Technology as Sodomite

My program, a theory I tested that worked better than I’d hoped (be careful what you hope for), depends on the simple user-friendly, beautifully integrated technology of the macBook, circa 2011, to put kids’ stop-motion animation together.   This technology allows eight year-olds to take hundreds of frames from the SD card of a digital camera and quickly select and input them into a program that automatically puts them into a folder on a laptop computer.   This easily located folder, which can be customized to use any frame as an icon, can then be opened and selected frames dragged into the simple to use program where the frames are edited to make the finished animation.  In another program the kids make a soundtrack, and drag it into the animation with ease.  It’s simple and direct and kids are happy to teach other kids the programs.

It’s true, as my father said, that I’d complain if I was hung with a new rope.  Keep that in mind.

I listened to a friend’s good advice about buying a new state of the art macBook pro and stop struggling to do all these workarounds on multiple devices– emailing an image from the iPad to include as I create my pitch on the one computer I’ve updated to the latest operating system, play it back on the new iPad.  I need to make various marketing materials to get the program up and running as a business.  It made sense to get the new computer, put everything I need on its solid state hard-drive and not be hampered by technological challenges on top of the challenges already stacked up for me to overcome.  I bought the new macBook three weeks ago.

The Devil, of course, loves the details– calls them home, his playground, an aphrodisiac.  The details drive Old Scratch into a frenzy of creativity.

Apple, like all large corporations, is in business to make the largest possible profit.  This is the way of the world, the first rule of the Free Market.   In addition to constantly introducing new products people will have to buy, they tirelessly upgrade their ingenious programs, reconfigure the operating system, redesign their most popular programs and apps.   Sometimes they even eliminate them altogether.  iPhoto, for example, the program that allowed kids to bring frames in that could be instantly found in a folder– gone.  There is likely a way to do something similar, without a doubt, in the program that replaced it, closely resembling the iOS system they use on iPhones and iPads, but it must be figured out.   Similarly, the program where the kids edit the frames, and which has always had a pull-down menu within each frame to make crucial adjustments, Apple designers have eliminated this convenient feature altogether.   Of course, there has to be a way to do it, it’s just not easy to find.  Especially if you get frustrated when you can’t find it mentioned in the help menu.

So, because I can’t solve these vexing problems at the moment, and it is too hot to struggle with them now, I downloaded a great-looking program called iBook Author.  This program allows one to make interactive e-books, something I have long wanted to do.  They can only be used on Apple devices, of course, but it would be a start.  I was excited to try it and try it I did.  I created the first two chapters of a book, with an embedded movie, and wanted to preview it, see how it looks as an e-book.

Happily there is a button that says Preview right at the top.  I clicked it.  I was invited to select a destination from a greyed out list that contained one destination.  That destination, which I could not select, reads: This computer (iBooks for Mac) (Newer version of iBooks needed).

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The neighbors were treated to a Tourretic outburst that must surely have been unwelcome at that hour, or any hour.  I opened iBooks on the brand new computer I bought three weeks ago and was able to download several e-Books.  I flipped through them, everything worked fine. There was no option to download a newer version of iBooks.  I searched.  All will be revealed, I decided, when I speak to an expert at Apple Care who will guide me through intuitive steps involving holding down the Option key while pressing the smart trackpad with three fingers, for exactly two seconds, and then quickly powering the computer on and off, with an easy switch to the Apple key.  I eventually decided to stop struggling with the willful new computer, shut it down and go to sleep.  

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Sleep took its time.

It’s Like Riding A Horse

Thinking of the famous difficulty of managing people, I recall an incident from when I was 19 or 20 that serves as an excellent illustration.

I was in California for the summer and hitchhiked to L.A. for a brief visit with my girlfriend at the time, a sturdy and elusive young woman I’d been attempting to have a love affair with from a very long distance.   We were staying at the beautiful home of friends of her family in a wooded area of L.A. on cliffs high above the Pacific.   They were gone for the weekend.  

They had a horse and she asked me if I’d like to ride it.   I said I would, though since a pony ride as a child I hadn’t been on horseback.

Having grown up out west, she expertly saddled the horse for me, then explained that she was allergic to horses and rushed inside to shower before the hives became unbearable.

I sat on this large animal’s back and was struck by how high off the ground I was.  I gave the giddy-up signal and the horse began to walk. Having been in the area less than a day I had no idea where to ride, so I let the horse go where he wanted.  It only took a minute or two, and we’d gone a very short distance, when the horse stopped.  I was confused.  The horse as much as said “well, then, fuck you, my friend,” did an about face and jogged back to his stall at a good clip while I held on for my life.

