Talk on nature and permaculture

STATE OF THE DANISH NATURE (AND SOCIETY)

Talk given at the technoshamanism encounter in Aarhus, November 22, 2014.

I wish to talk about the Danish nature, and I’d like to start by showing
you some pictures. The first pictures I’m going to show you were taken
by the writer and photogropher Rune Engelbreth Larsen who has been
working a lot on documenting the Danish nature as it is today.

Photo (c) Rune Engelbreth LarsenWhat you se here is of course a Danish forest with a lake, and if you
look at these pictures (which Rune Engelbreth has been dedicating
several years of his life to taking, making excursions and going to the
most remote corners of Danish nature) you’ll find that
many places in Denmark we actually have a rich nature
with very beautiful places, e.g. like this.

Photo (c) Rune Engelbreth LarsenSo if you visit a place like this and many others, you’d be forgiven for
thinking that if there are so many wonderful places here in Denmark
where you can go to meditate and enjoy the nature, we must have a
beautiful and very diverse nature in this country. And it’s true -
you can indeed find places where you can
take such pictures. You can find many such places, also e.g. like this:

Photo (c) Rune Engelbreth LarsenThese examples of Danish nature are places with a really peaceful
atmosphere. They are very green and very nice, usually with very
comfortable temperatures. If you visit some of the best places in Danish
nature, you’ll find that these are places that you can really feel a
part of, where you can relax and be happy and feel a strong sense of
belonging. As a Danish person I grew up with this kind of nature, and
I really feel at home in these tranquil spots. This is a landscape to
which I can really connect, spiritually.

Photo (c) Rune Engelbreth Larsen

In the photo above, you see one of our great oak forests, in Langaa.
Originally, Danish forests consisted mainly of oak trees; today, species
like beech, birch and fir are much more common. We don’t really
know why this forest has been conserved as oak, but in pre-Christian
times oak trees were connected to the ancient Nordic religion – the oak
is the tree of Thor. Thus, a very old oak forest like this one can also
help us connect to that part of our ancestral history.

However, if you look at other parts of the Danish landscape, a very
different picture emerges. The following pictures were all taken during a
walk that I took one day several years ago when I was living in
Solbjerg, a small town south of Aarhus. I walked around the lake called
Solbjerg Sø in one end and Stilling Sø in the other. There are, as you
can see, nice pastures along its banks that you can follow.

The trees that you see in the background are a small forest that’s also
quite beautiful once you get inside.

From there, you can go up a hill road and get a good view of the
landscape (click to see the full panorama image).

You have the hillside, the trees in the background, the
lake, and it’s all very nice, but: as pleasant as all of this might
appear, these pictures are actually lying. The first pictures I chose to
illustrate this article are truthful enough – they really do show some
very nice spots of Danish nature. But the pictures from my walk are
lying, all of them. Solbjerg Sø is situated in a completely agricultural
district, and the only reason there are green pastures at its banks is
that it’s too humid, so they can’t get their tractors all the way down
there. The trees at their edge form a hedge, and the corn fields start
right on the other side. In the autumn and winter, the pastures are
flooded and it’s nearly impossible to walk there. This is partly because
the lake’s water level is rising slightly, but mostly it’s because of
the drainage pipes that carry water from the fields on the hillside,
making them more tractor- and corn-friendly. This drainage water will
also carry excess fertilizer and pesticides which are sprayed on the
crop, all of which are flowing directly onto the pastures on their way
to the lake.

If you enter the forest on the other side of the lake – as I did that
day, since I walked all the way around the lake as close to the banks as
possible – you’ll se that it has been cut back and replaced with corn
fields as far down the slope as possible, right down to the point where
the ground becomes so humid that no matter what they do and how many
draining pipes they put in the ground, they still won’t be able to till
it and thus they can’t grow corn on it. The hillside is drained as far
down as possible, and the water from the fields is conducted to that
wood and makes it much too humid, creating a very bad climate in the
wood. The water from the fields is polluted with nutrients from the
chemical fertilizers used for the corn. This means that the wood by the
lake is overgrown with nettles, and otherwise the biological diversity
is nil. The high humidity does make it an ideal breeding place for
mosquitoes, though. As idyllic as that wood may look at a distance, it
really isn’t a nice place.

The area around Solbjerg Sø is a good example of a very idyllic but
completely destroyed Danish landscape. And this is the real state of
most of Danish nature these days.

