Performance anxiety in Silicon Valley

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I recently watched a TEDx Notting Hill talk by Daniel Priestley - a self-made millionaire, and now professional public speaker. Priestly pointed out how several big billionaires including Branson, Jobs, and Gates all started from their garages during a recession much like the one in which we are living (the recession that is, not the garage). These self-made entrepreneurs all began their rise at a time when conditions were set against them – and thus, Priestly suggests, so can we.

This might sound like terrific encouragement. Yet I think that such affirmations actually end up putting enormous and unfair pressure on people, particularly geeks. For one thing, the above history lessons are selective in what they communicate.[1] Jobs and Gates and Branson were by definition the exception to the rule, establishing their businesses at a time when businesses on average were stagnating - that’s what ‘Recession’ means.

To see a world in a grain of sand or heaven in a wild flower?

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A few years back I wrote cheeky romantic poem that made a play on some of Robert Frost’s poetry – and was promptly accused of not being serious enough. Conversely, some of my pieces have been labelled too serious: looking too closely, and making explicit what is (according to some memo I didn’t get) meant to remain eternally implicit.[1]

From the outside, we writers can sometimes seem standoffish, inhabiting a different scale to regular humans. We're either like Astronomers (another passion of mine) staring through tubes of layered glass at objects many light-years above us that we will never actually interact with - or we're gazing clinically down upon some cross-section through a magnifying glass. Either extreme is subject to scrutiny.

Is one way of writing superior to the other then - to look at life through a microscope glass or a telescope? Furthermore, is writing really a distancing mechanism - or might it be one for intimacy? Does it promote greater subjectivity - or objectification?

Opposing prophets: Cory Doctorow and Jaron Lanier

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Two (very smart) science writers, both of whom I admire greatly, present rich commentaries on the digital economy: Jaron Lanier and Cory Doctorow. I got into Lanier straight through his writing, and consequently churned off about half a dozen blog posts about his ideas. However, it took a visit by Doctorow to Melbourne, and a talk on “The Science of Fiction”, for me to really give his fiction a shot.

Lanier is a rogue technologist who cares deeply about art and, dare I say it, the soul of our species - while Doctorow is a rogue artist who cares deeply about technology. They hold opposing views and yet are largely perceived as heretical within their own circles. Lanier - a pioneer of virtual reality, and an amazing musician - proposes that for content to be appreciated, it needs to have a price tag attached; “I fear,” he remarks, “that we are beginning to design ourselves to suit digital models of us, and I worry about a leaching of empathy and humanity in that process.” Doctorow - novelist and editor of Boing Boing - believes in putting all his work on the creative commons for free; his favorite line - quoting Tim O’Reilly - is that for artists, “the big problem isn't piracy, it's obscurity.”

Death of a book salesman

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It's hard to find a bookshop in Melbourne nowadays. Thirteen years ago I scraped a living from them, working first for one in the city - the Technical Bookshop - followed by a general bookstore in Toorak - the Novel Idea (cute title, I know). The first started out on Swanston Street opposite the State Library, relocated to La Trobe Street, and promptly closed after some 70 years of business. The second, on Toorak Road, is still open - though I suspect it owes its longevity to local residents not having yet heard of 'the internets.'

The path of sincerity

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I'm reading the novel Cold Light by Frank Moorehouse - set in Canberra in 1950. The brilliant protagonist, the politically ambitious Edith, and her long-lost (and communist) brother Frederick are navigating their second meeting after some fifteen plus years. Half way through their eggshell-walking dinner dialogue, Edith silently resolves that she will cut her long-estranged sibling (and only surviving family) out of her life. The conversation that follows is the one that we the reader have eagerly wanted her, and ourselves, to have. It is the conversation that she has been holding back: quick in her retorts, brutal in her criticism, merciless in her assessments. And by the end of their meal she has changed her mind - she will not allow her ideological brother to preach to her, yet nor will they remain strangers.

Are you urban experienced? A brief study of street wisdom

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When the Spice Girls were being recruited, one of the criteria by which they were apparently judged was their level of street wisdom. This struck me as a bit weird at the time - for me, street wisdom consisted of knowing to avoid Russell Street, or Dandenong Railway Station, on the weekend. What, I wondered, would celebrity pop stars need with such intel?

