What’s the solution to income inequality?

In December, Lisa and I visited the palace of Versailles, the residence of French royalty from Louis XIV to Louis XVI, or 1682 – 1789. It was awesome – and terrifying. The opulence on display was truly breathtaking. Marie Antoinette, it turns out, had an entire village built in the garden out back so she could cosplay as a commoner. (No, I’m not joking.)

But the entire site exists as a monument to hubris.

You see, at the same time we started listening to Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Written 80 years after the French Revolution, Dickens’s descriptions of the grinding poverty found elsewhere in France while the palace was occupied by Marie Antoinette are striking. They paint a picture of income inequality that should terrify anyone who might be considered an economic elite.

The French Revolution illustrates conditions that can be considered an upward boundary on income inequality. Once inequality hits this boundary, social contracts fail and the laws that govern society unravel (or dissolve entirely).

Effort to reduce income inequality (or at least mask it) aren’t only for the poor – they also serve to protect economic elites from the fate of Louis XVI. The rich kids of Instagram have the opposite effect.

So if income inequality has some sort of practical upper boundary, what about conditions below that threshold? Is there a solution to income inequality?

I think of income inequality as a description or measurement, a bit like temperature. Is it ever the wrong temperature? No, because temperature is descriptive; it doesn’t have a moral dimension. But can it be too hot or cold for survival? Absolutely.

The question in the title comes from a friend, who asked me about it on Facebook. I’m going to reframe it thus: “What sort of economic policies should we pursue?” I have a few reasons for this. First, a measurement or description can’t be ‘solved’, in the same way that you’d never try to solve a temperature reading. Second, the real world needs solutions that are directional instead of idealistic. We should be informed by ideals, but policy should be able to take the real world and move it in the direction of those ideals.

The wisest economic policy prescription I’ve read come from the book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. This book describes societies from colonial America to the Soviet Union to North and South Korea. It spends a lot of time talking about societal elites who create extractive, oppressive political systems that create the sorts of injustices that led to the French Revolution.

The antidote to this is to focus economic policies on inclusivity. When everyone is able to participate in an economy (start a business, own property, buy things and sell them at a profit), you have the conditions for a more just society. When some are excluded from full economic participation (for example, not being able to own property because of gender or tribal affiliation), injustice follows. Embedded in this is the idea that economic participation requires political participation. People who can’t vote will find themselves excluded from full economic participation pretty quickly.

This is both achievable and realistic. It avoids the pitfalls of forced income redistribution, which leads to a stifling of innovation and an overall lower standard of living. It also avoids the pitfalls of an elite-driven system of monopolistic capitalism, which keeps people trapped and unable to be economically mobile.

This, then, is the basis for any economic policy I consider: does this policy move us toward or away from economic inclusivity?

Help me out, dear readers. Add to this conversation. What books have you read that helped your thinking in this area? What am I missing?

Church in the age of COVID-19

This morning we tuned into online church and it was a fascinating experience. It was different from the way we normally participate and I wonder how many of these differences will persist into a post-COVID world.

Church choice

When we decided to attend online church, we had our choice of different churches. Without the strictures of geography, we could attend any church in the world. We actually attended parts of two church services. I wonder if churches will begin competing for viewers/attenders/congregants? With geography irrelevant, what will be the main attractors? Will churches take some of the money that they’ve spent on buildings over the years and pour it into online delivery innovations? How many church attenders will continue attending online instead of going back into the old offline modality?

Format

The activities within a western church service haven’t changed much in my lifetime. There is a time of singing, some announcements, a greeting time, and a sermon or message. None of this format is prescribed by scripture, though there are loose precedents in the book of Acts for singing, praying together, and preaching. When the delivery is different, how will these elements shift or change? Using Facebook live, we were able to leave comments that everyone can see. In the future, will offline church attenders expect a tech conference-style backchannel discussion? How will pastors change their sermons when everyone else has a real-time feedback channel?

Participation

While we participated in church we built Legos, journaled, and ate lunch. Far from distracting from what was happening in the church service, this allowed us to take care of needs (especially for the little ones) that would have otherwise distracted us while we were sitting in the pews of a physical church. I found this to be overall a much more family-friendly experience. I wonder: where and how will we attend church when this COVID-19 pandemic is over?

