Category Archives: Uncategorized

Famous Dead Person

You get the opportunity to talk to a famous deceased person. Who do you chat with and what do you talk about? What are some of their answers? Try writing in their voice.

The first person who comes to mind is Kurt Cobain, maybe because I just read an interview with Dave Grohl. But I think Kurt pretty much already said everything he had to say. Or if he didn’t, I can still listen to him singing, so I don’t need to summon up his ghost to hear his thoughts. Also, he was alive relatively recently, so his opinions probably wouldn’t stray far from the rest of his generation that is still around to chat with.

To really take advantage of an opportunity to talk to someone who’s dead, I think it would be most interesting to go back further and get perspective from someone who’s entire generation is gone, whose influence is waning, and who would be completely shocked at the state of things today.

Maybe I would talk to Pierre L’enfant. The guy who designed DC.

Yes.

So, Pierre, what do you think of DC? The way it is in 2015, the way it looks?

Pierre, I imagine, would say something like – what the fuck are these suburbs? What are cars?

I can imagine his bewilderment by people’s communication in urban spaces: silently standing at bus stops, peering into cell phones. Spending minutes, half-hours, or hours in slowly moving steel boxes.

My conversation would be more informed if I had time to prepare. I would want to learn more of his vocabulary, speak to him in the language he knows about avenues, plans, parks and blocks.

Pierre, why would you want to design a city? How did that come to be your goal?

He might wax poetic and say, “I see a man and woman having a picnic in the park, and notice how far from the road they are and how the bird is comfortable enough to sing to them, but how the wild beast stays away because there is not enough nature. I imagine these two falling in love and making a child together, and I think I have contributed to that for them, by making a lovely park.”

That would be the kind of answer I want to hear. Something passionate. But, he might say something else, something along the lines of – “I was too small to be a General. I have no gift for legal discourse, and I stumble when I speak in public. Women do not find me charming. I think better alone, when I have time to imagine complex systems. I think cities are very complex systems and I am able to think about them abstractly because they are not people, and people frighten me. So I make cities. The pay is enough for me to have a house with a study, and eat steak and drink wine. I do not have invitations to the opera every evening nor am I invited to give speeches, but there may be a park named after me someday.”

That is not what I want to hear from him. But he might say it anyway.

Pierre, how does the internet change cities? What does it mean, that people can communicate instantaneously with each other, by pictures and words and sound, from across the entire city?

This changes everything, he would say. That would be all he could say. It would render him speechless in a profound way, not in the metaphoric, hyperbolic way we generally regard one who is speechless. He would be literally speechless.

So the butcher, he would say, can know who will buy his meat? Because they can tell him, without walking across the city? The doctor can hear of his patients illness the moment it occurs? The mistress can avoid the wife, by a surreptitious warning?

But why then, would people live close together? Why would anyone go anywhere?

Maybe he would say that. I have no idea.

Conversations are generally never just one person asking the other person questions. He would almost certainly have questions for me.

Maybe he would inquire about the many ethnicities congregating all over the place. Maybe technologies I have completely forgotten are “technology” would baffle him. Ice in a cup. How does one have ice in the city? If there are magic electric lights, why does this store sell candles? Why do newspapers still exist, on paper?

Perspectives on the News

What are we meant to think? Where should all this go in our minds? What they present us with each day are minuscule extracts of narratives whose true shape and logic can generally only emerge from a perspective of months or even years.  News organizations are….  institutionally committed to implying that it is inevitably better to have a shaky and partial grasp of a subject this minute than to wait for a more secure and comprehensive understanding somewhere down the line” 

– Alain de Botton

“The audience of people that want to know what’s happening in the world week by week, the people that work during the day and can read it, its small, alright and it’s concise and there’s pictures in it, you know? It’s a certain class of people, its a class of people that take the magazine seriously, I mean sure I can read it, you know, I read it , I get it on the airplanes but I don’t take it seriously. If I want to find out anything, I’m not gunna read TIME magazine, I’m not gunna read Newsweek, I’m not gunna read any of these magazines, I mean cause they just got to much to lose by printing the truth.”

