Optimism in the New Year

We’re grumpy ungrateful bastards.

Almost all of us.

And we’re wrong. Wrong to be grumpy. And particularly wrong to be ungrateful.

In my better moments I know that, but I have seldom been so well called back to a sensible, obvious, optimism than by a piece on Edge by Kai Krause. He makes it crystal clear that only the willfully ignorant are not optimistic. It’s a great piece to start you off thinking about the new year with some realistic perspective.

(When folks ask you why in the world you’re optimistic about stuff like fiber to the home making a real difference in people’s lives I recommend you save this reference, point them to the URL, and heave a dramatic sigh.)


But first some background. I usually save thought pieces for Sundays when many of us have the time and inclination to chew things over. But this one is far too good (and far too appropriate for a first-of-the-year piece) to pass on.

Kai Krause is one of dozens of respected thinkers responding to the question of the moment at edge.com: “What are you optimistic about.” Krause himself is know, among other things, for his work on software interface design–if you want to know where the “hard candy” look of Mac OS X and subsequently Windows XP came from just look at the Kai’s Tools program from the 80’s.

The “thinkers” on the Edge share the characteristics of being both leading-edge practitioners of their craft (be that software design, cognitive neuroscience or physics) and writing for the larger public at the same time. There is a strong slant toward scientists, interpreted broadly. In a past life I had reason to read the work of a fair percentage of the group (Curriculum Design and Education is a license to study everything) and they really are among the leaders in their fields. The yearly questions asked of this crew and their answers on The Edge website are among some of the internet’s best nuggets for thoughtful contemplation. These are all people to be taken seriously–even if you occasionally fundamentally disagree with their premises the quality of their thought is never an issue. The question for this year is: “WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT? WHY?”


Now back to Kai Kruse’s answer to that question. He does little more than recount fragments of what he does during his day. It sounds like science fiction. But it is the current reality for any who choose to pick up the tools he uses and it most of it will be familiar enough to be recognizeable to the readers of this blog even if they don’t use the tools to the extent that Krause does. (I recognize, for instance, that he is using a late version of OS X on his ‘puter.) A taste:

It’s a turquoise sky on a December afternoon. Out of the window I see the Rhein river meandering far below me, the last rays of sunlight shimmering on the surface, a storm is passing through from France heading towards Cologne. To check on it, I push a button, the screen fills with dozens of little widgets: I have a quick look at the realtime weather animation loop for the last 6 hours and can see that most of it will pass to the North….

A little bell sound, ah, an sms text message coming in from my daughter in London…

Dragging the mouse to the other corner: the screen fills with tiny colorful images, probably 100 of them, all the files currently open shown in miniature. I find the NASA shots and drag them over to the side into a folder for science stuff. Quite a collection of bits and pieces there, years of collecting them. Attached for a few hundred bucks is a terabyte worth of muse and ponder. Dozens of reference books, the Encyclopedia Brittanica, what a dream.


Obviously I could go on ad nauseum here, but this is not a description of technology per se. The emphasis is on quality of life. On the benefits of tools, the liberating freedom. My real point: Humans are feeble. We forget. We have become numb to all the wonder.

To see the weather in pictures from space, animated over time, what a wonder that would have been to the Wright brothers…or James Cook, Vasco da Gama, Marco Polo..? To be in realtime communication with your family, what a wonder that would have been for Bach who had 20 children (half of which died in infancy. I didn’t even touch on the advances in health and medicine, of course)…

To the kicker:

And is there a list of evils and downsides that came with all those advances? You bet. I could switch hats and drown in drivel about all that…

But the question stands: what am I optimistic about? And I think it simply bears repeating:

Countless scientists over the millennia dedicated their lives to discoveries, to solutions, to inventions and explanations. They had visions of bettering the fate of humanity, of seeking truths and finding answers, and they paid for it with enormous efforts and in many cases with their life. Their combined body of bodies stands in front of us, in awe, and… in tears. We have achieved almost all their dreams, we have freedom in every sense like never before in history and: we are ungrateful bastards about it!

Let us just be content again. Plain happy. Period. I am calling for a New Contentism.

I’m pretty sure he doesn’t mean be only content…just to be actively grateful for what we’ve got while building on it.

It’s hard to argue with when you think about it. On the evidence of what people have already accomplished that seemed like the wildest of pipe dreams to our ancestors there is little reason to think that we can’t at least lay the foundations for our own grand new dreams.

Post Scriptum……If there is anything depressing about this it is that we walk this world like the demigods in a world our intellectual forebears spent their lives and dreams to create for us and still act as if we had the excuse of being ignorant fools.

Dreaming: How To: Tech and Economic Development

Want to really understand how to start a new high tech business sector in your hometown? It has nothing to do with a new office park and everything to do with community.

