‘Read it to me’

In one of Nick Bilton’s recent Snapchats he mentioned an iOS feature that was new to me. It’s not a default setting, so to enable it you’ve got to go into Settings, then General, then Accessibility, then Speech. Enabling “Speak Selection” turns on Siri’s ability to read you highlighted text. An example of what that looks like from my Pocket is above.

This probably seems somewhat trivial, especially since Siri still sounds so robotic. But I’ve already been having Siri read me many longer articles. A simple example is Siri reading a long form article aloud while I’m cleaning myself up in the morning or loading the dishwasher.

And it’s not hard to imagine how natural this can become when Siri starts sounding more human and as the feature develops. I can imagine in a few years being able to ask Siri to “read me the top New York Times headlines” and as it cycles through those headlines instructing, “alright, read me that article.”

Allocating time

One of the things I’m consciously working on this year is improving my ability to allocate time. I’m trying to do this both in terms of professional life and side projects, and in my personal life.

Todoist has become one of the best discoveries as an aide for this. I’ve tried lots of to do apps, project management apps, reminder apps. Todoist works for me because it combines some of the best features of all three categories. I can create different projects and nested projects, I can create both one-time and recurring tasks, and I can very easily drag and drop tasks at the start of each week to create a reasonable plan of action for the week.

There’s always the unexpected. For instance, I’m working on audio production at the moment and it’s the first time I’ve done any production in probably five years. It’s turned out to be way more time intensive than I expected, and so something that I had expected to take a day or two has taken a week.

But for the most part, Todoist has helped me become much more realistic than I probably was previously about how much I can expect to accomplish each week.

Specialness of place

This David Foster Wallace quote came across a social stream:

“[Tourism] is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.” David Foster Wallace

This immediately brought to mind a strain of thought in Conserving Mount Nittany—part of a larger conversation on how to conserve something special while still allowing it to be accessible:

Ben Novak: One of the things that crushed me during my eight years in Europe was that… many of the historic palaces, castles, and villages had become completely oriented to tourists. The paths and steps and signs that are set up for tourists end up having the effect of becoming a central part of what you’re experiencing. It becomes very difficult to feel as if you’re really walking on the same steps that a Medieval knight walked on, for instance. It’s as though they put a wall of glass or transparent plastic between you and all the things you came to see and touch. Imagine that you lived in a world where the only way you could ever see people fall in love is in the movies.

Too much marketing and tourism-minded positioning and too many “improvements” can seriously take away from the thing you’re trying to promote. Too many changes can remove the naturalness of the experience.

We’re marketing (and buying into marketing) that promises authenticity. When those campaigns succeed—in land conservation, in tourism of a “newly discovered” destination, in realtors promoting a new neighborhood—it becomes really difficult to sustain the authenticity that stoked our interest in the first place.

To maintain the sort of authenticity that leads to a place being considered special, think about the characteristics that contribute to that specialness of place. Foster more of those if you want to conserve the essence.

We have more time

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I watched the opening talk from NYU’s latest Women’s Entrepreneurs Festival recently. I’m a huge fan of what Joanne Wilson has created with the festival. Erica Orange’s talk above, specifically at the ~32 minute mark, is worth excerpting:

If we define luxury as something that is in high demand but short supply, [the answer is] time. Time is becoming the number one luxury value proposition. Time is going from something that was once linear and sequential to something that is now multilayered and simultaneous. So what do I mean by this? Because of technology we can live many lives at once. We can be someone in a virtual environment, and someone else in the real world.

Every innovation eventually becomes stale, but this perspective on time still seems innovative. Like writing, I think what our technology make possible in terms of distributed, real-time communications is still under appreciated in terms of its significance. If we manage our time well in the linear terms of our daily activities, we can fit in so much more in terms of relationships and impact than previous generations.

Why love matters

I’ve written about the Culture of Life and wrote yesterday about Roger Scruton’s “Why Beauty Matters” BBC feature. Following on from those posts I want to highlight another part of Scruton’s BBC feature.

In our time we sexualize way more than is healthy, to the point where two men or women cannot demonstrate a substantive friendship without sexuality being raised. We also know that it’s profitable to market a very specific and sexualized version of love. Fight the New Drug is a nonprofit advocating for a vision of love that’s essentially the opposite of the most sexualized, narrow conception of love, which is porn.

Scruton’s “Why Beauty Matters” introduces the Platonic vision of love at the ~26 minute mark as a counter to the narrower versions of love that dominates our culture. He explains:

Sexual desire presents us with a choice: adoration or appetite. Love, or lust. Lust is about taking. Love is about giving. Lust brings ugliness. The ugliness of human relations in which one person treats another as a disposable instrument . To reach the source of beauty, we must overcome lust.

This “longing without lust” is what we mean today by Platonic love. When we find beauty in a youthful person, it is because we glimpse the light of eternity shining in those features from a Heavenly source beyond this world. The beautiful human form is an invitation to unite with it spiritually, not physically. Our feeling for beauty is, therefore, a religious and not a sensual emotion.

