Monday, February 15, 2010

Reading about Religion

Being religious means asking passionately the questions of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt. ... It is the state of being concerned about one's own being and being universally.

There are many people who are ultimately concerned in this way who feel far removed, however, from religion in the narrower sense, and therefore from every historical religion. It often happens that such people take the question of the meaning of their life infinitely seriously and reject any historical religion just for this reason. They feel that the concrete religions fail to express their profound concern adequately. They are religious while rejecting the religions.

Paul Tillich, The Lost Dimension in Religion

In the last few months, I've been reading a great deal of religious writing. Christian writing in particular. I started by reading through (for the first time) the Bible, and have been spending quite a bit of time reading books of writings by Reinhold Niehbuhr and Paul Tillich, both of whom were Christian priests and theologians in the 20th century.

This may seem slightly odd, given my background as an Agnostic semi-Buddhist married into a Jewish family, but it has been an incredibly enlightening experience. For whether or not I find their personal faiths compelling, priests are people who spend their lives thinking about the types of questions that most of us only think about on special occasions and disasters. Questions of the purpose, meaning, and values of life. Reading their thoughts and arguments about those questions is helpful in expanding my ability to think about those same questions, and in deepening my ability to see through other people's eyes.

Even just reading the Bible is an enlightening experience from a cultural perspective, being embedded within a culture that derives so many of its stories and references from the Judeo-Christian tradition. The casual references we see and hear every day referencing stories such as David and Goliath, Solomon's wisdom, or Solomon's wealth become richer and more three-dimensional with some awareness of the contexts in which those stories were originally set.

So my question now is... what else should I be reading? What are the books you've read or lectures you've heard that have changed your life and the way you look at the world? Let me know in the comments!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Not just for profit businesses

Most people are familiar with the traditional, profit focused business model. A business is created, providing some service or product, with the explicit and primary goal of making money for the owners of the business. Most organizations we are familiar with on a day to day basis... Starbucks, McDonalds, Dell, Walmart, etc all are built around this model. These companies tend to only be interested in social good as a side project, if at all. Often time such social good projects start due to a campaign against them as soulless, causing them to create a group in charge of social outreach, community improvement, and (not coincidentally) image improvement.

On the other end of the spectrum are non-profit organizations, or NGOs. These groups tend to be focused around providing a service to a particular group in need, with the primary goal of improving that group's way of life. Non-profits tend to either charge nothing or very little for their services, and pay for those services by way of donations. In the United States, these donations are tax deductible, though along with that tax deductible status comes a number of restrictions on the organization, including the requirement that they *must* receive at least 50% of their income from donations or grants, and not from the sale of services.

Both of these models solve particular problems extremely well, but others not as well. If our goal is the betterment of the world (which I think most people at least think would be nice), it is valuable to think about the problems in both of these models.

The for-profit model

It is sometimes argued that a set of purely profit based motives is the best way to improve the world. Everyone trying to improve their own lot will work as hard as they possibly can, making the most forward progress. Underserved groups will not persist, as new businesses will form to provide them services and make a profit.

The problem with this, in my mind, is that the claimed mutual benefits depend upon a more or less equal distribution of power and information. Sure, if you and I are competing, each trying to profit, and neither of us has a huge advantage, we will both do our best work and achieve as much as possible, and due to our equality in power, we will both reap the gains. However, if instead you have great power over me, it behooves you to exploit me to the greatest extent possible, and do the least work possible yourself. An asymmetry of information works the same way, except instead of exploiting via power you can exploit via trickery and control of information.

We need some sort of counterbalance to the asymmetries of power and information between large for-profit corporations and the rest of the world. Government is one way of achieving this, participating as a rule-maker, playing field neutralizer, and providing aid and a hand up for those who are in need and have no direct way to help them selves. Unfortunately, as is moderately obvious in the United States, and extremely obvious in Guatemala, governments can easily become co-opted by powerful corporations and fail in their counterbalancing role.

