Sprint is a four-letter word

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the term sprint. It’s a short word, easy to say and quick to type, but the connotations can be misleading, especially for people new to Scrum. I used to run track in high school, and I have a pretty vivid body memory of what it felt like to sprint – an all-out blast of energy expenditure that left me panting, heaving, and, sometimes, if I’d pushed hard enough, even nauseated. I was no Usain Bolt, but I wasn’t a slug either. I was a regular person, reasonably able to run pretty well. It left me in no condition to do anything but sit there recuperating until my muscles and lungs stopped screaming and returned functioning normally.

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The San Francisco Go Club

goclubWhen I moved to San Francisco twenty years ago, one of the things that filled me with the most anticipation and excitement was the historic San Francisco Go Club. At that time it was located in a (literally) condemned building on Bush Street in Japantown which had been either a synagogue or a Jewish retirement home, I don’t remember which – the important thing is that the building was institutional and old and formerly sacred. I remember there being giant, worn Stars of David in the shabby wood façade, but memory is a smartass and a liar so those may be a retrospective embellishment.

Everything important happened in one large, high-ceilinged room thick with cigarette smoke that echoed the famous (and charming to me for being so novel) San Francisco fog outside. I was almost exactly the same size I am now, but as I describe it, I suspect everything is much larger in my treacherous memory than it was in reality. I remember long tables covered with dozens of go boards and all manner of people sitting at them playing intently. I remember the generosity of Japanese octogenarians, far better at the game than I would ever be, who, despite speaking very little English, were kind enough to play with me and patiently point out when I made mistakes both obvious and subtle. I learned enough Japanese to thank them politely and ask after their health.

Eventually the city brought the hammer of public safety down on the crumbling building, and the San Francisco Go Club moved into an anonymous, fluorescent-lit storefront in the Richmond, or maybe it was the Sunset, or maybe it was a series of storefronts. In any case it was never the same, and I eventually stopped going altogether. While it still exists, for me the club died when it left that old building. And in the absence of some seriously Faustian shenanigans, those kindly old Japanese men are almost certainly all dead now.

I miss the club. I miss those old men. I’m still not as good at go as they were. I haven’t played in so long my go skills are doubtless a shadow of what they were then. San Francisco now is not the San Francisco it was then. I am not the me I was then. Is something lost? Absolutely. But if I imagine a twenty-something moving to San Francisco for the first time, who am I to tell him that the best is past, that things aren’t what they used to be, that everything is shit? Countless someones are finding their way to the city right now, not just to suckle at the teat of tech, but because they’re excited about something weird and quirky like the old San Francisco Go Club, something they’ll enjoy and pour their passion into until it too dies along with everyone associated with it, along with me.

Big heart love to @mosjef for creating the I love you, San Francisco collection on Medium and nagging ‘commissioning’ me to write this piece.

Stand whose ground?

PHOTO BY BRUCKERRLB — HTTP://FLIC.KR/P/BP78G

When I first saw the news of President Obama’s press briefing about the Trayvon Martin ruling (on Twitter, of course), my first impulse was to tweet the money quote, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” and leave it at that. Another moment’s reflection and I realized my reaction was a little too complicated – and that that complication was too important – to simply leave it at that.

I listened to all seventeen and a half minutes of the briefing. Either Obama is an even more masterful actor and politician than I imagined, or he was speaking about race from a personal point of view with a frankness and a rawness that I never would have expected from a president, even a black one. It’s probably both. Anyone who’s paid attention to the actual content of Obama’s public statements knows, and has known since the 2008 campaign if not before, that he is in practice a centrist, a cautious one, and he rarely presses the issue of race explicitly, even when it would be appropriate. It often pains me how careful he is to avoid unsettling white folks.

And yet here he was, not only acknowledging the racial context of the Trayvon Martin shooting, but connecting it directly to his own experiences as a black man in America.

There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me — at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

The shock of seeing a president explaining the black experience to non-black Americans felt historic. Hearing the president call out the institutional racism of the legal system was indescribable.

And I don’t want to exaggerate this, but those sets of experiences inform how the African American community interprets what happened one night in Florida. And it’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear. The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws — everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws. And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.

Would that were the whole of the story and that we could simply honor the loss of Trayvon Martin by using this conversation to move the country forward on its painful trajectory towards redemption. It’s not, and we can’t.

In the fall of 2011 (just months before Zimmerman shot Martin), on the orders of President Obama, Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year old son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki were killed in separate strikes by “unmanned aircraft,” or as we have come to call them familiarly, drones.

Like the Trayvon Martin killing, the Awlaki killings also exist in a context, the context of the US government hijacking the political affairs of Arab countries and killing Muslims when they get too — dare I say it — uppity. What are drone strikes if not a unilateral, illegal, global implementation of “stand your ground”? Zimmerman claimed he felt threatened. We claim we feel threatened, and we expect our government to be our gun.

