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May 2008

UbiComp 2008 Workshops

Ubicomp2008-header

We are happy to announce 9 workshops that will be held at UbiComp 2008, the Tenth International Conference on Ubiquitous Computing, in Seoul, South Korea, on September 21, the day before the main conference program, which will take place September 22-24.

Workshops provide an excellent opportunity to discuss and explore emerging areas of ubiquitous computing research with a group of like-minded researchers and practitioners. The workshops at UbiComp 2008 cover many interesting and exciting aspects of ubiquitous computing, including devices and perception, evaluation, vehicular computing, design and integration principles, ubiquitous network islands, ambient information systems, ubiquitous sustainability, automated journeys and intelligent work environments. The goal of the workshops is to share understandings and experiences, to foster the development of research communities, to learn from each other and to envision future directions.

The submission deadline for workshop position papers is Friday, June 27, 2008. All workshops will be held on Sunday, September 21st. More information about workshops is included below, and is also available on the workshops web site (http://ubicomp.org/ubicomp2008/workshops.shtml).

We also want to note that there are a number of other, previously announced tracks in the conference that are still open to participation (until June 27):

More information about the conference - including these participation categories - can be found at the conference web site (http://ubicomp.org/ubicomp2008/).

W1. Devices that Alter Perception (DAP 2008)

Sensors, actuators, implants, wearable computers, and neural interfaces can do more than simply observe our bodies; these devices can alter and manipulate our perceptions. This workshop will promote design and critique of systems with the explicit intent of altering the human percepts. Participants will be asked to present position papers or demonstrations concerning devices that act on phenomena related to the process of perception. The goals of the workshop are to: (1) better understand the process of perception (2) aid those developing devices by sharing designs (3) debate of ethical and social issues that are unique to devices that operate below or upon awareness.

W2. Ubiquitous Systems Evaluation (USE '08)

USE '08 aims to bring together practitioners from a wide range of disciplines to discuss best practice and challenges in the evaluation of ubiquitous systems. Recognised evaluation strategies are essential in order that the contribution of new techniques can be quantified objectively. Experience has shown that evaluating ubiquitous systems is extremely difficult; approaches tend to be subjective, piecemeal or both. Individual approaches to evaluation risk being incomplete and comparisons between systems can be difficult.

W3. Ubiquitous Inter- and Intra-Vehicular Computing (UIIVC 2008)

Modern vehicles have a high number of intra-vehicle communication systems and buses connecting hundreds of sensors, delivering information at high data rates. As such, the sensor density in modern cars makes them an interesting ubiquitous computing environment. Besides mobile phones, modern vehicles are the most ubiquitous and most widely deployed mobile sensor node systems. The idea of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication is to interconnect these sensor-equipped vehicles to collaboratively share a subset of this information. This enables novel types of applications in the areas such as safety, traffic efficiency and comfort. V2x communication poses many research challenges on applications, communication technologies such as IEEE 802.11p WLAN and cellular networks, networked sensing systems, privacy, security and other research fields relevant to ubiquitous computing. Workshop topics will address research from all these domains in a vehicular environment.

W4. 2nd International Workshop on Design and Integration Principles for Smart Objects (DIPSO 2008)

Tagging everyday objects with sensors, actuators and building an instrumented environment are recent practices in industry and academia. In fact, the smart object domain has matured over the years. The combination of Internet and technologies like near field communications, real time localization, sensor networking etc. are bringing smart objects into commercial use. Several successful prototypes and applications have already demonstrated and deployed. However, the lack of commonality among the design principles and the underlying infrastructures of these projects is hindering the exciting future of smart object systems. We believe the primary reason behind this phenomenon is one missing rationale for the design and integration of smart objects. Now it is the time to focus on current practices and align on some key issues to continue the rapid progress of smart objects. DIPSO 2008 seeks to follow the earlier DIPSO workshop, co-located with Ubicomp 2007 and will look at the existing smart object systems to extract and extrapolate the best practices to rationalize the design and integration principles for smart objects.

W5. Connecting Ubiquitous Islands using Mobile and Next Generation Networks

This workshop will discuss the topic of connecting islands of ubiquitous computing technology using wide-area networks, and how the requirements from the services operating in those islands impact the network technology and systems. This workshop will discuss what it would take to leverage existing networks together with emerging services to create truly ubiquitous connectivity.

