Musings & Adventures, Tech

The Boring Story of Digital Asset Management & The Interesting Story of Data Curation

[Re-post from my work blog CoCuPu]

The Boring Story of Digital Asset Management

We have all this stuff on computers
and all these people who need to use it
some of those people know a lot about the stuff
others know nothing about it
We have a lot of trouble finding things
It’s important to let pople share stuff
but it’s dangerous if the wrong things are shared with the wrong people.
Blogs, flickr, Google Docs, oh my.
Twitter! Facebook! Social Media!
CLOUD!

Microsoft says “Sharepoint.”
Oracle says “Just f*cking pay us.”
SAP says “But you don’t have consolidated Identity Management”
Media specialists say “You need media asset workflow solutions.”
Librarians debate about bad metadata and authority control.
Somebody screamed HIIPA, another cried SarbOX.
The IT department is worried about stability and security.
Doesn’t our SAN hardware solve this? Do we need Hierarchical Storage? The cloud is expensive.

Three departments stood up Drupal instances and dumped their stuff in there.
We set up an image management solution. One in five users loves it. Most spurn it.
We’ve begun to learn that “Image” means many things to many people.
Video files are really big, and a bit frightening.
Actual document production and management has drifted into Google Docs.
We still have no way to say “this spreadsheet has information about those images and videos”
We haven’t even considered the idea of branching and merging spreadsheet data
Our senior counsel’s head exploded when we told her how many different ways people share files online. That was four years ago. She thinks we “put a stop to it”.

The Interesting Story of Data Curation

“What is it?”
“What does it mean? How do you use it?”
“Who is it (or should it be) relevant to?”
“Do they think it’s valuable? What do they think is valuable about it?”
“Is it worth preserving?”
“Why is it worth preserving?”
“… How long should it be preserved? Seven generations?”

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Musings & Adventures, Random

Are we really living in a simulation? Answer: it doesn’t matter.

A response to Nick Bostrom’s “Simulation Argument”

My understanding of how quantum computers work* is that when they are in an uncollapsed state it’s mathematically valid to think that all of the possible computational paths are being traversed simultaneously. In other words, a possible “universe” opens up for each logically possible path. Whenever the logical feasibility/stability of one parallel “computation” falters, its “universe” collapses. When all of the unstable paths have expired, the computer reurns to a collapsed state — returning all possibilities that fit the constraints of the “reality” (logical rules) provided for that computation.

We look at quantum computers, observing how they work, and we think of that phenomenon as being something novel, abstract, foreign and dependent upon human-made technology. How silly! Any physicist can tell you that quantum computing is just harnessing something that is absolutely ubiquitous in the phenomenal world. It’s not inventing a brave new thing. Rather the opposite – it’s tapping into something that’s so integral to every aspect of the phenomenal world that we don’t know how to recognize it. It’s so close to our noses that we can’t see it without extreme contortions or profound insight.

What we experience as reality is just what happens when a consciousness interacts with a probability field that is constantly collapsing and uncollapsing in countless ways.

What does this tell us about Bostrom’s “Simulation” argument? It tells us that the distinction between “simulation” as he describes it and some “reality” external to that simulation is meaningless. The futuristic “ancestor simulation” machines he imagines are nothing more than reality functioning exactly as it has always functioned. This is not to say that some actual, manifest computational devices will never be engineered by humans to do the things he speaks of. Rather, it means that those machines would be gross unwieldy prototypes of something whose truest form would have to shed the chauvanism of a race that clings to a known misperception of time as linear and space as finite.

If or when we let go of that foolishness, we might then glimpse a so-called posthuman existence and discover, not for the first time, that it’s just reality staring us in the face.

The important questions to ask don’t pertain to whether this world is real in some absolute sense (it’s not.), or even how this reality came to occur. Instead, they pertain to why we believe that it’s real, how that impacts our minds, and how it serves as a basis for suffering. This has always been true and will always be true. Neither technology nor knowledge of the mechanisms of the universe will change it.

If a microbe in a petri dish were intelligent and became aware of the experiment, how would that change anything for the microbe? Possibly it could contrive some form of escape? What then? It’s just one microbe among zillions, whose capacity for experience can’t meaningfully differentiate between petri dish and non-petri dish. Likewise, while Bostrum’s simulation might be a fun idea to toss about, the theory doesn’t provide any meaningfully novel inroads to actually understanding reality.

