Haynesville Documentary

From Ruston Daily Leader, October 7, 2010

Stories of Haynesville Shale have been buzzing around for the last year or so.  It is always exciting to hear Louisiana in the news in ways not related to disaster.

This past Tuesday Louisiana Tech’s School of Architecture, College of Engineering and Sciences and the Department of Social Sciences sponsored a film screening for “Haynesville,” a documentary peering into the energy predicament in the country today.

The Haynesville Shale deposit is primarily located in four parishes in Northwest Louisiana—Caddo, Bossier, DeSoto, and Red River, and has been touted as the largest natural gas discovery in North America (roughly 250 trillion cubic feet of natural gas).  Its potential economic impact on North Louisiana is huge—leases on land in the area are reportedly increasing from $150 an acre to $30,000 over the span of a few months.  However beyond economy, it has potential to have long lasting, prolific impacts on the health of families, state and country.

The documentary was directed by Gregory Kallenberg and Mark Bullard—Kallenberg and Bullard were present at the film screening on Tuesday to present their work.  They have been travelling all over the country and parts of Europe with their story of Northwest Louisiana’s gold rush.  It has also been shown at the United Nations Climate Conference in Copenhagen and the Sheffield International Documentary Festival.

Kallenberg and Bullard hail from Austin, Texas; however, Kallenberg is from North Louisiana originally.  At first blush, it is hard to imagine a documentary concerning natural gas to portray an honest, unbiased depiction.  Issues of this magnitude definitely bring to mind questions of how we define power.  Unfortunately money seems to be one of—if not, the—primary entitlement to power.  It has granted some incredible and perhaps undeserved power to those in the oil and gas industries.  And because money begets money, the power stays put.

One particularly salient point in the documentary was the story of Kassi Fitzgerald’s fight with ExxonMobil and Chesapeake for the rights of the landowners.  Because of the extraordinary perks that come with representing a huge corporation, companies like ExxonMobil can afford the best lawyers in town.  It is important that we keep asking ourselves how these industries could be blocking our growth as a nation.

Kallenberg’s intent for the film seems to be based on a desire to inspire positive change.  He says that he did not come at this project as an “energy guy”but rather, as a magazine journalist who simply enjoys finding a good story.  He recalls first hearing of the Haynesville discovery while sitting in a Strawn’s in Shreveport.  He talks of overhearing the recounted stories between townspeople, which seem reminiscent of the whispering buzz you can imagine spread during the California Gold Rush.  He says that after hearing some of these stories, he wanted to get “a good essence of people during an energy boom.”  He says, “Once we put context to it we came up with some big ideas.”

Part of the reason the energy discussion has stalled is due to the conflicting discourses.  On one side there are those who push for the drilling and inevitable revenue.  On the other side there are those who say you must not drill for environmental reasons.  And there are environmental issues to discuss, primarily issues of water contamination.  Kallenberg believes that the answer to the energy issues must be found in the rational middle.  It is now the duty of the state regulators and environmental scientists to be vigilant about doing what is just.

Haynesville Shale has gotten some praise for its potential to take the focus off of oil obtained from foreign countries so that we may be dependent on our own resources for energy.  Natural gas has been lauded as a way to facilitate sciences and innovators the cushion to continue to research and create renewable energy technologies.  Though it seems to be in accordance with history that we only create out of necessity.

The hope is that Louisiana will take this opportunity to make conscientious decisions about how we go about handling this resource.  Kallenberg closed the evening by mentioning that Louisiana is in a position to make demands on our government and corporations.  He said in his concluding remark, “Louisiana oddly enough has the opportunity to be an example to the rest of the world.”


Update on September 2011: Just read a post that exposes Kallenberg’s family history involvement with the oil and gas industry. The article also cites OpenSecrets.org to show that “the festival’s sponsors include some of the most powerful players in the natural gas arena: Apache Corporation, BP, El Paso Corp, Energy Future Holdings Corp, and America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) — the largest natural gas industry lobbying consortium in the United States. ANGA spent over $3 million lobbying the U.S. Congress in 2010 and has already spent over $1 million lobbying Congress in 2011.”

