Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

The Communities I speak

Posted by shannonclark on August 10, 2008

A few days ago I wrote about the communities all around us as I rode the Muni back from the Farmer’s Market this afternoon I thought a lot about the Communitites I speak – i.e. those groups I can participate in, can speak the lingo, know the references, pay attention to the key events and sources.

I think there are many different ways to define community. In the past I have written about how what we pay attention to helps form and share the communitites we are a part – who we are is what we follow. And indeed this is one key aspect at least of the active, current and potential communitites we could be a part of (we might pay attention to a community without being an active part of it). But there is another key part of the puzzle – what we can “speak”.

Speaking a Community

I am gifted at being a very quick study and learner. In part because I have always been and remain to this day an avid reader of books, magazines and more so in the past then today of newspapers I have at least a passing knowledge of tons of subjects and topics. Especially today with most of the world’s knowledge at your fingertips via well crafted Google searches (plus knowing what resources to use when Google isn’t enough) I can fairly quickly come up to passing speed on nearly any topic.

But this is not fluency in a given Community, rather it is merely an ability to perhaps get a quick glimpse, to exchange a few words, perhaps to ask some smart questions and likely to learn how to learn more, which is itself often pretty vital.

However there are quite a few Communities that I do speak, communitites where even though I may not have been active in them for quite sometime I could jump right in and participate quickly. Here are a few that come to mind, I’m sure there are others and I’ll note a few special cases.