* I would love to get links to well-written sources that correct or extend my understanting of this topic.

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Musings & Adventures, Random

Poem: Each from Different Heights

That time I thought I was in love and calmly said so
was not much different from the time I was truly in love
and slept poorly and spoke out loud to the wall
and discovered the hidden genius of my hands.

And the times I felt less in love, less than someone,
were, to be honest, not so different either.
Each was ridiculous in its own way and each was tender, yes,
sometimes even the false is tender.

I am astounded by the various kisses we’re capable of.
Each from different heights diminished, which is simply the law.
And the big bruise from the longer fall looked perfectly white in a few years.
That astounded me most of all.

– Stephen Dunn

[quoted by Millie Getachew in an email conversation about love and beauty on March 5, 2008]

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Musings & Adventures, Random

Seeking New Urbanism in Minneapolis

Note: I found this post on my laptop. It feels unfinished to me, but these ideas are constantly evolving in my life and I won’t be coming to any conclusions any time soon. It’s all an ongoing exploration. In the spirit of working & pondering openly, I’m putting it out there as-is.

17 March 2012

Last night I lay on my floor with a university math student from Beijing. We talked about the dissociative culture of a megalopolis – the crush of people, the aggressive push, and the concomitant loneliness. This isn’t our only option for densely populated human existence.

In the middle ages, urban populations tended to max out at a couple hundred thousand. They were dirty, smelly, dangerous places prone to rampant disease and violent political conflict. We had reached a hypothetical limit to the size of population that a city — a type of ecosystem — could sustain without suffering collapse. However, with time, we reimagined what a city could be and forged ahead with new developments in hygiene, communication, education and food transporation. This allowed for a new flourishing of urban landscapes, allowing cities to grow and host millions of residents. Along the way, extensive social change occurred to accommodate urban life. New forms of urban culture arose, often characterized by greater mobility and stronger emphasis on individualism.

We have reached another hypothetical limit, this time on a global scale, and we must innovate again. The challenge is surmountable, and the solution lies in reinforcing the positive things that we are already doing. As with any truly challenging situation, panic is not constructive, differing perspectives must be accommodated, and everyone must make the effort to look beyond their personal comforts to see both the greater threat and the broader possibilities.

It was over seventy degrees and humid in Minneapolis at 10am this morning, March 17. Historically, this would be a week where 30-degree temperatures (that’s zero celsius) would inspire comments of “ooh. Its a bit warm today… and humid. Enjoy it before the thermometer dips back below zero (fahrenheit).” I’m flying over North Dakota, near the badlands, it’s late winter and the land looks dead but you can see the touches of agriculture. Sparse settlements, a set of farm houses, irrigation and the telltale grid of crop rotations on parceled-out private land. I wonder what the weather will be like here in five years. Where will the water be? What will the temperatures be like? In many ways, this region and areas north of it might benefit from a warming climate — a longer growing season, milder winters, less competition from agricultural states further south whose crops will be failing due to drought, heat waves and severe weather. This region sits on top of the Odwalla Reservoir, which will serve to hydrate the land and moderate shifts in the climate. How can this knowledge guide our decisions? In particular, how should it inform the way we build the cities where most of our residents live?

When viewed from a map, the corridor between Minneapolis/St Paul and St Cloud already shows the markings of a megalopolis — an automobile-based concrete landscape that sprawls like Houston or Chicago, at night appearing as a glowing gash on the surface of the earth. When viewed on a national level, this development into a megalopolis seems inevitable and the patterns of that metropolis seems predictable. Someone who doesn’t understand this place would think of it as derivative — a starstruck little sibling enthusiastically immitating its elder sisters, doomed to repeat their mistakes and destined to show the same blemishes. That is one possible future, but it’s not inevitable.

Each year, Minneapolis becomes more cosmopolitan. In many ways the pattern of growth and gentrification here repeats many of the patterns you see in places like Brooklyn or Oakland, but at the same time there are fundamental differences. We’re a new Metropolis. We are surrounded by arable land on all sides for thousands of miles. We have no Manhattan island. We have a population laced with individuals who are only one or two generations removed from life on a farm. We also have the mistakes of past urban developments, and current successes as reference points. In short, we have leeway to choose how we do things, and we have room to grow in all directions.

