Monday, August 9, 2010

Timber REITs - Micro & Urban Forestry coming next?

What about developing micro-forestry projects on 'blighted' urban land, or large suburban lots and industrial/commercial campuses?  I know others have thought of this before, but I've heard that forestry can become a steady, modestly profitable business.  Now that REITs (real estate investment trusts) are entering the timber market, there could be new interest among the investing public and new investment sources for smaller timber/forestry projects.  

Has anyone created a working business model that owns or controls/manages many smaller woodlots (perhaps with quick-growing or high-value trees) that might be transferable to an urban or suburban setting?

In addition to the obvious timber products, a forestry business - especially a visible one in a population center - can 'sell' environmental benefits to the local community (green space, cooling, moisture & runoff retention, parks, wildlife/songbird habitat, carbon sequestration, etc.).  Such an enterprise might also be able to sell carbon-offsets or carbon credits on global financial markets.

Micro-forestry projects could be operated by community groups or community-minded environmental entrepreneurs.  Micro-forestry could be a viable revenue source for non-profits serving local communities -  and would be very interesting if they were catalyzed by land-grants from municipal governments. 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Assisted Living is Relatively Strong

Assisted Living is leading the senior housing pack according to NIC, says Matt Valley 
The occupancy rate at assisted living properties rose to 88.3% in the second quarter, up 50 basis points from the same period a year earlier, according to NIC’s analysis of the nation’s top 31 metropolitan statistical areas. The average monthly rent at assisted living properties rose 0.7% during the same period to $3,525. That follows a 1.4% rent increase in the first quarter.
“The number one point is that the fundamentals in this asset class are holding up much better than a lot of other property sectors,” says Michael Hargrave, vice president of NIC MAP, which tracks key metrics in seniors housing quarterly and provides that data to owners and operators, developers, lenders and other interested parties. Hargrave is referring to the troubled hotel, multifamily, office and retail sectors, where loan delinquencies continue to climb as net operating income contracts.... 
Pent-up demand is a driving force in the assisted living sector today, explains Hargrave. “Assisted living is more needs-based. You can only hold off putting mom into an assisted living facility for so long,” emphasizes Hargrave. “Secondly, over the past few years the assisted living supply, or inventory, hasn’t been growing as fast the independent living inventory.”...
Construction activity across the seniors housing sector has bottomed out, Hargrave says. He anticipates the growth rate of new construction to be about 1% annually for the foreseeable future. 

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Geo-location marketing: Strengthen community at neighborhood-level?

Chris Wood's recent article fits with my idea of a location-based Neighborhood Watch platform which I playfully named after Harry Potter's Marauders Map. The audience is multi-family real estate operators and developers.  I can imagine how geo-location marketing could empower real-time connectedness among neighbors and facilitate community resilience (by accident or by design, depending on how the real estate entrepreneurs want to be involved):

We’re not talking about zip code-based direct mail. Geo-location awareness—the science of marketing to consumers by matching up smart phone geographical location with user-identified browsing and purchasing preferences—opens up a virtual door to real-time customer interaction based on a locality.
...While consumers have been fairly open to sharing their geo-location via cell phone, privacy and safety concerns are beginning to push a trend towards more ambiguity in user-allowed geo-locating. And phone owners seem more comfortable reporting their presence in certain neighborhoods. Location vagueness isn’t weakening outreach to those users, however. “Neighborhood boundaries allow you to start drawing much more powerful demographic-type information that you can leverage against retail [and consumer marketing],” Clement says. “If I’m an apartment owner and I want to start driving push ads and I’m in Soho, I’m probably going to get a lot better response from people who are in Soho than people who might be in an adjacent neighborhood even if they are closer by the straight line distance.” 
...“I think local geo-marketing is a really good community relationship building tool, but as an apartment owner I’d be wary of how you deliver your message,” says Elysa Rice, emerging media consultant at Dallas-based multifamily marketing firm Ellipse. “Residents don’t want to feel like they are being constantly advertised to when they really only make a moving decision once a year...[read more]

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Demand for high-end senior housing is 'elastic' - especially CCRC's

I just found this perspective (from last year) that links housing market woes to relative strength or weakness for the Continuing Care Retirement Communities in any particular region...
CCRCs and Problems: Much Ado About Likely, Very Little [click to read more]
A product that has seen its share of struggles in the economic downturn is entry-fee CCRCs.  To clarify, not all CCRC models are struggling and not even all entry-fee based CCRCs are struggling as certain regions have seen less housing market fall-out and concurrently, operators have done the right things to keep their census stable during the “down times”.  Where problems have cropped-up is in new primarily new, unstabilized developments, CCRCs in markets where housing sales are significantly depressed, and in larger suburban and urban market locations where options within the price range are plentiful.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Google Wave for Community & Business Collaboration

Today I heard about Google Wave. I can't wait to start using this tool to promote neighborhood resilience and to improve public services as a community entrepreneur.

I went to and it let me log right in, recognizing my landon.syn@gmail account.    Ok, this is cool.

Here are videos about Wave.

And you can collaborate in real-time with people who speak other languages due to an instant translation 'robot'. 

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

An Expensive Private Education for Less than $3,000 per Year

I'm delighted to share this inspiring recipe for home or cooperative schooling.  This is from Michael Strong, who I consider an intellectual mentor.  I highly recommend his book, Habit of Thought.  

How to Give Your Child an Expensive Private Education
– For Less Than $3,000 per Year

Michael Strong, FLOW, Inc.

Part I:  Introduction

Many parents are rightly dissatisfied with their local government schools, and yet they cannot afford to pay for an expensive private education.  Are they therefore doomed to watch their child suffer a mediocre education year after year, foreclosing life options with each year in which their child is not encouraged to flourish?

Not at all.  For many parents and many children it is not that difficult to create at home a world-class private education for less than $3,000 per year.  Here I will provide a brief description of the goals of the education and the pre-requisites for success.  In the next installment, I’ll provide a sketch of the content up until “high school.”  In the final installment, I’ll describe what “high school” looks like through this approach and how to keep costs under $3,000 per year for such an education.

Goals of the Education

Academic Goals

A sixteen year old student will be a competitive candidate at the best colleges in the U.S. if she:

1.  Has SAT scores above 1400 (preferably above 1500).
2.  Has taken three or more Advanced Placement (AP) exams in diverse academic subjects and scored a “4” or higher.
3.  Has successfully undertaken a substantial enterprise that has been recognized on its merits by the adult world – a volunteer enterprise, a business enterprise, an academic or research enterprise, has published papers, extraordinary physical or artistic achievement, etc.

School, in the usual sense, is entirely unnecessary for achieving these goals and in many cases is, in fact, a hindrance.

While other bells and whistles could be added, and although no particular resume will guarantee admissions into Harvard or other highly competitive colleges, a student that has achieved unambiguous excellence by these three measures will be a strong candidate for admissions to virtually any university – without a high school diploma or transcript.  For students and families for whom this level of academic achievement is not a goal, all the advice given here still applies to the fundamentals of academic development; one can merely scale back to whatever goal is appropriate to your child and your family.

Social-Emotional Goals

Some parents fear that home schooled children will not be adequately socialized.  And, indeed, there are children who are raised in such complete isolation that it would be have been better for them to have attended school.

