On #OccupyWallStreet

For last night’s Red Burns – Applications class, one of the group presentations addressed #OccupyWallStreet.  I don’t usually speak in large groups anyway, mainly because I really, really hate fighting for my turn to speak, but #OWS is tough because it really makes me seethe to listen to people talk about it.  It’s the same thing on Twitter.  Even the group itself, which went to Zuccotti Park (I don’t believe in calling it Liberty Park till it has a breakthrough, and I think it fitting that they are occupying a private park named after a real estate mogul) often in order to document the experience and take part in it as well, was split on how it felt about the protest.  A few classmates stood up to say that they are tired of protests and they don’t believe anything will ever change as a result of them, and they’ve seen it before from where they used to live (San Francisco, Phillippines, youth activist efforts).  One said that they didn’t go because they didn’t understand what #OWS wants.

Maddening.  I kept myself distracted by wrestling with a re-install of MySQL on OS X Lion, which I’d fucked up earlier in the day.

Here’s the problem I have with my fellow Americans with regards to #OWS.  These same people, who spoke glowingly of the noble, courageous efforts being undertaken by the downtrodden working classes in the Arab Spring become strangely silent when it comes to American-born protests.  On Twitter, I follow a lot of security people and people you would consider to be in the consulting, intellectual, and management classes.  While they tweeted up a storm on the Arab Spring, presumably because of its implications for regional security, when fellow Americans voiced their disapproval with current conditions (which are, I think it’s still under-appreciated, historically bad in terms of income inequality and prejudiced against the public good, reaching levels only seen before the Great Depression), these people mocked them or ignored them.

It was the same during the summer and fall of Tea Party movements in 2009.  And during the anti-war protests.  Mocking or ignoring.

I went to most of the Tea Party rallies in DC.  I was in DC during the inauguration, inauguration concert, OBL killing, government shutdown crisis, and other massive rallies (immigration, gay rights).  The tenor of the city has definitely changed since Obama came in.

While I disagreed with the Tea Party (mostly I think they do not understand the role of public policy at all) and thought its invocations of history were bankrupt (read my blog posts here and here), I do think they were symbols that the Jacksonian school of thought is well and alive in America, and I felt sad that fellow Americans saw conditions as being so bad.  The stupid two-party system, which has existed for, what, two centuries or something?, is now infused with corporate money and shadow organizations, introducing into our political DNA a pernicious political rift that only pits Americans against each other.

I do think that #OWS directly addresses the chief problems within the American system today.  We are fortunate enough in this country that we do not have one simple demand, which is what people seem to be looking for.  In other countries, this “simple demand” might be the removal of a corrupt dictator.  That is the danger of singular cause movements.  It focuses, essentially, on one person, or one group/class of people.

Saying you don’t understand what #OWS wants sounds precisely alike to me as when people say, “I don’t understand computers/science/math, it’s too hard.”  Were you just supposed to know it intuitively?  No, you have to go read about it and study and research it.  There are two billion articles about why #OWS doesn’t have or want a simple list of demands.  There are plenty of theories about whether they should seek specific issues later or just try to organize at this point.  It should be noted that the Tea Party kind of fell off the rails once it was co-opted by politicians, was confronted for its fringe elements, and came up with its specific list of demands.  Specific demands alienate people who were on board with some ideals but not others.

So saying you don’t understand #OWS is an intellectual cop-out.  I am disappointed that master’s-level students would use this argument.

Issues of The Occupied Wall Street Journal
Another point which some of the group members who presented brought up was that while #OWS may not amount to much, it is still important in itself.  The beauty of seeing the General Assembly, of seeing humans together, figuring out systems of hand gestures for communication or innovating low-tech solutions, forming working groups, blending internet viral activism with Occupied Wall Street Journal newspaper tactics; this is really important stuff.  If I had kids, I would want them to see that shit.  I would want them to see humans self-organizing, sharing, communicating, seeking a shared future.  When I went to Zuccotti Park and to the Washington Square Park protests, that was the real deal fucking Holyfield, seeing humans do what they do best: transfer information.

Some people are waiting for heroes to emerge to lead the movement.  They inevitably bring up MLK Jr. The problem is, if you’ve ever read about MLK Jr., most of his life was spent being extremely frustrated with the impact of his work.  He was thrown into fits of despair often when he would attempt to organize and galvanize people and it wouldn’t work.  It wouldn’t produce the results he wanted, either from getting the majority out into the streets, or in achieving political results.  It wasn’t until things magically came together at some of the larger national protests that his voice took root and now the legend has taken over.  But MLK Jr. was depressed during most of his time during the Civil Rights Movement.  Being a “hero” is often a lonely experience.  It ended in his assassination, and in JFK’s, and in RFK’s.  If that is not a somber message about the role of heroes, I don’t know what is.

Counter of People Worldwide Offering Support
Anonymous has been interesting.  It plays a fringe role in the Occupy movement, while it was pretty much center-stage on its own a year ago because of Wikileaks.  I doubt many people actually saw V for Vendetta (like they didn’t see the Tea Party rallies or #OWS events either) which is the basis for the Guy Fawkes Anonymous masks that you see more and more these days.  I think one of the most poignant scenes in that film is when the girl in the Anonymous mask is killed after she is caught putting up graffiti. After that, the social contract between the public and government breaks down, and the movie concludes with a sea of Anonymous masks converging in London, eventually overrunning the police and unmasking themselves to return to their real identities.  Anonymous is some kind of Hobbesian manifestation that bothers people in that it reminds them that the strongest, most powerful man is still just a man, able to be brought down by the weakest, least important of men.

Anonymous/Guy Fawkes
During a decade of post-9/11 hysteria, with all the stupid regulations from TSA, the newly-authorized secret spying on Americans based on mere suspicions, the corporate-endorsed wiretapping of internet service providers, anti-Muslim sentiment, and overseas military/intelligence/covert adventures, the anti-war movement barely registered.  It was kept at bay by a respect for the warfighters and their tasks.  It was kept at bay by apathy.

But most of all, it was kept at bay because very few Americans have ever actually participated in the armed services or known someone very close to them who has.  Military bases are positioned well outside the normal paths and travels of most people, so unless military blood is in your family, you’ve probably never seen the sprawl outside Fort Benning or seen the old World War 2-era barracks or even seen many people in uniform except at sporting events and in Grand Central Station.

So these servicemembers have lived a silent decade, where friends have died, some have lost limbs, others have lost their minds. They can’t talk about it in public, because 1) no one will understand or 2) they will be put on display like they’re in a zoo.  There is no shared sacrifice among the American public for military service.  Just imagine how much more insular it is within AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, and other large civil service programs!

The people who didn’t protest out of respect for the troops, I question their logic.  Had they shared the sacrifice, it would have been their necks on the line.  Servicemembers aren’t really going to protest war — they volunteered to do service for the government.  It requires attentive citizenries to defend the usage of servicemembers in warfighting for appropriate contexts.  That civilians have abdicated their responsibilities towards the servicemembers of the U.S. is the ultimate slap in the face.  But perhaps it also says a lot about the military, that it will continue to do its job professionally.  The Army keeps rolling along.

So pardon me if I question peoples’ stated intentions for participating or not participating.  Or maybe it’s not so much that, but the dismissiveness which those people give to OTHER people giving a damn about something.

I think that might be the only time I really get pissed.  When people denigrate the efforts of others.  When they put down or make fun of people who are trying to do something, anything, to make things better.  That is the worst kind of cowardice, whether it’s born out of elitism or out of past failures or out of being afraid of future failures.  Negative people tend to be reacting out of their own insecurities.

Maybe what topped the class off was sensing the disparity between the divided class and Red Burns, the mater familias of our program and a woman who’s changed the way thousands of people (at least) see the world.  She is old and feeble now, and hard to hear, and definitely stubborn, but she obviously thinks #OWS is something important for us to pay attention to.  But students, whom she is probably 3 to 4 times older than, ignore her hints that #OWS is a gamechanger.  She has a keen eye and most importantly, has experience that is directly relevant to our futures, and yet I feel like she was being dismissed.

Back when I was at Georgetown, I was picked by my program’s staff to represent the program at the Achievement Summit, which brought together people like George Lucas, Bill Russell, Desmond Tutu, Sylvia Earle, Michael Dell, and many others, to talk to us grad students about what to do with the rest of our lives.

The overwhelming message was not that we should pat ourselves on our backs, but that we had a deep responsibility towards society.  Given all these opportunities, privileges, and advantages, our role in life was to be leaders and to always look to better the lives of those less fortunate.  We were told that our job was to take the hands of others and help them succeed as well.  Our job was to use our talents and creativity and personal security to try things that were extremely risky, knowing they might fail, hoping to build something wonderful for the world.  If we, the privileged few, were not going to take risks or to look out for others, then who would?

That resonated with me but I’m not sure how much it gets to others.

When I was in the Army, I had my clearance temporarily suspended (but got it back later, since nothing was officially wrong with it) because I was blogging and taking photos of my experience in Iraq.  There weren’t the chilling effect regs there are in place now, which have stifled almost any word coming out of our overseas theaters. When I studied and worked in DC, my classmates and friends would refuse to use Facebook or other social networking because, mostly, they were afraid that employers would find out!

Now I would have trouble hiring someone who DIDN’T appear on social media, but I get that privacy is a big deal.  You should still show up SOMEWHERE though.

Anyway, here’s the kicker. America is indeed the land of opportunity.  You can come here as a poor immigrant and build a pretty good life for yourself and your family and your kids.  But you will probably have to keep your head down and stay out of trouble.  You will most likely not be able to have an opinion, or to campaign for the ridiculous idea of equal rights for all people.  You will have to act in your professional life like you never drink or party, that you never have a controversial opinion.  You will have to get slapped in the face and take it, because you understand that that’s what it takes to just get by and raise your family.

And my generation feels that tension at the higher levels.  You better have a squeaky clean resume if you want to go into finance.  All your outward correspondences better relate to your work (how many Twitter folks do you know who ONLY tweet about their work stuff? it’s kind of sad sometimes).  You better fit in or else you’re not going to get paid.  You won’t “succeed” in life.

I worry that kids coming out of higher education are ready to subvert their entire personalities just to get a job.  One problem with income inequality is that it narrows your choices. Instead of being able to find employment in a variety of services or good production or data analysis or entrepreneurial endeavors, you have to pick health care or finance or business or law.  Or you work as a barista.  There’s not as much in between, particularly outside of the large cities.  It hollows out society.  And thus you have to jump through more hoops to reach the higher echelons.  You have to keep your head down, calm down and carry on.

I don’t think any of us want to see the U.S. become a place where the calculus changes such that people would much rather set themselves on fire or stand off against the military because they have no hope of jobs, families, or future.  Right now most people still have options (though with vastly increasing structural unemployment, I worry this will change).

I don’t fault the companies so much.  They are doing what they should be doing.  Making money wherever they can, sending lobbyists to live lavishly in DC to represent their core interests, to evade taxes as best they can legally.  They are winning the policy war in DC.

Mostly it is government failing to assert itself as a balancer of public, private, security, innovation interests.  We have a complete failure of political leadership.  And while government protectionism of business stymies much of public ability to organize and voice its own opinion (since business employs much of the public), I still do blame at least a little the citizenry for not drawing the line somewhere.

We are just all too busy fighting for our own little Americas, instead of building a new inclusive American Dream.  I don’t think any of us were raised to be overtly tribal, but the system rewards those who do.

This is all the prism that the nation sees the #OWS movement through.  It’s a depressing state of affairs.  People arguing for separation of corporation and state, for denying corporate personhood, for removing private shadow financing of political campaigns, for increased enforcement by government agencies tasked to do what they currently are not doing, for balancing out the business-government-public-media equation so that they are all properly warring against each other.  These are not crazy concepts.  These systemic problems have been identified and much has been written on the subjects.

