Archives for the month of: January, 2016

Today I came across a relatively new (month-old) feature in Facebook Messenger: you can hail an Uber from within the app. Both Facebook and Uber act as (and have aspirations to be) interesting “front door” or “gateway” apps. For instance, for more and more people Facebook is not a page on the World Wide Web: it is the Web. All browsing starts in Facebook. Similarly, Uber has aspirations to be the first thing people think of when they want to move themselves around in a place.

Both of these “front door” functions actually are about reducing hassle, or friction. It is a hassle to find links to visit. It is a hassle to get in a car, drive yourself to a place, and park. Facebook and Uber remove those hassles (or intend to).

This frictionless society has been building inexorably, and it is interesting to think about its timeline and to reflect at how different the world has become and is becoming.

In thinking about this timeline, it is possible to start as early as 1969 when Arpanet was created, or 1989 when AOL was launched, or 1991 when the first Web page was published (actually that link points to a replica).

But instead I am thinking about the efforts and effects of major companies. Depending on your viewpoint, this could be a dystopic history or the description of a pathway to an easier lifestyle — or it could be both.

In any event, think about it:

  • Amazon (buying things) established 1994
  • craigslist (local want-ad stuff) established 1995
  • Wells Fargo Web banking established 1995
  • Peapod (groceries) established 1996
  • Google (searching) established 1998
  • PayPal (paying people) established 1998
  • Wikipedia (knowledge) established 2001
  • iTunes (digital music) invented 2001
  • Gmail (best email) launched 2004
  • Facebook (social community) established 2004
  • YouTube (video) established 2005
  • Google Maps (wayfinding) launched 2005
  • Twitter launched 2006
  • Apple TV launched 2006
  • Hulu (broadcast TV) established 2007
  • iPhone launched 2007
  • Spotify (even easier music) established 2008
  • Uber (transportation) established 2009

Just the above list does not do justice to the massive dislocation that a handful of these companies have created. Just think about how altogether possible it is to:

  • Buy everything you need through Amazon (groceries through local delivery service like Peapod)
  • Maintain connected to community, communicate, and learn about news through Facebook
  • Pay all bills through web banking
  • Listen to any music you want through Spotify
  • Watch any filmed entertainment (TV shows or movies) through Apple TV
  • Get around using Uber
  • Find people to do housework through craigslist and pay them through PayPal

Each of these services is attempting to create a total “front door” ecosystem, and they have to varying degrees created footholds among and between each other (Facebook + Uber for example).

What else is ripe to become more frictionless? Making objects (3d printing)? Learning (Lynda)? Remembering things (Evernote)?

I study democratic politics and I mean both of those terms in the most fundamental way possible. I understand “politics” to mean “the way people who live in a place make choices and address shared problems and opportunities, where there are disagreements about what should be done.” And by “democracy” I mean “people collectively deciding how to exert control over their future.” In this way of understanding, democratic politics is not the same thing as “organizing.” Politics involves tension. Something is political if there are tensions about what we should do.

Note that this is a much deeper sense of both words than the ones in which they are normally used. For instance, “elections” are not themselves democracy. They are a mechanism for choosing representative leaders. And having representative leaders is a strategy for acting democratically. One challenge in studying democratic politics in the way I describe is that it can be hard to see — or perhaps better put, other related things are easier to see. In democracies that include elections, you can see elections. You can see how many people vote, for whom, and how open or inclusive the voting is. It is also easy to see institutions such as government. Often, in trying to see and examine democratic politics, these and other easily visible things occlude the whole of politics. But describing and understanding a government is not the same thing as understanding politics. (This is not to say that such institutions are not a part of politics — they are. And they are important. But looking solely at institutional structures provides an incomplete view of politics.)

One level of democratic politics I am quite interested in is the community level — community politics. What does it look like? How can you see it?

One way to see community politics (any politics, really) is to look for evidence that the things that make up politics are happening. And if you are looking to find democratic politics on the level of community, you might look for evidence about how these practices are taking place. So:

  • Where is there evidence of people trying to understand what the problem is?
  • Where is there evidence that people are exploring options?
  • Where is there evidence that people are choosing deliberately from among options of what they might do?
  • Where is there evidence that people are trying to identify resources through which to act?
  • Where is there evidence that they are taking action, and to what extent are these actions complementary or not?
  • Where is there evidence that, seen collectively, the community is learning from its experiences?
A Real Life Example: #Blizzard2016

2016-01-25 11.10.27The area where I live, in a suburb of Washington, DC, recently had an historic blizzard. Thirty-five inches of snow were dumped in my neighborhood. The snow removal resources of every government entity, and indeed of every business, were severely taxed. My street is a dead-end that inclines away from the nearest through-route, which itself is not a major street. So on dig-out day, everyone on the block was pretty much stuck, and we weren’t going to get plowed out for quite some time.