That said, most of the socialization that goes on at most schools is not positive.  School children are often more cruel than adults ever are.  In traditional cultures young people were far more closely integrated into the adult community than are our children in schools, and as a consequence such traditional cultures did not have the rampant breeding grounds for immature cruelty that is characteristic of most of our schools, public and private.  A home schooled child who spends several hours each week in peer group activities (group lessons in music, dance, martial arts, art, academics, etc.) is likely to develop healthy, positive peer relationships without experiencing the unnatural cruelty that routinely takes place in schools.

Pre-Requisites for Success

The term “home-schooling” frightens many parents because they have been taught to believe that there is some special expertise required to “teach” children, and that it is wiser to relinquish control of their children to the “experts.”  While it is true that under some circumstances, especially regarding learning disabilities, in which specific expertise is helpful, in those circumstances a parent may hire an appropriate tutor or coach with expertise in, say, dyslexia.  Much of the remaining “expertise” represents a set of over-rated strategies for managing large groups of students who are, in essence, prison inmates and forcing them to “learn” meaningless terms that they will forget as soon as the test has been taken.  If your child has been raised well in a loving environment, which has included the consistent setting of firm boundaries, then much of the most challenging task of educating your child has already been achieved.

Indeed, the single most important pre-requisite for a successful education consists of the habits and attitudes of respect, responsibility, focus, and optimism that you have instilled in your child in the first few years of life.  The short version for success in this project consists of:

1.  Consistently loving, nurturing, attitude towards your child.
2.  Clear, consistent, setting of appropriate behavioral boundaries, enforced consistently by both parents as well as other caregivers, with appropriate consequences for violating the boundaries.
3.  Time for the child to explore in an environment rich in learning opportunities – and little or no electronic stimulations (television, video or computer games, etc.)

The last one may seem to be the most challenging, given the pervasiveness of electronic addictions among today’s young.  Your child will certainly have many friends who will expose him or her to the ever-exploding array of technological gadgets and entertainments.  The simplest way to avoid a never ending battle with your child is from the time of birth creating a warm, rich, interesting, loving household in which it is normal not to spend time indulging in electronic addictions.  Make it normal to talk, sing, read, write, build things, cook, plant, and so forth.  Your child will get used to playing with gadgets elsewhere, and you will preserve your home as a sanctuary for learning and family life.  Tim Seldin’s book How to Raise an Amazing Child:  The Montessori Way provides far more detailed advice along these lines.

Emotionally secure children who have been habituated to respect fundamental behavioral boundaries and who have developed the habit of focusing their attention will be far easier to home school.  Indeed, “home schooling” is a misleading term; the ideal is to develop capable, sophisticated autodidacts by the age of four or five – “amazing children,” who are spontaneously curious, happy, and loving.  In addition, the children should be responsible, polite, and willing to take initiative.  Such children will be a joy to work with, both for you and for any tutors whom you may hire.

Parents who have not raised their children in this fashion face a more difficult task in re-training their children, especially if their children have developed addictions to electronic stimulations, or if their children have developed manipulative interaction habits that have been successful in the past.  We will not dwell on these issues here; suffice it to say that in order to give your child an expensive private school education for less than $3,000 per year, the single most important pre-requisite is to develop their core habits and attitudes appropriately.  While it is far easier to use electronic gadgets to entertain your child, and to allow you and your spouse to remain inconsistent in the quality of attention that you give to your child, in the long run whether you educate your child at home or send her to school she will be more successful and happier if you have developed the core habits and attitudes well.

Part II:  Academic Content Sketch

I.  From year one to year six or so:

The single most important learning task in the early years, apart from allowing focus and curiosity to develop in learning rich environments, is to develop the skill of reading in a positive environment.  From the earliest years, read with your child, read in front of your child, teach your child the alphabet, help your child sound out words, and most of all bond your child positively to the act of reading.

The vast public debate between “phonics” and “whole language” approaches to teaching reading should entirely vanish in the home environment.  Of course teach your child to read phonetically.  That said, the original impulse behind the “whole language” movement was to make reading also real and positive.  A family that authentically loves their child and loves reading and that is not anxious about the act of reading will spontaneously give their child a “whole” approach to reading while also teach phonetics.  The goal is not to have reading become a tedious, difficult, and painful drill, in which the child perceives an anxious parent trying to force something natural upon them.  Instead the goal is to introduce the child into a sacred and honorable family tradition, a source of joy and enrichment for all family members.

Often anxiety is associated with children who are slow in learning to read.  The fact is that different children learn to read at different points in time.  If a child seems to be having a hard time learning to read at the age of five or six, after several years of reading together, sounding out words, etc., it may be appropriate to hire a professional diagnostician to check for learning disabilities, and, if necessary, work with the child using professional techniques.  That said, the most important goal for the parent remains to keep reading as a positive activity, a means of child-parent bonding, an opportunity for conversation, mutual wonder, and loving interaction.

Ideally not only should the child develop no electronic addictions, but also the parents and other family members and care-givers should not exhibit electronic addictions.  Your most important act of teaching is your modeling.  If each evening everyone in the family picks up a book, the non-reader will want to do as the readers are doing.  Conversely if everyone in the family sits down in front of the television each evening, it is unrealistic to expect a child to want to read when everyone else is watching television.

II.  From the Age of Reading to Early Adolescence:

The three biggest tasks in this phase consist of:

1.  Reading, reading, reading, and more reading.
2.  The development of sophisticated writing skills.
3.  As much advancement in mathematics as is possible.

While any number of additional activities are wonderful supplements here, including music, art, physical activity, foreign language development, entrepreneurial activity, etc., we will focus on developing the core academic skills needed to succeed at the highest levels.

1.  Reading, reading, reading, and more reading.

Because of the tyranny of “schooling,” many parents become highly concerned with “what curriculum” they should “teach” their child.  They look to the schools to see what is being “taught” at each grade level.  And they begin teaching their children the curriculum.

While there is nothing wrong with this per se, from my perspective curriculum all too often interferes with the core academic skill, the skill the development of which supercedes all else, which is reading.  Leaving mathematics aside for the time being, whenever I encounter a student who is a habitual reader I regard the educational problem as 90% solved.

It would be far better to develop in your child an appetite for diverse reading materials, including the habitual reading of history and science, than to take them away from reading (at the elementary level) in order to “teach” them history or science.  It is your responsibility to create a rich learning environment, which should include numerous books, magazines, and other resources that introduce your child to the amazingly vast world of knowledge.  You can even require that they do a certain amount of reading in the fields of science and history, and discuss the reading in these subjects with them (just as you are discussing literature with them).  But a child who has read hundreds of books in science and hundreds of books in history, prior to adolescence, will typically “know” more science and history than do most students who have “studied” these subjects in school.

Although this sounds odd to modern ears, in many cases some of the most famous thinkers in history self-educated simply by reading, “and then I read all the books in my father’s library.”  Prior to the creation of schooling, reading widely was regarded as fundamental to education. 

Go ahead and teach curricula if you must, but if you really want to give your child a head start, encourage them to be a voracious reader of diverse materials, and allow them plenty of time to read, think, and talk with you about the amazing world they are discovering.

2.  The Development of Sophisticated Writing Skills

There are various techniques and tools for teaching the fundamentals of writing.  These fundamental skills must be taught explicitly, just as fundamental reading skills must be taught explicitly.  In addition, there are various curricula for refining grammar, punctuation, usage, etc.  You do want to develop world-class usage in the fundamentals of written English.  Ultimate mastery of the entire content of Strunk & White’s classic The Elements of Style may serve as a useful target for mastery of those fundamentals; select specific curricula to compensate for your child’s weaknesses in achieving Strunk & White perfection.  The goal is not to “cover curricula.”  The goal is for your child to internalize the norms of effective written prose. 

