Archive for the 'Introspect' Category

The Road to Kampala


In a few days I’ll be in Uganda, and that’s just the beginning. Scrambling over the last week, we put together a mammoth plan: USA to Uganda, Uganda to Rwanda, Rwanda to Tanzania, Tanzania to South Africa. (And there might be a little Kenya sprinkled in there, too.) All in 3 weeks and all in service of a dream to find ways to make social computing more relevant to the next billion users.

I’ve had a long standing interest in using technology to empower underserved communities, dating back to my thesis work in inner city schools. When I came to IBM, I decided to focus on other things but I never stopped writing about the possibilities. And over the past few years, it became clear to me that the opportunities in developing nations (or in corporate-speak “growth regions”) was too big to ignore. What shocked me, though, is that IBM agreed — and sent me to India as the social computing delegate to a thought leadership study on technology for the “next billion users.”

From there, I was given a year to “figure it out.” What is IBM’s social computing play in developing nations? There are so many questions out there — how do we answer? For me, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. But, then, that’s both a blessing and a curse: given enough rope, will I hang myself? What’s followed has been anything but easy: politics, economics, complex partnerships, tickets bought and canceled at the last minute, seeing the impact of dead aid first hand, losing the person who made so much of our work possible. There are a million moving parts and, as the team lead for the work, I’m consumed by holding them all together. It’s been the biggest emotional roller coaster of my life: exhilarating in one instant, soul crushing the next. And through it all, a classic David Mamet scene has been on repeat in my head:


Malone: You said you wanted to get Capone. Do you really wanna get him? You see what I’m saying is, what are you prepared to do?

Ness: Anything within the law.
Malone: And then what are you prepared to do? If you open the can on these worms you must be prepared to go all the way. Because they’re not gonna give up the fight, until one of you is dead.

Ness: I want to get Capone! I don’t know how to do it.
Malone: You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way! And that’s how you get Capone. Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that? I’m offering you a deal. Do you want this deal?

Ness: I have sworn to capture this man with all legal powers at my disposal and I will do so.
Malone: Well, the Lord hates a coward.
[jabs Ness with his hand, and Ness shakes it]

Malone: Do you know what a blood oath is, Mr. Ness?
Ness: Yes.
Malone: Good, ’cause you just took one.

Now what are you prepared to do? With every showstopper, the question keeps coming back. And I keep hoping I have enough of an answer to keep this thing alive, to make it something bigger, to have some chance of making it a career. I’ve always felt I had a few threads I could pull together to define my research identity, but never has it been so crystal.


For my thesis I did what I was good at, at times at IBM I’ve done what I could be paid to do, and in tiny bits of spare time I pursue what I want to do. Now I have a window to bring it all together and hit the sweet spot in the middle. Or watch it fall apart.

So, in getting on that plane to Kampala I’m well aware I have tons to learn. (I’ve been to the continent twice before but never to do work there.) But my hope is that this is at least the end of the beginning — a point where my group and I (because god knows I couldn’t have gotten here on my own) can start in some small way to have an impact. I’ve fought so hard to get to this point, I have to make it matter. Can’t break promises to Jim Malone, now can we?

The trip is booked end to end with conference presentations, meetings with innovative NGO partners, universities, and government. But I hope to have some photos and stories to tell, too. See you on the road!

Down, Out, and Animated


Late last year, just after Hank Paulson gave his fireside chat on the implosion of the world economy, my wife began the search for a new job. For us, then, the continually gruesome economic news has carried something of a personal tone. It’s been a stressful few months to say the least.

So, it’s with great pleasure that I’m able to emerge from the financial fallout bunker to report that Q has not only found a job, but a fabulous one. In early March, she’ll will start work in the research & development division of Blue Sky — a AAA animation studio just north of NYC. They’re the folks who brought us gorgeous feature films like Ice Age and Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!

But my heart warms most to two of their bit players: Scrat and Bunny. Featured in enigmatic shorts full of spastic action in the best Tex Avery tradition, Scrat is lovable animated lunacy at its purest. You’ll find him in or around nearly every Blue Sky feature. Bunny, on the other hand, has only made one appearance. But that appearance, in a classic Tom Waits backed short, was enough to win Blue Sky an Academy Award. It’s a bittersweet tale that’s stuck with me since the film’s debut in 1998. Saying more would ruin it, but suffice to say missing Bunny is missing out.

What a relief and what an exciting new adventure. For Q, it’s a dream come true. Plus, I’ve been trying to finagle a visit to Blue Sky for some time, so here’s hoping my foot’s a little more firmly in the door now! Many thanks to Adam Christensen and Jake Parker for getting Q’s resume in front of the right people — that was tremendous.

Find more Scrat at Blue Sky Shorts. And see Bunny in her entirety at Yahoo! Movies.

