Thomas Hardy: Pastoral Romance, Rural Frolics, Social Injustice

Don’t I know you from somewhere?

Seems that the geolocation fun is not going to stop anytime soon. This morning I came across ClustrMaps (beta), ask a service which maps the visitors to your website. You get a little thumbnail map of world (like the one at right), case which clicks through to a bigger map on ClustrMaps’ servers; you can also zoom into continent level on the big map. At a glance, viagra you can see the geographical distribution of your readers. Neat-o. The problem right now, as you can see with the image at right, is that a site with frequent visitors from around the world quickly becomes a big red blob in the thumbnail. I’m sure they’re sort that out post-beta, though.

The reason I like this tool is because of its useful application to civil society networks. One of the advantages of using onling tools to organize advocacy campaigns is encouraging a sense of broad solidarity around an issue, be it land mine bans, tobacco control, or anti-corruption. More and more international advocacy movements are trying to find ways to demonstrate their reach to their existing constituency, to policy-makers, and to funders who support their work. Simple tools like ClustrMaps provide an un-scientific but still compelling visual for an advocacy site looking to demonstrate its global appeal.

ClustrMaps is free for sites with fewer than 1000 visitors a day, and the company provides a premium product for those with higher traffic.
I had a long chat with Ellen Reitmeyer of on Monday. Ellen’s a usability designer, order based in Berlin, abortion and was involved in founding OpenUsability because of her company’s usability design work on the KDE project. (KDE is a graphical desktop interface for Linux and Unix environments.)

What they noticed were that many open source projects could use the attention that they gave to KDE, but that there was little interaction between the two communities. So OpenUsability was set up as a matchmaker service for designers and open source projects to find each other. The problem that Ellen points to now is not the lack of interest of the open source community (more than 100 projects have signed up on OpenUsability, looking for help), but the too few usability designers. Currently, most of the designers listing themselves on the site are based in Germany (although the site is set up in English), as Ellen is. Most of them, she said, she knows personally.

Working on usabliity on open source projects is not easy, as I wrote about a couple of days ago. Ellen echoed several points, including, perhaps most importantly, the social engineering that goes into implementing usability suggestions from designers. “You need to have a personal relationship with a key person in the development group,” Ellen said, which of course means more time and effort on the part of scarce designers. She also emphasized the problem of finding developers in open source projects who are interested in revising design components, rather than adding new functionality to a project.

We ended up talking about ways to get more usability expertise involved in open source projects. After batting around the idea of raiding design schools during the summertime, or running competitions to encourage usablity experts to submit projects, Ellen made what sounded to me like a brilliant suggestion: why not run something like Google’s Summer of Code, but for usabliity/design students. The Summer of Code 2005 was a project I missed at the time, but which I love in retrospect:

The Summer of Code is a program in which student developers are provided with a stipend to create new open source programs or to help currently established projects. Google will be working with a variety of open source, free software and technology related groups to identify and fund up to 400 projects over a 3 month time span. Since Google couldn’t possibly mentor 400 people working on disparate projects, we felt it would be wise to spread the work out.

Essentially, Google wanted to mentor new open source developers, and it put up 5000 USD a head for the summer for students to work on established open source projects. Lovely. They’re planning to do it again in 2006.

Back to usability: Ellen posited that an incentivized summer program like Summer of Code (Summer of Usabliity doesn’t really have the same snappy ring, unfortunately) in which usability design students could be matched up with open source projects would do both sides a world of good. She suggested that open source projects could define part of projects that particularly need usability help, and attach a student designer to that part of the development team – thus fostering a relationship within the group, and producing specific improvements by the end of the summer.

I like this idea a lot. I wonder if Google wants to expand its Summer programs to other areas?
Yesterday, online I wrote about Google’s Summer of Code 2005 as a darn fine way to connect young developers with open source projects and communities. And I still think so, although I have a suggestion for Google for Summer of Code 2006 (assuming they are, in fact, planning to run it again). To refresh, last year’s Summer of Code matched up young developers with open source projects that had volunteered to mentor an intern. Young developers applied to the project they were interested in from the list of available mentors, were selected, and then rewarded with a summer of work on the project they chose and 5000 USD from Google for their time (500 of which went to the mentoring organization). Google had committed to funding up to 400 developers, which works out to a heck of a lot of money (2 million USD).

Not suprisingly, the Summer of Code site has a nifty little Google Map geolocating both the mentor projects and the participating students (see the world view above). Notice anything strange? Could it really be that there aren’t any up-and-coming young open source developers in sub-saharan Africa, the Middle East/North Africa or Central Asia who would want to participate?