On the other hand, if you look at the picture below, you’ll see a
typical Danish landscape. If you look at an aerial photo, you’ll find
that this is what Denmark is: Corn fields. You’ll see some tiny patches
of green dispersed in the landscape. These are forests that they haven’t
felled yet and some very few bogs that they were unable to drain
enough to sow corn.

These landscapes are really dreary. What few people know is that Denmark
is the most heavily farmed country in Europe and one of the most heavily
farmed – and most destroyed – countries in the world.

My assessment of the situation is that, financially speaking, we’re
doing all of this for nothing. The most important crop on Danish corn
fields is barley, which is mainly grown in order to feed pigs and other
livestock. The real reason for having all these corn fields is that we
have to feed the pigs in the industrial pig farms so that we can export a
lot of pork meat.

Meanwhile, in these pig factories the pigs are being overmedicated. All
of them are usually treated preventively with antibiotics. This is
creating new antibiotic-resistant bacteria which may also infect humans.
Right now, there’s a bacterium originating in pig farms called MRSA
(Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus) which is actually killing
people. In Denmark, four people died of MRSA infection from 2012 to
2014. In order to protect the pig farmers from “harm” (e.g., in the
form of consumer boykot), the government is keeping the outbreak
locations secret. This means that school classes may and do visit farms
with outbreaks of this deadly disease. The teachers are not allowed to
make a informed decision not to visit an infected farm, since that
information is confidential.

So this is the dilemma: Our agricultural production is destroying Danish
nature and undermining the health of future generations by creating
penicillin-resistant strains of bacteria which are already lethal in
some cases. At the same time, we don’t really have to produce food in
that way, because we don’t need to use all this space on corn fields in
order to feed ourselves. Most of our agricultural production is
exported. Of course, one might claim that we produce all this grain and
pork meat for sound economic reasons. The agriculture lobby is always
emphasizing this claim.

But the fact is that agriculture as practised in Denmark is not
financially sustainable. The only reason that Danish farmers survive
economically is that they’re heavily subsidized. If it weren’t for
subsidies, they would quickly go bankrupt. In other words, the present
overfarming is pointless. We’re sacrificing our country’s nature and
biological diversity to the very short-sighted interests of one single
profession whose productions methods are not even economically viable.

This is the first of the dilemmas I want to address: We’re destroying
our country in order to produce far more food than we need, and society
as a whole is losing money because of it. Meanwhile, there are many
environmentally and economically sustainable ways to produce food.

A related dilemma is that today’s consumer society is moving faster and
faster. This means that we as people are constantly pushed harder and
harder to perform. You have to do well in school, you have to get good
grades in secondary school, you have to work hard at the university, you
have to get a good exam. Once you get out you have to get a good job.
You’ll often have to be there at nine o’clock in the morning and stay
until five. In most jobs, you must be there during these hours or
you’ll get fired. If you get fired and you’re eligible for unemployment
benefit, society has all sorts of rules so you have to go to meetings,
attend “courses” and turn up at eight or nine o’clock in the morning
anyway. Only now you won’t get paid more than you need to barely keep
you from starving, so you better find a job soon! In other words, our
society isn’t free at all: We’re forced to become parts of consumer
society and we’re not actually free to choose not to be a part of it.

One way in which we could become more free to choose how to live would be
to become less dependent on money.

I’d like to propose that the two problems I’ve described right now – the
destruction of nature by unsustainable and unnecessary food production
and modern society’s endemic lack of personal freedom – have one single
solution. We, as individuals, can obtain the means to sustain ourselves
and each other without having to work for money in the way we do now.
It is theoretically possible for us to create a sustainable life and a
sustainable production of food and other necessities in such a way that
our society is and remains in balance with nature.

If we were to organize our food production according to the principles
of permaculture; that is, if we were to produce what we need in forest
gardens and carefully designed multicultures, we could avoid the use of
chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fossil fuels. In permaculture you
normally design your crops to balance and suplement each other, so you
don’t need to supply fertilizer – a careful selection of edible
perennials can help provide the nutrients they need and keep each
other’s pests and diseases away. The only monoculture crop we really
have to cultivate is wheat, since people do want bread. In order to
produce bread, we need about 500 square meters (organically farmed) for
each person, and that’s nothing compared to the area we’re currently
using for agriculture. Apart from that, we could organize our
agriculture entirely according to permaculture principles. We could
easily do without agriculture as an export industry, since it’s already
not actually making us any money, since it’s only profitable because
it’s subsidized. Giving up on the pig production, we could shrink the
agricultural land to a fraction of what it is today. Instead of using
60% of the country’s area for agriculture, we could feed ourselves with
just 10% of the space; and we could re-establish nature in the rest of
it.