Horses, it turns out, need to know that the rider is in charge, confident and knows exactly what to do at all times.  Much like any humans you might find yourself managing, as much as they might also like to be treated with deference to their feelings, opinions and initiatives.

Meditation on Discouragement

Courage is a rare and indispensable thing.  It is necessary for overcoming fear, which is all around us in a tumultuous world that ends, inevitably, in our certain death.   I don’t mean courage in the sense of being able to rush headlong into danger, although, in the moment sometimes it comes to that, but more the daily courage to act on what you know to be true in the face of an immense crowd chanting the opposite, loudly and constantly.  Or in the face of a small, silent crowd, for that matter.

Encouragement is a good and important thing to anyone facing any kind of challenge.  Note the way ‘courage’ is embedded in the word encouragement.  We can actually give courage by sincerely encouraging.  Presumably one encouraged consistently during the formative years will internalize enough fearlessness to continue without the need for external encouragement.   Blessed are these people, instilled with an incalculably valuable gift by the people who raised them.

Me, some days I find myself looking through the eyes of my grandmother’s beloved little brother who never made it out of Vishnivetz.   The youngest of seven Marchbein children, my grandmother spoke of him with love, and a glitter of joy in her eyes, the one time she mentioned him to me.   She was scratching my back, no doubt, as she often did when I was a boy, and told me about how much she loved her wonderful little brother, whose name was a Yiddish diminutive variation on Joe.  

No mention, of course, of what became of him, or the other six siblings, though I would find out years later exactly how things ended for them all.  Explaining, at least in part, why my grandmother resorted to so much vodka so often in her final years.

I am that beloved youngest sibling, standing on the lip of a ravine on the northern outskirts of Vishnevetz, in my underwear, amid the pounding of drums, the crashing of cymbals and the drunken ruckus of Ukrainian peasants who are trying on my clothes and scrambling over the ravine like demented monkeys.  It is evening, the sky is darkening.  I am waiting, and I can see what I’m waiting for.  The group before me has just had it — a bullet in the back of the head, one for each.  One more shot for the occasional twitcher and then a little dirt thrown over this layer.  “Next,” motions the Nazi in charge, like the maitre d’ at a horribly overpriced restaurant the critics can’t get enough of. 

I cannot get past this ancestral memory at the moment, though I try.  It is more than enough to stop me in my tracks, force me to the keyboard to try to tap it out of mind.   Some days the incomprehensible hatred, greed and stupidity of human beings lays on my heart like an anchor.   Why should such long ago events, no matter how terrible, stop me from doing what I need to do today?  Where is the courage to acknowledge it as just another terrible and distracting thought, one to think and let go of, and let myself get back to work?

What is work?   Today it is sitting at the kitchen table, where the new laptop is set up and ready to go, and clicking “play”, the timer on my cellphone running.  Watching the pitch that I need to refine, make sure it’s as close to ready as I believe it may well be, note what I still have to improve.   I have been working on to it now for over a month.   My immediate task is to make sure the automation is working correctly and timing the presentation, which aims to be about ten minutes long. 

Does not sound like particularly hard work, though I’ve been nervously unable to get to it so far.  Instead I am thinking of a ravine I never saw, on the outskirts of an old town cursed by God himself.

Of course, it’s the fearful difficulty of the entire enterprise that is upon me today.  The arbitrary slaughter of my family thirteen years before I was born is just a manifestation of my feelings of futility.   The fear is knowing that everything is riding on the pitch being a wonderful evocation of the thing I’ve been working on, unpaid, for the last few years.  

An excellent sales pitch is the difference between life and death, I understand that finally.   No shame in being a shameless shill for something that can help so many kids, give myself a better and more productive life in the process, I understand that now too.   I’m ready to do it, truly, and working on it.  Except for the feeling of discouragement I have to talk myself out of.

The pitch will explain why the program I’ve created, which has worked 100 out of 100 times, under very bad circumstances about half the time, and even been greatly appreciated by several amazed adults who’ve seen it in action, is something the NYC public school system, and every children’s hospital and juvenile cancer ward, should pay to have their kids participate in.  

The good work will then go on, the joyful laughter will be heard, the heartwarming feelings will be stirred.  The alternative?  Nothingness, the years theorizing, designing, field-testing, being delightfully confirmed in my theories, refining, trying to document, raise funds, publicize… gone with no meaningful trace.