I don’t think my point is that everyone must participate in #OWS, but that those who don’t should not condemn it or dismiss it, for whatever reason.  It has fringe.  Yes, of course.  Everything inclusive has fringe.  Fellow Americans are taking part and we owe it to ourselves to understand it.  We owe it to ourselves to care about SOMETHING in this life outside of ourselves and the kids, products, whatever we leave behind.  How sad is it to see our best and brightest, our graduate students and creatives and intellectuals, saying they are “tired of protest” or “don’t think anything will change”?  Have they given up on life already?  Don’t we want to see our children be proud of what we have accomplished as human beings?  I want my kids to look at me as someone who gave a shit about something and stuck to it.  Or, to be, as Bill the Butcher says, “the only man I ever killed worth remembering.”

So here’s a challenge I guess.  Who do you want to end up being?  Will you end up defending your own interests at the expense of a majority’s?  What is going to end up being so important to you that you will do dumb things and sacrifice your time and humiliate yourself for, just because you believe in it?  And do you want to be the kind of person who puts down the beliefs of others?  Will you try to work with them to build something better?  Or will you keep your head down?  Are you your fucking khakis?

A final note.  Our guest speaker, Frank Migliorelli, an ITP alumnus from way back, was a great speaker, the kind of person you want to work with.  All the junky debate and politicking that people get engaged in melts away when around someone like this.  He’s passionate about education, about the opportunities and cool new niches that one could do the next project in.  You forget about all the other stuff and you just want to make cool things.  I’m happy that he ended the class on a good note, and I hope that he and others like him win the good fight.

OUT HERE.

Eudaimonia Versus Existing in a Childproofed Society

We live within a culture where negative feedback is purposefully avoided.  You can’t “dislike” on Facebook, you can only “+1” on Google+.  Yelp was rumored to have strong-armed companies into paying to get rid of bad reviews.  Online sites like Consumerist are attacked by businesses who claim they’re unfair.  Most companies purposefully hide their contact numbers on their sites so you can’t easily call them (because if you’re calling, you probably have a problem with them!), you can’t cancel service on a web site and usually have to call, people avoid conflict and argument, companies set up complex levels of firewalls to prevent angry customers from getting anywhere, etc.

It goes further.  The world’s standard for measuring national improvement is Gross Domestic Product, which only tracks consumption in a very crude way.  Simon Kuznets, one of the architects of the GNP metric, admitted, “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income… Goals for “more” growth should specify of what and for what.”  But this forewarning was ignored.  If someone gets cancer and has to purchase a bunch of equipment and pills and spend money in the hospital, this is counted as a net positive for society because of the purchases, even if all these resources are being spent on one person who is unable to contribute to society while sick.  The U.S. government (!) is protesting credit rating agencies’ assessment of its indebtedness, where both the U.S. government has been profligate and the agencies have been corrupt in currying favor with the U.S. one moment and then trashing it the next.

The stock market, currently in shambles within the last few weeks, has scared nations yet again after a shock only three years ago.  Predictably, the Greek government, which has watched its economy grind to a halt and reach almost-default levels, has decided to ban short-selling of stocks for two months.  This is essentially an ideological move.  Short-selling, where you make money by betting on a stock going DOWN, not up, has always been seen by non-market people as, in varying degrees, dastardly, unpatriotic, illegal, and even dangerous.  It’s that last point regulators focus on.  They believe that short sales by people who hate a company can drive a stock to zero.  Meanwhile, market folks know that short selling actually adds more transparency, information, and support to stock prices, because there will be pressures pushing the stocks both up AND down, and not just up.  The problem in a market without short sellers is that without them, when buyers disappear, prices collapse completely.  No short sellers would be covering their positions.

And this says something else about markets.  Very few people actually understand how they work.  Virtually all the mainstream articles being written about the latest downturn are just flat out WRONG.  You’ll get guys like this, who tell you to stay in the market so you don’t risk the upside (again, it’s always about things going up).  He goes on in another piece to say that Wall Street is irrelevant!  The Daily Beast, usually a pretty savvy digest of the most important stories, has turned to mush when it comes to the markets.  Otherwise very intelligent people I follow online also have very flawed notions of how the markets work.  The lack of economic understanding is frightening when you consider that these people probably know a little bit more than the politicians elected to vote on policy for government role in the economy.

I’d prefer to read people like George Friedman, who emphasizes that it is not just economy, but political economy, that we must talk about.  Politics and the relations between power groups affects most of the dynamics in our lives, and we cannot act like the economy is some neutral entity that is impervious to human mistakes and designs.  The “economy” is intimately wrapped within the designs of men.

I had to quit watching the daytrading IRC channels because even those high-frequency traders had what was basically a cynical Ayn Rand-ish slash Gordon Gekko slash Snake Plissken view of the world where you’re only successful if you cut others’ throats to get to where you are.  Their adaptability to changing market conditions was highly questionable.  Basic economic principles were ignored.  But hey, they made good money so I can’t complain too much.

I would agree with Richard Florida (PDF), Umair Haque, Tim O’Reilly, and some others that we are in the very early, ugly stages of a transition to an eudaimonia society, from a purely consumerist society.  I believe that we need to be able to take an honest look at how our society is structured and allow for more negativity in our metrics.  We need to develop the capacity to take criticism, to be voted down, to be shamed when we do things that are wrong (a concept crudely and devastatingly wielded mostly by religion), to take a more holistic look at everything impacting our lives.  Pure revenue should mean less if it comes at the cost of environmental degradation, pollution, lack of time at home raising families, lack of sleep, abuse from employers or manipulation from unions, etc.

Eudaimonia is a term fit only for us classicists, but @'s concept of the economics of the good life is spot on http://bit.ly/l25koR
@timoreilly
Tim O'Reilly

Umair Haque:

“I believe the quantum leap from opulence to eudaimonia is going to be the biggest, most significant economic shift of the next decade, and perhaps beyond: of our lifetimes. We’re not just on the cusp of, but smack in the middle of nothing less than a series of revolutions, aimed squarely at the trembling status quo (financial, political, social): new values, mindsets, and behaviors, fundamentally redesigned political, social, economic, and financial institutions; nothing less than reweaving the warp and weft of not just the way we live–but why we live, work, and play.”

The goal is for people to be able to pursue middle-class professions in fields that they are talented at, to unlock their creative potential, instead of shoe-horning people into certain professions if they want to live any kind of decent lives for themselves.  The goal is for people to have a successful career but also a family to raise, a community to participate in, and a healthy life.  The way society is constructed now, as I’ve said before, is a zero-sum kind of get-rich-or-die-tryin’ mentality where everyone is incentivized to fuck everyone else over, at least until one becomes wealthy enough to think about maybe working on philantropy for others.

My "EUDAIMONIA" Tattoo

Instead of just Gross Domestic Product, people like Mark Anielski (“The Economics of Happiness: Building Genuine Wealth”) recommend the Genuine Progress Index, or the GPIAtlantic.  The GPIAtlantic was broken down into these indicators:

  • Time Use
    Value of Civic and Voluntary Work, Value of Unpaid Housework and Child Care, Value of Leisure Time, Paid Work Hours
  • Living Standards
    Income and its Distribution, Financial Security – Debt and Assets, Economic Security Index
  • Natural Capital
    Soils & Agriculture, Forests, Fisheries and Marine Resources, Energy, Air, Water
  • Human Impact on the Environment
    Solid Waste, Ecological Footprint, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Transportation
  • Human and Social Capital
    Population Health, Costs of Crime, Educational Attainment

These indicators are far more in line with how we actually consider the world subjectively.  They capture our concerns, worries, and understanding of how much we feel safe living in our communities.  But all of the factors are ignored in the top-line metrics that we use.

Which is sad because we live in an era now of big data.  The top quants in the nation are working in finance, insurance, computer science, crypto.  Yet the metrics we use for our own well-being and happiness are crude “neutral” measurements from another century.

The above chart shows the disparity between how the U.S. economy is measured through GDP versus how it is in actuality.  In short, we have hit a plateau in our quality of life for almost 60 years, while our GDP measurement seems to indicate we’re much “richer” per capita.  It coincides with increasing income inequality, measured through the Gini coefficient:

They show that our society as a whole probably peaked in overall access to happiness somewhere in 1968.

In short, we have insulated ourselves from seeing the negative aspects of our society.  Amartya Sen calls this phenomenon “hedonic opulence”, Anielski calls it “chrematistics”, Clive Hamilton calls it “affluenza”.  We believe that we can grow our way out of poverty, that if we have enough positives in a society, that we can just overwhelm the negatives.  But the truth is that the negatives impact the bottom line of growth and positivity.  A community full of pollution and crime will stop creative processes from flourishing there.  A sick populace will be less productive at work, impacting overall economic success.

Said Robert Kennedy on March 18, 1968, at the University of Kansas:

“Too much and too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product [GNP]… – if we should judge America by that – …counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities…. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

This is why I want to work on Galapag.us as my life project.  It is an ecosystem for reputation.  All the things you’ve worked on in your life are aggregated into metrics of your own design.  The most popular metrics (say, success at being a contributor to your community, looking at data such as your volunteer work, church life, money donated, time spent tutoring other people or children, household income, trustworthiness, crime record, etc.) would be voted up to the top.  We would not be constrained to just GDP.  We could build our own metrics.  Then those local, individual metrics could be aggregated for county level, state level, all the way up to national level.  The data is anonymized as it is grouped, or, if you choose, fully identifiable and open if you are an open person.

The imperative, though, must be on more transparency and accountability.  If we as individuals can’t handle being criticized publicly, then we can’t expect things to improve at higher levels of organization.  Being criticized is not always a bad thing.  If the criticism is fair, you should improve yourself with it.  If it is unfair, your detractor should be penalized for making false statements.  We do not have this kind of global feedback system in place.  We are victim to flash mobs, anonymous attackers, stalkers, people who suffer no negative feedback from their actions.  Galapag.us would fill this hole in the internet’s identity layer while still providing degrees of anonymity, pseudonymity, and identity.

Daniel Suarez’s seminal but overlooked books, Daemon and Freedom (TM), suggest deprogramming the “Non-Player Character”/NPC dynamic of being trapped within a world of simplistic metrics (the quotes below are from Freedom (TM):

“What do we look like to a computer algorithm, Sergeant? Because it will be computer algorithms that make life-changing decisions about these people based on this data. How about credit worthiness—as decided by some arbitrary algorithm no one has a right to question?”

“Imagine how easily you could change the course of someone’s life by changing this data? But that’s control, isn’t it? In fact, you don’t even need to be human to exert power over these people. That’s why the Daemon spread so fast.”

Suarez’s books propose that darknet hacker communities will spring up in the rural areas, away from legal restraints and the encroachment of lawyers, corporations, and other barriers to entry, creating more balanced, sustainable, networked communities for people to be rewarded at their individual trades by leveling up in the darknet world and then using darknet credits to earn a reputation and a living.

“Holons are the geographic structure of the darknet. Any darknet community lies at the center of an economic radius of one hundred miles for its key inputs and outputs—food, energy, health care, and building materials. Balancing inputs and outputs within that circle is the goal. A local economy that’s as self-sufficient as possible while still being part of a cultural whole—a holon—thus creating a resilient civilization that has no central points of failure. And which through its very structure promotes democracy. That’s what we’re doing here, Sergeant.”

“The Daemon financed this.” Sebeck turned to her. “Didn’t it?” “The Daemon’s economy is powered by darknet credits, Sergeant. Imaginary credits are all that money is.” “But there’s a theft at the heart of it.” She thought about it and nodded slightly. “Yes, the darknet economy was seeded by real world wealth. Wealth that was questionable in origin to begin with. Here, it’s being invested in people and projects that have begun to return value—not in dollars, but in things of intrinsic human worth. Energy, information, food, shelter.”

There are ways out of the messes we’re in, but most people see them as unconnected issues.  But personally I see it as symptomatic of an entire society’s failure to examine itself.  Gnowthi seauton.  Jared Diamond-type stuff.  Granted, it would be a LOT to expect humankind to be able to look at itself honestly, for humans always hope to avoid the negative and only see the good in the things they believe in, but this would be one of those points where one would hope that our civic leaders and politicians would be required to study — and therefore detect — such policy/societal failures and properly diagnose them.

