Entries Tagged 'art' ↓

Movies are the New Startups

Putty Hill, a film by Matthew Porterfield (2010)

Something amazing is happening in the world of filmmaking. Crowdsourced funding mechanisms like Kickstarter.com are enabling a new generation of filmmakers to get a foothold doing what they love, where they want to do it. They’re using social media to find acting talent, and new digital camera technologies are making it possible to create amazing high quality films for a fraction of what it used to cost.

Matthew Porterfield

I’m particularly impressed by the work of Baltimore filmmaker Matthew Porterfield, whose films “Hamilton” (2006) and “Putty Hill” (2010) exemplify the new kind of “cinepreneurial” skillset which will certainly come to define 21st century filmmaking. (You can read here about the funding and creative process behind Putty Hill.)

Porterfield is a nice, unassuming guy who teaches film at Johns Hopkins and directs his students that if they want to make documentaries, they need to go to New York, and to go to Los Angeles for pretty much everything else. For today, this is sound advice. It’s the same kind of advice you’d give talented coders looking to unleash the next big web technology — go to San Francisco, because it’s where the industry is centered — at least right now.

But if you ask Porterfield why he doesn’t take his own advice, he’d likely offer a cryptic sort of answer — that he’d considered it but really couldn’t imagine himself anywhere else. I don’t know him well enough to speak for him, so I hope he weighs in here. But Matt and I are kindred spirits: we both are actively choosing place over anything else, and investing our time and talent to make it better.

Let’s Invest in Maryland Film, Not in Hollywood

Baltimore and Maryland have been the home to many well-known movie and television productions over the years, not the least of which have been Homicide: Life on the Street, The Wire, and a slew of Baltimore native Barry Levinson’s films including Diner, Tin Men, and Avalon. And most all of these productions received significant subsidies from the State of Maryland.

As budgets have continued to tighten, the O’Malley administration made a strategic decision to cut back on investment in film production subsidies. And that has probably been a very wise decision. Other states have been more than willing to outbid Maryland, offering ridiculous breaks. And Maryland really doesn’t need to be in yet another race to the bottom.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

The film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) was based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald (who lived around the corner from me in Bolton Hill when he wrote it), and it was originally set in Baltimore (original text). Yet the film version was set in New Orleans and had a subtext about a dying woman retelling the story as Katrina bore down on the city. Why? Subsidies. New Orleans offered more subsidies than Maryland would. And so the story was changed and moved there. Who knows if the Katrina storyline was a condition in the contract!

I don’t really have an opinion about whether Benjamin Button should have been filmed in Baltimore, but I do have an opinion about engaging in zero-sum games with 49 other desperate states: it’s bad policy. And I also think the time has come to admit that big movie studios are the next big dinosaur to face extinction. Why should Sony or Disney or Universal make the bulk of the world’s content when every man, woman, and child has access to a $200 HD camera and a $999 post-production studio?

Investing in Cinepreneurs

John Waters is one of Baltimore’s great artistic assets. And it’s not because of film subsidies. His work is known worldwide, and it celebrates the quirky, distinctive voice of Baltimore. Matthew Porterfield is distinctive and quirky too, and he makes beautiful pictures: he’ll be next to make his mark. And there are dozens more teeming around places like MICA, the Creative Alliance CAMM Cage, Johns Hopkins, Towson University, and UMBC. We need only to nurture their talent and the ecosystem.

Browncoats: Redemption, 2010

Another film, Browncoats: Redemption was made locally last year and created by local entrepreneurs Michael Dougherty and Steven Fisher. It is utilizing an innovative non-profit funding model. The film’s is raising money for five charities and it leveraged social media and Internet to recruit 160+ volunteers and market the film.

Instead of blowing money on Hollywood productions that bring little more than short term contract and catering work to Maryland, why don’t we instead start investing in the artists in our own backyard? Just as IT startups have gotten much cheaper to jumpstart, it’s now possible to make films for anywhere from $50 to $150K. If we dedicate between $5M and $7M to matching funds raised via mechanisms like Kickstarter, we could make something like 150 to 300 feature length films here in Baltimore. This would unleash a new wave of creativity that would yield fruit for decades to come, and put Maryland on the map as a destination for filmmakers.

