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.

Applications: Martin Nisenholtz

For this week’s Applications class, we had two really good student presentations.  One was a hilarious version of The Dating Game, involving wigs and moustaches and corny jokes and a soundboard for laughtrack.  Well done.  The other presentation involved a video showing the presenters in Times Square and in the subway, giving free directions and free subway trip swipes, respectively.  The thing I found interesting about the free directions vignette was that most people just wanted the person to hold their camera so he could take their photo.

Which makes me think: one of the most desired gadgets we’ll have in the future is some sort of android, preferably hovering, tasked to you, which floats around you and takes photos and video of you constantly.  The desire to record one’s own life is very powerful, and most of all it is limited by the requirement of having an “other” there to take the footage of you, away from yourself, when you’re not paying attention, when it’s not just a camera at arm’s length or set up on a timer in a staged scene.  Imagine if you have a tasked bot taking minutes of footage and hundreds of photos of you, having been given a routine to find the best footage of you possible.

Our guest speaker for this week was Martin Nisenholtz, who back in the day was part of the founding faculty for my NYU ITP program.  He’s now Senior Vice President for digital operations at the New York Times.

The guy is very savvy and pretty tuned in to how things play on the web — as he should, seeing how the NYT web site is one of the most trafficked online.  He did seem pretty defensive about the company’s “porous paywall” and about decisions to avoid celebrity journalists and more local blogging or curation.

I’ve been pretty happy with the quality of questions my classmates ask…the Q&A sessions are never boring, which is a divergence from many of the talks I went to at Georgetown, where the Q&A was usually someone pimping his or her thinktank in the guise of a “question”.

But I hate waiting my turn to ask questions in front of the whole group so I don’t often participate in that way.  I wish there were a backchannel or at least an alternate channel of comms during classes and presentations.

What I wanted to say was that I found some of Nisenholtz’s decisions puzzling.  He rightly identifies that the NYT’s core strength lies in the unsurpassed quality of its editors and their abilities to pick important stories for the reader.  So why does the NYT devote much of its front page to links recommended on Facebook by one’s friends?  This is too Huffington Post-ish.  Why do I care about what my friends are reading, unless I have pretty awesome newsie friends?  To be honest, I could just go to Facebook and see what my friends are posting — however it’ll often be at least a day or two late, and more often than not something fluffy I don’t care too much about.

I’m at the NYT site, I want to see more prominent display of what the NYT editors and journalists are reading.  I see the “backchannel” for them on Twitter, which I love — but I wish it happened more on the front page.

I also think the NYT (and most of the internet) undervalues the strength of its comments.  The NYT actually has mods who pick the best comments and highlight them.  This alone makes NYT comments worth reading more than some other sites, where you would have to sift through the garbage and hate.  I know most people don’t read comments, but go visit the editors’ picks for comments on a story.  They do actually add a lot to a story.  I wish the NYT would highlight these more, considering almost every other site on the internet has totally given up moderating comments.

If the NYT is a newsroom of the most skilled and wired journalists and editors and curators, then it should also be curating comments to find added facts and nuggets of gold from visitors.  This is one area where the NYT and most traditional media are getting killed by other sites.  reddit for example is not so much about what stories it aggregates (which it’s mighty good at), but at the thousands of comments posted on the story afterwards.  Some of the comments are from people who are in the article topic’s trade field, or who have direct knowledge of the incident.  This kind of insider info is invaluable.

So what you will often see is a very well-written NYT story linked from reddit, where reddit has 1k+ comments and over 2k upvotes.  So the whole conversation is happened outside of NYT’s site.  This would be unforgivable to me, if I were SVP of digital operations.

The usual complaint is that you can’t let a community moderate itself, or you can’t hire too many people to moderate.  Sorry?  Why not?  You could let people up/down- vote, you can let them tag and classify comments like slashdot did (as interesting, relevant, 1st hand source, funny, etc.) as some preliminary filtering, then use a curator to manage the rest.  You can have tabs to select between all comments, editors’ picks, user picks, etc.