Unfortunately, that is not the ruling class that we have, and we are not likely to correct these systems until an alternative system is built.  Those who make money under the current system will resist, but even politicians go along with something when it’s shown to be successful.  Hopefully for me it would be something like Galapag.us, but I would accept any attempts.

The only way to change our systematic problems is to build our own alternative.

Where Did Rock Videos Go?

Being 33, when I grew up, I was witnessing the glory days of MTV.  The iconic moonman posting the MTV flag on the moon, Adam Curry and Downtown Julie Brown were my after-school friends.  I wanted to flip rhyming cards with INXS and felt eerily at home watching that poorly-rendered blocky 3D Dire Straits “I Want My MTV” video.  By the time I was in high school, everyone knew the latest Guns n’ Roses video, and it’s a cultural touchstone of my generation to be enamored with the imagery of the November Rain at Axl’s wedding, and Slash playing in front of the chapel out in the middle of the desert.

Guns n’ Roses remains my favorite band, and they were iconic of the days of rock to me.  GnR and their peers defined new music.  The pricey, visually powerful, epic music videos (Don’t You Cry, November Rain, Estranged) with hot models and rock star lifestyle fit in perfectly with MTV’s heavy music video programming.

The rock generation that had survived the late 70s and early 80s Wham! and Madness and Michael Jackson and Thompson Twins (which, while I love them, I was also bombarded with when I went to live in the UK for a year), so soon after receiving the greats of Led Zeppelin (2nd favorite band ever), AC/DC, Hendrix, etc., and before them, the Beatles and Rolling Stones, obviously.  See how this MTV promo reminds you of the androgeny of the boybands of the Naughts (2000’s):

GnR had all the dysfunction internally, the zen lead guitarist, the hotel room trashings, the successful movie tie-in (if your band created the ultimate Terminator 2 rock video, you are probably on the short list for the Heaven Rockers Hall of Fame), the introspective and brooding and wistful rocker lyrics.

Beavis and Butthead, the cartoon aside, cemented many rock videos into the heads of a generation, using the glue of sex, drugs, and rock and roll references from B&B as they watched from the couch, as my generation was doing as well.

World premieres, album drops, Kurt Loder informing a generation of Kurt Cobain’s suicide.  MTV led the way.  It was probably the only channel a lot of people my age watched when they weren’t watching Family Matters, Perfect Strangers, Full House, etc.

Then rock seemed to die.  Rap and hiphop became the new powerhouses in the media, while MTV replaced its music videos with reality programming.  This happened some time in the 90s I guess.  It’s at its apex right now.  Maybe it was because Metallica chose copyright over its fans and attacked Napster, when MP3s became a better economic choice than purchasing albums for anyone with an internet connection.  Maybe it was that rock and roll, even with punk roots, decided that social media was for the nerds and the geeks and not for its own image.  For God’s sake, Myspace was still a cornerstone of a band’s identity even recently.  How many rockers do you know on Twitter?

When was the last time you saw a great rock video? (I’m definitely hoping for suggestions)  The closest is not even rock, but Weezer and Ok Go have embraced social media, which have endeared them towards Internet-Americans.  Corey Crossfield at the Music Think Tank also wondered about what technology did to rock. Here’s Ok Go’s Rube Goldberg video:

…and more relevant, Weezer’s internet meme video:

Radiohead and Arcade Fire have done a lot for social media as well.  U2 killed it with their 360 tour, featuring the best concert set ever designed.

But it’s all by no means the whole story.  Pretty much all the talk I’ve seen has been for rap and hiphop artists, or for pop.  Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Lil’ Wayne and crew, these people dominate the industry and all the digital chatter.  I certainly feel closer to rap and hiphop now while rock feels distant and old.  The closest touchstone I have to rock right now is re-watching School of Rock with Jack Black, as he tries to teach the stiff privileged private school kids what it means to be punk and to think for yourself.  The movie itself seems more of a eulogy to rock than a celebration of it, at times.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B34gZPxRKp4

Actually there was another place I saw a resurgence of rock: in Iraq and in the military.  When you go to lift weights in the tent gym in Iraq, there’s a bunch of barrel-chested white dudes cranking up heavy metal and Metallica and Megadeth and the old hard metal while they’re looking like they want to destroy the piece of shit country they’re in.  Sometimes they even listen to it at superhigh volume in the tent’s speakers, so you better just learn to enjoy it.  Which I do — it’s hard to get more pissed off than when listening to metal.  So keep at it, uniformed vanguards of the old traditions of rock.  Here’s a video that ISN’T “LET THE BODIES HIT THE FLOOR”:

Rappers and the new crowd regularly tweet themselves, worldstarhiphop is the current site just off the main strip that drives a lot of views toward musicians’ hijinx.  There’s heavy overlap of hiphop with video games (and rappers playing games online), artists getting their starts on YouTube (Soulja Boy), music endorsements for movies and games, product placement (rappers seem to make Cristal and G6’s pretty desirable), rappers tweeting photos and being involved in social media-driven concert tours, etc. etc.

Wait.... and I got a photo shoot in Japan Vogue and a show @ Colette tomorrow! Fuck yes! Paris is sooo fuckin' poppin'!! Thanks @!!
@KREAYSHAWN
k2345h4wN ︻╦╤─

It’s even gotten so carefully crafted that there’s this chick, a white chick rapper from Oaktown, Kreayshawn:

Rap videos aren’t the greatest, but they are soaking in the sea of social media.  What’s the best rock video?  The best I’ve seen lately are these videos from Red Fang.  True rock.  Here’s “Prehistoric Dog”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fuRKRFjm-HA

And this one, total mayhem and destruction, the perfect rock video, “Wires”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zo8NFrmQ_S0

Rock chose Myspace, the new rappers and record label creations stuck with Clear Channel, MTV, Twitter, leaking stuff on the radio and on music blogs.  Guitar Hero is mostly classics, isn’t it?  The new shit is mostly pop/hiphop on the newer games like Dance Central.  Could you say that rock chose to be anti-tech, anti-progress, anti-social?  What does it mean when Lil’ Wayne decided to go through a phase where he plays rock guitar?  Is rock just nostalgic, a reference to show that you’re sympathetic to punk?

Does it say something that Trent Reznor kept pushing his electronic sound and ended up winning an Oscar for the soundtrack to a movie about Facebook?  Where did his peers go?

Where did rock go?  Will it come back?

Walking the Walk

Walking the walk has become a core lesson learned for me.  I’ve tried to live an adult life of walking the walk instead of talking the talk.  When I was a suburban, socially disconnected kid, I spent most of my time on early BBCs, gaming networks, and the internet posing as a normal adult because that was the only way I could fit in.  As I got older, I actually was a normal adult, but I still felt left out.  It wasn’t until I joined the Army that I began to understand how important it is to be a member of a community and to “know” what it is to be in a community.

Since then I have moved on from the Army and intelligence community, although I still keep in touch with people there, and can spot those types instantly from a crowd.  I went and joined another community, the Georgetown community, and, with more time, became a tangential member of the DC community.   Those people have their own customs, rituals, schedules, and uniforms.  In many ways, DC people are not unlike military people:  long hours, dedication towards greater purposes, responsibility, discipline.

My infatuation with starting a company has continued to grow.  But I’ve found just how incompatible the DC community is with social entrepreneurship in my area, online stuff.  While there are a lot of initiatives in DC, partly because of cloud computing, cheap CPU cycles, and Obama’s initiatives to drag the government into the present, you can sum up most early pitches in DC this way:

"Looking for Full-Time Coder for DC Start-Up"

It’s funny because in DC, you can stop anyone on the street and they will be some high-level program manager or policy wonk interested in federal-level funding and grant-making for this or some other project.  But when it comes to finding people to implement all these plans and programs in a tangible way, the pool is thin.

Contrast this with stories from Silicon Valley, which is continuously castigated for building only incremental improvements to useless features.  One-hit non-wonders.  Things that make a prettier gadget abusing a Google Calendar API.  Or making a more hipsterish movie review site.

So DC is great, important ideas in search of engineers, while Silicon Valley is talented engineers in search of serious projects.

If I had my way, I would found an engineering school in DC, and feed students into the projects that DC is dying to implement.  Instead of relying solely on schools like Stanford, Berkeley, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon, DC should have some sort of computer science/social entrepreneurship program.

It might even need a broader project than that.  I often think about the short booklet I read from SnarkMarket called the “New Liberal Arts”.  The booklet proposes a new curriculum for students to learn applicable skills to our digital world:  attention economics, coding and decoding, finding, food, home economics, inaccuracy, iteration, journalism, mapping, marketing, micropolitics, myth and magic, negotiation, play, and video literacy, among others.

I’ve found through my job, which involves me reading pretty much as much as I can that comes across the web daily, that so many people are lacking in fundamental skills to interpret their world.  They do not know how to parse a story to see a particular agency’s bias, or to see which facts are actually facts and which were selectively chosen for inclusion.  The ability to figure out important data from unimportant data is also woefully lacking.  There is so much fluff in the world, in the form of excess meetings, long and boring Powerpoint decks, redundant employees, stifling bureaucracy, that it seems like a system built more to protect constituencies than to be lean and efficient.

Just read internet comments some time if you want to see how badly people interpret data they read online.  It’s so bad that Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, said the inability to judge facts and disprove false stories online is one of the biggest problems out there.

“Sir Tim told BBC News that there needed to be new systems that would give websites a label for trustworthiness once they had been proved reliable sources.

“”On the web the thinking of cults can spread very rapidly and suddenly a cult which was 12 people who had some deep personal issues suddenly find a formula which is very believable,” he said. “A sort of conspiracy theory of sorts and which you can imagine spreading to thousands of people and being deeply damaging.””

Students do not know how to build the things they study.  The top jobs are going towards lawyers and businessmen, but their studies are so abstracted from anything concrete that it’s all just theoretical to them.  The culture of hacking, where you sit down quickly and prototype things with simple building blocks, does not exist in most bureaucracies, and it’s certainly bred out of children by the time they reach high school.  The only escape for natural hackers has been the internet and for people who live out in the country and are exposed to working with their hands with minimal supervision.

Everyone has great ideas, but few have the know-how to implement or even prototype them.  Which means the ideas die.  Few are part of the appropriate communities to make things happen, either.

That is.  I learned in the Army that if you’re not in the military, you have no clue what military culture is like.  Military bases are usually separated from the rest of the American fabric, in small towns that exist only because of the base.  Veterans and their family members live in a separate world.  Thus to hear people talk about the military without never having been close to it is so hard to swallow.  Likewise, I just became a full Catholic, during a publicized, grueling, disgusting scandal of pedophilia within the Catholic bishopry. (Indeed, before the Easter Vigil before my baptism began, I stood outside the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle and some guy in flipflops walking his dog tried to cut through our preparatory line and said, “Excuse me, child molesters”, as he walked through.  What, so all Catholics are child molesters?  Have we reached this level of disdain for strangers we meet in the world?)

My more agnostic and atheist friends ask me why I would join the Church, knowing about all this.  Again, a Catholic within the Church would not ask.  A religious person would not need to ask.  Churches, despite being so numerous, and religious folk, despite being a clear majority in the US and in the world, exist in a separate world than the rest.  Put a pastor next to a programmer and I’m sure you’ll rarely see such polar opposites.

So I’ve been in some pretty disconnected communities.  Would that make me a crypto-first-world-urban anthropologist?

I was actually fortunate enough to have a Mac Plus and subsequent Apple products (even the Newton) because my dad would get them as part of his professor’s grant.  And I remember learning Logo and Pascal in school, while playing with BASIC at home (typing in those programs out of books and then running them).  As I got older, I wished badly to be able to speak in different human languages.  I wondered why I couldn’t have known French or Spanish while a lot of people I knew were multi-lingual.  When I became an Arabic linguist in the Army, I really lamented it.