Holidays in Cambodia

I’m going to Cambodia and Vietnam for the holidays, and in some ways it’s like going home. You see, growing up black in a largely white suburb of DC can be isolating. If anything makes differences plain, it’s gotta be the cliquish culture of junior high and high school. And it turns out the groups I fell in with were immigrant kids: Mexican, Ethiopian, Paraguayan, Korean, Vietnamese, more. I never wondered much about why I was so comfortable with them, I just was. But a recent story on Barack Obama got me thinking:

And there are also times when Obama’s experience feels more like an immigrant story than a black memoir. His autobiography navigates a new and strange world of an American racial legacy that never quite defined him at his core. He therefore speaks to a complicated and mixed identity — not a simple and alienated one. This may hurt him among some African Americans, who may fail to identify with this fellow with an odd name. Black conservatives, like Shelby Steele, fear he is too deferential to the black establishment. Black leftists worry that he is not beholden at all. But there is no reason why African Americans cannot see the logic of Americanism that Obama also represents, a legacy that is ultimately theirs as well. To be black and white, to have belonged to a nonreligious home and a Christian church, to have attended a majority-Muslim school in Indonesia and a black church in urban Chicago, to be more than one thing and sometimes not fully anything — this is an increasingly common experience for Americans, including many racial minorities. (atlantic)

Then it hit me: spending time in immigrant communities was a way for me to escape (in some small way) the racial confines of America — to be with people who haven’t been quite so fully indoctrinated with the racial expectations we in the US have been taught generation over generation. It gave me the opportunity to define myself as more than one thing. Maybe this poster says it best.

After my African American family at home, then, my second family is Vietnamese and Cambodian, my oldest friend is Vietnamese, my wife is Vietnamese. The sights, sounds, and smells (mmmm… pho, bánh mì) of Southeast Asia have been part of my life for so long it honestly seems a bit strange I’ve never been there. That’s about to change.

For the next three weeks, I’ll be off the grid; traveling mostly in Cambodia and Vietnam, with stopovers in Tokyo and Bangkok. We’ll be back in 2008 with more art, games, change, and everything else. Happy holidays and see you on the other side. Peace!

P.S.: Comments are closed site-wide (damn spammers!) but they’ll be back when we are. Until then, reach us via the contact page.

Update: Comments are open again — more soon!

images via stuckincustoms and infrangible; with apologies to dk

The Seeing See Little

Back in April, I lost my sight for a week and it put my mind into an altered state. I began hearing and “seeing” things differently; I couldn’t quite explain it. As painful as it was, though, it also felt like a kind of gift. A quote recently republished in The Atlantic sheds some light:

I have often thought it would be a blessing if each human being were stricken blind and deaf for a few days at some point during his early adult life. Darkness would make him more appreciative of sight; silence would teach him the joys of sound.

Now and then I have tested my seeing friends to discover what they see. Recently I was visited by a very good friend who had just returned from a long walk in the woods, and I asked her what she had observed. “Nothing in particular,” she replied. I might have been incredulous had I not been accustomed to such responses, for long ago I became convinced that the seeing see little.   – Helen Keller, The Atlantic, January 1933

I wondered aloud if fewer senses means more creativity and it sounds like Helen might just agree — or at least wish that more of us would explore the many other ways of seeing we so often ignore.

Twisted Metal and Leaving Car Culture

I was in a spectacular car crash. Roads were deceptively slick from an overnight storm. A white Civic speeds alongside and darts suddenly in front of me, leaving inches. Then his brake lights come on. I cut right to avoid hitting him. My wheels go bald, my car skidding left into his with a sound like a crumpling tin can. His car careens left, slamming into the median. Mine slides right, out into the river — almost. A few pieces of well-placed wire keep me from going in face-first. (I guess we have Robert Moses to thank for something after all.) I walk away, but the car is totaled.

After the adrenaline of the accident wears off, panic sets in. I’m without a car for the first time since high school. Sure, I’ve taken public transit for long stretches before, but there was always the car out back just in case. Sayonara safety net.

And suddenly the amount of pro-car propaganda arriving by mail turns from a trickle to a flood. Since my car became a twisted heap, I’ve found myself awash in shiny brochures from everyone from Mercedes to Hummer to Hyundai. Heck, even my insurance company sent me a brochure with details of their “best rate” auto loans. Why were they all so sure I wanted a new car? That’s car culture. Even if you don’t need one, you want one.

Instead of running out to fill that auto void, though, I decided to go cold turkey. It wasn’t easy. My commute ballooned from 30 minutes to an hour thirty in each direction, and the up-front cost went from $15 a week to $30 a day. Going carless takes planning and cold hard cash. (Transit subsidy, anyone?) Plus, it just feels strange.

And it’s that lifelong programming that still has me subconsciously shopping for parking spaces a month later. What does that say about the creep of the almighty auto into our collective psyche? But things have gotten better, too. No more dealing with obnoxious drivers for an hour a day, no more traffic jams, no more worrying about the next car repair or getting a ticket. But my biggest worry driving a car has always been the ever looming possibility that you might seriously hurt or kill someone — someone who just happens to wander out into the street at the wrong moment: a kid chasing a ball, an adult who misreads a crosswalk sign. That anxiety is behind me, too.