Divisive Devices

From Ruston Daily Leader, October 21, 2010

You may have experienced those kind of slow motion seconds in which the brain somehow resolves itself to accept disaster.  A few days ago as I was driving down Louisville in Monroe, an SUV of three 18 year olds sailed through their stop sign on the perpendicular street practically sweeping me and my little convertible off the road.  The seconds before the impact feel like hours in a dream that you’re trapped in.  You want to run, you want to move but logistically there is not the time.  In the hours after the crash, meeting the parents and filling out paperwork, I sat on the back of a tow truck flipping through all the ‘what if’ questions.  At the caboose of the thought train there’s an unsettling resolution that it is impossible to get away from our attachment and dependence on the body, our health deteriorating every day, and the dissolution of the materials that keep us functioning.

There very next day I attended a conference on crisis assessment in communities in which methods for planning for and responding to disasters were discussed.   University of New Orleans sponsor CHART—the Center for Hazards Assessment, Response and Technology—a team of professors and graduate students traveling around North Louisiana to investigate and implement disaster recovery programs.  Their mission is to partner with local communities and identify ways to mitigate its risks.  In the five-hour conversation-style presentation, they asked several questions about what it means to be prepared for the next disaster.  They postulate that for an organization to be resilient, it must be able to achieve its core objectives in the face of adversity.  Naturally after the events of the previous night, I was feeling a little skeptical about the ability to prepare for the unexpected.

Under the roof of the Ruston Civic Center, we had the opportunity to discuss the value systems in communities and the structural and practical support of these values.  These rely on the tangible systems, supporting these intangibles.  Wired to mostly filter and compute things with the right side of my brain, it is a constant struggle attempting to marry it to the left—the practical and the theoretical, ‘till death do us part.  

Kristina Peterson, a graduate research assistant for urban and regional planning, presented a few ideas about risk and values in a community and the practical application of these.   She explained to a room filled with business owners, school principals, non-profit workers, and ministers “not one of [your] entities is an island unto itself.”  But how do you go about linking the whole community?  And furthermore, is it in the interest of each individual to be connected to the community?  There seems to be an emphatic “yes” from the participants and leaders in the room.  The question of how to reconcile public interests and private interests has been a question asked for centuries, and I think still needs polishing.

Emphasizing the importance of individual initiatives as a part in caring for the whole, Peterson told a story of a supermarket in Jean Lafitte that was damaged after the storm.  The community went in and took an inventory of the Piggly Wiggly, and then handed out everything from the market to the community.  The man who owned it did not make anyone pay for the groceries, instead he had keys made and gave them to some of the leaders in the community.  After both hurricane Gustave and hurricane Ike, these people were able to utilize sustenance, helping others in the community.

Professor of Sociology at the University of New Orleans, Shirley Laska—a tall, blonde woman with a heavy sense of intelligence and emotion—gave the closing presentation titled “mitigation for your organization” in which she explained the importance of linking the social with the structural.  Earlier that morning, as people were still filing in and I was frantically downing weak coffees in search of caffeine, I had the chance to speak with Ms. Laska.  From the small slice of the thousands and thousands of productive, thoughtful, and heartfelt hours she must have poured into this project, I received a lasting impression of her dedication.

She praised Louisiana Tech University for its engineering program, professing her belief in melding the two sciences—social and structural.

She delivered such an engaging presentation at the very end of these five hours when we were all beginning to fade.  She made an important point that the buildings themselves are important to the values we uphold in community.  Before hurricane Katrina, she went on a hunt to build a hurricane resistant roof over her house.  In all of New Orleans, she only found one contractor who had simply been trained to build the roof.  After the hurricane, the roof had proved strong enough withhold the weight of a fallen tree without one leak.  Her point was that individuals within communities must be prepared for disaster especially for the structures under which we practice our values—such as zoos, museums, football stadiums, worship centers, bars, hospitals, schools, supermarkets, prisons, and so on.