How odd.

(Actually, it appears from the map that two mentoring members of LispNYC, and one Google mentor are based in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Right. Strangely, they didn’t manage to rustle up any locals in either country for the project.)

Yes, I’m being snarky, but only because I know excellent open source developers in these regions, and it pains me to think that with a few well-placed emails to relevant listservs and some encouragement to truly internationalize from Google to the mentoring organizations, the map above might have looked different. 2 milion dollars is a lot of money to spend on encouraging open source developers, and it’s a lot more money in the regions I mention than it is in Europe or the US. 4500 USD to a computer science student in Accra or Almaty could be a year’s support — or several years’ school fees. Or it could allow the involvement of a number of students for a summer, instead of just one.

So my modest suggestion to Google is this: if you go ahead with Summer of Code 2006, reach out to the developer communities in less-developed regions, and encourage your mentoring organizations to view the world as flat. Building skills, confidence, and international ties between developer communities across the globe is a fabulous way to do no evil.
Wireless access to the internet makes a lot of sense for much of the developing world: where fiber is controlled by government monopoly, prescription or elderly infrastructure is simply incabaple of responding to the demands placed on it by new internet users, wireless hubs and mesh networking can greatly expand access to connectivity. This is because connectivity can be shared more easily through a wireless cloud than through cables, and can be expanded easily across signficant open distances or thorughout a building, city block, or even broader area.

Tomas Krag of, along with a number of other organizations, has been looking at this problem for some time. His work, and the work of others, tackles the problem of creating appropriate wireless technology for the developing world, and seeding local expertise to deploy and maintain the technology — as well as innovate where necessary for the specific environment. A range of projects are trying different methods:’s Wireless Roadshow works with local partners to set up test case wireless infrastructure to attract local policymakers’ interest, while at the same time training local partners on the ins and outs of setting up networks. The Association for Progressive Communication is spearheading a collaborative training effort in Africa to run “wireless workshops” in four corners of the continent; their project trains up-and-coming wireless experts, providing them with both hands-on skills and training materials to take back to their home countries and pass the knowledge on. Other organizations including CSIR’s Meraka Institute (South Africa), Inveneo (San Francicso), and Geekcorps(US/Canada/Mali) have worked on projects across the continent from setting up wireless mesh for community radio stations to helping to create wireless ISPs.

Tomas now writes of the release of “Wireless Networking in the Developing World: a practical guide to planning and building low-cost telecommunications infrastructure”. This is great news for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the book is sorely needed by communities wishing to build their own infrastructure. Second, the book was written collaboratively, with a group of experts who have worked on the issue for some time, both in hands-on set-up and training. Third, the book is released under a Creative Commons attribution share-alike license, which means that it’s free to download (via PDF), translate, improve, and redistribute (as long as you share any changes you make under the same license). Indeed, the authors have set up a wiki at the book’s website so that others can make editorial suggestions. The book can also be ordered via a print-on-demand option, available through the book’s website.

To all who were involved in this project, many thanks! It’s a great achievement.

The Blue Heron

My father, unhealthy an engineer by training, page is a secret naturalist. Dad’s always-entertaining letters to me are filled with commentary on weather patterns, interesting foliage, and geological changes rendered by the tides washing just outside my parents’ summertime porch on Puget Sound. Dad’s favorite topics, though, are the sea birds that he spots, both in Southern California, where my parents live in the wintertime, and in Washington, where they spend the warmer months. Over the summer, I get updates on the ducks and seagulls that float and splash in the neighborhood, and occasionally reports from further afield when Dad goes walking at Fort Worden.

Southern California doesn’t usually yield quite such varied reports, but just recently Dad started seeing a blue heron on near the flood control channel that runs up from Seal Beach towards Long Beach. He managed to snap a picture of it perched on the peak of an aluminum-roofed building, and sent it on to me. Beautiful bird, isn’t it?
Our friends at Fahamu have recently launched the AU Monitor, cost a blog which aims to cover the activities of the African Union for an African civil society audience. Fahamu’s concern is that much of the African Union coverage is slanted towards the concerns of western donors and international NGOs, viagra approved and the AU Monitor will seek to provide a different take on their activities, find and on the interactions between African civil society and the AU.