Just as the history of white racism in America asserts itself in our reactions to the Trayvon Martin ruling, the history of American imperialism asserts itself in our reactions to the Awlaki killings. Let there be no elision. For brown people in America, George Zimmerman is the white devil who murdered Trayvon Martin. For brown people in the rest of the world, Barack Obama is the American devil who murdered al-Awlaki and his son.

And for what? Between 2006 and 2011 the actual chances of being killed by a terrorist for any individual American were about one in 20 million:

This compares to the annual risk of dying in a car accident of 1 in 19,000; drowning in a bathtub at 1 in 800,000; dying in a building fire at 1 in 99,000; or being struck by lightning at 1 in 5,500,000.

But the political risk of being “soft on terrorism,” or even perceived that way, is enormous. The risk of being too aggressive is comparatively miniscule – at least it was pre-Snowden, but even after Snowden’s revelations the political math remains largely unchanged.

It’s easy and costs nothing to adhere to one’s principles from the sidelines, but can I say that in Obama’s shoes I wouldn’t have authorized political assassinations, that I wouldn’t have made the pragmatic choice in favor of security theater and accepted the costs in resources and lives? Would you want to be the president who let Americans be killed on your watch because you didn’t have the grit to kill a few Arabs half a world away just in case (even if in this case the “Arabs” happened to be Americans)?

After Obama’s re-election in the Fall, I wrote about how important it was to have a president who was brown, like me. But “like me” also has a dark side. Among other things, it means I am inclined to give him a pass where I should not. On Real Time with Bill Maher, Cornel West quite rightly observed that liberals are too reluctant to criticize Obama on the very same issues for which they excoriated George W. Bush. He called this double standard “morally bankrupt,” and it is, and I am guilty of it, but for me it’s worse than that. Trayvon Martin could have been Obama thirty years ago. Anwar al-Awlaki could have been me now. We were both born in the same year. We were both born in America. We are both brown in such a way that many Americans would see no distinction between us. If I had a son, he’d look like Abdulrahman.

Worse yet, Obama should know better. Rightly or wrongly, we can dismiss George W. Bush as a sheltered, rich, white boy who never experienced an adverse social context in his life. Obama has no such excuse. And yet, Obama is not merely good or bad. One doesn’t negate the other. We are not what we are. We are what we do. And we do some complicated, contradictory, irreconcilable things. Having to make sense of the many Obamas reminds us not merely of the better angels of our nature but also the baser demons.

We may never get Nixon and Haldeman’s missing 18 minutes, but this briefing, at least, is 17 presidential minutes that have been missing from our public conversation about race for decades. I only wish that Obama, and the rest of us, could be as honest and direct about the other no less corrosive issues that undermine our values as a nation and a people.

G+ identity follies

Google wants real identities on G+. No pseudonyms. (After enduring enough protest, they relented for those with established pseudonymous public personae.) And yet, Google also gently but persistently harasses you to setup a G+ identity for every Google account you have.

Read the full text of G+ identity follies.

Obama is still black

Jacob Philadelphia Pats Obama's Hair

(Pete Souza/White House)

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008 I had no illusions about what, in policy terms, he could accomplish or would even want to accomplish. I had two simple criteria for his success beyond which everything else would be gravy: that he be president and he be black (and by black, of course, I mean brown). Whatever else he did or didn’t do, it was already transformative that he be a black president – something I (and plenty of other folks) never dreamed I would see in my lifetime. Growing up in suburban Washington DC in the 70s, it was clear to me the notion that in America “anyone can grow up to be president” did not apply to anyone darker than, say, Richard Nixon. And let’s be honest, even he was a little swarthy for comfort (look how that turned out). I will never forget how it felt on election night, November 4, 2008, standing on the dance floor of Roccapulco, to look up at the giant screen and weep tears of joy to see a president who was brownish, like me. Like me. In that moment (and whenever I’ve thought about it since, including as I write this) I am Jacob Philadelphia patting Obama’s head: “Yes, it does feel the same.”

In the years that followed it wasn’t about promises kept or broken; it wasn’t about Sotomayor and Kagan; it wasn’t about Bradley Manning and Osama Bin Laden; it wasn’t about teleprompters or professorial detachment or excessive caution in the face of congressional brinksmanship. We had a president who put his pants on one leg a time and who had brown-colored skin. Period. America was different than it had been before. There was no going back. No brown boy born in America would ever again feel the unspoken certainty that “anyone can be president” did not apply to him. (And I do mean ‘him.’ We’re still waiting for a woman president, but I no longer doubt that I’ll see one in my lifetime.) Whatever else happened, no one could go back in time and make Obama not have been elected president in 2008.