We already have great supporters of film in the Maryland Film Festival, Creative Alliance, and many other organizations. It wouldn’t take much to get this off the ground. Instead of going backwards to the 1980′s in our view towards film production (as former Governor Ehrlich has recently proposed), let’s take advantage of all the available tools in our arsenal to jumpstart the film industry and move it forward in Maryland.

For every new artistic voice we nurture, we’ll be building Maryland’s unique brand in a way that no one else can compete with. It will make an impression for decades. And investing in film and the arts will help the technology scene flourish as well. Intelligent creative professionals want to be together. And coders and graphic artists think film and filmmakers are pretty cool.

We shouldn’t let an aversion to the failed subsidy policies of the past get in the way of forging a new creative future that we all can benefit from. We can invest in the arts intelligently. Let’s start today.

On Serendipity

How do bands form?

I’ve long been fascinated by this question. What are the odds that the Beatles could actually come together? And is there anything that we can do to not only accelerate that kind of unlocking of creative potential, but to actually engineer its maximization?

And I’m not talking about New Kids on the Block, or other [s]exploitative measures designed to achieve a simulacrum of engineered success.

Most people hate their jobs. They watch the clock. They drive someplace to do something they’d rather not be doing, and when they’re done, they drive back so they can do something else entirely, or forget their troubles in rituals like binge eating and drinking.

They find their coworkers boring and shallow. Workplace parodies like Office Space and The Office reveal deep-seated anxieties about the nature of our work and our workplaces. Even worse, we train people to accept that kind of quotidian boredom in our schools: factory-style learning produces workplace-style disengagement. No wonder there’s such a problem with bullying: the teachers bully the kids, and the kids bully each other. Both are bored, cynical, and disengaged. Bullying is, by far, the most interesting and engaging thing going on in most of our schools. No wonder kids latch onto it.

If four kids from Liverpool can form the Beatles, what can four kids from Baltimore or Boston do? Arguably, there’s as much locked-up potential everywhere. Just like Einstein proved that Mass is Energy, and the conditions for conversion need to be just right to unleash it, I think we can prove that unlocking human potential is just a question of setting up the right conditions.

Our schools aren’t working. Anything good that happens in schools, public or private, happens essentially by accident. Kids might stumble into one or two good teachers or engage in a similar number of creative projects that they actually care about. Tragically, many kids never get that chance, even once.

Our workplaces aren’t working. With some significant exceptions, workplaces are dull and destroy the spirit. The few, exceptional, entrepreneurial workplace environments that promote any level of self-actualization should be celebrated. They do exist. But for the most part, we’re a society of zombies living for the weekend. That shit is broken.

Coworking, entrepreneurship, and community-powered endeavors are leading the way in the right direction. They help accelerate the serendipity required for self-actualization and engagement. The best chance we have of unlocking a Beatles-like level of creativity is through things like coworking and barcamps. One of the innovators behind them, Chris Messina, has said they provide “accelerated serendipity,” and that coworking is like “Barcamp every day.”

But we can do better. Why is it that the best we can do is to try to accelerate serendipity? What might we do to engineer it? Acceleration just means we’re bumping into each other in random ways more rapidly. If we engineer that bumping, can we achieve better results faster?

How to do this? I’m not sure. Certainly being conscious of that goal, and breaking out of old patterns are key. More people who are presently unfulfilled in their work need to quit their jobs and seek local like-minded spirits. We need to find ways for teams to come together more reliably.

But John, Paul, George and Ringo can teach us something else. They didn’t say, “I’ll form the Beatles if someone can introduce me to four world class bandmates and ensure it’ll be a success.” They just put themselves out there and started playing in places where an audience, and other musicians, could find them. And they unlocked one of the most powerful creative forces in recent human artistic history.

What can you do if you put yourself out there and let others find you? What can you do if you try? You may never know. And your kids will never know as long as you’ve got them on a treadmill of team sports and factory schooling. How are you letting your kids put themselves out there creatively? Or do they have no time for that?

We’re pushing our delusions down into the lives of our kids, and it’s immoral. Just because you have no time to take creative risks, don’t force it on your kids. Leave some holes in their schedules. Knock it down to just one team sport. Give them time to play.

