Where Do We Lead?

As the United States falls deeper into the willful anarchy of intentional leaderlessness demonstrated by our elected officials, I’ve noticed a trend of uncertainty about how we should lead among people of my generation.  We late-Gen-Xers/early Millennials (those of us born some time in the late 1970s-early 1980s) straddle the border between a couple different dynamics.  If you subscribe to Strauss-Howe generational theory (some have called it pseudoscience – I value it as an observation of a pattern more than a predictor of things to come) then you’ll note that these generations are “Nomad” and “Hero” archetypes, respectively.  What does this mean?

In Strauss-Howe, there are four Archetypes (Prophet, Nomad, Hero, Artist) born during four different Turnings (High, Awakening, Unraveling, Crisis).  These time periods are roughly 20 years each, and each Archetype experiences the Turnings at different times in their life.

The current Gen-X Nomads were born during an Awakening (the 60s/early 70s counterculture) and grew up during an Unraveling (80s/90s consumerism, the “me” decades).  If the pattern holds, they/we should mature into leaders during a Crisis.  Meanwhile, Millennials were born during an Unraveling (80s) and should be growing up during a Crisis.

For those of us in the borderland between these two twenty-year generations, it is confusing to try to define ourselves.  Are we Gen X?  Millennials?  What is the Crisis?  Did it start with the events of 9/11/2001?  That seems like a good choice for a beginning.  If we pick that crisis, it’s been going on for over a decade, with perhaps a decade left to work through.  If the pattern holds, we should see Gen X stepping up to take leadership and action.  I’m beginning to see signs of the Millennials stepping up to take team-oriented action in the form of social consciousness, entrepreneurialism and the new “Maker” ethic.  Meanwhile, Gen X seems to have passed cleanly through its angsty, angry searching years and emerged into successful mid-level managers placed throughout the crumbling infrastructure of the free market economy – the monolithic driver of the last three generations of Western experience.

The economy, now an artifice of high-frequency trading, ponzi schemes and prop-ups from taxpayers, is failing.  The next step in that decline seems to be the self-imposed freakshow Russian Roulette game being played out in Congress by the Randian private wealth warriors elected through a combination of corporatist influence (thanks, Citizens United) and xenophopia.  If the debt ceiling is not lifted and the shutdown continues, the global economy is in for another big downturn.

Where is the leadership that Gen X should be demonstrating?  There are no protests on the National Mall.  No one is running for office on a ticket of constitutional amendments to ban gerrymandering and undo citizens united.  We are getting fidgety.  We see things like former investment bankers quitting their jobs in their 30s to race $500 Craigslist cars in the World Rally Championship, or buying abandoned trailer parks in New Mexico and becoming Makers.  We are impatient to lead, but our furtive steps toward leadership seem disconnected with the political and economic reality of the times.  Perhaps we believe that the next steps have nothing to do with government or the global economy.  If that turns out to be true, I think the next 10 years will be an interesting and very challenging time.

The Part of Me That Could Cry

All text and images copyright (c) 2013 by Nicholas Roy. All rights reserved. No duplication or reuse without written consent of the author.

Gilbert Street, Iowa City, Summer
Gilbert Street, Iowa City, Summer

I remember crying easily as a child. When a grandparent or family friend died, I remember crying for a long time. In high school, I remember sobbing in the stairwell because I got a C. I had a long bout with depression between the ages of 8 and 22.

By the time I was 25, I was dangerously overweight, from eating, from the depression. I remember thinking: I’m going to kill the part of me that is sad. I don’t know how I did it, other than to say that through some force of will, I stopped being depressed, and I lost about 140 lbs. I have kept the weight off and have not been depressed for over 10 years now.

Evening summer sky above an Iowa prairie
Evening summer sky above an Iowa prairie

This afternoon, I came the closest I have since been to falling back into that despair. My wonderful wife is across the ocean doing her research. I have not been able to hug her in over two months, and there is more than a month left before she is back. I’m in a new place, with a new job. The new job is the hardest I have ever had. I’ve easily been able to think my way out of tough spots in jobs before, but this new one challenges me in ways I have never been challenged before. I miss my wife, my parents and my friends.

The sun sets over an Iowa tallgrass prairie
The sun sets over an Iowa tallgrass prairie

This afternoon, I missed Skyping my wife because of a dumb problem at work that really isn’t a problem. I haven’t Skyped with her in nearly a week. I missed her going to bed by 13 minutes. I know, because I have the Facebook chat record to show it. I was driving home when she messaged saying she was going to bed. I was so angry at myself for missing this chance to see her face. I was so angry and so sad. I felt the welcome point of a dark gray cone of despair1 puncture my sternum from the outside, the point pressing against my heart. I felt the tears well up inside. I let out a muted shriek of disgust and pity.