But since then, as the internet has exploded, English has become a comfortable lingua franca for me, and what has become far more important to me is computer language.  Why couldn’t I have become a god at C++ or Java?  Would I need to have gone into CS in school to do that?  Would that have doomed me to a linear career?  I’ve picked up PHP inasmuch as I need it to prototype and build stuff online — I guess it’s no accident I spent time learning PHP since it’s so easy to build out online.

One article I read recently from RSA, talked about employing the human “third drive”, which roughly coincides with Maslow’s higher levels of human needs.  The article claims that carrots and sticks at work is rarely effective and sometimes harmful.  Management leads to compliance only, in many cases, as rigid hierarchy means people are only ultimately going to care about their own lane and not take on extra work, which may get them in trouble.

It’s tough because in any organization, the top people may not be the best people to “start” a project.  Someone at the lowest level of an organization may have figured out what the organization needs in order to improve, but the authorization and legitimacy bestowed upon that person does not exist.  Thus the idea will never see the light of the day.  The higher up on the food chain, the less likely the people will be to possess skills needed to prototype.  I think this is why I’m so preferential towards organizations that hire strictly engineers and people with serious experience — they were at that lowest level once, and knew the pitfalls invisible to the highest people.

At The Future of Web Design conference in Miami a couple years ago, and with a recent NYTimes article, people have begged for more women in computer science.  I’m beginning to wonder if my above hypothesis, that there’s a disconnect between the cultural maps of doers/searchers vs. planners, holds true for women too.  DC is interesting because it’s known as the WORST city in the world for single women to find a mate, because women here are so highly-educated and well-off, while outnumbering men.

Do women fall into communities and roles that by their nature seek to improve the human condition and standard of living?  Would it be fair to say that while men have sought power in DC, women have sought to use social institutions to improve human lives?  Could one say that women have not been as interested in hacking, which in many ways is a very solitary, almost autistic profession, and have sought instead positions that are more socially networked and responsible and creative?

Would there be more female hackers, and hackers in general, in DC if an institution existed to encourage computer science in a town that’s so heavily geared towards policymaking?  I am beginning to think so.  How can we link together the separate groups of engineers and policymakers/changemakers?

In a broader sense, shouldn’t America, which likes to see itself as a greasy-knuckles, hard-working blue-collar country (despite being the richest and fattest), find in itself a core value of walking the walk?  After all, we used to subscribe to walking softly but carrying a big stick.  We have imposing science, nuclear, and military programs.   We were great because we had substance and experience unmatched elsewhere in the world.  It is not like now, where what we value are lawyers who can argue any case as long as they’re paid well enough, or bankers who can innovate money out of our pockets while underlying assets remain unchanged in value, or businessmen who spend their lives adjusting reports while barely understanding the very product or service they sell.  That is all image, abstracted away from the core economic and power realpolitik.

I just finished watching Season 4 of The Wire, which brings in the new component of Baltimore life, the public school system.  What struck me was the experimental pilot program to remove the problem kids from the general population and try to socialize them, since they were all training to be “corner kids” and learning that school was just a safe zone to learn how to test rules and adults.

Are we preparing people to live and work in the world we now and will live in?

Can we move away from a culture of FOXNews, with its chickenhawk lawyers who rattle their swords on patriotism, love for the military, and mercantilist realpolitik but who consistently seem to have absolutely no experience in anything except morning zoo drive DJs, sportscasting, lawyerships, working for conservative thinktanks, etc.?  Can we move away from seeking advice on small business and policymaking from people who have never started a business or who make fun of community organizing?

Can we praise a culture where walking the walk, being a member of a community instead of an outside criticizer and observer, becomes the gold standard?

Dreams of the Future

What do I hope to accomplish within my lifetime?

Keeping the American Dream in Perspective

The American Dream is an incredibly alluring concept.  It resonates with me because my parents came from England to work and start a family back in the 60’s, and have done well for themselves.  They were not leaving a horrible situation in England, but I imagine they smelled opportunity.

This whiff of opportunity inspires new generations to come to the US, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve learned just how many obstacles to progress there still are here.  The civil rights movement was a brief generation or two ago, I have to keep reminding myself.  Cosmopolitanism and multiethnic communities are still not feasible for most, and views on immigration are muddled and confused.

The idea that you can come to the US with nothing except the clothes on your back and then build a life for yourself is still more true here than anywhere else. But the pursuit of the Dream comes now at greater cost:  the protection of the ideal of a middle class is being chipped away, while the desire for unfettered capitalism is powerful.  In other words, you have to want to get rich or die tryin’.  The safety net underneath taking risks and undertaking entrepreneurship is no longer so safe.

I love capitalism.  I love open, competitive markets.  I would love to duke it out as a business fighting competitors.  I love maximizing profit.  However, I also know that not everyone is an entrepreneur, not everyone can or wants to slug it out every day.

And it’s not enough to just get rich and then retire off to buy big boats and go to the best parties.

The idea of the American Dream is not complete until it includes the responsibility to plow philanthropic projects back into the country.  The biggest robber-barons, capitalists, and monopolists of our history, like the Kennedys, Morgans, Rockefellers, Carnegies, Gateses, Vanderbilts, Waltons, and Buffetts turned their money into philanthropic juggernauts.

No one does private philanthropy like the US has.  We look beyond ourselves, towards ideals and virtues, using wealth to create what would be impossible without that wealth.  We take on human-changing projects and change the course of history…for the better.  Who else can claim to have this in their genes?

Combine this with a theory of mine:  there’s plenty of money and food and resources in the world.  Those are not issues.  What are the central issues now are power, injustice, corruption, and tribal affiliation. These factors restrict which people have access to all that money and food, in order to get and maintain influence.

Human Capital

The underlying sense of my beliefs is becoming more strongly linked to building human capital.  Some of my fellow Georgetown MSFS grads who studied international development met up to discuss Sheryl WuDunn’s and Nick Kristof’s “Half the Sky”, a book about female empowerment and girls’ education.

In my studies I never really thought much of most development projects, which seem like dei ex machina, disregarding lifetimes of habits and traditions for the sake of Western scientific rationalism (which is not always correct and certainly isn’t embraced universally).  But bottom-up microfinance and whatnot also seemed to be like pushing a Sisyphean rock up a hill.

What I’ve come to believe is that children’s education should be viewed as a force multiplier.  Universal human rights should be viewed as a force multiplier.  Look at it this way:  if you were to spend all your money solely on 5 girls to go from birth to graduating college, making sure they received proper diets, health screenings, and education, then they may not choose to go on and use their educations.  They may even choose to just get married and have kids.  But that education is impossible to ignore:  they will raise their children better, and will probably send them on to school.  They might be so compelled by their educations that they seek to better their situations through social entrepreneurship.  At the least, it won’t just be them that’s affected.  At best, they will steer their children, demand more suitable conditions for a husband and community, and undertake more community roles.

Everyone is unique, surely, and they must be allowed to go off in the directions that they were given the talent and interest for.  Shoehorning women into jobs isn’t sustainable, but having them go to school will allow them to make more informed decisions.

With that, here’s what I intend to do with the rest of my life.

1) Found Galapag.us. This is of course the key, since it will be subsidizing everything else.  Add in tricky twists like my needing to maintain another job until Galapag.us takes off, and my not wanting to cash out on my personal baby project.  But I do think Galapag.us as a new measurement and identity/reputation system has the potential to disrupt a lot of different sectors, while bringing back human traditions.  So that should be bank…if not directly then indirectly through building a public good!

2) Get Married, Have Kids. I mean, otherwise, what’s the point?  I believe in the security and strength of having an equal companion to rely on, and raising kids has to be the greatest educational lesson one could ever receive.

3) Build a New School. I was watching Andre Agassi’s interview on 60 Minutes.  He reveals that his father thought his education was a waste of time, and he preferred that Andre would go practice tennis instead.  Andre was a meal ticket, and he loathed tennis for it.  Later he would bottom out, CHOOSE to play tennis, and become a great player because he found the love.  What really made the story, though, was hearing that Andre had created a school in Las Vegas to give selected students the education he never had, as long as they and their parents swore to go to college afterwards.  Andre just had his first graduating class, and ALL the kids were going on to college.

How can you measure the social good of that?

4) Subsidize Co-Working Locations and Up-and-Comers. For me, raising capital isn’t the main barrier to starting a project.  It’s finding enough incentive to not just get a normal job that provides stability.  So provide consummate hard-workers and creative types with a competitive salary ($70k-ish) so they can work on their projects without the stigma of not actually having any income.  As for the social environment that work provides, a co-working area with other alpha-dog social entrepreneurs with common, open offices that allow for collaboration, sharing, and resources to build businesses or work on “20%” ideas.  Certain people will always work hard and try to create things; they just need security and stability in order to feel safe enough to reach higher.  Web folks championed this idea; see Citizen Space in San Francisco.

5) Philanthropic Contribution to American Education, Health. I’ve long had a dream of giving away money to developmental projects.  Studied the damn subject in grad school.  And nothing seems to be more of a force multiplier than education, particularly girls’ education.  And nothing seems more measurable in developmental work than disease vaccinations, hygiene, and nutrition.  Final point:  I don’t know any country as well as I know my own, and there is a LOT of poverty, illiteracy, and other scarcities of human capital to address.  So my developmental work would focus on the United States. Similar to what Bill Gates is doing up in Seattle for their schools.

6) Open a Digitized Restaurant. I would like to build a ChurchKey-like dark-woodish comfort food bar that is built from the ground up around digital technology.  Touchscreens at every table and at the bar for ordering, having seamless order processing and check-out ease for large groups.  A strong, embracing neighborhood presence with approachable comfort food items.  Suggested:  a damn good burger, gourmet PB&J, smoothies.

7) Own an NBA Basketball Team with My Buddy Chris. Surely the most selfish thing on the list.  It’s an idea we’ve been throwing around for a while.  I guess my angle is that basketball is full of some pretty insipid business people who seem to run franchises into the ground, so why not give it a shot?  Hell, there’s so many things I’ve always wanted at a game that you’ll NEVER see because owners are all pretty conservative…  Read Bill Simmons’s “Welcome to the No Benjamins Association”.

8) Contribute Legal Fees for Key Cases. It seems true that the scales of justice are easily tipped by enough money and lawyers.  For a mega millionaire, throwing a million dollars’ worth in legal fees towards a significant intellectual property or civil rights case seems justified, and keeps your dogs in the fight, instead of letting justice fail just because a sole voice of dissent can’t afford the financial bullying cost (i.e. SourceWatch, “Goliath and David:  Monsanto’s Legal Battles Against Farmers”).

See this propaganda, by the way:  Monsanto, MPAA.

So yeah, there you have it.  That’s what I’ll be up to.  Of course, it won’t turn out this way — you can’t predict anything — but these are my dreams.

Labor Costs

One of the topics I want to study more about is what we’re all going to do in the future for work and jobs.  Part of the sharp upheaval of the 20th century of rapid economic development was that a stable career was not sustainable except for certain professions.  It is true in the US that most jobs that students are being taught for, ostensibly, do not even exist yet.

The manufacturing jobs we used to have have been pushed abroad to cheaper labor markets.  Farming has been turned into a large-scale industry needing expensive fertilizer inputs and economies of scale.  Services and data processing have, for a while now, been offshored to cheaper labor markets as well.

The idealized hope was that at least with the offshored jobs, those countries that welcomed such labor-intensive tasks would develop their way into the first-world club.  That has not exactly happened the way people hoped; instead, what has happened (and which is well-documented in Naomi Klein’s book “No Logo”) is that international companies shift resources to whichever country prostrates itself by way of tax-exempt zones, cheap wages, and lax regulation.

Furthermore, as machines and robots will become increasingly capable of completing labor-intensive tasks, they will replace the vast pools of labor that we currently use.  The limits of technology have made vast human workforce scale cheaper (that is, it is still cheaper to use humans to finish sock production than to use machines, if only by pennies per sock).  But that will eventually change.

So what the hell are we all going to do?