The trajectory of the presentation was built upon steps to motivate community leaders to begin to view community as an obligation, which gives back to the participant.  Perhaps, you can protect the tangible but the intangibles are susceptible to a myriad of extinctions.  The assessment and planning aspect of anything is incredibly unsexy.  It is bland and borderlines paranoia.  However, in the event of disaster, those few crucial seconds will feel more tingling with life than all the coffee in the world.

the slow moving maturation of Generation Y

First RDL article

My father sits with me at the dinner table, retelling that same story I’ve heard so many times before—the autobiographical one about a teenage boy, hot off that college stove, crispy and ready for action.  He tells me a story of a hardworking kid, determined to land the best job out there.  He tells me a story of a kid going to school in the 60s at a time when there were more jobs than educated workers.  After WWII the economy was injected with steroids.  By the end of the 60s, the average Americans income had increased 50 percent.

I hear the story that we, as students in our 20s, all so desperately are straining to hear—a story of opportunity.

There was an article in the New York Times a few weeks ago addressing the trend for Generation Y’s, or the Net Generation—also sometimes adequately dubbed the Peter Pan Generation, proclivity to inch their way to adulthood.

The article is called “What is it about 20-somethings?” by Robin Marantz Henig

Henig looks into the new movement lead by professor Jeffrey Arnett to view the 20s as the “emerging adulthood” stage.

Rather or not you find creating a new stage of growth for our children called for, it is worth noting that “one-third of people in their 20s move to a new residence every year.  Forty percent move back home with their parents at least once.  They go through an average of seven jobs in their 20s.  Two-thirds spend at least some time living with a romantic partner without being married”.   The early 20s of most generations are riddled with questions of identity and direction.  It is an age in which one might quail at the first infelicitous remark that implies they just aren’t good enough.  Your typical 20 year old hasn’t been beaten down enough times to have built up his courage reserves, to have learned to be resilient.

The basic gist is that we, armored with our 20 some odd years, a handful of adventurous “gap year” and summer work experiences, and a degree from a four year college, are taking longer to accomplish those five milestones that are said to denote maturity: completing school, leaving home, becoming financially solvent, getting married and having a child (or 5 or 6 if we’re looking to the past to get an idea of what is normal).

The fact of the matter is we are not settling.  If a white picket fence, five screaming kids and a luxury minivan is the answer; I don’t want to know the question.  We are simply “coming of age” in an entirely new era—one that is actively being documented and written.  I sometimes look to the stories of my parents and grandparents with envy.  They were given a map with a destination.

The pressure to propitiate our parents is overwhelming.  And why shouldn’t it be?  They are the ones who provided most of us the opportunity to go to college in the first place, the ones who provided us life when we unable to feed ourselves.  Why shouldn’t they view our attempts to find our passions jejune and insipid?  They don’t hear the plangent sounds of our hearts pounding like the foot of a nervous sinner in church.

In an era in which the answer to almost any question or curiosity may be found with just a few swipes and clicks on our smartphones, the demand for excellence and creativity has been skyrocketed out of a canon.  We are living in an era in which we are not afforded the luxury of a promised job.  We are also living in a time that offers some of the most extraordinary opportunities but they are obtained through different routes than ever before.  We are explorers.  We are creating and following our own paths and they are paths that have never been followed in the past.  There is no cookie cutter answer.

So I would urge advisors, parents, teachers, anyone in a position to offer the youth some wisdom and guidance, be demanding of your young adults but realize that what they have to accomplish has no road map, they are creating the road map.

The Efficacy of Digital Tools

From Ruston Daily Leader, November 18, 2010

First of all, thank you to everyone who participated in my survey.  It helped a great deal.

Secondly, I want to go back today to the article I wrote in September concerning the New York Times article on the slow moving maturation of Generation Y.  On Tuesday I went to a Technology and Innovation Symposium on behalf of the Air Force Global Strike Command at the Shreveport Convention Center.  I had the opportunity to hear speaker Marc Prensky and professor Mark Bauerlein debate the effect of technology on education.  Marc Prensky, author of “Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning,” argued for the efficacy of technology and on the converse, Mark Bauerlein who wrote “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future” argued that technology is making us stupid.

