Category Archives: Smart People

20 Tactics for Paying Better Attention

While this list of “20 Ways to Win the War Against Seeing” came out of a project a professor created for a class on product design, I think all of us could benefit from trying them. Here’s a sample:

Spot something new every day
Another student, Gaïa Orain, focused her solution on a two-block walk she made every day, and that had long since become so routine she could have sleep-strolled it. So she made a conscious effort to “see something new” every day — turning this routine walk into a kind of open-ended game.

Let a stranger lead you
Thinking about strangers reminds me of Vito Acconci’s well-known “Following Piece,” performed over a period of weeks in 1969: Daily, he would pick a random person, and follow her or him around New York. This would continue until his subject entered some space Acconci could not (a residence, for instance, or a car that promptly departs). In one case, this meant sitting through a movie when the person he was following went to the cinema. The exercise could last a few minutes, or hours, depending on what the stranger happened to do. I doubt Acconci would characterize his goals as having much to do with “paying attention,” per se, but borrowing his practice would be an adventure in seeing the new.

Misuse a Tech Tool
This has been another recurring theme. One student used a chat/dating app designed for gay men to (“obsessively”) monitor the number and locations of users within 400 feet. Another used the macro filter on her digital camera to study the textures of street objects on her walks to and from school. A third started using the compass on her iPhone to orient her gaze — wherever she walked, she’d take a look toward true north, and whatever happened to be there, “introducing a degree of randomness into what I saw.”

We Are Journalism

Lex has a post about the state of American journalism that ends thus:

Nobody’s coming to save American journalism. Some observers have finally figured that out. And we’ve seen that right here in Greensboro, where billionaire Warren Buffett, the News & Record’s new(-ish) owner who has repeatedly professed his love for newspapers, has made it abundantly clear that he has no use for newspaper people. When the Batten family decided to get their money out of the news bidness and put the N&R and the Landmark chain’s other papers up for sale, Buffett was seen as a savior. Not so much, it has turned out.

At the front lines of journalism, reporters have to report. What’s  your best story? Give THAT to your editor, then, and forget the craven or just plain silly assignments that come down from the publisher and the executive editor and the managing editor. Your bosses might have a nose for real news, but my observation of American journalism leads me to think the odds are very much against it anymore. So, you with the laptop, you with the camera, you with the microphone, you with the blog: You’re it. You are all there is. Go get better, go do better. Because it’s you or nobody.

Another way to look at it is that the Fourth Estate is being crowd sourced. Let’s get to it people.

Basic Income Guarantee

Until stumbling across a post referencing it at Fred Wilson’s AVC I’d never heard of “basic income guarantee.” So what is it exactly? From Wikipedia:

An unconditional basic income (also called basic incomebasic income guaranteeuniversal basic incomeuniversal demogrant,[1] or citizen’s income) is a proposed system[2] of social security in which all citizens or residents of a country regularly receive an unconditional sum of money, either from a government or some other public institution, in addition to any income received from elsewhere.

A basic income is typically intended to be only enough for a person to survive on, so as to encourage people to engage in economic activity. A basic income of any amount less than the social minimum is sometimes referred to as a ‘partial basic income’. On the other hand, it should be high enough so as to facilitate any socially useful activity someone could not afford to engage in if dependent on working for money to earn a living.

Interesting concept, but this quote from Wilson’s post echoes my initial reaction:

I don’t have a formed opinion on this idea. I know that welfare didn’t work out too well in the last century. So I’m nervous about any system that encourages or incents people not to work. But if we really are headed into a world where there aren’t any low skilled jobs, then I guess we need to be talking about ideas like this.

One of Wilson’s colleagues has been writing about the concept and has a couple of posts that explore how this all might work. You can read them here, but this excerpt highlights why this might be a concept worth exploring:

A higher minimum wage, as vigorously argued for in an interesting recent piece on Politico, can inject some short term liquidity into the economy and I am sympathetic to that but it is also a very blunt instrument and still doesn’t help with the many unpriced activities. The same goes for government mandated shorter working hours or longer vacations (although I am pretty sure that Google’s founders did not have a government mandate in mind)…

This brings me once again to the idea of a guaranteed basic income. This is a potentially attractive alternative for a number of reasons:

First, it sets human creativity free to work on whatever comes to mind. For many people that could be making music or learning something new or doing research.

Second, it does not suppress the market mechanism. Innovative new products and services can continue to emerge. Much of that can be artisanal products or high touch services (not just new technology). 