We can at least rely on a flattening population curve, which (one would hope) will lead to international competition for higher education for newer information and programming and mapping and engineering jobs.

But what I’m hoping for is that, freed from some of the requirements of labor in order to make the world function every day (whether it’s through a massive breakthrough in energy production, perhaps through solar, or if it’s through using robots instead), that we will actually need to work fewer hours per day and can spend more time engaged in creative and teaching endeavors.

Right now among my friends in DC, it’s pretty common to work from 8 or 9AM up to 8PM or even 9PM, daily.  What on Earth takes them so long to complete tasks at work?  Why is there so much work to do?  Is it because labor costs are so high that firms choose to hire fewer people, but work them harder, knowing that American work ethic looks highly upon those who work long hours for their pay?  Is it because people are just highly inefficient workers when they put in longer hours?

This isn’t sustainable, particularly for raising children, enjoying life, being creative, being social, being helpful in the community.  Surely part of that has assisted the drastic decline in civic life in the US (again, see Putnam’s “Bowling Alone”).  But we don’t want to end up letting robots do anything while we lounge around and become fat (think Wall-E).

I watched a talk given by the host of Dirty Jobs, Mike Rowe.  It takes a while for him to set up his talk, beginning with lamb castration.  But eventually Rowe, whose show has him apprenticing for people who have really dirty, labor-intensive jobs, talks about how these people tend to be really happy, satisfied people.  Rowe says that we work too hard in jobs we don’t enjoy.  He also says that “following your passion” isn’t actually good advice — more important is that you go do something that no one else is doing, to find your niche.

“We’ve declared war on work,” Rowe says.  He says that working people on TV are portrayed in horrible ways (fat plumbers as punchlines).  Rowe says that we consistently feel a longing to have more personal time, but we aggressively fight it in our culture.  We marginalize lots and lots of jobs.  Trade school enrollment is on the decline.  Infrastructure jobs are disappearing.

Think about the old NASA engineers and nuke engineers.  With the strangling of the NASA budget and the public abhorrence of nuclear power plants, those with the technical skills to remember how to build spaceships and construct programs, and create nuke plants, are dying and disappearing.  The ranks aren’t being re-filled.  As a society we are forgetting how to build things and how to do things.

What is going to happen if we run out of products to market and advertise?  What is going to happen if we’re too busy working to raise our children properly and enjoy life?  What is the standard of living that we want?  How do we balance work, family, religion, recreation, creativity, et al?  Do we even know how to measure all that yet?  We’re going to need happiness and well-being metrics on an individual and an aggregate scale.

The path of the internet’s development has shown us that software and hardware are hollowing out the core of labor within modern goods and services.  A small software company of 5 people can now use the cloud to host their data — all they’re doing is programming and internal business management and marketing/sales, pretty much.  Large-scale projects can now be done by a handful of people.  Sure, somewhere the cloud must be managed, but the costs to start a well-educated programmer/business idea are so low now.  You don’t need the capital for hiring lots of people or the capital expenditures to purchase equipment.  You can work out of your apartment.  What are 8 billion people going to do when software runs a highly-autonomous network of computer systems in the future?

Guess we better start learning to enjoy each other’s company and free time…

Surpluses and Shortages

I’m moving out of my Georgetown rowhouse and just started my job, so I’ve been a little busy and haven’t been able to write much.  That’s one reason Twitter is so great — I’ve been able to just send some quick tweets (the other reason it’s so great is its generativity (see Jonathan Zittrain) — Twitter provides such a vast platform/ecosystem for other ideas to thrive in).

[edit:  I didn’t know this until after I published the post, but apparently the Pop!Tech 2008 conference was focused on the subject of abundance and scarcity.  Fitting!  Here’s the opening video presentation that the Pop!Tech conference began with.]

Anyway, since it’s been so long, I’m going to ramble a bit.  The blog is still great for that.

When I took all my money out of the market back in September/October of 2007, I did it because there were vapor bids on all the stocks out there.  Nothing was supporting any equities.  About two years later, the financial markets have stabilized quite a bit, with the TED spread finally dropping back to the levels before the markets got a whiff of collateralized debt obligations going sour.  Companies have shed a lot of jobs and have made a lot of cutbacks.

As an investor, I’m feeling a lot safer about putting my money back in.  I wanted to wait until at least this summer, when a lot of mortgage and housing resets hit the market.  Now is the dreaded velocity period of August-October, when the market is most likely to crash, historically.  But it can also rally pretty strongly in that time period — I think this has something to do with new fiscal years beginning and a lot of annual inflows/outflows taking place around that time.

I’m still only interested in Amazon ($AMZN) stock, but since it’s already pretty high I have to leave it alone.  There is no other stock out there worth holding right now, in my opinion.  I suspect the next big runner in tech will be a Facebook IPO or perhaps Yahoo! ($YHOO), if  they can ever find a moneymaker.

I went to the premiere of Barack Stars, a play showing at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in DC, done by the Second City Comedy Troupe (SCTV, some Saturday Night Live folks).  It’s a play lampooning the reverence for Obama and all the political scandals in DC lately.  One of the joke skits involved poor laid-off finance guys from NYC.

Funny to be sure (I highly recommend you go see this), but how accurate?  My suspicion is that while a lot of finance types in NYC lost their jobs, it wasn’t long before they found new ones.  All the smart money that didn’t vaporize probably went to the next unregulated market out there, or as some have hinted, towards carbon credit markets, the next bubble target according to Rolling Stone’s Matt TaibbiThe NYTimes just ran a story about how the big brokers were trading with a 3ms advantage on retail traders, racking up tons of money through arbitrage.   This just goes to show you that when you combine fierce NYC finance types with the new quant PhD players, every aspect of the market is a game that no layperson is going to win.  Back in the 90’s, daytrading was somewhat fair, but now the game is entirely stacked towards brokers.  Combine this with the scam that is now common stock:  common stock is worthless, effectively, since there’s now so many classes of preferred and private stock for the company insiders that no common stock holder is actually entitled to as much equity as he/she may have thought.

That really leaves the only effective vehicle for making money in the stock market picking solid companies that are undervalued.  Tech stocks are especially good for this; the thing about NYC types and PhD folks is that they’re not particularly good at identifying good companies.  Yes, they make money selling companies’ stock to their clients, but they come up with long bullshit reports that they charge over $100 for that just basically say how every company in a sector is worth buying.  However, if you know your tech, or you know the zeitgeist about a company, you can still stand to get a triple-bagger on a stock (triples from the price you bought at).  Long-term investing, in my opinion, is dead.  The market is set up to scam you unless there’s a major regulatory overhaul.

Anyway.  Surely there are many people who were working in NYC because of connections, hook-ups, etc. and they don’t have the goods to keep doing it.  But I bet many of the financial class either have merit-based wealth (good skills either in smooth-talking or in quant models) or status-based wealth (being born into east-coast privilege), a dichotomy discussed in John Clippinger‘s “A Crowd of One”.  In other words, they did not lose their money and leave town.  This wasn’t like the Great Depression, where people ended up leaving the cities and going back to their family farming traditions or joining the military.

Sadly, the military adventure continues.  Afghanistan now looks a lot like Iraq a few years ago.  Soldiers are still dying and money is being wasted.  To Obama’s credit, we are now pressing into the Taliban as we always should have been doing, and Robert Gates seems to be a responsible steward of the armed forces.  But the inertia of occupation still continues forth and it’s only those Americans who give a damn and enlist who seem to be paying the price.

The rest of America goes on as usual.  Unemployment is higher, for sure.  This could end up being a large problem, especially since I view those lost jobs as jobs that will never return — the high velocity of job destruction and creation requires adaptability, quick learning, and higher and higher levels of education…qualities that the American innovation and education systems are no longer producing in any citizens except wired kids, who are doing all that learning outside of the system anyway.

The fact that America and the rest of the world are still pumping away and doing okay must be because the world is just awash in money.  There are far too many people you or I or anyone can name who do not seem to have earned their money or their ease of life.  Deals that are completely nonsensical still seem to happen.  People make careers out of nothing more than proposing meetings that never happen.  Job hiring, as I’ve talked about a lot lately, is a complete farce of a system, an inane game that we all have to play.

My own impression of venture capital is that it’s become extremely risk averse and dumb money.  There are some cool angel firm ideas, seeding start-ups with a little money and lots of training.  But look at the trash they are producing.  Some incremental improvement on video watching.  Some tiny adjustment to file sharing.  Did Twitter come out of one of these programs?  No, and it never would:  it had no financial model (if you’re unimaginative, anyway, like most people) and it took a while to catch on.  As it turns out, Twitter is a massively open platform for innovation.  How do you put a valuation on that, exactly, using today’s financial models?  You can’t.  That’s why vencap and angel insistence on financial modeling is so retarded.

If the world is awash in money, why are there so many poor?  Amartya Sen intimates that there are no longer food shortages worldwide, just rationing.  More specifically, he says that no democracy has ever had a famine.  In other words, when food is allocated at least somewhat responsibly and with a conscience towards those who need it, there is enough of it.

The fact that people are poor, hungry, weak, sick, etc. has, in the past, been because of material shortages.  But now it seems as though poverty exists because of socio-political power structures.  Clientelism, warlordism, authoritarianism:  these are the systems that withhold from those who need resources to survive.

The American Republican party itself has become a curious modern system bordering on clientelism but within a democratic system.  Made up of a steeply declining older white male base of paternals, the Republicans have somehow convinced even the poor that cutting taxes, reducing responsibilities and ties to the government, and getting more privileges in society will somehow benefit everyone.  That Republicans immediately think of government as being 100% inept, refuse to pay more taxes to help out fellow Americans (even when more accountability and transparency has been promised, under Obama’s Gov2.0 plans), and yet still claim themselves to be the most patriotic Americans is absurd.  That poor, disenfranchised white people go along with it is even worse.  You have people who have never been rich before advocating that Goldman Sachs plunderers and profiteers MUST receive higher and higher bonuses in order for them to be sufficiently motivated to work at all.  What the heck?

The Republicans have successfully blended Friedman/Reagan trickle-down economics with moral conservatism — highly successful for recruiting, but only if you’re white, old, and usually rich.  No one takes them seriously in financial conservatism anymore, their having been responsible for ballooning the national deficit in the name of security.  Sadly, fiscal conservatism is probably one of their strongest platforms.  That they abandoned it gives you some idea of how defunct their party is.  Perhaps one of the biggest flaws was assuming that the “invisible hand” is naturally benevolent.  Incentives can, at some level, often be predictable, and that’s where economists and public policy people would be important for identifying where the market will exploit resources and prices to make a lot of money.  The proof of this most recently was in the financial crisis, which resulted from the market splendidly moving away from regulated areas into shadow pools through hedge funds, cascading collateralized debt obligations and packaged mortgages on top of each other.  The market did exactly what it was allowed to do.  But that impulse is not always used for good.  Does that not imply a need for government checks and balances upon ravenous capitalist incentive?

So the US needs a jumpstart to get its innovation pipeline going again.  China and India and other countries are hungrier than we are.  They want success more than we do.  And they are at least attempting to modify their education, technology, innovation, legal, and health care systems to get success.

We, meanwhile, are plodding along with a broken health care bill.  Health care is a massive taboo subject in the US and, as I’m interested in reading about lately, anywhere where there’s a taboo, there’s some deep-seated cultural issue that is a dangerous setback for that culture’s competitiveness and advancement within the international community.

Fortunately we have smart people assessing our national broadband plan (Obama has picked some great tech guys and has enlisted the Harvard Berkman Center to look at broadband).  Combined with a great secretary of education, a new CIO, et al, the US should start to pick up again in another 5 years after the investments in basic research and education start to kick in…or at least the promise of them.  The force multipliers of these basic investments will be greatly increased if Obama is elected to a second term.  I can only hope.