And give yourself time to play. Maybe, if we all could open ourselves up to the possibilities right in our own backyards we could use today’s technology to truly the maximize formation of creative teams. The Beatles didn’t have Craigslist. Maybe if they had, they could have found a good drummer.

The Coming American City

In business, one seeks to establish a sustainable long-term competitive advantage — something that allows you to outperform or outlast others.

Cities provide multiple competitive benefits: their compactness directly affects time, energy, and resource efficiency. In addition, cities generate new ideas and cultural experiences by bringing together a critical mass of diverse people.

While technology has certainly made it possible for people to work from just about anywhere, this is really only useful for executing work which has already been broadly defined; when it comes to generating new ideas nothing beats face-to-face interaction. It is simply a higher-bandwidth form of communication, and ideation requires trust and some level of long-term interaction.

Car culture is inefficient and runs counter to a lifestyle designed primarily around face-to-face interaction and ideation. Idea-based industries (advertising, banking, technology) have long flourished in urban environments — the kind in which walking, bicycling, and public transportation are the most effective modes of transport.

The very idea of parking is a ridiculous and outdated concept. The notion that we should devote land, tie-up business resources in this feudal enterprise, and perhaps most ridiculously spend time looking for parking spots should convince anyone that this arrangement is not sustainable.

The strategic competitive advantages of cities are clear and incontrovertible. But if cities are so great, why are ours in such terrible shape?

Take Cleveland, for Example…

Most arguments against the benefits of cities tend towards the “Yeah, but” flavor — citing examples of how specific cities have failed. Such arguments are more informed by historical economics than by rational analysis of the present or future.

The argument in support of cities is deductive: inefficiency costs money, cities are more efficient, therefore cities have an advantage. The arguments used against cities are inductive: our cities have not worked well, therefore no cities can ever work well. One possibly valid reason to doubt the deductive argument is the very fact that so many people believe the inductive argument to be valid: the deductive argument can be invalidated only if the presumed efficiency never exists, which could happen if a critical mass of people does not accrue to realize it. Thus, the only thing in the way of a more efficient American future is our own doubt that it is achievable.

Here’s how Americans have been duped about the nature of cities, and how we can overcome our 20th Century biases to realize the sustainable competitive advantage that awaits us in our cities.


Industrial America was not a particularly pleasant place. Cities were crowded with workers, factories, coal smoke, animal waste, polluted waterways, and with the possible exception of New York’s Central Park were not designed environments in any way. It is quite understandable that people of means would have wanted to separate themselves from “common workers” and remove themselves to land surrounding the city. After all, land was the ostensible indicator of wealth for generations. Speaking generally, city centers were thus for people of lesser wealth.


America’s great industrial centers required a vast supply of workers, and they came from across the globe. Each new wave depressed wages, which made them seem less desirable than the last, and clashing value systems created a constant xenophobic revulsion that made for de-facto segregated neighborhoods. Not wanting to risk these vagaries or witness these shifts, many opted for less dense, more stable environments.


Large numbers of low-wage workers densely packed in urban centers could be readily organized for collective bargaining. Henry Ford, in particular, hated this idea, not because he opposed the interests of those being organized, but because he hated the idea of someone profiting from those organizing activities. Ford was deeply anti-Semitic and he ascribed everything from banking to labor organizing as an evil influence of the Jew on the pastoral idea of the progress of industry.

As much as anyone else, Henry Ford invented the suburb and he did it to prevent workers from becoming organized. The Model T, and the suburban hierarchy it enabled, were not only the products of his business — they were a design element in the industrial, suburban future that Ford helped to create.

Industrial Consolidation

It is common to throw around words like “industrial decline” and to talk about the “rust-belt”, but the fact is that the post-war period was marked more by prosperity and consolidation than any kind of “decline.”

The capitalist system was just doing what it is supposed to do: create value for shareholders by eliminating inefficiency, and in many cases firms followed Ford’s example by relocating to suburban locations where land was cheaper and unions could be more readily controlled.


Reflexivity is the idea that market participants can affect a market just by observing it. For example, a currency trader with an established track record can move a currency merely by stating an intention to take a position. In the same way, cyclical disinvestment in cities was launched by corporations who began to systematically disinvest in cities as part of their consolidations.