On deeper reflection, I figured that it was a kind of working class euphemism for informal or tacit social intelligence - in contrast, say, to post compulsory education. (This of course is all from my thoroughly middle class superiority complex.)

No freedom til we’re equal?

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Yesterday I attended the ‘Beyond the Safe City’ forum at the University of Melbourne. In one of our workshops we were invited to discuss the City of Melbourne’s draft vision:
“Melbourne is a place where people feel safe, connected and able to participate in city life at any time of the day or night.”
The previous workshop I sat in at was on organising events for underage youths - though I felt the conversation seemed more about how to ‘contain’ young people than to include or entertain them. At least one other participant, for instance, was horrified at the idea of people in their mid-teens being out of their homes (particularly without a chaperone) at night. This lent some irony to the seemingly all-inclusive language of the City’s draft ‘vision’ of a safe city - and why I tried to ‘unpack the knapsack’ of adult privilege. How could we reconcile our desire for a city that any person could be a part of, I asked, with our deliberate exclusion of young people from that space?

“Maybe fourteen year-olds aren’t ‘people,’” one of the other participants sardonically remarked.

Where do we go from here? You get to choose!

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I’m checking that there’s an audience for what I’d like to blog about before I start writing. Now you get to vote on one or more of the following 50 word pitches.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Certainly Do Again

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Monash University recently held a technology exhibition on campus - featuring stands were acolytes championed the use of the Google App suite, VOIP phones, and holodecks (not kidding). Even adjusting for the free espresso coffee and cakes - and the marvellous macarons that one stand had to help break the ice - the vibe was uplifting. It was like every woman, short of dying her hair, had suddenly transformed into flirtatious manic pixie dream girls - peppy, cutsie, geekie and with a very short life expectancy. Obviously they were there to ‘sell’ the university’s technological splendor back to its employees - so I could think of no better cosplay for the job.

The right place at the right time - a geo-alarm app

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I attended a social activism conference a couple of months ago, and one of the recurring questions was how to make ‘doing good’ easier. This got me thinking about an idea of a personal organizer app that would allow us to discover exciting things and build good habits - an app that would help us to do right by ourselves as well as the planet. It would rapidly reinforce and condition us into decisions consistent with our needs and values - without us need to think. Like a managed fund, the app would seem to run itself - but based on our interests and risk profile. Put simply, it would be an alarm clock based on geography rather than time.


Blaming the victim on the web and the road

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A comic in the New Yorker: two ducks bobbing along in a lake, one ducks says to the other duck - “Maybe you should ask yourself why you’re inviting all this duck hunting into your life right now.”Of course, the comic is a parable on the absurdity of victim blaming - like when a police officer in Toronto suggested that “women should avoid dressing like sluts.” Somehow though, in its absurdity, the comic allowed me see the prevalence of victim blaming in other, more insidious and unchallenged forms.

Lines in the silica - rebuilding the virtual perimeters between the public and personal

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We live in an age where freedom of speech is valued almost as much as freedom of choice - where intellectual creativity wrestles majestically with hedonistic consumerism. As digital DJs, broadcasting live to the world, we need to appreciate the effects of what we say and do online. Yet as readers we also need to be more discerning and critical when we’re inclined to bag out others for their online behaviour. And here’s the reason why: the web has killed context, and it’s our job as readers to rebuild it.

Being our ‘whole self’ on social media

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I was chatting with a friend over ciders in a CBD beer garden one toasty Saturday afternoon when the conversation moved onto the pitfalls of social media. We’re both active online: I’m an on-again-off-again blogger, she’s an avid tweeter; a cross between Nigella Lawson and Charlie Nox (no prizes for guessing who gets the more engagement.) After a year of ok-cupid’ing she was more than ready to start dating someone with the long-term in mnd and yet (handicapped by her absolute honesty on twitter) few people she was meeting seemed to be able to appreciate her as a well-rounded individual in need of an occasional hug. I like to speak my mind online as well, so all I could really do was wish her luck in her romantic endeavours, and buy the next round.

