Wheat planting at Howell’s Living History Farm

We’ve got­ten into the habit of vis­it­ing Howell’s Liv­ing His­tory Farm up in Mer­cer County, N.J., a few times a year as part of home­schooler group trips. In the past, we’ve cut ice, tapped trees for maple syrup, and seen the sheep shear­ing and card­ing. Today we saw the var­i­ous stages of wheat – from plant­ing, to har­vest­ing, thresh­ing, win­now­ing, grind­ing, and bak­ing. I love that there’s such a wide vocab­u­lary of speci­fic lan­guage for all this – words I barely know out­side of bib­li­cal para­bles (“Oh wheat from chaff!”) and that there’s great vin­tage machin­ery (Howell’s oper­a­tions are set around the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury).

QuakerQuaker on the move

Cross­post­ing from Quak­erQuaker:

Cardboard boxes in apartment, moving day

The biggest changes in half a decade are com­ing to Quak­erQuaker. The Ning​.com ser­vice that pow­ers the main web­site is about to increase its monthly charge by 140 per­cent. When I first picked Ning to host the three-year-old Quak­erQuaker project in 2008, it seemed like a smart move. Ning had recently been founded by tech world rock stars with access to stratospheric-level funds. But it never quite got trac­tion and started dial­ing back its ambi­tions in 2010. It was sold and sold again and a long-announced new ver­sion never mate­ri­al­ized. I’ve been warn­ing peo­ple against start­ing new projects on it for years. Its lim­i­ta­tions have become clearer with every pass­ing year. But it’s con­tin­ued to work and a healthy com­mu­nity has kept the con­tent on Quak­erQuaker inter­est­ing. But I don’t get enough dona­tions to cover a 140 per­cent increase, and even if I did it’s not worth it for a ser­vice stuck in 2010. It’s time to evolve!

There are many inter­est­ing things I could build with a mod­ern web plat­form. Ini­tial research and some feed­back from fel­low Quaker techies has me inter­ested in Bud­dy­Press, an expanded and social ver­sion of the ubiq­ui­tous Word­Press blog­ging sys­tem. It has plu­g­ins avail­able that claim to move con­tent from exist­ing Ning sites to Bud­dy­Press, leav­ing the tan­ta­liz­ing pos­si­bil­ity that eight years of the online Quaker con­ver­sa­tion can be main­tained (wow!).

I will need funds for the move. The sub­scrip­tions to do the import/export will incur costs and there will be plu­g­ins and themes to buy. I’m men­tally bud­get­ing an open-ended num­ber of late Sat­ur­day nights. And the per­sonal com­puter we have is get­ting old. The charge doesn’t hold and keys are start­ing to go. It will need replace­ment sooner rather than later.

Any dona­tions Friends could make to the Pay­pal account would be very help­ful for the move. You can start by going to http://​bit​.ly/​q​u​a​k​e​r​g​ive. Other options are avail­able on the dona­tion page at http://​www​.quak​erquaker​.org/​p​a​g​e​/​s​u​p​p​ort. Thanks for what­ever you can spare. I’m as sur­prised as any­one that this lit­tle DIY project con­tin­ues to host some many inter­est­ing Quaker con­ver­sa­tions eleven years on!

In Friend­ship,
Mar­tin Kel­ley for Quak​erQuaker​.org

Throwback from 2005: “Aggregating Our Webs

One of the first iterations of QuakerQuaker, from January 2006.
One of the first iter­a­tions of Quak­erQuaker, from Jan­u­ary 2006.

Look­ing back at a 2005 post that started to lay out what was to become Quak­erQuaker:

Maybe the web’s form of hyper­link­ing is actu­ally supe­rior to Old Media pub­lish­ing. I love how I can put for­ward a strong vision of Quak­erism with­out offend­ing any­one – any put-off read­ers can hit the “back” but­ton. And if a blog I read posts some­thing I don’t agree with, I can sim­ply choose not to com­ment. If life’s just too busy then I just miss a few weeks of posts. With my “Sub­jec­tive Guide to Quaker Blogs” and my “On the Web” posts I high­light the blog­gers I find par­tic­u­larly inter­est­ing, even when I’m not in per­fect the­o­log­i­cal unity. I like that I can have dis­cus­sions back and forth with Friends who I don’t exactly agree with.

Hammonton Fourth of July bicycle parade

Hammonton’s first Fourth of July parade in recent mem­ory was orga­nized by the Sesqui­cen­ten­nial com­mit­tee. The bicy­cle por­tion was spon­sored by the Toy Mar­ket, which also pro­vided free dec­o­ra­tions for every­one before­hand.

The Quaker Wars?

Over on Quora, a ques­tion that is more fas­ci­nat­ing than it might at first appear: What wars in his­tory were fought in the name of Quak­erism (Soci­ety of Friends)?:

This ques­tion is nei­ther sar­cas­tic nor rhetoric. As many peo­ple insist that vio­lence and atroc­i­ties are an inher­ent part of reli­gions, that reli­gions would cause wars, I really want to know  if that is the truth. Per­son­ally I believe reli­gions can be peace­ful, such as in the cases of the Quak­ers and the Baha’i, but I might  be wrong. 

