Strap a Tree on Your Back

Having just returned from the Le Web conference in Paris and having once again thoroughly enjoyed their Velib’ municipal bike-sharing system, I continue to be inspired to do as much as possible via bicycle.

I try to bike as a form of functional transportation, not just for exercise. If you start to think about biking as a way of getting around, a lot of the dysfunctional design of our cities and suburbs becomes evident.

Today our family was faced with the task of obtaining a Christmas tree, and wanting to get out for a bike ride I immediately thought this was something we could accomplish via bike. This summer when I attended TED Global in Oxford, I flew to Heathrow airport with my bike and then rode from there to Oxford (about 50 miles) with a 30 pound pack on my back. So a Christmas tree (20 pounds?) over 5 miles seemed no problem in comparison.

So this afternoon our family biked to a local produce stand and purchased a tree. We put it into a US Army standard-issue duffle and secured that to my back using cargo straps.

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Here’s me in my fully mobile glory:

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And here, on the Baltimore-Annapolis Trail:
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This crazy getup evoked smiles all the way around. Many people said, “You’ve just made my day.” It was about a 30 minute trip home, and somehow a clichéd act of holiday duty had been transformed into something joyful.

I just wanted to take a few moments to reflect on 2009 and express my gratitude for an amazing year:

  • The wonderful community we have discovered and built up at Beehive Baltimore (February-present)
  • My old friends at Twitter and at AngelConf + Y Combinator, Silicon Valley (March)
  • New friends + allies exploring the future of journalism in Baltimore (April)
  • New friends and compatriots in Buenos Aires, Argentina (April)
  • Jared Goralnick and his amazing Bootstrap Maryland event (May)
  • Aaron Brazell, Jimmy Gardner and WordCamp Mid-Atlantic (May)
  • Brady Forrest, Ryan Sarver, Anselm Hook, Andrew Turner at Where 2.0 and WhereCamp (May)
  • Barcamp Baltimore (June)
  • Micah Sifry and Andrew Raisej at Personal Democracy Forum + Transparency Camp (June)
  • Dave McClure, Christine Lu, and the Geeks On a Plane #goap gang (June)
  • Great new #goap Friends in Tokyo, Beijing, and Shanghai (June)
  • Christine Lu, Chris Anderson, Lara Stein, Salome Heusel and the TEDx team (June)
  • An Amazing experience at TED Global in Oxford (July)
  • Winning Innovator of the Year Award from The Daily Record (October)
  • Winning the Connector award from Greater Baltimore Tech Council (October)
  • The entire TEDxMidAtlantic Team (August-November)
  • An AMAZING life-changing event: TEDxMidAtlantic (November)
  • New friends at Le Web in Paris (December)

It has been an incredible year. If you follow your heart, anything is possible. Don’t let anyone tell you something can’t be done. Strap a Christmas tree to your back if you want to. It’ll work.

Do good work, my friends, and get ready for an amazing 2010. We need each other.

Best wishes for a safe and happy holiday season, from my family to yours.

544 Second St. & Me

In 1983 at age 12, I became drawn to the design and tech culture of San Francisco. By that time I was already deeply involved in computers and the other tech of the day, and had been reading every issue of BYTE Magazine cover-to-cover when it arrived in our mailbox after school.

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BYTE was produced in New Hampshire and had a scholarly tone; still, the emerging world of computing was breathlessly covered, and offered a sense of endless possibility. But it was Antic magazine (a specialty computing magazine for Atari computers), specifically the December 1983 “Buyer’s Guide” issue that really caught my eye.

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The design was colorful and imaginative, with beautiful typography, and the magazine was full of amazing ideas and products which I was sure would launch me on my way to unlimited exploration. I devoured the magazine cover to cover, but I never realized just how much I was soaking up its design ethos. Colorful, playful, and bold, this was not the wry, academic BYTE. It was combining the substance of tech with the emerging design scene in San Francisco, and it resonated with me profoundly.

In 1985, I got a job at a local computer store doing what I loved: selling computers and software and, yes, copies of Antic magazine. In 1986, I started my own computer and software sales company, Toad Computers. In 1989, months after graduating from high school, I had the chance to visit Antic Magazine — this time as an advertiser.

This was my first trip to San Francisco and I visited Antic at their loft office, located at 544 Second Street, right in the heart of the city’s SOMA district. But this was SOMA before it was the SOMA we know now as the home of so many startup tech companies. Beat up and edgy, the open-air second floor office had high-beamed ceilings and gave a sense of history and limitless potential. I was smitten with the city and with valley tech culture – I also visited Atari’s headquarters in Sunnyvale that trip – and absorbed all that I saw.

Later in 1993, I was twenty-one and searching for new things to explore. Toad Computers was doing well but I knew that it would have to change and grow to survive. Atari was having tough times. Antic magazine had folded. To advertise effectively we were sending out massive catalog mailings, featuring 56 page catalogs that I personally designed – very much in the visual style of Antic magazine.