The Republicans see anyone in government as being inept and unable to control costs or execute even the most basic project (as David Brooks pointed out recently, this is partially true).  But what is the proposed solution?  Radical privatization?  Are we supposed to trust the “invisible hand” of the markets to manage complex human health care problems or educational pipelines?  The problem with the libertarian viewpoint is that it seems to not take much interest in HOW you actually make people healthier, or make people smarter.  You just let the market do it.  But SOMEONE has to know these things, whether it’s a government or a private company established to do that task.  In a democratic system, citizens are the deciders of how those things are done, so it is their responsibility to become better educated about their mission.  A private company’s sole task is to make money, and combined with profiteering hit-and-run executives, there is little incentive to act with accountability — unless government puts legal safeguards on it to keep it from running off the rails.  For all their talk of incentives, Republicans can be pretty selective in how they decide to employ them.

I see the US government in today’s massively complex world as being a gardener of a national ecosystem.  The libertarians are right that a government with no incentives to cut costs will use its bottomless pockets to buy influence.  But conservatives and libertarians are wrong that government cannot play a role.  It seems anti-competitive to suggest that only private companies should be the sole provider of all goods and services and public space.  The truth is that companies provide excellent goods and services, but only with intense competition.  The truth is that companies are HORRIBLE at providing public space, because giving something away is not part of their incentives.  As Naomi Klein points out, a public square lets you protest and assemble, whereas you can’t even run a camera at a shopping mall because it’s private property, let alone pass out flyers or collect petitions.

So it seems simple-minded now to not talk about an ecosystem where public companies, private companies, the government, non-government non-profits, unions, and community networks all work in the same space with and against each other.  The competitiveness imperative must be extended from not just providing good and services but to also providing public space, social capital, and public capital.

The only factor that has mitigated the lack of such space and capital has been the internet.  Its realm of free speech and free time/space has led to places for minorities and youths and fringe movements to experiment and organize.  It is no secret that social networking has exploded online, while a privatized “meatspace” has become deathly quiet in terms of social capital, as Robert Putnam’s famous “Bowling Alone” book described, with the death of American civic life.

The people who created the building blocks for the internet should be recognized for their massive contribution to society and for bringing an end to a pretty savage era of radical privatization.

The internet and computing have driven storage and connection costs down rapidly, killing many industries and incumbents except those with the power to lobby our old, white Congressmen (i.e. the telcos and “entertainment” labels).  One of the only correct things Tom Friedman wrote about was how the internet, combined with globalization, led to a massive networking of human effort worldwide.

If you are to look forward, it is getting to the point where there are not many shortages left in the world to limit human progress.  I already discussed money — I do not see money as something there’s a shortage of in the world anymore.  Aggregate time is no longer a shortage.  People can be more productive with better online tools, and they are also watching less TV.  As Clay Shirky hints at, this means there’s a lot of surplus time out there now, although it’s up to us to figure out how we want to distribute that time.  Food (energy) is no longer a shortage — while we do it incredibly wastefully and unsustainably, we have figured out how to have more obese people in the world than starving.  There is not exactly a shortage of energy inputs either — “peak oil” seems highly dubious compared to when we will drastically reduce petroleum consumption, while the sun provides easily enough power to provide to the entire world.  If we just knew how to harness it properly.

We can expect processing power and time and storage to continue to plummet.  The cloud online will allow us to build holy grids of collaborative supercomputers, eventually perhaps providing a platform in which we can upload ourselves, the digital singularity.  At that point, it will be interesting to see which people stay and which people “go”.  Who will maintain the systems that keep the internet going so that we may live digitally forever?  When will that question cease to be relevant?

There is, right now, a significant limitation in one area of electronics that has hindered all othes:  energy storage.  It affects what kinds of cellphones we can use (a G1 barely lasts a day with background apps and GPS on), the miniaturization we can achieve with smarter devices, the distance our devices can be from plugs, and so on.

I was using a lot of electronics gear while I was in the Army.  Our equipment could operate off standard power, but it could also run off batteries if we were in the field.  But these batteries seemed to weigh 1-2lbs each, and we needed to replace them maybe once a day.  So if we were on a mission, we might need to carry 7-14 extra lbs of batteries, plus spares.  On top of our other gear.  Batteries just haven’t miniaturized like everything else in an electronic gadget has.  This is holding us back tremendously.  At the very least, we are starting to use RFID chips that are activated briefly by being stimulated by electrical interfaces like at metro stations.

The good news is that Obama has put $2 billion into manufacturing and research for battery technologies.  Even that has a wrinkle, according to the “Breakthrough team”, quoted in a NYTimes blog post:  if money is diverted into deployment, it will take away from basic R&D:

“The Breakthrough team warns that while deployment of today’s technologies is vital, if money for deployment is included in the $150-billion pie, that dangerously reduces the amount of money for laboratories pursuing vital advances on photovoltaics or energy storage and for big tests of technologies that must be demonstrated at large scale — like capturing carbon dioxide from power plants.”

Our inability to localize energy storage has meant that concentrated power has been the name of the game — it is the same for wifi right now, but WiMAX will make that issue obsolete.

So eventually there will be at least one valuable resource which is always limited and finite and definitive of our cultures and personalities:  individual time.  We will only have 24 hours in a day.  If our brains can handle more than one task at a time, our bodies can’t.  We still require sleep, eating, drinking, education, socialization, play, etc.  What’s more, we love to take part in those things, even so far as to do it alone or with others, whichever we have the opportunity to take part in.

What becomes most valuable to us, on an individual level, is whatever we spend our time doing.  And the chances are that it will be interacting with each other, or building things, or being creative, or relaxing.  These, as they should be, will be the most valuable things we both seek and trade and sell and share.  Time will dominate as a currency.

To some degree this is already occurring.  There are a lot of poor people willing to work for next to nothing, and their active time is being used abusively to produce stuff so we don’t have to.  We develop a product and market it and then buy and sell it, but it’s the poor people who put in the hard labor.

I’m not sure this human tendency to exploit the weak and poor will change on its own — certainly not under capitalist impulses.  Perhaps robots could take their place, ultimately becoming more productive than humans, who require food and water and sleep.  This is why some scifi people dwell so much on what happens when the robots decide they’ve had enough with us treating them like slaves.  Less a Terminator outcome than an I, Robot outcome.

The Pope released an encyclical which discussed globalization and economics at length.  I think his emphasis on helping the poor makes a great deal of sense; only through humanity’s constant effort will the number of poor be reduced.  We’re obviously not sure how that is to be done yet — but I think the development economists on the cutting edge who suggest that it has to do with leadership in government and power mainly, but then reinforced by all the other stuff:  human capital, good governance, nutrition and health, girl’s education, non-intervention, etc., are going to figure it out.

I’m not pushing for paternalistic top-down programs by any means, even if I’m talking about strong government leaders and a Catholic papacy.  Certainly I feel I’m as entrepreneurial as they come, wanting to build a massive reputation and identity platform and make big bucks from it, along with fame.  But it has a not-for-profit data-protecting component as well, and I am after all a product of mostly public institutions (public high school, UT Austin, the Army) until I went to a private institution (which is heavily influenced by Catholic Jesuit values).  I have benefited from a healthy blend of so many different structures and organizations, to include a multi-racial lineage and multiple nationalities among my family and friends, that I can hardly avoid seeing the world as REQUIRING a flourishing ecosystem of diversity and intense competition that also provides for learning and apprenticing and mentoring and teaching.

So at some point I’m looking to bring the international development component of my studies back in to my career.  But more and more this is looking like I’ll have to apply development theory to my own country, as it struggles to balance its technological and entrepreneurial bents along with entrenched and powerful radical corporatism, along with a declining propensity to seek bold policy overhauls where it needs it (education, health care).

To me, the economics of our world system demand that the most important future input will be education from low-level grade school all the way to advanced studies.  The effects of technology upon society and economics have been pervasive and profound, and in order for us to continue making breakthroughs, we’re going to need more and more advanced understanding to reach even basic levels of academic research in tomorrow’s future areas:  solar, nano, genetic modification, quantum-level, as well as reputation and forgetting/forgiving, identity, cultural anthropology, ecosystem gardening/curating, gift economics, happiness economics, etc.

The US, being so heavily reliant on its entrepreneurial technology, should be even more concerned in building up its education pipeline than any other country on the planet, because technology and risk is the US lifeblood.  So I feel as though any efforts I make in the future will have to incorporate policy and private incentives towards education.

These are my first few stabs at understanding what my career will ultimately look like, but I see them in line with the needs of the country, the trends of technology, and the progress of social demographics.  It’s kind of exciting, don’t you think?

Why You Should Love the "Fast and the Furious" Series

[updated for Fate of the Furious]

Despite the Fast and Furious series becoming one of the most durable and profitable movie franchises in Hollywood, with endless potential for follow-ups, it was long regarded as somewhat of a joke, a predictably summerish action film orgasm with outlandish stunts and horrible dialogue featuring poor actors and garish music and fashion.  I originally wrote this post back when the franchise was less respected — things have obviously changed in the 6th and 7th films now that they are Hollywood juggernauts.

What I want you to understand is that you should appreciate this franchise beyond its profitability and new-found (as a result of Paul Walker’s death) sentimentality.

I know it looks cheesy and it seems geared towards a young high school male crowd.  But what the franchise has actually done is provide an overview of the history of street-racing culture and documentation of U.S. international affairs issues.

The movies, in order of release (domestic):

  1. The Fast and the Furious, Rob Cohen, $144.5mil
  2. 2 Fast 2 Furious, John Singleton, $127mil
  3. The Fast and the Furious:  Tokyo Drift, Justin Lin, $62.5mil
  4. Fast & Furious, Justin Lin, $155mil
  5. Fast Five, Justin Lin, $209.8mil
  6. Fast & Furious 6, Justin Lin, $238.7mil
  7. Furious 7, James Wan, $320.5mil (as of 26 Apr 15)
  8. Fate of the Furious, F. Gary Gray, $227mil (as of 13 Sep 17)

Tokyo Drift is the outcast of the series and actually takes place after all the other 5 first films.  Vin Diesel has appeared in all of the films except the 2nd one (he was working on xXx).  Paul Walker has appeared in all the films except the 3rd one (which only Diesel cameo’d in).

The first movie came as a complete surprise.  It was one of those films that got more popular the longer it was in theaters, and especially once it hit DVDs and TV.  It is now well-established in the cultural zeitgeist.

ffThe first movie only made $40mil in its opening weekend, but ended up making $144mil total.  Tokyo Drift, the third film that came after the weak second film, was the only film to have a weaker opening and total.

The latest film is now the 5th highest grossing film of all time, internationally!  And 36th pre-inflation domestically.

Talk about organic growth!

Directors

It’s worth talking just about the directors because they impact how the series has progressed.  Rob Cohen directed the first film.  Cohen appears to be an expert at crafting big-budget summer action films, even if they don’t end up being that memorable later.  John Singleton directed the next film, which was a train wreck.  Justin Lin took over for the rest of the series, starting with the oddball Tokyo Drift third film.  Lin dropped out for the seventh film (and went on to direct a couple episodes of True Detective and Star Trek 3), to be replaced by James Wan, most notable for his direction of the film Saw.

Justin Lin had an inauspicious beginning with Tokyo Drift but that film ended up being so instrumental in the backstory for the rest of the franchise that Lin has pretty much defined the franchise ever since.

Music

Back when I was a kid, collaborations made movie soundtracks actually awesome.  Judgment Night, The Crow, Strange Days: these were powerhouse albums.  The FF films don’t do collaborations but have been noteworthy for delivering new original music from top artists.  For example, the Fast & Furious 6 soundtrack had tracks from 2 Chainz, Wiz Khalifa, Deadmau5, Cypress Hill, Crystal Method, and David Guetta.  Furious 7’s tribute to Paul Walker was a song by Wiz Khalifa that Vin Diesel has ended up singing in various occasions to remember his deceased friend.

