Downbound Project

A lot of people have reached out to me today asking my opinion on the news that Las Vegas’s Downtown Project is laying off 30% of its workforce, and that Tony Hsieh seems to be actively distancing himself from it. They want to know what I think because, for a few years, I was maybe the most vocal critic of what Hsieh was doing with downtown Vegas.

My immediate feeling is: it sucks to be right. My heart goes out to those folks who’ve been laid off and now have to figure out how they’re gonna survive. I know that fear intimately, and wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemies. I wish them very good luck.

Beyond that? Well, I am Jack’s total lack of surprise. I warned people this was coming, for a long time, and very few people paid attention. I was very angry about what was happening downtown, but not because I thought the DTP was going to collapse. I mean, I did, and it seems I wasn’t wrong, but my primary concern was with the collateral damage to both the existing Las Vegas cultural community and to the marginalized population of downtown. Unfortunately, despite all of my rage, things proceeded as planned: the poor people and existing small businesses were pushed out and replaced by whatever the hell Hsieh and his circle wanted to put in, like the Container Park, which is neither a park nor made of shipping containers.

So what can be learned from all of this? There are some pretty clear lessons here.

1. Hire people who know what they’re doing, not just people you like hanging out with. It’s not much of a secret that Hsieh brought people into the DTP because he felt they were a “culture fit”. Unfortunately, the culture in question was very much a frat bro party culture, which means that a lot of the people who got discretionary power over projects were, to put it mildly, not qualified for the jobs they found themselves in. And a lot of people who were competent who came in on projects were either marginalized out as not being “good culture fits” or left in disgust because their ability to do their jobs was limited by the useless idiots that they found themselves answering to.

That culture pervaded and continues to pervade a lot of the entire Vegas tech culture: startups that seem more like excuses for a bunch of bros to go and play witless giant board games at the Gold Spike and talk about marketing strategies for their awful ideas, rather than actually producing products that people would want. There are a lot of hard-working people in Vegas tech, to be sure, and some very bright ones…but very few of them were the ones actually making decisions, and their hard work and good ideas are stymied by the dipshits who are put in charge.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it here: if you want your business to be successful, hire people who are good at their jobs and let them do their jobs. You may not want to be besties with them and do shots with them every night, but who gives a shit? As long as they do what they’re supposed to do and are capable of working within your team, that’s what you should be focusing on.

2. Cities are not startups. Nor are they fucking Burning Man camps…but that’s exactly what Downtown Vegas, as envisioned by the DTP, seemed to resemble. What the decision-makers seemed not to understand is that, rhetoric aside, Burning Man is not a city. It’s not permanent. It couldn’t be. There’s a reason that Hakim Bey — one of the people who influenced the whole initial culture of Burning Man — called such places “temporary autonomous zones“. For all the talk of anarchy, Burning Man is a deliberate and very controlled environment, primarily made up of people who buy into the culture around it.

real city like Las Vegas is far more chaotic, and filled with people who have absolutely no intention of getting with the program. And in a real city, you can’t just throw those people out for not being cool, man, no matter how many Downtown Rangers you hire to move the street bums and the crazies along. You can’t just make those people vanish. In a city run by responsible people, there would be places for the people who were pushed aside by the DTP to go — but Vegas is not a city run by responsible people, and a lot of those folks just ended up on the streets.

If you want to create sustainable private urban development, you need to understand the community you’re operating in, and Hsieh never did, nor showed any real interest in learning. He just wanted to remake the city in his own image, and seemed surprised when the city didn’t respond with the total slavish enthusiasm he anticipated.

3. Coordination, realism, follow-through. Hsieh’s people were constantly telling me that nobody was really in charge of everything, as if this was a good thing. But nobody seemed to know what anybody else was doing. It was disorganized and uncoordinated, and God knows how they handled the budgets for everything. (Today’s news suggests: not very well.) And a lot of the initial visions were utterly unrealistic, or simply required a lot more money than anyone involved anticipated. Not because realistic budgets were hard to project, but because Hsieh didn’t hire people who were capable of it. As a result of this, a lot of the announced projects just never materialized, or materialized in some half-assed form.

The Container Park is an excellent example of this: while I am a big fan and longtime advocate of reusing things like shipping containers in architecture, the fact is that Vegas is smack dab in the middle of the hottest desert in the Western Hemisphere; building a shopping mall out of steel boxes (and then, inexplicably, decking it out with shiny metal outdoor furniture and metal children’s playground equipment) is therefore kind of a stupid idea. They would’ve done far better to build an Adobe Park. But the essential unworkability of that idea didn’t seem to matter: they built it the way they wanted to — or kinda sorta, since they didn’t actually use real shipping containers for the majority of the space — and then managed to run it in such a haphazard way that something like a third of the occupants moved out within the first six months. One of the original tenants told me that, due to the tinted storefronts, nobody could tell if her space was open; when she propped the door open to let people see that she was, they turned off her air conditioning.

4. I do not think this word “community” means what you think it means. The Downtown Project was hammered so many times from so many quarters for their use of the word “community” — by myself maybe loudest of all — that they finally removed it from all of their statements. And rightly so. Tony Hsieh  and his circle don’t know the first fucking thing about what communities actually are, and what they need. It’s not about building a bunch of douchey bars and hipster eateries for you and your bros to hang out in. It’s not about turning a profit. It’s about providing safe spaces and opportunities for everyone around you — not just the people you personally like. Community is not about velvet ropes, it’s about throwing the doors open and helping people to help themselves and thrive. You don’t tell people how to build their community — you ask them. And you pay attention, instead of co-opting people’s ideas or ignoring people who are just as invested in the community as you are, or more so.

And that’s exactly what the DTP did, time and time again. They alienated Vegas’s existing cultural community and then pled, over and over: “We’re learning as we go along. We’re making mistakes.” So how many times do you need to make the same mistake before you learn from it, dummy? That is, of course, if you actually recognize that you’ve made a mistake, instead of assuming that you actually know best and other people can go along with your plan or get the fuck out. Which is, from what I can tell, what DTP’s actual modus operandi was. Turns out that’s not really the best way to do things, doesn’t it?

The sad part about all of this is the very real collateral damage that’s been inflicted on the lives of all those folks who’re suddenly facing an uncertain future. But Tony Hsieh has proven, time and time again, that he doesn’t give one single fuck about the collateral damage inflicted by his half-assed “vision”, unless it directly affects his PR. But there’s not enough spin in the world to make these layoffs go away. By all accounts, things have been spiraling out of control at DTP for a long time, but they’ve finally gone too far for anybody to finesse away or hide.

But the worst part is that none of this had to happen this way. Plenty of very smart people were telling Hsieh and everyone else involved in the DTP that they needed to change their tactics and strategies for a very long time. But they simply chose to assume that, because they’d run a successful shoe company, that they knew better than everybody else. So they ignored and condescended to a lot of people — like me — and fired the people whom they’d hired who didn’t reinforce the idea that they were brilliant visionaries who were destined for success.

So fuck ‘em. I left Vegas because this shit was way too depressing to be involved in anymore. Not my circus; not my monkeys. Except that a lot of my friends are still monkeys in that particular circus, and I’m worried about how the aftershocks of this will affect them, even the ones who didn’t drink Hsieh’s Kool-Aid.

Starting a tech community is a daunting task: after six months in Yakima with plans to try and do exactly that, I’m pretty discouraged myself. But I’m discouraged because there’s no money for me to do it; when I think of what I could do here with a hundredth of the resources Hsieh had at his disposal, it makes me want to weep.

I certainly wouldn’t botch things up the way he and his people have. I learned my lessons watching all of this unfold. And maybe the next swinging dick billionaire who decides to remake Las Vegas in their own image will too.

Listen

Righteous Kill

Like most Americans, I’ve been thinking a lot about guns these past few months, since Aurora and Sandy Hook. And like most Americans, I’ve come to a series of conclusions and convictions about the gun control debate; a position I find morally and ethically solid.

And I’ll tell you about it. But first I want to tell you about my own personal culture of violence. Maybe just to get it off my chest, but maybe also to explain why I feel the way I do.

———-

The first time anybody pointed a gun at me, I was fourteen or fifteen, I guess. I lived with my mom and my stepdad in a trailer park a few miles outside of Hamilton, Montana. We were poor, then: poor enough we didn’t have a telephone, poor enough that our primary source of heat was a pot-bellied wood stove that sat on a porcelain riser in the middle of our trailer’s living room, for which I split endless cords of wood in the side yard with a hand-held hatchet. It was grueling, tiring work, and I avoided it when I could.

Mom and Dad were out that night, though I can’t remember where or why. What I do remember is the sharp, rattling banging on the door of our trailer — a door made of thin, crenellated sheet metal with cardboard inside.

I peeked through the narrow window of the door and saw, outside, a group of boys. I knew them all, knew they hated me in the way that small-town bullying assholes hate anybody weird or different. A couple of them hated my mother and I, because of a dispute with their mother.

There were, I think, four of them. Maybe five. And two of them held guns. I didn’t know anything about guns, but these were semi-automatic handguns, not revolvers. They were grinning at me like feral dogs.

One of them held his pistol up. “Come out, faggot,” he said. “Come out, bitch.” The others took up the chant — come out, motherfucker, come out, faggot — as they waited, patiently, for me to open the door.

I remember the fear so clearly: that hideous rising sensation in your upper chest and your throat, like somebody blew up a helium balloon inside you that’s trying to take off. I had no idea what to do. My parents were gone, we didn’t have a phone. I couldn’t call the cops, and even if I could, they were miles away, in town. Screaming wouldn’t help — in that trailer park, screams weren’t especially unusual. I was at a loss.

To this day, I still don’t know why I walked across the tiny living room of the trailer and picked up the wood-chopping hatchet. I took it back to the window, showed it to the boys through that thin strip of safety glass…and slammed it, as hard as I could, into the door, as if I was going to hack through it and go after them. I think I was screaming, at the top of my lungs. I remember baring my teeth at them, through the door, and if anybody was feral that night it might have been me.

“Alright,” I said. “Here I come.”

They looked confused, uneasy. Then they began to back away. They jumped in their car and drove away. I was left still standing behind the door, which now bore a bright shiny wound in its ugly brown facade. That’s how I know they use cardboard to fill out trailer doors, you see.

I caught hell when my parents came home. I couldn’t seem to make them understand my fear. All they knew was that I’d trashed the house. I don’t know if they believed my story or not.

Nor do I know, even now, if the guns those boys had were “real” guns or pellet guns…or if they actually would’ve shot or killed me. Maybe they just wanted to scare me. Maybe they would’ve stood around me in a circle and beaten me, as they did before and after that night, or just pistol-whipped me. I don’t know. But I do know that was the night I learned a secret that kept me alive and free of permanent physical (if not emotional or psychological) damage throughout my turbulent, violent adolescence.

If you can’t talk or fight your way out of a situation, go crazy. It’ll usually scare ‘em so bad they run away.

———-

Based on their rhetoric, I suspect that most gun advocates have the same fantasy running through their heads when they start talking about why they need a gun for home defense. It’s the one where they awake in the middle of the night from a deep slumber at a gentle, unexplained noise from downstairs — a door whispering open, perhaps, or a window sliding up.

They reach into their bedside drawer and pull out their Glock or Colt or whatever their weapon of choice is. They slide out of bed, Honey Bunny still blissfully unaware and sleeping by their side, and through the bedroom door and silently down the stairs, like Jason Bourne, until they reach the ground floor. They peer cautiously around the corner. There’s the perp, his hands deep into the wife’s jewelry case.

Hands up, they cry, or I’ll shoot!

And here’s where I think the public version and the private version of that fantasy — the version they’ll admit to, and the real one inside their head — diverge. In the public version, the perp puts his hands up, and Honey Bunny calls the cops while our suburban Jason Bourne keeps his piece carefully aimed at the center of the perp’s mass, and the day is saved by a careful and conscientious gun owner. And, of course, the Second Amendment, God bless it and keep it.

But I believe that, for many of these people, the private fantasy ends differently. It ends with the perp whirling, his own (illegally-obtained) gun in his hand, ready to kill. He’s fast…but our Constitution defender is faster, and before you can say “cold dead hands”, the perp’s brain is spattered all over the Thomas Kinkaide painting Honey Bunny got for Christmas two years ago. Another evildoer sent to Hell. No great loss.