– Bob Dylan

“I feel, on a whole, blogs are probably more accurate particularly in the long term. When I publish a blog post it’s not edited beforehand, it’s not fact checked beforehand, but it’s my words, my name’s on it, I feel personally attached to it, and if there’s anything wrong in it I get a comment within five minutes telling me about it. That was the beauty of blogs and that conversation would be transparent under the blog post. I feel like bias was clearer, understood, and that the conversation that could happen so easily after the blog meant that the truth came out, even if there was a mistake, an honest mistake. Even if there was a dishonest mistake people would blog about it and link to it. You could have these conversations.”

– Matt Mullenweg (founder of WordPress)

GoPro… for the Average Joe

My calendar doesn’t have any upcoming skydiving, scuba or surfing adventures, but I’m the proud new owner of a GoPro Hero III camera, and well… I’ve got to do something with it.

Their small & easily portable form, rugged accessories, and reputation for being nearly indestructible make GoPro cameras the device of choice for adventure sport athletes, whether they’re trekking up Mt. Everest or scaling skyscrapers in Shanghai.

The rest of us can still find ways to be creative with the GoPro. I’ve been using the camera’s time lapse feature to record activities that a typical video wouldn’t capture very well – running, cooking, feeding the cat. Anything that takes thirty minutes, but looks very much cooler when it’s played back in three is fair game.

Out of the box, the Hero III comes with a waterproof case, several pieces of mounting hardware, and wireless functionality. Accessories available for purchase include systems for mounting the GoPro on just about anything – a bicycle, a vehicle, a human head.

The image quality is amazing for such a tiny device, with settings to shoot up to 12MP stills, and 4K video.

GoPro still image

One of the most amazing things is the storage medium – the GoPro uses MicroSD cards, a memory format that is smaller than a fingernail and capable of holding 64 gigabytes of data. When I think of my first digital camera and its 32 megabyte memory card, my head spins at how far along the technology has come.

I haven’t shot much actual video with the camera yet, because frankly, I don’t often do anything exciting that would warrant such documentation. But I enjoy experimenting with the time lapse feature, either to capture the changes of an environment from a stationary perspective (like a sunrise) or to show a subject that’s moving around within a small space (like me in the kitchen.)

The GoPro Cineform Studio, the device’s software, is capable of changing the frame-rate of video to either slow it down or speed it up – an exciting feature that I hope I’ll find a reason to use soon. Additionally, editing features like white balance, contrast, and style filters are available to add artistic flavor to any project. The Studio is a robust application and its inclusion with a camera purchase is a great bargain.

Trendy Tech Article Round-up

Half of my cognitive load on any given day is spent fighting the urge to read EVERY SINGLE ARTICLE on the internet. Fortunately, some make it through my productivity filter, and I allow myself to read them. Lately I’ve been using the very cool application Pocket to save things I want to read later.

Several pieces grabbed my attention this week. Each touched on the start-up culture in which I work, but I didn’t feel like the target audience – they all hinted direction at a reader on the outside of the tech world: Rolling Stone’s big interview with Bill Gates, the NY Times Magazine’sSilicon Valley’s Youth Problem‘, and two from the Wall Street Journal – ‘Success Outside the Dress Code‘ and ‘Have Liberal Arts Degree, Will Code.’

Mr. Gates’ most interesting statements revealed his thoughts on morality, religion, and government, but he also answered questions about the current state of things – massive acquisitions of zero-revenue companies, and the possibility of living in a constant state of surveillance.

The Times article was engrossing, chronicling the division between youth-driven startup culture and the legacy of elder-generation technologists (like Zuckerburg / Gates.) Is it just coincidence that Gates gave an interview to the youth-focused Rolling Stone at the same time as the Times publishes a manifesto on the generational disconnect?

The two WSJ articles also share the ‘young tech’ theme  – ‘Success Outside the Dress Code’ investigates the results of a study on how dressing casually in formal settings can influence opinion (a practice, common among young software developers, which I am happy to rant about) – and the other, ‘Have Liberal Arts Degree, Will Code’ about how young graduates of all departments are abandoning the academic disciplines they studied in favor of higher-paying software industry positions (as an English major working with a Ruby on Rails development team, this one really hit home)

So what catalyzed this deluge of similarly focused articles? ‘Big Media’ writes about technology often, but something about the tone of this writing seems different – Bill Gates waxing poetic on billion dollar acquisitions and world-saving to the pot-smoking readership of Rolling Stone, the NY Times writer (a young Silicon Valley alumn) broadcasting her concern over whether she should work for a hot young startup like Uber or a crusty old-guard firm like Cisco, and the Wall Street Journal exploring the incongruities of tech culture – how its citizens dress eccentrically and give up their educational idealism in favor of cold, hard cash.

