For Kyle

Once on a rock by the sea sat five boys singing. I was one of the boys and so was my friend Kyle Billing. The others were bashful at first, but Kyle and I raised our voices and soon everybody joined in. Against the sound of the crashing surf we sang unselfconsciously, anything we could remember: “A Fugue for Tinhornsfrom Guys and Dolls, “Be Our Guest!” from Beauty and the Beast, and Row, Row, Row Your Boat. We recited tongue twisters and lines from movies, told stupid jokes, and argued about the existence of God. After the sun set, we crossed a dark road by starlight and stayed up late in the beach house, talking and playing games.

I was fifteen and a freshman, and the other boys were seniors in their first summer of life after high school. I had been allowed into their circle by its leader, a dashing blond boy who had been both captain of the tennis team and the lead in the spring musical. I idolized that group as my high school’s artistic elite. One of them designed lighting for the school plays, another played the jazz saxophone and had read everything, another had a caustic wit, and another wrote a column for the school paper. Kyle painted and drew and he was good. His paintings not only looked like what they were supposed to, but they had style. Looking back, I imagine that I was tolerated by that bunch more with kindness than real affection, but with Kyle I remember always feeling like an equal.

He was tall and slender, with floppy brown hair which he was always running his fingers through in a kind of befuddlement with everything. He managed to crack everybody up without quite trying to. His impression of Steve Martin as Ruprecht from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels cracks me up even now. In a school of sunny courtyards and boys in athletic gear, Kyle gave me permission to sit in the shade in rumpled khakis and a black blazer. (more…)


At NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, the Future is in Play

Back in the Spring, I took up an offer to take a backstage tour of NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, aka “The Center for the Recently Possible.” I think of it as a Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory of new media and technology graduate programs. What the kids there are doing is what we’ll all be thinking about or plugging into in the near future.

My strategy was to hang around with a notebook, bug the students standing next to crazy looking contraptions, and write down what they said that I could (mostly) comprehend. The result was this piece for PBS MediaShift. Did I stumble on any everlasting gobstoppers? You be the judge.

At the Huffington Post, I say why Google’s removal of news links in the EU is a good thing

homepage.gifI’m not in favor of censorship. But I do believe that the questions raised by the “right to be forgotten” highlight our need for noncommercial search, or for making sure there is more than just one dominant player.

Read the full story here.

Meeting the President

Because of my habit of saying awkward things to famous people, I was determined not to say anything to Al Gore last week. We were in the same room because he was getting an award at the Interfaith Center of New York’s annual dinner, where I was filling out the table of a friend and donor to the center where I work. Despite my determination, at the cocktail reception I found myself turning around and suddenly shaking hands with the most famous person in the room.

As he took my hand in his, he looked right into my eyes and greeted me with respect and openness. For a long moment, I felt as if I were the only person in the room with him. It was dazzling. This is remarkable when you consider how often he has had to greet strangers. Summoning the psychic energy to do so over and over again with genuine respect, or even its convincing simulacrum, must require monastic levels of strength and discipline. I once saw the performance artist Marina Abramovic make a moving piece out of honoring strangers one by one with her full attention in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art. Gore’s presence was equally striking.

I had a front row seat to his remarks later in the evening. He was introduced and humanized for the crowd by his daughter Karenna Gore Schiff. She recounted her childhood admiration of her father’s ability to balance large objects on his nose for long periods of time. He had once, she said, explained the theory of nuclear disarmament by using salt and pepper shakers at the dinner table. As a girl, she had confronted him one morning with the front page of the Washington Post, showing the picture of a woman suffering in the Bosnian conflict, and asked why America wasn’t doing more to help. That same day Gore told this story to Clinton’s national security team, kicking off a conversation that eventually changed US policy. From the surprised reaction of James Parks Morton, a Gore family friend sharing the stage with her, I surmised that this wasn’t the usual patter trotted out to personalize her father’s public appearances.

Then Gore got up and cast his spell over the room. Because of my time in the Whiffenpoofs and my work in New York’s not-for-profit galaxy, I have been to my share of fancy dinners with the 1%, and one of their tribal quirks is to talk through events where basic politeness would require silence (as when the Whiffenpoofs are singing, for example). I can’t explain this behavior, but I have come to expect it, so the silence in the room during Gore’s remarks surprised me.