That’s what we could do as a society if we want to transition to
something more sustainable. But we can also do something as individuals.
If we have the option we might, of course, shoot our proverbial uncle
in America and inherit all his millions – but most of us don’t have that
option. On the other hand, if we were to get cheap access to a garden -
I was lucky, as I was able to buy a house cheaply and I’m now building a
permaculture project there – we could put in a modest amount of work for
some years and afterwards we’d be able to get most of the food that we
need from that garden. It’s estimated that if you want to be
self-sufficient with food, you could get by with 400 square meters per
person, farmed very intensively. When I took my Permculture Design
Certificate, our teacher said that he wouldn’t try to do that himself -
he’d probably go for 800. But that’s still a moderately sized garden.
People could form communities with shared gardens – share the access,
share the cost, share the work, share the food – and you could have
communities of people who sustain themselves without ever spending any
money on food. So this transition is not just something we could do as
a society – we could do it ourselves and become vastly more independent
of having a job and being a part of consumer society. I’m not saying
this is the whole solution – there’s still some dependencies like how to
get the land in the first place – but it could be an important start for
many of us.

If you’re consuming pigs which have been produced by industrial
agriculture, then you’re also paying to have their fodder moved around,
you’re paying to have your fertilizers transported from abroad, you’re
paying to sustain a lot of carbon emissions. If you build a forest
garden in your own garden or help build a forest garden on a shared area
so that afterwards you can get most of your food from that forest
garden, you’re actually not emitting any carbon, you’re storing it. A
growing forest garden is actively removing carbon from the atmosphere
and storing it in the trees, in the roots beneath the ground and in all
the plants constantly growing in that garden. Calculations have been
made which show that if – and that’s a very big IF – we were to
transition to get a large part of our food from forest gardens and
sourcing that produce locally instead of having everything driven and
flown around, we would be able to take enough carbon out of the Earth’s
atmosphere to make a difference regardint the climate changes. I’m not
saying that this is going to happen because obviously it won’t, but we
could theoretically avert some of the dangers of climate change that
way.

Maybe we can’t save the world, but we can make ourselves more
independent and our lives freer and more fulfilling – and in doing so we
can at least try to contribute as little as possible to our own
destruction.

Video of our talk on Baobáxia @ FOSDEM

Video link to our talk on Baobáxia, the Galaxy of Baobab Trees

Our talk is, of course, also on Baobáxia itself.

The talk was scheduled late Sunday and that did affect the attendance, but the people who were there displayed a lot of interest in the system.

On Saturday, we set up a booth and operated for some hours, which also gave some very interesting opportunities to share ideas about the system.

Links:

Baobáxia at FOSDEM

At the upcoming FOSDEM, I’ll be presenting the Baobáxia system, previously mentioned on this blog quite some time ago.

On the corresponding FOSDEM presentation page, the talk is described with these words:

Baobáxia is a community-built project to connect about 200 Brazilian quilombos to assist the interchange and preservation of traditional, community-built culture.

A special challenge is found in the fact that many of these communities are located in remote areas with no access to the Internet. It is therefore imperative to be able to synchronize multimedia data offline.

Technically, the system uses git-annex to solve the challenging problem of offline distribution – but the really important part of the process is the community effort involved.

The Rede Mocambos is a network of about 200 Afro-Brazilian and indigenous communities. As a network, it is focused on creating new infrastructure and strengthening the communities through the use of free software.

Baobáxia is a system designed to unite these communities in an offline network. Each community will upload their local cultural production (in the form of documents and multimedia content) to their local node of the system and have their contributions synchronized to the rest of the network. Nodes with an internet connection can synchronize directly from other nodes on the internet, while offline communities can synchronize their contents during the frequent meetups and visits with other communities in the network.

Baobáxias purpose is to provide traditional communities with the infrastructure to create and preserve their own digital culture on their own terms. The offline distribution is very important as many of these communities will probably never have fast Internet access due to their geographical location, but the creation of a free and community operated infrastructure for sharing multimedia data may also be seen as an important alternative to centralized global monopolies as YouTube and Facebook.

The system has now been operating for about a year and currently contains 30 nodes corresponding to about 20 different local communities. The project’s efforts are currently directed at consolidating the current features, planning new features for future releases and giving workshops for users and administrators in the communities.