Prensky argued we are living in an era that is exponentially changing in which “machines, digital tools, are becoming more and more powerful.”  He argues that we must learn to make the machines work for us, that if we do not learn technical skills such as programming, we will be at the mercy of those who possess the knowledge.  Prensky, wildly positive and hopeful at times, had a valid challenge in urging the crowd to become less dependent on others to do these tasks.  He compares the current phase to reaching one similar to the phase in which professional scribes were hired by the elites to do their reading and writing.  The power is in the translator.

Prensky says we are living in an era in which education begins with capturing attention and engaging the passions.  Counter to Bauerlein’s argument that the use of technology is void of necessary challenges, Prensky argues that technology can offer substantial obstacles such as those seen in video games.  However, technology in terms of entertainment is just a manipulation of the already “written” rules of society.  To argue that technology offers its own challenges by using the example of a video game is to only prove that human beings are driven by challenges, and thus the video game companies have used our nature to their advantage.

Bauerlein, taking on the more difficult argument, makes a really great case for the austere, hard work that comes with having to search, or work, for your goals—goals which must be present by the hunger for knowledge only reached by means of critical thinking.  As he talks, there are many silent rebuttals that come to mind in my head; however, the theory behind his argument is solid.  He talks about the great delays he has witnessed in the maturing process of my generation.  He explains the social network phenomenon as its participants being constantly “in the network”.  There is the “ubiquitous presence of your peers, which intensifies the age segregation.”  All space becomes social because all spaces, even private spaces, are permeated with access to your peers.  Even if the phone is on silent or turned off, you are still receiving the messages.  The influence of adults has been delayed because our generation is spending so much time under the watchful eye of their peers.

His argument is a romantic one.  Whether he intends to or not—he conjures up, for me, images of being in an ornate university library in the wintertime, completely disconnected from the world, only connected to your wise professors and your hungry and insightful peers.  And I am tempted to be angry with technology for taking this particular form of social solitude away from me.

Despite my educational fantasies, the point that can’t be ignored—and precisely why I think Prensky has the easier argument—is that technology is not the evil.  If the students can find the goals compelling enough they will do the work to get there.

You also cannot ignore that our education is severely lacking for more reasons than technological advancement.  We have been watered down into ignorant mush.  Perhaps our education system churns out more numbers, but quantity does not necessarily equal quality.

My 14-year-old brother complained to me tonight about his heavy school load.  His “fortunate” friend’s mother requester her son not be put into gifted and honors programs so that he could make all A’s.  “How unfair!,” my little brother indignantly whines.  And I tell him that he’s actually the fortunate one.  And I want to tell that mom she is part of the problem.

At some point the pretending will have to cease whether it be the pretense of knowing by consulting your iPhone or the pretense of knowing by only doing what is easy.  At some point, you will be asked to perform.  The point is what you are going to do with the technology.  It is the misuse and manipulation of this tool, which has led to the stupefied generation.

The Interactive Dinner Table

From the Ruston Daily Leader November 2010

How many friends do you have on Facebook?  Seven hundred and fifty-eight?  Two hundred and three?  How many of them will sit with you at the dinner table this Thanksgiving?

During the holiday season most of us are drawn together by family.  We come back to our hometowns, maybe see some old friends from high school.  We visit with relatives who may know little about us but are bound to us by blood.  There exists an understood interest because are, by extension, a part of who they are.
But on social networking sites there is no hierarchy.  Every friend is in the same playing field.  When you share something you are not making an intimate gesture but you are sharing it with your entire customized world of acquaintances.

All of this makes me wonder about the role social media plays in the family and private life.   Growing up with Internet and sites such as Xanga (an online blog) and Myspace (a spam-ridden precursor to Facebook) being present for the majority of my teenage years, I have seen it become a necessity in the lives of the youth.  I see this especially with my younger brother whose left hand is an iPhone as he is constantly engaged in a dialogue with his peers, making it easier to ignore the nosy inquiries of his sister.  From my observations, this form of dialogue seems to dissolve the private life.  Not only does the meaningless permeate the meaningful but the private is rendered meaningless by becoming publicized.