The Right to be Forgotten

A court in the EU has recently upheld the complaint of a man who said that the Google hits associated with his name should be taken down, on the grounds that they were no longer relevant to his life. As somebody with a very distinctive name, I applaud this decision. When you Google me, there is no doubt who you’re getting information about. I’m grateful that none of my stupid mistakes in life have ended up as an electronic record somewhere. But if they ever did, there would be no way for me to avoid having them easily accessible to everybody in my vicinity with a smartphone, for the rest of my life.

Up until the advent of the World Wide Web, an ineradicable reality of life was the erosion of our old decisions, thoughts and in essence, selves. Like a snake’s former skin, they fell away, to be replaced by who we were becoming in the present. We have always had to take responsibility for our actions, but that’s not the same as being pursued by a perfect and ever present and ambiently available record of them, forever. Yet this is the future that technology is taking us in, and those of use who aren’t running huge Silicon Valley companies don’t have any say in the matter.

As Marshall McLuhan said in the 1960s (and as I quoted back in 2011):

“The future will be an electrically computerized dossier bank – that one big gossip column that is unforgiving, unforgetful and from which there is no redemption, no erasure of early ‘mistakes’.”

How he could’ve seen this so early on I don’t know. His gift of prophecy is eerie sometimes. McLuhan was a traditional Catholic, and for him the erasure of earthly mistakes through the mechanism of divine forgiveness was an important part of living a full life. Along with forgiveness came the ability to atone for and move on from one’s mistakes. Perhaps he felt there was something more than a little Luciferean about a world where that process was hampered by technology.

The pain of having all our mistakes remembered forever is a symptom of what we used to call information overload, but it’s not a symptom that anybody saw coming. We all knew we were going to have trouble organizing increasingly massive amounts of information usefully so it could become a basis for our decisions. We didn’t know that forgetting some of that information was an essential part of the process.

Predictably, Google’s response to the EU’s ruling is to call it “anti-business,” and their zombie objection has been echoed by the Financial Times. Here’s the first sentence of what is supposed to be an objective article on the topic (at least I assume so, since it was their lead news piece and not in their Op-Ed section):

A landmark “right to be forgotten” ruling against Google in Europe risks damaging the next generation of internet start-ups and strengthening the hand of repressive governments looking to restrict online communications, Larry Page, the search company’s chief executive officer, has warned.”

You could be forgiven for reading that first sentence and internalizing it as the main take-away on the issue, rather than the opinion of Google’s co-founder. The FT really is a bit much, sometimes. Their piece doesn’t even make the nod to the idea that technology should serve people and not just businesses or the ideology of innovation at all costs.

Here’s a much more thoughtful report on the “right to be forgotten,” from TIME’s incomparable Lev Grossman. In the piece, he says: “Just because something is technologically feasible, and part of a business plan, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.”

Amen to that.

Susan Crawford on the state of the Internet, or, why you’re paying too much for slow service

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Because of the furor over net neutrality, I’m reposting my interview with Susan Crawford. If you don’t know Susan, she’s basically the Elizabeth Warren of the Internet.

What we talk about in the interview is how and why our country, the one that invented the Internet, is now falling behind the rest of the world in speed and ubiquity of access.

Behind the scenes info: Susan and I were both musicians while undergraduates at Yale. She was a violinist for the Yale Symphony Orchestra and I sang with The Whiffenpoofs.  So together, we could perform beautiful music about the woeful state of America’s under-regulated media business.

Why I, a 34 year old man, love middle grade fiction

An illustration from Nicobobinus

An illustration from Nicobobinus

I have been reading a lot of middle grade (MG) fiction lately, that is, books intended for kids roughly 8-12 years old. MG books are also called chapter books, because they generally have short chapters with nice, big illustrations. The idea is that readers 8-12 years old have brief attention spans, relate well to fast-paced, suspenseful stories, and need to have their imaginations bolstered by pictures. At age 34, I fit this profile a little too well.