The obvi­ous answer should be “none.” Quak­ers are well-known as paci­fists (fun fact: fake can­non used to deceive the enemy into think­ing an army is more for­ti­fied than it actu­ally is are called “Quaker guns.”) Indi­vid­ual Quak­ers have rarely been quite as united around the peace tes­ti­mony as our rep­u­ta­tion would sug­gest, but as a group it’s true we’ve never called for a war. I can’t think of any mil­i­tary skir­mish or bat­tle waged to ral­ly­ing cries of “Remem­ber the Quak­ers!”

Quaker guns at Manassas Junction, 1862. Via Wikimedia.
Quaker guns at Man­as­sas Junc­tion, 1862. Via Wiki­me­dia.

And yet: all of mod­ern civ­i­liza­tion has been shaped by war. Our polit­i­cal bound­aries, our reli­gions, our demo­graphic make-up – even the lan­guages we speak are all rem­nants of long-ago bat­tles. One of the most influ­en­tial Quaker thinkers, the eigh­teenth cen­tury min­is­ter John Wool­man, con­stantly reminded his brethren to con­sider those lux­u­ries that are the fruit of war and slav­ery. When we broaden the scope like this, we’ve been involved in quite a few wars.

  • We like to remem­ber how William Penn found­ing the colony of Penn­syl­va­nia as a reli­gious refuge. But the king of Eng­land held Euro­pean title to the mid-Atlantic seaboard because of small wars with the Dutch and Swedes (and later held onto it only after a much larger war with the French New World set­tle­ments).
  • The king’s grant of “Penn’s Woods” was the set­tle­ment of a very large war debt owed to Penn’s father, a wealthy admi­ral. The senior William Penn was some­thing of a scoundrel, play­ing off both sides in every-shifting royalist/Roundhead see­saw of power. His longest-lasting accom­plish­ment was tak­ing Jamaica for the British. Bob Mar­ley sang in Eng­lish because of Sir William.
  • By most accounts, William Penn Jr. was fair and also bought the land from local Lenape nations. Mostly for­got­ten is that the Lenape and Susque­han­nock pop­u­la­tion had been dev­as­tated in a recent regional war against the Iro­quois over beaver ter­ri­to­ries. The Iro­quois were skill­fully play­ing global pol­i­tics, keep­ing the Eng­lish and French colo­nial empires in enough strate­gic ten­sion that they could pro­tect their land. They wanted another British colony on their south­ern flank. The Lenape land reim­burse­ment was sec­ondary.

The thou­sands of acres Penn deeded to his fel­low Quak­ers were thus the fruits of three sets of wars: colo­nial wars over the Delaware Val­ley; debt-fueled Eng­lish civil wars; and Native Amer­i­can wars fought over access to com­mer­cial resources. Much of orig­i­nal Quaker wealth in suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions is indebted to this huge land trans­fer in the 1680s, either directly (we still hold some valu­able real estate) or indi­rectly (the real estate’s sale could be fun­neled into promis­ing busi­nesses).

Not all of the fruits of war were sec­ond­hand and coin­ci­den­tal to Friends them­selves. Many wealthy Friends in the mid-Atlantic colonies had slaves who did much of the back­break­ing work of clear­ing fields and build­ing houses. That quaint old brick meet­ing­house set back on a flower-covered field? It was pre­sum­ably built by enslaved hands.

And today, it’s impos­si­ble to step free of war. Most of our houses are set on land once owned by oth­ers. Our com­put­ers and cell phones have com­po­nents mined in war zones. Our lights and cars are pow­ered by fos­sil fuel extrac­tion. And even with solar pan­els and elec­tric cars, the infra­struc­ture of the daily liv­ing of most Amer­i­cans is still based on extrac­tion and con­trol of resources.

This is not to say we can’t con­tinue to work for a world free of war. But it seems impor­tant to be clear-eyed and acknowl­edge the debts we have.

Edward Tufte and classical intellectual inquiry

Near the begin­ning of Edward Tufte’s Beau­ti­ful Evi­dence, he writes “My books are self-exemplifying: the objects them­selves embody the ideas writ­ten about.” The same could be true of his pre­sen­ta­tions.

On a recent Tues­day, Friends Jour­nal spon­sored me to attend one of Tufte’s one-day work­shops. He’s most well-known for his beau­ti­ful books on data visu­al­iza­tions but his work­shop touched on a num­ber of fas­ci­nat­ing top­ics. “The world is way too inter­est­ing to have dis­ci­pli­nary bound­aries,” he said at one point as he took us from music to maps to space shut­tles to magi­cians. The range was pur­pose­ful. He was teach­ing us how to think.

I esti­mated a crowd of maybe 450. A large per­cent­age were low-to-mid-level cor­po­rate types (I over­heard one say “I was not expect­ing that he’d bash Pow­er­Point so much”; this slacker obvi­ously hadn’t even taken five min­utes to skim the head­ers on Tufte’s Wikipedia page). There were smaller mixes of techie, cre­atives, and design pro­fes­sion­als, some of whom were there after fawn­ing over his books for years. Bonus if you go: part of the work­shop reg­is­tra­tion fee is gratis copies of his books!

