Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Status Update - Revealing my secret research project - On the Experience of Living More Sustainabily

- On the Experience of Living in a More Sustainable Manner - 

Well, life over the past 6 months has seemed like a whirlwind, not unlike the 6 months before it.

As I come to my senses, and the mental fog clears, I find myself feeling as if my family and I have been abused - sucked dry. In part, the past year or so has been the result of our own choices, and partly the results of external forces outside our immediate control. And no, I have yet to complete the dissertation, and up until the last 4 weeks everything has been pretty much on hold. However, with a little reprieve and some time for personal reflection, I realize how much hardship can teach each one of us.

For one, I think Maslow was correct in his assessment of human fulfillment.  In my case, when one's life is reduced primarily to dealing with the basic necessity of survival, higher level pursuits tend to suffer. The capacity for reflection is not necessarily diminished, but the depth of importance or relevance to one's immediate survival needs seems ancillary.

It is almost embarrassing to publicly admit this, but I know what it means to feel hunger. I know the fear (uncertaintity ) and shame (poor choices) that comes with the threat of homelessness. I know the sense of uncertaintity that comes with poverty, as well as the loss of "freedom" that comes with poverty. Instead of having the ability of choosing between a series of positive pursuits, the experience of poverty is one where the opportunities one has are severely limited in terms of the number of options one has available, as well as the quality of those options. Often times my wife and I would find ourselves having to choose between phones, power and food. Most days, we could only choose one.

(Side note: the connection between choice and the "experience" of poverty seem to resonate with Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum's conceptions of justice - where the capabilities one is afforded correspond to the freedom to act, the freedom to enjoy life)

Unfortunately, I am already familiar with the experience of being a young father, and a husband struggling to take care of a new family. At the age of 19, I woke to a foreign reality - Somehow I navigated through teenage homelessness, and all of the things that come with being 16, and living life on the streets. Somehow I was employed, working just above minimum wage, and a roof over my head. Still I was a high school drop out who barely completed the 9th grade, and who was suffering from a deficit of purpose and vision - suffering from a deep existential angst. However, with the reality of fatherhood and the level of responsibility that being a parent entailed, compelled - demanded a cosmic shift. I committed to finding a purpose, that ideal vision - where I could live in line with my passions and beliefs. The trick was finding out what that meant...

Fast forward 13 years, and I find that those earlier years seem like a faded dream of another person, living another life. But whether one is a homeless teen, a nervous parent to be, or a respected scholar - a convergence of events can land anyone in peril, and at any moment the feeling of powerlessness in the storm of life can overwhelm and debilitate.

On the other hand, not all is "negative" and it often seems that through the hardships we encounter in life, are the times when we are challenged and . For one, as someone who pays lip service to the ideals of "voluntary simplicity," it wasn't until I was confronted with "forced simplicity" that I learned how to watch my habitual patterns towards consumption, accumulation and the never-ending pursuit of comfort. Thinking for a moment about the "Fulfillment Curve" articulated in the book, "Your Money or Your Life," I can't help but see the parallels with my own life experience. We sought out a degree of comfort to offset the overwhelming discomfort through coffee, food, alcohol, etc. But the more we sought out these small comforts the more we perpetuated the problems of scaricity, and ultimately the problem of choice. The time, energy and worry that went into balancing the immediate needs, and immediate wants became a greater stresser than the relief we derived from fulfilling those wants. Like a drug addict, I was habituated to the satisficing of my desire for comfort, even when both my apparent obsession and compulsion had become key factors in my mental and material poverty.

Overall, I learned that although I possess the skills and experiences to start and run an organic, sustainable farm - write software, do research, run a non-profit, etc., etc. - my obsession with those more immediate comforts made it impossible to forgo these things -- despite our dreams, and our cause. After all, one of the very basis for the move was my own desire to extend beyond my "objective" research work on sustainable living and agriculture, and delve into the phenomenological dimension of what it means to live in greater ecological balance.

Sure you can read books, and study the science but to immerse oneself in the practice and process reveals a type of knowledge that is hidden through more positivist approaches to developing knowledge and insight. While one might seem to be discursive in nature, the other would seem more heuristic, and born out of immediate experience. I just never anticipated this little detour, and yet it was the act of purposeful struggle that highlighted the material, social and psychological barriers that invariably shape the character and extent of our abilities to live more balanced, or at least more coherently with our ideals.

Unlike a survey, or an in-person interview - the active engagement in attempting to create coherence between one's ideals and one's actions, a disciplined and methodical inquiry into the nature, or experience of sustainability reveals a different dimension. The process of reflection in the wake of all that has transpired highlights to me, one of the missing elements in my research. What has been missing is the personal story - the personal struggles, failures and successes.