Again, alongside teaching the fundamentals, you want to encourage dramatic fluency in writing.  It may take a few years of reading and practice of rudimentary writing skills before your child really takes off as a writer, but you will want abundant, habitual writing, motivated by your child’s desire to communicate, ultimately to become part of the fabric of your child’s life.  Again, just as reading skills are developed by means of many hours of reading, writing skills are developed by means of many hours of writing. 

As your child begins to produce significant quantities of writing, you may simultaneously wish to reward the achievement of Strunk & White perfection.  Often a good English teacher will focus on one skill at a time in order to re-enforce the habitual use of standard English:  one week celebrate writing fluency while teaching, and then rewarding, the perfect use of punctuation, another week encourage writing fluency while teaching, and then rewarding, the perfect use of conjunctions, and so forth.

The importance of conversations about ideas in developing expository writing skills is under-appreciated.  If you have been drawing your child out, not teaching them but rather asking them what they think and why, from the earliest age, then expository writing will become more of a natural process for them.  I focus on expository writing because it is both the most difficult and the most important of all writing skills to develop.  Some children do develop an interest in writing fiction, poetry, or other expressive modes.  This is wonderful and should be encouraged, though if it is not a taste for your child its absence is not a crucial weakness.

But expository writing, the ability to explain his or her understanding of the world and how they obtained such an understanding, is the key to all of collegiate writing and much adult professional writing.  Although one can “teach” techniques for such writing, such teaching proceeds far more naturally if one has spent many thousands of hours talking with your child and asking them why they liked the story, why they respected certain characters, how and why they might have handled certain situations differently, etc.

The ideal is to create a home atmosphere in which thinking and talking about life and how one understands life has become second nature, in which dinner time conversations routinely move ever more deeply into explorations of what happened during the day and why, in which explicitly understanding the world by means of conscious thought is the daily norm.

For children raised in such a rich dialogic atmosphere, for children who have “rehearsed” their thoughts in conversations for thousands of hours, expository writing becomes a natural extension of their habitual conversations.  As they write more and longer pieces, you as parent, or a hired writing coach if you prefer, can assign various structures, coach on the detailed use of mechanics, and develop in your child a rich, distinctive writing voice well before adolescence.  Indeed, a bright child raised in a conversationally rich home environment can easily develop a mastery of Strunk and White by means of coached writing of long essays while most school children are still doing formulaic book reports at school.

3.  As Much Advancement in Mathematics as is Possible

As with reading, the short message is:  Never enough.  The major disadvantage of most school curricula in the U.S. is that the pace of mathematics here is far, far too slow.  If your child happens to have a low aptitude for mathematics, the U.S. grade level mathematics curriculum pace might be appropriate.  But any student who happens to be in, say, the top two-thirds with respect to mathematical ability should be learning more mathematics more quickly than is typically taught in American schools.

Again, there are numerous curricula and approaches to teaching mathematics.  Here I will focus on one core strategy:  Develop in your child the habit of sitting down to work on solving mathematics problems for at least an hour per day, preferably a couple of hours per day.

Many children spontaneously love to read, and do not need to be forced to read.  With a sufficiently rich conversational atmosphere, one can develop in young people an appetite for writing.  Such a spontaneous love for mathematical problem solving seems to be rarer.  This is the single area in which the development of a routine, daily disciplined work period is probably the most important.

Math curricula are fairly linear and standardized.  You (or your child’s math coach) should closely monitor progress to ensure that the child is practicing enough to learn each concept without engaging in repetition to the point of boredom.  Ideally this would be highly individualized; there are some children who grasp some mathematical concepts almost instantaneously and do not need many repetitions.  Other students may need many repetitions of some concepts but grasp other concepts quickly.  Individualized mathematics coaching, combined with an ideal of two hours of highly disciplined practice each day, is one way in which your child can develop a tremendous advantage over students in school.  Because even elite private schools typically adhere to the glacial grade level pace of American mathematics education, a personally coached mathematics student with good work habits can easily arrive at middle school age one, two, three or more years ahead of his or her age-level peers.  Colleges and universities will be impressed if your sixteen year-old child has already taken a multi-variable calculus class at the local community college when she applies for admissions.

Ideally the problem-solving mathematics curriculum would also include rich reading and conversation on mathematics, plenty of science-based examples, and complex word problems that require original mathematical thought.  A mathematics tutor who loves mathematics, and who loves working with your child, is an important investment here.

Part III.  “High School” Academics, a Substantial Enterprise, and Costs

1.  High School Academics

A child who reaches the age of twelve, thirteen, or fourteen, and who has read extensively, written extensively, and has completed advanced algebra, is ready to explore serious college level coursework.  Although the child can continue on the existing paths of deep skill development, it is appropriate at this time to enroll the child in a serious mainstream academic course, in any discipline, so that the child can develop the skills needed to succeed in mainstream course-work.  There are courses available at local schools, community colleges, and on-line.  A child may also prep for an Advanced Placement exam with a coach in order to acquire this kind of experience.

Depending on the study habits developed over the years, the skill level achieved by the child, the child’s personality, and the quality of the academic coach, the first course or two might be difficult.  The orientation should not be at all that a failure has occurred, but rather than this a fundamental element of the strategy:  instead of wasting years in meaningless coursework, you, your child, and your child’s academic coaches have adhered to a strategy of optimal skill development rather than content coverage.  But if the child has decent work habits and has very high level skills, these courses are likely to be easy.  If not the first time through, then soon enough.

The metaphor of “coach” is important here.  Adam Robinson’s What Smart Students Know may be an appropriate supplementary guide.  Rather than a “teacher,” the coach observes the child’s existing strengths and weaknesses and, coming from a place of maturity and experience in preparing for such exams, the coach focuses on developing the specific skill sets needed for the child to succeed vis-à-vis the test.  The ideal is complete auto-didacticism – the child should be developing the ability to prepare for any test on his or her own (A Princeton Director of Admissions was once asked if there were every any “obvious admits” among applicants – and he mentioned a student who had obtained a perfect score on an AP Chemistry exam without having taken a course in AP chemistry.)  But the coach is providing individualized mentoring so that the child knows how to organize her time and attention to optimize performance.  This period should be similar to that of an athlete in training:  All parties know that a challenge is being faced, and that personal excellence in facing that challenge is the goal being pursued by all.

By means of such a strategy, on the academic front a child should be well prepared to take, and pass, a diverse array of AP courses by the age of fifteen.  He or she should also have developed the ability to score well on the SAT.  Not all students may have the capacity to score above 1400, but if they have spent the entire period in a profound commitment to fundamental skill development, most will score far more highly than they would have scored had they spent their time in school. 

Consider the advantage your child will have had if she has spent 3-5 hours each day reading for the past ten years, 2-3 hours engaged in mathematical activity for the past ten years, and 2-3 hours writing each day for the past ten years.  Most students sit in class listening for six hours per so each day, of which much of that time actually consists of teachers managing the class rather than teaching.  The only real time that children practice skills are when they do homework at night, at which point they may be tired and longing for play or free time.  A child that reads, writes, and does math from 9-5 p.m. each day, with time off for lunch, will spend far more hours actually learning than does a child who goes to school – plus that child will be free to spend family time together in the evening instead of chained to their desk at night doing homework.

