The Practical Radical

Bokeh/暈け or ボケ – Finding Patterns in the Blur

May 13, 2010
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In my description of myself on this blog I describe liking “patterns not lines”. What this means to me is that it is not the obvious – the straight lines – that one looks for to move forward – you have to look deeper and discover that which isn’t so obvious – the patterns.

Bokeh Photography reminds me of that. Bokeh photography refers to the area in the photo which is out of focus yet increases the beauty or mystic of an image. The origin of the word bokeh comes from the Japanese word 暈け or ボケ which translates as blur or haze.

Bokeh strikes me as a great analogy for patterns – looking for that which isn’t in focus – but encloses or emanates from or around a subject. So for example we can take a look two shots of a chainlink fence:

We then can ask – which is more interesting – the one against a slate grey background, or the one in which we think we can see a tree. Clearly, it’s the tree – and the imagining of where that tree is – in an empty lot? does it have anything to do with this picture?


Another example is the picture of this bird by Tony Rowlett – if the picture of it was just in a pond, would it be as interesting?  The fact that it is up against a blurred background means that it stands out more, it doesn’t get lost in an obvious background and leaves you to question and imagine where it is.

I suggest this blur is as important as that which is in focus. It is finding the patterns in the blur, which allows you to explore the possibilities of its context, and what makes that which is in focus all that more valuable.

Some more pictures done by Lee-Anne Ragan added May 19, 2010:

and then a photo by me:

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Pradical Blog: The Demographic Divide: Are Youth the Angels or the Demons of the New Millenium

May 10, 2010
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The Globe and Mail (Canada) ran a special edition on Africa which touched on the key issue of youth, but they missed the opportunity to put the issues into global context and look at next steps. Here is a bit more of an in-depth analysis.


In the 20th century it took decades for the international community to realize the value of women to the community – even though they were 50% of the population. We are in danger of this same thing happening with youth in the 21st century. Are youth angels, our hope for a new world, or are they demons who will rise up and bring our world crashing down?

Throughout history youth have been the leaders of revolutions and the fodder for generals. They are the victims of poverty and the engines of economy.

Africa is the youngest continent demographically. 70-80% of most African countries are under the age of 30. In developing regions as a whole, least developed countries are younger that the rest of the world and in 2005, the global median age was 28 years. In the 10 least-developed African countries it was 16 or younger.

Yet we need to look at the issues of Africa within the context of the larger demographic divide which exists globally.

In the North or developed world we have what can be characterized as the old geezers. The developed world population is rapidly aging, their productive (and reproductive!) capacity is slowing down, their needs are increasing. No longer can they depend on the entrepreneurialism of the boomer generations and its drive to conquer all, damn the consequences.

The South or developing world is youthful and in economic terms, in the prime of its life. Yet, they are living under deplorable, inhumane conditions and find the deck stacked against them, unable to fight their way out and up.

In the map below we can graphically see how the developing world, especially the African continent, is youthful. If we look behind the numbers we can also see an increasingly urban world, where it has been estimated that half of the world’s population will live in cities by 2030, with almost all of this growth occurring in developing world cities and slums, and over 60% of those being under the age of 18.

So what does this all mean for the developed and developing world?

On the positive side, for much of the developing world this “youth bulge” could bring about, with the appropriate investment in education and training, an economic boom. According to the recent World Development Report 2007 the time has never been better to invest in young people living in developing countries … rich and poor countries alike need to seize this opportunity before the aging of societies closes it. Doing so will enable them to grow faster and reduce poverty even further. Education and training has been found to be the key determinant in youth having an equal opportunity to succeed (State of the Urban Youth Report). Clearly, many people believe, both in the ivory towers of international agencies and on the ground in developing countries, that there is hope.

Yet, there is clearly a darkside to this youthful demographic, stemming from the aforementioned inhuman conditions youth live within, and their inability to attain a proper livelihood. According to the ILO, of the 1.1 billion young people aged 15 to 24 worldwide, one out of three is either seeking but unable to find work, and has given up the job search entirely or is working but living on less than US$2 a day. Youth as well face a scourge of other issues: violence at a higher rate than the rest of the community, youth being both the victims and the perpetrators; HIV AIDs rates higher than the regular population; etc. Youth are more often perceived as a threat than anything positive. Think tanks such as the Brookings Institute are not welcoming the “youth bulge” as the chance for a new generation to advance their countries out of poverty and destitution, but  are more worried about this as bringing about the growth of terrorism. I have written about this challenge and possible solutions in papers I have delivered recently in the Middle East.