Nisenholtz seemed to suggest he thinks curators don’t exist because they don’t have a business model to support them yet.  That’s funny since there are some EXCELLENT curators online doing the job for free.  They are gifted at sifting through tons of data every day and know which stories are actually changing the operating environment (for when you know something well enough, you essentially only look at what’s changed from what was the norm before).  They have high mental bandwidth and are supremely flexible.  This is a skill that editors and writers and researchers don’t really have.  I wish that they were employed better.

He also gave lip service to identity.  Now, I hate when people use this term because they usually mean it to say that we should be using Facebook to log in for comments, because people believe anonymous comments are what lead to garbage comments.  Well, when you make someone post under their actual names, it gets POLITICAL.  Then when you mod their comments down, they see it as an affront to their free speech rights and bullshit like that.

Whereas when I talk about identity, what I really want is that people who post under a certain handle (pseudonymous or under real name) can build up a reputation of posting good content, or finding good content.  This is what Twitter does, not by design but by virtue of following individual accounts.  I can choose to only follow the top journalists and the people like Jason Kottke or Andy Baio or Laughing Squid, who always find the best links out there before they go super-viral.  I don’t want the dumbass Huffington Post badges that just reward people for posting a lot, and in particular posting a lot towards the site’s agenda (e.g. the top users are all super wacko far-lefties).

At my previous job, our core group of analysts all agreed that there’s so much that can be done with a team of talented and well-trained curators.  I’ve considered guerrilla journalist teams, using several field reporters cross-trained in curation, being backed up at homebase by other curators, somewhat similar to Special Forces ODAs and ODBs.  Curators just aren’t used enough, and meanwhile, everyone else complains about not having enough time to find out what’s going on.

A final puzzling thing Nisenholtz brought up were these somewhat static overview pages on certain topics.  They made me think of Wikipedia immediately.  Like, why would you even devote company resources to having info pages on different topics?  Especially after being so keen on maintaining competitive advantage and not going the way of other news sites’ models?  The other aspect of that was, when he brought up the main topic page, the lede was the Amanda Knox timeline.  Pretty CNNish.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the NYT brand.  It has proven itself to consistently write some of the best news out there, and to both find and drive the news.  No other company does news editing better.  My former bosses loved the NYT as “proof” that things had occurred, backing up the social media stuff my team was finding.  But my team knew not to even check the NYT until later, after an event.  We would check Twitter and local cable news sites first.  Then we’d expect Associated Press and Reuters.  Then we’d expect NYT to flash something brief later.  Then maybe a full report later.  And then, of course, friends would post it on Facebook a day or more later.  News definitely trickles down and while I will cut the NYT tons of slack to do fact-finding and heavy editing (and Nisenholtz shouldn’t be so defensive about that), but I can see behind the lines on Twitter and on the NYT blogs that the writers and bloggers and journos are sitting on tons of info in the interim until it floats into the main stories.

The backchannels are still killing traditional press in terms of execution, speed, and the “process” of news developments.

Applications: Ray Ozzie

For this week’s Applications class, Ray Ozzie, the former Chief Software Architect for Microsoft, spoke to us about his career and the operating environment in which he cut his software/startup teeth.  He also founded several of his own companies.  His last project was to try to turn the Microsoft supertanker into the direction of the cloud and social collaboration.  Most would say he was not successful, but it seemed like an impossible task.  He gave recognition to the Xbox team, which has been the standout for innovation at Microsoft.  Wired had a great article about him a while ago.

One of my classmates asked Ozzie about what he thought the next great opportunities would be for us, based on what he experienced during his rise through the software ranks and subsequent industry boom.  He answered that the opportunity has never been larger and more varied than right now, since costs are being reduced so much and there’s so many areas to work in.  In other words, we have no excuses not to be able to find something compelling to work on.

This brings back a recurring frustration that runs through my mind.  I’ve been switching careers and trying to learn new things and have read about a lot.  It’s awesome just seeing how many amazing people there are out there who have spent years honing their crafts and pushing the adjacent possible out further and further, becoming experts.  What that has left me with, though, has been the equivalent of analysis paralysis.  I have no skills or talent at any of the things I’m interested in.  I realize that much of it requires just working in one specific area for a very, very long time to gain expertise.  But another part is raw talent.