Technically, the system is built in Python and Django, with a front end based on Java Script and uses git and git-annex to synchronize the media. The important part of the process, however, is the community building aspect. Baobáxia represents the hope for the digital future for an existing network of ~200 traditional communities which are already keen on using free software and free technology to propagate and develop their culture.

Baobáxia – the Galaxy of Baobab Trees

Baobáxia - the Galaxy of Baobab TreesYesterday evening, I gave a T³ (Tech Talk Tuesday) talk in our local, friendly hackerspace about the Mocambos network and their software project Baobáxia – a free software project to connect very widely distributed, often rural communities, namely the Brazilian quilombos.

Since my visit to Brazil in April, I’ve been involved in this project as a programmer, at least as far as my time has allowed.

Above, you can find a link the slides from my presentation – you can also read them in PDF format (with functional links) here.

ownCloud and free software in the cloud: Meet Frank Karlitschek in Open Space Aarhus

I’m co-organizing this event, involving our hackerspace and the FSFE local group in Aarhus:

Frank Karlitschek, creator of ownCloud, will give a talk centering on ownCloud, free software in the enterprise and data protection in a post-Snowden world.

The talk will be followed by a discussion with the audience and a discussion panel consisting of:

  • Frank Karlitschek, Debian developer and creator of ownCloud
  • Christian Orellana, CEO of Cabo, a company that build enterprise clouds from free software
  • Carsten Agger, local group coordinator in Free Software Foundation Europe and software developer in Magenta, a company that specializes in free software mainly for the Danish public sector.

The event will take place in Open Space Aarhus on

Wednesday, October 1 at 18:00 hours

Do bring  a friend, this is going to be interesting!

 

Opening reception at Open Space Aarhus

Open Space Aarhus is the venue for our FSFE Fellowship meetings i Aarhus, and it just moved to a new location just opposite the university’s departments of computer science and digital design.

The site’s chairman Flemming started the event by explaining the meaning of the term “hacker” in “hackerspace” and its value in modern society, and that meant explaining the value of free software.

Flemming Frandsen speaks about Free Software

Among other things, including of course the ins and outs of the hackerspace itself.

Open Space Aarhus: The Rules

As can be seen, quite a lot of people showed up for the reception – many of which we had never seen before (this was of course the whole point of having the opening reception).

The new hackerspace has lots of working space

… electronics room, dirty room, even a home-built laser cutter and CNC machine

… people doing fun and geeky stuff who like to tell people how they did it …

… all in about 200 square meters of semi-industrial building bang in the middle of the university’s computer science campus and the related science park with many startup companies.

I’m quite excited about the possibilities of this new hackerspace, both as a regular member and as a coordinator of the local FSFE group. And so is everybody else. It seems like the right place at the right time, and the location can hopefully attract many new and interesting free software and freedom-in-general related activities here in Aarhus.

Update: I uploaded some more photos from the event to a Flickr set.

BibOS Admin – free admin system for GNU/Linux to be presented at FOSDEM

You can meet me this year at FOSDEM. I’ll be presenting a lightning talk about BibOS Admin, which is a ” web-based, easy to use admin system for Ubuntu” which we made in my company, Magenta.  The  subtitle of the talk is: “Because Landscape is too expensive”.

Here is the description of the talk on the FOSDEM page:

The public libraries in Denmark wanted an admin system for their new BibOS-system, which is an Ubuntu-based GNU/Linux distribution for audience PCs. To achieve this, we built a completely new and completely free administration system for Debian-based PCs.

The public libraries in several Danish municipalities are in the process of switching their audience PCs from Windows to Ubuntu.

They needed a central administration system to manage it, and Canonical’s Landscape product was unacceptable for them; they needed the system to be completely free/open source, and Canonical’s licensing when running Landscape as software-as-a-service was too expensive. The available free alternatives are either too technical for library staff, or they don’t support Debian-based systems well.

In response, we created “BibOS Admin”, a completely new administration system for all Debian-like systems. It enables users to remotely manage, maintain and upgrade PCs and run arbitrary, centrally defined scripts on them. The system is designed to be easy to use for non-technical staff who can rely on a set of pre-defined scripts, which should be set up as part of the setup for each organization (source code available here: https://github.com/magenta-aps/bibos_admin).

In the talk, I will discuss the technical and organizational challenges of building a new management system from scratch in collaboration with Biblioteksstyrelsen and the public libraries in Aarhus and Silkeborg, who kindly funded the effort.

This talk will be on Sunday, February 2. at 10.40 AM, but I expect to be at FOSDEM for the duration of the conference, i.e. both Saturday and Sunday. Hope to see you there!