It’s imperative that humans begin to create urban landscapes that foster local production of food, community cohesion, and rich, diverse, creative culture. This is the best way to brace ourselves against challenges that loom before us — the danger of potential economic instability, the unpredictability of changing climates, and the erosion of social/moral infrastructure.

The real problems of the modern world cannot be addressed through political means. They must be addressed by gradual, intentional, change to the fundamental structures of urban/suburban life.

It’s easy to think of localvorism as an elitist fad, or as merely a limp-wristed retaliation against the moral failings of industrial agriculture and the global supply chain that it’s part of. Likewise, urban farming may seem like a sweet indulgence by liberal dilettantes. Others see it as a valiant shift away from participating in a global economy — a maneuver which, when you run the numbers, simply couldn’t lead to positive economic results. I propose seeing it as something more gentle and potentially more meaningful. It’s a shift in relationship to our immediate environment. The innovations of the modern economy have made it possible to operate on a global scale. In fact, it has become nearly impossible not་ to operate on a global scale, and this has the unintended effect of destorying our sense of ordinary, day-to-day orientation with respect to our surroundings. Local food production is a beautiful and deeply effective means of addressing that disorientation. Producing some of your own food, or at least consuming a meaningful percentage of your food from within a couple hundred miles forces you to be attentive to things like seasons, geography, and supply & demand. The modern economy has been brilliantly effective at stabilizing prices and stabilizing the availability of commodities, but that also means that it has succeeded at hiding some of the human story behind every product that moves around the planet.

It’s valuable and healthy to be attentive to the interconnectedness of our lives. While we can’t have a personal relationship with every person who played a role in producing every object that passes through our hands, we can increase our appreciation for all those objects and the people who produced them by also maintaining and reinforcing economic relationships with geographically close, small scale vendors.

Likewise, modern communications technologies have made it possible to create and/or maintain relationships with people all over the world. For better and worse, in a context where mobile coomputing is ubiquitous, physical proximity plays a very different role in human relationships. This, together with myriad factors of post-industrial society, has led to a disjointedness that’s literally depressing. We have the freedom to choose, at all times, our own customized social and intellectual environment. As a whole, this is wonderful, but there’s immense social, psychological and economic value in being forced to deal with the people who might be physically near you while socially distant. In the past, this was something that circumstances forced upon us. Now we have the freedom, or obligation, to consciously design our urban landscapes and cultures to maintain the necessary goods of those person-to-person daily interactions.

Luckily, these aren’t new ideas. People have been exploring them for decades. Of late I’ve been enamored with New Urbanism, which is based on attempts to design new urban zoning codes in order to achive better human-scale urban spaces. Of course, there’s also Landscape Urbanism, which is also a great start. Where to from here?

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Meditatation, Musings & Adventures

Song: Drawing the Line Between Happiness and Misery

Song by the yogi Milarepa (tib. མི་ལ་རས་པ), from the Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche song archive. Note: audio recording of the song will be available sometime soon on that site.

Drawing the Line Between Happiness and Misery

Someone who rests in the act of self-recognition
And is therefore in contact with basic reality
This is a yogi and happy at any time
Someone like this is a yogi and always content

A Dharma practitioner chasing after delusion
Caught up in creating a welter of suffering
This is a person unhappy at any time
This is a person who’s always miserable

Someone who rests in a state which is not artificial
Is unchanging and pure in the midst of whatever occurs
This is a yogi and happy at any time
Someone like this is a yogi and always content

For a Dharma practitioner caught in events and reacting
Both likes and dislikes pile up all by themselves
This is a person unhappy at any time
This is a person who’s always miserable

Someone who’s realized appearance as dharmakaya
Has cut through the hopes and the fears and the hesitations
This is a yogi and happy at any time
Someone like this is a yogi and always content

A Dharma practitioner careless and full of pretenses
And not on top of the eight worldly dharmas at all
This is a person unhappy at any time
This is a person who’s always miserable

Someone who knows that everything is mind
Is able to use whatever appears as a resource
This is a yogi and happy at any time
Someone like this is a yogi and always content

A Dharma practitioner lost in this life’s distractions
Will find a great deal to regret at the time of death
This is a person unhappy at any time
This is a person who’s always miserable