In regards to the developed world there is as well good and bad.

We can see the negative effects of an aging society with schools closing because of the lack of children and a growing drain on our social services because of an aging and needy population. Economically it is projected that due to our aging and unproductive society, by 2050 two-thirds of the world’s capital will be in the developing world, compared to just 7.7 percent today. Though it is well understood that we need to keep young people coming in to maintain a youthful and productive society, both policy nor society in general seems to understand this. Society’s response seems to be represented by either the growth of militia groups and  new anti-immigrant laws in the Southern US, or the continuing riots in the suburbs of Paris and other major European cities.

On the positive side there is a greater recognition of the dividend that diversity brings both socially and economically. There has been some excellent work done on this both by researchers and journalists.

In the end we need to look at solutions that recognize youth as assets to their community. Many international agencies are recognizing the benefit of engaging youth as leaders of today, not only tomorrow. The recently published World Urban Forum Youth Dialogue Series is a good place to start, but there are many more. If you know of any please post them in the comment section and I will put them up in a future blog.

World Urban Forum Youth Dialogue Series publications

  1. Youth Led Development in Sustainable Cities – From Idea, to Policy to Practice
  2. The Place Of Children – Poverty + Promise
  3. Youth In Urban Development – Bringing Ideas into Action
  4. One Stop Youth Resource Centres – Local Governments Response to Improving Youth Livelihood
  5. Space for Change

May 9th, 1994 – A great day in history

May 9, 2010
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On May 9, 1994 Nelson Mandela was named President of South Africa, ending the apartheid era which began some 342 years ago when white’s settled in the cape.

“We place our vision of a new constitutional order for South Africa on the table not as conquerors, prescribing to the conquered,” he declared, “We speak as fellow citizens to heal the wounds of the past with the intent of constructing a new order based on justice for all.”

In the late 80’s and early 90’s I was involved with an agency in Canada struggling against apartheid, and proudly wore a ANC t-shirt, which honestly not many people really understood. Though my role was only as an educator, and I realize I could never understand  what it mean to live under such a system, I was none-the-less inspired by the struggle, and in awe of the man.

I have since had the honor of meeting ex-President of Mozambique Joaquim Chissano, a contemporary of Mandela’s, and a winner of the Moe Ibrahim Award for Good Governance in Africa. The presence of this man – it is hard to explain – calm, wise, powerful in a way that lifts people up – it is what I would imagine Mandela to be like. You can read an excellent interview done by Lee-Anne with President Chissano at WUF V in Nanjing, China in her newsletter or in UN-HABITAT’s quarterly publication Urban World.

Though I doubt I will ever meet Mandela, his life has inspired me, and challenge me to attempt to embody and act on the values he espouses.

A great day in history – a good day to remember.

ps. a great resource regarding Mandela can be found on the NY Times website


Posted in Africa, Development

Ideology Kills Update 3 – Africa Invited, Maternal Policy Needs Clarification

May 8, 2010
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Prime Minister Harper has just invited Malawi and Ethiopia to the G20 meeting happening next week – and if they accept they  will be the first African countries other than South Africa to attend. This generous act brings up complications for the government and the bureaucrats who have to deliver any supposed new maternal programs they are going to create.

In 2005 Ethiopia passed a law that IPAS, a well respected maternal health agency, called a “significant precedent for abortion-law reform in other African nations“. This law, passed in 2005, permits abortion in a broad range of situations: when the pregnancy results from rape or incest; when the health or life of the woman and the fetus are in danger; in cases of fetal abnormalities; for women with physical or mental disabilities; and for minors who are physically or psychologically unprepared to raise a child. The revised law also notes that poverty and other social factors may be grounds for reducing the criminal penalty for abortion.

Sounds great. Sounds like Ethiopia has more progressive policy than the Conservative Party of Canada.

What needs to be clarified is Canada’s stance on their stated non-funding of abortion policy and how it affects funding to nations such as Ethiopia. Are they inviting one of the most advanced countries in regards to maternal health in Africa without informing them that a key component of their health policy will disallow funding? How is this policy interpreted in regards to funding? It is grossly simplistic to say that Canada will fund one component of their maternal health care and not the other.