The Nonprofit Model

Enter nonprofits. Non profits can provide a great counterbalance to both for-profit companies and government. They can provide key services to those who are in need, and not being served by either companies or government. They can provide advocacy for those being abused by the current power structure. And they provide a necessary power center that is not motivated by money in the same way that both for-profit companies and governments often are.

There are, unfortunately, serious problems with nonprofits as well. Most of these, I believe, stem from the fact that their needs for survival (funds) are completely disconnected from the services they provide. This results in a couple of big issues.

The first is that of a nonprofit that begins to be extremely successful in the service it is providing. More and more demand for the service creates a requirement for more and more funds to provide that service. If it were a for-profit business, the income from the services would help pay for the expansion. Unfortunately, however, for a nonprofit their ability to secure funds is largely disconnected from their success selling a service, and they now need to ramp up a fundraising operation that may or may not be able to cope with the increase in demand.

The second major problem is that there are few pressures upon NGOs to provide the highest quality of service, or improve their service. If they were a business, poor service would result in no income, thus forcing them to improve or perish. However, so long as an NGO is succeeding in fundraising, they can be slow, bureaucratic, and ineffective in providing their service with no real reason to change. As some of my friends at work have noticed, while some newer and younger nonprofits are extremely agile, the larger and older ones have incredible amounts of bureaucracy.

The third way: Not just for profit

A third approach that has been becoming more and more popular recently is that of a not just for profit business. These businesses are structured as for-profit businesses, but have as a part of their core tenants a social or environmental mission.

The startup I work for is a good example. While we are structured as a for-profit company, and in fact are venture funded, our explicit goal is to empower individuals to improve the world. Our product is focused around encouraging millions of people to get involved in activism for social and political causes around the world. And throughout our decision making process about things to pursue, the question of how it will help our users change the world for the better is continually asked.

As core as our social mission is, we would not likely have succeeded as a nonprofit. Being structured as a for-profit company allowed us to tap the venture capital markets, to be able to grow our offering within a couple of years to one that more than 50 million people use. The possibilities of profits have allowed us to attract the highest quality technical team, with engineers who range in dedication to the social mission, but all of whom are thrilled to be a part of a top caliber team changing the world.

Another great example of a not just for profit company is Better World Books, an online bookstore that partners with literacy programs worldwide. Better World Books collects used books to sell, as well as selling some new books as well, and works with a carbon offset program to make certain that their shipping is as environmentally friendly as possible. They not only donate a percentage of the revenue from every book sale to literacy programs worldwide, but also works with its nonprofit partner programs to find homes for unwanted books, keeping them out of landfills and doing some good.

The last time I looked at Better World Books was a year ago, and it was much smaller and only selling used titles. They now appear to be selling a far greater selection, and the next time I'm book shopping I'll look there before Amazon. They also were recently voted the 'most promising social entrepreneur' by Business Week, and look to be growing rapidly.

Opportunities abound

This form of business structure is only just now starting to become better known , but opportunities abound. Having a social mission is not only good for how you feel about yourself, and the world, but it can be good for your business as well. Being able to talk about the good you are doing can help you compete for top employees, as well as distinguishing your business from others to your customers.

Whether you're a budding entrepreneur, looking for a job, or just looking to buy some books, you too can get involved in this budding movement. Instead of starting a company purely to make money, spend some time thinking about how you can align your business with making the world a better place. Or while you're shopping, be on the lookout for companies that are doing a little more than padding their own pockets. You'll feel better, you'll often times getter better service, and you'll help keep people working at making the world around them a better place.

Have another not-just-for-profit business you're excited about? Let me know!. This is an area I'm extremely interested in, and plan to be doing more research on. Please let me know in the comments of any ideas you have or examples you especially like!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Thinking about cooperative living spaces

The traditional setup of an American home has a lot of wasted space and materials, especially for someone single or a couple with no kids. You only use the kitchen a few times a day, the living room spends most of its time as a glorified storage shed, and you end up with a large number of tools that only get used a few times per year. On top of this, its lonely! While having a home of your own sounds nice and romantic, coming home to an empty or almost empty house day after day is not. To socialize, you end up having to call someone else and get back in the car and travel.