The Rise of AI: a 3-Way Reaction

We just finished watching the show Hello World on YouTube, hosted by journalist Ashlee Vance. This episode was entitled The Rise of AI, and was about the emergence of the artificial intelligence industry in Canada.

Below I’ll post some of my thoughts, along with written pieces by Liam and Clara, who watched the episode with me.

Clara’s Reaction

I just finished watching “The Rise Of AI” on Youtube. There were a couple of people who talked to the main person (Ashlee Vance, see below) about Artificial Intelligence (AI for short). It was very interesting. If you would like to watch it, click here. Here are the speakers (listed order of appearance).

Ashlee Vance

Ashlee Vance was born in 1977. He is currently 42. We follow him around Canada as he talks to the people listed below.

Jeffrey Hinton

Geoffrey Hinton has held onto the idea of neural networks for 40 years. In other words, making a computer think like a human. People call him the godfather of Artificial Intelligence. Geoffrey Hinton can’t sit down, otherwise, his disk comes out.

Suzanne Gildert

Suzanne Gildert started the company Kindred. At Kindred, they use trial and error to train their robots. She talked about her robots. My favorite was the cat robot. Hers is also the cat robot. In the video, there were robot pilots. You’ll have to watch the video to get the whole story.

Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau is the current Prime Minister of Canada. He is mentioned three times in the video. He is married to Sophie Grégoire Trudeau who is currently 44. He was born December 25, 1971. He is currently 47 years old.

Richard Sutton

Richard Sutton was born in the US, but Canadian politics brought him over to Canada. He wanted to get away from difficult times in the US. He says in the video that he didn’t like that the United States was invading other countries and that he didn’t care for all that.
My favorite bot was Blueberry. He’s so cute! Watch the video to find out more. I think that AI could be good and bad. Ashlee Vance records some responses to his mom talking, and then he calls her. He used his responses to talk to her, then picks up the phone and actually talked to his mom. He asked her if that was scary. She said it would have been if it had been an emergency. Click HERE to go to that part in the video. Overall, I think this was a good video.

Liam’s Reaction

I just watched a YouTube video called The Rise of AI. It was an hour long documentary about the history of AI, what people are doing with it now, and where it might go. There are many different ways that AI could evolve. Humans could co-exist with AI, or AI could take over the world.

I had trouble finding evidence for AI co-existing with us, because as they become as smart and then smarter than us, they might start to think of themselves as the dominant sentient beings, with a kind of Divine Right of Kings sort of belief. They might start to think that since they are smarter than us, it is their job to take care of us, or maybe they will see the damage we have done to the environment and decide that the planet as a whole would be better off without humans. There was a company mentioned in said video that is called Lyrebird. Lyrebird creates realistic artificial voices. In other words, they can clone your voice. Imagine if someone cloned the president’s voice and then made him say something that threatened the security of the country. Kindred AI is working on AI that can sort stuff such as clothing. It is a real possibility that robots could take over the world.

I know that I have been very negative about AI so far, but there is really no way that we can know what AI will do. Instead of eradicating us because of the way we treat the environment, they might help us fix it. Instead of affixing their dominance over us, they might decide to live with us. There is really no way to know which path AI will choose. That is why I am hoping for the best.

Andrew’s Reactions

AI is an endlessly fascinating topic. There are so many angles from which to approach it: the ethics of AI, a map of the realities of AI, the probable futures of AI, the people behind AI, the implications for future economies and governmental systems, what it means to be human in the age of AI, and more.

I’ve been reading about AI recently. I read Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Kai-Fu Lee’s AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order, and Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. Of the three, Lee does the best job of explaining how AI actually works. Tegmark lays out the most compelling explanations of possible AI futures.

Ashlee Vance (and the rest of the team behind Hello World) chose to focus on the unique contributions of Canada to artificial intelligence. He interviewed pioneering researchers in AI, did a decent job of explaining how the technology works, talked with a few startups commercializing AI, and talked briefly with AI skeptics about some of the possible future dangers.