As if to punctuate my first month of auto abstinence, World Car Free Day was this weekend. It’s nice to be on the right side of that equation for once, even if it started off against my will. And GM’s workers added their own inadvertent nod by walking off the job yesterday. Friday also saw the return of parking spaces to nature via Park(ing) Day. Signs from above, no? Well, at least I’ll take it that way.

image by jae lee

Second Sight: Adventures in Sensory Deprivation

Visions, astral projection, synesthesia. Typically the purview of certain psychoactive drugs, they became mine this week at the cost of my sight.

It started when I managed to scrape a good deal of my cornea off by simply opening my eyes one morning and, given the choice between blurry vision accompanied by unbearably mind numbing pain and keeping my eyes shut with merely ridiculous pain, I chose the latter. But that’s not the interesting part.

The interesting part is that the combination of constant pain and temporary blindness put my brain into an altered state. During cab rides to the ER, the sounds and smells of New York City would spin my head in so many directions that, when I got a rundown of the real street details, I’d come close to arguing. (You mean we aren’t in a caravan surrounded by unicyclists spinning cotton candy into a massive trapeze?) Lucid dreams with motorized whimsy like Grrr or Lovey Vice City.

The big shock, though, came when Charles Mingus went synesthetic on me. It happened back home during the classic “Better Git It In Your Soul” (via Christian McBride). I heard the opening refrain but then it went silent. And where the horns were supposed to come in (I know the song well), somehow I saw horns instead of hearing them — one after the other, floating like cardboard cutouts, each playing and fading and floating away, the slightly atonal ones (this is Mingus after all) a little offset from the rest. And when the second refrain came, all the sound came rushing back and a massive two-dimensional wooden ship appeared behind the horns, holding them afloat at sea. This happened over and over throughout the song as new elements of the scene were introduced: sound replaced by visuals, visuals replaced by sound. (The closest thing I can figure is War Photographer, but that doesn’t quite capture it.)

The week was filled with these kinds of mind’s eye moments — the sort I thought I’d left behind in childhood, when I confused dreams with waking life all the time. Eyes wide shut like Stéphane. It reminds of the visions Lilly’s isolation tank could induce. And it makes me wonder how the sightless perceive the world; what I might learn from them.

Today was the first day I went outside with my eyes open in almost a week. When I stopped being able to see, the weather was dark, brooding, confining. Stepping outside today, all I saw were those first warm sun rays pouring down onto Manhattan neighborhood streets and the newly lit street life rising up to meet it. Damn I love New York in summer. And I’m so thankful I can see again.

We last wrote about sight loss in Game Changing Technology.

Update: Find more discussion of sensory impairment and creativity on 9rules.

The gory details: I’ve had these corneal abrasions before (but first time for the left eye) so that put my mind more at ease than it might have been otherwise. Still, multiple emergency room visits in a weekend are never fun and Q gets all the credit for managing the unglamorous parts of this episode of cornea canyon (read uncontrollable sobbing at 3am) with patience and style. Image via the always awesome kozyndan.

Nine Lives

I don’t typically talk about this site here, so forgive me this one time. Microscopiq has been around for some years now and through a lot of fits and starts and changes in that time. Lately, though, I’ve really been feeling in a rhythm with it but, of course, wondered how it seemed to others.

So it was a great surprise to wake up and find microscopiq invited to 9rules this morning. Thanks, folks! I really look forward to being part of the network and the community.

Update: For those who aren’t familiar with 9rules, check their about page.

Playing Both Sides

Career. At one end you have doing socially relevant projects (work that “matters” like helping the homeless) and at the other you have doing fun projects (like making videogames). As I’ve been struggling to find a happy medium between these two, a certain Woody Allen quote keeps coming back to me. On Studio 360 back in July he put it this way:

Sometimes I think to myself that there are two types of films: there’s the confrontational film that deals with life issues and existential issues or political issues and there’s the kind of film that’s escapist. And I always debate with myself which one makes the better contribution because you would think off the top of your head that the confrontational films are superior to the escapist films. But the truth of the matter is that the real issues of life — the real philosophical issues of life: religious issues and issues of mortality and issues of human suffering — are never resolved in any of these movies because you can’t resolve them. So, people just go and they commiserate masochistically and they come out of the theater, you know, moved in some way but the same. Whereas with an escapist film you at least give the audience a chance to get away from the horrors of reality for an hour and a half. It’s like going into air conditioning and just sitting down and watching Fred Astaire dance for an hour and a half and you come out at least refreshed so you can go on with your life a little bit. So I’m not sure that escapist films, comic films, are not more of a help in the long run even though the temptation is always to think and to want to do more substantive things.

Woody found his happy place working to entertain what he perceives as the pained masses. But those masses are rich. What about entertainment and respite for those who can’t afford a movie ticket? In the best of worlds, those who can afford movie tickets would be spending some portion of their time helping the underprivileged, but we know that doesn’t happen so much. That’s the tension he doesn’t quite touch on. Or does he?

Continue reading ‘Playing Both Sides’

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