This theory of Plato’s is astonishing. Beauty, he thought, is a visitor from another world. We can do nothing with it, save contemplate its pure radiance. Anything else pollutes and desecrates it, destroying its sacred aura.

Plato’s theory may seem quaint today. But it is one of the most influential theories in history. Throughout our civilization, poets, storytellers, painters, priests, and philosophers have been inspired by Plato’s views on sex and love.

Scruton illustrates his point by citing Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus at the 29 minute mark. Venus looks upon the earth from “a place beyond desire.” Scruton explains Venus as “beauty to be contemplated, but not possessed.” I think we live in a time when our existence is seen as predominantly transactional, and so to see anything as something to “contemplate but not possess” is a step toward recovering a healthier and more humane perspective.

Why beauty matters

What is the point of culture? It can’t simply mean “the things we do together,” because that is simply life. I think the experience of a culture is really an experience of a certain sort of life.

Culture is an expression of a people’s values, and over time works hand in hand with tradition to convey accumulated insight, knowledge, and wisdom into the future. An enormous part of culture is a people’s decisions about beauty, because to decide that something is beautiful is to decide that it is stands apart as something worthy of reverence.

In the home, something as simple as a beautiful vase might be elevated through its placement on a mantle or set apart in a cabinet. This is an example of reverence. In culture more broadly, artists, philosophers, architects, curators, writers, and poets exist to identify and elevate the beautiful as a way to express their culture’s insights into the nature of life. In this way they reverence those things that possess some permanent, transcendent significance.

Roger Scruton’s BBC feature Why Beauty Matters is a great one-hour invitation to understanding beauty’s role in culture. Scruton offers insight into art, architecture, and philosophy and how all three should ideally work together to elevate a society’s common cultural experience. The BBC has failed to license this for U.S. viewers, but it’s available to torrent and someone has put the whole hour online at least for now. Watch the first three minutes to see if it’s worth it:

In this film, I have described beauty as an essential resource. Through the pursuit of beauty we shape the world as a home, and in doing so we both amplify our joys and find consolation for our sorrows. Art and music shine a light of meaning on ordinary life, and through them we are able to confront the things that trouble us, and to find consolation and peace in their presence. This capacity of beauty to redeem our suffering is one reason why beauty can be seen as a substitute for religion. …

The sacred and the beautiful stand side by side, two doors that open onto a single space. And in that space, we find our home.

I think of beauty not simply as a decision about what we find aesthetically remarkable, but rather as a way to express what we value, what we believe ourselves to be as a people, and what we believe provides transcendent meaning in the experience of life.

National Catholic Schools Week

Today marks the start of National Catholic Schools Week. I remember Catholic Schools Week being a big deal during my time in grammar school in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

It was a time for open houses to invite parents, parishioners, and visitors into the school to get a sense for what the place was like. It was a time for celebrating Mass with the special intention of recognizing Catholic education as a distinct social good that stands apart from the larger culture. Essentially, it was a time to recognize that Catholic education, at its best, can be transformational for both its direct participants and the larger culture.

While Catholic education played a big role in my childhood institutionally, it was my grandparents John and Marion Shakely who played the most significant roles in my life after my mother. John taught social studies at Central Bucks High School for nearly 30 years, but he and my grandmother made the decision early to equip their children with a Catholic experience of education. That eventually trickled down to my experience, and so by the time I entered school I already felt like part of a larger community in time because of the shared Catholic experiences of my family. It continues to root our identity.

It’s a much different world today from when my grandparents sent my aunts, uncles, and mother off to learn. Then, tuition was practically free for many years because parishes were able to cover costs. Later, it was something like a few hundred dollars in the first years of Archbishop Wood High School. As institutional Catholicism has changed, access to a Catholic education has become more challenging, too. A year’s worth of tuition at Archbishop Wood after fees stands at more than $7,000 today.

The challenge of access to Catholic education is something my grandmother has sought to address in the years since my grandfather died in 2001. Yet a source of frustration for her has been the lack of institutional investment and distribution solutions for Catholic philanthropy. We were thrilled to learn about the founding of the Catholic Foundation of Greater Philadelphia, which enables anyone to create permanently endowed funds to institutionalize things like scholarship support, program funding, and grants. Recently I created the John & Marion Shakely Charitable Fund to perpetuate my grandparents’ tradition of support for access to Catholic education. The fund will support scholarships for Archbishop Wood students.

We’re starting small, with an initial gift of $5,000. I’m hoping this Catholic Schools Week to raise an additional $1,000 that will be matched dollar for dollar. As the fund grows, scholarship support for students grows. It’s my hope to eventually build this fund to the point where it can provide substantial support for the Catholic Foundation’s competitive grants process, perpetuating a tradition of charity while enhancing opportunities for young people.