And then it was gone. I did not cry. I could not cry. I had killed that part of myself in order to save the rest of me.

My Parents' Garden
My Parents’ Garden

1 Dark gray cones of despair are about 8 inches long, with a vertex angle of roughly 10 degrees.  They are nicely Gouraud shaded.  Yes, I saw the cone.  It was a “Donnie Darko” moment.

Stratagical

I invented a new word today: “Stratagical” – a synthesis of “Strategically tactical, practical and agile.” This sounds terribly pointy-haired boss-like, but whatever, I don’t care, because I’m excited that I’m able to hoist myself to a place where I am able to help make tactical decisions but keep a focus on the strategic goals of a project.  In many ways, in my previous software developer role, I could become consumed with the architecture of a solution and its enormous volume of details to the exclusion of practicality and making tactical choices when necessary.  One transformative step on the road to Stratagical decision making was the day I realized I needed to do a huge batch process completely in memory for speed.  This decision eventually paid off quite well.  I am learning that many tactical decisions can be strategically advantageous if done correctly.

I consider this type of decision making process to be a key to agile management of an agile software development and technical operations group, and it must be founded in practicality. The strategic part comes in by ensuring that the software and systems we are designing meet the long-term needs of the institution, that we not shut the door to future needs, that we ensure good data to start with. The practical part comes when you understand that a new system will not be immediately used by the entire population of the institution, and can be phased in over time. The agile part comes in by focusing on improving the baseline of the system at each customer integration opportunity.

Step 1: Design the system to be flexible in the future
Step 2: Get good enough data into the system to start with one or two customers
Step 3: Validate the data with those customers
Step 4: Fix discovered data issues
Step 5: Repeat steps 2-4 with a new customer or customers

If you do this right, things seem to start nearly magically falling into place, and you start knocking out large chunks of alignment and execution, like scoring 5 lines at a time in “Tetris.”

Differences Are Interesting

My wife and I just moved from Iowa to Pennsylvania.  I was born in far northern New York, but we moved to Iowa when I was only a few months old.  Although I’ve spent time in Europe and West Africa, I have never lived anywhere but Iowa for more than five months.  I’m finding that what I miss the most is, obviously, seeing my close friends nearly every day, being able to visit my parents any time, and running in to people on campus who I know whenever I walk around.

I know that many of these things will change with time – I will know more people here, I’ll make new friendships, but my parents will still be far away.  For me, that is really difficult.

I grew up in a small university city, and knew every road, location, pattern, sound, smell, image, time and context in intimate detail.  I had walked or biked nearly everywhere in Iowa City, and that was comfortable.  The sense of place and my sense of myself were deeply integrated.  One of the most valuable things for me about going to school at Iowa was that in my spare time, I would get in my car and explore Johnson, Cedar, Washington, Henry, Lee, Linn and Iowa counties in extreme detail.  I could drive out of town in any direction, for 200 miles, take any turn, and come back in to town from any direction I chose.  I would often depart town in the morning on a Sunday and come back late at night, my pump primed to write new poetry for class the next day.  Now I’m in a new small university city, but all those deep interconnections are missing.  It will take a long time (possibly the rest of my life) to rebuild them here.

I like this place, I like the few people I already know here.  I like the mountains, but I miss the gently rolling plains and the comfort of the way all the streets and roads are perfectly aligned to the cardinal directions.  I miss knowing interesting historical details about the place I live, like why “Blackhawk Mini Parkis called that.  I miss having a beer at Bo James or The Mill with friends. I miss driving past the airport where I learned to fly and remembering cleaning airplanes there with good friends who left town in the other direction a few years back.

I miss knowing that if someone had the last name Yoder or Swartzendruber or Stutsman, they were from the area.

I miss Kevin Olish, who died last year, suddenly, and was a familiar face and interesting guy at the Co-Op, always talkative, always with something interesting to say.  Once, I was wearing a UC Santa Cruz Banana Slugs t-shirt my dad had given me.  Kevin said, “I used to live in Santa Cruz, nice town!  Expensive town.  I like it here better.”

I’m sure I will get to know all sorts of characters and characteristics here in Happy Valley.  Over time, I’ll come to appreciate the unique aspects of life here.  One of the things I like most so far is how genuinely nice and helpful most of the people I have talked to here are.  That seems like a platitude, but it’s not.  It’s deeply not.  People here are, as far as I can tell, mostly just nice all the way to the core.