The portrayal of Geoffrey Hinton was especially touching. Hinton is a computer science researcher at the University of Toronto who, along with academic collaborators, was the first to use a deep neural network approach to AI. He believed in the concept from the late 1980s until 2006, when data processing and data availability were able to prove his ideas valid. His triumph is a testament to both sheer stubborn will and the willingness of universities to employ academics for long periods of time without any evident fruit. It’s a perfect test case of the need to fund basic research.

Amara’s Law states that we overestimate the short-term impact of technology while underestimating the long-term impact of technology. I know the first part of this ‘law’ is true with AI: while startups like Lyrebird are a bit creepy, they don’t represent a Terminator-esque nightmare scenario. But I’m not sure if we’re underestimating the long-term impact of AI. When you read this in the future, you’ll have to leave a comment to let me know!

Called To Leadership

Note: This is an address I gave at the Master’s Hooding Ceremony at Fresno Pacific University on May 3, 2019.

Masters – congratulations! My name is Andrew Shinn, and I’m a member of the faculty of the School of Business. I’ve had the great privilege of working with the MBA cohort being hooded this evening.

The accomplishment we’re honoring tonight doesn’t belong to you alone. Graduates: your families have been there to support you through all the hard work, the late nights of class, the weekends of homework, the trips away. They’ve watched or helped as you’ve complained about a professor or struggled with a project. Graduate, please stand up, look back at your family or the people who are here supporting you, and give them a hand. Tonight belongs to them, as well.

There’s another sense in which the accomplishment we’re honoring tonight doesn’t belong to you alone. As people who have earned Master’s degrees, you’ve now been called to leadership. In Leonard Sweet’s Book, Summoned to Lead, Sweet writes that leaders aren’t born and they’re not made; they’re called into existence by circumstance. Those who answer that call are leaders. The path that you conclude tonight is part of the circumstance that calls you. The response that you get to choose is to now walk into and embody that role.

In your professional lives, people will increasingly look to you as the master in the room. You’re now the one who will assume responsibility. Some of you have already had professional responsibility for people’s lives, for budgets, and for the future. Your task in assuming these responsibilities is to walk the fine tightrope between confidence and humility. You’ll need to balance careful decision-making without waiting for perfect information. You’ll need to show a bias for action while still listening deeply and fully to the people around you. You’ll need to live with your mistakes without letting them make you gun-shy. You’ll need to act like Nehemiah from the Biblical book of Nehemiah. He was summoned by circumstance and answered. He went from working in food service to construction management and then military leadership. He was able to balance both the spiritual and administrative aspects of leadership at the same time. He was what Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, would call a Level 5 leader: the kind of leader who empowers those around him or her. The kind of leader that Jesus was talking about when he said that those who would lead need to become the servants of all. You haven’t been called as leaders for your own benefit, but for the people around you. For the organizations and lives that you’re called to impact.

As leaders, you also need a deep foundation. You’ll need a well to draw from. The best leaders bring both proactiveness and depth to their work. This is a pointer toward the source of that depth:

Leadership assumes hope; it acts on the assumption that the world can be a better place, and that we have a role to play in making it that way. The ultimate hope for this world is in Jesus Christ. At the end of all things, the ultimate hope is in the redemption that Jesus bought with his death on the cross and showed with his resurrection from the grave. As a leader, this is the highest hope, and the deepest well from which you can draw. There’s a God of the Universe who wants to know and walk with you personally. I know we come from a lot of backgrounds, but if you want to start walking with Jesus in a personal way, please talk with one of your professors or a friend who can guide you. Good leaders also need to carefully choose people who can lead them.

Graduates, this is your call: there’s a world out there waiting for you to engage: ideas to create and act on, people to teach, new structures to make, new paths to find. Bring your education and keep learning, bring your passion and keep renewing it. Draw from deep, still waters and create a vision of the world that abides in hope. And then get to work making that world happen. Thank you!

Some of the graduates I had the privilege of both teaching and addressing

Commentary on Acts 1: Old Characters, New Roles

Note: I wrote this in preparation for teaching about the book of Acts in my Sunday School class. I’m not a Bible scholar, but this is my best take at explaining the text. I’ve written a commentary on Acts 2, and that follows in a later post.

Photo by Luke Palmer on Unsplash

Old characters, new roles

Commentary by Andrew Shinn

1 – 3 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.