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Someone had told me about a new magazine called Wired. I picked up a copy and was immediately struck with its sense of visual design and its aura of infinite possibility through the combination of design and tech. Again, I ingested every word, photo, and illustration in each issue. In early 1994, I noticed an ad that indicated that Wired – this tiny publishing startup – was looking for a circulation manager. I was entranced at the possibility. With my background in direct marketing and managing big catalog mailing lists, I thought this might be an opportunity for me.

In February 1994, I booked a trip to San Francisco to talk to my kindred spirits at Wired about the possibility of working there. I also became entranced with the Internet and its possibilities at this time, and for several days before my trip to San Francisco, I worked feverishly to write an article for Wired about how the Internet – when it became fully developed and evolved – could become a kind of real-time Jungian web of knowledge that acted like a global brain. I theorized that the Internet could become a kind of collective consciousness that enabled humanity’s genius to be available to everyone all the time. I predicted online banking, shopping, and video chat and made illustrations to show how these things would work.

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Me, with long hair, at Wired HQ in February 1994

Of course, the simple things were not hard to predict at that time, though they were still a few years off. But my central thesis about Jungian synchronicity was just too wacko to print in 1994. And to be fair, I had cobbled the article together in just a couple of days, had worked in ample quotes from Marshall McLuhan and Carl Jung, and had interviewed no one. My thesis may have been strong, but the piece would have benefited from some interviews and editing. But hey, I was inspired and twenty-two.

When I went to Wired’s offices, I was stunned to learn that they were located in the same office that Antic had occupied! The same open air loft office at 544 Second Street. I met with some folks from Wired’s barebones staff. I commented on my perceived sense of Jungian synchronicity — about Antic and Wired sharing the same office space. We talked about job possibilities. I submitted my article.

I didn’t get a job, and they didn’t print my article. To be fair, I wasn’t really ready to move to San Francisco, and I am sure they sensed that. I also wasn’t sure what I wanted. I just knew that I was drawn to this hopeful admixture of design and tech that seemed to emanate, radio-like, from 544 Second St.

In March 2007, two weeks after I had built Twittervision and a week after SXSW launched Twitter onto the early adopter stage, I thought it would be fun to stop by Twitter HQ in San Francisco. I met Biz and Jack and Ev, and was once again amazed to see that something I had been drawn to had come from SOMA; just a few blocks from 544 Second St. And ironically, it is now Twitter and the “Real Time Web” that is beginning to enable the kind of global consciousness that I had predicted in 1994.

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This past Thursday at TEDxMidAtlantic (of which I was the lead organizer and curator) in Baltimore, I was struck by the beautiful design of our stage set. (Thanks to Paul Wolman at Feats, Inc. for bringing it together for us!) A simple combination of bookshelves, cut lettering, books, a few objects and blue wash backlighting had combined to produce a gorgeous backdrop for the extraordinary ideas that our speakers would soon be sharing. And I felt at home. I could not go to 544 Second Street and SOMA. Instead, it was my mission to bring it here.

20th Century, Go to Sleep

I may not exactly be what you’d call a futurist, but I do spend a lot of time thinking about the future and the evolution of ideas.

Since 2001, our country has been a breathing anachronism — a zombie-corpse of outdated ideology and backward-looking worldviews — living in a state of Cold War suspended animation, pushing outdated agendas and peddling simplistic platitudes to an indifferent world which had increasingly moved on to other things and the urgent business of reality.

Yesterday, we said “enough” to sticking our heads in the sand. Yesterday, we said “no” to “drill baby drill,” and “yes” to a real and sustainable energy economy. And yesterday, we showed the world that the America that they love — the America that its founders had hoped it would become — is back, functioning and healthy.

I’m not naïve enough to think that one political party or another will magically take the country in the right direction. In fact, now is when the real work of shaping policy through direct political action will need to begin. The battle is not over now.  You must participate to get the kind of country you want to live in, and that’s true regardless of who is in office.

But, one thing is true: leadership matters. And at this time of transition and change, America desperately needed a leader with imagination, hope, and a sense of the future. And we have that leader in Barack Obama. He has singlehandedly rewritten the rules of presidential politics in America and has proven that he is the political heir of both Kennedy and Reagan. Barack Obama has brought hope back to America and the world. With Barack Obama, the 21st century begins in earnest.

As children, we were all sold a vision of the future, and this was supposed to be it.  We were supposed to be rocketing around with jetpacks, with robot assistants and TV watches. By the year 2000, children imagined their lives would be studded with space age marvels. But, 2000-2008 has felt more like the final cold grasp of a 20th century that has outlived its welcome; a sick and disordered hallucination of the century that wouldn’t die.

I remain a student of history, and I am thoroughly ready for the 20th Century to pass into the history books, and now, packed up and archived along with the last 8 years which are rightfully its, I send it on and bid it farewell.  20th Century, go to sleep; really deep; we won’t blink.

2009 is the new 2001. Welcome to the future.