Of the articles, Yirin Lu’s writing in the Times magazine stands out the most. Her personal anecdotes as an intern in Silicon Valley bind well to the concrete examples of age division she describes. She rejects the presumption that older companies are home to “subpar, less technically proficient” employees – she cites the number of patents owned by Cisco as evidence to the contrary. Yet, as the WSJ article describes, tech companies are trying to grab as many young engineers as they can – some going as far as offering signing bonuses to dissuade potential hires from finishing college. If only Mr. Gates had fielded a related question in his interview, he surely could have added a valuable argument to the debate.

The Wall Street Journal pieces are brief, neither explores their territory with the critical and sharp eye that Lu focuses on her topic. But each shares the provocative attitude that a certain kind of delirium resides in Silicon Valley’s money soaked culture. In Gates’s interview, he states: “When you have a lot of money, it allows you to go down a lot of dead ends.”

It’s hard to pin down exactly what statement these articles are all trying to make, if any. What I’m most curious about is how deeply these discussions will resonate with their audience, or if they are only this week’s flavor of capricious media interests. Perhaps the journalists’ unstated intent in their recent scrutinization of the modern technocracy is to map those “dead ends” out before too many people (without Mr. Gates’ resources) get stuck moving toward them.

Snow from a Phone

I (unbelievably) can’t remember how many times snow has fallen this winter. Seven? Fourteen? Twenty? I’ve been using Instagram to capture the beauty of the season.

From nearly 70°F two days ago, to eight (!) inches of snow this morning, watching the deviant flakes fall this St. Patrick’s Day is a fitting way to celebrate the nonconformist Irish spirit.

Sláinte!

In Reality, Googling

The line of audience members queuing up for their turn to throw a question at Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive Chairman, seemed oddly like an inefficient search engine. There were so many things un-Googley about it, like having to wait for someone else to finish before I could ask a question, and having to get up out of my seat to get in line.

Otherwise, the hour that Schmidt spent discussing his latest book “The New Digital Age,” with co-author Jared Cohen, covered much ground and put a human face on a company that often seems much more robotic than peopled.

The book was just released in paperback and plastered with glowing reviews from statesmen including Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Tony Blair and the like. In it, the authors Cohen and Schmidt attempt to map out a future which they label as humanity’s greatest experiment to date with ‘anarchy’ – the internet.

The forum at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington was largely open to audience participation and effectively managed by a moderator who was prone to poking fun at the speakers – he claimed, ‘No matter how many billions of dollars he has, Eric is still a dork,’ after a story about Schmidt’s peculiar interest in flak-jackets was told.

Topics from gender equality in the workplace, the role of technology in societies at war, and the responsibilities of parents in the realm of online privacy were all touched on. Hard working women were given ample credit for helping Google achieve the success it has, and Schmidt, when asked how the public sector might follow the same course, responded by saying, simply – ‘Promote them!’

He circled around several points of praise for promoting women in the workplace, but coming up short on actual advice for the public sector, retreated to saying ‘The fact that there’s a conversation about this right now is a start.’

It wasn’t the only topic which would prompt the ‘…it’s good to talk about…’ refrain. Inevitably, the conversation turned to government surveillance. Schmidt began to outline the international reactions to the idea, saying that if you ask a citizen in Germany about government internet snooping, you’ll get a totally different answer than you would if a citizen in Britain, or the United States gave their opinion. ‘The fact that we’re having this conversation is a start,’ he said again.

Its a reasonable answer, and that this discourse is taking place so amicably between citizens and government is fantastic, but Schmidt’s story of ‘to each their own’ fell short of making a real statement.

“Beware the myth of the single omnipotent decision maker,’ Schmidt related when asked about his philosophy on leadership. He went on to describe a room full of people, sitting around a table and shooting down each other’s ideas as the most effective way to come to a solution, lambasting the idea of a heroic individual effort in coming to profound conclusions. His regard for collaborative decision making might explain his reticence on American leadership in the debate about government snooping – perhaps its better to wait and see what everyone else thinks, too.