Identity In Transit

In my last job, one of the things that kept me up at night was the notion of electronic identity “in transit” or “on the wire.”  Specifically, I was concerned with protecting the electronic credentials of our customers from any kind of eavesdropping, spoofing or tampering as they were transiting the network at the moment a person entered them in a web form, login box on a computer, on their smart phone, or anywhere else they used their officially issued username and password.

Now I find myself in physical transit, from Iowa to Pennsylvania.  Along with that transition comes the need to re-prove who I am to a number of different agencies and institutions.  Those agencies are rightfully concerned with the prevention of any kind of tampering or spoofing of my identity in physical transit.  Along with that concern comes the need for rigorous forms of identity proofing and vetting in order to obtain new credentials.

Because I do this for a living, I knew the kinds of checks that were going to be required to prove my identity in my new location.  I was atypically well-prepared.  Before the movers arrived, I carefully packed all my incredibly precious, practically irreplaceable, highly combustible paper government-issued proofs of identity in a special box in the center of my car’s back seat.  Like a baby.  I knew that the checks to prove who I am to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania would be burdensome, but I never really had the opportunity to experience them first-hand, and all at once, before.  Here are my experiences so far.  Please note that these experiences are likely nearly identical in every state in the union (thank goodness I didn’t move to California or my ability to drive would have been in question and I would have had to get fingerprinted!)

The Drivers License

I started with what appears to be the “intermediate certificate” in the trust chain rooted in US citizens’ birth certificates and social security cards: the state-issued drivers license.  This form of physical identity has the following attributes:

  1. It’s highly vetted
  2. It’s issued by a state agency
  3. It has your photo and signature on it
  4. It has your address of record on it
  5. Its issuance is rooted in more deeply-entrenched forms of identification
  6. It’s not so irreplaceable that you can’t carry it with you everywhere, like you can’t with a birth certificate
  7. You must carry it with you everywhere to effectively operate in the modern world
  8. You can’t get one if you don’t already operate effectively in the modern world

As such, most other forms of daily identity proof are rooted in the state-issued drivers license.  To obtain this, I had to drive 10 miles out of town (good thing I have a car and an existing drivers’ license) to a small building where I had to write a check (no cash or credit accepted – are government agencies even permitted to not accept US currency?) to the PennDOT and surrender my Iowa license, present a Social Security card (why?) and any of the items from list A and two of the items from list B:

A

  1. Birth Certificate with raised embossed seal (not a copy)
  2. Certificate of US Citizenship
  3. Certificate of Naturalization
  4. Valid and original US passport (not a copy)

B

  1. Tax records
  2. Lease agreements
  3. Mortgage documents
  4. W2 form
  5. Current weapons permit (US citizen only)
  6. Current utility bills

Note that were I any less than a fully employed and housed person of good means (I carry a passport, and can afford a safe deposit box in which to keep my social security card, birth certificate and passport) I would have an extremely difficult time obtaining a license or photo ID in Pennsylvania (which, were it not due to the action of the ACLU, would be required to vote in an election here.)  If I didn’t have an Internet connection or at least access to a phone, I wouldn’t have been able to determine what I needed to take with me beforehand, and might have needed to make multiple trips, in the car which I thankfully own and am licensed to drive.

Luckily, the address on my check was not required to match my Pennsylvania address of residence, doubly so due to the tear in the space time continuum that would have been caused by identity in transit issue number two:

The Bank

I like credit unions- they exist to serve the membership.  The credit union I currently use in Iowa is a community credit union, meaning it has a community charter, and anyone in the area (a huge area) can use it.  I can still use it because I have existing business with them.  I want to get a new account at a credit union in Pennsylvania because I don’t want to pay ATM fees for withdrawing cash here, and I need to get a safe deposit box to put my incredibly precious and practically irreplaceable, highly combustible paper government-issued identity documents in.  The credit union here does not have a community charter, which means I need to have proof of employment at my new employer to get an account.  That’s fine, I can just do that when I start work at my new employer.  Here’s the fun one though: the credit union asked for my Pennsylvania drivers’ license.  Imagine if the drivers’ license office had decided that the address on my check (no cash, credit or Trobrian Island yams accepted!) needed to match my official Pennsylvania address of record.

Car Title

These next two things are not technically personal identity issues, although they deal with the state-issued identity of my car, which is almost as tightly controlled as the state-issued identity of me as a person.  When I went to the credit union in Iowa (which owns the lien on my car) to ask them about transferring the title to Pennsylvania, they said “don’t move to Pennsylvania.  Anywhere but Pennsylvania.  That is the worst state to transfer a title to.”  I’m not kidding, that’s verbatim.  So, clearly that’s not going to be a problem.