I’ve refined the pitch now for a few weeks, showed draft 3 to two professionals last week who gave me excellent feedback.  I am using their notes to make draft 4 much better.  It is already much better, after several hours work on it yesterday.  I am sure of it.  

All that remains for me to do at the moment is to press “play”, start the timer, and watch the show.  Then I will know how close I am to having something I can present that will do the bulk of the selling for this wonderful program; that and being in and out of the sales meeting in 20 minutes or less and leaving the potential purchaser with a warm feeling of confidence in me and my product.  Nothing to it, baby.  

And so I have successfully talked myself into doing the obvious now, as soon as I’ve hit the “publish” button I’ll head right in there with my timer.  

Even though I am also, clearly and at the same time, still standing by that godforsaken ravine in Eastern Europe waiting for that coup de grâce as the supercilious maitre d’ distractedly fusses with the collar of his uniform in the hideously warm Ukrainian night.

Creativity revisited

Why this obsession with creativity?  I do not sell mine, after all, why is creativity so important to me?

Never mind.  Not interesting right now.  I want to present John Cleese’s excellent observations about the necessary elements for creativity as concisely as possible.  I need it in a tiny nutshell, to add to a pitch to help me sell my program, which provides exactly those conditions to theoretical elementary school kids.

The great John Cleese describes five essential conditions for creativity:  place, start time, ending time, confidence and humor.   

For young children, who are naturally creative when given the slightest chance to be, we’ve reduced the formula to this:

Have fun and help each other.

You can’t have fun if people are bothering you.  Don’t bother anyone.  If you can’t help, don’t hurt.

When it’s time to be quiet for a minute or two, be quiet.

Place for creativity: how about a room filled with art materials and a camera stand to shoot frames? With a recorder to make soundtracks and a computer to assemble the animations.

Time:  ideally about two hours.   This allows for set-up and clean-up and leaves 90 minutes or so for time concerns to disappear.  The kids now have all the time in the world for leisurely play, letting things develop in their time, being comfortable with not much happening sometimes.  

Asked what she liked best about the workshop, the Idea Girl said “it gives you plenty of time.”    

Confidence is necessary, because if you think you can’t dance, or sing, or draw, or animate, you probably won’t be able to.  

What gives a person confidence?  Someone smiling and giving a thumbs up when the idea is presented.  

What takes away confidence?  Critical comments, ridicule, skepticism, indifference to your best efforts. 

The last part, humor, happens naturally in a room where children are playing, relaxed, involved, having fun, trying out the craziest ideas they can think of, not worried about anyone bothering them.  

It’s not unusual to hear participants laughing at the end of a session.

Fear — and the optimism bias

Entrepreneurs, we learn, often have an optimism bias.  This bias tells them that, although there are dozens of practical reasons they will not succeed, and actual odds they can study anywhere that predict the overwhelming likelihood of failure, that there is a very real magical chance the thing will fly.   Without that optimism, why go to the track day after day betting on the same flea infested long-shot nag?  

Seriously, without the bias toward believing that the unique and excellent business plan will succeed, in spite of the probable impossibility of success, no entrepreneur would take the risky leap.  

It’s true, of course, that most entrepreneurs don’t gamble their own money, that would make the risk even more foolish.  If they can transmit their optimism about the idea, make their excitement infectious, people will give them money.  Entrepreneurs generally promise a nice monetary return on investment, the nicer the return, the better, and the more angels who will flutter in to ante up, but there are other returns a purpose driven enterprise can deliver.

The reason I am thinking about this is my own flickering optimism bias.  I heard the term ‘optimism bias’ just now for the first time, on a TED talk, and recognized it immediately as a feature of my current life.  I have to believe that, in spite of the darkness surrounding this worthwhile program of mine, from lack of partners, to general incomprehension and lack of interest, to my lack of knowledge of essential areas of creating a business, down the line, that there is a light switch on the wall somewhere.   When this switch is turned on the program, already worked out and smoothly operating, successful 100 out of 100 times so far, will be seen for what it is– the simple, fun educational playground I have created.

But like I say, my optimism bias flickers.  It becomes a “they’re right, I AM fucking insane” bias quite regularly.  I feel mad a certain amount of the time.  Here’s representative snapshot of this fight between biases.