Contrast this with a cooperative living arrangement. Instead of a single person or couple living in a house, you have anywhere from four on up people living in a shared space. Bedrooms are generally private, and bathrooms vary by setup. In this situation, you still have your own private space where you can go and shut the door when needed, but the formerly underutilized areas such as kitchen and living room are shared.

Lifestyle benefits

Not only is this cooperative living arrangement a more efficient use of space and resources, but it has a number of lifestyle benefits as well. One of the most obvious is the ability to pool resources cooking. It's far more fun to prepare a special meal for a group of people than for only one or two, meaning that in most cooperative living situations you end up with more and more varied home cooked food. It is also much easier to clean up afterwards; many hands make light work, and the growth in dirty dishes happens at a slower rate than the growth in people participating.

Another advantageous element is the social one. While of course, you will still want to get together with friends outside of your coop, it becomes far easier to socialize without going out. Instead of having to call around, plan ahead, and get people to agree on a destination, impromptu social gatherings happen in the kitchen during dinner, in the living room after dinner, and at various other locations all throughout the day. This does, of course, mean that you should only live with people you get along with, but that is a good idea regardless of your living situation.

Actuality: Outside looking in

In truth, I have only limited experience with cooperative living arrangements. In undergrad, I lived with a number of other guys, but we had little space and did very little cooking. While T was in large coops through her last two years of undergrad, I only lived in them part time through her. Next, we got an apartment together, and while we were in several talks with friends to live together, nothing ever ended up coming of it. We had a close friend living in a coop nearby, and spent many days visiting with her and staying over there, but again this was somewhat outside looking in.

Nonetheless, T looks back fondly on her experiences with cooperative living, and every time I am exposed I want to try it at a more in-depth level. In Guatemala, we have experienced some interesting variations on this theme, first living with another family, and now living in a house where we have our own bedroom and bathroom, but share the kitchen and courtyard (complete with couch, hammock, etc). While the family was a bit much, the shared space we're in now is close to ideal, with casual hanging out happening at various times, and no problems so far with conflicts over any space.

The next few years

Back in the bay area, our friend is starting a new coop, and if we were not moving I think we would be joining it. Instead, we're off to find a new community and a new place to live in San Diego. I think we are likely to start off renting an apartment somewhere, but I hope that as we begin to grow our community there we can find some like minded people who are interested in sharing a house.

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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Kicking the caffeine habit

I love coffee. Love it. I enjoy drinking it for the flavor, the sensation of a warm liquid, the social aspect, and the caffeine. But what I don't love is being addicted to coffee. When I'm used to a cup or two every day, going without can lead to headaches in the afternoon and evening, early sleepiness, and general malaise. In addition, being addicted means that in the morning I'm often groggy until I've had my cup of joe.

I've thought several times about quitting, especially after reading that going caffeine-free can reduce the overall amount of sleep you need by improving sleep quality. But I've never quite been willing to give it up; the process always seemed like a pain, and I like coffee too much.

The setting

Guatemala produces some of the best coffee in the world, accessible anywhere in the US or Europe. Despite this fact, it is almost impossible to get good coffee within the country. The top four quality grades are all exported! There are a few cafe's in the cities that still serve high quality stuff, but if you're looking to stock a kitchen, forget it! Poor quality beans or instant coffee are your only choices.

This means that during our stay with a family, and at the school, we drank pretty much only NesCafe and mediocre brewed coffee. One afternoon in a cafe I had a tasty espresso drink, but other than that we only drank the bad stuff. Don't get me wrong... it wasn't terrible. I could drink it, it was a warm drink, and it provided some caffeine, but it wasn't exactly the kind of thing that made me want to brew a second cup at breakfast.