As people do, we all began our digs. And here is where we began to see politics.

Just responding to a crisis is often not really that political — it is clear what must be done and there is no real choice to be made. You just do what must be done. But this was not quite a crisis and it was not clear exactly how we should move forward. We each had our own interests: we wanted our driveways cleared and to be able to reach the outside world. But “reaching the outside world” was also a collective interest. And there were some elderly neighbors who did not have any means of moving their own snow — what should be done about their situation?

Furthermore, we all had varying resources available, and some of those were communal. Most of us had snow shovels and at least one person willing to use it. But some of us also had small snowblowers. One neighbor had actually purchased a very large snow blower a few years back, and regularly made it available to neighbors. Furthermore, eventually we would get plowed out by the city.

In figuring out how to respond collectively to this problem, we were doing politics in exactly the way described above. Our approach was to begin our resources — which is often how it happens on a community level. Who has what? What can we use? The neighbor’s snow thrower could not take care of the whole problem for us, but it was up to the task of clearing sidewalks and helping cars get dug out from under snowdrifts. Some neighbors with four wheel drive trucks went to get gas for the snow thrower, while another truck owner started driving back and forth through a few deep drifts to mush the snow down and make it a little passable. Someone shoveled the elderly neighbors’ drive.

To be clear, this was not “organized” in the way you might imagine. It was loose. It was not like a barn raising. We were mostly tending to our tasks, but we were doing so mindful of the whole. We were acting in complementary ways.

During this work, we stopped occasionally and assessed what the problem was we were tackling. (Again, informally.) Is it that we all had our cars stuck? Or was the problem that we couldn’t even walk anywhere safely? Or was the problem that some of our vulnerable neighbors were truly up a creek? Was it that we had not prepared well enough in advance? Did someone leave their car in a place that made it worse for everybody?

Similarly, we addressed our options. Should we unearth cars first? Sidewalks? Should we just wait for the city, as they would eventually come by? Should we think about buying a small tractor with a snow blower, and splitting the cost, for future snowfalls? We decided to try to clear all the sidewalks and driveways, and somevpeople would go beyond that individually (for instance I dug out a separate parking space for myself).

We coordinated what we would do. Some neighbors dug a space for one car, and then were able to use that “extra” parking spot as a staging area while digging out other cars. It was arranged who would do what: snow blow, dig, drive. We didn’t all agree and we had to work through tensions between the various possibilities. For example, everyone who had parked on the street wanted their car dug out first — but only one or two could get freed up that first day. Though we all wanted our own vehicle moving, the work van of a neighbor who needed it for his livelihood took priority.

Over the years we had also learned what some of the best things to do for our particular stretch of the street in big snowfalls was, and we added to that learning this time. Some of us, acting on previous learning, had parked their cars up the street, in the road at the top of our small hill. The reasoning was not to get stuck. But this snowfall was so large this turned into a liability — when the city plow finally came, the cars that had not been unstuck yet were really socked in under almost insurmountable walls of gunk. We agreed that in future the best call would be to keep all cars in our driveways so city plows could plow curb to curb.

None of this was formal. It unfolded over the course of the day, bit by bit, and you could see it in a building series of conversations between different neighbors. All very casual. Politics does not have to be serious, even when it is solving serious problems.

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[Updated (twice!) to fix some typos and clarify some points.]

I note a repeated missed opportunity in teaching across many of the courses in my executive-level graduate program, an opportunity missed due to design decisions. Often, instructors develop exercises where students work (individually or in teams) to develop their own work product. The instructor then evaluates the work according to some framework, or compares it to some existing professional version of the same work. The idea is to have students try their hand at manipulating some framework, and then provide constructive feedback on how they did.

The problem arises when it comes time for the instructor to provide feedback. Over and over I have observed instructors engage in Herculean efforts to make incorrect work seem correct. There is a strong disincentive to say students’ work is “wrong” in such a public setting. (This may be more the case with adult learners versus younger students.) Because of this, learning opportunities are missed and frequently students are left thinking that they have mastered material that they have not mastered. This seems especially prone to happen in “judgment” fields where there is not an objectively correct answer but there are definitely best practices. For example, in a communications class where students are asked to develop an influence campaign, there may be no objective basis to criticize poor campaigns. So the impression is left that anything goes. But this can happen also in “harder edged” fields such as budgeting or economics. Students are rarely told that they missed the mark.