Vehicle Inspection

Iowa does not require any kind of periodic vehicle inspection (this shows in many of the cars on the road) and does not have what the EPA considers to be an air pollution problem, so does not require California Air Resources Board (CARB) certification.  You can legally (and actually) buy a car in Iowa that does not comply with CARB specifications.  If you take your car to Pennsylvania when you move, it’s MY2008 or newer, and it doesn’t have CARB certification, it must have over 7,500 miles on the odometer or you are out of luck, I guess.  Perhaps you could just drive to the King of Prussia Mall a few times to run up the clock before your 20 days to register your car expires.  Of course, in your formerly non-coastal, more-polluting, non-CARB-certified, extra-dinosaur-burning-mobile, that would just cause more pollution, not less.

Neighborly Identity

For the past week, we have had numerous neighbors in our condo association stop by to say “hi” – this was nice the first few times it happened.  Now it is becoming clear that they are investigating whether we are going to depreciate their property values and/or throw wild parties all night.  We are a prematurely elderly, workaholic grad student/professional couple with no kids.  Hopefully they will figure that out and stop ringing our doorbell while I’m on conference calls.

The Grocery Store

Loyalty programs abound!  They are all slightly different and all have weird different rules.  To obtain today’s lowest price on spaghetti sauce, I had to create an on-line identity at the new and different (to me) grocery store and print out a temporary loyalty card on my laser printer, which I bought at Staples, with a discount, using another loyalty card, with another on-line identity.

I understand the need to do many of these things, even most of them.  On the other hand, they are extraordinarily onerous and not at all customer-friendly.  In some cases (voter ID laws) they are blatantly and intentionally disenfranchising of certain segments of society.  That’s a problem.

Update (4/13/2013) – Title and Registration

I don’t know what the credit union thought would be so difficult about getting the title and registration transferred.  Within a couple days of me sending a form to them asking them to send the title to Pennsylvania, I had a new title issued in Pennsylvania, plus my registration and license plate.  It was probably the easiest thing to do yet.

Time To Start Paying People To Go To College

I’m becoming convinced that the increasing economic disparity in the United States is at least partially due to the radical transformation we are seeing in the availability of extremely efficient and disruptively cheap and powerful machines. Machine intelligence in the form of open-source rules engines can be downloaded and used to create expert systems that can be loaded with facts and programmed with rules to power extremely fast decision making that used to be the exclusive purview of domain expert “knowledge workers.” The effects of Moore’s Law are evident in the increasing pace of this change. Not more than 10 years ago, the solution seemed to be retraining of unskilled labor to do skilled jobs. Five years ago, we started to hear grumblings that the US was not producing enough “STEM” jobs (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math – funny because US colleges and universities do educate in Science, Engineering and Math, but Engineering and Technology (especially IT) are where the jobs are at, and IT tends to be overlooked in academic circles.) Even STEM jobs, though, are starting to seem to be in danger. Economies of scale that make cloud services like Amazon EC2 and Microsoft Azure attractive for business also drive on-premises IT workers out of their jobs. These jobs are not replaced by an equal number at the cloud providers, precisely because of the scale and degree of automation of their operations.

This past week, two things happened that are tied directly to this trend: The bizeratti at the World Economic Forum in Davos are apparently convinced that higher education is in the midst of radical disruptive change due to things like Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and Paul Krugman said the increasing economic disparity in the US is due to our jobs being replaced by machines. Many of the jobs that US universities have been creating over the past 20 years have been feeders into the academic system via graduate school. The prospects for this huge number of Ph.Ds to find tenure-track jobs and retain them in the brutally competitive academic job market are not favorable. And now we are starting to see students default on their student loans because they can’t find jobs, leading to the possibility of another taxpayer-funded bailout of loans.  Those students who do get Ph.Ds face the prospect of their potential job pool being severely undercut by the scalability of MOOCs.  Why go to a local community college when you can learn about creating software as a service, in video form, from Cal Berkeley?  A core concern here: if we start creating superstar professors who teach MOOCs, and people stop attending local, “regular” colleges and universities, how will today’s graduate students get the experience they need to be tomorrow’s superstars?  If we say they must dedicate their careers to cutting-edge research instead, how will fields that are more pedagogically focused survive?  How will these future research nerds ever learn the practical skills of teaching, so they can communicate their ideas to students?

What do the rise of MOOCs, rising and defaulting student debt, lack of good jobs for highly  educated people, increasing economic disparity, and an economic system increasingly powered by arbitrage and technological tricks like high-frequency trading and hidden risk tranche-based pyramid schemes point to?