Combine this with my recent thinking about sleep and dreams, and I was debating kicking the habit, but the memory of caffeine headaches on the first few days was holding me back.

The crisis that got me started

I spent almost the entire day Tuesday in bed with a fever and stomach problems. In fact, from Monday night until Wednesday morning, out of 36 hours I probably spent 34.5 in bed, and the other 1.5 in the restroom. Even when I started feeling much better Wednesday, my stomach still felt extremely delicate and I did not want to put any coffee into it.

Thus I woke up Thursday morning realizing that I had not had any coffee to drink since Monday at breakfast. This was my golden opportunity if I wanted to try it! I could continue going forward with breaking my coffee addiction without having to suffer through the worst of the headaches and drowsiness; those days had passed when I was feeling so lousy for other reasons that I hadn't even noticed.

So far so good

I've now been coffee free for almost a week, which I think means that its almost entirely out of my system. A couple more days and I'll be able to declare myself caffeine free. What have I noticed so far?

Well, its hard to draw too many conclusions, because my body has also been messed up with antibiotics and recovering from illness, but a few things are already evident. First is that I wake up more immediately and without grogginess in the mornings. This is nice, and has led to me getting a fair amount of writing done. Secondly, the urges to drink coffee have also pretty much died down. I'm enjoying drinking both hibiscus and chamomile teas, and the other day when T had espresso with pancakes I had no trouble resisting drinking some. I think I may also be having less of an afternoon lull than I used to, but I'm not sure. I'll need to gather more data.

Sadly, I've so far seen no evidence of any reduction in sleep needs. I'm keeping close track, and still hope to see some, but don't have much confidence in it. Regardless, I'm so far enjoying the feeling of freedom of not needing caffeine for my regular routine, and while I miss the flavor of coffee, I feel I can replace the social and warm beverage aspects with teas. We'll see how it goes!

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Experiments with Lucid Dreaming

The other day, a blogger that I read posted an interview with the creator of a site called World of Lucid Dreaming. While the primary focus of the interview was on turning a hobby into an online business, yesterday I got curious and clicked through to read a little bit about what she had to say on lucid dreams.

What is a lucid dream?

A lucid dream is any dream in which you are conscious that you are dreaming, and able to control to some extent the dream world. Sometimes this control is minimal; simply being able to behave as you normally would in the waking world, while your subconscious throws things at you in the dream. Other times, this control can be much greater, allowing you to do things you never would be able to in life such as fly, or explore underwater without apparatus, or whatever interests you.

Lucid dreaming sometimes happens by accident; I certainly have had a time or two in the past where I was dreaming and realized it was a dream. But according to World of Lucid Dreaming, you can also learn to deliberately begin dreaming lucidly, and train yourself to be more and more proficient in both bringing on the lucid dreaming state and controlling the state when you've arrived.

Why would you want to dream lucidly?

There are a number of claimed benefits for dreaming lucidly. The ability to do anything opens a wide range of possibilities, including facing your fears in a completely safe environment, pre-planning and experimenting with conversations before they happen, and practicing new abilities under a wide range of circumstances. Advocates claim benefits to creativity, problem solving, confidence, skills, and sense of self.

I'm not sure I buy any of that, but the number one reason given to try lucid dreaming, and one that is hard to argue with, is that it's FUN! Being able to even partially control your dreams means playing in an environment unlike any one you're likely to experience in real life. You can literally 'experience your dreams' right from your own bedroom.

How to start lucid dreaming

The website has tons of different information, tools, and techniques you can try to begin lucid dreaming. There are a few key ideas. The first is that since this is all mental, thinking about dreams and lucid dreaming, trying to remember your dreams, and talking about lucid dreaming will all help to cue your mind in to the fact that you want to do this. By thinking about it, you can help get it through to your subconscious that you want to experience your dreams, and make it more likely.