2.  Undertaking a Substantial Enterprise

Finally, assuming you and your child have done a superlative job on the academic side, at some point your child should undertake a substantial enterprise.  In traditional cultures young people typically underwent a right of passage at the age of thirteen or so, after which they were welcomed into the adult community with adult responsibilities.  In American culture prior to the imposition of compulsory schooling, individuals such as Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, and Thomas Edison began their careers at thirteen and built a foundation for lifetime achievement upon real world achievements in adolescence.  This type of real world achievement should be a goal for you and your child.

Often parents eager to get their children into elite colleges are eager for their children to participate in many school “activities.”  And yet colleges are overwhelmed with students who list participation in numerous activities.  They are more interested in real achievement than in long lists of “participations.”  It is one thing to be student body president; it is another to create a successful business, publish an academic article, or develop a career as a professional musician prior to entry into college.

If you have allowed your child the opportunity to develop his or her interests over the years, by adolescence they may well be ready to take a particular interest far more deeply.  Whatever they choose to do should come from them and their passion, not from your conception of what they ought to do.  You can discuss with them what counts as “superb performance” in their chosen domain, and help them to obtain mentors and external benchmarks so that they are both prepared for their challenge and have opportunities for clear feedback on whether or not they are advancing towards their challenge at an adequate rate.  But the expectation should be that they are now living their life – this is not a dress rehearsal.  They will be judged openly by the explicit standards of the adult community.  Part of the ritual of a “right of passage” was the notion of challenge oneself to prove that one was sufficiently capable and mature to join the adult community as a fully responsible member.

From this perspective, existing K-12 education is largely training in immaturity.  We neither expect nor allow our children to aspire to real achievement.  It is all a game for children, and they know it.  One of the goals of having read real books, magazines, journals, and newspapers rather than textbooks is to have introduced your child fully into the adult world as it really is.  They should know about business, and government, and relationships, and entertainment not as “subjects” to be taught but as living realities in the adult communities in which they were raised.  The thousands of hours of conversations should have focused them not on preparation for tests, but rather on understanding the real world of real life.

As a consequence, your child should have a superior understanding of how the world works and what it takes to succeed in that world.  He or she should aspire to create something meaningful in that world, be it by means of employment, volunteerism, virtuosity in sport or music, or the creation of a new enterprise.  Perhaps she will learn to repair Porsches; or create a business importing crafts from a micro-enterprise; or learn performance-quality classical guitar-playing.  These markers of excellence are more meaningful and valuable than are lists of “activities” in school – and good universities know it.


Twenty-five dollars an hour buys an excellent tutor (or academic coach) in most parts of the country.  Many graduate students or retired people would be glad to teach a well-behaved, motivated young person for $25 per hour.  Two days of mathematics coaching would thus be $50 per week; another two days of humanities (reading, writing, and conversation) coaching would be another $50 per week.  At one hundred dollars per week one can buy thirty weeks per year of personalized academic coaching for $3,000.

Whether it requires more or less than this to educate your child depends on his or her motivation, your own skill set and time, and your local talent pool.  Your child might need more hours of contact time per week, you may be able to supplement tutors so that your child needs less contact time, you may find great people willing to tutor for less, etc.  In an alternative model, the parents may provide 100% of the instruction until secondary school, at which point you could budget more than $6,000 per year for custom secondary instruction.

By means of creating joint lessons with other home-schoolers with children interested in similar subjects, you could hire tutors for small “classes” of students and share the costs.  Thus if there were four students engaged in a given set of lessons/tutoring sessions your $3,000 would stretch to four times as many contact hours.  Indeed, in some cases these informal tutoring arrangements can result in the creation of a “private school.”  The point is not whether or not it is a school – it is whether or not your child is getting first-class, personal attention from a talented and caring educator who knows and loves their academic subject.

The more fundamental point is that by means of focusing on truly essential core behavioral characteristics, such as responsibility, motivation, politeness, etc., and on very high-level core academic skills, including serious reading, writing, and mathematics advancement, it is possible to provide a superb education for your child at home for very little cost.

Michael Strong is the author of The Habit of Thought, a book that describes how to use intellectual dialogue in the classroom to develop deeper reading, writing, and thinking skills.  He has also founded several innovative schools based broadly on the strategy described in his book and above, including Moreno Valley High School in Angel Fire, NM, which was ranked the 36th best public high school in its third year of operation based on the Washington Post’s Challenge Index.  His two children, now eighteen and fourteen, have spent a portion of their K-12 education outside of formal schools engaged in activities similar to those described above; both have been admitted to prestigious schools and (in the older case) universities despite an unorthodox schooling.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Re-purpose Condos as CCRC's?

What can be done with partially empty or unsold condominium developments?

Multi-Housing News talked to the CEO of an apartment REIT.  I noticed a couple things relevant to senior living:

"Jay" Olander says that his Grubb & Ellis Apartment REIT is buying properties in the American South, following population movements and anticipating more than 90 million additional people in the U.S. by 2030.  [So I'm paying attention to the future of the CCRC industry in the South.]  He is avoiding Arizona, Las Vegas, and Florida where there was significant over-building of single family homes and condos.

He also spoke about 'fractured condo deals' - where a single investor purchases a number of units in a condo development in order to run a rental housing operation.
If you have a large mass of units, fractured condos may make  a lot of sense. Any time there’s a mixed ownership, that means there’s a mixed contribution to the common elements. So it just depends on how much you control... you have to control a lot of the property to be able to control the common area elements, to be sure it’s well-maintained.
In the right location and given sufficient local demand for continuing care retirement living, could distressed condos be an economical way for a successful CCRC operator to acquire a new campus at a substantial discount?  There would, of course, be major renovation costs to renovate to make the property suitable for its new use.  

Monday, July 5, 2010

Squatter Cities and Old People?

Listening to Stewart Brand outline the City Planet I find myself, once again, wanting to be down in the streets of these rapidly growing squatter cities - watching, learning, participating as the local people engage in the enterprise and leadership necessary for self-organizing systems to work.  Brand reminds us that life is tough in these places, that it's dirty and smelly.  But energy and creativity is flowing freely and expanding exponentially in the urban slums of the developing world.

Brand observes current population and urbanization trends, predicting that the 'West' (basically the developed nations of Europe and North America) will soon have shrinking populations and cities full of old people.  Meanwhile the developing 'South' (especially Asia and Africa) will host burgeoning cities full of young people.

How will older people expecting comfortable retirement in developed countries get the services they need when the bulk of growth and energy will be in the developing world?

How will urbanization and moving away from traditional support networks (extended family/tribe) affect older people in developing countries?  Brand reports that urbanization is defusing the 'population bomb' in a way that surprised everyone.  Urban women have far fewer children.  So how will nuclear families provide for their elderly?  In the squatter cities everyone works who is able, from little children to old people.  What will happen as they become more prosperous?  Will they want a North American or European type of retirement?  Will retirement even be financially plausible in the foreseeable future?

What if retirement communities were productive and contributed significantly to their neighbors, or generated income for residents - and did not simply consume resources?

What kind of aging services will be needed and appropriate in the squatter cities that are growing up outside the formal economies of the developing world?  What is already being done?  What opportunities exist and how can we get involved?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Urbanization, Aging & City Planet

IAHSA's Global Aging Network blog had a recent post about China's Silver Tsunami and linked to CSIS articles on China's retirement policy and aging population.