We need something real to invest in, that thing should be human fulfillment through education and the arts, and we are losing the means to pay for it because there are no jobs to support it.  I think we are transitioning to a system where the very wealthy (businesses and individuals) need to be extremely heavily taxed, world wide (so there is no place they can hide their wealth – this implies a world government to enforce it.  Let’s get over the “new world order” paranoia right now – that ship has sailed.) in order to pay the newly “job”-less class to become educated and fulfilled in other ways.  To prevent massive social disruption, this pay should likely be focused to create “artificially” high-paying jobs that will do good, things like working in organic local agriculture, renewable energy, infrastructure repair and K-20 education.  The US education system needs to be transformed to again be highly publicly-funded, and we should probably start paying people to go to school instead of charging them huge tuitions and forcing them to accrue debt they have little hope of repaying.  We should begin a project to massively publicly fund the arts, basic science research, infrastructure rebuilding and renewable energy creation.

Let’s think of ways to fix things, and let’s stop undercutting these ideas before they can work by labeling them with outdated, ignorant, reactionary 20th century wolf-whistle terms like “socialism.”  Did I just describe a totalitarian communist world government in overly-rosy terms?  My hope is that equally disruptive technologies like social networking, anonymity networks like Tor, and alternative currencies like BitCoin can put some reins on the power of government and big companies.

Update: It appears that Robert Reich is thinking about some related topics today.

Update 2: I guess there has to be some kind of system of competitiveness or incentive in order to drive people to excellence and prevent the kind of stagnation that eventually destroyed the USSR.  How that fits into this proposed new system is not clear to me.  I suspect it’s do-able, especially if we do not eliminate the free market, but instead tax it at a reasonable rate.  The media and culture would also need to be gradually changed to make intellectualism a highly valued trait.  Superprofessor MOOC instructors with huge followings might go a long way toward that goal.  Can you imagine a world in which Larry Lessig is more famous than LeBron James?  That seems like a good thing to me.

Thinking About Time

I sometimes ask myself how it came about that I was the one to develop the theory of Relativity. The reason, I think, is that a normal adult stops to think about problems of space and time. These are things which he has thought about as a child. But my intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time only when I had already grown up.

-Albert Einstein

My friend Jonathan recently sent me a blog post from sci fi writer/mathematician Rudy Rucker’s blog of his memories of Kurt Gödel, compiled from several talks they shared in the 70s.  I think it’s interesting that Rucker published this piece within only a week of me publishing my thoughts about my interactions with RL “Bob” Morgan.  This isn’t by way of comparison of Gödel and RL “Bob” (although “Bob” did win the California state math championship in high school.)  Nor is it intended to compare my writing with Rucker’s.  It’s just an interesting coincidence.  If you read Rucker’s writing about Gödel, you may even come to the conclusion that it’s an inevitable outcome given the givens.

One thing that struck me about Rucker’s piece is his description of Gödel’s thinking about time- specifically, the idea that time is just one factor in spacetime, and that our perception of time is an artificial perception of an epiphenomenon of higher-dimensional reality.  When you combine this with Gödel’s unique way of thinking about thinking, putting himself in a position to think about very complex problems without the constraints of ordinary reality (cf: his idea that the human mind is capable of understanding the set of all real numbers even though Cantor’s Continuum Problem states that we aren’t capable of knowing the answer) I think you can begin to use the idea to think about time in some really interesting ways.

A black swatch watch on a wrist with pink time markings

One aspect of time that is quite odd is déjà vu – the feeling that something that is happening to you or a place you are visiting for the first time has happened to you before, or that you’ve been there before, even though this doesn’t seem possible.  I can remember having regular, powerful feelings of déjà vu as a child.  In one instance, we travelled to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada.  There were several places there which I was sure I had visited before – they induced very powerful, almost exhilarating feelings of recognition in me.  Many people who I’ve talked to about these types of feelings report that they had much more frequent feelings of déjà vu as children.  I have not had any of these feelings since I was roughly eight years old.

I think that the Einstein quote at the top of this piece says something about the way we think as children that can be applied to Gödel’s thoughts about our artificial perception of “time.”  Perhaps, when we experience déjà vu as children, we are somehow accessing the  “unflattened” hyperdimensional reality of spacetime.  What is it that makes us lose this ability as adults?  Does everyone lose this ability?  When you start to explore some of the aboriginal cultures of the world, it seems that not all cultures lose this ability.  What is it about western civilization that causes us to fall out of touch with spacetime?

Bobs I Have Not Known

Copyright (c) 2012 by Nicholas Roy, all rights reserved.  No use or duplication of this material without written consent of the author.