Cohen, a younger Google employee and the leader of the ‘Google Ideas’ branch of the company, took over when an audience member began to inquire about online privacy. ‘Its the parent’s responsibility,’ he began, ‘to talk about privacy before they even discuss the birds & the bees’ with their children. I felt like this was a punt, and much the same kind of argument that pro-gun advocates make when claiming that it’s the shooters who are to blame in a killing and not the guns.

One of the final questions of the session was the most interesting – a man asked if in this age of information inundation, whether tools like Google are doing anything to help filter the signal from the noise, or if they are actually making it harder to sift through unnecessary information – and again, from Cohen, a punt: ‘It’s a human problem, not a technology one.’

Potential Weather Review, ★★★★ Washington D.C.

I haven’t noticed today’s weather, other than ‘it’s cold’ – because I’m infatuated with what Wednesday’s and Thursday’s weather will potentially bring.

Today’s forecast model runs are all in accordance with the trend that developed last week, each predicting a good amount of snow falling Wednesday night. The National Weather Service officially has DC at a 60% chance of more than 8″.

The different forecasting simulations – the GFS, the NAM, the Canadian, and the Euro – all are in agreement that DC will see at least 5″ of snow, with the NAM and Euro models as bullish as up to 20″ and the GFS more conservatively showing 6-10″.

nam_3hr_snow_acc_se_29-1

I’m not entirely sure what the acronyms stand for, but I think NAM means “North American Mesoscale,” and GFS means “Good Fluffy Snow.”

http://mag.ncep.noaa.gov/model-guidance-model-area.php

on Cities and the ‘Auto Slum’

Walking in Tysons Corner, Virginia after business hours can feel like the opening scene of the zombie thriller film 28 Days Later… Structures everywhere indicate human settlement, but the eerie quiet and absence of pedestrians suggest otherwise.

Construction of four Metro stations is intended to redirect the trend, but as they sit unused during final testing phases, their promise of pedestrian utopia is hard to visualize. They are giant monolithic structures tucked in the middle of massive motorways. When the ribbon is cut, locals will discover if they will operate as viable walker-friendly transit options.

Tysons Corner, Virginia

I’ve been fascinated by cities since I was a kid, when books by the children’s author Ed Emberley gave me lessons on how to ‘make a world.’ He illustrated step-by-step instructions for drawing people, buildings, cars, ski slopes, helicopters, police stations, and anything else one could find in a city. I filled my after-school time making imaginary worlds on paper, with my own twin towers, video rental stores, and ice skating rinks.

From there I graduated to endless hours of SimCity 2000, the computer simulation game that enables the player to become the mayor of their own urban wonderland. I can still vividly remember the streetscapes I programmed, just like I remember the maps of real places I have lived… the diagonal highway linking the medium-density residential over there, the square grid of streets along the coastline down here, the pollution-heavy factories off to the side.

My urban interests were refreshed when I began traveling as an adult. Visiting cities like Paris, Sydney, Shanghai and New York established reality-based examples for the rich metropolitan lifestyle I had previously only imagined. I checked my travel experiences against the city I had the most experience with, Washington D.C., and came to understand my hometown metro area was not the paradigm metropolis I had always believed.

The liveliness and spontaneity of cities capture my interest and keep me buzzing. I experience each new place I visit with an energized desire to get lost, wander around, and anonymously observe the rituals of civic life. Invisible Cities, the masterpiece novel by Italo Calvino, induced in me even more regard for the ‘incalculable’ character of urban spaces. I studied the street photography of Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz, and Brassai, and I read Jane Jacobs to further whet my appetite.

But, despite all my preoccupation, I’ve never been able to permanently settle in in a city, instead hoping that where I’m living will transform itself, rather than force me to relocate.

Tysons Corner is as close as I’ve come to living in a city, and although there are as many square feet of office buildings here as there are in downtown Atlanta, this small corner of the D.C. suburbs still remains…. suburban.

Which brings me to the following video:

The TED Talks video series has earned a lot of criticism  lately for being too fluffy, high-minded, and out of touch. Despite the valid points the detractors make, I often find speakers that capture my feelings on a subject, most recently James Kunstler’s tirade on suburbia. In a combination of eloquence and abrasiveness (abraseloquently?) he targets many of the features that make living in an ‘Auto Slum’ frustrating, although he seems much angrier than I would ever care to be in front of an audience.