Secondly, the entry point to a lucid dream is the realization that you are dreaming. Once your conscious mind realizes that it is within a dream, it wakes up and allows you to begin taking control of that dream. Don't worry, the subconscious is still there too, providing all of the scenery, but you can begin to act under the direction of your conscious mind. Since one way of doing this is to do something that is impossible, and use that impossibility to realize you are dreaming, World of Lucid Dreaming recommends beginning to sprinkle 'reality checks' throughout your day. If you do these reality checks regularly enough, you will begin to do them in your dreams as well, and they can become the basis points for triggering a lucid dream.

You can find a full list of suggested reality checks here, but the pair I chose are attempting to push the index finger of my right hand through my left hand, and attempting to see without my glasses. If either of these succeeds, I'll know I'm dreaming, and hopefully that will trigger the lucid dream.

First Attempts

I decided to try this out yesterday, and see if I could trigger some lucid dreaming. I was hopeful because apparently regular meditation is helpful; the practice it gives you in shifting between different mental states while awake can be quite useful in making such shifts while sleeping as well. So I began reading about the different techniques, selected my reality checks, and began performing them every few hours during the day. The website claims that most people can learn to lucid dream in sometime between 3 days and 3 weeks, and I was hoping that with my meditation practice I would fall on the shorter end of this.

Surprise! I actually had two, short, lucid dreaming experiences last night, on my first night of trying! This is certainly not all of the way to success, and who knows if I'll be able to continue having lucid dreams, but it is certainly encouraging! I also remember both of the dreams, at least the lucid parts, and normally I barely remember any of my dreams.

In the first, I was roughhousing in the pool as I used to do when I was working with kids in a daycare. Upon loosing a particular battle, I was underwater and realized that I could still breath. That realization was what cued me in that it was a dream, and just as World of Lucid Dreaming promised I was suddenly able to begin taking control of the dream. I tried to fly, but failed, so settled for walking a bit. I was able to explore a very interesting complex of pools, and had just left to go outside when I woke up suddenly. I doubt the whole dream (or at least the lucid part) lasted more than 5 minutes, but it was still exhilarating to have controlled part of it!

The second lucid dream was more interesting. I was looking out over a river delta feeding into the ocean, when for whatever reason I decided to try my reality checks. The first one, sticking my finger through my hand, behaved as I would expect but when I lowered my glasses I was still able to see! This woke me up to the dream state, and I was able to take control. This time, I had much better control over the state; I was able to fly out over the delta, and see in great detail the red-rock crags of the gorge the water was coming out of, and the swirling water. The other cool thing was that I was able to slow down the passage of time, and look at the swirls of the water in slow motion. I've always been fascinated with fluid movements, so this was REALLY cool! I also explored a bit more, looking at some docks near by, and people on the docks. At that point I woke, after what subjectively felt like maybe 10 minutes.

In conclusion

I don't have a huge number of conclusions yet, as I'm still very early in this experiment, but I do have one big one: Lucid dreaming is real! And you can trigger it deliberately. I'll write more posts on this as I learn more or have more successes, but my first experience with deliberate lucid dreaming was a lot of fun, and I'm extremely excited to keep learning and experimenting with it.

Have any of you had experiences with lucid dreaming? Or thought about it before? Let me know in the comments!

Friday, May 29, 2009

Guatemalan Families and Community

One thing that is very obvious is you stay with a Guatemalan family is that their idea of a family unit is very different from ours. In the upper middle class family we stayed with, the grandmother, her daughter, and her daughter's three kids all lived in the same household. The grandmother's son lives elsewhere with his wife, but eats at the house for almost all meals, and his 5 year old lives about half the time with him and half with the grandmother. In poorer and more rural households, it is apparently not uncommon to have up to 4 generations under one roof, sometimes with only a single room.