There are two Bobs who have shaped my life, and I have not really known either of them.

I was born in the center of the Adirondack Park in northern New York.  It is, as far as I can tell, the largest state park in the United States.  It has mountains, but not like the Rockies.  These mountains have been smoothed away by the last bakers’  dozen million years of geologic time, so that they are now soft and round and green.  They are not threatening or majestic.  They are human-scale mountains.  They welcome you home when you first see them peeking through the treeline on the way over from Tupper Lake on route 3.

Adirondack high peaksI was born in these mountains on February 4th, 1978, one of the coldest recorded days in New York state history- three years after my grandfather, George Robert “Bob” Roy died of stomach cancer in a hospital in the city.  When my family talks about it, they say he donated his body to science, a euphemism for “he was dissected by medical students.”  What’s tangibly left of him is a stone at the old family camp site on First Pond on the Saranac River, hidden a bit back from the shoreline.  It reads:

FOR BOB ROY
WHO LOVED THIS SPOT
FROM HIS FRIENDS

Memorial stone: FOR BOB ROY, WHO LOVED THIS SPOT, FROM HIS FRIENDS

If you were to stumble upon this stone (say you decided that this particular spot on the river looked particularly appealing to tie up your boat and have a swim – a reasonable thing to do,) and you went back in the woods to discreetly relieve yourself.  You might stub your toe on something and clear away the pine needles accumulated over the last decade (since the last time my family went to see the stone.)  You might wonder, “who is this “Bob”?  You would then feel a bit of the mystery I have felt my entire life.  Who is this “Bob”?

November, 2008

I am in New Orleans, Louisiana, and it’s three years after Hurricane Katrina really put the hurt on this town.  I’m here because of an Internet2 conference.  “What the hell is ‘Internet 2′?”  You ask, “I thought we were doing okay with Internet 1.”

Well, yes and no.  The Internet, as it exists today, is a piece of 40 year old technology built from a beautiful concoction of luck, human trust, extreme skill and forethought.  It mostly works today, when the inherent trust that one network researcher had for all the others on the network at the time of its creation, has been swept aside by the billions of people on the net, because the bad guys need it to work in order to do their jobs.  Internet2 is an organization funded by the big US research universities (mostly) in order to do advanced Internet research – to make the existing Internet gradually better.  A friend of mine who’s a CIO in higher ed characterizes this work as “replacing the engines on a 747, one by one, in flight over the Pacific.”  It seems an accurate metaphor.

So I’m in New Orleans, and I’m doing my career thing, which is that I work on the part of the Internet, at my day job at a big research university.  I do “identity” stuff, which is pretty much “who are you on the Internet, and how do you prove it?”  This is a new career path for me – I’ve always been interested in electronic identity, but never had a real reason to do much with it in my career until I took a job doing it six months ago.  So now I’m at the big conference, hoping to make connections and learn the trade.

I check in – the site of the conference is one of those semi-characterless megahotel conference centers in downtown NOLA (they try to make them have local flavor by naming all the conference rooms things like “Magnolia” and “Bordeaux”,) right across the street from the French Quarter.  There are a lot of dudes in Hawaiian shirts with gray beards milling around in the lobby, talking to each other in hushed but spirited tones.  They clearly know each other.  I’m guessing these are the people who know what’s happening at this conference.  They have been here before, many times.  Apparently they are all named Ken, Steve, Bob or Keith – they blur together in my head, I can’t keep the names and faces straight.

The next morning – the first day of the conference, I go to a workshop on a particularly interesting piece of identity technology.  There’s a ton of these guys in the room – I must be in the right place.  The session gets started, and it’s extremely interesting.  I start furiously taking notes on my black Macbook.  I wouldn’t even know what questions to ask, or where to begin.  There’s one of these old guys in the back of the room on a ThinkPad, and he does not talk until the very end, when someone else asks a question.  This guy – his name tag says he is RL “Bob” – gets up and speaks about three sentences that are powerfully overloaded with extremely dry wit, powerful metaphor, and seem to magically answer the 20 or so embryonic questions I had about this technology.  Who is this RL “Bob”?  I need to try to meet this guy.

I stole my grandfather’s World War II pilot logbooks from my parents’ house.  I spent hours looking at every entry in them.

20 June, 1945 – 20 hours Midway to Tinian Hop

He was on the island where they launched the Enola Gay on its mission to destroy Hiroshima.

His logbooks had the numbers of the units he was assigned to in them – things like VPB-11.  I did Google searches for days, trying to find out who else was in VPB-11 – who might know him.  It looked like that unit has been disbanded for a long time, and they had stopped having reunions 10 years ago.  Who might know him or know about him?