Someone who’s mastered a measure of realization
Can settle in natural mind’s natural presence
This is a yogi and happy at any time
Someone like this is a yogi and always content

A Dharma practitioner shackled in lots of desires
Who is self-indulgent and scrounging for attention
This is a person unhappy at any time
This is a person who’s always miserable

The one for whom labels are freed on the spot where they’re forming
Has an unbroken flow of insightful experiences
This is a yogi and happy at any time
Someone like this is a yogi and always content

A Dharma practitioner caught in conventional terms
Will not gain conclusive discernment applying to mind
This is a person unhappy at any time
This is a person who’s always miserable

Someone who’s given up worldly pursuits and involvements
Is free of self-interest and narrow-minded objectives
This is a yogi and happy at any time
Someone like this is a yogi and always content

A Dharma person whose struggle is geared to provisions
Whose only perspective is caring for family and friends
This is a person unhappy at any time
This is a person who’s always miserable

Someone who’s turned from attachment from within
With the realization that everything is illusion
This is a yogi and happy at any time
Someone like this is a yogi and always content

A Dharma practitioner taking a path of distraction
Who sells his own body and speech into slavery
This is a person unhappy at any time
This is a person who’s always miserable

Someone who rides on the horse of diligence
Will go through the levels and travel all freedom’s paths
This is a yogi and happy at any time
Someone like this is a yogi and always content

A Dharma practitioner shackled in laziness
Will sink like an anchor into the brine of samsara
This is a person unhappy at any time
This is a person who’s always miserable

Someone who’s listened, reflected and cut hesitation
Then meditates on the panorama of mind
This is a yogi and happy at any time
Someone like this is a yogi and always content

A Dharma practitioner claiming to practice the Dharma
Whose way of behaving is really a case of wrongdoing
This is a person unhappy at any time
This is a person who’s always miserable

Someone who’s cut through the hoping and fearing and doubting
And rests in the natural state without interruption
This is a yogi and happy at any time
Someone like this is a yogi and always content

A Dharma practitioner led by the nose by the others
Who flatters and humors them just to get their applause
This is a person unhappy at any time
This is a person who’s always miserable

Someone who’s left the cares of this life behind
And is always engaged in practicing excellent Dharma
This is a yogi and happy at any time
Someone like this is a yogi and always content
Under the guidance of Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, translated and arranged by Jim Scott, Tibetan page 616. Translation copyright 2012, Jim Scott

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Enlightened Business, Meditatation, Musings & Adventures

Materialism, Benefit, Disengagement and Stupas

Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu

Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu

The stupa in Boudha has a magical, peaceful quality. When you approach it on foot, you can actually feel it before you see it. The air changes, sounds become less sharp, and people move more slowly. Around the stupa is a wide, paved circular path where people do “khorra” (tib. འཁོར་ར་) – circumambulation – all day & night while saying prayers,

Circumambulating the stupa on the khorra path

Circumambulating the stupa on the khorra path

talking with friends, meditating or simply passing time. This circular plaza surrounding the stupa, sometimes called the “khorra path”, is lined with shops selling local wares like Buddhist statues, Tibetan thangkhas, incense, jewelry, and shawls. When you emerge from a side street onto the khorra path, one’s natural impulse is to to be swept up in the flow of happy, peaceful energy flowing clockwise around and around. What a wonderful thing to pour oneself into!

In 2011, I coordinated travel plans with my mother and her friends Anita & Larry so that we could meet in Kathmandu. I was coming from Bodhgaya & Varanasi while they had arrived days earlier from Delhi and the Golden Triangle. When I arrived from the airport, while walking along the khorra path in search of the hotel where they were staying, I saw my mother emerge from the cicumambulating crowd with a joyful ease that I’ve never seen her embody anywhere else. With a backdrop of the sun-dappled stupa and elderly Tibetan ladies counting prayers on rosaries, I saw a lighter, happier version of this person I’ve known my whole life.

The busy khorra path and shops

The busy khorra path and shops

According to legend, the Boudhanath stupa was built in the 5th or 6th century CE. It was begun by an old woman and later finished by her four sons. It’s commonly said that the four of them later reincarnated as the Tibetan King Trisong Detsen (tib. ཁྲི་སྲོང་ལྡེ་བཙན), his minister, the Indian pandita Shantarakshita and the great realized master Padmasambhava who together brought Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century.