The conclusion? Avoid such situations unless you are a very unusual type of instructor, with the gumption to publicly make clear, constructive criticism. Develop some other mechanism for giving students hands-on experience and useful feedback. Two potential means of doing that would be for students to evaluate each others’ work, or to give them a rubric and ask them to evaluate their own work. However, the challenge remains of providing feedback from an expert perspective.

This morning, early before anyone else was awake, I did something that has become a habit over the past year. After letting the dogs out, and then back in, and giving them food along with the cat, I walked down to a small sofa I have in my basement.

My sofa

My sofa

I sat down and once again did a set spiritual practice, as I reported back in May.

Every morning I read spiritual literature, pray a set prayer, and meditate. I end by writing a letter to God in a little journal I have.

There’s nothing special about the letter. I could just as easily call it a “journal entry,” or I could say I “write in my diary.” The approach I use, that works for me, is a letter to a higher power.

I don’t have a specific format for the letter. It changes from time to time, depending on what is on my mind. Sometimes I have shortcomings or transgressions from the day before to confess and address. Sometimes I have anxieties about what is to come, or the well being of a family member. Sometimes I am angry or hurt, and I need to express it. Sometimes I am ecstatically grateful for the gifts that have been showered on me.

No matter. It all goes in the letter. I typically close my missive by writing this: “God, grant me knowledge of your will for me, and the willingness and power to carry it out.”

What the letter contains is unimportant. What matters is that I have written it. I only allow myself to write once I have done the other things (reading, prayer, meditation). In that way, the written letter becomes tangible proof that I have engaged in the practice I intend.

Like many people, I am easily distracted. I make resolutions, or “set intentions,” only to abandon them when something more interesting comes along. With spiritual practices this has been the pattern. I tell myself I will meditate more, or pray more. And I do for a week or so . . . then one day I’m in a hurry, or oversleep a bit. And, poof, it’s gone. The resolve evaporates like fog under the sunlight.

One year of letters

One year of letters

The letter has worked for me where willpower and intention has not. I think about why, and it is a silly thing. I have become superstitious about the letter.

Some time ago I began to write down the consecutive number of each entry. Each day it goes up by one. I have got it in my head that if I miss a day, something dreadful will happen.

Intellectually, I know that’s not true but I don’t let that stop me. I revel in this superstition, because it has given me resolve where all my good intentions have failed.

This morning, I wrote my 365th consecutive entry. One full year.

What can I say has been the result? I don’t have anything specific to point to. I have had the usual ups and downs throughout the year, and I have responded in the ways we all seem to — never as well as I might hope, but I do the best I can.

The best, most helpful news I can give is that praying and meditating every morning for a year has allowed this practice to become part of my identity. I am someone who prays and meditates. Do I do it well? No. But I do it.

If I can do one year, I can do another. Maybe I will look back on decades of this practice in my final days.

A few days ago, as 2015 waned, I sat with a friend and we shared our annual reviews with one another.

While I do this with a friend with whom I share recovery, it is not solely focused on spirituality and sobriety. This really is a kind of year-end annual review, the kind one might do at work.

We each do it our own way. My friend writes out a number of goals in a a series of categories. He then pulls out the lists and sees what kind of progress he made on each one. Some items he will cross off as completed — or he may add new goals.

I, too, look at a number of categories. But I don’t typically have hard-and-fast goals for each one. Instead, I reflect on what yearly progress (or lack of it) I have made in each area, and think about some concrete intentions for what I will do in the upcoming year.

While we each do it differently, there are two things we have in common: Our categories are similar, and we are careful to do this work in writing. This is a serious review and we take it seriously.

Here are the categories I used in reflecting on my actions in 2015, and my intentions for 2016. In each area, I ask myself what progress I made, and what I plan to do moving forward. I try to capture specifics.

  • Body (health, fitness, nutrition, rest)
  • Mind (learning new things, staying sharp)
  • Spirit (Recovery and program, faith, mindfulness, generosity)
  • Social (family relationships, other close relationships, community)
  • Finance and administration (how well I pay my bills, savings, income, orderliness of my affairs)
  • Work and professional (diligence, responsibility, development and growth)
  • Creativity (writing, music, other pursuits)

In talking to my friend, I invariably recall areas where I have real shortcomings as well as progress that I hadn’t recalled. I write those down as they come to me, during our conversation.

Throughout the year, every few months, I review the list in order to help me stay on track.