I think that’s the real fantasy…because I’ve had it myself, a time or two. I’m pretty sure it’s damn common, this blood-spattered Walter Mitty alpha male daydream of the righteous kill. It’s kissing cousins with those other popular current reveries: If I’d Been In That Theater, I Woulda Put That Sonofabitch Down and, of course, If Those Teachers Had Had Guns, No Children Woulda Died In Connecticut That Day.

These phantasmagories are, perhaps, the real American Dream.

And dreams are all they are, of course. If you want a nightmare instead, you might try imagining a Colorado theater full of confused, angry people, bombarded by the sound and light show of a Batman movie cranked to full sensory disrupt hanging over them like an Old Testament spectacle, not to mention the screams and panicky jittering of all those folks around them, pulling their trusty handguns and attempting to make the righteous kill, to hit that one “perp”…who, of course, is only one of many people with guns in their hands. In the flashing, strobing darkness.

Christ, they’d still be hosing the ticketholders off the walls.

And that’s still not as bad as the nightmares that plague the sleep of those unfortunate, stupid souls who head downstairs in the small hours of the morning, ready to heroically defend their castle against the junkie or rapist who’s intruded into the sanctity of their home…only to find themselves staring at the son or daughter who decided that was the night to sneak out to go smoke cigarettes and drink cheap beer with their friends, lying on the linoleum, making a noise like a hooked fish as their lungs fill up with blood, thanks to the .357 round that’s suddenly turned their chest cavity into an object lesson in fluid dynamics and entropy. In those nightmares, our Jason Bourne is kneeling next to their dying child, shouting Baby? Oh my God baby I’m so sorry somebody call 911!as their offspring bleeds out and becomes nothing more than a carefully-dusted photograph on the mantelpiece.

Over and over again. Forever.

———-

I know about fear. I know about the terror of the sound in the night, the monster in human form showing up at your door with a weapon of personal destruction. I’m almost thirty-five years old and I still automatically look for the nearest exit in any room I enter. I still walk down the street with a mental model in my head of every pedestrian who is nearby, where the dark corners are that an attacker might spring from. When I hear a car engine suddenly rev up nearby, I automatically tense up, just in case it’s the same sonsofbitches who roared past me in their big fruity Chevy pickup that soft spring night when I was sixteen and pegged me in the back of the head with an unopened can of Rolling Rock, knocking me semi-unconscious into a ditch, where I lay until I came to my senses.

And I understand rage. I understand righteous indignation, wanting to bring the holy fire down on the heads of the cruel and the evil and the stupid. I understand the unspoken hope that some stupid bastard is dumb enough to actually break into your house…because then, as Rorschach says in Watchmen, you’re not trapped in there with them; now, they’re trapped in there with you. I understand wanting a reason to hurt the ones you’re afraid of.

———-

One day, this kid Nick tells me he and his friends are going to beat the shit out of me before school the next morning. I don’t mean the kind of ass-beating you see in movies about how high school sucks: I’m talking about an American History X-style stomping, the kind where somebody can end up in the hospital, or dead. (The kind that a similar set of ignorant trash gave my acquaintance Matthew Shepherd a couple of years after he got out of high school, in fact.) I had no reason to doubt him. He wasn’t the first to make such a threat, or carry it out. I had my nose broken for the first time a few months before those boys showed up at my door; a few months later, another similar set of boys kicked me until they broke a rib.

So I went home that night, and I looked through my library, this being before Internet access was especially common, until I found a book that gave a description of how to make napalm out of Ivory soap and gasoline. I decided this was my only answer. My parents didn’t seem to much give a shit, and most of the authority figures in my life seemed to despise me as much as the other kids did. So I was going to light this motherfucker Nick up like the goddamn Tet Offensive.

Thank God I didn’t have access to a double boiler, or gasoline, for that matter. Instead, I mixed a bunch of isopropyl alcohol into liquid dish soap, poured it into a Tupperware container, and shoved it in my backpack. I couldn’t find a lid for the Tupperware, so I wrapped it in Saran Wrap.

The next morning, I got to school a half-hour early with my package of death, and decided to pour a little of it on the sidewalk and test it — kind of a trial run. And of course, it did nothing at all — the alcohol had either evaporated out of the container, or my mixture was wrong. Not that it would’ve done much in either case anyway.

My one moment of Columbine-style mayhem was over before it began. Instead, when Nick showed up, he called me a faggot and punched me hard in the face once, and I fell over and cried like a sissy, and everybody laughed, and he went on his way, his adolescent ego maintained and my own kicked down another flight of stairs.

It terrifies me, in retrospect, to think what would’ve happened if I hadn’t been such a retard — if I’d melted Nick’s face off his skull. He was a brutish, vicious little asshole, but he didn’t deserve that. Nothing righteous about that little bit of wetwork.

But it doesn’t terrify me nearly as much as the thought of what would’ve happened if my dad had owned a gun.

Two of my friends, those first couple of years of high school, got their hands on a gun. Both of them used those guns on themselves, though from all accounts they might’ve done better to start with other members of their households. But they didn’t. Both of them went out into the Montana wilderness and put those guns in their mouths, and ended everything they might ever have been. The second one, my friend Sarah, went into the woods in November; they didn’t find her until the snow began to thaw in February, and by then there wasn’t enough left to fill a bucket. Her casket was closed at the funeral.

And I might’ve joined them, in my misery and terror, if there hadn’t always been a little titanium core of self-preservation at the center of my wobbling teenage self. Or I might’ve showed up in my high school one day with the intention of, as Stephen King once put it, “getting it on”.

When Columbine happened I was twenty-one years old, still young enough that those wounds were still bleeding…and my first thought, when I heard what Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold did, was empathy; not with the murdered, but the murderers. I knew — or thought I knew — how it came to that, how the hurt and the hate builds up. I remember that high school feels like a life stretch in a big house where the guards don’t pay attention and the other prisoners all want to fuck you up until you go crazy. I got it.

I was wrong, of course. Klebold and Harris weren’t purveyors of the righteous kill, either, any more than I would’ve been with my little Fauxlatov cocktail. They were victims, but as the main character in my favorite high school movie said: aren’t we all? They were just animals, as dumb and mean as the animals who wounded them. Animals, the way James Holmes is and Adam Lanza was an animal.

But unlike real animals, they had their guns. Lots and lots of guns.

———-

America does have a culture of violence, make no mistake about it. But that culture is not embodied in violent video games and movies and comic books, or any of the other culprits that gun advocates like to trot out whenever some waterhead goes over the high side and starts mass murdering people.

The violence in America is embedded at the very heart of our culture, in those core values that nationalistic jerkoffs love to trot out at every opportunity: our rugged individualism, our can-do spirit, our supposed toughness. (I say “supposed” because it’s hard to regard people as tough when they’re so terrified of every shadow that they feel the need to carry military-grade munitions to protect themselves. That, speaking for myself, is the definition of craven and chickenshit. But I digress.) America’s motto might as well be Fuck You, I Got Mine. America isn’t about intellectual freedom, it’s about property rights and the ability to defend the same from anyone who encroaches upon them. What’s mine is mine, and if you try to take it, I’ll kill you: that‘s the American way.

That’s where our love of guns comes from. Guns are a marvelous tool for defending our property from those who might like to take or damage it. It’s hard to imagine that conservative Second Amendment advocates really give much of a shit about totalitarian encroachment upon freedom; after all, they’re the ones who cheer the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, who have nothing to say as our lawmakers sidestep not only the letter but the spirit of the Constitution and allow indefinite detainment without trial and assassination of American citizens. Their fear is not about the erosion of basic human freedom; they don’t care about free speech, due process. They care about anything that threatens their right to own the things they own and to keep them, without question. That’s why those self-same defenders of the Constitution mostly stood by idly while George W. Bush used 9/11 as an excuse to wipe his ass with that sainted document…but squawk like ugly, hysterical hens when Barack Obama tries to figure out ways to ensure that all Americans have access to basic healthcare. Because that’s taking money out of their pockets, and putting it into the pockets of all those freeloading immigrants, yadda yadda yadda. And money trumps freedom, every time.

The problem is not that Americans have guns. The problem is that Americans, by and large, cannot be trusted with guns: not to carry, and maybe not to own.

There’s another fantasy that the NRA and their groupies like to trot out: the Law-Abiding Gun Owner. These people are the last line of defense against the Bad Guys, in this line of thinking — a different breed, one feels. But that’s bullshit. James Holmes was a law-abiding gun owner right up until he walked into that theater in Colorado. Adam Lanza’s mom was a law-abiding gun owner, but that didn’t stop her psychotic son from taking her guns, killing her with them, and then playing Call Of Duty in the local elementary school. Everyone’s a Law-Abiding Gun Owner, right until they become a Bad Guy. And it’s nearly impossible to tell who’s going to take off their white hat and put on the black one, or when. In the wake of Aurora and Sandy Hook, a lot of people called for better mental health access in America; and while that’s fine, and I agree with them, the reality is that people like Holmes and Lanza don’t go looking for help very often, because as far as they’re concerned, they don’t need help. They’re the heroes in their own stories; it’s everyone else that’s insane and malign. It’s everyone else who needs to be dealt with.

But those are crazy people, goes the response. Evil people. Not good people. Maybe, but you know what? Difficult as it might be to institute a moratorium on the public and private sale of assault weapons, it’s still a helluva lot easier to implement than a moratorium on crazy, or evil, or just being a stupid thoughtless tiny-dicked jerk-off who carries a piece because it makes you feel like more of a man.

You can’t ban crazy. But you can make it harder for crazy to go crazy in such a very wholesale way.

Also, let’s clear something up right now: the Constitution of the United States does not confer upon you, the American citizen, the right to own a semi-automatic weapon. It says this, and only this:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

 If you define “arm” as a synonym for “weapon” with no qualification, well, homie, sorry to disappoint you, but that particular right was infringed upon a long goddamn time ago. If you don’t believe me, walk down Main Street of your town with a broadsword strapped to your back. Unlike a pistol, you can’t get a permit to carry a sword, concealed or otherwise. (This despite a fairly conspicuous lack of mass decapitations, or innocent children getting killed accidentally during a slash-by.) Your right to keep and bear that particular sort of arm was infringed upon, in most American jurisdictions, in the nineteenth century.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s nuclear bombs. A nuclear bomb is an “arm”, by anyone’s definition, and frankly, if your concern is a sinister (i.e. liberal) government instituting a totalitarian overthrow of the country, I’m pretty sure a nuke is a better deterrent against the unholy might of the United States military than your trusty Colt .45. But even the most rabid NRA activist wouldn’t argue that you ought to be able to own a nuke, or mount an antitank missile launcher on the roof of your pickup truck. Hell, very few people would say that it’s reasonable for you to be able to carry a grenade launcher or a Vulcan minigun…and yet these are, by definition, “arms”.

So we all agree there are some weapons that nobody needs to have. Why not put assault weapons in that category? They’re useless for home defense, unless you’re getting home invaded by the fucking Predator. Ditto game hunting, unless you just really want to skip the whole pesky step of turning your elk meat into jerky. It’s really fun to go and shoot them at a range, but so what? It’s fun to go fishing with dynamite, too. The fun factor is outweighed by the risk to society at large.

And I’m going to say this right now: if you can’t adequately defend your home with a shotgun or a low-capacity handgun, if you seriously believe need an AK-47 with a 30-round clip, you’re a stupid, dangerous asshole, period, and I’ll be happy to tell you that to your face. I hope you don’t have kids, partially because they’ll be in your line of fire, and partially because I simply hope you’re not in the breeding pool. Let’s leave the continuation of our species to people worthy of that task, okay?

Me? I keep a machete leaning against the wall next to my bed, as my absolute last line of home defense. My first line, mind you, is the set of bars on my windows and doors, which are far more effective than any gun could ever be. My second line of defense is that ‘Emergency Call’ button on my cell phone.

As much as I enjoy my own little preemptory revenge fantasies where I’m Liam Neeson in Taken, with that much-vaunted “particular set of skills”, the reality is that I don’t actually want to kill anybody, not even some idiot who’s desperate enough to try and break into my house to take what I have.

———-

I’ll tell you one more story, before I’m done.

Back in Hamilton, back in the day, there used to be a little rec center, in a big cavernous building that used to be a supermarket. I have no idea if it’s still there or not; I’ve never returned to that place since I left, and I’m grateful for that fact. But when I was in high school it was there, and we used to go down there and dance to the grunge music that was popular in those dim dead days, and stand outside smoking and drinking filched booze mixed heavily with soda and trying to look cool.