Some of this is definitely due to different levels of wealth. When you are very poor, combining living expenses with as many people as possible is a good idea. However, another contributing factor is a very different view on family and community than exists in the United States. In the United States, it is encouraged to strike out as independently as possible. Living with your parents past the age of 18 is generally looked down upon, and certainly once you have a steady income you are expected to be living on your own, likely in a different city.

Similarly, it is entirely common to travel from city to city as school and different jobs require, without strong regard for living near family or friends. This independence certainly has some value; there is a sense of freedom in being able to pack up your things and leap into the unknown, following a great opportunity. However, I think there is something we have lost as well. Here, there is a sense of roots, of belonging, and of continuity that I have never sensed anywhere I have lived.

The Value of Community

We are social beings, even those who like me are introverts at heart, and seek to connect with others who are like us. Witness the rapid growth of online social networks like Facebook; These tools offer nothing new; social networks have always existed. Instead, they bring the power of the internet to bear in allowing people to connect with less regard to distance, and have grown like wildfire. There is a strong desire to forge a sense of community, despite our tendency to spread ourselves so far apart.

It was our community that made our wedding such a memorable one; with friends and family providing the food, the cake, the wine, the Huppah (wedding canopy), the artwork on our Ketubah (wedding vows), and of course the ambiance, turning our special day into one we will remember forever.

And it was our community that made living where we did, in a single bedroom apartment in an expensive and not very interesting city near Stanford an amazing and wonderful experience. Our memories are filled with meals together and trips for milkshakes, crazy parties and mellow games of cards while sipping warm drinks, mornings spent sitting on the grass playing guitar, and making pancakes. All with members of our wonderful community.

Yet we too, leave it behind

Fully aware of how amazing our community is, we still left to travel to Guatemala, and we still are leaving it behind when we get back to move for T's graduate school. Not as far as we might have gone, and to the place where I went to school, so we have some remnants of community, but still leaving our bedrock behind.

It makes sense to do it. Graduate school is a necessary step upon the path T wants to walk, and we are by no means alone. This is the time in life when many people in the States scatter to pursue dreams, and we had already felt the fragmenting of our community as many friends left to pursue theirs. But it makes me wonder...

Will there ever be a time when we're all ready to settle together?

Will we ever be willing to say no to the opportunities that require traveling from each other, no to the things that 'make sense', and agree with each other to settle in one place, where we can live and grow and build a community together? It seems almost antithetical to the American way, to deliberately give up some possibilities, and be less independent, in order to continue living with the same people in the same place.

But it is a way that also calls to me. Another dream, this time one of interdependence instead of independence. Of deepening and lengthening relationships over years of time. Of teaching each other, and learning together. Of knowing that I can count on my friends to be there, and that they can count on me to be there, not just day after day but year after year. Of setting down roots, the kind of which seem natural in places like Guatemala, that you read about in stories where families have lived in the same homes for years, generation after generation of children playing with each other and growing up together.

We have gained some measure of independence in the United States, and I value that. But it seems in many ways we have given up community as it used to be known. And I wonder... was it worth it? And if not, can we get it back?

Leave me your thoughts in the comments!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Lots of time to think

The benefit of living for a while without a job or full time occupation is that you have lots of time to think. The downside is that you have lots of time to think.

When you aren't constantly strapped for time, its hard to hide from yourself, and all of the difficult life questions start coming up again. What do I want to do? Who do I want to be? What are my values?

I'm in the right profession

When I left for Guatemala, I was feeling pretty burned out. I was pretty sure I wanted to keep working at the same job when I got back, but some parts of me also wanted out. After a year and change, while I still loved the people and the goals of the company, sometimes the day to day was wearing. I think though, that this was just a result of working too hard for too long; while for the first few weeks away I was happy to not think at all about work, a few nights ago while playing the solitary card game free cell I was struck with a powerful urge to program.

Something about the constructing of possibilities within the game triggered some of the same mental processes that programming does, but it was a pale shadow of the real thing. I was surprised by how visceral it felt, this desire to once again create structures in my head and write them down in code. As much as I enjoy learning about history, investigating a new culture, and trying to write, there is some mental itch that programming scratches that these do not.