The former, I’ve almost always quit things just before they were about to get interesting — for instance, I left the Army before becoming Staff Sergeant promotable, which would have led to a pretty cushy but hardcore career.

As for the latter, talent, some people are just naturals at something, or maybe multiple things.  While even the most talented need to work hard to succeed, I do think that when one is filled with talent and ability, it makes everything else so easy.  Of course the person wants to continue to train and improve — they’re getting positive reinforcement all the time.

There are others of us, I have come to understand, that do have the desire and curiosity to try new things, and to not be afraid of failing, but never break through the initial barrier.  Or even the intermediate barrier. This is how I think of myself.

It’s a source of great frustration to not be good at one particular thing, but I can’t really see that there’s any one thing (yet) that I want to devote all my time to.  In fact I enjoy searching for things and putting them together, particularly thinking about the people involved and what it took for them to get there.  Is it possible that instead of being good at building something, or producing art, or having a tangible skill, that my talent lies somewhere else altogether?  I haven’t found it yet, I don’t think.

Ozzie suggested that one should always try something risky, where something’s at stake, and to get out of oneself in order to learn from other ways of thinking.  I’m hoping that that is what I am doing.  I am a newbie when it comes to shared coding environments for my new software job, and I’m learning the basics of Arduino.  I just watched a presentation of the madmapper software, an Ableton-like live mixing and drawing interface for producing visualizations and light shows for large spaces and screens.  My mind is being continually blown right now.  It’s overwhelming, as school should be.  But where within all this is my talent?  Will I only find what I’m supposed to do by grinding away at something, failing constantly, until it just happens, until I outlast others?  Or have I just not found access yet to the kinds of areas that I would really do well in, like team dynamics and training?  Will I ever have a good post game in basketball, suitable to my size?  Will I ever be able to surf or, even worse, snowboard without wiping out horribly?  Should what I’m “good” at just come easily at first?  Will it always be an internal struggle?

The first day for one of my classes, our professor asked us what the last thing was that we taught ourselves.  This was a hard question for me, and it kind of saddened me.  When WAS the last time I taught myself something?  Some people teach themselves to play the guitar, or to do a trick.  I’m afraid the best answer I could come up with was develop a left hand in basketball.  I would like to say I taught myself something useful.  I’m going to try to learn morse code now, though, using this trainer software.

So this is all weighing heavily on me.  I’m in pursuit of a better life, of a more interesting life, for me and for my eventual family. I’ve come to accept that my path has become my own and no one else can really help me, as much as I’d love to have a mentor.  It’s a loner path and it’s hard to find people to relate to.  Which is exacerbated when I spend time with friends (whom I love) but end up trying to relate to their experiences, instead of receiving it in kind.  The best I can say for myself is that I don’t give up, but it’s long been frustrating to me to see other people wonder why things can be so difficult/windy for me.  It frustrates me that I’ve long felt like an observer in life, watching other people hone their talents and express themselves — successfully.  Part of me wonders if instead of being an observer, I need to be more of a leader (with my background skills), and to make more of an impact on the world around me.  How do I stop feeling like an interloper and more like the formidable presence often associated with me?  Part of me wonders whether I should just pick one thing and get really good at it.

I realize I don’t have much to complain about — I’m getting what I want and I’ve been given a ton of opportunities.  But it’s getting to the point where, with all this investment into my future, there’s going to have to be some payoff eventually, to pay back all those who have helped me get this far, to make everyone else’s efforts and presences in my life worth their time.

Applications: Guest Speaker Mike Hawley

For this week’s Applications class, the group projects discussed Margaret Gould-Stewart‘s lecture last week on collaboration and not being an ass.  I thought Justin made a good contrarian point that people should not be so nice to each other at the expense of pushing for great ideas and doing really bold artwork.  I thought this was poignant because it seems to me like there have been places in history where one after another great artists have come from, and they very often hate or at the very least compete against each other.  That edge made everyone stronger and forced them to be bolder, even if it made for a meaner environment.  Then you have environments like this week’s speaker, Mike Hawley, talked about, like Bell Labs, which he forlornly said was a great, collaborative, unique research lab that was broken up before its time by the courts.  Maybe there’s no rule to being competitive versus being collaborative.  Maybe some people need either, or both, at varying times.