Systematic disinvestment in downtown areas by corporations led to a cycle of negative effects, almost all of which are what people mean when they talk about our “urban ills.” But as intractable as these problems seem, they do not negate the deductive argument in favor of urban environment. Instead, the argument is more along the lines of Yogi Berra’s, “No one goes there anymore — it’s too crowded,” which is both fallacious and clearly informed primarily by human perception.

Feudal Equilibrium

Reflexive disinvestment has affected politics in particular. Populations in many American cities are off 40% or more from their historical peaks (around 1950). Voter engagement in municipal elections has been abysmal; city officials are often elected on turnout under 25% and by margins of just a few thousand votes.

As a result, city politics often pulls in people more interested in using these positions for their own personal gain than for the greater good. However, there is a catch: if the abuses are too egregious, even more people will leave the cities and the parasite will kill its host. And so we end up with a kind of Peter principle of public service: each post is filled by someone competent enough to survive minimal public scrutiny and still get away with whatever shenanigans is motivating them. (Obviously this cannot be a fair characterization of every individual, but it is descriptive of the system as a whole.)

The political power establishment thus wishes to prolong this state of affairs; attracting large numbers of new, middle class voters will assuredly end their reign. So they do not advocate this; instead of implementing designs that would attract real investment, they talk about “getting tough on crime” and “fixing our schools,” and sometimes they genuinely believe they can address these problems. However, these issues are just final effects of reflexive disinvestment; fix that and crime and schools will fix themselves.

American Exceptionalism

Americans are too often blind to lessons from other parts of the world. Europeans are too effete and socialistic; Asians are too “foreign”. And everybody else, with few exceptions, is the enemy. We are not terribly good at stealing ideas from elsewhere, and we tend to over-value our own experiences.

Detroit’s current failures do not mean that cities are inherently ungovernable or inefficient.  Tokyo, Berlin, Paris, London, Shanghai, Seoul and countless others serve as examples of livable modern cities that are being productively adapted with 21st century designs. Within the US, a few cities like Portland offer hints at what can be.

Still, neither examples (nor counterexamples) affect the deductive argument. But when considering examples, Americans are biased towards negative American examples over positive international ones.

If one is going to try to argue against a deductive argument using an inductive one, it could at least be complete and balanced.

“But I Like the Suburbs…”

Thankfully, everyone is different. And often I hear people say, “But I like living in the suburbs.” Or they point out that I (or others) did or do. [Full disclosure: I have lived in the suburbs, worked in the suburbs and the city, went to college in the city when I was younger, and just bought a house in the city because I think now is a good time to make that investment; I am also tired of spending time driving.]

But here again it is inappropriate to try to use single individual examples to invalidate the general deductive argument. I am also not making a judgment about the relative value of the city or the suburbs. Too often people feel that their lifestyle is being threatened, and that is not the point of this argument. The only relevant issues are economic: if someone wishes to live in the suburbs, they should expect to pay for it with time, fuel cost, relative isolation, and a potential long-term political marginalization.

And the fact is that they will probably be less happy. A study recently showed that commuting is the single-most injurious activity to happiness, while having dinner with friends created the most happiness.

Right now, we are subsidizing the suburbs with fuel costs which do not account for environmental externalities. There is no reason to expect this to continue; however even if it does, energy will never be free. Suburbs are a bad economic bet for this reason alone.

Race and Partisan Politics

These two issues are so complex and divisive, I will refrain from discussing them here, despite the fact that I have considered them both in great detail. Each deserves a post (or a volume of books) in its own right.

However it should be said: race is not important to the deductive argument, and neither is partisan politics. Positive, reflexive investment in cities will make them efficient, productive, and diverse; this is a centrist idea that should make both the left and the right happy. Politics and race are both issues that have all-too often been hijacked by people looking to promote their own interests, and Americans have been historically unable to perceive any issue free of these lenses.

Placing Bets on the Future

The long-term strategic advantage that cities can provide (specifically through time, energy, and resource efficiency) is not made any less real by our past failures; America’s cities are indisputably its best hope for the future. The natural evolution of the American economy tends towards higher-order activity, and will ultimately settle on creativity and design at its apex. The longer we wait to begin a cycle of positive, reflexive investment in our cities, the longer we stall our country’s competitiveness and our ability to innovate.