This again demonstrates the continued foreign policy confusion within the Canadian government and demands a re-think on this key maternal health policy … before it is launched next week.

ps. It is also worth noting that Malawi is one of the countries in the world where the greatest number of maternal deaths occur, attributed in part due to their abortion policies, where abortions lead to “complications such as haemorrhage, infection, infertility and death … overdosing on drugs such as quinine, drinking powdered soaps and using herbs from traditional healers were cited as the most common methods of illegal abortion in Malawi.”


Ideology Kills Update – Canada’s stance hypocritical and unjust

May 7, 2010
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The Lancet just published an article stating the Canada was hypocritical and unjust, stating that “Seventy thousand women die from unsafe abortions worldwide every year. The Canadian government does not deprive women living in Canada from access to safe abortions; it is therefore hypocritical and unjust that it tries to do so abroad.”

Here’s hoping for some coherent and just foreign policy.

Click here to download the Lancet editorial.


Posted in Africa, Canadian, Politics
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Skype: A game changer application

May 6, 2010
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Skype has changed the way international work is done.

For example, 10 years ago when working in Kenya finding any form of landline out was difficult – it was calling cards and a significant expense to get a crackly line. 5 years ago you could use a cell phone, but again, great expense. Skype was theoretically possible back then, but realistically it didn’t work. 2 years ago skype became more usable, but still it wasn’t like talking on a real line

Now, using skype, and especially skype to skype, has seen dramatic cost reductions, and quality improvements. Much of this in East Africa is due to the recent arrival of fibre optic cables in Mombasa.

Is Skype a game changer for you? Sing us a song and fill in this poll!


Posted in Technology
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Ideology Kills – Canada and Reproductive Health

May 5, 2010
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On May 3rd, Senator Nancy Ruth informed that gathered CIDA representatives to “shut the f*&k up”* on the issue of supporting supporting abortion as any part of its foreign-aid focus on maternal health.


Large Air Spill At Wind Farm. No Threats Reported. Some Claim To Enjoy The Breeze. (PICTURE)

May 4, 2010
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joke = enough said.


The Pradical Blog: For 7 Generations .. or at least until the next disaster

May 2, 2010
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It never ceases to amaze me how we work to implement long-term planning, slowly moving step by step forward, yet seemingly for an instant we  let our eye off the ball and end up four steps back.

There is a litany of backwards “steps” in the last few months.

  1. The oil spill disaster off the Atlantic Coast. Ironically, it was just over a month ago that Obama opened up the coast for off shore oil drilling.
  2. At Copenhagen we were meant to sign a historic agreement that would change how the world did business regarding carbon emissions. What we ended up with is the seeming undermining of a global concensus that climate change exists.
  3. And, the most potentially disastrous kick to longterm sustainability, is our embarkation on a new nuclear age, with expanded use of “safe” nuclear energy.

I remember 20 years ago at an EYA conference watching David Suzuki announce that the 90’s was the “turnaround decade”. Today he bemoans that “we’re still fighting the battles. The direction we’re heading is catastrophic. This is not going to be easy. But the important thing is to get started.”

What sadly seems to move us forward is disasters such as what is happening in the Atlantic; but waiting for disaster is not a sustainable strategy. Perhaps we need to take a page from the youth community, and look at the actions they take to “meaningfully” engage.

Based on a youth engagement model developed by the Centre of Excellence for Youth Engagement, I propose four principles of positive sustainability engagement that could be undertaken by sustainability groups:

PRINCIPLES TO SUPPORT MEANINGFUL ENGAGEMENT IN SUSTAINABILITY
1. People Centred: Organizations respond to people’s diverse talents, skills, & interests in regards to sustainability; build on their strengths by identifying what  they do well in the area of sustainability & develop those skills. Feature sustainability leadership & voices
2. Knowledge Centred: Creating opportunities that show people that learning is a reason to get involved. Opportunities that are clearly “about” something, e.g. community service as a way to sustainability; provide activities that deliberately teach a number of lessons & build a range of sustainability concepts and skills; & provide an opportunity for people to connect with a wide array of others undertaking similar work.
3. Assessment Centred: People need opportunities for ongoing feedback, peer reviews, & self-reflection to know how they are doing & how they can do better next time.
4. Care Centred: Effective organizations provide family-like environments where people can feel safe & build trusting relationships.

The radical nature of this model, rough as it is, is to refocus our sustainability work on the process – i.e the people – versus the product – i.e. the environment. Disasters will still happen – people made and natural – but perhaps this way we will be more prepared for them, and in then end our environment will improve. That to me is the basis of sustainability.


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    Practical things that make me radical

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