A lot can be said about Stupas and their purpose. In one sense, they’re said to act like anchors giving stability to Buddhist wisdom and its practice in a land. While that might be true, there’s an inner sense that particularly resonates with me. In Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s recent book Not for Happiness he talks about stupas as a bold challenge to the belief that spiritual pursuits have anything to do with material practicality. He quotes Patrul Rinpoche in pointing out that those who walk the authentic spiritual path must abandon the idea that you can fix the material world; to believe that the material world can be fixed, even for the benefit of others, is just another kind of material clinging. Building stupas speaks directly to that view, because Stupas have no practical function. They take a lot of time and resources to build and maintain, for what? Many of them don’t even have doors. They’re like a satire of all the foolish worldly projects we pour so much effort into.

3 workers whitewashing the stupa

Whitewashing the stupa – maintenance operations are ongoing year-round.

So why build them? Because authentic happiness doesn’t come from external things. Erecting and maintaining these odd structures is a substantial investment in the habits and patterns that go beyond hapless participation in the destructive cycles of confused life. It punches a hole in the ordinary rhythms of things so that people might see a glimmer of alternative.

Sitting by the Boudha stupa or walking around it today, it’s easy to reflect on the amazing beauty that can come from this kind of project. Nearly 1500 years ago a handful of people put their resources into something that made absolutely no sense from a practical perspective. According to tradition (and plausible given the philosophical & cultural context of the time), they did it because they truly wished to do something beneficial in the world and they believed that the only way to achieve real benefit for oneself and others is to completely abandon all attempts to seduce the world into giving us what we want, to instead scrutinize our own minds and to strip away even the most subtle forms of ignorance. It’s like that seemingly irrational selfless act put a kink in the armor of ignorant existence. Over time, thousands of beings have come across this anomaly in the flow of things and their minds have been changed by it. Each one has added a bit to the system, and taken away other bits. The cumulative effect is manifestly present. Anyone can go there and witness it.

In light of all these reflections, I find it interesting that, far from being anti-commerce or somehow divorced from daily activity here, the stupa seems naturally mixed with everyday operations. Rather than condemning the practicalities of life, there’s the air of engaging with and elevating them. Giving up material clinging, even going so far as to let go of the idea that we can fix the world for the benefit of others, does not mean doing nothing. Nor does it mean climbing high on a pedestal and looking down judgmentally at the rest of les miserables. This abandonment is something much more subtle and much more challenging because it must happen in our hearts and minds. Inwardly we have no choice but to abandon material views while outwardly we must constantly seek skillful ways to make the world better: to increate happiness, to decrease suffering, to rejoice in positive qualities and to wash away false differences for all beings.

Buddhist practitioners, surrounded by small stupas, doing prostrations on wooden boards on the first terrace of the Boudhanath stupa

Buddhist practitioners doing prostrations on the first terrace of the Boudhanath stupa

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Meditatation, Musings & Adventures

Inconcievable Creator

Friday 25 January 2013, Pullahari

This morning I learned that Tibetan Buddhist philosophers have a term for the kind of God posited by traditions like Judaism, Christianity & Islam.  They call it sam minchi chepo (tib. བསམ་མིན་གྱི་བྱེད་པོ་) an inconcievable creator .  This is probably a translation of an older sanskrit term, but we didn’t cover that.  It refers to philosophical systems that posit a creator god without any reference to valid cognition or logic.  In other words, a sam minchi chepo is a creator whose existence can’t be established by verifiable observation nor through inferential cognition.

There’s something satisfying about seeing this oppressive topic packaged up with a simple label.  In western cultural dialogue, so much of philosophy, religion, metaphysics and discourse about spiritual paths is dominated by this single question about whether the creator God exists.  Meanwhile, the Buddhists wander through that field and say “Oh.  You believe in a བསམ་མིན་གྱི་བྱེད་པོ་.  That’s problematic.  Let’s move on – so much else to cover!”

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Creative Culture, Enlightened Business, Musings & Adventures

We wanted world peace. Instead we got viral videos.