We must only convince ourselves that a more efficient and livable future is possible; the rest will follow.

iPad and the Brain

The iPad promises to be a very big deal: not just because it’s the next big over-hyped thing from Apple, but because it fundamentally shifts the way that humans will interact with computing.

Let’s call this the “fourth turning” of the computing paradigm.


Early “computers” were electro-mechanical, then electric, and then later all electronic. But the metaphor was constant: you pushed buttons to enter either values or operators, and you had to adhere to a fixed notation to obtain the desired results. This model was a “technology” in the truest sense of the word, replacing “how” a pre-existing task got done. It didn’t fundamentally change the user, it just made a hard task easier.

8-Bit Computers: Keyboards

The early days of computing were characterized by business machines (CP/M, DOS, and character-based paradigms) and by low-end “graphics and sound” computers like the Atari 800, Apple II, and Commodore 64.

The promise here was “productivity” and “fun,” offering someone a more orderly typewriting experience or the opportunity to touch the edges of the future with some games and online services. But the QWERTY keyboard (and its derivatives) date back to at least 1905. And the first typewriters were made by Remington, the arms manufacturer.

The keyboard input model enforces a verbal, semantic view of the world. The command line interface scared the hell out of so many people because they didn’t know what they might “say” to a computer, and they were often convinced they’d “mess it up.” During this era, computing was definitely still not a mainstream activity.

More of the population was older (relative to computing) and had no experience with the concepts.

The Mouse, GUI, and the Web

Since the introduction of the Macintosh, and later Windows, the metaphors of the mouse, GUI, and the web have become so pervasive we don’t even think about them anymore.

But the reality is that the mouse is a 1970′s implementation of a 1950′s idea, stolen by Apple for the Lisa from Xerox PARC. Windows is a copy of the Macintosh.

The graphical computing metaphor, combined with the web, has opened the power of the Internet to untold millions, but it’s not hard to argue that we’re all running around with Rube Goldberg-like contraptions, cobbled together from parts from 1905, 1950, and 1984 respectively. Even so, the mouse alone has probably done more to open up computing than anything else so far.

The mouse enforces certain modes of use. The mouse is an analog proxy for the movement of our hands. Most people are right handed, and the right hand is controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain, which science has long argued is responsible for logic and reason. While a good percentage of the population is left handed, the fact remains that our interactions with mice are dominated by one half of the brain. Imagine how different your driving is when you only use one hand.

While we obviously use two hands to interact with a keyboard, some cannot do that well, and it continues a semantic, verbal mode of interaction.


The iPad will offer the first significant paradigm shift since the introduction of the mouse. And let me be clear: it doesn’t matter whether hardcore geeks like it now, or think it lacks features, or agree with Apple’s App Store policies.

The iPad will open up new parts of the human brain.

By allowing a tactile experience, by allowing people to interact with the world using two hands, by promoting and enabling ubiquitous network connections, the iPad will extend the range and the reach of computing to places we haven’t yet conceived.

Seriously. The world around us is reflected by our interactions with it. We create based on what we can perceive, and we perceive what we can sense. The fact that you can use two hands with this thing and that it appears to be quick and responsive is a really big deal. It will light up whole new parts of the brain, especially the right hemisphere — potentially making our computing more artistic and visual.

Just as the mouse ushered in 25 years of a new computing paradigm, pushing computing technology out over a much larger portion of the market, the iPad marks the beginning of the next 25 years of computing.

And before you get worried about how people will type their papers and design houses and edit video without traditional “computers,” let me answer: no one knows. We’ll use whatever’s available until something better comes along.

But computing platforms are created and shaped by raw numbers and the iPad has every opportunity to reach people in numbers as-yet unimagined. That will have the effect of making traditional software seem obsolete nearly overnight.

When the Macintosh was released, it was widely derided as a “toy” by the “business computing” crowd. We see how well that turned out.

This time, expect a bright line shift: BIP and AIP (before iPad and after iPad). It’s the first time that an entirely new design has been brought to market, answering the question, “Knowing everything you know now, what would you design as the ultimate computer for people to use with the global network?”

It’s 2010, and we don’t need to be tied down to paradigms from 1950 or 1905. Everything is different now, and it’s time our tools evolved to match the potential of our brains and bodies.