My dad had good and bad stories about him, but they were mostly shaded with his apparently ill temper.

My dad, as a child, had lost a stuffed bunny rabbit out the car window.  My grandfather had refused to stop the car to pick it up – he would teach my dad a lesson about carelessness and consequences.

He got so mad at a chainsaw one day, cutting wood, that he did something stupid and terribly inured himself, while caught up in his anger.

But his family and friends had cared – deeply – about him, had put this stone in the mountains he loved.  His spirit was there, they knew it and wanted him to be at peace.

2010

Who is this “Bob”?

That’s what his personal web site opens with.  It is a collection of links to a whole series of different “Bobs” with interesting, short questions asked about their true identities.  One of the links is to his blog.  I click on it.  In the last two years I have learned an enormous amount from “Bob” and his fellow Kens, Keiths and Steves.  I am not part of the group – not yet experienced.  I am a sophomore in the true sense of the word.  I don’t know what I don’t know, but at least I don’t know it.  I have no shame.  That’s how you learn.

They are all guides in the wilderness of electronic identity.  Maybe they can tell I’m one of their kind, or at least I really care about it.  They get my boss to somehow agree to allow me to host conference calls and give feedback on policy documents that they’re working on for the community.  I love this – I am learning more than I ever thought I could.  I’m drinking from the fire hose.

“Bob”‘s blog turns out to be about his ongoing struggle with cancer.  I learn that he was recovering from his first round of treatment the first time I saw him in NOLA.  His blog is also laced with his amazing skill at metaphor and his dry sense of humor, with common threads of baking bread, watching soccer matches on TV, his wife and daughters and their dutch Kooikerhunde dog.  This is a guy with a life.  I try to reconcile this with his seemingly endless output of nearly prescient ideas in identity stuff and the fact that he seems to know, be friends with and constantly talk to everyone in the business, and constantly attend conferences in the US and abroad.  What is his secret?  How does he not burn out?  I go home at the end of the day, nearly every day, satisfied but mentally drained and physically exhausted (how?  I do IT stuff – this shouldn’t happen.)  I’m exhausted and I don’t have cancer.  How does he do it?  I want to be like him, some day.  If I can be a tenth of that, I’ll be amazed.

We got in a fight over Thanksgiving dinner – my grandmother was at my parents’ house and could not stop talking about how similar my dad was in voice and action to my grandfather.

I had heard almost nothing from this part of the family about him, over the years, except bad things.  He got angry very easily.  He slapped people, got into fights, got out the belt.

This was not my dad.  My dad is one of the kindest, gentlest people you could know.  He is a giant teddy bear.

This slandering of my father made me angry – terribly angry in a way I could not control.  I’m not terribly dumb, so I figured out that this rage must have skipped a generation, and now it was boiling up in me.  Who was really the just target of this comparison with my unknown grandfather?  Probably it was me.  This made me even angrier.  I pointed at my grandmother across the turkey – “You never say anything nice about him!  Well he’s not here to defend himself, so let’s just shut up about him!  Screw this, I’m out of here!”  I ran out the front door into the park across the street.  I sat down at a picnic table in the cold November air, the vomitous orange glow of a sodium vapor light despoiling the terrific darkness around me.

After five or so minutes, my mom sat down next to me.

“I never saw that side of him, you know.  He was always kind to me.”

“Thanks – I think I’m too much like him.”

“You’re not like him in the way you think.”

2011

I friend “Bob” on Facebook – it’s the kind of thing a teenage girl would do – friend a bunch of people she only kind of knows.

At the fall conference that year, “Bob” does an amazing talk for a packed room on the subject of social identity – the relevance of identity from places like Facebook and Google.  That morning, after several months of not accepting my friend request, he accepts it.  In the talk, he looks at me and says something like,

“Some of the people on Facebook we know, and some we only just met.”  He looks directly at me as he says this last part. I grin back, stupidly.

I’m getting married – I have become calmer, I might be starting to see the tip of the iceberg of the things I don’t know about life, poking through the surface of existence.  The parts of me that I rightly or wrongly attribute to my grandfather, I suppress.  Somehow I know that attributing them to him isn’t fair.  He’s a ghost and he can’t defend himself.  I got my pilot’s license some years back.  The FAA pilot examiner who tests me flew P38 Lightnings in the war – he signs my temporary airman’s certificate with a barely legible, shaky hand.

I’m getting married in three months, and “Bob”‘s cancer is back.  His blog says:

Just to clear this up, for all you computer people.

Last time was “re-install OS and restore from backup”.

This time is “install a different OS”.