Previously, in Luke

Luke is setting the scene here. He’s very efficiently summing up what has happened before and bringing the reader (the now-familiar Theophilus, or “Lover of God”) up to date. He references the people who will be the main characters of the book (the Apostles Jesus had chosen), and drives home the point that Jesus’ friends believed him to be alive. He also gives a timeline, 40 days. The number 40 is often used in Hebrew culture symbolically to mean A Long Time. As in, “Gary, I haven’t seen you in 40 days!” Luke makes clear that the kingdom of God was their main topic of conversation. Watch for that – the 120 disciples (including the 12 apostles) will be primed to think about this matter of the Kingdom of God.


4 – 8 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with (or in) water, but in a few days you will be baptized with (or in) the Holy Spirit.” Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jesus outlines Acts

Luke relates the most important teaching that Jesus gave after his resurrection. He’s beginning the hand-off from the leadership of Jesus to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. In doing so, he references all three members of the Godhead. Note that the doctrine of the Trinity is never explicitly taught in the Bible. We infer it from passages like this, and from the co-appearing of the Triune Three at the baptism of Jesus. (Luke 3:21-22) In this way, the co-appearing kicks off both the earthly ministry of Jesus and the earthly ministry of the Holy Spirit.

The disciples are asking about the restoration of the Kingdom. Remember, this had been the chief topic of conversation, in Luke’s re-telling (though John makes it clear that Jesus did and talked about so many things that any re-telling is a necessary distillation). Jesus steers the conversation to marching orders for the apostles, and Luke puts the outline for the rest of the book in Jesus’s mouth.


9 – 11 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

Jesus Ascends

Again we see Luke’s economy of words. In two sentences, he gives an entire Christ-ian eschatology (from the Greek meaning “last” and “study of”). This scene is almost humorous in its pithiness. These men, presumably angels or other heavenly messengers, break the apostles’ sacred reverie with a kick in the pants toward Jerusalem and a message about the Second Coming of Christ. This is almost the exact same scenario that played out after Jesus’ death in Luke 24:4-7.


12 – 14 Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk (That is, about 5/8 mile or about 1 kilometer from the city.) When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

Roll call

For now, the apostles are being tracked minute by minute. The church is being born, and Luke passes us all the details. This includes exactly who was in the room. The eleven apostles were explicitly named. Peter and Andrew were brothers, fishermen from Bethsaida. Philip grew up with them, and was probably also a fisherman. James and John were brothers, also fisherman from Bethsaida. The younger James (son of Alphaeus) and Judas were probably Jesus’s biological brothers. Note that there were two Jameses, two Simons (Simon Peter and Simon the Zealot), and two Judases (one who betrayed Jesus and one who was his brother). Luke doesn’t name the women, but he refers to Jesus’s mother and, presumably, an unspecified number of Jesus’s other brothers.

Interestingly, Luke finishes the book of Luke with Jesus referring to this group as disciples, and starts the book of Acts referring to them as apostles. This is just one of the many shifts we’ll see at the beginning of Acts.


15 – 26 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers and sisters (or believers), the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. He was one of our number and shared in our ministry.” (With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) “For,” said Peter, “it is written in the Book of Psalms (Psalm 69:25): “ ‘May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,’ and (Psalm 109:8), “ ‘May another take his place of leadership.’ Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.

A new apostle

Peter takes on a new role here. He goes from enthusiastic (if bumbling) to being a serious leader and Biblical scholar. Luke records someone, probably Peter, lopping off a guy’s ear when Jesus was arrested, and claiming that he’ll go to prison and die for Jesus (Luke 22). Later in the same chapter, Peter denies Jesus. What explains the change from denier to leader/scholar? In Luke 24:45, we’re told that Jesus opened the minds of his disciples so they could understand the scriptures.

The believers here are numbered at 120 total. This means that there are about 10 times as many in the community as there were in the inner circle of disciples (who became apostles).

There’s a rather gross section wherein Judas (the betrayer) buys a field. Scholars think that this matter of bursting intestines was because Judas hung himself and everyone left the body alone. In this scenario, his body burst open when it fell down after rotting enough to slip out of the rope.

