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Journal of Travels

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Well, I am off to Philadelphia for staging.
This is it. I'll be serving in the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso.
Perhaps a new blog -- Internet connectivity permitting -- will follow.

Cheers, everyone.

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Like many of you, I have been following the sub-prime lending crisis in the financial news for the past several months. We've been reading a great deal about the bankruptcies (Bear Stearns / Northern Rock) and write-downs. ($37 billion announced by UBS as of this writing).  But the stories of lives affected outside the boardroom are what interest me the most. While we are focused on the processional effects of lending interest rates and commodity prices the core of this crisis is playing out in neighborhoods in big cities. It may be lending practices at issue, but it is houses and people's lives at the bottom of the pyramid. Foreclosures are happening on a massive scale. According to the BBC, whole sections of Cleveland are becoming no-go zones afflicted with crime and drugs. This is raising issues of public safety (which the banks are not paying for). I encourage you to check out the article which includes a map of Cleveland that can be overlaid with the thousands of dots of foreclosures and the demographics that go along with them.

I am certainly not an investment or securities expert but it is clear to me that the unfettered market has failed to address the social costs that come from financial failure. The fact that the City of Cleveland is looking at $100 million dollars to bulldoze homes that are now unsaleable because of vandalism and gang destruction is indicative of a society that is not designing systems that take social costs into account. The fact that markets are not growing amidst this crisis mises the point. In my view, it was unconditional focus on market growth above all other considerations that created the culture for this house of cards (excuse the expression) to be built in the first place. That culture is what must be addressed. When banks can sell bonds to cover the mortgages they are making we have what economists call a moral hazard. Whatever new tools and powers the Federal Reserve or other agencies are granted must be based in evaluating the social costs of failures in advance and pricing them into any emerging markets (like sub-prime) that banks and investors will dream up. Nothing speaks to a corporation like liability, that is, when it is still solvent enough to be liable.
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It's 2:30am already and I have to be on a train in 6 hours so I must make this post short. I am headed back to New York for the Earth Institute's State of the Planet conference at Columbia University. It is organized by Jeffrey Sachs, who I was fortunate enough to meet when I was there a month ago. It will be a powerhouse of speakers ranging from Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the UN and the UN's head of Peace Keeping Operations to the EU Energy Commissioner and lectures from Sciences Po in Paris. It's fully booked with a long waiting list so I was lucky to get in.

I found a reputable hostel in Harlem for $17 a night that is only a mile from Columbia. The Amtrak fare was $100 roundtrip with my student discount. I plan to survive on granola and coffee.

The conference will be two packed days (5/27-28) and I will return to Montreal on Saturday. If you're curious, check out the website. It will be broadcast live on the web so you may see me in the front rows or maybe at a microphone asking questions. Now let's see if I can temper my excitement and sleep for awhile.
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I have never commented on politics in seven years of blogging, but today I have the urge.

The BBC is reporting that Bill Richardson is to endorse Obama today. Both Clinton and Obama have sought the former democratic candidate's endorsement (which he is supposed to make today in Portland if you can believe it!).  What I find interesting in all of this is a seed that Obama planted during one of the debates last year. The BBC makes reference to it in the article, but these are Bill Richardson's words in January:

"I had just been asked a question -- I don't remember which one -- and Obama was sitting right next to me. Then the moderator went across the room, I think to Chris Dodd, so I thought I was home free for a while. I wasn't going to listen to the next question. I was about to say something to Obama when the moderator turned to me and said, 'So, Gov. Richardson, what do you think of that?' But I wasn't paying any attention! I was about to say, 'Could you repeat the question? I wasn't listening.' But I wasn't about to say I wasn't listening. I looked at Obama. I was just horrified. And Obama whispered, 'Katrina. Katrina.' The question was on Katrina! So I said, 'On Katrina, my policy . . .' Obama could have just thrown me under the bus. So I said, 'Obama, that was good of you to do that.'"
Without overplaying this -- because there are many reasons for Richardson to forge his political allegiances this way -- I take the position that Obama planted a seed. He engaged in an act of kindness toward a rival that (at the time) was discreet and would not come to light until Richardson himself would later recall the incident.

A cynic might say that Obama did this for just the potential gain that he has reaped today; the fruit a back-channel "friendship" with Richardson would yield. But I believe this demonstrates genuine character. There was no way to know what effect this would have at the time. Actually, Obama only had a few seconds in which to decide whether or not to help his opponent. It must have been instinctual -- automatic.

This to me is the essence of why Obama will have my vote. When a man relates to even his rivals as human beings, he is capable of bringing out the best in people. And opponents are turned into allies. Division becomes unity.
Current Location:
Montréal, Québec
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As I have become addicted to starting my morning with Ted Videos I ran across this which brought out my inner-geek stronger than anything since OLPC was announced two years ago. (And this video is where his team was at in February 2006).