I think it's cool that the IASHA blog is drawing on top-shelf foreign policy think tanks.  And I'm thrilled to have already found a way to enjoy my new career through the lens of culture and international relations, which are among my favorite subjects.

The IASHA blog had another post about 'Age Friendly Cities' but the link was misdirected.  A recent UN article explains:
The Global Network of Age-friendly Cities is part of the agency’s broader response to rapidly greying populations. The greatest changes are taking place in less-developed countries, and it is estimated that 80 per cent of the expected 2 billion people over the age of 60 will be living in low- or middle-income countries.
“Older people are a vital, and often overlooked, resource for families and for society,”
And the article refers us to the World Health Organization's page on age-friendly cities.

This is especially important due to the rapid urbanization of earth as described in an intriguing talk (audio here) by Stewart Brand on the City Planet (in PDF).

People are rapidly moving to cities all over the developing world.  Cities are still growing and the country-side is emptying even in the developed world.  What does this mean for providers of aging services?  What does this mean for Continuing Care Retirement Communities in North America?

It sounds like a huge opportunity if you have proven systems that deliver the experience of genuine community.  You can expand into new markets which are increasingly affluent.  Maybe CCRC's will locate in growing cities in order to benefit from an energetic young workforce.  (According to Brand, current population momentum means 2 billion additional people born in cities during the next decades.)  There could even be a growing niche for international destination retirement communities (a play on 'destination weddings').

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Industry Organizations

Key organizations that represent those who serve elderly people, including the CCRC industry (thanks to Rob Love).

Focused on non-profit:
American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (AAHSA)
"Our 5,700 member organizations ...offer the continuum of aging services: adult day services, home health, community services, senior housing, assisted living residences, continuing care retirement communities and nursing homes."

 In Pennsylvania there is
"Our members – nonprofit providers of long-term care and aging services"
Focused on both for-profit and non-profit providers:

International Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (IASHSA) 
"represents more than 20,000 ageing services providers worldwide who serve almost 5 million elderly daily."
American Health Care Association (AHCA)
"the nation’s largest association of long term and post-acute care providers...advocates for quality care and services for frail, elderly and disabled Americans"
National Investment Center for the Seniors Housing and Care Industry (NIC)
"resource to lenders, investors, developers/operators, and others interested in meeting the housing and care needs of America's seniors"

Thursday, July 1, 2010

5-10 year Future: Red Ink, Mergers, Boomers?

More impressions from talking to Senior Marketing Specialist, Rob Love, of Love and Co:

Over the past decade Rob has been concerned to see many communities run a negative operating margin and make up the difference on their investment portfolios (often heavily dependent on interest income). They had lots of cash flow but were actually losing money on operations.  Now that their portfolios have shrunk and investment income is down significantly, their previous operating practices are clearly unsustainable.

The next 5 to 10 years are likely to be volatile for the CCRC industry.  Stronger players will acquire or merge with weaker ones.  Many top managers will resist this necessary development for a while.  Rob expects that most of these mergers will be local affairs, with several (say 4 or 5) established communities coming together to achieve economies of scale - to provide similar levels of service, but with just one Director of Nursing instead of five (for example).  Mergers will be challenging, requiring the Executive Directors to sit around a table and negotiate 4 of 5 of them out of a job! 

Rob mentioned Erikson, one of the biggest players in the CCRC industry, as an example of the economies of scale that smaller regional CCRC mergers may try to emulated.  I asked if Erikson will be one of the big consolidators but Rob thinks it unlikely, due to Erikson's current dance with bankruptcy.

On the demographic front, the U.S. population is moving South and South West.  The CCRC industry generally serves an audience that is upper middle class and above.  The growth over the next decade is likely to come in the higher end of this market.

But the big question is whether affluent Baby Boomers will actually buy into the CCRC or Life Care model and move into communities the way their parents did.  It remains to be seen.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

IRS Changes Rules for CCRC's Refundable Entrance Fees?

From a recent article:
The Internal Revenue Service surprised and alarmed retirement community operators recently when it challenged an operator of luxury continuing care retirement community’s tax treatment of refundable entrance fees.

Classic Residence by Hyatt...followed industry practice by treating the refundable portions of residents’ entrance fees as loans with obligations to repay. In December 2009, the IRS sent a notice of deficiency for almost $129 million for the 2005 tax year to Classic insisting that the company should have treated the more than $318 million it received in mostly refundable entrance fees that year as taxable income “from rental/occupancy of the living units.”
Will this ruling stick and how might it change CCRC financial management?  Are operators actually alarmed?  Erikson, for example, which operates many communities (including Ann's Choice near me in Warminster, PA) still highlights its "Refundable Entrance Deposit" as a key selling point.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Baby Boomers and Continuing Care?

Today I have mostly questions.  Here are just a few...
  • Today's new retirees, now age 65, are baby boomers.  Will they become the next generation of residents moving into CCRC's?  (I bet that enough of them will want a very different kind of long-term community to support some very interesting niche-markets in the near future.)
  •  Who is serving the 'cultural creatives' - the boomers who shop at Whole Foods or listen to NPR?
  • Who is positioned to serve the over-65's who want to live in eco-villages, or who might prefer a more age-integrated community (not just over 55), but will also eventually need continuing care?
  • Will baby boomers even move into CCRC's or are their tastes and needs so different from their parents that the CCRC industry faces decline in 10 or 15 years?
  •  Are CCRCs essentially a North American phenomenon, and mostly in the U.S.?
  • Is there a CCRC industry in Europe or Asia and what does it look like? Can we learn from them or can they learn from what's been done in the U.S.?
  • What does the global trend toward urbanization mean for senior living and CCRCs in particular?
  •  And is urbanization relevant to senior living and retirement communities in the U.S. and other developed countries?

Monday, June 28, 2010

The CCRC industry needs Innovators

Last week I spoke with Rob Love of Love and Company, a senior marketing specialist who serves the continuing care retirement community (CCRC) industry.  Rob was very generous with his perspectives on the current state of the CCRC market, possible futures for the industry, and where I might fit as a newcomer.  Here are just a few of the impressions I gathered during our conversation.

My friend Bob Milanovich, who referred me to Rob Love, works in the not-for-profit segment of the CCRC industry.  Rob Love focuses on serving non-profit communities, and he explained that he prefers to work with mission-driven rather than profit-driven organizations.  Rob believes that the quality of care tends to be a bit higher in a non-profit setting. (I'd like to find the research he mentioned that demonstrates this difference.)  He also has the sense that non-profit communities are a bit more stable, not beholden to shareholders or focused on quarterly profit reports.  There may be a bit more risk or volatility in for-profit continuing care retirement communities.  (I wonder how/whether this affects the employees and residents.)

According to Rob, many continuing care communities are 10 years behind what today's potential residents want and need.  Their facilities may not have been updated and their approaches to selling the benefits of their communities may have become stale.  Both the physical and social infrastructure of many CCRCs need to be upgraded.

Who works in sales/marketing?  Rob informed me that the typical marketing director is a woman in her mid 50s, who returned to work when her kids started school.  Often she started as a receptionist and eventually worked her way up in the sales/marketing department until she became director.  This observation is not meant to disparage these people, only to point out the potential benefits from a broader range of disciplines and experience as the industry moves forward.  The CCRC industry really needs innovators.  Some of the most effective executive directors that Rob knows have come from other industries.  One of the best CCRC executives came from banking, making a significant impact with strategic-planning and team-building in the CCRC setting.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Inspiration for hands-on community building

A few weeks ago I spoke to Bob Milanovich at John Knox Village (Pampano Beach, FL) about changing careers and working in the senior living/CCRC industry.

