Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Yesterday at lunchtime, I made a mad-dash to Busboys & Poets. Alas, I had no time to stay for a bite to eat or a cup of tea. I went there to pick-up a copy of Peter Barnes’ most recent book, of which, B&P still had signed copies.
As I passed the tragically ugly orange and brown gates at the U Street Metro Station, I justified the addition of the expense of the Metro ride as the cost of getting the autographed copy. It was also part of the consumer decision to favor a socially responsible business within my own community, rather than buying from Amazon, or Borders, or B&N.
It occurred to me as I walked at out-of-breath pace from the station, that the good people of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority had done me a favor by telling me how much my trip had cost me. They quantified the exact cost to me of each leg of my quick little trip. This is not a fact that is so conveniently delivered to me by my car.
With a car, it’s not merely the gasoline that drives the cost of the trip. That’s calculated easily enough, based upon the givens of gas mileage, trip distance, and fuel cost per gallon. The cost of car payments, muddied by depreciation, plus insurance makes for a messier (though still solvable) equation. Wheels started turning over the per-mile cost of my tax dollars in both highway subsidies and public transportation funds; over the cost of the tread on my tires versus tread on my shoes; on driving and later going to the gym, versus walking to and from the train station and taking care of transportation and exercise together. I put the snowballing apples-to-apples dollar-comparison of rail versus car on hold.
Instead, Al Gore’s disembodied voice asked me to consider this problem in light of carbon. I began to wonder if I should have the right to know how much carbon my car introduces into the air per mile, and how much my daily train ride or my periodic plane trip. Obviously, I’d be willing to pay something for that information.
The USDA makes recommendations about diet, and mandates that food producers let the consumer know what exactly is in each serving. Vendors baulked when USDA began working toward this program, and anyone who buys food in the US pays a little bit for it. Perhaps the DOE or EPA could make similar recommendations with respect to carbon emissions, and require vehicle manufacturers and providers of transportation services to make their carbon emissions conveniently publicly available. Informed consumers could then better drive the market toward sustainable business.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Steps forward

Earlier this month, BP announced its academic partners in an innovative new research program. The University of California, Berkeley, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory will collectively receive $500 million over ten years to implement an Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI). The institute will research new methods and new applications of biological sciences in the energy sector.
EBI will primarily pursue clean new fuels for road transport, using advances in crop sciences. The application of this research will reduce US dependence on foreign oil, reduce carbon emissions, and will expand markets for US agricultural products.
BP has been advancing toward a more sustainable business model for several years. In 2000, as part of the reorganization associated with its 1998 takeover of Amoco, the firm began the highly-visible evolution of its brand identity into “Beyond Petroleum”. This new moniker is emblematic of an important change. The firm has recognized that its core technology, its core function, petroleum extraction and refining, are real problems.
Instead of remaining an ecological neigh-sayer and putting short-term profits ahead of social responsibility, BP is pursuing a sustainable future. Their business model has climbed a rung on the ladder from “oil company” to the much broader “energy company”. In so doing, they have declared their intent to make an honest dollar. BP’s Energy Biosciences Institute is a tangible step in that direction.
While it remains important to use energy efficiently and responsibly, consider supporting BP’s efforts, as a consumer.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Lights... camera... Think globally, act locally

On Thursday, the DC Environmental Film Festival announced its 2007 line-up for screenings and discussions. This year, the guest list will include Canadian naturalist and honorary hipster, David Suzuki.
Among Suzuki's claims to fame are the bylines on more books than most people read in 2 years, and the perennially popular documentary series, The Nature of Things. He also inspired at least one pedantic blogger to take an interest in sciences other than physics.
Films will be screened at the National Gallery of Art, the National Archives, American U., GWU, the National Geographic Society, and many of the major DC museums.
Notably among the films this year are An Inconvenient Truth and the world premier of the documentary Ribbon of Sand. The 10-day festival will be the US-premier for 9 other environmental films. Organizers are also showing a number of green films geared toward kids. A (sizeable) PDF of the schedule is available, but readers might find this one a little more user-friendly.
If you are local to the DC area, this event is always interesting. If, alas, you can't be here in person, many of the films are screened in other venues, or are available on DVD. Ask your local library or bohemian coffee-house about hosting a screening.