W6. Ambient Information Systems

Ambient Information Systems describe a large set of applications that publish information in a highly non-intrusive manner, following on from Mark Weiser's concept of calm technology. Building on the success of AIS2007 at Pervasive 2007, this workshop will bring together researchers working in the areas of ambient displays, peripheral displays, slow technology, glanceable displays, and calm technology, to discuss and collaborate on developing new design approaches for creating ambient information systems. We are calling for paper submissions describing early-stage and mature research on Ambient Information Systems and for demonstrators across the spectrum from technology to art and design.

W7. Ubiquitous Sustainability: Citizen Science & Activism

In this workshop we want to explore new approaches to bring about real environmental change by looking at the success of empowering technologies that enable grassroots activism and bottom up community participation. Ubiquitous computing is transforming from being mostly about professional communication and social interaction to a sensor rich personal measurement platform that can empower individuals and groups to gain an awareness of their surroundings, engage in grassroots activism to promote environmental change, and enable a new social paradigm - citizen science. This workshop brings together fresh ideas and approaches to help elevate individuals to have a powerful voice in society, to act as citizen scientists, and collectively learn and lobby for change worldwide.

W8. Automated Journeys

Computing technology now pervades those moments of our day when we move through our cities. Mobile phones, music players, vending machines, contact-less payment systems and RFID-enabled turnstiles are de rigueur on our daily journeys. This workshop aims to examine these augmented journeys, to reflect on the public, semi-public and private technologies available to us in them, and to speculate on what innovations might be to come. Taking as our starting point cities such as Seoul, we aim to take seriously the developments in mobile technology as well as the advancements in autonomous machinery and how these mesh with our urban journeys. Through collaborative fieldwork, group discussion and a hands-on design brainstorming session, the workshop's empirical focus will be directed towards producing 4 envisagements that either speculate and/or critically reflect on technological futures.

W9. UbiWORK: Design and Evaluation of Smart Environments in the Workplace

This workshop is the fourth in a series of UbiComp workshops on smart environment technologies and applications for the workplace. It offers a unique window into the state of the art through the participation of a range of researchers, designers and builders who exchange both basic research and real-world case experiences; and invites participants to share ideas about them. This year we focus on understanding appropriate design processes and creating valid evaluation metrics for smart environments (a recurrent request from previous workshop participants). What design processes allow integration of new ubicomp-style systems with existing technologies in a room that is in daily use? What evaluation methods and metrics give us an accurate picture, and how can that information best be applied in an iterative design process?


The Challenges of Location-Based Social Networking

Meetro_logo Meetro, the location-aware instant messaging application - and company - has failed (or as my entrepreneur friends often like to say in such cases, it has "run out of runway"). Peter sent me a link to an inspiring TechCrunch guest post by Paul Bragiel, Meetro's founder, in which Paul has courageously shared the lessons he and his colleagues learned from this effort. Having failed - or run out of runway - in my own startup a few years ago, I don't see failure as any kind of stigma, and am glad that Paul doesn't either.

As someone who has been working for many years on ways to effectively bridge the gaps between the richness of our online lives (including our online social networks) and the physical spaces we share with others, I am saddened by the demise of Meetro. Paul and I exchanged some emails shortly after I wrote a blog post about Meetro's proximity-based instant messaging application in June 2005. I was excited for him and his team when they moved from Chicago to Palo Alto shortly thereafter, as their prospects seemed bright. However, I was also concerned about whether Meetro would ultimately succeed where Trepia had failed.

Paul hits the nail on the head in identifying the location problem (or the problem of constructing bridges between physical spaces and online communities):

Most importantly, there was a “location problem”. It’s really hard to grow a product that’s 100% focused on where you physically are. Tons of companies have tried this before and most of them have died. We, of course, were cocky and had to give it a try. There was just something so sexy about the idea that you could load up a piece of software and it would tell you about someone nearby who was interesting to you. Someone will crack this and make billions of dollars on it. I can only hope to be involved in some shape or form, since it’s an itch that hasn’t gone away for me.