I know now that I have to make this program tangible, package it smartly to turn it into a salable product.  I need to put it into palpable form that gives a taste and feel of the thing in action.  I have to create brochures, film clips, books, pitches, tangible things that quickly and colorfully conjure its excitement, lay out its potential, entice people to get involved.  Make principals realize how it will make them look like instant innovators,  putting original animation made by third graders on their schools’ website.  Make administrators want the program for the glory of their district, make social work students want to get involved in facilitating the workshop, for a decent fee, to write grad school papers on social dynamics among different aged children, lure a grant writer who is also a painter or musician.  Do a few of these things well and … the thing could be up and running in fairly short order, no matter the remaining challenges.

So I have put together a little photo book to show people, let them hold in their hands, flip the several thick pages of, get a quick sense of what the workshop is about, why it’s unique, why they should be a little bit excited about it.  I figure I’ll send this book as a thank you perk to the generous people who donated money in the December 2013 crowdfunding campaign. They have not heard from me or the program in a while and some may actually be excited by the colorful little book, glad to see their donations have gone to something positive.  

I’ll include a short personal thank you note to each one and invite them to check out the redesigned website.  A few will even click and see a moment of animation.  All to the good. .The books are a little expensive, but they’re nicely made, feel good in the hands, they’re cool objects filled with childish creation.  If you go for that kind of thing, you will like them a lot.   

Most of the dozen or so who’ve seen them so far have thought them cool, even beautiful, and agreed that they convey what the program does in a very short form.  These are  things I did not have before I struggled to create this book: a nice looking, concise evocation of the program.  The prototype is cool, even if most of the people who get the finished book will flip through it and be somewhat confused by what the heck it means, why I went to the expense and took the trouble to send such an oddly elaborate thank you note.  

Many people are not engaged with the creative impulse very much, if at all, and so the magic in the book will seem like nonsense to them.  The true biggest selling point of the animation workshop not the animation, which is actually a bi-product.  The real value of the workshop is that it provides a thick slice of time in a kid’s day when all that is asked of them is: have fun, create something cool, don’t bother anyone else.  They are surrounded by art supplies, lights and cameras, they create the action.  Machines are waiting to help them turn their wild actions into animation.  They learn many things at the same time, but that comes along with the free exercise of their imaginations and they hardly notice it.  The workshop is literally a model of John Cleese’s creativity lab in action.

His five guidelines come to mind:

place:  have a room where you go to be creative.  Leave the rest of the world outside.

time:  take some time to leave life’s distractions outside of the room.  Get into play mode.  Kids are better at this than adults, obviously.

time: a block of time, 90 minutes is ideal, to play, with no eye on the clock (adults are there to keep track of that) and no thought of anything besides having a good time.

good cheer: no voice of reason in the room telling you why your idea is stupid, won’t work, is amateurish, why you stink, suck, bite, why others do it better, why mine is better.   Without that asshole in the room, people having a good time making up wild stuff often find themselves laughing.  Laughing is a good and healthy thing, most would agree.

A time to end: play cannot go on forever.  There comes a time to wrap it up and leave the excitement where you can pick it up next time.

OK, so here’s that snapshot I mentioned before of my optimism bias in mid-flip.  

I show the book to several people who either praise it in some way or nod that it’s good. Some don’t want to hurt my feelings, of course, one or two may really not get it, but everyone generally conveys that it’s a good job, that the book itself is nicely done.  

I have one friend who doesn’t really understand why I am not concentrating on fundraising, who sees me cowering, hunkered down in a molasses-like marketing mode, writing pages like this instead of taking the actions needed to succeed.  I can only assume he’s thinking those things, based on things he’s said and confusion he’s expressed about my sudden interest in creating these books.  I show him the book.  He flips the pages, says it’s well done but expresses confusion about what I’m going to use the book for.  I tell him, but it seems to make as little sense to him as the previous time I mentioned it.

His comment stays with me.  I can explain it to him again, try to persuade him, but it’s raining, and time to say goodbye, and he’s looking for a cab.  Afterwards I’m thinking– sheez, he’s probably right.  What the hell am I thinking about with this fancy book?   

Here is where the optimism bias yields to pure, unreasoning fear.  I see myself, in light of that one confused comment, cowering, not concentrating on fundraising, hunkered down in a molasses-like marketing mode, writing pages like this instead of taking the actions needed to succeed.  