Unfortunately, as part of our attempt to take nothing we would mind breaking or losing along on our trip, I didn't bring a laptop, so I don't have a programming environment here. Internet cafe's, while fine for writing blog posts, don't work so well for programming. However, in our new living situation, I do have access to a shared laptop (a mac, so I can code a little on it), and if the urge gets strong enough I'll play.

I need to make a conscious effort for balance

Whenever I have time away from work, I realize once again how many amazing and wonderful things there are in the world that I neglect when I work. I have a tendency to dive into work, to spend nearly 100% of my energy and time upon it, and to resist interrupting it with other activities. And yet, every time I step back a little, I regret this super-focus, and I think that it is not only preventing me from experiencing other good things, but also harms the quality of my work as well. The burnout that I was experiencing towards the end of my time before Guatemala is a good example of this.

My wife T has been a tremendously good influence for me on this. Since we have been living together (for the last couple of years; longer than we've been married), I've had a second focal point to my life. Instead of just living for work, I have been living for work and for her, and thus to some extent my work-life balance instincts may have been stronger than many of my friends at the startup where I work. Certainly my schedule was more regular, both because I had the discipline of the train schedules forced upon me and because she was waiting for me at home.

However, as I started to take up meditation and paid more and more attention to my life and day to day experience, I began noticing more and more the unbalance in my work and living arrangements. For example, if I had a chore that needed to be done during work hours, I was far more likely to put it off, as I felt guilty taking time from work to do it. This resulted in such chores getting procrastinated far more than others, and caused all sorts of problems. Additionally, the sheer amount of time eaten up by commuting 3 hours a day and being in the office 9 1/2 hours a day meant that I rarely took time to exercise, or go dancing as I used to.

When we return, things will be in flux no matter what, as we will be moving for T's graduate school, and I will be attempting to work remotely. This will throw all sorts of things out of whack, and I will need to figure out how to be optimally productive working from a distance. Regardless, I need to make a conscious effort to balance this work with other parts of my life. I would like to take up Yoga, get back to dancing regularly, and perhaps get involved with a local political group or NGO.

Politics are important

As I got more and more involved in the Obama campaign during late 2007 and early 2008, I realized more and more how much of an impact politics has on every aspect of life within the United States. How important good governance is as a counterbalance to increasingly powerful global corporations, and how much of an impact an election can have on concerns as wide ranging and important as access to education, reproductive rights, marriage rights, health care, care of the environment, and many others. What I hadn't realized as viscerally, though I'd thought about it due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is the life or death impact a U.S. election can have on other countries worldwide.

Coming to Guatemala, I have learned a great deal about a sad history that might have been avoided with a difference in U.S. politics. In 1944, the 'October Revolution' overthrew the ruling military dictatorship and in 1945, the first democratic election of modern Guatemala began what are known historically as the 'Ten Years of Spring'. This was a period of free speech, political activity, and a variety of reforms inspired by the great society of FDR.

Unfortunately, one of the reforms put forward, agrarian land reform, challenged the properties of the largest company in Guatemala, U.S. based United Fruit Company (UFC). The law allowed unused land to be bought by the government at its listed value, and then redistributed to the many landless poor. However, UFC had long listed its many idle lands far undervalued to avoid taxes, and objected to letting them go for the value they had claimed. After failing to convince the Guatemalan government, they took their case via lobbyists to the now right wing dominated U.S. government.

Using a series of increasing propaganda, and playing off of the communist scares (this was the McCarthy era), UFC and its supporters convinced the CIA, backed by the Republican Eisenhower administration, to administer a coup and overthrow the Guatemalan government. As described based on later declassified files in the book Bitter Fruit, the CIA recruited a ragtag band of dissidents, an exiled military Colonel named Castillo Armas, and with a mixture of propaganda, bombing from borrowed U.S. planes, convinced the government and the populace that an armed uprising was underway. With heavy intervention by the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, 'Operation Success' was completed, President Arbenz was removed from power, and Colonel Castillo Armas was installed as dictator.