Often these outlets are lauded for maintaining connections with people with whom you otherwise would have lost touch.  But if that’s the case, is it really important to have these “friendships of memory” kept?

What I mean to say is that I suspect these social media sites are not beneficial for the relationships that add meaning to our lives.  And furthermore, the participation in them, the kind of strange surveillance of people you no longer know, takes away from the nostalgia wrapped up in the memory and mystery of those people.  How much has it aided in strengthening serious relationships?

In thinking about all of this, I remember something from the last conversation I had with you about the technology debate and how the current generation is more influenced by their peers than ever before, constantly under each other’s “surveillance”.

It makes me wonder where the place is for those who long for an adult conversation.  Does it further implicate a separation for those youth who want something different?  Are they to be viewed as strange and perverse?

Expectations for conformity are already rampant in teenage years but with such little private life, is it possible that in marketing to the many one could become devoid of meaning themselves?

These sites primarily promote those who look good on paper but not necessarily those who are great in action.  They traffic in the immediate.

They traffic in appearances.  The entire foundation of the social network is that one may sell themselves by the image they create.  And I often wonder how much people can back up the way they market themselves.

And all of this has an effect on the private life—on how one calculates meaning and trust.  For a few centuries not there has been a dissolution of the family due to technological advances which led children away from the farm and out into the industries.

The rise of social networking sites is just an example of another development that may not lead people away in a physical sense but the implications of an unexamined participation in the interactive world is that it can separate one from reality, from what is truly meaningful.

Semantic Antics

From The Ruston Daily Leader, September 23, 2010

Disclaimer:  I want to make it clear that I am about to address a topic—political trust—with which books upon books have been written.  I do not presume to know more than the authors of these books.  Rather, read this as the beginnings of an interesting question to which you may have your own opinions and observations.

In light of today being the last day of our Constitution week as well as the upcoming election for Louisiana Lt. Gov., which will be held on October 2, I would like to peer into and pull back some of the layers surrounding how we truth, and thereby choose, our leaders.

It is in the political rhetoric today that a leader must be or, at least be under, the guidance of a shrewdly talented marketer.  (S)he must be presentable but not too stuffy, witty but not too fluffy, educated but not too pretentious, knowledgeable but not too tendentious.  Under the watchful eye of our media, potential leaders of our country must now sell themselves to us more thoroughly and personally than ever before.  These politicians live much of their lives orchestrating a story they can market to a country of people who so desperately want someone to put their trust in.

But the figures show that we are not as trusting of our political leaders as we have been in the past.  The most recent Gallup poll shows that Americans’ trust in the Legislative branch is at an all-time low.  However, it also shows that though our trust in politicians has plummeted, our trust in “the American people as a whole when it comes to making judgments under our democratic system” has been at a consistently high level at 73 percent.

In a PEW research done in 1998 on Americans’ view of the government, 40 percent of those with distrust in government complained about the political leadership—believing that politicians are dishonest, selfish and too partisan.

The Harvard Kennedy School for Public Leadership published some research in 2009 showing that Americans are among the world’s most optimistic people when it comes to our belief in the potential of our government.  We still hold the words of our founding fathers close to heart—that “the power under the Constitution will always be in the people.  It is entrusted for certain defined purposes, and for a certain limited period, to representatives of their own choosing; and whenever it is executed contrary to their interest, or not agreeable to their wishes, their servants can, and undoubtedly will, be recalled” (George Washington, Ibid., 29:311).

This is all seemingly positive, right?  If 87 percent of Americans polled believe that problems we face today can be solved by effective leadership, then it seems that we, as a nation, are more trusting in our own country than the rest of the world.  However, it is only in our potential that we remain so strongly optimistic.  To believe in the potential of an institution or person is to believe in the perceived strengths or capabilities that make up that individual, organization, investment, etc.  But this believe in the potential is only the beginning of the solution.