What I think through my own experience is that it’s great to have a strong team, but the team members have to be allowed to play to their own strengths.  More importantly, shit needs to get done.  One of the things I hate most is worrying about whether someone else will get his shit done or not.  When you find people who can execute, they are more than worth it, even if they don’t get it exactly right.  Things can be fixed later, within reason, but people who dawdle make everyone else suffer, waiting on them to finish their work.  This might be reinforced by the current argument for development, which is “release early, iterate often”.

The other thought I had with regards to the group projects was that I don’t really mind if someone is an “ass” as long as he’s being an ass for a reason.  Is he being mean and arrogant and an asshole because he’s challenging people to do better work, because he knows they can?  Is he giving people an opportunity to try harder and to improve, or is he just taking away their self-respect and dignity?  I never minded being yelled at by drill sergeants or sergeants in the military, as long as I trusted that they knew better than I did and were trying to instill something in or teach something to me.  Humans really need to be pushed pretty hard to be the best they can be, and hopefully enough of them will eventually take the ball and start pushing themselves harder than anyone else ever could.

So our guest speaker last night was Mike Hawley, who worked at the MIT Media Lab, NeXT, Apple, and LucasFilm, and who has the ear of key players in business and government.  He really is a badass Renaissance Man.  What struck me about him was that he was really zeroing in on America’s priorities while understanding how Congress won’t fund anything, and while figuring out where the greatest risk/reward is.  For instance, he was interested in getting our feedback on how to revitalize libraries, since his friend, Tony Marx (a rival Princeton Woodrow Wilson grad), the president of the New York  Public Library, is meeting with President Obama today.  How can libraries be streamlined for the digital present, while still maintaining that key sense of community and place for knowledge that it has always been?  He was also interested in electric cars that would obsolete human driving as well as reduce car accidents, which are the number one cause of death for Americans under 35.  These are crucial considerations for what America wants to be in the future.

Hawley is also fantastic at distilling the key points of audience questions into their key components, which is something many speakers can’t do.  Clearly the man is brilliant, and has been mentored by some of the best American minds in history.  He makes the Q&A part of lectures actually MORE exciting — usually I want to walk out once a speaker’s done.  Plus my fellow classmates are actually quite insightful and aren’t pushing some pet cause they have, which was often a part of many Q&As I went to while in Washington DC (where almost everyone has an agenda).

One thing is that he clearly sees technical solutions as catch-alls.  When asked about cultural differences affecting the success of autonomous cars, he essentially argued that it was just a coding/design issue to remove any possible flaws in the code.  But how will you ever get a perfect system for driving?  There will always be human drivers to some degree, even if just a few in a mostly computer-driven road system.  What if cars could be hacked into, or if they go haywire?  You can’t have a perfect system, and it’s true that some cultures will take to the technology different than others.  But the key points remain: car accidents are a massively undervalued problem, and even some form of computer-assisted driving would solve all sorts of follow-on problems (e.g. congestion, safety, free time for working, reliance on gasoline, etc.).

The main thing I took out of Hawley’s visit was that I hope that more Americans like him have the ear of our senior leaders for envisioning how great America could be in the future.  I also hope to be one of those Americans who contribute as much as he has, one day.

Applications: My Personal Experience Riding the m5 Bus

Assignment: Take the m5 bus on a weekend at Houston and La Guardia Place to the last stop — George Washington Bridge — and return.  The trip should take about 1.5 hours.

Make notes of what you find surprising — e.g. changing neighborhoods, changing people, changing architecture, or none of these — and write your own personal experience of the trip — observing, imagining, and reacting to New York, or you can choose to imagine a story about the people you see.