One night, in some fit of melodramatic teenage angst, I wandered away from the rec center and out past the lights of the parking lot, into the empty field next door. There was probably a girl, or the lack of one, involved. You know how it is.

I was too busy brooding to pay attention, until I heard the rustling of feet in the grass. I looked up and saw them: another group of boys (and one big hulking slab of a girl, not coincidentally the sister of one of the boys who’d shown up at my door that night with guns). They’d seen me drifting away; they followed me.

The leader was this kid named Sam, as I remember. He wasn’t big, but he was mean and stupid, in that sort of snarling juvenile delinquent kind of way. At the end of that school year, when he was seventeen or eighteen, he dropped out to go drive big rigs with his old man, full-time, and I never saw him again. But he was there that night, grinning at me. I don’t remember exactly why he hated me. Did I smart off to him? Make him feel stupid, as payback for him making me feel terrified?

Does it even matter?

They surrounded me. There was the usual talk. Hey, faggot. You think you’re funny now, faggot, you fuckin queer cocksucking fucking bitch? For a man who’s never touched another man’s penis in my life, I’ve gotten gay-bashed more times than I’d care to count. I don’t know if they actually thought I was gay, but again: does it even matter?

Then they started spitting. All of them. Big, gooey loogies, on my face, my neck, the back of my head, my clothes. Laughing as they did. All of them but Sam. He just stood there, two feet away from me, grinning his sick grin.

Whatcha gonna do, faggot? You wanna go? Come on, faggot.

And I had a moment of absolute clarity. Everything went cold and clear. This was years before The Matrix, but my world went into bullet time.

I saw that I could reach up, grab Sam by either side of his head, and break his neck. I could do it before he could react, before any of them could react. I knew I had the physical strength to do it: I had already nearly reached my full height of six foot three then, and I could pick up a washing machine from a dead lift and put it on the back of a pickup truck. I was bullied not because I was weak, but because I was slow, and couldn’t really fight very well.

But I didn’t need to fight Sam. I could just put my hands out and kill him, in an instant.

I could feel my hands twitching, eager to end all of this in that one instant.

You probably think I was wrong, or that I was fantasizing. But I’ve thought about this a lot over the last twenty years, and I remain as convinced now as I was that night that I was absolutely correct in my assessment of the situation. At that moment, though I was the one surrounded by jeering enemies, their phlegm dripping off my nose, I owned Sam’s life. It was mine to end, if I wanted.

My hands went up…and then down again. I didn’t kill Sam. I just stood there, trembling with fury and fear and misery, my tears mingling with the spit on my face. I don’t remember how it ended. I think maybe one of my friends happened to see what was happening and came up, shouting at them to leave me alone. Maybe Sam belted me one, or knocked me down, or just called me a faggot again and walked away. I have no memory of that.

Just Sam’s face. Just his grin in the dark of that field, and the knowledge that I had the power of life and death in my crude boy’s hands.

———-

“It’s a helluva thing, killin’ a man,” says Clint Eastwood in the sublime Western film Unforgiven. “Take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.” I don’t think most Americans really understand that. We don’t understand that there’s no such thing as a righteous kill, not really: just murder, and you’re on one side of it or the other. We love our guns because we don’t really understand what they do. They don’t solve the problem. They just make new ones.

Did Nick, he of the napalm science experiment, deserve to die? Did Sam? Of course not. They were vicious boys, and I still cannot bring myself to forgive them or wish them well, though I am satisfied with the knowledge that both of them probably ended up with precisely the sort of lives they deserved. But they didn’t deserve death.

Nor did I deserve to kill them. Even if I’d been justified in doing it, even if I’d somehow managed to avoid prison or long-term confinement in a mental hospital, I still would have had to live with the ache and knowledge of what I’d done for the rest of my life. The fear and the horror they and all the others like them inflicted upon me, for all the years I was forcibly detained in the Guantanamo Bay we laughingly refer to as the American educational system, is nothing compared to that.

At the heart of America’s rage is fear, as it was at the heart of mine. We have our guns because we’re afraid of being hurt, of losing what we have — our lives, our loved ones, the things we’ve accumulated that form the mosaic of our lives. And like all frightened things, we act savagely. Back a dog into a corner and see what he does in his fear. We do no different.

And that’s why I don’t think we can be fully trusted with guns, ever; why other countries have as many guns but less deaths, less mayhem. The worst of us are the ones who want to share their pain and rage and confusion with others, the Eric Harrises and Dylan Klebolds and Adam Lanzas and James Holmeses. But even the best of us are dangerous in their terror.

There’s an old saying: no man who actually wants to be President is suitable for the job. Likewise,  I don’t think that anybody who really wants a gun should be entrusted with one. I know this might offend my friends and acquaintances who are gun advocates, but I don’t trust anybody with a gun. Because I don’t trust that any individual has the skill and the wisdom to decide who deserves to live or die, and to carry out that decision. I certainly don’t.

Would a ban on assault weapons end murder? No. But it would make it harder. And anything that makes it harder for people to kill each other is probably a good thing, in my book. But maybe our real task is simply to help people learn not to live in fear: to be careful, but not paranoid, and not so eager to see violence done. Maybe then we can be trusted with the power of life and death.

But until then, I will keep advocating to keep that power out of all of our hands…and thankful that, upon those awful occasions when it was in mine, that I was at least smart enough not to wield it.

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A real-world example of BAP robot architecture

You’ll have to excuse me — I’ve got the flu today, and I might not be entirely coherent. But here’s a concrete example of my BAP robotic framework. This is a simple robot with two motors (one on each side) and a GPS unit.

robot layout

The first thing we notice is that each of the motors is controlled by an H-bridge, which consists of four switches that allow current to flow in either direction through the motor itself — or through a relay switch which turns on the motor, if the motor is high-voltage. (For our purposes, we’ll assume it is, as a 5V robot is small and boring).

The H-bridge controls the relay, which controls current coming from a power supply to the motor. So with our system, we can turn each motor forward or backward. We can’t control speed — the motor is either on or off — but that might be enough for our purposes.

We’re using OSC, so let’s call our robot robot1. The robot has two top-level endpoints, sensors and motors. These are arbitrarily named, and in point of fact we don’t even need them — we can assign top-level endpoints to every component in the robot. But let’s leave it like this, as it’s nice and tidy.

We see that the motors endpoint has two sub-endpoints, leftMotor and rightMotor. Our behavior system sends commands to these motors by issuing methods to the endpoint, like so:

 

  • robot1/motors/leftMotor/goForward
  • robot1/motors/leftMotor/goBackward
  • robot1/motors/leftMotor/stop

 

 

These three commands are all we can really do with these motors…but as we’ll see, they can be used to instantiate a pretty sophisticated set of behaviors.

Our autonomic layer “knows” what these commands mean and how to actually make them happen. For example, pseudocode for our goForward function might look like this:

function goForward(){
    setSwitch(0).HIGH;
    setSwitch(1).HIGH;
    setSwitch(2).LOW;
    setSwitch(3).LOW;
}
The setSwitch commands simply turn the switches on the H-bridge connected to the relay connected to leftMotor to send current in a direction that rotates the motor counterclockwise (which, since it’s on the left side, turns it “forward”). The goBackward function might turn switchs 2 and 3 to high and switches 0 and 1 to low; and the stop command might simply set all of them to low, or disconnect them. (We can get more funky by having the stop command reverse polarity for 10 milliseconds before disconnecting, which would work like an engine brake.)

Now, we’ve also got a sensor: namely the GPS unit on top of the robot. This provides two endpoints in our current scheme, lat and lng, though it could also provide a single endpoint which when queried returns a formatted string from the GPS like “-37.3457532,30.12930495″ that our behavioral layer can decipher.

We’d query it by issuing a command like this (again, this is pseudocode):

var robotLat = osc.retrieve(/robot1/sensors/gps/lat); var robotLng = osc.retrieve(/robot1/sensors/gps/lng);

Pretty straightforward, right? This way, our software can figure out where the robot is at any given time.

Now, you’re maybe asking yourself: how does our software connect to the robot? How does the GPS data get translated and piped out to our endpoints? For that matter, how are our motors connected to the power supply? Does our control circuitry hook into the same power supply?

The answer is simple: who gives a shit? Really? The whole point of this is abstraction. The hardware engineer sorts out the physical layer, the firmware geek sorts out the autonomic layer, the programmer works out the behavioral level. None of them give a shit about any of the other layers, except insofar as their bit needs to hook into the other guy’s bit.

The autonomic engineer spends months designing a really efficient cellular modem that receives commands from the Internet and turns them into hardware-specific commands. The design is brilliant. Other engineers buy him endless rounds at conventions for being a badass.

And the programmer neither knows nor cares about any of this, because all that matters is that the system responds to commands. Period.

Look, do you know anything about Javascript? Javascript lets you make web pages interactive. (Yes, it can do much more, blah blah Node.js blah blah blah. <i>Shut up.</i> Pay attention.) One of the things you can interact with using Javascript is the mouse — you can get the mouse’s X and Y position relative to the screen or even the DOM object you’re attaching the code to.

Doing this requires the browser to be able to retrieve relatively low-level data about the mouse’s current status. In return, it does this by accessing the operating system’s mouse driver, which uses a standard set of protocols to interface with the mouse’s hardware, which might be optical or mechanical or a touchpad or motion sensors in the air.

But as far as the Web developer is concerned, who gives a shit how all of that works? So long as window.mouseX and window.mouseY are accurate, the rest of the process of turning physical movements into Cartesian coordinates is pretty much irrelevant.

Same thing here. There might be a more efficient way of controlling the motor than with an H-bridge and a relay switch, but as long as the motor can take in our three commands and turn them into motion, who gives a shit?

We have everything we need now to begin building complex logic into our robot. Let’s use an example of a behavior I mentioned in a previous post: let’s make our robot come and find us.

We have a GPS, so the robot knows where it is; and we have motors. What we don’t have is a digital compass to help our robot orient itself…but we can still pull this off, with some code like so (again, this is pseudocode):

var myLat = 36.1515;
var myLng = -115.2048;

var robotLat = osc.retrieve(robot1/sensors/gps/lat); var robotLng = osc.retrieve(robot1/sensors/gps/lng);

if(robotLat != myLat && robotLng != myLng){

oldLat = robotLat;
oldLng = robotLng;

osc.transmit(/robot1/motors/leftMotor/goForward);
osc.transmit(/robot1/motors/rightMotor/goForward);
wait(10000); // this is milliseconds

robotLat = osc.retrieve(robot1/sensors/gps/lat);
robotLng = osc.retrieve(robot1/sensors/gps/lng);

if(difference(robotLat, myLng) &gt; difference(oldLng)){
    osc.transmit(/robot1/motors/leftMotor/stop);
    osc.transmit(/robot1/motors/rightMotor/stop);
    osc.transmit(/robot1/motors/leftMotor/goBackwards);
    osc.transmit(/robot1/motors/rightMotor/goBackwards);
    }

// and so on

}

What this code does is make the robot “try” different directions by moving in a direction for ten seconds and seeing if that decreases the distance between its location and my location. Once it finds a direction that does so, it goes in that direction until its coordinates match my coordinates.

What if we want to make it more complex, “smarter”? We can add in a digital compass, which returns either a value in degrees (0-360) or as a mapped range (0-1, where 1 can be mapped to 360 degrees). Then our robot knows where it is and where it’s pointed. It doesn’t need to orient itself before it starts to move.

Our behavioral software can connect to Google Maps and get a series of directions, following roads, between the robot and us. We can then direct the robot using these directions, simply by issuing commands to our two motors. It doesn’t matter that our robot doesn’t know anything about Maps, or that Maps doesn’t have robot navigation built in. Our behavioral layer handles that for us.

Is this complex? Sure it is. So it’s a good thing we’re not trying to do this with instructions hardwired into our robot. All the complexity of translating road directions into commands to turn motors for certain time periods, in certain directions, is offloaded to our behavioral layer, which can be on-board the robot or — more likely — connected over a network.

Of course, our robot still has to avoid cars as it trundles along public roads, and maybe it has to worry about recharging itself. But all we have to do is add more sensors — touch sensors, range sensors, a battery level sensor. We can download the low-level stuff directly to the robot so there’s no network latency between a command being issued and being carried out. For example, we can tell the robot “if something triggers your range sensor, move away from it until it’s not there anymore, then recalculate your travel direction”. Or “if your battery gets below 25%, here’s the GPS coordinates of a filling station where a nice person can charge you again. Go there instead of your initial location.” Once the battery level is 100%, we simply resume our initial set of commands to reduce distance between the robot and us.