This leads to some questions about the qualities of trust and the trusted.  Do we trust the qualities that we identify with most or the qualities with which we find admirable?  Do we trust people who seem to share our values, intellect, and background?  Is it the influx of disparaging and vituperative media in our lives that makes us distrustful of our politicians?  Is it the conditions of our environment that make us prone to trust?  Do we simply tend to trust in our government when comfortable in the happy, warm cocoon of a flourishing economy?  And most importantly, how do we come to terms with trusting an individual so desirous of power as to put himself through the dehumanizing process that is American Politics?

In honor of our Constitution week, let’s consult that great work and see some of the rights to which we, as citizens, are entitled.  The Constitution is appropriately called the Living Constitution.  As any great piece of writing, it is timeless and remains alive within the people of this country and those who choose to participate in the political process.  When we perceive these rights being put into action in our political process, there is a perception of greater trust in our government.

Pepperings from the dinner table

from The Ruston Daily Leader September 30, 2010 column

Culture is by necessity political.  It is a response to environment, an environment constructed by those functioning within it.  We experience meaning by virtue of our relations with one another.

Perhaps because our culture is so relational, we experience fear for that which is unknown.  We experience paralysis in response to fear in plenty of big ways in foreign affairs, the economy, education, relationships, and so on; however, we also experience this fear in small ways, such as not waning to try new things even if they may enrich our lives.  In fact, evidence indicates that we fear an unknown outcome more than a known bad one.  Does this relationship between fear and familiarity have the same effect on our view of cultures different from our own?

I have noticed a particular comfort in many cultures in the familial aspects of the dinner table.  For the past 50 years, there has been an increasing exposure to other cultures by means of technology.  This perceived familiarity with things foreign from us has quelled many fears and insecurities concerning the unknown.  We have come a long way since mystery casseroles, boiled chicken and the Brady Bunch.

I came back to Ruston about a month ago and was thrilled to find the addition of a Vietnamese restaurant–Pho Paris–on Tech Drive.  I’ll never argue with a cuisine that serves up onion, cilantro, hot chilies, and lime!  Since the French occupied Vietnam in the middle 19th century, there are actually a good number of French Vietnamese restaurants.  Pho is a a noodle soup usually served with a choice of meat and a concoction of the above-mentioned items.  Some say that it was the French who influenced the broth of the Pho while the noodles traveled in from China.

Huu Ngoc, an author and “cultural expert” (cool title, huh?), has written a great deal on Vietnamese culture; he reminisces on his memories of those times at the dinner table: “Pho was very special, almost status food.  We loved it because it had everything we valued–rice, noodles, broth, meat and vegetables.  it was complete, nutritious, infinitely delicious and yet so easy to digest that we could eat it morning and night, day after day”.

It is a comfort to momentarily taste a glimpse of another culture’s creativity with sustenance.  If you look into any other country’s cuisine you will find that most have been born out of necessity.  You will usually find a stew that combines a meat, a starch, inexpensive and readily available vegetables doused in a myriad of spices–must like the gumbo of the Creoles or the Goulash belonging to the Germans.  We marry our knowledge of the history of a country with its responses to its struggle to survive when we note the heavy dependence on the potato in Irish culture or relish in the stir-fry method introduced by the Chinese as a way of conserving fuel.  We smell the climate of a foreign region by tasting the perfect balance of warm, sunny days and cool evenings of the Burgundy region in France and the Willamette Valley of Oregon, which make the obstinate Pinot Noir grapes so delicious.  These are the senses that make each and every culture burst with life.

Of all people, Louisianans know what it means to struggle.  We know what it means to find lightness in the heaviness.

I know that in my family despite heated political disputes, religious disagreements, and varying lifestyle choices, when it comes to our food we all of the sudden become agreeable.

The whole point in this rambling piece on cuisine is not to be another elevation of the foodie craze.

What I mean to say is that I have found something very profound in the things shared at the dinner table.  These are the beginnings of where we learn to be communal.  And to be in a community, or rather, to be social is to be functioning in an interactive and improvised play.  The dinner table is where we learn to turn the seriousness of our day to day into the lightness of human interaction.