I rode the m5 bus on September 18, a Sunday afternoon.  I felt that the trip was marked more by what I didn’t see than what I could see.  6th Street (Broadway) is a fairly large street and is commercial the whole way up, and the m5 bus follows Riverside Park for a good portion of the route.  What I did see was the omnipresent oligopoly of large banks owning most street corners, and adding more branches, a move that save for their tidy, secure logos, reminds me a lot of Las Vegas, where everything is built around the massive money-making casinos.  I am not sure whether all the bank locations are a good thing (liquidity of cash for shoppers) or a bad thing (banks owning high-value real estate, just because).

I also saw all races on the bus when near Greenwich Village heading north.  It became more white around midtown, and certainly around Riverside Park, where a bunch of parents and their soccer kids got on, carrying cupcakes.  By the end of the route, there was not a white in sight, and the black population near Harlem became almost completely Latino by the tail end of the m5.  The large food and shopping chains disappeared above Central Park as I traveled into immigrant and non-white neighborhoods.

Here’s what I didn’t see.  I didn’t see what I customarily see when I jog from East Village down to Battery Park, which is all the fishermen working the East River, all the Asians hanging out by the water near the old Fulton Fish Market.  Or the private helicopters landing above the Stanton Island ferries and other pier ferries.  I didn’t see what I saw the other night, which were all the flags planted in Battery Park for 9/11 remembrance, or the man who caught a massive whopper of a fish in Battery Park at around 11:30PM while admirers looked on and a skateboarder practiced a jump while his friend recorded…over and over and over.

I didn’t see inside the Waldorf-Astoria, lined with black privately-owned towncards and NYPD armed with carbine rifles to protect the well-to-do delegates to the United Nations National Assembly.  I didn’t see the protest in Wall Street by affiliates of Anonymous to protest bankers’ stranglehold on the economy.  I didn’t see many random cops or people being mean to each other, the usual stereotypes of NYC — contrary to that, people were extremely helpful to each other and quite nice and friendly.  I already knew this about NYC but it always amazes me to see just how well people can get along, even when crammed together.

So here’s the real long and short of it: I just moved from DC, where I spent four years. I love that city, partially because of its rich and important history, partially because it’s the ultimate underdog but still cosmopolitan city, partially because the people there really want to make things better.  While DC’s most exciting neighborhoods and streets radiate out from the White House like spokes, New York City is contained of pocket neighborhoods like Chinatown and SoHo and the East Village, which do not follow much of a linear pattern.  It’s more organic, smacks less of central planning.  While DC is experiencing an influx of rich, well-educated international elites whose concerns overpower the old black and local fractious communities, NYC’s communities are strong and defend their turf, in a good way.  While DC is a flat city, because of zoning regulations that say buildings can’t be taller than the big monuments, NYC is a crowded city with massive towers and skyscrapers, so one does not always see the skyline, clouds, and sun.

Perhaps what I get out of all this is how important it can be to be able to claim a city as your identity.  Some would not be so proud to be from, say, Cincinnati or Boise, people are clearly proud to be New Yorkers, regardless of their overall stakes in the city.  I hate seeing Yankee caps everywhere but that’s a fact of life in NYC.  What does it mean for individual identity when one can be so proud of and feel so loved by one’s city, largely accepted as the greatest city on Earth?  While I saw some differences in place and style during my time traversing the city, mostly what I saw was a fairly unified cultural identity based not on religion or color or income, but place.

Applications, Week 2: Designing for Humanity

Last night’s Applications class was the first in which the student teams presented.  By far the most interesting part of it was an exercise where the entire ITP ’13 class stood in two lines facing each other.  You would get a hand’s width apart from the person in front of you and stare in his/her eyes for 1-2 minutes.  Not only is this task an exercise in choosing which eye to stare at, but it also gets right down to the core of your own insecurities.  Are you intimidated by another person because it’s someone of the opposite sex?  Is it intimidating because it’s someone of the same sex?  I ended up laughing with the guy I was staring at, while the girl I was with couldn’t do the staring, though she tried to make me blink.  I’m glad one of the presenting groups’ members used the well-known axiom, “If you’re staring someone in the eyes, you’re either about to have sex or are about to fight.”  The exercise would be improved by removing the people who clearly have no inhibitions about staring others in the eye.