This operation kicked off a series of 13 consecutive military governments, often succeeding one another by coup, and a 30 year civil war in which over 200,000 people died, many of them community leaders or social activists who simply 'disappeared', to be found later (if ever) tortured and killed.

I don't want to detail Guatemalan history in this post; I'll have time to do that in other places, but this is a firm reminder that what happens at home in the United States has enormous and frequently grim impacts on the rest of the world. If we allow our government to be controlled by scaremongers and foreign interventionalists, we are responsible for the results upon the rest of the world. We must maintain vigilance over our government, and constantly strive to improve it, for as disgusting as politics can be, it's far worse to allow the only people involved in it to be those who are in it for power.

Living my values at work

A final point, and one that I think is not just important for me, but for anyone. I believe that it is an incredible source of problems when people leave their values behind when they go to work. The idea that there is one set of things that is okay for individuals and a different (usually broader) set that is okay for corporations is not only bizarre, its extremely dangerous. Why should it be bad for a person to rip someone off, but okay for a company? Or bad for a person to throw garbage in their neighbor's yard, but okay for a company to export toxic waste? Most people consider themselves to be good people, but somehow the bureaucracy of working for a company allows/causes them to do things or approve of things that they never would do at home.

When I first got out of college, I worked at a high performance computing startup. We helped make clusters of computers talk to each other faster, allowing people to create supercomputers out of groups of regular computers. This was used by a number of researchers to do good things, but the largest customer by far was the defense industry. I somehow did not let this penetrate my mind for quite a while, that what we were doing was helping design nuclear weapons, or to spy upon people, or model the next great airforce bomber. However, as I began to become more aware, this bothered me more and more. Certainly it is not cut and dried, there are important things that come from the defense industry, and we helped other researchers doing things like trying to cure cancer as well, but being pretty firmly anti-war it still bothered me.

I quit that job, though I cannot claim it was for those reasons. But since then, the jobs I have chosen have involved far less conflict with my value system. I have worked as a volunteer in the Obama campaign and at a startup attempting to engage people in political and social activism. Neither of these is completely pure of heart either; there are certainly problems with the Obama administration, and our company's product is used by people organizing for things I definitely disagree with. However, I believe that along with the problems, much good has come of both the Obama campaign and the actual administration. And I believe far more strongly in the importance of individuals becoming engaged in the things they believe in than that what they believe in should align with me, thus I have few problems with our product being used for both sides of issues I am opinionated about.

Being able to say, unequivocally, that I am working on things that I believe are making the world better has dramatically improved my happiness both at work and outside of it. I do not believe that I would be able to go back to working in a job where I could not say that. Now, I don't need to be on the extreme end here, trying to start companies that save the world. A company that does its best to do no harm, make its customers happy, and help its employees to grow, learn and live well is improving its corner of the world in perhaps a more profound way than one trying to make changes at a massive scale.

I also think, that no matter where you work, there is the opportunity to help create positive change within that workplace. No matter how bad, or how good, your working environment is you can improve it by bringing your values to work and trying to live them. Help implement a recycling program, or reduce power usage, or start a day-care for working parents. It's easy to get complacent, either because your workplace is so bad, or so good, and not work to create positive change. I think I have perhaps gotten complacent at work, because relative to previous jobs it is so wonderful, but I need to remember when I return to constantly work to make it a better place for me and everyone else.

Being a change agent can be as simple as starting a coffee break when everyone is overworked and overstressed. Or being willing to voice disagreement when a prejudiced opinion is voiced. When I remember that everything is interrelated, it helps me believe that these little changes not only help me to live in harmony with my values, but can also, bit by bit, add up to real change in the world.

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