The Fast and the Furious

The first movie sets out to cover street-racing culture essentially where it became biggest, in Los Angeles.  The culture as proposed by the film is macho in nature, mainly men racing cars against each other for money or for pink slips (car titles, or the ownership of the car) or for the favor of women who are usually dressed in skimpy, bimbo’d out outfits.  American muscle is the thematic powerhouse.  Michelle Rodriguez plays a tough mechanic in Diesel’s crew who races cars — she breaks the stereotype.

I think it’s important to note that prior to this film, street-racing really wasn’t a pop culture thing.  It defined a whole generation’s love affair with custom cars.

The cars in this film are mostly import tuners rigged up with NOS (nitrous oxide systems) with replacement engines and pearlescent detailing on the body.  The idea is that you buy a cheap car and kit it up so it can go faster with less weight and at a lower cost than buying a sports car (with the added benefit of being a good example of how open standards and modular equipment can lead to innovation, similar to custom-built PC computers).

Since the setting is LA, the mix of people is diverse:  Vin Diesel and his sister and girlfriend are Hispanic, Walker is white, Ja Rule (a rapper) is black, and there are competing street-racing gangs such as the Hispanics and the Asians (who of course have rice rocket motorcycles).  The shy, wobbly guy in Dom’s crew is a dyslexic kid who is somehow a genius with CAD and rebuilding cars.  He, like all the nerds in the series, dies.

The first movie moves at one point to a “Race Wars” in the desert, cognizant of the illegality of street-racing inside the city.

At the end, Dom and Walker’s character chase a shamed Asian gang’s leaders (victim to a Joy Luck Club-like humiliation in the form of an FBI raid while eating dinner with their parents and elders) and then finish in an industrial zoning section of LA.  Dom’s car of choice is an American muscle car, a 1970 Dodge Charger R/T.  He was afraid of its power after his father died while racing it.  Yet he rebuilt it anyway.

This movie is all about the American muscle mentality ultimately, despite the use of Asian tuner cars. (see the cars from this film)

2 Fast 2 Furious

The second film had a ridiculous title, a new director, no Vin Diesel, but Tyrese Gibson as Paul Walker’s counterpart.  The franchise lost a lot of momentum with this film.

But the second film took place in Miami around Miami’s narcotics underworld.  Instead of the LA FBI, this film deals with customs agents, Miami nightclubs, and Miami yachts and boatyards.  Instead of straight-up American muscle cars, there are convertible ragtops. (see the cars from the second film)  Miami will always be a lucrative waypoint for drugs entering the country and being distributed throughout the US, so the FF style being adapted to Miami weather and convertibles is fitting.ff2

Eva Mendes is the requisite superstar hot chick (Dom’s sister in the first film, Jordana Brewster, was hot but not well-known enough) who is an undercover agent herself.  Ludacris, the rapper, is the bankroller for the good guys in this film, and he seems to be friends with this super-hot halfie chick named Suki, who drives a pink ragtop that she designed herself.  Obviously in this film there was more effort to break stereotypes.

This was the weakest of the four films.  John Singleton directed it, and it came off plain.  It took the least risks.

Tokyo Drift

Tokyo Drift is already playing on cable TV.  It is a sleeper favorite of mine.  It was the worst-performing movie of the franchise, but it was just so outstandingly different than its previous films and than other peer films.  It showed respect to driving and went outside the US to prove it.  It also ends up being crucial to the overall story.

Tokyo Drift takes the young cornfed American muscle car driver kid and portrays him as a troublemaker with a broken family (Navy dad) who doesn’t respect authority.  He wins a race at the beginning, his muscle car against a Dodge Viper driven by a high school football player.  Winner gets the football player’s girlfriend.  The starting line girl takes off her bra to start the race.  Very American.  But both guys end up totaling their cars so the kid gets shipped off to Tokyo to stay with his Navy dad.  Football player’s a trust-fund kid with a rich dad so he gets off, thanks to connects.ff3

So muscle car American goes to Tokyo (his flight has Japanese businessmen and a bunch of college kids going to Japan for summer vaycay) and starts attending a Tokyo school and of course hits on a non-Japanese girl who ends up being the “Drift King”‘s girlfriend.  He also befriends Bow Wow (a rapper), who’s the only other American in Tokyo because he’s a military brat.

Muscle car American challenges Drift King (DK) to a race.  But the race is within a parking garage and simple drag racing down a straight strip won’t fly.  Dolled-up Japanese girls in knee socks and lots of makeup line the race’s track.

“You wouldn’t have that problem with a V-8.”

“Boys.  All they care about is who’s got the biggest engine.”

“I’m a guy.  It’s in my DNA.  So y’all race with these things, huh?  Cute little toys.”

ff3_2

Thus the American learns about drifting, or detaching your car’s wheels from the road to skid around corners without losing speed, being bankrolled by a rich Japanese guy who doesn’t care about wasting money but is so bored he wants to see something interesting.

What’s cool about drifting in the film is that drifting started in Japan, and it is proper for this racing franchise to pay homage to it.  YouTube has a bunch of videos including the originals of the drifting founder, Kunimitsu Takahashi.  Watch this history of drifting on YouTube:

So the American has to learn to drift in order to beat DK at the end, who is actually son to a Yakuza (Japanese mafia) boss.  The American also has to learn how to drive much smaller cars (Bow Wow’s shows a VW Touran with some punched-out frame work done for a fist-shape effect, delivered out of a Tokyo-appropriate automated parking garage machine).  See the rest of the Tokyo Drift cars.  In the end, the American beats the Japanese guy by drifting…in an American muscle car.

Japan is instrumental to racing and racing culture.  Import cars and parts, compact cars that are easily modifiable, reliability.

A prominent theme in the film is being gaijin, or outsider.  DK’s woman was a gaijin, and the white protagonist is a gaijin as well.  They’re discriminated against but they eventually adapt and are celebrated.

The best part for the franchise?  At the end of the film, Dom makes a cameo at one of the parking garage races.

Dom pays homage to Han, who is the only one from the third film to join the crew in later films.  Probably because of his great perspective on what’s important in life in these speeches:

Naturally he’s an Asian so he has to die in the film’s canon.

Fast & Furious, the Fourth

For the fourth film, the original cast was brought back. Dom is on the lam, now raiding fuel trucks in the Dominican Republic and Michelle Rodriguez is trying to get his freedom back and also rebuilds his Dodge Charger (the car which takes on a mythical presence in the franchise).

This time, Dom and Brian (Walker’s character) are going to Mexico to kill/arrest a drug cartel leader who offs Dom’s girlfriend.  The American muscle cars are back, and as this page of Fast and Furious’s cars says, the German-engineered BMWs and Mercedes get destroyed.  No love for them.

ff4

Drivers are getting executed in the desert after making a run through the US border control.  Transporting massive loads of drugs across the border.  The movie came at a time of increasing drug trafficking activity along the Mexico-TX/AZ/CA borders, as Caribbean drug routes began to be closed down by increased U.S. law enforcement activity (hence the end of Miami Vice, Scarface, 2 Fast 2 Furious).  Quite prescient since now the Mexico border violence is palpable, and people being executed as part of the trafficking has become standard.

For some reason this movie did better than the rest of the previous films, I suspect because it had the original cast back and people expected it to re-capture the original experience.

Fast Five

The fifth film in the series, Fast Five, takes place mainly in Rio de Janeiro, after Dom is rescued from a prison transfer bus by Mia and Brian.  The film covers the corruption of the police, influence from the drug lords, and the use of the favelas to control, process, and hide the drugs and resulting cash.  Perhaps when Dom and Brian have to go find some race cars for their heist is the piece that ties the movie back to all the rest, for when they show up at the night race, they say it’s home sweet home.  All the cast from all the movies makes an appearance, including old cast members after the credits, so stay and watch.

In today’s affairs, drug trafficking is being pushed south.  Central America has gotten violent as the Zetas have been pressured to move south after increased U.S. DEA/intel/operations presence in the north and in Mexico City.  Meanwhile South American countries are increasing their drug production as Colombia fights the lingering presence of its ugly 80’s drug cartels.  Why Brazil?  It’s hot right now.  It’s getting the Olympics and World Cup as well.  It’s part of the BRIC countries.

The vehicles?  American muscle cars, a few race cars, and a bigass MRAP military looking South African urban combat looking vehicle driven by “Captain America/Samoan Thor”, The Rock.  With SUVs, new Dodge Chargers, and a dune buggy.

None of this should be confused with The Onion’s Today Now! interview with the 5-year-old screenwriter of Fast Five.

This film transitioned the franchise from a weak series of films into a blockbuster, by way of adding The Rock and expanding the crew.  This also transitions the franchise from less of a street-racing homage series to more of an action film series with ridiculous stunts and Hollywood action.

Fast & Furious 6

The latest installment, number 6, brings together the entire crew once again, to face an equally skilled crew operating out of Europe.  The interesting connection here for international affairs is that Europe has been the focus of world news for the last 5-10 years because of the financial crisis and subsequent bailout plans for countries.  Most of the film takes place in London, the financial capital of the world, but it also moves to Spain (ground zero for financial trouble a few years ago) and Russia.  Interpol, the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, and NATO are the prominent legal organizations involved.

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The cars are a mix of American and Brit.  Dodge Mustangs and Chargers (for Dom) vs. BMWs, Interceptors, Mark I Escorts.  The good guys drive 3 cars, colored red, white, and blue.  The Rock is of course still in his massive MRAP-like vehicle.  There’s a NATO tank.

One interesting thing that happens is that the opposing crew tries using electronic devices to override electronic controls on Dom’s crew’s cars, so they end up switching to cars without electronic chips.  That technical twist is forgotten in the rest of the movie but there’s still tension between old cars, new cars, American muscle, and import toys, running throughout the series.

Furious 7

Paul Walker’s death (by, fittingly, sports car accident) contributed greatly to the awareness of this film, but it was already going to do well because of its all-star cast, adding Jason Statham as the new villain.  Gone are the early days of Han’s philosophizing and LA subculture turf wars — it’s now international action that in many ways reminded me of Mission Impossible (the car stunt at the Abu Dhabi towers is reminiscent of Ghost Protocol), James Bond, and other similar action films.

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This blog post’s core argument has kind of broken down as the franchise has transitioned away from cars and more to the dominant themes of personalities and “family” along with action filming techniques:

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But supercars and the Middle East are inseparable, along with the Gulf States being a new hotspot of nefarious, shady waystations for international intrigue and illicit commerce.  The infamous princes who bring their supercars to London every summer are featured in Furious 7.

Azerbaijan is another waystation between commerce routes and country borders — a gap in the international system’s fabric.  Just suited for an environment of paradropping vehicles in, having off-road vehicles (Ludacris’s Jeep Wrangler) for the first time, etc.

Furious 7 - C-130 Sequence

A return to LA for the end of the film is a given; it’s the team’s home turf, and still the birthplace of car culture and the franchise.

So many different cars are being used at this point in the franchise that there’s no overall style, but some things remain: Dom and Letty still drive their American muscle cars, Jason Statham drives a Brit Aston Martin, Paul Walker tends to drive souped-up Japanese cars.

Paul Walker and Vin Diesel driving off in different directions at the end, with the aid of CG-rendered clips and Paul’s stand-in brother.  A mark to the end of another stage of the franchise’s development.

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Fate of the Furious

There’s nothing to be said about this film.  Vin Diesel and The Rock feuded because Vin Diesel perceives himself as the owner of this franchise, which probably makes sense since The Rock most likely is a threat to take over any production he’s involved in (especially when he calls out Vin Diesel in front of the production crew for being late and not being professional), and Vin wants to secure his money.  Tyrese Gibson recently called out The Rock on attempting a spinoff.

This franchise is a great moneymaker for those involved, in the growing tradition of “let’s gather all the stars together to make a shit-ton of money every couple years” films.  So it’s hard to blame anyone for being involved at this point, but the franchise is no longer what it was.