Part of me couldn’t stop laughing, because I was thinking of these Will Ferrell outtakes the whole time.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ykuTKwbRwF0

After the presentations, our class got to listen to a lecture from Margaret Stewart (@mags), the User Experience lead at YouTube for Google.  The woman really captivated our class.  What I found great about Margaret (an ITP alumna, back in the day), was that she handled every single question from our crowd with poise.  She is clearly a well-read person who reads outside of her own subject area, the mark of any boss that you’d ever want to work for.  She was also curious, seeking fun, and intensely interested in the public good that YouTube provides the world.

She talked about not making a design too flashy or too cute or whatever, because that can alienate smaller subsets of users who may feel like the design is uninviting, at which point they’ll look for another video-hosting site.  She cited people who might be posting videos looking for kidney donors not wanting really cute-sy things in the user interface.  She was happy with the displaying of top comments as one of the initial steps in trying to get through the infamous comment troll Hell that is YouTube comments (the worst dredge on the entire internet).

Mostly she implored the women in the class to seek mentorship from other women, and to provide it when it would be their turn.  I think this is crucial.  Clearly the women in my class thought Margaret was amazing, as did I, since she has been a successful female in a male-oriented world (Google) on her own terms, even stopping to have children, and yet she is still curious, fun, feminine, and intelligent.  She advised us not to be an ass in life, but what she was showing us was to be a badass.

My final comment is that I love that women are on a trend to dominate.  Three out of my four professors this semester are women, and my class is 55% female.  Women are reaching higher levels of management, which I think is required to topple the glass ceiling that exists at the CEO/executive level.  I have had tons of female bosses, even in the Army, and they are always responsible, caring, thoughtful, and good for building a work tribe or community.  Surely there is some stereotypical infighting, but if you’ve ever been around a bunch of dudes, it’ll usually come down to a lot of wasted time (but good chummy behavior) unless there’s a true alpha dog that knows how to motivate and inspire them.

So…thanks, Margaret.  Here’s to a future of more women like you!

PComp, Week 1: Physical Interactivity

Part of our assignment for intro to physical computing class, other than the Arduino assignment, was to read the first two chapters of Chris Crawford’s “The Art of Interactive Design: An Euphonious and Illuminating Guide to Building Successful Software”, and to visit the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) new “Talk to Me” exhibit, which I talked about a bit in a previous blog post.

Crawford says that in order for something to be interactive, like for instance a conversation, there are three components: listening, considering, and responding.  My immediate thought, intensely based on personal experience, was that men must be badly designed for interaction.  I had an ex who would constantly tell me I was not responding to her long complaint sessions in a helpful manner, saying I would just end up saying “that sucks” and “I’m sorry”.  I really did try my best.  I listened, tried to be helpful, tried to resist my male instincts to try to find ways to solve the problems.  Then I tried to just listen and be the shoulder.  None of it worked.  Eventually I just figured out I couldn’t win that game and that she really needed better girlfriends to deal with that crap.  Guys can only deal with so much.

So what is physical interactivity within the context of Crawford and the “Talk to Me” exhibit?  Well, to me, interactivity in its best form involves one input being used by another input, synthesized into creating an entirely new and unique input.  So in other words, when I have a good conversation with my friend Chris, he throws out an idea for a possible business, and I add my ideas for how it could work, and then we’ve both created a unique idea from that.  Whereas when I was talking with my ex, it was more like me watching The View on TV.  Only one input allowed, my eyes glazed over.

In our first class for Applications, Red Burns invited Vito Acconci to speak to us.  An artist and architect, Mr. Acconci described to us the progress of his art.  What strikes me about his work is that he focused intensely on one core idea for a while and tried to magnify and exaggerate it to its fullest.  So he would start out following someone on the streets and taking photos of her, but then he felt too involved in the process, so then he built an empty room with a ramp on one side, which he was hidden under.  Then he would decide that he needed to leave the museum, since anything stuck in a museum is not very public and not very accessible, so he edged towards architecture.