  • Chess. I learned to play chess at the age of 4 from my grandfather. In high school I was the captain of my chess team for 3 1/2 years. Since then I have read probably 100’s of chess books and though I haven’t played a serious game in a few years, a few years ago I played regularly with the serious players at North Ave Beach (and in Old Town) in Chicago, drawing or beating players up to about 2100 or so. So yes, I can “speak” chess at a serious level. In Paris a few years ago I tested this, I went to the Luxumberg Gardens where there have long been public chess boards, there I played an English Barrister who is one of the only Englishmen to practice law in France. I met him over the chess boards where Chess, more so than French was the language of choice.
  • History. Especially of the Medieval Near East. I haven’t studied this in a few years (and though it happens slowly historians do over time make progress in learning more about the past as new works are found and increasingly made more readily available via technology) but I could probably have a good conversation with any historian generally and specifically anyone who is interested in the Ottomans, Byzantines, Armenians, or to a lesser degree some aspects of English or Italian history as well as the history of the Crusades. I studied history in college in the early 90’s, so quite some time ago, but being a historian is a particular approach, a particular view and also a way of thinking – a way of taking information, often limited, and pulling it together into a cohesive narrative and story. The type of history I prefer is an archival history, a history of digging deeply into primary sources and using those sources to reveal more about the past – sometimes telling small, specific stories, sometimes piecing out a bigger picture and a greater narrative. An active historian might be more up on the latest books, the places to be published, job opportunities, but we very likely would quickly find ourselves sharing a common language, a common approach and at least some related interests.
  • Slow Food and related to this Cooking. I am a foodie both in terms of where I like to eat and what I like to cook. Again there are many people who are even more active than I, more deeply focused on food, food culture and the professional aspects of food, people who have attended culinary school, who work some part of the food industry at restaurants, magazines or other parts of the food industry. But I definitely speak the language. Doesn’t hurt that my sister’s boyfriend is a professional food critic (for the NY Times) and cookbook author, so though to my friends I may seem fairly seriously a foodie, I have a sense of what I would consider “real” foodies are like. But probably I too qualify, even if I haven’t fully found my community of fellow foodies here in San Francisco quite yet. A few friends who usually like my cooking, a few people I see at the farmer’s markets but I’m not active in the local Slow Food groups, not active in an online forum such as Chowhounds or Yelp and in short not deeply part of the food community (or more accurately many different communities) here in the Bay Area.
  • Programming. I am not an active programmer today, I haven’t written a line of code in a number of years nor do I have a degree in computer science, but I first learned to program at the age of 7, took serious programming classes in high school and a couple of classes in college and though I have only occasionally been a paid programmer, I “speak” programmer. In the late 90’s I worked for Perot Systems (yes owned by Ross Perot) mostly working for Swissbank and later UBS after they merged doing source code administration, in which role I supported over 1000 programmers around the world working as one of the people running the source code servers for those programmers and teams. I also worked with each group on building and compiling their programs. To do this did not, in fact, require that you be a programmer yourself, indeed most of my coworkers were not programmers, but I was able to speak programmer with the project leads, hold a different conversation with them than my coworkers, a conversation about programming methodologies, about language and tool selection, and about to some degree techniques. I’m a bit rusty today, haven’t been keeping up, but generally speaking I can “speak” programmer even if I’m not up on the latest languages, programming challenges, toolkits, libraries or other development tools.
  • Gaming. Today this term often refers to online, computer or console games. But though I know a lot of people who play those games fairly seriously (and some who cover the gaming industry as journalists or work in the industry) I have never been much of a computer gamer, haven’t been one since the early 90’s and I do not own a TV or any gaming consoles. But I was a serious gamer of other types of games for many, many years. In high school I played various board games and roll playing games nearly every week with a group of friends both at our homes, in the high school as part of a gaming club, and at a local games shop we all frequented. In fact one of my high school friend’s father was a game designer for Mayfair Games and we often playtested games. At that time I went to Gencon many times and I ran a lot of games there and locally. In college however though I did play card games with friends I didn’t play many board games or role playing games (though I had prior to college assumed that I would play a lot of role playing games when in college). But in the mid-90’s I supported myself for a year as a professional Magic the Gathering card dealer and player, at that time I was most definitely part of a serious community. Later in the 90’s and early part of this century I played a LARP in Chicago which was part of a very active community, a worldwide community in fact. I played in fact at one of the first games so I definitely spoke that community, but I was also not entirely of the community. Over the years I didn’t make it to every game, in this century I became very involved in starting a company and drifted away from the game. I briefly tried to reconnect with a branch of the game (which is still ongoing) here in California but didn’t fully “click”. But all that said, I certainly can and do speak Gamer – whatever the game whether paper, board, computer or console.
  • Politics. I am fairly passionate about politics, have voted in every election I was eligible to vote in, follow the campaigns and care passionately about many issues. But at the same time unlike many of my friends who are, in some cases, professionally interested in politics (among others I have friends who have run national campaigns for president, served as candidate’s CTO’s, and in some cases run for office themselves) my interest and passion is not professional. In a small way I have helped with a non-partisan public policy group, Hope Street Group whose goals and mission I fully support. But politically I am centrist of neither party. I can certainly, however, speak Politics. And at times I have even toyed with the idea that someday I might run for an office myself, albiet only when I think someone with my centrist views and aethistic leanings could stand a chance of winning (probably rules out running for any national offices in the foreseeable future).