I've known Bob for 16 years.  Our friendship developed during family visits to my great-grandmother who lived at John Knox Village (JKV).  My great-grandmother died about 9 years ago but my paternal grandmother still lives there.

I met Bob while I was a teenager, the oldest of 9 kids, when we drove from Kitchener, Ontario, Canada to visit my great-grandmother and grandparents over Christmas.  Somehow we ended up singing on stage at the John Knox Village holiday program.  My youngest sister was a toddler at the time.  At one point I knelt beside her holding the microphone while she sang "Jesus Loves Me".  As Bob tells it, he fell in love with my entire family at that moment.

After the show we spent a very memorable evening with Bob driving around the village crowded into a golf cart.  (We obviously didn't all fit, so we took turns walking.)  Bob took us caroling to the 'villas' where residents lived independently.  We caroled through the assisted living building and sang to the little groups sitting in the common areas of the nursing center.  We completed the evening by going room to room, crowding around individual beds in the nursing center, singing to people who were unable to get up.  My parents had taken me on a number of visits to nursing homes while I was a boy so the delighted smiles, the soft hands, and the thin arms were very familiar as we sang and hugged our way through John Knox.

After that, our caroling became something of an annual tradition.

What I noticed about Bob that first night became more apparent as I got to know him during our visits. (We sometimes lived for a week on the JKV campus as Bob's guests.)  He was Director of Marketing and I understood that his job was to sell JKV to new residents, yet he did so much more.  His presence lit people up.  Bob deeply cared for his residents' well-being and by extension, for the whole community.  Though he may technically have been 'only' an employee, as Bob walked around JKV he behaved as though he was the host or proprietor.  He always seemed to be walking around the community or whirring along in an open golf cart, stopping to shake hands, answer questions, give hugs, or to thank and encourage staff.  He made it his business to ensure that everyone felt appreciated from the lowliest staff in housekeeping or dining service, to residents and visitors.  I watched as Bob drew people in and made them part of the enterprise.  He was both humble and in-charge.  He exercised a kind of leadership that was subtle yet very effective - making residents feel at-home, cared for, and part of a meaningful community.

As I began considering a career in senior living and community entrepreneurship, I realized how deeply Bob Milanovich's example had touched me.  I am very grateful for his encouragement and his kindness to my family.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Hospice and end-of-life care: thanks Grandpa!

Today I discovered that one of my neighbors had been a hospice nurse for a number of years.  He visited his patients at home or in nursing facilities (this being a key principle of hospice care - to bring care to the dying person rather than transporting the person to a new location.)

In his experience death and dying are taboo subjects.  People are generally unwilling to talk about death and the process of dying.  "God forbid!" you are supposed to say if the subject of death accidentally comes up.  This lack of conversation and real communication about death and dying makes the whole process much more painful for families and much more complicated and awkward for everyone involved.

I look forward to talking openly about death as a part of life, as a transition from this world we know to the world beyond death.  Regardless of what people believe about an afterlife, the end-of-life process will be more manageable, if no less challenging, as we talk things through.  Hopefully before-hand.

What's the standard in the senior living industry?  Do marketing directors mention the dying process when selling the continuing care retirement community concept?  From what I've seen there is lots said about the care continuum from independence to assisted living and skilled nursing, "if the need arises".  But how do they communicate about death?  Or do they?

It reminds me of my 2 years working for a financial planning firm, selling life and long-term care insurance.  Our sales training encouraged us to skirt the issue of death, because although death sells in the media and on soap operas, it doesn't actually sell life insurance.  Even calling it 'life' insurance obscures the fact that you are not insuring life, rather you are insuring against the economic consequences of death.  Although death was rarely mentioned to prospective clients, the organizational culture where I worked sometimes used death for emotional leverage, to stimulate fear or shame (when appealing to love or duty failed), and hoping to sell insurance as relief.

I understand that the term 'life-care community' has gone out of fashion (now everyone is a CCRC instead) precisely because 'life-care' implies death.  But as my neighbor the hospice nurse pointed out: life is a terminal illness.  Everyone dies.  I'm not saying that death doesn't frighten me a little.  I am afraid to die: partly for myself - I don't like pain and don't want to 'miss out' on this familiar life; and partly for my family, my wife and kids who will be sad when I go.

But I am certain that death and the process of dying are not the worst things that can happen.

My maternal grandfather died this past Monday morning.  He was very dear to me and I am sad to lose his physical presence in my life.  But he was not surprised.  He was ready.  He had already embraced the process, which accelerated rapidly over the preceding 7 days.  He was in his own room, looking out on his beloved church across the valley with an ancient sycamore towering in the foreground. He was eager to be reunited with his wife of nearly 60 years, with whom he was more strongly connected than ever, despite the 5 years since her death.  And he was at home, surrounded by loving children, visited by friends and tiny babies, basking in the prayers and fond remembrances sent his way by others who could not be physically present.

I missed my grandfather's last week of life.  I was not at his bed side.  I was in the Outer Banks with my in-laws, on the annual beach trip that my wife and kids look forward to all year.  And I am content.  In the several years before my grandfather's death I frequently walked down my street and through neighbors' yards to visit him.  I had spoken to my grandfather at length the week before, and I had what I needed.  I told him that I was embarking on a new career.  He expressed his love for and confidence in me - and let me know that his previously-held concerns about my life-direction were gone.

So as my grandfather was dying these past months and this past week I experienced peace.  I knew he was in our Creator's tender care, and I was certain that his family's loving hands were supporting him during his transition.

I am determined to find ways to help others experience their own version of this remarkable process of dying.  Along with the sorrow or pain, I wish for others to experience the death of their loved ones as an opening for peace, healing, and unexpected blessings.

Friday, June 25, 2010

New Career: Creating Community in the Senior Living Industry

Today I launch a new career. I've been investigating the senior living industry for the past few weeks  - as an offshoot of my broader survey of the commercial real estate industry. Today it's official.

I am pursuing a career in the entrepreneurial creation of genuine community. The senior living field brings a number of services, helping professions, and business disciplines together in a conscious attempt to deliver the experience of community. It's my hunch that the most successful senior living operators are those that can effectively invite people to participate in a thriving community AND consistently deliver a community experience to residents and their (very important) loved ones.

I'm especially drawn to the continuing care retirement community model (CCRC, also called a life-care community). CCRC's integrate a comprehensive array of services along the continuum from independent living, to assisted living, to skilled nursing care. I look forward to learning how the pieces fit together and which elements are key for developing and sustaining a sense of genuine community among residents, staff, and family/friends who live elsewhere.

In my next few posts I'll touch on the following:
  • An inspiring example that steered me onto this career path
  • Perspective from a Care Coordinator with decades of experience in assisted living
  • A 5-10 year outlook for the senior living industry from a CCRC marketing specialist
  • Updates as I learn about senior living and CCRC's in my area (Philadelphia region)
  • Pertinent discoveries during my job hunting process
  • Impressions as I visit senior living communities - surprises, what I like/loathe, comparisons, interesting people
My first significant goal: secure a challenging job with advancement potential in a thriving community in 5 weeks (by Friday, July 30, 2010)....Here we go!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Bryn Athyn could easily be resilient

Well, maybe not 'easily'...but a lot easier than many places!