Simple, right? Well, not simple, not trivial, but not so complex we can’t make it happen.

And here’s the great part: we can have our robot perform this behavior until we get bored, and then we can totally reconfigure it. We can build a ground-based version of John Robb’s DroneNet.

Imagine Buffy was at Angel’s house last night, and left her keys there. So we give our robot two GPS coordinates, and we add a lockbox with a combination to the top of it. We tell it to go from its current location to the first GPS coordinate, which is Angel’s moody pad. Angel puts Buffy’s keys in the lockbox, locks it, and hits a “Deliver” button on his iPhone. Our software receives that button press, and tells the robot to go to the second GPS coordinate — Buffy’s house — using all of these sophisticated behaviors we’ve made as reusable software objects. It makes the delivery, Buffy uses the combination her iPhone told her, unlocks the box, gets her keys, hits “Received” on her iPhone, and the robot returns to its home, waiting for its next customer.

Same robot, massively different functionality. As long as our robot’s motors and sensors and interface — its physical and autonomic layers — are in working order, we can keep coming up with cool ways to use it. We can add sensors to it as necessary. We can also reconfigure its hardware so that it moves in more optimized ways — we can make it a flying drone instead of a rolling drone, for example. But we can still use our GPS “find me” behavior, almost independent of how the robot moves from point A to point B. It will require some reconfiguration, but if we’ve made it modular enough in the first place, that might not be such a big deal to accomplish.

We can even allow third-party developers and behavioral networks to access our robot, maybe using something like oAuth. Instead of writing our own behaviors, we entrust our robot to Google’s behaviors, because their programmers are smarter than us and they also have a vast network of supercomputers to process our robot’s sensorial data and connect it to all the other robots in Google’s network. Our robot isn’t very smart on its own, but when connected to a behavioral network, it’s much smarter…and when its behavior is synced with a lot of other robots, all gathering information and doing things, it’s scary smart.

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Refining the ideas.

I’ve been thinking about my little scheme, and I’ve talked to a couple of people who know far more about electronics than I do. I’m a software person, essentially, and so I think in those terms.

Basically, one of the problems people have had with my idea is that every actuator requires different circuitry, because each one has different power requirements, etc. So one motor might need one set of resistors and capacitors to function correctly, but another one has a totally different set.

Which is fine, I totally get that. But that’s all part of the physical level of my architecture. It doesn’t matter how power gets to the motor, so long as it can be regulated by a low-voltage control circuit (i.e. my autonomic level).

According to my lazy Googling and some Twitter conversations, there are only really a very few ways for a low-voltage system to control a high-voltage actuator(s). Relay switches, transistors, MOSFETs, right? As long as my autonomic layer has interfaces for all of the usual methods, it doesn’t matter what’s on the other end of that interface.

For example: imagine I have a 50V electric motor in my system. It’s turned on by a reed switch, which is 5V, attached to my control board by a standard connector. If I swap out the 50V for a 75V, it doesn’t matter to my control circuit at all, because it’s just triggering that reed switch. So long as the reed can handle a 75V load, it’s all fine. It doesn’t matter how the 50V and the 75V each get power from their power supply — whether they’re just connected directly or have more sophisticated management subsystems — so long as they can be controlled by a binary EM switch or a system for varying power input.

Think of it like so:

bap

Each of those physical subsystems (the green and red boxes) can be as complex or as simple as you like, so long as they can be interfaced with my low-voltage autonomic board.

So the real project here — the actual tasks I need to accomplish, as opposed to all my blue-sky philosophical bullshit — is this:

  1. Create a standardized way of interfacing the behavioral and autonomic layers. My guess is that this will mean making a way of sending and receiving OSC messages between the two.
  2. Create a set of methods for abstracting those messages within the autonomic layer and turning them into actual hardware control signals.
  3. Design a standard for normalizing hardware interface and control. I don’t think this has to be physical, necessarily, but more like a generalized way of driving different sorts of actuators and reading digital/analog input.

I think the easiest way to begin this is to write the code for the Arduino, because it’s the cheapest and most widely used hardware prototyping hardware around. So my initial concrete goal:

  1. Write (or find) an OSC receiver for Arduino;
  2. Create a set of initial abstractions for components (brushed motors, stepper motors, servos, and analog and digital sensors) that can be mapped to OSC endpoints and methods;
  3. Create a machine-readable way of describing those components to the hardware, that can be uploaded to firmware depending upon configuration.

Once I can get a proof-of-concept working for Arduino, I’ll open-source it to anybody who wants to port it to any other control system.

So, not a heavy amount of work or anything. ;-)

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Behavioral, autonomic, mechanical compared to Marr’s tri-level hypothesis

As I mentioned in my last post, my model for cybernetic systems bears a lot of resemblance to David Marr’s tri-level hypothesis, which he defines as computationalalgorithmic and implementational. I’ll quote from the site linked above:

The computational level is a description of what information processing problem is being solved by the system. The algorithmic level is a description of what steps are being carried out to solve the problem. The implementational level is a description of the physical characteristics of the information processing system. There is a one-to-many mapping from the computational level to the algorithmic level,and a one-to-many mapping from the algorithmic level to the implementational level. In other words, there is one computational description of a particular information processing problem, many different algorithms for solving that problem, and many different ways in which a particular algorithm can be physically implemented.

While this is conceptually similar to my idea, Marr is working in purely conceptual space here (though his model can be applied to physical systems as well). My taxonomy is closer to the way an animal works: a cognitive system, a mechanical system, and an autonomic system for carrying messages between the two. Of course, in animals (at least in humans), this is a strictly hierarchal system: the cognitive system can’t directly access the mechanical system, or else you could “think” electrical impulses directly to your muscles, for example! But in a technological system, there’s no reason you couldn’t theoretically directly bypass the autonomic layer entirely, though you wouldn’t want to very often, for the same reason you usually don’t let desktop software directly control the read/write heads on your hard drive.

I see no reason why the majority of low-level sensors and actuators can’t be abstracted and made object-oriented. For example, think of object classes in programming. You might have a class called Vehicle, with a set of methods and properties, and a subclass of Vehicle called Bicycle, with overriding methods and properties. Couldn’t you do the same thing with hardware control, starting with two classes: Sensor and Actuator? Then you could build sub-classes. A range finder, for example:

class rangeFinder extends Sensor{

public var min = 0; // the minimum value the range finder will send
public var max = 10000; // the maximum value, which is actually expressed in milliseconds of latency

public function latencyToCentimeters{

return this.latency * 0.5000 // Or whatever the equation is for converting milliseconds to distance 

    }

}

For example. Then you could declare something like this:
var rangeThingie = new rangeFinder(01);
Which would tell your software that there’s an object of class Sensor, subclass rangeFinder, at input port 01. (You wouldn’t need to specify input vs output, as that’s handled by our Sensor object code.)

So that’s the software abstraction layer…but the hardware still needs to be controlled somehow, right? That’s where your programmable autonomic firmware comes in. When you hook up your range finder, you specify the voltage and amperage that it requires, and upload those values to your firmware. (As I mentioned in the last post, this could even be handled by QR or barcodes on the sensor itself; you scan it with your computer’s webcam, and it connects to an open database, which returns machine-readable information:

[type : "range_sensor",
manufacturer: "Acme, Inc.",
specs: {
    voltage: "5",
    amps: ".5"
    min_operational_temperature: "-50",
    max_operational_temperature: "150"
}]
That would be in JSON format, obviously. So your autonomic firmware programmer receives this data and “knows” how to interface with this sensor at a mechanical level. Same with any other component: you could send the proper PWM to control a stepper motor (if I understand how stepper motors work, which is not at all certain) or know the maximum amperage you could run through a speaker, or what-have-you.

At that point, it’s simply a matter of plugging all your components into your autonomic board, giving it specs for each component (by downloading or manually entering them and then uploading that info to the firmware on it), along with any reusable functions you’ve defined (like “turnLeft” or “rotateElbow” for robots, as an example) and hooking up your cognitive or behavioral subsystem, which issues commands to the autonomic system.

How? Probably using something like the Open Sound Control protocol, which defines a very simple addressing scheme for accessing and sending values to subcomponents. So your software could do something like this:

var rangeVal = osc.retrieve("/robot1/sensors/rangeThingy/");

if(rangeVal > 0.5){ osc.transmit("/robot1/stepperMotors/leftElbow/rotate", "45"); }

Which would be translated by the autonomic layer into actual electrical signals. Of course, you could also chain together these specific commands into higher level functions within your behavioral code, or even in your firmware (provided it had enough memory onboard, which is why you might want to use something like an SD card for storing this stuff).

How would that code get from the behavioral level to the autonomic level? Doesn’t matter. I mean, it matters, but it could be any number of ways:

  1. The behavioral system is handled by a small computer like a Raspberry PI, physically on-board the device;
  2. The behavioral system is an actual programmed processor, also on the device;
  3. The behavioral system is on a very powerful computer, connected to the device by WiFi or cellular radio, or USB if distance isn’t an issue.

As long as your behavioral level is connected to your autonomic level somehow, the specifics don’t matter.

So what happens when that connection is severed? If you’re smart, you’ve built fall-back low-level behavior and uploaded it to your autonomic system’s storage. Building a drone plane? If it loses its connectivity to the complex control system on the other end of its radio connection, have it continue towards LKG (last known good) destination coordinates, relying on its on-board GPS. Or if that’s too risky (say, if you’re worried about it running into mountains), have it fly in a circle until it reestablishes connection, or have it try to land without damaging itself. Whatever. It’s up to you to figure out the specific fall-back behavior.

Roboticists are thinking “Yes, but my machine is much more efficient than this. I don’t care about standardization!” Yes, your machine might be better and more efficient. But it’s also a standalone device. Think of old synthesizers, in the pre-MIDI days; they’re hardwired, stuck doing the one thing you made them do. They can’t be easily upgraded by the end consumer, they can’t be modularized. Your Yamaha DX-7, which was super-badass when you bought it in 1985, is now a curiosity. It’s not as good as other, newer digital synths. Nobody wants it…especially when they can replicate its sounds exactly with software now!

Same thing if you’re building a welding robot (to use an example from a buddy of mine). Your welding robot has all the articulation and parts to weld, but it’s not very smart. But if it’s interoperable, connective, you don’t have to worry about building the logic on-board! Your robot is an avatar for an intelligence that exists separately of the hardware. As people figure out how to make better welding robot routines and procedures, your robot can be updated! It can be made smart! And eventually, when people have figured out better hardware, it can be repurposed to do something else…in the same way that I can use a goofy early 90s hardware synthesizer as an excellent MIDI controller for my newer, better synth software.

I realize that a lot of people who work in this side of technology don’t think that way, but that’s their problem, not mine. I want to figure out a way to make a standard, universal way of connecting hardware to software, one that focuses on simplicity and reproducibility and communication ability over efficiency. I’m repulsed by proprietary systems, and if your business model is based on building things that can’t be upgraded but only replaced — not because they have to be, but because that’s where you’ve decided your revenue stream comes from — then man, fuck you and your awful business model. Sooner or later, people are going to get sick of your shit and find another vendor…especially when there are cheaper and more flexible alternatives.

(Okay, Ellis, breathe. No need to get shouty. Low blood sugar. Go eat something.)

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The world is a robot.

This afternoon, I attended an excellent talk by Ken Goldberg about “cloud robotics” — the idea of building robots that are essentially taught and controlled by the Internet “cloud”. As Ken was talking, I had a moment of pure epiphany about cloud robotics and the “Internet of things“. I realized that the underlying assumptions about how this should all work are completely wrong.

First, a bit of a summary: in the traditional model, a robot is an autonomous (or semi-autonomous) object. Its behavior is pre-programmed into it, and it’s set loose to do whatever it does: build automobile chassis, or roll around your house vacuuming until it’s gotten every bit of the floor. These sorts of robots are extremely limited, because they can only deal with whatever it is they’re programmed to do in the first place. Your Roomba is very good at vacuuming your rug, but if it encounters a Coke can on the rug, it doesn’t know what to do with it — it either ignores it or it runs away in a robot’s version of existential dread.

“Cloud” robotics refers to the idea of robotic systems in which the behavior modeling is offloaded onto the Internet. A perfect example is Google’s self-driving car, which is absolutely incapable of driving itself around the most sedate of suburban neighborhoods without a constant connection to Google’s servers, which are processing the data from the car’s sensors and comparing it to maps and predicated behavior and reporting back to the car, adjusting its actions accordingly. In this sense, the self-driving car isn’t self-driving at all. There is no direct human intervention, but in a very real sense, it’s Google’s servers that are behind the wheel.