The snapshot is also another illustration, if one was needed, of the importance of hearing and really being heard.

cold breeze in Cyberia

Facebook, which we’re told is indispensable for any business or would-be business, allowed me to quickly set up a page for my would-be business.  I had a kid managing it for a while, then it went fallow for a year or so.  I was able to update it when I wanted, but didn’t do it often.  If I’d managed to whip up excitement among 10,000 followers it would have been much easier to raise money through crowdfunding, but I had a few dozen and the effort of raising its facebook profile felt mostly wasted while I needed to work on so many other things.

I got a notice from Facebook a few months back informing me I wouldn’t be able to manage or administer the page I’d put up unless I signed up for a personal page.  I did this with reluctance and had “friend requests” from a few dozen people, some I’d known decades back.  

A friend request, it strikes me now, is such a poignant thing to call this transaction.   “Will you be my friend?”  cue visual of adorable little bear, bashful and wearing some kind of cute hate.  

Since I’ve set up my personal page I’ve been unable to post on my own business page, despite having done what facebook’s instructions had told me to.  “You do not have permission to do this,” it tells me.  Or, it lets me post something as a visitor, with my own first and last name visible. 

Taking a break from other things, I had an idea for a work around.  Create a new email address “loves to draw” or “dances with voles” and make that person an administrator.   Then “animation rules” could post to the page, instead of me personally, with my birthday 58 years ago also displayed.  It took only a few moments to find the “settings” tab referred to below and I set off to follow these seemingly simple instructions:

How do I give someone a role on my Page?

You’ll need to be an admin to give someone a role on your Page. If you’re an admin:

  1. Click Settings at the top of your Page.
  2. Click Page Roles in the left column.
  3. If the person is your Facebook friend, begin typing their name and select them from the list that appears. If the person isn’t your Facebook friend, type their email address.
  4. Click Admin to select a role from the dropdown menu.
  5. Click Save and enter your password to confirm.

Page Roles never came up on that settings page.  The left column, yes.  The next step I needed to follow?  No.   Must mean I am not an admin.    

Sekhnet, who has never been on facebook, suggested I call someone at facebook for help.   A friend who is active on facebook laughed, as I would too, if I were not busy gathering my coat around my neck as the cool breeze from the Cyberian tundra whips in.

NY Times on the importance of play in early childhood education

A friend sent me an article from today’s Times, making the same point I’ve been trying to make for the last few years.  Play is a key to getting young kids interested in learning and interacting as part of an inventive, inquisitive group.  I was glad to get the piece, which supported my thesis, though it also aggravated me slightly to read it.  

Written by a freelance science writer in the well-balanced style that is the Times’ trademark, it quoted several educational researchers who believe that more play should be part of early schooling, instead of the accelerated academics pushed by our country’s misguided, corporate-driven educational mandates.  “No Child Left Behind” (surrrrrre…), the article suggests, may underestimate the academic value of young children discovering learning in joyful play, rather than by forcing them to do cognitive tasks at an age when they cannot fully understand or participate in them.

True enough.  Play is crucial for a lot of reasons, at all stages of life, but particularly for kids beginning school.  Glad to see the NY Times printing an article about it.  Here’s the thoughtful, well-written piece.

A sardonic tendency, ingrained by my father, no doubt, twitched after reading an article which, to me, stated the painfully obvious and brought this unfortunate analogy to mind:

“Seven-year multimillion dollar Harvard study of 100,00 children and young adults strongly suggests that children forced by abusers to engage in sexual activities are far less likely to be enthusiastic about sexual intimacy later in life.  Researchers debate….”

I know, I know.

We get to the heart of the discussion on play vs. academic tasks for tykes with this paragraph:

The stakes in this debate are considerable. As the skeptics of teacher-led early learning see it, that kind of education will fail to produce people who can discover and innovate, and will merely produce people who are likely to be passive consumers of information, followers rather than inventors. Which kind of citizen do we want for the 21st century?

The answer really depends on who you ask, as many answers do.  Those who profit from a passive, easily manipulated consumer society have a vested interest in keeping masses of Americans as stupid and gullible as possible.  Which kind of citizen do we want for the 21st century?  It depends on who “we” is.  If it’s the good folks who make billions on ever more sophisticated standardized tests for tykes?  No brainer.  If it’s those who believe that democracy can only work properly with an educated, thinking populace able to intelligently discuss and creatively tackle problems?  

Well, you and I know which side we’re on– but then, nobody is paying us the big bucks to be on the side of profiteers at any cost.  Easy to condemn educational profiteers, I suppose, but, on the other hand, everybody’s got to make a living.