06 January 2013
Mumbai,  Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport (BOM), International Terminal

On last night’s flight from Atlanta to Amsterdam, along the way to Kathmandu via Mumbai,  I found myself sitting next to a woman who works with the Aspen Institute. She’s a former Fellow of the institute who continues to participate in their activities by serving as an occasional organizer and mentor.  Impulsively, I asked what the Aspen Institute thinks of B Corps.  She informed me that B Corps were actually created by an Aspen Institute fellow, a friend of hers, who worked on creating the B-Corp structure as part of his fellowship.  How exciting!  We spoke briefly about it but she seemed tired and not particularly excited about the prospect of spending a transatlantic flight getting her brain picked by a strangely enthusiastic hacker who wants to talk about about corporate structures.

Etiquette constrained what I could say, and how much of her attention I could presume to demand.  She was, after all, trapped in her seat between me and the airplane chassis.  She was at a disadvantage; basic manners dictated that I should not commandeer her headspace.  What I really wanted to tell her was that I was sitting on that plane right then, escaping to a monastery in Nepal, because I’ve had a crisis of orientation & resolve.  Fundamentally, I believe that the only way to make life meaningful is to cherish benefit for others and to bend one’s life and opportunities towards creating that benefit. How does one translate this conviction into action?  For nearly a decade my path has been to explore what it takes to build technologies and companies that create benefit through dissemination of information, preservation of human knowledge, and celebration of craft.  I intend to continue that work because many things about it ring true but, in part, I’m reeling from a lack of camaraderie because, more broadly, I find myself grappling with unsolved, contentious questions about the structure, function, and limitations of the modern capitalist economy.

I think that corporate culture and startup culture are biased against thinking seriously about social benefit because we all believe, to some extent, that capitalism is fundamentally cold, selfish and skewed in favor of exploiting the poor while rewarding those who are already well off.  Part and parcel with that belief is the assumption that the primary ways of explicitly achieving benefit  are through charity and/or government welfare rather than commerce.  However, when I look at my personal  experiences in business while scrutinizing the mechanisms of suffering, injustice & welfare and considering the past 40 years of research into topics like game theory & behavioral economics, I see a remarkable amount of graceful skill in the patterns of modern capitalism.  I find myself suspecting that free market advocates might be right -that capitalism itself can and does serve as a great tool for achieving benefit, and the things that make capitalism harmful are mistakes of distortion.  This is only a suspicion; I remain skeptical while intrigued.  If my goal was to merely achieve benefit for myself while telling a good story about why my actions are actually beneficial for everyone, I could glean convenient satisfaction from the existing free market argument.  Alas, my goal is the opposite; my goal is to act for the benefit of everyone while telling a good story about why that’s even possible.  This leaves me inclined to proceed with caution.

I’ve personally witnessed how embarrassingly easy it is for a bright individual to raise giant sums of money in order to build technologies and companies whose focus is relentless financial profit.  More importantly, with that money comes brilliant, skillful, well informed guidance from mentors who know how technologies work and  how companies grow.  In contrast, it’s remarkably difficult to find shrewd guidance, funding, or even encouragement when attempting to create technologies and companies whose primary purpose is benefit rather than profit.  In that domain, there is very little support infrastructure that a person like myself can readily access, and there’s even less community.  I’m not saying that this support infrastructure and community are nonexistent, rather that they are difficult to access and insufficiently prominent in the flow of civil discourse.  Organizations like the Aspen Institute are out there drumming up discussions, but we need to see a lot more of it.  For example, If you were to toss around cocktails at almost any bar in San Francisco you would be able to find a chorus of silicon valley devotees proffering intense, opinionated, well informed conversation about topics like profit models for tech startups or equity strategies for stakeholders.  Some of those devotees will be schmucks, but others will turn out to be genuinely talented and insightful individuals who are ready and willing to act as sounding boards for new ideas and new perspectives, as long as your ideas fit within the established paradigm of software startup culture.  Where can I find that same kind of sounding board when I need to have a serious, pragmatic conversation about finding the balance between idealistic vision and sustainability?  Where do I turn when I need to discern between a shrewd business decision and a good one?  Why does it feel like I lose connection with the people asking these types of questions when I assert that market forces and modest profit models are preferable to relying on government funding, charitable organizations and grant cycles?

Venture Capitalists like the Founders Fund challenge us to be strident and visionary — they complain that “We wanted flying cars. Instead we got 140 characters.”.  They have a great point, but they call for a bland, technocratic type of visionary thinking. What about asking whether flying cars will do any meaningful good in a culture that lacks compassion, and what about acknowledging that in the pursuit of flying cars we will run a high risk of inventing new forms of weapons while potentially giving rise to new flavors of coercion, conflict, environmental ailment and strife? Progress is a deceptive thing, and the relationship between technology & happiness is fraught with complexities.