Note: If you’re curious, you can check out the source code for the admin system and the BibOS desktop here:

 

Free software, technology and curiosity – celebrating 30 years of GNU

[ Celebrate 30 years of GNU! ]

On October 5, 2010, I gave a tech talk about free software at Open Space Aarhus, the only and at the time very new hackerspace in Aarhus. The talk was scheduled in celebration of Free Software Foundation’s 25th birthday the day before.

After giving the talk, I wrote a longish article from my notes, explaining free software from a non-programming but technical and scientific point of view. Today, I have published the article on my Danish-language blog in celebration of 30 years with the GNU project, and you’re free to read it and share it as you want.

Well, if you can read Danish, at any rate. If you want to get an impression of the article, you can try reading the Google Translated version. I can’t guarantee for its accuracy, though. But happy belated birthday to the GNU project, and especially to the rest of us who enjoy its fruits every day when we boot up our computer.

Link: Fri software, nysgerrighed og teknologi (Google translated).

Open Data – how to make it succeed, how to make it fail

This is a talk I gave on September 26th as part of an Ignite session for the hackathon Hack4DK. The hackathon was organized by the Danish Agency for Culture and was centered around recently released cultural heritage data. The talk was an Ignite talk, which means I had to talk exactly five minutes, accompanied by exactly twenty slides (PDF) which display for exactly fifteen seconds each.

Below, the actual speech I gave:

As you can read in the program for this event, I’m a software engineer at Magenta and a board member at Open Space Aarhus, our local community hackerspace. I am also an active Fellow of Free Software Foundation Europe.

This means that my background is in professional free software development AND in the hacker community around Open Space Aarhus. You might say that I represent a hacker’s point of view.

In free (or “open source”) software, the things you need to be able to do with a program are quickly described: You need to be legally entitled to USE, STUDY, CHANGE and DISTRIBUTE the software you work with. This enables sharing and user freedom and avoids expensive licensing.

In the hacker community, our slogan is, somewhat more playfully:

Build what you need, share what you build

AND

Be awesome (and have fun).

From both perspectives the requirements for open data are the same: We must be legally entitled to use them AND to share them – to distribute them ourselves.

If I am to build a free software app from your data, anyone must be allowed to use it, for any purpose. If people are to share what I build, it must be legal for them to do so. If not, my users might get sued.

This means that open data must always concede their users the following rights:

  • A free license, for instance the Creative Commons license used by Wikipedia
  • Redistribution and copying must be allowed
  • The data must be available in formats following open standards

Conversely, data are NOT open if they

  • have a license that limits commercial use in any way, or
  • don’t have a FREE license, or
  • if they don’t have any license at all, or
  • if they are only available in closed or patented formats.

Apps built on such data are not freely hackable and distributable as embodied e.g. in the Open Definition (http://opendefinition.org/okd/).

People from Wikipedia, from Creative Commons and from a plethora of excellent organizations have spoken at last year’s Hack4DK event, and everybody contributing to this year’s event should be aware of these things. But if I look at this year’s contributors of data, several present data with no license or with non-open licenses which are useless from an open data perspective.

One site affirms that its data are experimental and not to be used for commercial purposes. I wouldn’t dream of touching such data in an “open” context like a hackathon.

Worse, the data in question are apparently graphical renderings of maps that are hundreds of years old and thus in the public domain. So these contributors are not just offering data, they are simultaneously removing these data from the public domain and limiting their usefulness to the public.

On another site I find lots of nice and useful data – but, in many cases, no license!

I might claim good faith and use the data anyway, but if no license is given this implied permission could always be revoked and my customers might get sued. I do trust their good intentions, but I frankly think that someone who choose to call themselves “Open Data Aarhus” should know better than that.

And finally, an image offered for download by an art museum is accompanied by very hostile copyright language – which is also pointless, as that statue passed into the public domain centuries ago.

The point here is: If you want to open your data, don’t do it grudgingly. You don’t need hostile copyright language; what you do need is a nice and clear license allowing everybody to use, share, remix and distribute your data.

Cultural heritage data could play a very important part in a free and open society. The possibilities are virtually endless. But we must be free to use them.

Put your data out there under a clear, permissive and non-revokable license and allow users and businesses to share and redistribute them.

In that way a lot of very valuable knowledge and a lot of very valuable works of art may form the basis of many valuable contributions to our modern, digital culture.

Happy hacking! And thanks for having me here today.

I believe the organizers recorded the event on video, and I’ll post the video here as well when it’s available – which is, unfortunately, not just yet.