I have 13 pages of notes. Some high­lights for me:

  • The heart of much of the work­shop was crit­i­cal think­ing. Tufte dis­sected var­i­ous news web­sites to take us through the ways they gave attri­bu­tion and pre­sented data. He also went through stud­ies and gave var­i­ous point­ers to sniff out when ver­i­fy­ing data was being with­held.
  • “Pro­duc­ing a good pre­sen­ta­tion is a moral and eth­i­cal act.” (ditto for being an good audi­ence mem­ber). There is a form of civic respon­si­bil­ity to inquiry.
  • Tufte is a big believer in meet­ings that begin with read­ing. The highest-resolution device most of us have is paper. Peo­ple can read 2 – 3 times faster than a pre­sen­ter can talk. By let­ting peo­ple go at their own pace they can tai­lor the pre­sen­ta­tion to their own needs.
  • Data pre­sen­ta­tion: A theme through­out the work­shop was “doc­u­ments not decks,” an empha­sis on flat, web-like pre­sen­ta­tions that allow read­ers to con­trol scrolling. He con­tin­u­ally called out “flat sur­faces” and mate­rial that is “adja­cent in space” to give an almost spir­i­tual argu­ment for their supe­ri­or­ity over deck-like pre­sen­ta­tions (think Pow­er­Point) that can obscure impor­tant data.
  • Not pan­der­ing to the audi­ence: Con­sumer sites show that data can be pop­u­lar: the New York Times’s web­site has 450 links; ESPN’s has tables atop tables. Peo­ple read these every day; why can’t we have the same level of data-rich acces­si­bil­ity in our work lives? “Have we sud­denly becomes stu­pid just because we’ve comes to work?” He urged the mid-level cor­po­rates in the audi­ence to demand good pre­sen­ta­tions. We should push back against the low-expectations of their bosses to ask “Why can’t we live up to ESPN?”
  • Data as beauty. From gor­geous maps to graph­i­cal music nota­tion (below), Tufte loves design and data that come together in beauty. It is amaz­ing.

One of my favorite parts of the work­shop was an after­noon digres­sion from strict data that he intro­duced by say­ing, “It’s time for a heart to heart.” It began with a ser­mon­ette on cred­i­bil­ity: how to make your­self account­able and just other’s argu­ments.

Then he talked about how to respond when some­one chal­lenges your work. I could tell he must have many per­sonal sto­ries inform­ing this part of the work­shop – lessons learned, yes, but surely oppor­tu­ni­ties lost too. Tufte told us it was only nat­u­ral to respond in defen­sive­ness and anger, but coun­seled us to not be too quick to dis­miss cri­tique. You’ve got to won­der whether your chal­lenger might be cor­rect.

He reminded us that when we’re in a room full of peers, every­one present has been fil­tered and selected over the years. You should assume the room will be just as smart as you are. “How dare you think your motives are bet­ter than those of your col­leagues!” he said at an emo­tional crescendo. He admit­ted that this self-doubt is a hard pos­ture to adopt. He’s polled pub­lic fig­ures he respects and even the thickest-skinned are stung by chal­lenge.

He said he had learned to back off, go slow, and con­tem­plate when he’s chal­lenged. Just when I thought he had found some super-human abil­ity to ratio­nally con­sider things, he told us it could took him three to five years to really accept the valid­ity of con­flict­ing views.

This was a much-needed ser­mon for me. I nod­ded along along. As some­one who pro­fes­sion­ally ampli­fies opin­ion, I’m often in the mid­dle of peo­ple in debate (some­times I’m one of the actors, though these days it’s more in a insider meta way). It’s good to see intel­lec­tual debate as a process and to remem­ber that yes: it can take years. “This con­cludes the ther­a­peu­tic por­tion of today’s course”, he con­cluded, before send­ing us off again to look at visu­al­iza­tions.

He ended by show­ing us time­less first-editions of beau­ti­ful sci­en­tific works by Galileo and Euclid. There was a deep appre­ci­a­tion of being part of an intel­lec­tual tra­di­tion. He was a mas­ter and for this day we were his appren­tices. “In life we need tools that last forever and give us clear lever­age in clear think­ing.”

Update: appar­ently some num­ber of data visu­al­iza­tion peo­ple have dis­liked his work­shops (the com­ments con­firm it’s not just the blog­ger). What I found fas­ci­nat­ingly wide-ranging they found ram­bling. Per­haps he’s tight­ened his pre­sen­ta­tion and I caught him on a good day. More likely, I think they came look­ing for a more tech­ni­cal dis­cus­sion of datavis and was sur­prised that Tufte focused so much on crit­i­cal think­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills. I have a par­tic­u­lar soft spot for quirky and opin­ion­ated peo­ple who don’t fol­low scripts and Tufte’s detours all made a cer­tain sense to me. But then I’m a phi­los­o­phy major turned do-gooder writer/publisher. Your mileage may vary.