This is the actual Ted Talk  with much more in-depth demo:
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I had to back this video up a few times to fully absorb everything. (The ending is inspiring).
It's perhaps the densest (and most humorous) talk on environmental sustainablity that I've seen.
It's refreshing to hear "save the environment while staying profitable and here's how". What's amazing as you watch this is the manner in which McDonough speaks. He takes the ideal for granted as if saying:
Of course we're designing cities from the ground up [shrug]. Why not? I like the frame of reference.
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What is it that I actually hope to accomplish on these little mental vacations I take to other parts of the globe?

I find myself looking at flight routes and timetables and transport difficulties in regions I have yet to visit. Do I not realize that it is not logistics that holds me back but initiative? I am smart enough to do this-- to travel and work independently wherever I would like. I can adapt myself to difficult conditions with the best I am certain. What must I do? For the first time in months I feel truly stuck.

For whom do I wait? For what conditions am I biding my time. Am I disconnected from my goal itself or only the means to get there? I leave so much undone. I fail to push myself because I am bewildered. The path is not clear to me. I feel only anxiety and guilt for all of the efforts that I might be making. I weigh my days and find them wanting as I lay in bed at night wondering just what the hell I accomplished today. Someone told me last night that I should trust my audacity. I might, for example, be better off simply going to India and finding a mission on my own than peeling potatoes in the basement of a Greek restaurant in Montreal. Yes, I have arrived in Seuss's infamous waiting place. Should I take that as license to go off recklessly and half-cocked? Yet, what are my alternatives.

There is some kind of disconnect between responsible action and planning for me. Much of my efforts these last months have been characterized by spontaneity--something at which I excel--but the traits of followthough and persistence are the ones that elude me. My failure to find meaningful work has hit me hard. How do we all react to disappointment? One may react with resignation, the sense of defeat, negative self-talk precluding any further action. Thank goodness, I am at least not doing that. One may react with patience. Not everything can happen overnight we say. Some things will require time. But which things? And if I am resolved to waiting for some outcome, what if I am closing my mind to even greater possibilities? Finally, determination. Unceasing energy and appetite for action. Frustration, excitement, anticipation, restlessness. These things become allies. Positive self-talk that won't allow for giving up and the charged emotions to back it up, to keep feeding the beast until my success becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, that's the way.

I long to get into bed again feeling exhausted and deeply satisfied by what I've done. Teddy Roosevelt said that "far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." I have my dreams. I think of them every morning. I think of them every night. But they have become shrouded in apathy.
Current Location:
Current Music:
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The following is from John Naisbitt's Mindset: It is not a book I would recommend but I found one golden page within it.

"Having to be right shackles your mind.

    "People are culturally conditioned to have to be right. The parents are right, the teacher is right, the boss is right. Who is right overrules what is right. Couples have huge quarrels about considerations that are forgotten as the struggle for who is right rages on.
    Political parties have institutionalized having to be right. How often has a political party welcomed the position of the other side? Imagine if all the energy that goes into trying to prove the other side wrong were channeled into actually thinking about what was best for whatever the dispute is about. Worse, having to be right becomes a barrier to learning and understanding. It keeps you away from growing, for there is no growth without changing, correcting, and questioning yourself.
    If you have to be right, you put yourself in a hedged lane, but once you experience the power of not having to be right, you will feel like you are walking across open fields, the perspective wide and your feet free to take any turn."
Current Mood:
pensive pensive
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New York proved to be a fascinating journey. I accomplished what I ultimately set out to do. I returned with the conditions for becoming MSF and have set to meeting them. Logistical field experience and French prove to be the stop gaps to going out with MSF on a mission tomorrow. Therefore those have become my mission today. I have poured myself back into the Pimsleur French lessons that I began in Buenos Aires with renewed vigor. For a half hour a day it is my job to work on French as if my paycheck depended upon it.

Contacts in New York paid off. Someone I met has set me up with a group of surgeons working in the remote mountain villages of Ecuador. After a few emails back and forth they have invited me to join them and help with the logistics of their mission. I will not be paid and will only be put up with the nephew of one of the doctors but I think that's perfect! I don't want money. I want the experience. I know the kind of power I possess to advance my goals. Once I have the experience, the money will take care of itself. After paying off these plane tickets on my Amex I will effectively be broke. Bye-bye student aid. All the more reason to bear down and make sure that I daisy-link one experience to the next so that I can survive in the field and attain the resume fodder I need to take the next step and join up with an International NGO.

In six hours I leave for Nicaragua. It will my final academic project for a long time following grassroots organizations in the countryside and seeing where they succeed and where they fail to meet humanitarian needs. In one month I will return and have everything put into storage and head to Ecuador for an indefinite period. Every action I take, every decision I make is part of who I am becoming.

What I have is nothing. What I become is everything. There is horrible ugliness in the world to overcome and great things to be accomplished.
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