

A Very Bad Night

Last Wednesday I woke up with a man standing over me swearing, thrusting a screwdriver into my left eye and covering my mouth. Now, a couple of days later, the rope marks have disappeared from my wrists and ankles although my right thumb still lacks all sensation. Later they tied my wife up too, thrusting cloth into our mouths and leaving us helpless. After we were sure they had left I was able to call our oldest son so he could get a knife and cut us loose. I didn't want to do that as he will probably never dispel that memory from his mind, but there was no other way. It is truly miraculous that none of our three children woke up during the whole episode as God only knows what the thieves would have done to a screaming child.

As you all can imagine, we are totally shocked. We live in a closed housing development and this is the first break-in since it was built four years ago. We are sure they targeted our house thinking that an American must have lots of money or jewels. They were wrong of course but they made a pretty good haul, taking our computers, ipods, cameras, dvd players and even clothes.

Since then we have been running around doing all of the legal work and patronizing the security industry more than I would like to. Getting the police and the legal authorities to do their job is almost as costly as losing our stuff, but if we don't do all of this we will have no hope of ever bringing these guys to justice.

Speaking of the thieves, they were pretty ignorant. Of course, they got what they came for, which requires at least some brains, but they did not know what our credit or debit cards were used for, nor what the portable dvd player my wife had could do. They asked many questions that you would not expect a thief to ask. They also asked for our forgiveness, and explained that the crisis has really hit them hard and how they felt really bad about buglarizing our home. Haha, apparently not bad enough!

I had a pillow over my head the whole time, so I could not see the guys. My wife gave them a full tour of the house. She was very, very valient and mature the whole time they were there.I still can't decide if my decision to not resist the thieves was intelligent or cowardly, or both. Not resisting gave the thieves liberty to do what they wished with my wife and children, which made this choice excruciatingly difficult. But, I hoped that it would considerably raise the possibility that they would leave us all unharmed. It worked out that way, but that doesn't relieve my feelings of cowardliness.

Our oldest son commented out of the blue that at least this happened to us and not to our neighbors because the thieves might have hurt them. He named each of the kids that live near us and stressed how awful that would have been for them. He is such a special kid, and this type of thing really brings it out in him.

Even though this was really traumatic for us, I'd like to put it in perspective. That very evening I was writing in this blog and I noticed some news on my twitter feed that only now can I begin to understand. Apparently just the previous evening a mob attacked six Baha'i homes in the town of Showranyiah, Egypt, burning them all and forcing the Baha'is to flee. Click
here to see more details. Although we lost many valuabe things, we were able to wake our children up the next morning and continue with our lives. Those Egyptian Baha'is have to remake their lives completely and continue living in fear. My heart goes out for them.

02 April 2009

The Joys of Twittering

This is a twitter joke, for the twitter folk. If you don't get it, then you should begin twittering soon.

I have just started twittering but I am amazed by this new tool. I had heard that it helps get news out quicker than any other medium during disasters and now I see why. It is an instant network as opposed to a facebook-type network.

My tech-savvy friend Vahid disdains twitter as a source of incoherent and superficial noise. Much of it is, but you can ignore this if you choose and participate in its more interesting aspects. Here are just a few:

Crowdsourcing - Twitter has started leading this important trend. Similar processes include a recent nation-wide town hall meeting-style conference on YouTube in which people vote for the questions to ask the President. Decision-making is going horizontal and it is only a matter of time before this practice radically improves our political processes and structures.

Human-processed searches - Searching on twitter will produce human generated results from real people gathering the best information from their lives and from the Internet. Google is cool, but a twitter search guarantees fascinating, updated and personalized results.

Taking part in Discourse - Taking part in a discourse on a specific topic, like micro-finance, social action, public health or any other requires being in communication with those who are at the forefront of their field, acting on what we learn from them and contributing our two cents worth to building specific knowledge. Staying abreast of the solutions found to local problems and the processes used to arrive at those solutions keep one in the mix. Of course, blogs have filled this niche beautifully for several years now, and because as any blogger knows it isn't easy to get people to comment on your blog, I see twitter as an essential compliment to these. It is a more agile, faster and synthesized version of blogs that, when combined with them, raises their value considerably. Sites like twitterfall can be customized to your exact needs to follow and take part in any discourse you choose.

Micro-blogging - My blog tends to be kind of ... em deep. Yeah, but that doesn't mean that everything I want to share fits into this category. Twitter gives me a platform to share important thoughts and events that I don't want to make into full blog posts. They are quick, short and effective at getting your point across. They are easy to answer and re-post and really get you in closer contact with those who are moving and shaking in your fields of interest.

Teaching - Learning - As an educator I am amazed at some of the ideas of fellow teachers who are using twitter in the classroom, and the results they are getting. Any tool a teacher can use to enhance learning is very welcome, and this is proving to be one of the best. If you doubt what I am saying, check this resource out. I will be using these soon in my classrooms!

These five good reasons to check twitter out point to the fact that twitter is opening the future to us in a variety of ways. There are many more reasons to start twittering, like small business networking, that I am sure others have explained much better than I ever could. In sum, if you don't like the superficial noise on twitter, then don't follow those who generate it! There are thousands of other fish in the sea! If you want to know more, click here.

Scroll down a bit or click here to check out my twitter feed and don't be shy to get your feet wet!