There’s a lot of work being done in this area, to make robots smarter and in less need of human intervention. Ken talked about the idea, for example, of a robot that uploads pictures of an unfamiliar item to the cloud, which interprets the picture, deciphers what the object is, and returns instructions to the robot on how to deal with it. If algorithms break down, we can even foresee a future in which robots “call in” to humans, who “tell” the robot how best to proceed.

This is all well and good and presents a rosy future, but the fact is that at the moment this is all a fantasy. Right now, there’s no standard way for robots to communicate with the cloud, and even if there were, there’s no standard way for that communication to be translated into action. Every robot works differently, every robot design is unique; one would have to write an entire software stack to deal with each and every model of robot.

In fact, robots in 2013 are very much like musical synthesizers were, up until the late 1980s. This is a digression, but bear with me.

If I showed up on the doorstep of a forward-thinking musician in 1979 or so and asked them to define a synthesizer, they’d tell me that it was an electronic device that made sounds. Synths were boxes, with a “brain” which took signals from an input controller — usually, but not always, a piano-style keyboard — and turned them into audio signals that were sent to an output (usually a speaker or a mixing board for recording). Though the principles of synthesis were pretty much the same, every synth went about it in a different way: the “brain” of a Moog was totally different from that of a Buchla, for example, and in many cases they even handled the input from their keyboards totally differently. Everyone was, not so much reinventing the wheel, but inventing their own wheel.

It occurred to somebody in the late 1970s that it would be really useful if you could control multiple synths from the same keyboard, or even figure out a way to record a series of notes that could be “played back” on a synth live, to allow much more complicated music than could be performed by a single person with one or even two keyboards. But at the time, there was no real way to accomplish this, due to the sui generis nature of every synth.

A lot of goofy hacks and kludges were invented to solve this problem — including devices that sat atop the keyboards of different synths and physically pressed the notes, using solenoids — until a group of nerds invented something called MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface, in the early 1980s — a protocol for allowing synthesizers to communicate amongst one another that is still the de facto standard today.

The entire MIDI protocol is too complex to get into here, but the gist of it is that a MIDI-enabled device can send or receive basically three instructions: turn X note on on channel Y at Z volume; turn X note off on channel Y; and send X value on channel Y to controller Z. That, a bunch of wanky technical details aside, is basically it! And while MIDI has its very serious limitations, it’s the basis of at least 50% of the musical sounds you hear every single day — from the ravey keyboard lead in Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” to the Hammond organ sound on your favorite indie track to the deep beats on Kanye’s new jam.

Aside from the ability for one synth to talk to another, MIDI allowed something else entirely: the ability to separate the input device from the output device. To our musician in 1979, a “synth” was a monolithic physical object; but in the 1980s, you began to see synth “brains” without keyboards and keyboards without brains that could be connected using standard MIDI protocols (and cables). And as desktop computers became more powerful, a “synthesizer” could just as easily refer to a piece of software, controlled by an inexpensive MIDI keyboard controller that sends MIDI signals over USB, as a big box sitting on your desk. In fact, you don’t even need a human performer at all; one of my hobbies is writing little apps that algorithmically generate MIDI commands and send them to my software synths. (I’ve actually released two of the resulting tracks commercially, and they’ve sold surprisingly well.)

Ask a musician in 2013 what a “synth” is, and they’re not likely to describe a big physical box to you; they’re more likely to tell you it’s an app that runs on their laptop or their iPad.

The monolithic, in other words, has become modular.

By contrast, ask an engineer in 2013 what a “robot” is, and they’ll tell you it’s a machine that can be programmed to carry out physical tasks. A robot looks like Wall-E or Asimo: it’s a thing, a discrete physical object.

But this is both a simplification and an overcomplication. A robot can just as easily be defined as a collection of input and output devices, or, if you prefer, “sensors” and “actuators”, connected by a cybernetic controller. The sensors take in data from the world; the cybernetic controller interprets the data, and makes the output devices do things, upon which the whole cycle begins again, in a feedback loop.

For example: a Roomba is, when you get right down to it, a collection of touch sensors hooked up to three motors (one to turn each of the two wheels, and one to turn the fan that actually vacuums stuff up) via a “brain”. When a given touch sensor sends a strong enough signal (via running into a wall or a cat or an ottoman), the brain makes the wheels change direction or speed; for the most part, the vacuum fan isn’t involved in this process at all, but keeps happily chugging away until the Roomba is turned off.

The value of these sensors and actuators broadly follows Metcalfe’s Law: each by itself is essentially useless, but when connected together — along with something to sort out the data from the sensors and decide what commands to send to the actuators — they become far more valuable than the sum of their parts. They become a “robot”.

But here’s the thing: they’re still just parts. We call them a “robot” when they’re put into a chassis together, but that’s just limited imagination on our part.

Let’s try something else instead. Let’s take all those components out of that little round chassis and reconfigure them entirely. Let’s mount the touch sensors into a console and call them by a slightly different name: “buttons”. (Because that is, in fact, what they are.) Let’s put those motors into the wings of a very light aircraft, to control the flaps and ailerons that adjust the aircraft’s movement in the air. And instead of a hardware chip, let’s give them something more akin to a nervous system, that sends and receives signals — using radio, for example.

When you push the buttons, those signals are sent via radio to the motors, which — when combined together — move the airplane up and down and left to right. What you have now is a radio-controlled plane!

But let’s get more interesting. Let’s add a brain back in, but instead of that stupid simple chip, let’s do what the synth people did, and move it into software. After all, our laptop is a thousand times more powerful than the little microprocessor that used to be our Roomba’s tiny brain, right? And let’s swap out our touch sensors, our buttons, for another sensor: a GPS unit.

Now, we can use the infinite power of our laptop to take the simple signals from the GPS and translate them into simple instructions to our motors, which really can only go on and off. If the X coordinate of the GPS is too low, turn on the tail motor for two seconds (or if it’s a servomotor, by Z degrees). Once the X coordinate is right, turn it the other way.

Let’s make it more interesting. Let’s use Google Maps to get the precise GPS coordinates of an arbitrary address, and send that as a reference point for our two motors. (We’ve taken the fan motor and used it to turn the propeller on our plane, but it’s still stupid and only needs to turn on when we begin and turn off when we’re done.)

Now we can simply type a street address into our interface, sit back, and wait for our Roomba to get there. Only it’s not a Roomba anymore, is it? Is it even a robot at all? It’s the same collection of sensors and actuators (well, almost). It’s doing the same thing — taking input, processing it, and using that processed data to control output.

A “robot” is merely our convenient placeholder for an arbitrary collection of sensors and actuators. There’s a certain amount of anthropomorphism in that: a “robot” is a thing, like a “person”. But the difference is that each of the active parts of a robot — the sensors and actuators — can, in fact, be addressed and controlled individually. If that input and output is coordinated by a subtle and complex system — a “brain” — each simple input and output can become a remarkably advanced robot indeed…the same way a synthesizer becomes much more powerful and versatile and capable of producing amazing things when you stop thinking of it as a piano keyboard with a box attached to it.

But that convenient placeholder — “robot” — has become a trap. Robots in 2013 are like synths in 1975 — each one is sui generis, each manufacturer reinvents the wheel. Every model of robot has a different onboard operating system, a different way of connecting input to output, a different protocol. And yet, how many actual types of actuators even exist? Rotary motors, linear motors, solenoids, pistons…almost every actuator in every robot on Earth is based on a set of mechanical devices which were pretty well understood by the end of the Second World War. And all of them operate by the same rough principle: send X amount of current for Y amount of time. (Or send X amount of current at Y frequency for Z amount of time, if you’re talking about pulse width modulation-based components.)

Inputs? Slightly more complicated, but as we’ve seen with computer peripherals, it’s perfectly possible to standardize even the most complex of inputs, provided we’re willing to offload the processing to software. That’s why there are USB standard protocols for everything from computer mice to webcams to yes, even MIDI devices. Webcams may have different resolutions and color depths, but they’re still just sending an array of pixel data to software.

What if we stopped thinking of and designing robots as monolithic objects, but started thinking of them as useful collections of components? And designed simple protocols for sending and retrieving their sensor and actuator data to their brain or nervous system — protocols that could be standardized and given APIs and made replicable, as well as transmitting unique information about the robot when it connects? (USB-MIDI synths and controllers do this; when you connect one, it sends its model name and manufacturer to the MIDI-handling subsystem of the operating system. If you have a Mac, go to Applications->Utilities->Audio MIDI Setup and plug a cheap USB-MIDI controller in; you’ll see what I mean.)

Imagine a Bluetooth robot that, when paired with a computing device, sends an addressed list of its sensors and actuators to the client software, maybe like this:

  • 0 :: rotary motor :: "leftTread"
    1 :: rotary motor :: "rightTread"
    2 :: servomotor :: "robotArmElbow"

I’m just making that up off the top of my head, but you see what I mean. Or you could provide the developer with a list of endpoints; this is similar to the way that MIDI hardware synths come with manuals that show which controllers handle what, like “CC42: Filter Frequency”. (This lets you, the musician, know that if you assign the knob on your MIDI controller to CC42, when you turn it, it will adjust the filter frequency of your hardware synth.)

This would allow the creation of simple network protocols for interacting with sensors and actuators, in which the business logic is offloaded to the cloud or a controller device. For example, imagine this bit of pseudocode:

while(robot1/pressureSensor < 20){
        robot1/leftTread.rotate(20);
}
It doesn’t matter what the actual value range sent by robot1/pressureSensor is, in this simple example, so long as the cloud “knows” the proper range; it could be 0 to 1 or 0 to 255 or 0 to the distance from the Earth to the moon in micrometers. The same with the tread motor, or the servo, or the solenoid. It doesn’t matter any more than it matters to the HTML renderer in your browser whether you type a two word declaration or a 500 word soliloquy into your Facebook status box; the client-side takes care of all the tricky bits of displaying your text and converting it into POST data and sending the data to be processed on the server-side.

If every actuator/sensor became separately addressable, with all of the coordination between them being handled by higher-level computing devices, the whole notion of the “robot” ceases to exist. It’s just components, some of which are physically joined, some of which are not, connected by routers. A camera on a pole could provide data that tells forklift robots how to coordinate their movement; a light sensor could tell all of the automated blinds on the east side of your house to roll themselves down when the sun rises…while also telling your coffeemaker to power on and start brewing your coffee; if the Weather Channel’s API says it’s going to be cold, your car automatically turns on the window defroster before you get in and turn on the engine.

The whole world, in effect, becomes one giant robot, a billion different actuators driven by a billion different sensors, all linked up and connected by the cloud. Nor do the “actuators” or the sensors need necessarily be physical; again, we’re moving away from the idea of the robot as a device that does physical work. A robot that bangs a drum whenever you send a Tweet to a specific account is still a robot, right?

In fact, a roboticist of 2033 might think of a “robot” as a “set of behaviors that drive physical devices”, rather than as the physical devices themselves. One can even imagine different robotic “social networks”, where you can hook your devices up to a specific cloud that suits your tastes and needs. The military would have their cloud, businesses would have intranet clouds to control their industrial robots; you might connect your “hardware cloud” of sensors and actuators up to a “software cloud” that learns behaviors from your friends and family.

It’s difficult to fully imagine this scenario, of course. And what I’m describing here isn’t easy. It requires a complete rethinking of how we design and envision robots — from monolithic to modular. But this transition is something that every aspect of technology seems to go through at some point, from industrialization to communications to computation, and even, as we’ve seen, music technology. I believe it’s a necessary paradigm shift.

What we’re doing is nothing less than making the world around us come to life, to act and react according to the information we create and share. In order to truly make that happen, we need to teach our devices to share as well.