I bring this up because when attending the “Talk to Me” exhibit, it was a bit like going to a zoo, with all the animals behind cages and glass walls.  An exhibit about the interactivity between human and computer, and there were plenty of TV screens, “Do Not Touch” signs, and glass cases.  Necessary to protect the artifacts, assuredly, but a constant reminder of the inaccessibility of artifacts to the masses.

The homeless person’s city folk map, for example, is not really interactive, and not very digital either, but it does add to the exhibit because it shows how iconography can be passed along as language that is invisible (how often have you seen it?), easy to understand (even for those who are illiterate), and mutable.  I first learned about hobo code through a Mad Men episode, when Don is introduced to how to tell whether a house is safe to approach or not.

Kacie Kinzer’s Tweenbot (ITP alumna), which is a little cardboard robot wheeling through Washington Square Park, requiring the help of passersby to adjust its course, seems more interactive, in that people must decode the Tweenbot’s intent and then can reposition it to send it to its ultimate stated destination (according to the flag on it).  While this may not fit my description of needing both inputs to change their own behaviors together to form something new, what seemed to make it more interactive was the videotaping of it by the author and then the wide re-broadcast of those interactions to others.  Still, is that true physical interactivity?  If this Tweenbot, which is only designed to move forward via a motor, has no other potential behavior, does the viewing of people interacting with the Tweenbot, fixing its wheels, deliberating with other people in order to figure out what to do with it, is this physical interactivity?  Is this a Schroedinger’s robot type of situation where interactivity requires observability by third parties?

It seems as though even though the robot has no complex behaviors, by the end of the video, you end up loving the dumb little thing, and you care about its well-being, and you attach anthropomorphic and personified feelings and emotions towards it.  Would this work as well if you were guiding it on a screen and not guiding an actual robot physically?  I’m not so sure.

The SMSlingshot is a wooden slingshot that lets you enter in a text message and then wrist-rocket it onto a projected screen on a building wall or whatever in a blob of virtual paint…and the text message.

This seems physically interactive in that you are creating something unique together with the artifact, which is not merely a tool to let you do something, but also transmits your information onto a projected screen.  The only problem is that nothing real was created, but is a projection upon a physical surface, and the message will likely disappear when the system is reset, unless photographed, videotaped, or recorded in data logs.

The Feltron Report is an example of something that is a good use of digital technology but which is not really interactive.  It is a report of personal statistics, but it uses data visualizations, statistical analysis, logging, and other methods that really have only become feasible in recent years in terms of aggregating data and then prettifying and visualizing it.  It makes the data more accessible to humans while at the same time putting the data in perspective with everything else.  It makes it more human-centric in terms of “interface”, though it is not interactive, per se.

Returning to the idea of museums stifling interactivity, I did feel like, although I loved the exhibit, it was like wearing blinders.  Each piece had a QR code that you could put into your Google Goggles, but it only takes you to a MoMA page that has scant data in a poor interface, not optimized for mobile phones.  What I wanted was the ability to tweet that I was looking at that piece and wanted to share it with others.  There was no built-in way to do that.  Also, my data was not being saved in any way, so the record I had of which pieces I liked enough to Google Goggle were only saved in my Goggles history; this seems like a perhaps unintended but beautiful behavior of the Goggles software: a record of your piqued curiosity moments.

Thinking about design and interactivity make me think of Apple’s products.  I’m not a fanboi of Apple, but I do appreciate how they’ve upped the game for system interfaces and for accessibility to beautiful artifacts.  The iPad is highly interactive, highly flexible and malleable, and is instantly accessible to today’s digital kids.  The price point for those, and especially for mobiles worldwide, has gotten so low that even the poor invest in having a phone.  The iconography of the hobo code is something being tried by Nokia pilot projects, to develop system interfaces that use pictures as menus, instead of text, since many in the world are still illiterate.

A key test of physical interactivity, then, to me, is whether the masses can access it, and that it creates unique things from its interaction with humans.