Check out John Robb's description - sounds pretty close to my hometown, Bryn Athyn, PA... especially with the Cathedral shops, the new Redmile teaching garden, and ongoing discussion/support for creating a nearby CSA:

Robb says in part (referring to what makes a home valuable in the current 'depression'):

New model:

  • Is the home located in a viable community? One that you could work with to solve problems as they emerge?
  • Is there a strong tradition of entrepreneurship in the community such that it allows the fast formation of new ventures?
  • Is the community defensible? Considerations include geographical footprint, proximity to cities, entry/exit, etc.
  • Does the community have arable land available for food production? There are so many factors here, it would take a book just to explore them.
  • Can the home produce energy? Does it have solar PV or solar hot water? Does it use geothermal heating/cooling?
  • Does the home have sufficient space for or already mature gardens?
  • Is the home's connection to the electricity grid bi-directional?
  • Is the connectivity to the global network both redundant and fast?
  • Does the home have room for a workshop?
  • Are the real estate taxes low enough to avoid liens in the event of inevitable job loss (by at least one of the members of the household) or a reduction in pay?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Workshop: Tools for Creating a Culture of Virtue

Tools to Create a Culture of Virtue

A Socratic Practice Workshop - Thinking for Yourself, Integrity, Service to Others

Michael Strong


The Habit of Thought:

From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice

Thursday, March 18, 2010, 1-5:30 pm

3051 Buck Road, Bryn Athyn, PA 19009

Adults $40, Couples $60, Family $75, Children (ages 7-14) $10

Registration 12:30 pm

Contact Landon or Michelle Synnestvedt 267.222.2409

Workshop Schedule:

1 - 1:30 Introduction to Socratic Inquiry and Socratic Practice at Home

(For adults, though if older children want to be there that's fine.)

1:30 - 2:30 Socratic demonstration with adults

(It’s always good to start with an experience as a learner oneself and experience the norms directly before trying to develop them in younger people.)

2:30 - 2:45 Debrief of adult session

2:45 - 3:00 Break

3:00 - 3:30 Demonstration with younger children (age 7 & up)

3:30 - 4:00 Debrief demo with adults

4:00 - 4:30 Demonstration with older children

4:30 - 5:00 Debrief demo with adults

5:00 - 5:30 How to craft a custom Socratic program for your children.

Michael Strong is the Chief Visionary Officer of Conscious Capitalism, Inc. and FLOW, exploring and documenting ways that organizations can make the world a better place. He recently co-authored Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World’s Problems along with John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, Muhammad Yunus, 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Hernando de Soto, Co-Chair of the U.N. Commission on the Legal Empowerment of the Poor, and others.

Prior to founding Conscious Capitalism, Inc., Michael spent fifteen years in K-12 education, where he founded several schools based on Montessori and Socratic principles, including a charter high school in New Mexico that was ranked the 36th best public high school in the U.S. by Newsweek. The author of The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice, he has provided Socratic educational consulting for hundreds of groups around the world. He was educated at Harvard, St. John’s College (Santa Fe), where he was valedictorian, and the University of Chicago (where his dissertation advisor was Nobel Laureate economist Gary Becker).

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Business framework for resilient communities

John Robb discusses markets that could be served by a business that creates a community structure:
* An already large and growing group of people that are looking for a resilient community within which to live if the global or US system breaks down (ala the collapse of the USSR/Argentina or worse). Frankly, a viable place to live is a lot better than investing in gold that may not be valuable (gold assumes people are willing to part with what they have).
* A larger and growing number of prospective students that want to learn how to build and operate resilient communities (rather than campus experiments and standard classroom blather).
* A large and growing group of young people that want to work and live within a resilient community. A real job after school ends.

Triangulating these markets yields the following business opportunity:

* The ability of prospective residents of resilient communities to invest a portion of their IRA/401K and/or ongoing contributions in the construction and operation of a resilient community...
* An educational program, like Gaia University's collaboration with Factor e Farm, that allows students to get a degree while building out a resilient community...
* A work study program that allows students of the University to pay off their student debt and make a living...

Friday, February 12, 2010

Marauders Map: neighborhood-watch, crowd-sourced, real-time location, & social networking

Who knows how to take existing technology and make Marauders Map into a useful reality? John Robb speaks about using an MMO (massive multiplayer online) game platform to develop a real world enterprise or economy in a recent post on Global Guerrillas.

Here's a working draft of what I call Marauders Map:

Imagine a location-based service inspired by the fictional Marauders Map of Harry Potter fame. Harry Potter and his friends find a magical map that shows the entire grounds of Hogwarts School - complete with tiny figures of all the teachers, students and other creatures, and showing their real-time locations. The Marauders Map was an ideal tool for sneaking out of dormitories to make magical mischief. What if something similar was developed as a blend of social networking, GPS mapping (including perhaps tying into some of Google’s powerful services), GIS (geographic information systems), and neighborhood-watch efforts? How could one answer ethical concerns about privacy, discrimination, or abuses of power? I hope to show that, rather than fearing surveillance, one should embrace transparency-enhancing tools such as Marauders Map, welcoming the more civilized society that may develop as a result.

A local layer of Marauders Map could be crowd-sourced from a collection of users – anyone from busy-bodies who like to exchange gossip, to drivers on local roads updating traffic conditions, to teens who want to let their friends know where they are, to parents who want to keep tabs on their kids, to pastors and social workers who want to know who needs help or who needs to be checked on in the neighborhood. It could be used by urban birders or train-watching enthusiasts. It could be linked to micro-climate data by gardening networks, urban farmers, and permaculture practitioners. Homeless activists or neighborhood-watch members could tag and share data on needy people, vulnerable sites, or suspicious activity.

Marauders Map could have a game-inspired interface, perhaps appearing as a parallel world built on Google Maps/Earth and familiar to anyone who lives in that area. But it would also have layers added, such as: best gas prices; traffic flows (perhaps sourced from cell phones streaming past cell towers); volunteer opportunities; shut-ins who need to be visited; recent crime or traffic accident locations – so that anyone interested could contribute to or learn from the data. Anyone with a mobile device could appear in his or her true location in real time. (This is already available on Google Latitude, for example.) This location data could also be keyed to one’s social networking status (twitter, myspace, Facebook, etc).

People could capture and instantly upload location-keyed video, photos, or other content based on what is happening now – with archival layers available to show what had been posted, searchable or sorted by date/location/topic/type of event/etc. This user-generated content could be used in limitless ways. (What uses are coming to you, dear reader?) Marauders Map could facilitate pick-up games or sports. (Anyone for a game of checkers or ultimate frizbee?) It could facilitate spontaneous visiting or meals for people who are sick, suffering a hard time, or with a new baby, etc. It could be a real-time way for citizens to report potholes, fallen tree branches, bridge damage, neglected parks, etc. to municipal government…and it might make it easier for citizens to get together to solve these same problems on their own, without interminable waiting if where political resources and capacity are stretched thin, as is increasingly the case in many places.

Local law enforcement and citizens could use Marauders Map to be, literally, on the same page regarding crime and threatening behavior. In my neighborhood, for example, people already pay attention and will call the police if they see an unfamiliar car slowly cruising residential streets. This actually led to police arresting someone responsible for a string of burglaries in my town. Building on natural neighborhood vigilance, Marauders Map could allow neighbors to ‘bell the cat’ by electronically tagging a suspicious vehicle or problem person – either with a radio frequency transponder or other device, or by actively updating the ‘cat’s’ location on Marauders Map, complete with incriminating video or identifying photos.