Fahamu also publishes Pambazuka News, a well-written email newsletter on African social justice issues– just this month, it became available in French as well.
It’s difficult to read Thomas Hardy, buy more about that great chronicler of social injustice, without considering the modern path of social justice movements. Social justice is a concept that many rally around — activists, funders, polictical parties. Nevertheless, the idea of social justice is a bit slippery — in its broadest sense, it is about shaping societies to a basic moral structure, but how that gets interpreted obviously varies widely from culture to culture. The Center for Social Justice, a Canadian Jesuit organization that Googled first for “social justice”, argues for “narrowing the gap in income, wealth, and power”. For others, it may not be so explicitly about financial power, but more about social power — Fahamu, an organization that operates mainly in Africa, uses the tagline “networks for social justice”, and on their website explain their “…vision of the world where people organise to emancipate themselves from all forms of oppression, recognise their social responsibilities, respect each other’s differences, and realise their full potential.” In other words, it’s very much about personal responsibility and initaitive.

Back to Hardy and a world where personal responsibility and initiative are generally punished — not by the rule of law, but, indeed, socially. I’ve just finished Hardy’s “The Woodlanders”, which was apparently the author’s favorite of his own works; it’s easy to see why. Unlike the clearly doomed title characters in “Jude the Obscure” or “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”, “The Woodlanders”‘ Giles and Grace keep a Hardy-weary reader’s hope allive. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll overcome all the injustices heaped on them by 19th century England and see their way clear to a happy pastoral life of barking trees in the spring and pressing cider in the fall. However, since this is Hardy, it’s foolish to suppose that anyone will be well-rewarded for trying to wiggle their way clear of the social codes of the day.

Hardy spent a lot of his time thinking about social mobility, and wrote with a view on the increasing porousness of English society. “The Woodlanders” focuses on the after-effects of social elevation. Rather than being about the follies of trying, like the ever-obscure and always-failing Jude, to better oneself into a higher social status, “The Woodlanders” is about the follies of *actually* bettering oneself into a higher social status, and the ensuing social disintegration that one can assume will happen when classes willfully mix.

As always, love (or lust) is the driving force behind class-mixing. Marty, a lowly country girl, loves above her station, and covets Giles, a self-employed cider-presser. Giles doesn’t give Marty the time of day, but instead dedicates himself to Grace, the local timber-merchant’s daughter, who is one social step ahead of him by virtue of her expensive education; Grace, in turn, who should be of Giles’ stature but has been (foolishly?) sent away from village life for a high-class education and now returns to find Little Hintock (and Giles) too mean for her new tastes, is fascinated by a newly arrived young doctor of very good family; the young doctor, Fitzpiers, is the great democrat of the book, since he’s willing to sleep with everyone in town, but eventually marries beneath himself by choosing Grace – – who is, despite her newly refined tastes, still the daughter of Hintock’s timber merchant. Finally, Fitzpiers realizes he has unnecessarily lowered himself, and starts keening after Mrs. Chambers, the local aristocrat who actually owns the whole village. Mrs. Chambers clearly finds a professional man like Fitzpiers beneath her, but begins an affair with him anyway, thus ruining his marriage. However, since Grace, his wife, is essentially two tiers below Mrs. Chambers in social hierarchy, that doesn’t really bother her until Grace shows up and demands that Mrs. Chambers keep her hands off her (Grace’s) husband. Mrs. Chambers wavers when face to face with the angry young wife, but then takes Fitzpiers off with her to tour Europe anyway. It is, by her reckoning, her social right, after all.

As you’d expect from Hardy, it all ends in tears, early death, and unfortunate choices. The crucial point, however, is that all the book’s events are set in motion by the unusual decision by Grace’s father to attempt to better his daughter through education; he simply does not factor in how an educated woman will be reintegrated into village society at the other end of boarding school. She is welcome nowhere. Grace confesses at one point in the book that her schoolmates always looked down on her, knowing that she came from village life. However, her old friends (and her betrothed, the guileless Giles) assume her to be too finely wrought, post-schooling, to enjoy their company. Hence the social dystopia of Hardy’s vision: one may achieve some kind of personal betterment, but only at a cost to society as a whole. Grace is only reintegrated back into the village when she returns to “nature” (both her own “real” nature, and nature in opposition to cosmopolitanism), and becomes as she was before.

Hardy’s is a beautiful trick; as a romantic poet who clearly loved the rhythms of 19th century rural England, he writes a tactile and engaging story. But as a social crusader, he avoids Dickensian didactics, and still manages to impart a modern sense of social injustice in his narrative. I can’t help but wonder which element prevailed for his contemporary readers.

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