  • Being Jewish. I am Jewish could emmigrate to Israel and would qualify – much more than the past three generations of my mother’s family have been Jewish. I grew up in a household where Yiddish words were sprinkled into conversation with some frequency (my mom’s influence). Every year as a child in our Christmas stockings my mom gave us Hanaukah Geld. But I didn’t attend Hebrew school, wasn’t Bar Mitvah’ed and if I didn’t tell you noone ever guesses that I’m Jewish – my name tends to lead people to another assumption. In fact one Jewish friend with whom I was staying in New York City once called me on a Friday night while I was in NYC and wasn’t sure if I would be comfortable meeting him at his friends whose Shabbat dinner he was enjoying, he assumed I wasn’t Jewish (if he had realized he probably would have invited me to join him earlier). But in college I taught an Israeli friend of mine how to cook Kosher (first having to help teach her how to cook) for the local Hillel Shabbat dinner. I am not religious but I do consider myself Jewish at least as an ethnic and cultural identity. At the same time to some degree I don’t fully speak “Jewish”, I was raised more as a Roman Catholic, went to a Catholic elementary school and the world around me has generally engaged with me not as someone who is Jewish so I haven’t had the experiences positive or negative that might convey. One of my most vivid memories of my childhood is a day when I realized that attending a Catholic elementary school was limiting my perspective on the world considerably. I remember thinking that everyone is Catholic – certainly that everyone I knew was. Yes, I knew that my mom wasn’t, but it was that moment when I realized the danger of being fully immersed in a community, the danger of too much of the same being all around you. I think it was the next day I started asking my parents to transfer me into the public junior high for my 7th grade a move I’m still grateful for to this day.
  • Being Roman Catholic and Irish. I was raised Roman Catholic, went to mass nearly every Sunday for most of my childhood, recieved my First Communion and went to Confession. My father was and is deeply active in his church, he gives the homilies with some frequency and is a very active member of what is a fairly atypical Roman Catholic community, a community that has mass in a school gym and has music played with guitars and where laypeople take a very active role in the service. My aunt is a Roman Catholic nun. I grew up half a continent removed from most of my aunts and uncles (who were and are mostly still back on the East Coast) but we had large family gatherings around the holidays and heard stories of what it meant to be Irish earlier in this century in the US. Stories which reinforced an identity outside of the mainstream of Protestant America (stories of “No Irish allowed” type signs and workplaces). At the same time, however I was not immersed in an Irish idenity, we didn’t learn Irish folk dancing or cook much corned beef at home (though we did eat a lot of potatoes). I also rejected the Catholic church at a very young age, I refused to be Confirmed being unwilling to publicly vow something I did not believe or would want to honor. To be Confirmed is how you join the Catholic Church as an full adult member, it is your act of publicly affirming that you believe in God (which I do not), agree with the Roman Catholic faith and will both be an active member of the Church and will raise your children as members of the Church. All of which I would not swear that I would do – not the least of which being I feel how children are to be raised should be a mutual decision by both parents – which makes it very hard for me to feel comfortable taking such a vow on my own. So while I can speak Catholic, I am not (in a very formal sense of the word) a Catholic. I’ll always be, I guess, Irish – that’s my other side of my family.
  • Web 2.0. Since moving out to the Bay Area I have become, I guess, immersed in the emerging community around Web 2.0. My friends are the bloggers covering the companies, the CEO’s, founders, programmers, and investors in Web 2.0. When I go to a conference on the topic I usually know both the organizers of the conference and a majority of the speakers. I speak “web 2.0” with a high degree of fluency. I use many of the web 2.0 services though like everyone else I don’t use every service or have the time to try everything. I’ve covered Web 2.0 myself as a blogger for Centernetworks.
  • Business. I do not have an MBA. Though if you were to look at my bookshelves you would be forgiven for assuming that I might have one. As a child I read, at least some sections, of the Wall Street Journal from almost the time I learned to read. I have always followed the workings of business with a great deal of interest, I read a relatively large number of business books each year (increasingly books whose authors I might in fact know) and I try to stay up on the many nuances of business. However not having an MBA, not having spent much of my career working up the ranks of a large corporation (or a large services firm serving corporations) there is also a very real sense in which I do not speak Business, some nuances of relationships and interactions I simply don’t get or am at least very rusty about. I was never very good at internal company politics or at the wink and a nod aspects of how a lot of business actually occurs (over games at a golf course and the like). I’m not a member of right health or private clubs, I don’t rack up the frequent flyer miles, and I don’t go to very many business focused conferences or events. But I probably would fit in even at a very high level with people at most large corporations, I could ask the right questions, hold serious conversations, make useful contributions and introductions.
  • Social Networks. In 2004 I formed MeshForum. In 2005 and 2006 I organized a three day conference on the study of Networks both Social Networks and many other types of networks. Speakers at MeshForum included experts from the Pentagon, professors of many fields and from many different schools, entrepreneurs, investors and artists. In 2007 I held a series of smaller one day MeshWalks and I intend to hold more MeshWalks and another MeshForum in the future. As a result of my involvement in organizing MeshForum and in participating in online discussions such as the SOCNET mailing list I have become very well versed in the theory of Social Network Analysis as well as have been a student of the emerging class of web sites (and other services) around “Social Networks”. But I am not a practicing Social Network analyst, I haven’t published research and increasingly I am unable to keep up with the all too many different social networks around which people I know engage (and even less so able to track and follow the countless other networks where few if anyone I know engages). But I most definitely speak Network in all the many permutations of that word and concept. Heck, I can even hold my own in conversation with my friends who are telecomunitions policy or technology wonks. (and in my case that includes people who literally invented major pieces of our current technology stack and or who founded major companies or worked on major policy)
  • and I’m sure I am missing many other Communities I can speak to as well – science fiction fandom, art, the music industry, gay/lesbian communities (I’m most definitely straight but have many friends who are not, many of whom are very active in a range of communities around sexual orientation and idenity) and even sports fandom (the last of which is perhaps a bit of a secret even to some of my friends – for all of my life I have listened to a lot of sports talk radio at times I have followed different sports with some degree of passion – but somehow this hasn’t overlapped with my social circles much).

So what Communities do you speak?

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