While I have spent a great deal of time working on developing a web crawler to support my social network and discourse analysis, I realized that one critical element was missing. For me, it is not enough to merely study a particular phenomenon. In a sense, one must enter into it in order to more fully comprehend the nuanced nature of the phenomenon. This embrace and engagement is in a sense a response to the more starchy, antiseptic research endevours that speaks to a highly academic audience. While this is important in the context of research and policy, our intellectual engagement must delve beyond the specific research question and dig deeper. We must begin to consider more fully what it means to be a human living in modernity and simultaneously seeking to follow a post-modern - ecologically oriented worldview.

So far, the revelation of living (or attempting to) illuminates the contradictions of choice that emerge - contradictions that are made apparent through the limitations of time and space - contradictions that appear in light of scarcity. As I move forward in this line of inquiry, I hope to give more context to the growth in local food systems, and especially the growing movement of people seeking opportunities to grow their own food and reassert more control over their food supply. Yet, just as this project aims to reveal the opportunities and intelligence of human communities (and individuals), it is meant to show the limits that confront us. By seeing both, it is possible to create more intelligent solutions and opportunities for making it easier for people to begin living more consciously, more voluntarily, and ultimately more sustainably...

(More to Come)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Update on the Webbot/CA/SNA Software... (CyberMapper)

Ok, so I came up with a name for the webbot project - "CyberMapper." Not sure if this is already in use, or whether it will stick, but for ease I had to come up with something. So there it is, and the CyberMapper project is getting closer to a beta release. For now, it is being restricted to academic use only, there are already plenty of solutions that cater to

To recap from previous posts, this is an application being developed to assist my research efforts here at WSU. CyberMapper is a web application written in PHP, and backed by a MySQL DB. It currently runs locally on my computer, and lacks a suitable UI, so all command line. But, I'm planning to get it running live, and with a slick UI (maybe pseudo-slick).

OK, so what does CyberMapper do? -
The application is designed to retrieve a Google, or Google Blog search query-set (News to be added soon). The software then extracts the links, descriptions and site-title information. This is uploaded into a db. The initial search provides up to 1000 urls that serve to seed a more in-depth web crawl. CyberMapper then initiates the crawl collecting all text/images/multimedia data contained within the site, parses and extracts all outbound links, and saves to the db.

The user can define the search depth to conduct, meaning I can run a "search and save" crawl that goes one step away from the seed site or more. For example, if you set the distance of the search to 4, the search will collect pages 4 links away from the seed site. The user can also define the number of seed sites (provided via the google search results) to use when conducting a crawl. I suggest keeping these numbers small because this could be disastrous unless you are capable of handling terabytes of data.

In addition to what the software does, I'm also trying to develop a text analysis tool to then process the parsed content of the sites. Of course, there are software tools already available, but this simple tool could be useful in choosing the data collection to upload in a package like Atlas.ti. Of course the data collected from each of the crawls can be exported to an Excel workbook, and in my case, I'm using Stata 10.

But, will I meet my own July 15th deadline? Probably not, we are in the middle of moving, and other work responsibilities are calling. But I'm close to begin sharing this project with others, yeah!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Great Tutorial - PHP and cURL

Since I'm making heavy use of PHP and cURL, I thought I'd share a great tutorial, "PHP and cURL Functions Tutorial," for those interested in working with these technologies to implement their own scraping/crawling web service.

As you should know, PHP is a multi-purpose web scripting language. It is relatively simple to use, fast and uniquely designed to work with the web!

cURL is a set of libraries that enables a user to access web resources remotely, meaning you never have to go to a web page to get the page contents, or fill out a form. In theory, you could process all your online banking requests via PHP and cURL without ever having to manually login and navigate the bank's website.

Basically, with these two technologies, coupled with Google Search, you can do a whole lot of very cool, very good (or very bad) things on the web. These technologies are especially useful for data-mining through the web.

Continuing along with the food discourse in cyberspace project

It has been super hectic these past couple of months. In fact, it has been so stressful I have had little time to perfect my code. Or finish up my drafts for the dissertation for that matter! And this is due like last week!

Fortunately, the code works though, but only partially. I still need to enable the "crawl" function, at least provide a better implementation. Plus, I want to provide an interface to make usability a lot easier. With those two things on the current wish list, I went a head and began an implementation of the project using the CodeIgniter framework for PHP. It is very slick, easy to use and if you have experience with the Model-View-Controller approach to software development then you will be up in no-time writing cool software.

I'm planning to have this newest iteration completed by July 15th. I'm making a public commitment! I'm not promising I'm going to release the project for download just yet, I need to analyze the data and finish writing my paper first, but I will post some returned results from the software.

Fortunately, things are starting to settle down, well the end is in sight! So, I anticipate being able to actually finish this in the time I have allotted.

But first I have a move to tackle! I just got a job with the Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network, acting as their web developer and online operations manager. I guess I'll be acting kind of like a Swiss Army Knife, not only will I be managing the web operations, I will also be doing some policy work for supporting local food economies in Washington State. The other plus is that its part-time, which means I'll have time for other endeavors, like finishing the dissertation!