I am a strident technologist, inventor, creator and futuristic dreamer, but I have no interest in merely pushing technology (or art) forward.  That type of so-called forward motion is a thinly veiled illusion.

I know that I’m not alone in harboring these sentiments, and I’m hopeful that the world is secretly bedazzled with a network of pragmatic dreamers who get it. I see their sentiments reverberating in the ideas of those around me, but these ideas are beseiged by skepticism and they grind against the presumption that kindness, generosity and concern for human happiness are incompatible with successful business.

Where is the chorus of benefit-driven ventures?  Why isn’t it the dominant voice in our culture and economy? How can I participate in that chorus? Who will help me steer true?  Where are you?

It’s thoughts like these that are driving me to Pullahari.  I have built plenty of momentum in my work, but that is not enough to ensure it will be benefitial to others.  On a fundamental level, I’m convinced that the adjustment I need to make is mental.  After all, our mental habits and views dictate our actions. Our actions, in turn, create our world.  Hence, a sabbatical on a mountaintop in Nepal, spent translating & meditating on Shantideva‘s Bodhicaryāvatāra, is exactly what I need right now.

I guess the other reason why I held my tongue with my fellow airline passenger from the Aspen Institute is that I don’t have much to offer in the way of solutions or innovations yet.  I don’t even have a coherent critique of what I see as the current state of things.  All I have are open-ended questions, some experience,  a bit of lonely frustration, and a strange long-shot hunch that my next steps have something to do with storytelling.  We will see where this goes.

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Musings & Adventures

Killing 10 hours at Mumbai Airport

06 January 2013

When I checked in at the Delta desk in Minneapolis airport yesterday morning, the woman at the counter pointed out that I’ve made a foolish mistake.  I neglected to remember that, though Nepal allows you to purchase a tourist visa in the airport, India requires to to apply for one weeks in advance.  In order to make the most of my 10 hour layover in Mumbai, I had reserved a room at a nearby hotel so I could shower & sleep.  Alas, leaving the airport would require at least a Transit Visa.  Instead of getting some sleep, I find myself with 10 hours to kill in the International Terminal of Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport (BOM).

I’ve heard horror stories of visa-less travelers being forced to spend hours sitting in stark waiting rooms until their connecting flight is ready to depart, but my experience transiting through the then-new airport in Delhi in 2010 was quite nice.  The terminal there is spacious and relatively quiet despite the bustle and has large open spaces whose ceilings soar some four stories above the main floor. If memory serves, they even have a hotel attached to the terminal. Mumbai’s airport is older, so I steeled myself for the worst but held out a little hope that it would be at least moderately comfortable.

The International Terminal at BOM is like an upscale American strip mall built in the 1990s, with two primary differences : terrible air quality and squatting toilets.  Its basically a single long, curved hallway 6 meters wide with 5 meter ceilings.  Shops and cafes line both sides of the hall, and each end opens up into a sort of loop of shops & gates.  A periodic stream of travelers gushes into the middle of the terminal at regular intervals, freshly arrived off incoming flights.  Though the process of getting into the terminal from my arrival gate was both confused and confusing, the officials and security agents were, as a whole, friendly and willing to help when I greeted them with a smile and looked them in the eye.

I’ve ensconced myself in a vinyl armchair in the sitting area of “The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf” cafe opposite the security checkpoint.  A latte here costs as much as they do at Starbucks and tastes like the lattes you get at strip malls in the US.  I’ve got my eye on midnight lunch of Dhosa & Idli from “Idli.com”, right next to the much more popular “Pizza Hut Delivers” and  KFC.  I wonder if the KFC chickens are factory farmed here in India.  They must be, no?

There’s a refreshing flow of travelers here.  Most of them are in good spirits.  Occasionally people stop and strike up a conversation.  So far I’ve spoken with a guy from Sri Lanka, a guy from Sacramento, a middle-aged couple from the UK, and a young German guy wondering whether I had gotten wifi here (answer: you can get free wifi if you are able to send an SMS from your phone to the wifi operator — useful for domestic travelers, but stupid in an international air hub).

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