MG is not the same as Young Adult (YA) fiction, which is written for kids 13 and over. The Harry Potter series long ago made it socially acceptable for grown-ups to read YA.

Middle grade books aren’t as universally read. The only ones I can think of that come close are The Chronicles of Narnia. With other MG classics like Winnie the PoohCharlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Charlotte’s Web, you don’t find yourself picking them up again unless you’re introducing them to a young person in your life. Unless you’re me, that is.

I can’t say why, but I’ve developed an appetite for these books recently. I’ve been hanging out in the MG section of bookstores and the New York Public Library. I realize that sounds a little creepy, but my love for these books makes me too unself-conscious (is that a word?) to care. There is just so much going on in the MG section. Not physical activity, mind you. It’s actually quieter than the rest of the book store, which is full of grown ups yakking on cell phones. In the MG section there is silence, because the level of concentration and focus that young people direct towards their books is intense. When they read, it’s like these kids go into a trance. They are beglamoured, and lost deep in other worlds.

What is going on in the MG section is the books themselves. Their covers are full of bold colors and crazy, beguiling illustrations. There are no embossed brand-name author covers or subdued designs that an adult would be unembarrassed to hold on the subway. Instead there are these little windows into other worlds: kids running down pathways to the sea, mythical beasts, ghosts, explosions, dinosaurs, magic, darkness, outer space, princes and princesses. These covers aren’t afraid to make you feel things just by looking at them, and they actually give you a hint at what the story inside is about. Unlike the covers of grown up books, MG covers don’t have anything to hide. They are for little people who don’t have the time to decode subtle social cues. What you see is what you get.

And the stories themselves are totally uninhibited flights of the imagination. Kai Meyer’s Dark Reflections series is about two young girls who help defend a magical Venice from the undead army of a resurrected Pharaoh. Lloyd Alexander’s Timecat is about a cat who leads a young boy on a multi-millennial time travel tour of how cats spread across the world from ancient Egypt. A Wrinkle in Time starts on a dark and stormy night when three witches (fates? norns?) arrive at the household of a set of siblings and whisk them away on a four book tour of other planets, other times, and other earths. Are you intrigued yet? And all of these books actually deliver on their promises, or else they’d never make it with their demanding audience. You can’t promise monsters and magic to an 11 year old and then give him metaphors. Like their covers, these books are honest. Good is good, evil is evil, magic is magic, wonders are promised and wonders are seen.

Why do I love MG fiction so much? Perhaps because I relish the art of the chapter cliffhanger, and MG books don’t disappoint in this department. I also love the power of great illustrations to fire the imagination. But most of all, I love them because it was MG books that forever hooked me on fiction. There is a long-out-of-print chapter book called Nicobobinus that my father read aloud to me when I was a boy. I reread it every year and it still thrills me. It’s about Nicobobinus (“nik-oh-bo-bean-us”), a boy who lives in Venice whose leg gets turned to gold in a marvelous, magical accident. He has to go to the land of dragons to find a cure and is assisted in his quest by his brave and brash best friend Rosie. They meet some wonderful folks along the way, including a mad abbot, a sailor who sails on waves of dirt and rocks, and a shadowy figure named Basilcat, who commands a black ship with a mind of its own. Every few pages there is an illustration by Michael Foreman, whose lush watercolors still go straight to my heart. If you ever see a copy, snap it up. It’s a lost classic.

I also love the masterpieces of middle grade horror by John Bellairs, starting with The House with the Clock in its Walls, illustrated by no less than Edward Gorey. Bellairs’ books collided with my coalescing personality just in time to turn me into an Anglophilic, ghost story loving, tea drinking, mystery loving, bookish little guy. Or perhaps they just affirmed what I was already becoming. In 1990s suburban California, I was a weird little dude much in need of some affirmation.

I cannot stress enough the power these books had over my imagination. I remember straining my eyes to finish the last pages of Bellairs’ The Spell of the Sorcerer’s Skull in the fading twilight of a drive with my parents, somewhere between Santa Fe and the mountains of western Colorado. I don’t think I’ve felt the same primal hunger to get to the resolution of a story with quite so much force since then, nor have I felt so totally transported by mere words.

Follow up: What were your favorite books when you were 8-12?