A Learning Experience -

I haven't talked about this at all on this blog, but a little known fact is that back in January I moved my family out of Pullman to Ebey Island right outside of Everett. We found a place with 35 acres, a house, barn and water rights. The plan: to start a small organic market garden and catering service. I even started a brand new blog to document this process and hopefully provide a resource for other wanna-be farmers/foodies. We paid a lot of money up front for the land, seed, and equipment. About 3 weeks before planting, the landlord shows his true colors. It would appear that giving him a large sum of money up front was a bad thing because he seemed to expect that on a regular basis.

Now, I'm not going to go into every detail, I think everyone I know has heard the story a dozen times. But basically he freaks out that we aren't paying him months in advance. His attitude and actions scared me into second guessing whether we wanted to establish this business here. I mean once you plant, you are vested unless you want to loose everything. It's not like I can dig up a 2 acre vegetable garden and move it!

Despite the anger and resentment over his behavior, I learned a valuable lesson in all this (maybe more than one). The first thing is:
  • Follow your gut! While the economics might point you in one direction, that should be tempered with an honest assessment of the person you are doing business with.
  • The second lesson is: Do not agree to a month-to-month situation! It might work for some, but legally the landlord can give you 20 days notice, without cause, to vacate the premises. Another reason I got scared...
  • The third lesson: I will have to be more persist-ant than ever in order to make this dream a reality.
And finally...
  • The fourth lesson: Never let anyone walk all over you, or think they can. To be more specific, don't be so trusting and don't be so accommodating, unless it is reciprocated.
I have a tendency to be too giving, almost to the point of it being a shortcoming. I think people who don't know me take this as a sign of weakness, when in fact it is in my nature and comes from a deep seeded belief that we have to be the change we want to see! But when values and reality collide, it is best to embrace reality!

So, with all that said, we are moving on to another community, probably to move into an apartment till we can start over. The dream isn't dead, and no asshole is going to kill it for me. Because what I lack in intelligence, I make up through perseverance!

Monday, May 23, 2011

A little self promotion - Web Creds..

I was thinking it might be a good idea to archive all the websites I have worked on, developed, etc. Some of the sites still work, some were abandoned, some I'm proud of and some I would rather forget. Nevertheless, I have never claimed to be a designer, but rather a php/mysql ninja, capable of integrating different technologies, and an SEO genius.
  • TinyGoneBig (Newest Project) -
  • Hopelink -
  • Whitman County Democrats -
  • The Public Sphere Project -
  • The Global Plant Sciences Initiative -

  • Interconnection (not sure if the PHP/MySQL is still in use, but not my design) -
Of course there are a lot more projects that I have worked on in the past 7 years (Jesus, it has been that long!!!), but many of them are defunct, archived somewhere in cyberspace (hopefully never to be seen But overall, these are some of more interesting projects. Not to mention, I think each project highlights specific expertise that I've acquired.

For example, the Hopelink site makes heavy use of (SEO) Google Analytics, AdSense, Meta-tags, etc. I worked hard to increase traffic and visibility of the site and the organization. Web traffic doubled since I was there, and it has doubled twice over since I left (4+ years ago).

The GPSI site, and more recently the TinyGoneBig project, gave me a crash course in building social networking platforms for business and community collaboration. And so on...

Almost an entire year... Research Almost Done!!!

It has been nearly a year since I have posted on this blog. Lots of things have gone on these past few months. Much of my time has been devoted to my research, finishing up my PhD and looking for gainful employment. With the PhD winding down, and the research track I have chosen, this blog space may be more relevant to my work than ever.

For one, I'm working on a software project that is being used to conduct content and social network analysis of food bloggers in cyberspace. The idea behind the project is to gain a better understanding of food discourse in cyberspace. In particular, I'm looking at dominant themes among alternative agri-food movements (AAFMs). Basically, the software is a webcrawler and screenscraper that searches, indexes and records data from publicly available blogs that publish content about: Local Food, Food Sovereignty, Slow Food, Organic Food, Community Food Security, Sustainable Cooking, Sustainable Agriculture, etc. Currently, the code is pretty crude, but it works! I'm developing the project in PHP/MYSQL and will be adding a slick UI the employs some cool AJAX stuff.

Aside from geeking out on building the software, several research questions are directing this inquiry:
  1. Does the blogosphere reflect current trends among food shoppers? In other words, are the main themes expressed by food bloggers, the same themes that are influencing shifting consumer choice with respect to local and organic foods?

  2. Does food discourse in cyberspace reflect the social and geographical context of place? For instance, I suggest that CSAs and Slowfood might be more relevant themes in say, Berkeley CA. Whereas, food sovereignty might be more relevant theme in say, inner-city Detroit.

  3. And finally, I want to ask the question as to whether there are multiple food movements, or one food movement with variations depending on social and geographic context.

Using consumer survey data collected this last fall (2010), together with US Census data and the information gathered through the software, I anticipate being able to offer a new perspective on some of interesting debates in current agri-food scholarship. Anyway, things are moving fast and I hope to have all data analyzed, papers written and dissertation completed by October of this year!