Peter explicitly mentions the Holy Spirit, indicating that he had some understanding of the Holy Spirit’s role in the church and in history. Peter references two scriptures from the Psalms and seems to cherry-pick two phrases out of their original context. This is the same way that Jesus often quoted scripture.

He says that another person is needed to bear witness to Jesus’s resurrection. This makes clear what Peter and friends understand the role of apostles to be: bearing witness to the resurrection. The Greek word for witness here is martyroi, from which we also get the word for martyr. They pick two men who were apparently around for the entirety of Jesus’s ministry, from his baptism until his death. Then they pray about it and draw straws (or roll dice, or the equivalent).

These apostles will be significant. In Revelation 21:14, John writes that the names of the 12 apostles will be written on the very foundations of the new city of Jerusalem. In Ephesians 2:19-22, Paul says that we as Christians are members of the house of God, which is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.

Interestingly, we’ll add a 13th (or, if you count Judas, a 14th) apostle in the figure of Saul/Paul. He calls himself an Apostle in Romans 1, though he’s the only apostle who didn’t know Jesus before his death. But that’s later in the story of Acts.

Life Skills Upgrade: Learning a Language

I’m not sure how it came about, but I’ve decided to learn Russian. This process has evolved how I thinking about language learning, and it’s been eye-opening for me. I thought I’d share some of the tools I’m using to learn. Maybe it will give one of you, my dear readers, the courage to explore something new!

First, I should address my reasons for wanting to learn Russian. They are fourfold:

  1. I’m fascinated by Russian culture. Dostoyevsky is one of my favorite authors from among The Classics, and his descriptions of life in Russia and the Russian worldview fascinate me.
  2. It seems that, with rising tensions and talk of a second cold war, the United State’s relationship to the world’s largest country has never been more important.
  3. I wanted the intellectual challenge of learning a completely new language. Yes, I have Spanish, but improving that wouldn’t be the same kind of challenge.
  4. Plus, Russian sounds cool.

Here are some of the resources I’ve used so far, and my experiences with them:

Pimsleur Language Course

If you follow the blog (or know me at all), you know I’m a big fan of Audible.com. They were having a buy one/get one sale on language courses, so I downloaded the first 10 lessons of their Russian language course. Right now, I’m on the sixth course. I recommend this course and method for anyone learning a language. It’s intuitive, exclusively verbal, and seems to approach the material in a learner-friendly way. The lessons are about a half hour long each, and I’ve found that they work best when you have time to listen to the entire lesson in one shot, practicing and speaking while you listen. I have found that I need to listen to each lesson about two times before I feel comfortable moving on to the next one.

Fluent in 3 Months

While on vacation in Petaluma with Lisa, I picked up a book called Fluent in 3 Months: How Anyone at Any Age Can Learn to Speak Any Language from Anywhere in the World. This book is not about Russian in particular, but about learning languages in general. Though it’s not scholarly writing, it has challenged a lot of my thinking (and my excuses) about learning languages. It’s given me the impression that this goal IS attainable. Most of all, it’s validated that I’m not crazy for trying this adventure. The book also has a web site and online community, which I haven’t had the chance to explore yet.

italki.com

The most interesting resource I’ve used so far is iTalki. iTalki is a web site (which has become more of a social network) dedicated to language learning. Each person creates a profile listing the languages they speak (and at which levels), along with the languages they want to learn. From there, you can choose language partners who speak your target language and want to learn your language. So far, I have nine friends on the site. One of them wants to teach me Vietnamese and one would like to speak with me in Arabic. Two have asked to talk to me in Spanish, and the rest are interested in learning English from me, while I learn Russian from them. So far, I’ve had two conversations on Skype with a girl in Russia named Elena. She is a patient teacher, even though talking via Skype can be frustrating sometimes. Elena is also ambitious: during our second conversation, she taught me the entire Cyrillic alphabet. Interestingly, not all of my potential teachers live in Russia. One guy I’m planning to speak with runs his Russian business from Thailand.

Google Translate

This service is much improved from its early days. It features automatic language recognition and fairly well-spoken versions of any word for which you need translation. I’m a little wary of relying on it, but it hasn’t steered me wrong yet.