Friday, February 09, 2007


Contemplate the workings of this world, listen to the words of the wise, and take all that is good as your own. With this as your base, open your own door to truth. Do not overlook the truth that is right before you. Study how water flows in a valley stream, smoothly and freely between the rocks. Also learn from holy books and wise people. Everything – even mountains, rivers, plants, and streams- should be your teacher.

-Morihei Ueshiba

Sunday, February 04, 2007

I wait and watch

Friday evening, I took my wife to see the King’s Singers for her birthday. When I bought the tickets weeks ago, I had absolutely no inkling that the program would lend insight into the train of thought I’ve been following here.
The program was titled, Landscape and Time, as is their latest album. In introducing their newly recorded work, Christopher Gabbitas remarked, “we are, all of us, a product of our time and geography”. This commentary prefaced a performance of music from Estonia, Japan, England, Finland, and Hungary, but is equally well-suited to drawing-out a nonconformity common to modern life. Though place and time shape us, we seem to be selectively blind to these influences.
We remain very much creatures of time, but increasingly lose the element of geography. In particular we forget the intimate microgeography that in ages past was part and parcel of every human’s daily life. The land was family.
In a song combining the music of English composer Richard Rodney Bennett and the words of 17th century clergyman and poet John Donne, the ensemble observed, “we cannot have the fruits of the earth but in their seasons”. For the author, this was an immutable truth taught to him, not by a book, but in the lessons learned by living with eyes open. This former plain-fact is now much diluted, and the spiritual lesson Donne intended to convey with it may also be.
The translated text of an ancient Japanese poem appears in the program notes from Friday’s performance. Here again, words from the past use a collective appreciation of the natural world to artfully speak of the human condition. The union of person and place that creates such metaphors now grows dim in the periphery of the firelight of our minds.

Alone beside the river of birds
Near the stream’s upland source
I wait and watch
Beside a bridge of stones
And in this melancholy scene
I hear the nu-e-dori night bird
Cry out unanswered in the dark,
And then at dawn the morning-bird
Fluttering and flitting to-and-fro about its nest
Like a grieving prince, wilted by the heat of lost love,
Who roams, east-to-west, like the Evening Star,
Ceaselessly going and coming
In an endless round of departure and return.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Come writers and critics who prophesize with your pen

As my regular readers have likely noticed, I've been puzzling over ecology and commerce lately. These subjects have gotten the wheels turning over changing systems and all of their changeable parts.
Every individual is the expression of a species, and every species is the expression its greater ecology. In a very similar fashion, businesses are recursive functions of their respective markets and regulatory environments. The system is a moving target, continually recomposing the parts that compose it.
In recent weeks, I've found insight on these concerns in several books and in conversations with friends, famliy, coworkers, and veritable strangers. I've seen new truth in the old chestnut that ecology and economy describe two pieces of the same whole. I believe that ethics is curiously absent from that maxim and I'm beginning to wonder if education may be equally so.
As I continue to try to explore connections and the domino forces that enact, create, and destroy those connections, I find it necessary to evolve this blog. The most obvious changes to those who have been here before are the new appearance and the new name. The URL will remain the same. It will be 20% more insightful, while only 5% more pretentious*.
Less obvious changes are those that continually occur in my head and in the world we share- a world of nature, art, culture, commerce, and connection. I aim to delve into all of these subjects in greater detail as The Influence Machine adapts to its environment and strives to adapt its environment.
As always, I welcome questions, comments, rants, and if you feel the need, verbal abuse over what I write. Book, movie, and music recommendations may be better-received than abuse.
Without further ado, The Influence Machine.

*The author is setting target metrics for the gradual phasing-out of pretense.