He goes on to propose some scenarios or trajectories in which location-based social networking applications might succeed:

  • As extensions of existing social networks with large numbers of members (e.g., MySpace, Facebook), to help overcome what we might call the critical mass problem. The privacy issues in going physical (or locational) are significant, but as danah has previously pointed out, Facebook does not seem averse to taking risks with users' privacy.
  • Extending the service city by city, as Yelp has done. However, Yelp has not gone physical (yet), and so can scale more easily as an online service (with physical world referents). I don't know how many users they have, but they still may be shy of the critical masses needed to succeed with a physical location-based component.

Paul highlights the download problem: any application that requires any kind of download in order to run (vs., say, simply allowing a user to visit a web site) has a huge initial - one might say "inertial" - barrier to entry. As he notes:

... the dropoff that happened once people had to download and install Meetro was HUGE and didn’t help us at all. If I recall, it was something in the 80 to 90% range. It crushed adoption rates.

The Nokia Sensor application, which uses Bluetooth to enable proximity-based social networking via mobile phones (and which has one of the coolest Flash-based use-case scenario depictions I've ever seen), also suffered from the download problem - exacerbated by the fact that far fewer people are (or were) willing to download applications onto their phones than onto their laptop or desktop computers. I read somewhere that the application had been downloaded a million times - I'm not sure how many users that represents, nor how many downloads resulted in successful installs.

NokiaSensor-Sending NokiaSensor-Receiving NokiaSensor-Responding

However, there was a bigger problem: searching for references to Sensor on blogs, forums and other social media sites just before I interviewed with Nokia in the summer of 2006 revealed that most people who talked about using Sensor reported that they never "saw" anyone else running Sensor, other than friends they were already with.

This is an example of another challenge that Meetro encountered, what Paul calls the "realtime" problem: the requirement that users of the system (Meetro or Sensor) be in synchronous proximity of each other, i.e., in the same place at the same time. My friend and former intern, Sean Savage, attempted to address this problem with PlaceSite (which also now appears to be defunct), a place-based, vs. proximity-based, social networking application in which there was some notion of asynchrony - who has been here recently, in addition to who is here (or near) now? Apparently, Meetro [eventually] incorporated some kind of asynchrony into their app:

I can still feel the magic of when I was on layover in the Denver Airport, I met one of our users, and we grabbed a beer. This is what I dreamed Meetro would be about all the time, but those moments were too few and far between. We did fix this in the end but it was too little too late. So, to anyone tackling this problem in the future, make sure you have some type of persistence built-in, be it “people here previously” or “most common visitors to the area” etc.

Paul proposes three promising avenues for future location-based social networking applications:

  • Wait until the mobile / wireless operators have solved the location problem ... but after my experience working with Nokia, I know that building upon a carrier solution would require that carriers open up their location capabilities ... which would require a shift of policy and perspective that would be far more significant than the technology shift (for many carriers)
  • Create an API to enable the application to work off of / in conjunction with another, more broadly adopted application (like AIM or Skype).
  • Create an application that allows you to explicitly "check-in" with your location, like Dodgeball or Swarm ... but the requirement of an explicit action (sending a text message), vs. simply showing up, and opening up your laptop or waking up your phone, undermines the more natural, or at least implicit, awareness and interaction envisioned by Meetro (and all of the proactive display applications in which I've been involved).

One of the things I didn't quite understand when I first blogged about Meetro was how they managed their location-awareness. I was particularly curious, as many of my former colleagues at Intel Research Seattle were working on the PlaceLab project, creating a WiFi-based, privacy-preserving, location-aware infrastructure to support [Meetro-like] applications ... with the idea that "if you build it [the infrastructure], they will come [applications and users]". Paul shared some details in his post (and, as I suspected, it was closely related to PlaceLab):

When you launched Meetro we would scan for all the WiFi networks out there. We would then crosscheck what was out there with what we had in a huge global database (it had grown to 4+ million hotspots when we stopped). If it was in the database, then we would do some trilateration to figure out where you were. If not, we would ask you to enter your location. We would save this info and use it later to crosscheck and verify it against similar data.

However, as is clear from the lessons shared by Paul, the technology itself - the application and the infrastructure it uses - is only part of the puzzle. A number of other elements have to align in order to build a successful location-based social networking application.

Like Paul, I still believe there is great promise in this area, and I am grateful for his sharing the wisdom he has gained in efforts to fulfill this promise!


What Would Your Toaster Say to Your TV?