Gifts are 100% tax-deductible and the process is simple. Visit the Catholic Foundation’s Donate page to contribute. Be sure to select “John & Marion Shakely Charitable Fund” as the designation when processing your contribution. Also, consider subscribing to my newsletter for the fund. I share a few updates each year on the state and impact of the fund, so you can see the impact of your support.

Scarcity to abundance

After reading Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures for many years, I started also reading his partner Albert Wenger. He doesn’t blog as often as Fred, but when he does it’s at Continuations and its typically super insightful.

Albert’s writing helps provide insight into where we’re heading at the highest levels of society. The air can get a bit thin where Albert operates, but what he’s writing and thinking about are things that seemed destined to trickle down into mainstream social discussion and eventually the public policy arena.

His talk from the DLDconference gets into some of the themes he’s been writing about for a while. The biggest theme is that we’re transitioning from a world of scarcity to a world of abundance. In other words, from a world where “whenever you wanted more of something there was an additional cost” to a world of zero marginal cost.

He also touches on how transitioning to a world of abundance will intersect with public policy, specifically the idea that with fewer things to physically make, it might be necessary to “decouple income from work” through a basic income guarantee.

The lingering ethos of the Protestant work ethic might make this concept extremely difficult to implement here. But it might also be a much saner way to approach social security than the current hierarchical, bureaucratic central government model we rely on.

Agile storytelling

I wrote recently about how students can create platforms for storytelling in their communities through technology. After seeing this post from Om Malik I’ve been thinking along a similar thread, which is using technology for more agile storytelling.

We’re inching toward the 10 year mark since the birth of the iPhone and true mobile computing devices. There are still some industries that haven’t successfully transitioned into the mobile arena. Relative to most content creation, it’s still extremely difficult to create, produce, and package quality audio content on a mobile device. This impacts the relevancy and impact of audio as a form of media because the harder it is to get it into the world, the more likely it is to be stale when it arrives.

In terms of a platform addressing the problem of storing audio and making it accessible, SoundCloud is the emerging standard. I really hope it can become for audio what YouTube became for video. If you remember the world before YouTube, video on the internet was pretty much a complete mess. In so many ways, that’s still the case for audio. Easier to create than it was a few years ago, still very difficult to produce and distribute.

As Om points out, it looks like Shure’s forthcoming Motiv 88 and accompanying iOS app will help address this. It launches this spring, will cost $149, and is the first condenser mic that I’ve seen that plugs directly into an iOS device with a companion app for recording and production:

Designed to capture clear, high-quality stereo sound on the go, MV88 directly connects to any iOS device equipped with a Lightning® connector. The microphone element is mounted to a 90-degree hinge with built-in rotation that offers flexible positioning options, even in video applications. Access five built-in preset modes for voice and instruments using the ShurePlus™ MOTIV Mobile Recording App, which also offers real-time adjustments to gain, stereo width and EQ with 24-bit / 48 kHz recording.

We’re planning for the Penn State Media Alumni Interest Group to purchase at least one of these for the student broadcasters at The LION 90.7fm in State College. And I’m planning to use one to record and produce an audiobook version of Conserving Mount Nittany, which was already one of my planned projects for this year.

We tend to be transfixed by video, but we’re often more transported by audio. As a medium, it tends to be more intimate than any other because it’s often piped right into our heads through earbuds or noise canceling headphones.

Creating or capturing great audio will get easier because Shure and others will get better at miniaturizing the technology and creating a better software ecosystem for its production and distribution to the platforms that matter. As the production technology becomes more mobile, the impact of the content it enables will grow.

March for Life 2015

Yesterday I wrote about the concept of the Culture of Life at a pretty high level, and today I want to bring that to a practical level. I’m in Washington today for the March for Life, the annual day wherein people of pro-life persuasions gather from across the country to hear remarks on the National Mall before starting their cold march to the steps of the Supreme Court.

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Like so many social reform movements in America, the March for Life has an overwhelmingly Christian anthropology. There’s no getting past the fact that the pro-life instincts of so many are rooted in their understanding of what Christianity has to say about human dignity. So in that sense, the March is a fascinating thing to witness in a time when it’s fashionable to divorce “personal beliefs” from public expression.

I’m here today not for the March itself but rather to meet with Pennsylvania Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey. Each of them hosts constituency receptions as part of the March. With Gov. Tom Wolf having just taken office in the Pennsylvania, I think there’s a special chance to echo the worth of Gov. Wolf’s proposed moratorium on the death penalty in the state. So I’m here in the hopes of echoing the worth of that in whatever small way to Casey and Toomey as well.

Even more than that, I think Pennsylvania Democrats and Republicans can and should work together to be bolder by enacting a constitutional ban in Pennsylvania on the death penalty. We would be something like the 19th state to do this, and enacting a true ban rather than a temporary prohibition, Gov. Wolf would be following a national trend while making history for the state.

It’s the right thing to do, and it’s also an unusual area of opportunity for bipartisan action on a pro-life issue. I hope it happens.