Marauders Map won’t just be a suburban or upper class tool – nor limited to the developed world, North America or Europe. Consider a neighborhood – barrio, ghetto, favela - where pimps, pushers or other bullies run the streets. The police are often unwelcome in these places, often with good reason. Past experience teaches people that police are as much to be feared or avoided as private criminals. But the decent folk in any neighborhood want to live in peace and safety and would rid themselves of such threats if they could. Many millions of people currently live in neighborhoods where they are forced to endure the erratic and dangerous behavior of local criminals – both official and freelance. Marauders Map can be a self-help tool for these people, even in the most neglected neighborhoods where red-lining makes them no-go districts for police – or where police are themselves a threat.

Similarly, Marauders Map could be used by Afghan villagers or Iraqi shopkeepers and housewives to subtly resist Taliban or Al Queda members who violently trespass on the community’s hospitality. Marauders Map allows local people to quietly bell the cat.

Bullies and criminal thugs thrive in the shadows, and in the ambiguous edges where they can threaten and overpower their intended victims one at a time, isolated from their natural supports in friends, family and community. Imagine that a local criminal (drug lord, corrupt official, foreign fighter, violent religious zealot – it doesn’t matter) suddenly finds that he can’t reliably hide. What if his movements are being tracked and recorded – not by a distant spy satellite or state informant – but potentially by anyone he sees, and plenty that he doesn’t see behind curtained windows? Imagine neighborhood disapproval or outrage at past abuses building incrementally among the many weak or fearful people who would never directly challenge the bully regime, now empowered to help deny sanctuary to the offender. The bright light of transparency or the power of social ostracism might be effective on its own. If not, a rival criminal/government agency might easily capitalize on the offender’s vulnerability. And perhaps most powerful, the community might converge to physically end the bully’s reign of terror – maybe even creating an ad hoc ‘truth and reconciliation’ process to deal with collaborators and to heal neighborhood wounds.

I’ve included just a few of the possible uses for such a platform, a Marauders Map that allows users to use the power of location-based networking to create any imaginable application that others will actually use. But what of the ethical dilemmas posed by such a tool? What about loss of privacy? What if the system is used to discriminate against certain people? What if private individuals or corporations use this to track people and target marketing based on their location and likely activities? What if the Marauders Map super-empowers Big Brother so that agents of the state can track where we go and with whom we associate? If the Marauders Map concept becomes ubiquitous, we will leave a digital trail of our past travels in addition to showing where we are at any moment. How will that lack of anonymity and lack of privacy affect our lives and how will it change our communities?

It is important to understand we will soon live in either a highly transparent society or a surveillance state. Private organizations and states already gather huge amounts of information about each of us. The key issue: how the information is used, by whom, and whether we consent to its use and can opt-out. It is already impossible for a normally active person to keep her personal information secret. Personal privacy is elusive in a digitally connected society. Most people voluntarily and knowingly trade their privacy for a variety of services that are tailored by entrepreneurs to respond to their personal preferences and habits. On the other hand, transparency and having ‘nothing to hide’ could become effective antidotes to abuses by powerful or corrupt people.

A transparent society could become a more civilized society. One will begin to ask: How can I live my personal and business life with integrity? How can I consistently operate within the context of perfection (in the sense of being whole and complete) – with my roles and parts integrated. Hypocrisy could become less prevalent as evidence of a double life becomes more difficult to hide. This will not come as good news to people who make deception a professional or personal habit. But such a reality already exists, for example, in word-of-mouth recommendations or disapproval that spread rapidly to hundreds, or millions of interested people in a matter of hours via various networks.

Businesses, individuals and all manner of organizations may discover that in order to be profitable, effective, or influential they must operate with nothing to hide. They will have to discover how this fits with business, political, and social prudence. But they will be generally obliged to adopt principles of honorable and just action – so that if their actions were made public they would have no reason to be ashamed (or sued!). Additionally, the transparent society of the future will likely provide less room for scandal-prone celebrities and politicians than exists today. In this process Marauders Map will play the part of neutral facilitator of local norms and legitimate behavior. It could empower traditional morals in a family-oriented community to thwart ‘people behaving badly’ or it could encourage those same behaviors in an entertainment district.

Marauders Map will be a very powerful tool for social ostracism and for discrimination of many kinds. A few kinds of discrimination are widely recognized as offensive and anti-social. But it is essential that people exercise their individual free will and rational judgment to make discriminating choices about how to support their mental and spiritual health and that of their families. Marauders Map, in keeping with its organizing fact of transparency, will highlight what forms of discrimination are being exercised. People who engage in socially unacceptable discrimination will find themselves isolated and ostracized. At the same time, people who are subject to unjust discriminations will be able to use Marauders Map to band together with others like themselves; to seek and receive support from fair-minded people who sympathize with their plight. As outlined in this essay, Marauders Map could open one’s eyes to the fact that ‘those who are with us are more than those who are with them’, as was the Biblical case for Elisha’s servant when his spiritual eyes were opened and he saw a protecting army of angels in chariots of fire (2 Kings 6:16-17)!

Some may object further that a system such as Marauders Map could protect bad guys as easily as good guys. This is true in the following limited way: bad guys will be protected if they are perceived as good guys in their own neighborhood or region. Whether a person counts as a bad guy or good guy largely depends on one’s point of view and proximity. For example consider Osama bin Laden, and certain Hamas or Hizbollah leaders who have evaded death and capture for years. They are surrounded and supported by loyal, loving friends who value the services and leadership these hunted men provide. And they continue to frustrate the best efforts and highest technology of the most powerful states in the world. It is true that Marauders Map could make terrorists even more secure in a local area where they are loved and respected. But at the same time it would empower local people to protect themselves and respond to threats or recover from actual harm more effectively than currently possible. This is especially true where the state does not provide an effective umbrella of security or justice. In any case, a bad guy must actually be a good guy in the eyes of enough local people in order to benefit from the positive reinforcement that Marauders Map will afford those who provide their communities with a high level of useful service.

Marauders Map might allow democratic and popular support to rise spontaneously to support or shield a beloved figure from detection and harm. Imagine supporters of a high-profile Iranian dissident tagging themselves as the dissident on the Marauders Map…to the confusion and chagrin of Iranian secret police tasked to watch or arrest her. There would be a continual dance between those who have nothing to hide and those who try to subvert the platform in order to harm or control others. For a glimpse of how a crowd-sourced platform could be self-repairing consider’s remarkable resilience against malicious or self-serving edits on significant or high-profile entries. Volunteer vigilance by many networked individuals can catch and repair such tampering within minutes or even seconds. On the other hand, people in the network can work together to shelter or protect each other as needed. It will be an expression of social democracy – where criminal efforts of any kind will immediately be met with creative work-arounds or direct resistance and evasion. By the same token, inappropriate action (as judged by the individuals using Marauders Map) by rulers, bureaucrats, or greedy corporations will wash harmlessly over the people, or come up empty – like a net with big holes closing over tiny fish.
Transparency or surveillance – the struggle is underway. A variety of platforms like Marauders Map are being actively developed and something very like it will be widely available in the near future. It is time to embrace transparency and work for a more civilized society. Top-down controls and bullying of all kinds are doomed to failure in such a society – and the sooner the better!