As the 2012 election season approached, I had a running argument with my friend Nathan who insisted that if Obama were not re-elected it would invalidate his presidency. I found this ridiculous. Repeatedly. How is a one-term president not a president? I mean, come on, he won the Nobel Peace Prize like two minutes after being elected (drone strikes notwithstanding). So what if he doesn’t win a second term. He was still president for four years. It counts. I argued this point unyieldingly right up until lunchtime yesterday, when, suddenly, despite my best efforts to deny it, I realized it wasn’t as simple as I wanted to be. The anti-Obama rhetoric in the last four years has been so relentless, so venomous, so absolute, that rightly or wrongly, I felt that if Obama were not re-elected, it would somehow undo the transformative power of his election in the first place. ‘Yeah, we tried having a black president once, but look how that turned out.’ I had been wrong. There was a third criterion for his success. Not only did he have to be president and be black, he had to get re-elected. In a strange way, it mattered even more this time, because there’s a big difference between never having had something, and having had something and then having it taken away.

It is with great relief that I note that Obama is still president and he is still black. The transformation was not undone, and I can now say with greater certainty than before that Obama has met my criteria for success, vanishingly modest in political terms, but reality-changing for me and the Jacob Philadelphia’s of the world. So Nathan, you were right. Warren 2016, anyone?

When no is all you have

Bartleby, the Scrivener is an absurd, puzzling, sometimes unsettling text. In the face of both support and adversity, Bartleby’s reaction is always “no.” We are all susceptible to this negative impulse, this paralysis that is neither death nor life but rather something in between. Be it professionally, creatively, or personally, the shadow of nothingness is ever present, whether we know it or not. At some time in our lives, many of us find ourselves under the influence of this “Bartleby complex.”

Read the full text of When no is all you have.

Of Groupon, Lindsay Lohan, and the envy of crowds

Whether or not you call what we’re in a bubble (which depends on what the meaning of the word “in” is), you can’t deny that Groupon’s June 2nd kimono-opening in advance of its IPO revealed, if nothing else, some interesting numbers.

Between the straight-up doublespeak of Adjusted CSOI and the chutzpah of trousering almost the entirety of their recent billion-dollar round, Groupon gave journalists plenty of material for scathing articles (including articles about the articles).

Read the full text of Of Groupon, Lindsay Lohan, and the Envy of Crowds.

iPad is to iPhone as…

The single most notable phenomenological residue of spending a few hours with the iPad is what it does to my perception of the iPhone. The minute I picked up an iPhone back in 2007, other smartphones that had seemed remarkably capable (Treos, Blackberries) suddenly felt dated and limited. To my great surprise, the iPad does, for me, the same thing to the iPhone. Whereas before today the iPhone felt like a capable, if diminutive, computer, suitable for web browsing, email, composing text, and running all sorts of applications, it now seems more like, well, a phone. A phone that can do lots of cool things, to be sure, but nonetheless, my perception of its primary identity is no longer “computer that also makes calls” but simply “phone that runs some handy utilities.” As of today, when I picture the “thing from the future that I take with me to do almost everything I can do with a laptop except write code,” I picture an iPad, not an iPhone — until, of course, the inevitable release of the device that changes my perception of the iPad.

Tears in Rain

One my favorite scenes from one of my favorite movies, rendered in Lego (via Brick Brothers).

Blade Runner – Tears in Rain (in LEGO) from Zach Macias on Vimeo.

iPads, tinkerers, and visigoths, oh my

Fraser Speirs’ analysis of tech insiders’ negative reactions to the iPad is the best I’ve read so far.

The visigoths are at the gate of the city. They’re demanding access to software. they’re demanding to be in control of their own experience of information. They may not like our high art and culture, they may be really into OpenGL boob-jiggling apps and they may not always share our sense of aesthetics, but they are the people we have claimed to serve for 30 years whilst screwing them over in innumerable ways. There are also many, many more of them than us.

While Alex Payne is absolutely right that the iPad is not a tinkerer’s machine, I think it’s not only reasonable but long overdue that users who don’t want to have to tinker won’t be required to, or, more often, as Speirs notes, rely on regular visits from a technological shaman to keep their machines working.

Yes, the iPad is optimized for consuming media, but it’s no more of a sinister inducement to consumption than a book is. The idea that a single, complex, general-purpose tool (the “computer”) has to serve so many different purposes and audiences through a single hardware interface is merely an artifact of the history of computing. It’s crazy to insist that in 2010 my mother should use the exact same tool to send email and view photos that I use to develop software.

That said, as a tinkerer myself, the prospect of a future where someone who does want to tinker is actually prohibited from doing so worries me as much as it does Payne. The fight for greater openness on the platform is justified. It feels to me like this decade’s analog to the battle over DRM in music, except in this case Apple is the RIAA. They’ll eventually open the platform, or they’ll be routed around. And I’ll be happy to tinker for the cause.

UPDATE: See Roger’s comment below for a reference to Steven Frank’s excellent piece on this very issue.

Fellow Old Worlders, I hate to tell you this: we are a minority. The question is not “will the desktop metaphor go away?” The question is “why has it taken this long for the desktop metaphor to go away?”

Exactly.