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Common People

We’re rednecks, rednecks
We don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground
Rednecks, rednecks,
We keepin’ the niggers down.
–Randy Newman, “Rednecks”

What do you have when you come from a poor-white background? And from a place where Reconstruction didn’t end until the 1950s. If you came from people often referred to on campuses as crackers and rednecks or, condescendingly, as blue collar or poor-white Appalachians. If even the uncertain gentility of the South, who accord physical work no dignity at all, refer to your people as peckerwoods – in what tradition do you find an example? That we whaled the piss out of them that first time at Bull Run? That Great-granddaddy did right at Vicksburg, that a corner of Shiloh is forever Yazoo City? There is much honor and more sense in having succeeded with what was left, making something with the damned forty acres and a muddy mule, but you have to be able to see that. No one will tell you.
–Thomas Harris,
Hannibal

I am increasingly cognizant, these days, of the notion of privilege, and the fact that, as a straight, physically large and intimidating white man, I possess quite a lot of it by default. It’s increased particularly since my marriage, oddly, because I am now acutely aware that my lovely and wonderful wife does not exist in the same universe I do.

In my universe, a dark and empty street holds no particular fear; as I always jokingly assure her when she tells me to be careful on a late-night walk to the store, I’m the thing to be afraid of in the dark. And it’s true. Nobody catcalls at me, or tries to get me to get in their car, or tries to put their hands on me. But people — men — do that to her, with a casualness and frequency which I find astonishing.

That astonishment may sound naive to you, and maybe it is. But the fact is that men don’t do that to her when I’m around. Men don’t do that to any women when I’m around. It’s not like I’m some kind of white knight; it simply literally does not happen in my presence, presumably because the kind of men who behave this way are the kind of cowards who wouldn’t dare harass a woman if there’s even the possibility that another man might call them out on it. I live in a world where that horrible shit doesn’t exist.

And of course, as I’ve become aware of this, I’ve become aware of all the other horrible shit that doesn’t happen to me; the shit that happens outside the edges of my peripheral vision. Nobody ever follows me suspiciously around a store because of the color of my skin; nobody ever talks to me as if I’m mentally challenged when I go into a bookstore; nobody ever calls me a faggot and threatens to kick my faggot ass (at least not anymore, but that’s a whole other story). Nobody ever makes snide half-muttered remarks about how I ought to go back to my own country. Nobody ever tells me that what I need is a big dick in my pussy to turn me straight.

I don’t even see this happening to other people. Maybe it’s just because I’m not mentally prepared to see it when it does happen, or even recognize that it’s happening. But I’m a pretty observant person, and by and large I think that it really doesn’t happen when I’m around, for the same reason that men don’t actively and aggressively harass women in my presence: because the people who are likely to do that sort of thing don’t want to take a chance that my big scary ass might step in on the situation. (On the rare occasions that anybody will make a bigoted or homophobic or sexist remark to me or around me, it’s usually someone who’s obviously chemically altered or just plain stupid, like some douchebag frat boy or a random tweaker on a bus — people whose sense of self-preservation is at a low.)

But there’s another facet to the notion of privilege that I have begun to think about and question, one that perhaps comes from the opposite side of that idea: namely, the automatic assumption that straight white people automatically possess infinite privilege, a sort of token Get Out Of Jail Free card that they can throw up whenever they need to. I notice it because I see this idea taken for granted by a lot of people, and it is my experience that it is simply and bluntly untrue.

I recently read and was struck by a 2010 piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates entitled “A Culture Of Poverty“, in which he discusses his own aggressive reaction to a rude, insistent critic, and how it was, at least in part, a product of his own upbringing in rough West Baltimore:

It defies logic to think that any group, in a generationaly entrenched position, would not develop codes and mores for how to survive in that position. African-Americans, themselves, from poor to bourgeois, are the harshest critics of the street mentality. Of course, most white people only pay attention when Bill Cosby or Barack Obama are making that criticism. The problem is that rarely do such critiques ask  why anyone would embrace such values. Moreover, they tend to assume that there’s something uniquely “black” about those values, and their the embrace.


He’s right, of course: there’s nothing “black” about the mentality of being willing to whip somebody’s ass for getting up in your face and disrespecting your shit. I recognized his reaction immediately — man, you best step the fuck off — because it’s probably the exact same thing I would have done in the same situation. Because it’s not a product of “black”; it’s a product of poor.

We don’t talk much about poor white folks in America, these days. In the sort of circles I run in — liberal, progressive, culturally tolerant and permissive — poor white trash are the last cultural group who can be stereotyped, lumped together, dismissed and ridiculed without fear of confrontation or social reprisal. We call these people “rednecks” and refer to the rural states they occupy as “flyover” country; we label them as bigots and small-minded, childish religious fanatics; we shake our heads as they consistently vote against their own best interests, whichever way the neo-conservatives tell them to. We act like they’re fools.

And we’re right, of course. They are fools. But they’re only fools in the same way that poor urban blacks are self-defeating fools who perpetuate their own misery indefinitely; in other words, that isn’t the whole story or even most of it. And as Coates rightly points out, the question that’s never asked is: why would anyone embrace that sort of foolishness?

I think I have a rather unique perspective on the issue, owing to my rather eclectic upbringing. It’s not worth getting into my whole family history, but the long and short is: sometimes I was well-off, and sometimes I wasn’t. At best we were upper middle class; at worst, we were barely clinging to the “working” part of the working class.

I’m fairly confident in saying that I’ve been exposed to pretty much every way of life a white guy can be in this country. My grandparents were friends of the Bush family, Texas jet-setters during the oil industry’s economic explosion of the 1970s and 1980s; I went to private middle school with kids whose parents were business partners of Ross Perot, kids who had their own small yachts to compliment those of their parents. For my seventh grade school trip, we took a bus from north Texas to Vail, Colorado; it was my first time snowboarding, as I remember.

And yet, a few years later, for complicated reasons, my mother and stepfather and I were living in a trailer outside of Hamilton, Montana. My dad was out of work for a couple of months, because the sawmill he worked in had been shut down by Greenpeace activists trying to save the spotted owl. I was expelled from school for mouthing off one too many times to my teachers, so he and I would go and cut down trees for friends in return for a share of the firewood. One winter, we all slept in the living room of the trailer because that’s where the wood-burning stove was; every few hours, during the night, one of us would have to get up and spray off the chimney pipe of the stove with a hair spritzer full of water, because it would get red hot and begin to smoulder where it met the roof if we didn’t. We slept huddled together, because if we didn’t, we would have quite literally frozen to death in the subzero temperatures of the Montana winter night.

I don’t mention this to make you feel sorry for me; I mention it because I feel like I probably have a pretty good handle on what it’s like to be a redneck, to be a flyover person in a flyover state — to live your life, as Jarvis Cocker says in the classic Pulp song “Common People”, without meaning or control. But I also see what it’s like to be the sort of white person that people refer to when they refer to “white people problems,” like not being able to get good wifi so you can download your podcast of This American Life. Ta-Nehisi Coates can tell you that not all black people are the same; I can tell you, with the same absolute assurance, that not all white people are the same, either.

*     *     *

So here you are, a teenage girl in the heart of America’s heart. You were born in the tiny emergency room of the same small rural town your people have lived in for at least a century. Your parents aren’t hardworking salt of the earth farmers or millworkers, the kind of people that get country songs written about them and whom politicians like to hold up as examples of the rugged American can-do spirit. They’re white trash. Your mom’s an alcoholic who’s recently discovered the joys of bathtub crank; God only knows where your daddy is or even who he is. He could really be any one of the fat bastards who prop up the bar down to the Brass Rail six nights a week, when they’re not bowling.

You live in a trailer with your fifty-five year old grandmother, who insists you call her Mae instead of Granny or Grandma — “because, fuck, honey, I ain’t that goddamn old” — and who works part-time doing nails for the rich bitches who live up the hill, and spends the rest of her time sitting around drinking Southern Comfort out of a tumbler she got with Camel Cash that has a picture of Joe Camel playing pool and smoking a cigarette on it. That’s when she’s not down at the Brass Rail, drinking Rolling Rock and putting quarters in the jukebox to hear Shania sing “Man, I Feel Like A Woman” for the thousandth time and waiting to see which one of the upstanding gentlemen will take her home and fuck her tonight. Hell, it might be the same one who took Momma home back when it was Garth Brooks instead of Daughtry on CMT; nobody knows for sure, and it wouldn’t matter if they did.

Momma’s never had any kind of real job; sometimes she works graveyard down at the Stop ‘N’ Shop out on the highway, but that’s only when they need an extra hand and it’s usually only one or two nights a week when they do. Most of the time, your little family subsists on what they tend to call “government assistance” around here, because “welfare” is for niggers. Your mother will self-righteously tell anybody that she’s a stay-at-home mom, but apparently “stay-at-home” doesn’t include staying at home at night or most weekends.

What she does do when she’s at home is get into shouting matches with Mae and bitch about those fuckin’ skinny bitches on the TV and occasionally sneak into the bathroom to snuffle up some of the shitty crank she gets from one of her boyfriends, who’s a nominal biker with a connection out of Bakersfield, California. Any parenting she does is limited to sending you down to the Vons with your food stamps to pick up a loaf of Wonder bread, some generic bologna with the red wrapping on the outside, and a couple of six packs of Diet Shasta, because if you get a fat ass now you ain’t never gonna lose it, honey. Since the Vons won’t take food stamps for her Camels and her generic vodka, she sends you along with a Ziploc baggie full of quarters for those items.

You’re not in such great shape yourself. You don’t read too good; it’s just hard to pay attention in school. Nobody gives a shit if you do good or not, because everybody knows your family are fucking worthless, so they pretty much let you slide; that fuckin’ No Child Left Behind bullshit doesn’t really apply out here. You think maybe you’d like to go to school to be a fashion designer, but you’re not really sure how somebody actually goes and does that. You’ll figure it out later. They’ve diagnosed you with ADD, but you think that’s full of shit. Doesn’t matter. It’s not like Momma can afford to buy the medicine they prescribed you anyway.

You’ve been sneaking your mom’s Camels since you were ten, and smoking pot since you were thirteen. Momma doesn’t know you dip into her crank a little bit, every so often, when you need a little pick-me-up to drag your ass out of bed and down to the high school. One time, Troy down the road gave you a line of coke in return for sucking his dick at a house party. Fuck, you wish you could afford to do that shit all the time. But you can only think of one way to get the money to have a coke habit, and that’s some shit you’re not really into.

You technically lost your virginity when you were nine, when one of your mom’s boyfriends got drunk and came in your bedroom and accidentally fucked you instead of her. Now that you think about it, it’s entirely possible that it was actually your father. But that was, like, just some shit that happened; you really lost your virginity when you were eleven, to a twenty-three year old mechanic named Toby you met at a party. You told him you were seventeen; girls in your family always did develop early, and besides, he was so fuckin’ drunk you could’ve told him you were Dolly Parton and he woulda believed it.

You “dated” Toby  — meaning you went over to his house and fucked him while Survivor played on his TV in the background — for three months, until somebody finally told him how old you were and he panicked. Not that he needed to; it’s not like Momma or Mae gave much of a shit. They said they liked having him around. Mae always wanted him to sit next to her on the couch when he came over.

You heard from Becky’s sister that Toby’s a total homo now, taking night classes at the community college three towns over. “Taking dick-sucking classes,” Becky’s sister said, but what the fuck does that bitch know anyway?

Last year you were going out with Mike, who’s way into hip-hop; he wants to be, like, the next Eminem, except he can’t rap for shit. But he was a good boyfriend and he never hit you or left you stranded out in the country or anything like that. He even told you he loved you, and you believed him. You thought maybe you loved him too, and maybe he was the one. But then he cheated on you with that fuckin’ whore Lorena and got her pregnant, and she went to live with her cousins in Reno and Mike had to go in the Army. He’s in Iraq now, and sometimes he posts pictures of the baby on his Facebook, which you occasionally check at the school library. Lorena’s a fat fuckin’ goddamn whore and you’ve sworn you were gonna fuckin’ stab her if she showed her fuckin’ face around again, but the baby’s cute. You want a baby of your own, maybe.

Sometimes, lying in your single bed in your trailer at night, surrounded by stuffed animals and listening to the wind howl endlessly outside, you dream about a whole other kind of life, somewhere else, like on TV, where people live by the ocean and go and do all that weird shit you can’t even imagine. That’s the life you want; that’s the life you ought to have. When Mae takes you to church on Sundays, that’s what you pray to Jesus for: dear Lord our God in Heaven, meek and mild, please please please take me away from here. I wanna be one of the TV people.

And sometimes you sit on the curb at the Stop ‘N’ Shop, drinking a raspberry Icee and smoking a Camel, and you look out at the highway, the way cars just disappear into the dark, and you’d do just about anything to be in one of them, going anywhere, anywhere but here.

*     *     *

If that little fictional sketch sounds dramatic to you, then you’ve never spent any time in small-town America. In point of fact, it’s based on specific details of people I knew and went to school with…as well as some people from my own family.