Third, it will allow crowdfunding to expand massively in scale and simultaneously permit much smaller federal, state and local government (they still have a role — I am not a libertarian and believe that market failures are real and some regulation and enforcement are needed, eg sewage, police).

Fourth, it will force us to more rapidly automate dangerous and unpleasant jobs. Many of these are currently held by people who would much rather engage in one of the activities from above.

Fifth, in a world of technological deflation, a basic income could be deflationary instead of inflationary. How? Because it could increase the amount of time that is volunteered.

Very interesting.

A Teacher Walks Away

Man, this is some incredible writing:

I resigned from my middle school job last month. Looking back, the only thing more difficult than leaving my students was the job itself. On my first day of teaching – an exhilarating, uplifting nine-hour whirlwind of joy – I wondered where this job had been all my life. On my last day, I sat fell into my chair wondering how I lasted so long…

When people asked me what I did for a living I gave them what they wanted to hear: “I’m a teacher,” I’d say.

What I wanted to say is, “What do I do for a living? Every day I walk into a classroom and discover worlds I never knew existed.”

Like CJ’s world, in which his mother keeps him home whenever she’s feeling lonely and depressed. Like Remy’s world, in which he came to this country after watching a warlord shoot his father to death back in Africa. Like Tyra’s world, in which she writes letters every week in class to her father in jail. She’s still waiting on him to write back. Like Angel’s world, in which he has a perfect attendance and regularly stays after school for tutoring – if only to escape going home to Mom and Dad’s arguing. Like Justin’s world, in which he and his two brothers and cousin take turns sleeping on a single bed each night.

A teacher is more than just someone who fills your child with knowledge and makes them “globally competitive,” whatever in the hell that means. They make many of their students happy, well-adjusted human beings and instill in them the audacity to believe they can be more then what they ever dreamed they could be.

Maya Angelou, whose stories we read in class this year, once wrote “of all the needs a lonely child has … the one that must be satisfied, if there is going to be hope and a hope of wholeness, is the unshaking need for an unshakable God.”

I’ll count those 19 months in a classroom a success if just one of my students thought I was their Kingdom Come.

Lifestyle and Urban Revitalization

Recently Fred Wilson wrote a blog post about urban revitalizations and highlighted what he thinks are the critical elements necessary for it to work:

We’ve seen that things can be turned around. The economic and cultural juggernaut that is Brooklyn right now is a perfect example. The grandchildren of the people who fled Brooklyn in the fifties and sixties are now coming back in droves, attracted to its lifestyle, its coffee shops, bars, restaurants, art and culture, parks, and affordable real estate. And the tech companies are coming too. Attracted by all the talent that is there.

I’ve been asked by civic leaders from places like Newark, Cleveland, Buffalo, and a number of other upstate NY cities that have suffered a similar fate how they can do the same thing. They all talk about tax incentives, connecting with local research universities, and providing startup capital. And I tell them that they are focusing on the wrong thing.

You have to lead with lifestyle. If you can’t make your city a place where the young mobile talent leaving college or grad school wants to go to start their career, meet someone, and build a life, all that other stuff doesn’t matter.

This immediately brought Winston-Salem to mind. The city's downtown is definitely enjoying a renaissance, but it's easy to forget how long the road has been and where it all began. Ten years ago when my family first moved to the Camel City there were tax incentives for restuaranteurs who set up shop downtown. I remember thinking it kind of odd because there didn't seem to be a whole lot that downtown offered outside of those restaurants and I wondered who would venture down just to eat. Some restaurants did indeed fail, but it ended up being a small, important piece of the downtown puzzle. Combined with the evolution of the arts scene on Trade Street, the growth of UNCSA's downtown presence, and yes, the maligned-at-the-time BB&T Ballpark project, you have the critical lifestyle element that Wilson identified in his piece. It's no wonder that people now want to live there (see the Nissen Building, Winston Lofts, etc.) and that businesses are moving to the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter.

In short, if you're looking for evidence that supports the importance of culture all you need to do is look downtown, whether in Winson-Salem, Durham or Brooklyn.

 

We’re Fortunate

Love this quote:
“We all know, deep down, that most of what we have is a product of good fortune. No matter how hard we work, we did not earn our functioning brains or the families into which we were born. We live in cities others created for us, organized by a government and protected by a military shaped by our predecessors. Yet we still point to our accomplishments and proudly proclaim, “I did this!” The well-off salve their consciences by assuring themselves that it is hard work and merit that brought them success, which also leads them to conclude that it is a lack of merit that keeps others from succeeding.” – Rabbi David Wolpe in the LA Times