The problem is that Vin Diesel is and never could be the spiritual totem of this franchise.  The franchise rested on the goodness and genuineness of Paul Walker.  Vin Diesel was Paul Walker’s project both on-screen and off.  Without Paul Walker around, the easiest plot is just to make Dom appear to be the bad guy even though he’s acting out of defense for his family.  Charlize appears as the film trope villainness (no doubt a result of her relationship with F. Gary Gray from their time on The Italian Job) and the screenwriter Chris Morgan has been the screenwriter for most of the other films in the franchise, but this film is just pure garbage.  It only highlights the heart and soul of the first and third films in the series.

So Why Should You Love the Franchise?

The franchise delves into strange law enforcement and black market/underground bedfellows.  It embraces the drug war, cultural and ethnic divides, and other taboo topics.  Mexican drug cartels, street-racing, the Yakuza, Rio favelas, dark spots in the world’s geopolitics.  It also embraces the car-modding communities in a way that no other films have come close to doing.  It mashes up old cars and new cars and popular actors, musicians, and unknowns.  It pays homage to Paul Newman and drag racing.  It’s strangely relevant to issues affecting world politics.

It adapts its franchise to different locations with different cultures and styles.  It wasn’t afraid to go to Tokyo to tussle up the franchise.  And different locations mean different styles of driving, different cars, different reactions to American bravado and muscle.

It’s highly stylized with quick cutscenes of fuel being injected into a combustible engine with NOS treatment to provide blurry-filmed bursts of speed (sort of an homage to the Three Kings gunshot wound scene).

The FBI should totally try to use this franchise for recruiting — embracing kids who do questionable things but offer skills the FBI might need.  Maybe it’d be a complete waste of time but the FBI could at least exploit the nominally-positive FBI mood in the franchise.  The FBI is seen as the stereotypical insular, out-of-touch organization, but it’s employing a new generation of kids (think 21 Jump Street or The Mod Squad) in the franchise.

The franchise covers a decade of the American experience at home and abroad.  Drug trades in Miami and Mexicali, kitting and piracy in LA, the art of drifting and expats in Tokyo.  US primacy is no longer unquestioned, as external influences in the form of drug cartels and the mafia exert counter-balancing power against American might and American law enforcement.  The rise of the rest, with Latin America pushing in on America’s borders and Japan’s culture being completely unknown, but not untouchable, to Americans, dominates the tone set by the franchise.

To sum up, there just aren’t many other franchises covering strange subcultures like the Fast and the Furious franchise did.  There’s something unique about this one, despite its goofiness at times.  That’s why you should love it.

[More on the franchise from Mahalo.]

I also, now that we’ve had so many films come out, am fixated on how good the third film was.  It was a total black sheep at the time, and made far, far less than any of the other films, but it’s so key to understanding and loving the franchise.  We also learn that it took place chronologically before the later films, such that Han had already finished his time working with Dom’s crew and they were already lifelong family.  For Dom to show up at the end to pay his respects, and then see this turn into the impetus for the seventh film, was well-executed.  The third film also piggybacked off the reverence and quieter moments of the first film for driving culture and for life in general, in a way that the second film (which was pure flash) totally did not care about.

Other Taboo Movie Topics

I explained this amazing franchise to my friend Preetum one time — she’s still skeptical.  But there are other film subjects I will gladly defend with ferocity.  I still maintain that as much as you can make fun of Keanu Reeves (and my buddy MonkeyPope does a hilarious impersonation of him), the guy has a filmography any actor would kill to have:  Point Break, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Much Ado About Nothing, being in a William Gibson book-turned-movie (Johnny Mnemonic), Parenthood, the Matrix trilogy, Dangerous Liaisons, The Replacements, Speed, The Devil’s Advocate, and of course Bill & Ted.  You can’t argue against that résumé.

For that matter, I also think that while the original Matrix was by far the best, the rest of the trilogy is worth watching as a whole summation of parts.

And with that, my nerddom is done for now.

Recruitment

I was having lunch with a couple buddies of mine, one of whom took Michael Scheuer’s “Al-Qaeda and the Global Jihad” class with me.  He reminded me of one of Professor Scheuer’s best points made during the semester.

I might have forgotten some of the details, so I apologize, but I hope to capture the main crux of his argument.

Scheuer was in the Agency during the days of the Cold War, and so recruitment of Soviets was of course a large priority.

Scheuer drew a large circle with a much smaller circle in the middle of it.  The large circle represented all the Soviet military members.  The smaller one was the top brass, the tight inner circle.

He said that the higher a servicemember got in the hierarchy within the Soviet system, the easier he was to recruit.  The reason for this was that he had more access and could see the faults with the system, how flawed it was and how vaporous it was.  The grand promises extolled by the privates and the junior servicemembers were never delivered, and after promotions and receiving more responsibilities, it became an alienating experience.

Thus the US could recruit them, no doubt in part because the US had a healthy economic and political model to confront the Communist model with.

But Al-Qaeda and the mujaheddin movement is something else entirely.  The US can’t find defectors or agents in the same way.

Scheuer used the same diagram, and then explained that it was in fact those on the periphery of the mujaheddin movement who were easiest to pick off, because they were the least indoctrinated and the most conflicted about trying to earn money versus taking up the jihad against injustice, anti-Muslim policies, etc.

Once people had been through the training camps and had seen how the senior leaders lived and led by example, eschewing comfort and wealth and the pride and glory of the world of the infidels, they in fact became even more hardened.  The inner circle of the mujaheddin are even more devout, even more disciplined in their worship of Islam, even more devoted to their cause.  They are tied together by common suffering and hardship in the camps.  They become even more incorruptible by outside attempts of recruitment.

For more, read Omar Nasiri’s “Inside the Jihad”.

Casualties of Stock Market Warfare

A friend of mine linked to a blog post from Ivan Krsti? about a massive short squeeze on Volkswagen stock back in October of 2008. Ivan does a great job of explaining what happened (so read that first), but I wanted to build upon the story.

Porsche vs. Traders

Basically, a bunch of hedge funds were betting on Volkswagen’s stock price being too high for Porsche to buy it out. So they added short positions on Volkswagen in anticipation of the price falling. At the same time, Porsche was buying up Volkswagen shares, purportedly up to 75% of them, almost the entire available float. This caused a short squeeze, and the price of the stock skyrocketed from its normal trading range of €200-450 or so to over €1k on October 28th.

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Certain investors got creamed by this manipulation — part of me wonders how stuff like this is legal for businesses to engage in aggressive trading — but Porsche must’ve made a bundle from it. The price has since then floated back to its normal range.

But since any short trade is selling borrowed stock, it is classified as a margin trade (i.e. you borrow money from your broker in order to buy/short stock, usually at 2x your cash level but in some cases up to 10x, which caused the massive speculative bubble burst among some of the big banks last year).

Therefore, if the price increases and you don’t have the margin to cover the shares, your broker can force you to cover or add more capital. That is why some players couldn’t just ride out the short squeeze until it was over.

Said Ivan Krsti?:

“On paper, Porsche made between €30-40 billion in the affair. Once all is said and done, the actual profit is closer to some €6-12 billion. To put those numbers in perspective, Porsche’s revenue for the whole year of 2006 was a bit over €7 billion.”

I remember reading a headline about this and wondered how it could have happened…but the EU has some weird relationships between different same-country companies. I didn’t look further into it.

Ugly Americans

I remember reading a similar story in Ben Mezrich’s “Ugly Americans: The True Story of the Ivy League Cowboys Who Raided the Asian Markets for Millions”, a fine re-telling of American finance guys traveling to Japan to play the markets there in the 1990’s.  I don’t remember all the details but basically everyone in town thought a deal between two organizations was going to happen on a specific date, so everyone traded the same way on it.  The subject of the story, however, reasoned that since he couldn’t actually find anyone involved in the deal, then it must not exist.  He changed his firm’s position on it and made a ton of money when no deal happened on that date.

Warfare, stock market-style.

Suicide

The Volkswagen story came back last week when one of the speculative traders, Adolf Merckle, tossed himself under a train in an apparent suicide. Merckle himself lost about €500mil on the Volkswagen trade, reportedly, while his family’s holding company owed €5bil to banks. Obviously Merckle’s financial story was spiraling out of control and he couldn’t take it anymore.

This is what makes investing, speculative trading, gambling, playing poker, anything involving rapid changes in cash levels so dangerous and oftentimes deleterious to one’s psychological health.

Most people might now think of the recent Madoff scandal reflexively.  But that wasn’t trading or addiction to gambling; such a Ponzi scheme is a one-off affair and people got burned, but it was a consensual affair with some degree of complicity, and it’s doubtful that you’ll see much more than some sheepishness as a result of the investigation.  As my girlfriend pointed out to me, Madoff doesn’t even feel remorse after the fact.  More of an “oops” than an admittance of personal failure.

Jesse Livermore

It’s not entirely clear what caused Merckle to commit suicide (it might not have been the Volkswagen trade at all, as his “empire was falling apart”), but certainly there’s a parallel between the lives and deaths of Merckle and a famous trader, Jesse Livermore.

Jesse Livermore was a stock trader back at the turn of the 20th century. He famously shorted the market in 1907 and in 1929 and made millions of dollars (good in today’s terms but phenomenal back then). He has turned into a trading legend and Edwin Lefevre’s pseudo-biography of him, “Reminiscences of a Stock Operator”, is considered a must-read in the trading canon.

He went bankrupt a few times.  He also ended up losing big on a cotton trade gone wrong.  Eventually he blew his brains out.

Psychology

Merckle and Livermore were individual men, trading fantastic amounts of capital. It is one thing to lose a hundred dollars in Vegas, but quite another to lose what would be a massive setback ($500mil) for an entire company, let alone one person.  What I think compounds the psychological damage is to place a trade, which is usually an expression of your opinion on a matter, and then have it go against you.  Not only was Merckle wrong, he was also $500mil wrong.  The market told him in no uncertain terms that he made a bad decision.

Traders often deal with this by justifying their trades.  “Oh it’s going down, and my shares are losing money, but I know eventually it will go up.”  And they ride it all the way down.  Eventually the price plunges quickly, causing traders to panic and sell…at which point a bottom comes in, at least temporarily.  But the traders got swept out because of emotion and fear.

It is almost impossible to rewire one’s brain to not react this way — which is why good traders are so hard to find.

So at some level, for many traders, successful trades are not just making money for them, they are also verification of traders’ sense of worth and identity.  If you make a bad trade and lose a lot of money off it, not only are you poorer but you also question your own worth.  I know this because I felt the same way on some trades I made.

Which is one reason I don’t trade anymore…  I’m a lousy trader.  But I’m a somewhat decent investor, and I try to stick just to that.

Conclusions

Scale is a consistent theme within these narratives.  That is, small traders tried to play a game against a large firm on the basis of the firm’s decision-making, and so the firm held all the cards (and all the shares).  The small traders got burned.

But another phenomenon has caught my interest:  there’s so much capital out there that individuals can retire overnight.  We are all just one NYTimes best-seller or Billboard album or accidental event away from being a multi-millionaire who can coast for the rest of his life on the winnings.  Trillions of dollars float around the world, and we need only capture a million or two of that to be “rich”.

This is great for those who are keen enough to go out and grab it, but it also doesn’t scale well because individuals cannot handle much of the pressure that comes with the large swings of capital.  We are used to paying $5-15 for a meal, and we may forego that extra $1 for bacon on our burger.  But we might at the same time be in a business like poker or trading where we regularly win and lose $50k in a few minutes, and rarely think about what that $50k actually represents in terms of actual worth.  I don’t know if most human brains and nerves can deal with the swings, as Matt Damon’s character in Rounders points out (forward to 4:36 or use this link to go right there).

Now individuals (with 100% liability) are competing with large firms who have limited liability.  This provides huge opportunity and huge risk.  Will individuals encounter psychological problems with scaling in, competing against an integrated economy, and dealing with the fallout?

Some manage it well; celebrities like Britney and Lindsey handle it poorly.  And people like Livermore and Merckle end up in grizzly failure piles of suicidal detritus.

In the future, we will all be empowered as individuals, but with that comes a lot of accountability and responsibility.  If we can’t deal with it individually (or build in social safety nets and cultural/social communities), then it will consume us.