Text to Speech at Oddcast

This fun little tool allows you to watch (a fake little person) speak any words you have in mind. You can also change the speed at which s/he speaks. This can be useful for slowing complicated words down.

Russian for Everyone

This page is specific to the Russian language, but it’s been a really good resource for helping me as I learn each of the letters in the Cyrillic alphabet. Each letter has an audible pronunciation guide, a sample showing how to write it in handwriting, an example of the letter in context, and other helpful goodies.

Culture and Context

Once I started learning the Russian language and meeting a few Russian people, I became curious about Russian history and culture. Once again, I turned to Audible, where I found a fascinating series of 36 lectures about Russian history. I’m only starting these, but I quickly realized how little I know about Russian history.

I think those are most of the tools I’m using so far. Which ones seem the most useful to you? Do you have any to add? If you could learn any language, what would it be?

Business Plans

I was recently asked about Business Plans.  Below is my response.

Business plans can come in any format. I actually delivered one as a rap one time! The important part is that it succinctly communicates the entrepreneur’s vision, and has some realistic numbers.

Sales projections (with a plan to hit them), economics of a unit, and a monthly break-even analysis are the calculations that are especially important to me when I look at a plan. None of that is rocket science, and some of it can feel more like creative writing at times!

Even though people use business plans to apply for funding, the process of writing a business plan forces every entrepreneur to answer a lot of questions, and the process of answering these questions is probably a lot more valuable than any funding that might be received.

I’ve used Business Plan Pro software before, and it was effective for me. Of course, the quality of plans made with software is highly variable – you only get out of them what you put into them. Here’s a link: paloalto.com/business_plan_software.

The Small Business Administration has some good links to help with writing a business plan: http://www.sba.gov/category/navigation-structure/starting-managing-business/starting-business/how-write-business-plan.

And SCORE, the Service Corps of Retired Executives, has some business plan templates that you can download and use for free: http://www.score.org/resources/business-plan-template-startup-business.

I’m not big on business planning these days. In the Army, they say that no plan survives contact with the enemy. This is often true in business, too. I’d rather have my students ship one unit, and figure out how a customer uses it. That’s when they learn their real value proposition, because we ultimately are making products and services for customers. But the process of planning has some validity, and checking for realistic numbers is the most valuable part of the process.

Things I’ve Noticed 1: Art

I’ve decided to start a new series here on the blog.  I will share things I’ve noticed.  I see little things here and there, and wonder about them.  I thought about starting a different blog to house these thoughts, but how many blogs does one guy really need?!  Here’s he first in the series:

I was in San Francisco a few months ago, and I noticed some things about art.  I was in a beautiful high-end art gallery near Ghirardelli Square.  The salesperson took quite a bit of time with me and walked me through several art pieces.  Reproductions of the art in question were selling for $60,000 and $70,000.  This was an enjoyable experience.

After visiting the gallery, I stopped to watch a street artist one block down from these same galleries.  She was dirty, a bit rude, and looked destitute.  She asked if she could draw a picture of me for a dollar.  I declined, but ended up giving her a dollar after she chided me for taking a picture of her.

It took me a few minutes of reflection to notice that she was engaging in the same creative process as the artists whose work was on sale 300 feet away: making art for sale.

This made me wonder about the value of art.  It it only display that makes a piece of art valuable?  Is it availability?  I realized as I handed her the crisp dollar bill that I was paying with a piece of art: a portrait of George Washington, that’s available to anyone willing to provide a dollar of value in exchange.  I briefly considered the possibility that the George Washington portrait pointed to availability driving value, but I realized that the street artist in front of me was willing to provide me with an original for a very small amount of money.

I realized instead that the value of art comes from context.  The salesperson in the gallery was willing to learn about my taste and sell me on the story of the pieces of art I was considering.  The person on the street was not cognizant of the source of her art’s value.  If she was, she would be able to charge me for the application of her talent.

What will tomorrow’s web be like?