I can relate to several of his ideas: Public spaces should be worth looking at. People should want to be in them. You should be able to identify your neighbors by more than the type of vehicle they’re driving. Isolated living can be both physically and socially unhealthy.

The planners of Tysons Corner are making an effort to urbanize, and I support it. Much of the suburban landscape around Washington D.C. started to form in the 1940’s and 50’s, now making it home to a third or fourth generation of families (if they stuck around.) It’s fair to assume that by the fourth iteration of something, without an original idea, formulas grow stale – Jaws 4, the fourth season of LOST, the fourth album by countless pop and rock musicians.

I’m excited about the future of Tysons, and any other suburb retrofitting itself, but I hope the realization of plans don’t take so many years that I will be gone before I can enjoy it.

on 15,000 Steps

Fitbit Dashboard

Fitbit Dashboard

It was only three or four steps to get to the bathroom when I woke up, late, Sunday morning. The grey light trying to force its way in through the blinds, the cat looping acrobatically beneath my drowsy gait.

Since Christmas, I’ve been wearing a FitBit Force on my wrist, tracking every move I make with it’s fancy digital pedometer and accelerometer and altimeter and estimated calorie-burn computer and alarm clock and sleep timer. A trip to the bathroom in the morning becomes a matter of consequence, a record of competition. The conservation of my physique is now the ward of a few megabytes, transferred via low-energy Bluetooth.

The gadget comes programmed to push me towards 10,000 steps as a daily goal, so I’m following its request, making the effort to walk at least five miles as often as possible. I’ve hit the 10k mark twelve times in January. My highest count of 17 thousand came on the first of the year, as my girlfriend and I stumbled through a 5k ‘hair of the dog‘ race, early in the morning.

On a typical day, if I drive to work, take the stairs, pace around the hall, and then come home to cook dinner and couch loaf, five to six thousand steps is an average number. If I wake up on a Saturday and watch four episodes of Breaking Bad, I’m lucky to hit 3,500. Walking to please a robot is my new errand.

This past Sunday, I deposited myself in a reading position, after my morning ablutions, eggs, and trip to the balcony to gauge the temperature. Another day under twenty degrees Fahrenheit would keep me restless without recourse.

I made lunch around noon, and realized I could kind of dance around and walk in place while the water boiled. A minute or two of that was good for seventy five or eighty steps. I picked up another 200 mid-afternoon, when I decided it was high time to run the vacuum cleaner. By five p.m., I was still shy of 2,000 for the day.

Sunset approached and a pile of indoor things sat waiting to entertain me, so it didn’t look like ten thousand (much less fifteen) would happen.

Fed up with my sedation at six p.m., I rousted myself, determined to make my daily effort. I bundled up and set out for a treadmill.The first mile only took me to six thousand steps. I haven’t run five miles in several months, but the wristband gave me my orders, and I followed.

After hitting ten thousand on the treadmill, and rewarding myself with a drink, I looked at the couch, considered my options, and figured what the hell… A late evening trip to the supermarket for bananas wouldn’t hurt my cause.

I stepped out again, into the cold night, my tiny cyborg companion blinking lovingly beneath my sleeve.

Delillo on Memory

After posting my recollections of being a Redskins fan yesterday, this quote came to mind, from Americana:

“If I could index all the hovering memories which announce themselves so insistently to me, sitting amid the distractions of yet another introspective evening (ship models, books, the last of the brandy), I would compile my index not in terms of good or bad memories, childhood or adult, innocent or guilty, but rather in two very broad and simple categories. Cooperative and uncooperative. Some memories seem content to be isolated units; they slip neatly into the proper slot and give no indication of continuum. Others, the uncooperative, insist on evasion, on camouflage, on dissolving into uninvited images. When I command snow to fall once again on the streets of Old Holly, my father’s hands curled about a shovel, I can’t be sure I’ll get the precise moment I want. A second too soon and there is mother sitting in the rocker; too late and the memory subdivides, one part straying into fantasy: dull knife clamped in my teeth, I dog-crawl through the jungle, belly dragging, toward Dr. Weber’s house. We are what we remember. The past is here, inside this black clock, more devious than night or fog, determining how we see and what we touch at this irreplaceable instant in time.”
Don DeLillo