Some professional pitfalls of social media sincerity

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It used to be that only celebrities, politicians, and successful writers had to “worry” about how they were judged by their public announcements. Nowadays, we are all copywriters and marketers: Australia, for instance, has the 13th highest mobile phone usage per capita (we literally have 33 percent more active cell phones than people), over 12 million direct internet subscribers alone - and the same number of Facebook users.

An Agile alternative to New Years Resolutions

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Almost a year ago I found myself greeting 2013’s first dawn as I walked along the streets of Brunswick East towards CERES and Merri Creek. Sitting beside the water, with the splendor of the previous evening’s Yarra River fireworks still fresh in my mind, I tried to wring any last drops of profoundness about what I had achieved in the last twelve months, and where I needed to go.

I’d written numerous blog posts about life- and work-hacking during that period, and in practicing what I preached, coordinated projects at work that practically ran themselves (and still do), and reduced my possessions at home to what I would later find out could easily fit into a studio apartment. I’d been promoted twice - first to a web support team leader, and then to a project coordinator - and still managed to fit in cycling, yoga, and friends.

Yet among those professional and personal windfalls, I remained an amateur when it came to pursuing a larger purpose.

The importance of having a system

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Systems are awesome. They are “what differentiates the professional from the amateur.” The term ‘system’ can seem like quite an abstract concept, and that’s part of its strength - they allow us, armed with a collection of general rules, to approach novel situations confidently: the same scientific method that Newton used allows the crew of The Enterprise to explore space beyond the Alpha Quadrant; the same project management principles help us create websites as well as build floating gardens. Systems can be used to improve writing, develop fitness, and keep inboxes empty. It may be too much to say that all efforts without a formal system are wasted, but at the least, those efforts are only ever going to be as good as the informal systems around them.

The art of 'selective ignorance' - when Big Data gets too big

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I’m a big fan of data collection - it’s not like we’re stretched for hard drive space, and Moore’s law suggests that it’s only going to get better. Yet collecting information needs to be balanced with our ability to identify what is salient, and then making informed decisions. If we are confronted with information overload, more data is actually hindering us rather than helping. Similarly, if acquiring that information becomes too laborious, it detracts us from synthesizing and acting on that information. As a manager once remarked - metrics without interpretation is just overhead.

The dangers of gamification

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Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken talks about the benefits of turning uninspiring tasks into an act of play - that is, gamification. McGonigal’s book encourages us to adapt the structures of those games - rewards, measurements, social engagement, quests, and so forth - to our daily lives. I have taken this to heart with my blog and volunteer work … and felt vindicated for the thousands of hours spent playing on my PC.

However, I suspect McGonigal is just formalizing something that most of us already do. To motivate myself to do my taxes, for instance, I have to frame it as the type of challenge in which I could take some pride. I set up some charts with the details of my bank accounts, bonds, superannuation, and student debt in Microsoft Excel, and then I’ll let myself spend a few hours just graphing it all. These pie charts and timelines become my colorful reward for having done the hard work - in other words, my ‘badges’. I’m not alone - many subscribers of personal finance forums even post screenshots of their budgeting software or mobile devices as evidence of their achievements.

There’s no gene for the human spirit - but there is an app

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A couple of years back I completed an online test to determine my Autism Quota, or AQ. The results came back positive. When I told a friend this, I could practically see the tetris pieces falling into place in her mind. It explained, for instance, why I dug The Social Network so much - and not just because Trent Reznor was on the soundtrack.

In the film’s opening sequence Mark Zuckerberg is busy in his Harvard dorm coding his way to infamy while all of the Aryan alpha males are popping pills at “one of the most exclusive clubs in the world”. Zuckerberg epitomizes a generation - and a personality type - that is willing, eager and paid to reduce real life personality characteristics into metrics, to climb the social ladder through smarts rather than smiles.

"It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)"

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Maybe I read too much into texts. I devoured post-apocalyptic, novels as a kid: John Christopher’s Empty World and John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids to name a few, and yet I could barely watch The Day After Tomorrow (2004) when I heard about the book burning scene. ‘Yeah, great way to deal with the apocalypse,’ I thought. ‘You’ve just had your world turned upside down after ignoring the scientific literature - and now you’re going to indiscriminately incinerate what’s left.’