Next time is “migrate to the cloud”.

Got it?

His wit has not been dulled by the cancer.

She helps me, my wife-to-be.  I know I love her because the parts of me that I don’t like, now I don’t blame them on my grandfather and try fight them.  I don’t have to fight them – I really try not to do those things around her because I love her and they are ugly.  Sometimes I fail and she’s scared by the anger, I know.  I feel terrible when that happens, but I’m getting better all the time.

“Bob” is honored and celebrated by his friends and family at the spring Internet2 conference in 2012 – a month or so before my wedding.  I suspect I won’t see “Bob” again, it’s a terrible thought but it feels that way.  Family is important, I know that and he does too.  I decide not to attend the meeting to help prepare for the wedding.

Our wedding day comes and I think of nothing else but my wife and my family.  At the last minute, I look at “Bob”‘s blog – he’s been admitted to the hospital after a particularly evil round of treatment.  He says: “I’m still alive.”  It doesn’t sound fun.  I worry about him but the worry is short lived.  We have a great wedding and a fun party with friends and family.

There are no more blog entries from “Bob”

A few weeks after our wedding, I find out that he’s died through one of the many identity groups he started.  They start a web page where you can leave memories of him.  I fumble for words to say what I think he meant to me, but they end up clumsy and kind of embarrassing.  Many others knew him so much better.  I wish I had known him, too.

My cousin is getting married, and my wife and I get in the car and head out to the Adirondack mountains to visit family and attend the wedding.  We will rent a boat and I will show her the stone that marks my grandfather’s existence.  As we drive over the bridge on the Saranac River, not more than a few thousand feet from his stone, I roll down the windows.  Balsam fir floods the car with its sweet tingle.  I pilot the car over the winding road, this scent filling my nose.  My heartbeat slows.  I let my foot off the gas a bit.  We’re in no hurry here.

A Shift

The world still looked the same, but it was different
He walked from the gym, back to where he parked his car
There were still cars here, and people, dirt and beauty
He could smell the bar-b-que cooking down the street

It was the same old world, but the underpinnings of it had been replaced in the night
Everyone was talking to themselves – no, they were talking to thin air
But the thin air was everyone else

The old rules faded into the background, burning away like ground fog at 6 o’clock on a sunny spring morning

The guts of the plane had been changed while the plane was in flight
The re-tooling of the world system had taken place before anything could have been done

At every point on the curve, it looks like the curve is going straight up from here
But things still seem pretty normal

Self Interest Doesn’t Scale

I’ve been thinking about the commonalities of a lot of patterns I’m seeing in the world lately:

  1. The “Arab Spring” and its coordination via social media
  2. The “Great Firewall of China”, China’s (failing) attempt to keep things like Twitter at bay
  3. Iran wants to create its own Internet (a contradiction in terms) to prevent stuff like Stuxnet and (more importantly) social media-based revolts from happening there
  4. Artificial borders and internecine conflicts everywhere are becoming permeable on all levels: from nation-state policy to transnational corporate hegemony all the way down to city council meetings and managerial turf wars.
  5. How long can places like the NSA keep employees from bringing cell phones into the work place?  How about when the “cell phones” are built in to our heads and we can’t really function without them?  Are we heading toward a world where there’s going to be a policy filter at the door of the NSA that shuts off or limits the capabilities of neural prostheses?
  6. The kids don’t care about privacy or policy – they use whatever works to communicate and share, the tools are getting better every day, and the tools and the kids don’t care about any of the above limits.  They definitely don’t care about your BYOD policy.

Let me say that I’m not an anarchist. I’m not even a libertarian. You could call me a social liberal and economic conservative, with some libertarian tendencies thrown in on stuff that’s about personal freedom, not infrastructure and the commons.

So what’s the unifying factor among all the items in my list?

I think it’s self interest and control. More accurately, it’s that the structures, frameworks and artifices of control, working on behalf of selfish individuals (everyone is selfish), are starting to crumble under the weight of the network effect inherent in social media. We are becoming less about the individual and more about the set of all humans.  This is just one more step in the long history of technology overcoming evolutionary forces.

Everyone sees and deplores the recent killings in Syria, and the governments of the world have no choice but to condemn them. The George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case probably never would have gone to trial if it weren’t for social media-reinforced pressure.

So what happens? Of course it looks like the control structures and the individuals they serve are pushing back. I think they are going to fail as humanity becomes increasingly interconnected.  Let’s face it: if evolution can’t win, how is power going to?

What does the singularity look like? Maybe it’s a bunch of angry kids flashmobbing a tyranny they can’t take any more. What’s the path of least resistance? Tear down the walls faster.