I’ve talked to a number of people in Lafayette who would like to get a high tech arts and entertainment sector going in our city. Ideas for getting it started have ranged from video gaming, to video editing schools, to film production studios, and school curricula. They don’t seem to have gained much traction.

Part of the problem with that strategy is that it is putting the cart before the horse. Building institutional tools to support a community is crucial. But first you have to have at least the start of a solid community to breath life into the institutions. That’s seldom recognized –even by those doing the crucial work of developing that community.

That’s why someone ought to applaud the work of Mae Chapman-Jason who started the Lafayette Film/TV and Music Industry meetup group described in an article in today’s Advertiser.

She probably thought she was just helping herself and few friends get together to talk and help find work. But it sounds as though she is actually building community. She probably does not think that she is doing economic development work. She may not have a firm idea of what the phrase means.

But that is what she is doing. She is building a community and that is the crucial development work at this moment.

The meetup technology provides a nice, easy-to-manage way to arrange a meetup between folks who might not otherwise know each other, at least not directly. So technology helps even at this stage. But a successful group like this is the seed of a wide-ranging community of people who will, in pursuing their own interests, find the unique tools Lafayette has to offer and do something with it. They are the horse that will pull the cart of new institutions and programs.

Our economic development cadre is admirable but they should make it as much a part of their job to help create such community as to build or bring in businesses. The “creative class” that development theory seems enamored of recently is developed in local communities–and is understandably very resistant to leaving the communities that have fostered their talents. That’s why folks go to L.A. or New York. And why they resist going to most places in the “sticks,” no matter how attractive it might be otherwise.

Here’s a thought: AOC would make the nucleus of a very nice community arts center focused on the range of creative endeavors from animation to video games to film-making and TV shows. There is considerable overlap in the technologies used in generating these new forms. They are fairly costly and a center would help beginners in that regard but even more they are tools that are mastered by communities and not individuals. There is simply too much to do and know. They are hard to learn and teaching each other is the only practical way for a community in a city like ours to build itself up.

It’d be the best economic development dollars ever spent.

No Argument, It’s True

The paper’s admirable C’est Vrai local history column doesn’t usually have much to do with fiber and Lafayette’s quest to build its own network. Today it does. Recounting the infrastructure situation in 1906:

“All of these things will cost money,” The Advertiser continued. “In fact a great deal of it. Nevertheless that does not signify that they are either difficult or impossible. With the right man in charge, backed by the united efforts of the citizens of this town, all three objects can be accomplished. And all three will prove paying investments.

“It is simply a question of deciding we want these things, then get together, get the right man and in the lead, and push.”

Bradshaw, the author, comments:

That also sounds like a formula that might work today. It’s remarkable what can happen when everyone pushes together.In 1906 as a century later.

The more things change the more they stay the same. C’est Vrai.

UPDATE: 11:10
Ok, as soon as I reread the line: “The paper’s admirable C’est Vrai local history column doesn’t usually have much to do with fiber and Lafayette’s quest to build its own network” I knew I was wrong. As a former history and social studies education professor I should have known better. History is always relevant.

For example:
On doing for yourself what others refuse to do for you: The rice revolt

I repent of my foolishness.

Fiber to the Schools

The Adverstiser has a short piece on the ongoing FTTS (Fiber to the Schools) project in Lafayette parish. Announced back in March of ’05 the plan outlined a project to wire up all the parish schools with real bandwidth. The project was to be funded with a 70% match from a federal grant.

The plan was to wire the city schools first, completing that in the summer before the 05-06 school year and then to complete wiring the parish in 07. The city schools were completed on time and apparently the parish schools are pretty much on schedule too.

The immediate pretext to the story is that the Youngsville city council has joined the Broussard and Scott in approving a plan that would allow the use of their rights of way and its sounds like Youngsville was being a bit fussy about that:

The projected completion date for the project is fall 2007, Huval said.

“Our goal is to have it done before the beginning of the next school year, but we might lag behind that, because it took a time to get the agreements put together that went to the (city) councils.”

The right of way delay is ironic since Lafayette and LUS have been prime movers in the Louisiana effort to preserve the ability of local municipalities to control their rights of way. BellSouth/AT&T’s have attempted to remove such control based in part on the argument that it leads to delay in rolling out new services. Had the phone company got its way and had Blanco not vetoed BellSouth’s bill LUS wouldn’t have to negotiate rights of way agreements at all.

As mentioned before in these pages the comprehensive buildout of the Lafayette backbone into all corners of the parish has hopeful implications for a fiber network beyond the boundaries of LUS’ current Lafayette city footprint. Having a backbone in place throughout those areas, and the rights of way agreements secured clears the path for possible future expansion.