Also, having grown up on Sunday school it’s hard not to see such films as Judeo-Christian propaganda flicks, where we’re rubbing our hands in anticipation of the end of days. 2012 (2009) and Deep Impact (1998) are easily read as retellings of the Genesis Flood Narrative (2012 even features ‘Arks’ in the Himalayas that will save the chosen few) while other films start to seem a lot like the Rapture – where the saved souls go up to heaven à la Left Behind).

The Frankenstein archetype in contemporary disaster films

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I’ve enjoyed mass destruction movies for a while now, like Deep Impact (1998), and the damn near-identical-film-released-at-the-same-time Armageddon (1998), with their extinction-event-causing asteroids. These heralded a blossoming sub-genre - typically, however, the cause of the catastrophe is artificial yet the face of that threat rarely belongs to a foreigner.

Often, the agent of chaos is our own Frankensteinian monster: Skyfall (2012), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) and Nemesis (2002) depict our dark prodigal sons returning to roost. “You’ve got no one to blame but yourself,” the antagonists - whether they be The Joker, Shinzon, Silva, or Khan - practically shout back on the verge of “the victory of the echo over the voice.” Our heroes’ challenge (and thus our own) is in admitting their complicity in that which they condemn, and their growth is marked by their remorse.

Love is stronger than death

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I read out the following passage - by Christian existentialist Paul Tillich - a couple of months ago at my grandfather's funeral. After laying out and formatting it in preparation for delivery, and falling in love with this guy's writing all over again, I felt like it was worth reproducing here. I hope that you get something out of it - and if you do, that you look up more of his fabulous work. 

The benefits of being a left fielder

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While attended the opening of Subcarrier: An Exhibition of Emerging Sound Artists at the RMIT’s Design Hub I found myself surprisingly engrossed in one of the installations. It involved a pedestal, a garden variety piece of granite about the size of a soccer ball, a set of headphones playing a low drone sampled from a construction site, and a large magnifying glass.

I assumed that the audience was meant to study the rock with the help of the magnifying glass, with a set of headphones over their ears. However, the moment I started doing so I felt the strong urge to look up from the piece of granite and ask someone, “Am I doing this right?”

Open world gaming - how much freedom is too much?

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I recently completed the campaign for the video game ‘Medal of honor’ This first person shooter is, like an increasing number of games it seems, primarily a tour of the US defence force’s armoury. That is, you get to try out increasingly sophisticated weaponry designed to kill people in the most efficient way possible - from a Tomahawk and a Tariq handgun, to the Apache helicopter-mounted M230 chain gun and Predator drone missiles. The landscapes are vast, and brutal. Your allied non-playing characters talk in a seemingly authentic military code that involve terms like ‘Danger close’ and ‘Nice guns’ and ‘Primary LZ’. In short - I loved it.

Yet it is an incredibly linear game: you move through a sequence of actions that, while not descending to the level of a quick time event, are mostly just about hopping from one bit of cover to the next while occasionally taking out a few infinitely respawning Taliban soldiers. There’s no levelling up, and you can always ask your mates for more ammunition if you somehow exhaust your thousand rounds of your M60 machine gun, so hoarding experience points and resources is not really a priority

Techno babble in science fiction and fantasy

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One of the reasons that I found it difficult to get into Harry Potter was because there never seemed to be any effort to build up the ‘lore’ of the universe. Where does magic derive? How do the wizards reconcile their powers with religious beliefs? Why is a dead language such as Latin so effective - and not, say, Esperanto or Klingon?

I find science fiction a little easier to swallow because the technology is all meant to be consistent with the physics that we learn in high school. Sure - there can be faster than light travel (not to mention sound in space) - but we can assume that the engineers of the future uncovered these wonders using the scientific method.[1]

Harry Potter and his peers might as well have been shouting ‘Lorem ipsum!’ when duelling with their twigs, and their opponents responding with ‘Dolor sit amet!’ It’s unlikely, though, whether I would feel any better if Hermione shouted - like The Enterprises’s Geordi La Forge - “Reverse the polarities!” (in Latin, of course).