I see four trends converging, and I want to make a prediction about how they’ll collide to provide a type of experience that we’ll have on the web of tomorrow.  Those four trends are:

  1. Immersive
  2. Mobile
  3. Video
  4. Immediacy

Immersive

Many developers are striving to provide a more immersive experience.  Whether it’s better

use of space within web sites and web apps, fullscreen options on everything from video players to desktop applications, it seems everyone is looking to add a fullscreen button to their users’ experience.  Users have become intuitively conditioned to look for indicators of this immersive-style experience.  How to do I know?  W

hen I’m using a computer, tablet or mobile device with my children, they constantly scan for the fullscreen button, and ask (beg) me to use it.  I can hear their little voices chanting, “Fullscreen, fullscreen!” in a half-cute, half-annoying chorus of kid-tech-love.

As a matter of fact, I’m composing this blog post in WordPress’s Fullscreen, distraction-free writing experience.

Mobile

We’ve been hearing for years that someday more people will be accessing the web via mobile phones.  Well, someday has arrived.  According to a Pew Internet and American Life Project study from two years ago, 28% of Americans access the web primarily from their mobile phones.  And 68% of American smartphone users access the web via their smartphones every day.  And this is in the US, where broadband mobile penetration is growing slower than in Africa and Asia.

Video

Cisco estimated in 2011 that the sum of all video content will make up 86% of internet traffic by the year 2016.  When I visit a web site to learn about something, my first instinct now it to look for a 2-minute intro or example video.  Video is increasingly a big deal.

Immediacy

When I talk about immediacy, what I’m really referring to is the low latency of internet-delivered content.  That means that people are figuring out how to deliver content is ways that don’t make you wait around, watching the content load.  Our attention spans are being conditioned to this kind of experience. Designers and developers will continue to push forward our expectations for a low-latency experience.

Where it’s all leading

So when you smash these trends together, what do you get?  The potential for some very interesting stuff.  I think we’re going to see immersive content that blends video with vector-based artwork that we’ll experience on mobile devices (tablets, phablets, Google glass, etc.).  Essentially, we’ll be able to watch little pieces of non-square video in cartoon-like worlds that load quickly on mobile devices in immersive viewing formats.

How will this happen?  That’s the interesting part.  I think it’ll be achieved using HTML5 (or its successor language).  Right now, HTML5 has canvas tags for displaying video content without using a browser plugin.  I predict that these tags will take on more and more attributes, and we’ll start to see blends of little pieces of video, along with vector-style artwork.  Vector is low-latency, and video is rich in experience.

This will happen in much the same way that javascript went from a language for adding simple interactivity to web sites (like a simple submit button) to a full-blown webapp-programming framework (that render products like Gmail).  I don’t think anyone expected the complexity, or the code libraries and other support tools, that we’ve seen emerge from javascript, which started as a more basic programming tool.

In the same way, HTML5 (and its offspring) will bring us some very interesting experiences in the future.  Ever wanted to live in a cartoon?  You may get that chance in the future.

Paul Buxman and the role of disappointment

I spent some time with Paul Buxman today.  He’s a friend of mine, and also a really talented artist.  We check in at least once a year, when he brings in the year’s crop of paintings for me to photograph and archive.

Paul’s paintings tell stories on more than one level.  Visually, each painting tells a story about a slowly fading agrarian way of life in California’s beautiful central valley.  But taken collectively, they tell a story about the artist.

When I see Paul’s entire collection from a year, I see changes.

Paul used more red paint this year.  When I asked him about it, he told me that this year he discovered red, and brought it out from the back of his paint-box.  I also noticed more purity in the colors he chose, and he confirmed that he spent less time mixing colors this year.  I also noticed some different kinds of composition creeping into his work, and more diversity in the nature of his subjects.  His paintings this year feel a touch more realistic, and also a little more wild; a little less controlled.  All these facets of his art make me wonder about Paul’s life, and the events that shaped the artist this year.  So I asked.

Paul told me that this has been the best year of his life.  When I asked why, he started listing off events and feelings that seem to me like anything but the ideal year.  But in looking back, he’s been able to see God’s hand in his life and in his family this year.  The struggles he has been through this year have brought his life into sharper relief.  They’ve brought out the reds.

I’m challenged.  I’m challenged to accept the hard things in life as a gift from God; as his tool for molding me into the shape He wants for me.  I’m challenged to try putting myself into places that seem less safe.  I’m challenged to work harder, as if I’m working on things that benefit someone else instead of me.  I’m challenged to let God show me where to find the red paint.