Whatever special favors are granted by white privilege in America, they don’t particularly apply to my little small-town sweetheart here. She’s as trapped by the circumstances of her birth as any African-American kid in South Central or Latino kid in the barrio in Phoenix.

I know these people. I came up with them. I saw how few of them escaped the black hole of being a poor white redneck piece of shit in America. I was lucky I had the resources I did; lucky I ended up living in Las Vegas with a good job and a beautiful wife and a great life, instead of working at a dying factory married to some idiot girl I’d knocked up my junior year, with a parcel of dirty children and a whole lot of potential and good intentions washed down the drain.

And even when they do get out, their escape velocity doesn’t usually take them all that far. For a lot of kids I knew, the Big Show wasn’t New York or Los Angeles or Chicago; it was goddamn Billings, Montana or Boulder, Colorado or Ogden, Utah. They’re the ones who show up for interviews in the HR office at your company wearing Wal-Mart suits and big clumpy work shoes, the ones whose alma mater is Pinedale Community College, who still put their high school membership in Future Farmers of America on their resumes, who never did an internship and have absolutely no work experience because the only jobs where they come from involve manning a cash register, cutting down trees or cooking meth in a bathtub.

When they walk out of the office after their hesitant, doomed interview, you look after them and laugh; you’d never ever think of sneering at a black dude who came for an interview, but you’ve got no problem going “Dude, what the fuck was up with Joe Dirt?” Because he’s white, and therefore he’s got privilege.

Yeah. Cletus the slack-jawed yokel from East Buttfuck Holler, Kentucky might never get racially profiled…but he’s fucked just the same. If his chances of success in modern America are any better than the kids Ta-Nehisi Coates came up with in West Ballmer, it ain’t by much of a margin.

I don’t claim to be one of these people. I’ll absolutely, readily admit that I had opportunities and chances most of them never even dreamed of; the older I get the more I understand that, and the more thankful I am. But I’m also less inclined to simply dismiss them as stupid fucking rednecks.

Are they bigoted, small-minded, racist and homophobic and usually sexist as all hell? Sure. No defending them on that front. But I’m pretty sure Ta-Nahisi Coates would tell you that the easiest way to get your ass whipped in West Baltimore back in the day was to suggest that another gentleman might, in fact, be a homosexual. I’m pretty sure the boys in the hood had some extremely odd ideas about how rich white motherfuckers spent their time too.

*     *     *

Here’s what I figured out a long time ago: poor white trash and poor black trash have far more in common with each other than they do with wealthier people of their own skin color. We always make it about race in America, when it really has a lot more to do with class than anything else.

Part of that is an incredible trick, perpetrated by the wealthy elite in this country in the years after the Civil War, when all of a sudden the poor white stratus of Scots-Irish former indentured servants and fieldhands were joined by the newly freed African-American slaves. It was a pivotal moment in our nation’s history, and there was a moment when the paddies and the darkies could’ve recognized their common situation — namely, that their indenture and slavery had been replaced by an unspoken de facto economic subjugation by the same privileged landowners who had held the deeds to their lives so recently — and banded together to level the playing field.

But the trick — that hideous, remarkable bit of probably unconscious legerdemain on the part of America’s rich white ubermenschen — was to whisper into the ear of all those hillbillies. Sure, you’re poor, uneducated; you don’t have anything and you probably never will. You’ll never come sit at our table, Bubba. But you know what? You’re still better than a nigger.

And that hatred was what those poor motherfuckers held on to…because they didn’t have anything else except that toxic measure of their own negligible worth. Still better than a nigger, right? Or some smartass queer in San Fagcisco with his fuckin’ Pride parade, running around in a pair of assless leather pants…or some spic motherfucker wants to come up here and steal my job…or some stupid loudmouth bitch whinin’ about, oooh, equal rights. I may be ignorant as dirt, I may be mean as a badger stuck down a hole, I may have absolutely not a goddamn thing that ain’t on layaway or owned by the bank, but I’m better than all o’ them.

And so on, for a century and a half. The descendants of those bigoted, hating and self-hating and hated servants fought and died alongside the descendants of those slaves on the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima, the foothills of Korea, the jungles of Vietnam and the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan, partially out of patriotism but mainly because it was a noble way to get the fuck out of the shithole ghettos and the shithole small towns that spawned them. They died for an America that lied to them and told them they were enemies.

Can you hate them for their small-mindedness, for their savage insistence that they’re God’s chosen people on Earth, despite every bit of evidence to the contrary? Of course you can. You can hate a mad dog for trying to bite you. But you’re not human if you don’t feel pity, too…even though they’ll hate you twice as hard for pitying them. They don’t want you or need you, and you don’t need them. But we all have to live in this country together.

Perhaps if we stopped looking at the deceptively simple barrier of race, if we stopped our centuries-old denial that America is a nation where class matters more than perhaps anything else; if we asked Coates’s all important question of why, maybe we would be able to find more common ground than we ever thought imaginable. Maybe we’d stop seeing shifty niggers and stupid cracker around every corner, and start looking up the ladder at the real bastards who are fucking all of us, the ones for whom the only color that really matters is green.

I know I’ll never fully understand how much grace is automatically afforded to me here, simply by virtue of a set of characteristics over which I’ve had no control. But I’ve also seen where the limits of that grace lie, and what a pathetic advantage it is in the long run. I was also fortunate in that I not only saw how to escape the trap of poor white trash America, but that I was even capable of understanding that there was a trap in the first place: that white privilege and straight privilege and male privilege, for all they confer upon their possessor, only go so far.

It’s a lesson much smarter people than me seem to often miss, one I think they desperately need to understand before any real healing can begin in this country; before we can truly find any common ground.

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Augmented (non-visual) reality

Been thinking a lot about augmented reality recently, for fairly obvious reasons. The other night I was talking to Yiying Lu at the first LaunchUp Las Vegas about AR and the possibilities inherent in it, and it got me thinking.

I’ve always had a big interest in ambient information interfaces and what is apparently called “calm technology“. Ambient information is really the idea that much of the information we’re required to monitor/process in our daily lives doesn’t actually require our complete attention all the time; that our interface to it can be passive, subliminal, rather than active and engaged.

For example, several years ago a company called Ambient Devices debuted a product called Ambient Orb that was basically a frosted globe with multicolored LEDs in it. This device connected up to your various data streams and changed color based on their status. For example, you could set the Orb to glow red if you had unread email, or change color based upon the performance of your stocks. The idea was that you wouldn’t have to sit and actively engage with your data; you could reduce it to a simple, nearly-binary yes/no or color-based alert system.

The Orb never really did much for me, because it used a weird non-standard wireless network to return data and it seemed pretty locked in to the use cases that Ambient had created for it; I have no need to constantly (or really ever) monitor stock data in real-time, for example. But it was an interesting idea in theory, and one which has never really gone away.

The most obvious example of a passive info display is a traditional clock face, with hour, minute and second hands. Most people on Earth can simply glance at a clock and instantly recognize what time it is — maybe not down to the precise second, but close enough for government work, as the old saying goes. Clocks are both ambient and precise interfaces, of course; if you look at the clock for more than a second you can determine the precise time — by “drilling down” past the “macro” interface (i.e. the general geometric configuration of the clock hands) and focusing on the “micro” interface (the second hand and the numbers).

A more modern example, in my opinion, are the icon “badges” that appear in Apple’s iOS (and, to a lesser extent, in Dock icons in their main MacOS X). The badge overlaid on the Mail icon, for example, shows you how many unread emails you have. But it also functions as a simple binary indicator: if it’s there, you have unread mail. Again, you drill down by focusing on the number inside the icon, which is the actual number of unread emails.

This is all very fine and dandy, but I started thinking about one of the basic underlying assumptions in both ambient information and in augmented reality: namely, that the primary interface ought to be visual.

In our everyday lives, at least for the non-deaf, sound is our most often-used tool for passively gathering information about the state of our environment. We listen to the world as much as we look at it. And my own experience suggests that my own brain is better at setting audio to a lower cognitive priority than vision, while still paying continuous partial attention to it.

I suspect this is true of most humans: this is why it is illegal (at least in America) to put a video player in front of the driver in a motor vehicle, but car radios have been with us since around 1930. You can listen to This American Life and simultaneously perform the complex mental gymnastics required to drive a car without killing yourself or anybody else…but very, very few of us could watch TAL’s companion TV series on an LCD screen above our dashboard and make it more than a mile or two without ending up in a ditch. I’m sure there’s a well-documented neurological reason for this, but I’m gonna just skip the Googling here and say with confidence: humans are better at passively monitoring audio than vision.

Musician/artist/producer Brian Eno discovered this in 1975, when he was laid up in bed after being hit by a car. As he explains it in the liner notes to Discreet Music, the album that essentially launched the “ambient” music genre:

In January this year I had an accident. I was not seriously hurt, but I was confined to bed in a stiff and static position. My friend Judy Nylon visited me and brought me a record of 18th century harp music. After she had gone, and with some considerable difficulty, I put on the record. Having laid down, I realized that the amplifier was set at an extremely low level, and that one channel of the stereo had failed completely. Since I hadn’t the energy to get up and improve matters, the record played on almost inaudibly. This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music – as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience. It is for this reason that I suggest listening to the piece at comparatively low levels, even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility.

This gave Eno the impetus to create “make a piece that could be listened to and yet could be ignored… perhaps in the spirit of Satie who wanted to make music that could ‘mingle with the sound of the knives and forks at dinner.'”

And yet, despite the obvious advantage of auditory interfaces, most ambient information interfaces are still visual displays, like the Ambient Orb. (One notable exception is in-car GPS, which usually uses some sort of celebrity voice to give you ambiguous directions.) And, so far as I am aware, the bulk of  augmented reality tools — which, by overlaying data onto our real environment, are a sort of cousin of ambient displays — use audio sparingly, if at all.

In these use cases, audio simply makes more sense in these contexts. For another thing, playing and even manipulating audio in real time is far less power and CPU intensive than rendering graphics in real time, which is why the iPhone can serve as a perfectly serviceable guitar stomp box.

Imagine, for example, a simple navigation system for a mobile device that directed you towards your destination via the simple means of adjusting the balance and volume of the music playing via your audio player. The sound is “centered” when you’re facing your destination directly; turn right and the music grows louder in your left ear and vice versa. The closer you are to your destination, the louder the music plays. Such a system would require no engagement at all by the user; the mobile device could remain safe in the user’s pocket for the duration of their journey. It’s an incredibly intuitive and simple interface to a fairly complex computational system.

(Of course, such an interface would be rather annoying on its face for someone who was simply trying to listen to their tunes, but it gives an example of one modality for such a tool.)

Talking to Yiying, I was reminded of an old idea of mine: an entirely musical social network based on generative music created via musical “DNA”. Think about how music discovery apps like Pandora work: each song is weighed against a set of criteria, such as “slow/fast” “exciting/mournful”, etc. Each track’s particular set of traits serves as its musical “chromosomes” so to speak.

So imagine that you sign up for this network and feed it your Pandora or Last.fm playlists. It analyzes your music and creates a new music for you: a sort of personalized, endlessly generated, changing score: your theme music.

Your theme music plays over your mobile device as you navigate through the world — ambient music, as easily ignored as paid attention to. Now, imagine you walk by someone else using this notional network — someone else with their own theme music.

As you pass them, some magic wireless technology (Bluetooth, near field communications or something powered by unobtanium) triggers off. It randomly merges your musical DNA with theirs, and your theme music is subtly altered by your encounter with them, and vice versa, incorporating elements of their musical genes.

This wouldn’t be limited to people, either. Buildings, landmarks, communities, even the time of day — your theme could be endlessly modified by the very landscape you walk through. Over time, your music would become a product of your encounters, your experiences, your movements. (Of course, this is true anyway of anybody’s music collection, in a metaphorical sense. But in this case it would be literal.) You could “follow” people based upon the grooviness of their personal soundtrack.

This is one — admittedly slightly silly — example of an auditory augmented reality. But there are more practical and practicable variations on this as well. I’d love to see more people think about and embrace the potential of auditory ambient/AR systems as they become more widely-used and prevalent in the UI/UX community.

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Ten Years On

I’m going to write about something I’ve never really written about before.

I had just moved back to Las Vegas, to my parents’ house, after a disastrous stint in Seattle. I had ended up homeless up there as a result of a lot of bad craziness, most of it mine. I’d ended up sitting in a place called Café Minnie on Broadway in Capitol Hill, eating a bowl of soup the kind night manager had given me for free, and I’d decided that if I could just get out of this I’d never end up in this situation again.

(And I didn’t. Mostly.)

I’d only been back for a few days. I’d been sleeping on an old futon mattress on the floor of my parents’ storage room, and I’d been having fitful, frightened dreams. But if I dreamed the night of September 10th, 2001, I do not remember it. I only remember waking up early the next morning to my mother, banging loudly on my door.

I had a headache, I remember that; the banging pulled me out of sleep disoriented and confused in the dark; I hadn’t been back long enough to entirely realize where I was. My mom opened the door.

“Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center. We’re under attack.”

“What?” I mumbled. It was hard to process what she said. “Come watch the news,” she said, and vanished from the door. I shook my head. Someone what? How was that an attack? I thought she meant somebody’d flown a small plane into the ground at the WTC, something like that.

I walked out of my room into the living room, where my parents had CNN on. My dad was home from work that morning for some reason, and I sat down and looked at the footage — a pillar of smoke rising from the side of the tower.

“What do you mean, under attack?” I asked her. “It’s just a plane crash.”

“They’re saying it was deliberate,” she said. My mom looked really frightened. But I still wasn’t fully awake, didn’t fully comprehend what I was seeing–

And then I watched as the second plane hit the second tower.

It was the first and only time in my life that shock took the strength from my legs. I fell against the wall and slid down it. In that moment, I knew — I knew — that things had changed.

I had the strongest and strangest sensation I’ve ever felt in my life: that I’d fallen asleep in one universe and woken up in a parallel reality, one where people flew planes into buildings. I kept thinking I was going to wake up — again, a cliche of fiction that I’d never actually experienced, and never have since. This wasn’t real. This wasn’t real. It wasn’t real when I saw people jumping from the buildings, something that will haunt me until the day I die. That choice: the fire or the drop? The Pentagon. The collapse of the buildings, all those people running down the street to escape that great cloud of dust and ash, their screams so loud it made the microphones on the TV cameras clip and distort. It wasn’t real.

Do you remember that day? Were you still in school, then? Were you already an adult? You remember where you were. Sure you do. Everybody remembers where they were on September 11th, 2001, the way people of my generation remember where they were on January 28th, 1985, the way my mother’s generation remembers where they were when John and Robert Kennedy were shot, Martin Luther King, John Lennon. You don’t forget because these are the days when the world changed, or at least our understanding of how it worked.

If you remember that day, you remember that most Americans had no idea what was going on. We didn’t know if this was the beginning of a larger coordinated attack. The people on the news — most of whom, I remember, were in tears at this point — said that nobody knew what the next target was. The Pentagon had been hit, but there was talk of Los Angeles, the Sears Tower…the Stratosphere in Las Vegas.

At the time, I was writing for the Las Vegas Mercury, an alt-weekly which has since gone extinct. I didn’t have a car and I didn’t have a cell phone, but I knew I had to find out what was going on. So I borrowed my mother’s cell and hopped on a bus to the Strip.

I got off at the corner of Sahara and Las Vegas Boulevard, in the shadow of the Stratosphere. I expected to see panic, cops, maybe military vehicles in the street. Instead, I saw a regular day in Vegas: tourists walking up and down with their Yards O’ Beer as if nothing had happened. It made no sense to me at all — didn’t these people know what had happened?

I crossed the street and headed for the Stratosphere, expecting it to be blocked off. It wasn’t. What the fuck? The news kept saying Vegas was a target, and the Stratosphere was easily the highest profile target in the city. But the doors were open, taxis were pulling up, people were milling in and out.

It didn’t occur to me until later that most of these people — out and about on vacation, playing slots in casinos where even the outside light was carefully filtered, much less news about the outside world — probably really didn’t know yet what had happened.

But I did, and so I did something which I like to think of as being reasonably brave and which was probably simple, base stupidity on my part: I walked into the Stratosphere.

It may have seemed business as usual from the outside, but on the inside there were FBI SWAT types in paramilitary uniforms cordoning off the entrance to the tower itself. (If you’re not familiar; the Stratosphere Hotel/Casino lies directly underneath the Stratosphere tower itself. It’s as if you built the Seattle Space Needle on top of a Hilton.) It was scary to see guys with M-16s in a casino. And yet, astoundingly, most of the people at the machines weren’t even looking at them. They were still playing their slots. There were a few gawkers, but not many. I think most people were afraid to lose their seat, or didn’t want to cash out their credit on the machines.

I wasn’t wearing a press badge. I was probably in jeans and a t-shirt; I looked like any other tourist. And so I didn’t stand out to the two men engaged in intense conversation near me — one in a suit, one in paramilitary gear. I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that the guy in the suit was a Stratosphere floor manager and the guy in the jumpsuit was some kind of supervising FBI officer.

It’s been ten years since I surreptitiously listened to that conversation, and I didn’t record it; but the gist was that Mr. FBI was telling Mr. Stratosphere that he needed to get all of these people out of here, like right now, and Mr. Stratosphere was explaining that he couldn’t do it. People wouldn’t get up and leave their credits on their slot machines and their chips on the table. After this exchange, the two of them drifted away, and I watched the other guys in jumpsuits going up the stairs to the tower elevators with their guns drawn. They were clearly on edge.

I honestly believed — and, in retrospect, had every right to believe — that at any moment a plane might go into that tower or a bomb might go off, bringing the entire 1150 foot thing down onto the Strip below. I don’t think I was ever quite so terrified in my life. But fuck it, right? I had to know.

But nothing happened. No bombs went off, no planes came crashing in. After a while I wandered off down the Strip to try and get a sense of what was going on.

As I walked, I went up to random tourists and told them what had happened — that the World Trade Center had been destroyed by hijacked planes, that there was a strong possibility the country was under attack by an unknown enemy.

Most of them didn’t give a shit. I remember one couple said “Well, that’s terrible, but we’re here to have fun.” People didn’t know and didn’t care even when they found out. It surprised me back then; it wouldn’t surprise me now.

The only tourists I saw who seemed to really get what was happening was an old Scottish couple who had actually been watching CNN in their room. They told me that they were stuck in Vegas, as all the flights had been grounded. Of course, as I learned later, they weren’t the only ones; thousands of people were stuck in Vegas for several days, most of them past the end of their hotel reservations, and the hotels had no choice but to give them free rooms.

I walked the whole length of the Strip that day, and watched the news coverage into the night. The next day, September 12th, I went to Cafe Roma and sat with my friends watching more news on a small portable TV. That night I went to my friend Heather’s apartment and stood on the balcony with my friends and saw something I’d never seen before and, in all likelihood, will never see again: an American sky without a single airplane in it. The world was silent that night.

Ten years, man. Ten years in this other world, this other timeline. I still feel like there’s a world where 9/11 never happened, just on the other side of reality’s thin canvas; a world where Bush never won a second term, where the vicious excesses of the Noughties never happened. Or maybe they would have happened in a different way. Maybe they were inevitable. But the hopeful part of me thinks not; hopes that the bad craziness, the greed and paranoia of the last decade, was a reaction to the horror that properly kicked it off.

I still remember how it felt to stand in that casino surrounded by the flashing lights and chirping of the slot machines and be aware, in every cell of my body, that I might be standing in an execution chamber. It sounds dramatic in retrospect, but it didn’t feel dramatic at the time. If nothing else seemed real that day, that feeling of death rushing at me like a freight train felt real enough.

And maybe I wasn’t so wrong, at that.

Five of the nineteen hijackers were in Vegas before the attacks; in point of fact, they used Cyberzone, the cybercafe above my hangout Cafe Roma, as their base of communications. I know I must’ve sat next to them in Roma or Cyberzone, maybe said hi to them in passing. My friends certainly did; in the week after the attacks, the FBI swarmed Roma and took accounts from several people.

Ironically, at the time, most of my friends used Cyberzone to play multi-player games of Counterstrike; when you walked in there, amidst the digitized sounds of machine gun fire, you’d hear a voice announce whenever a round had ended: The terrorists have won. The terrorists have won.

I am convinced and have been since that day that their presence in Vegas wasn’t random or coincidental. And based on what I saw in the Stratosphere that day, I’ve always thought there was a fair-to-middling chance that the Feds found something up in that tower, and kept it quiet. Vegas relies on tourism, after all…and if tourists thought that jihadis were putting bombs in the casinos, this town would die a quick and excruciating death.

I don’t know. I don’t have any proof. And it doesn’t matter, ten years down the road, I guess. Trying to sort out the truth and the lies of 9/11 is a Herculean process that will engage historians for a hundred years. I don’t care about any of it, anymore.

When I think of 9/11 now, I think of the people jumping. That’s what I remember. Because I can’t imagine making that choice. No, that’s not true, that’s not why I’m haunted; I’m haunted because I can imagine making it. And now, at 33, I can imagine it a lot better than I could at 23. I know more about death now. If 9/11 happened today, when I am a married man, when I have seen people die in front of me with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have gone into that casino. I would be too afraid.

And I’m lying, a bit here: the other memory I have of 9/11, the better memory, is of the days afterward, when we all seemed to pull together. I remember that feeling that, for once, we were all in this together, every American. It didn’t last — and as history has shown, it wasn’t really true even at the time — but it felt true. It felt real. It was hope in a dark moment, and it was important.

This week people are going to be waving the flag and the signs that say NEVER FORGET; as if we who lived through that day need those signs, as if we would or could forget it. We all live in the shadows of the Twin Towers now. Every time another American soldier falls in Iraq or Afghanistan, every time a bitter young man whose family died in our occupation slips into his first jihadi meeting, every time another one of our core freedoms is eroded in the name of some notional security, we are in that shadow, and I wonder how long it will be before we can ever get free.

And so, ten years on, the memory of 9/11 I choose to cling to is the memory of that togetherness. In the end, when foolish wars and dollar diplomacy fail, it is that and nothing else which may ultimately save us from the dark.

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Tully Goes Down To The Docks

So, I’ve released a new track for sale on Bandcamp, entitled “Tully Goes Down To The Docks”.

It’s priced at a minimum of $1.00, but you can pay whatever you think it’s worth.

This piece (arranged for toy piano and strings with some digital effects) is one of my generative pieces, meaning it’s entirely composed using software algorithms within Ableton Live. While I’ve made several of these before, this is the first one I’ve really felt comfortable charging for, because I think it’s really good. It’s emotionally evocative and warm, and extremely atmospheric; I’m reminded of a film soundtrack. Hence the title, “Tully Goes Down To The Docks”, which doesn’t actually mean anything. It just sounded like the score for the part of the (non-existent) movie where…well…where Tully goes down to the docks.

The process for creating one of these pieces can take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. This one took me about an hour. I created multiple tracks in Live and added looping MIDI clips to them. Each clip consists of just a middle C note, playing a rhythm — eighth notes, sixteenth notes, quarter notes, whole notes, either regular repeating or in some rhythmic pattern. Then I load in the Random MIDI plugin, which randomizes the playback notes. Then I add the Scale plugin, which forces the randomized notes into a scale (in this case, C major).

So the clip sends the middle C note, which is then randomized and then quantized (by being forced up or down) into a harmonic scale, and then sent to Propellerheads Reason, my soft synth environment. In this case, there are three Reason instruments: a toy piano, a solo marcato cello and a string section. The returned audio from Reason is sent to a granular synthesis Max for Live plugin called Hadron, which provides some really interesting (if subtle) sonic texturing, and a whole hell of a lot of reverb.

Once it’s all mixed the way I like it (including mastering but, in this case, no compression, as I wanted it to have extremely wide dynamic range), it’s done. I save the file and go to “Render Audio/Video” in Live’s file menu.

The length of the piece is arbitrary, but in this case I cheated a bit: I manually brought in each track at the beginning and then took them out one by one at the end. The entire track runs 128 measures (or 8:36 seconds). Every time I play the track (or render it out in Ableton Live) it’s different; this recorded version is one of an infinite number of variations on a theme.

I could, in theory, create a custom variation for every single person who bought the track, and I’m considering doing that for the next generative piece I do. It’d be interesting: you would own the only copy of your “version” of the song. No two would ever be exactly alike. It’s a different way of thinking about the idea of recorded music — one that’s really only practically possible with this particular form of composition and recording. (In purely digital music, the two are basically the same.)

I hope you like it. I really do. And enough people have bought it that I think it’s probably worth doing a possible entire album of these pieces!

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