The recent announcement of the Sprint / Clearwire WiMax venture generated a great deal of excitement in many quarters. In an Advertising Age article,  "WiMax Could Bring Dramatic Changes, Wherever You Are", Abbey Klaussen writes:

WiMax is essentially the network that will deliver data and voice services to phones, but much faster than what consumers are used to using. It would turn the country into a giant hot spot -- in theory, at least. It's often referred to as a fourth-generation wireless service -- or 4G -- as it will be able to deliver quicker mobile-internet service than the 3G services offered by many carriers. (The first two generations of cellular service were analog and digital.) The venture's WiMax service should cover 120 million to 140 million people by 2010, said executives, who initially will concentrate deployment in the top 100 markets.

In a Chicago Tribune article (also distributed by the Seattle Times) earlier this week, "WiMax deal could lead to universal connectivity", Wallin Wong writes:

Sprint's WiMax network is designed to transmit data at speeds comparable to mid- and high-tier cable broadband — far faster than what's available for wireless Web surfing. This means using the Internet on a WiMax-enabled mobile phone, for example, will be just as speedy as home Internet connections.

It's also a big leap over today's Wi-Fi hot spots, which typically provide laptop users with Internet access in a cafe or airport. Because the coverage will stretch across metropolitan areas, a user would be able to listen to Internet radio in a WiMax-equipped car while speeding down the highway.

These all sound like promising new capabilities that will lead to useful applications - or extensions of existing applications - that may enrich our lives. However, these same articles also include some speculation that exhibit a perspective that I would call technology in search of a problem.

The Chicago Tribune article also includes the following:

By year's end, it's expected that the next generation of wireless networks will be launched, blanketing initial service areas with a fast Internet signal — accessible to subscribers from homes, streets and traveling vehicles — and capable of giving mundane home appliances a voice.

In this Jetsonian vision of life, which could take several years to arrive fully, a washing machine embedded with a wireless chip would detect a problem and contact the manufacturer even before the homeowner knew something was wrong with the spin cycle.

And the Advertising Age article has similarly oriented prognostications:

WiMax sounds like something Neo would use to communicate back to Morpheus in "The Matrix." In reality, it could bring a decidedly sci-fi experience to everyday living. And thanks to a group of high-profile backers, the fledgling technology is coming to life again.
...
And here comes the sci-fi-inspired part: the technology, said Mr. Bader [Eric Bader, partner in Brand in Hand], won't necessarily be confined to mobile phone devices, but could infiltrate ordinary household items: "toasters, TVs and car keys. It's the beginning of truly connected appliances. ... It gives us a canvas on which to start to converge."

Sigh.

Leaving aside the question of whether WiMax is the right standard, I'm all for the general idea of universal connectivity, but only from a human-centered design perspective. I believe that the world will be a better place when people can all connect more effectively to the other people, places and things around us (indeed, this is one of the key pillars of the mini-manifesto for Strands Labs, Seattle).

All this talk about giving home appliances a voice, and imbuing toasters with connectivity may strike some people as sci-fi, but to me it smacks of technology-centered design. Maybe I've been blessed with reliable appliances, but I've never once thought "I sure wish my washing machine could call out for parts automatically". And if my toaster was "on the grid", well, what would it want to say to my TV (or any of my other appliances)?

Although at times I feel a certain amount of frustration with this pervasive "technology for the technology's sake" perspective, I do like to have fun with it from time to time. A few years ago, I drafted a proposal for 12 steps for technology-centered designers. And a few years earlier, as my research focus was shifting from Artificial Intelligence to Ubiquitous Computing, Human-Computer Interaction and Computer Supported Cooperative Work Whatever, I first discovered the Internet Toaster.

At first, I thought the Internet Toaster was a hoax, but further research suggests that it was true. Here's what they have to say about this at The Living Internet:

There really was an Internet toaster. Dan Lynch, President of the Interop Internet networking show, told John Romkey at the 1989 show that he would give him star billing the following year if he connected a toaster to the Internet. Who could have resisted a challenge like that?

Working together with his friend Simon Hackett,John Romkey rose to the occasion and connected a Sunbeam Deluxe Automatic Radiant Control Toaster to the Internet, becoming the hit of the 1990 Interop. A pictureof Hackett demonstrating the toaster is shown below.

Internet Toaster, Simon Hackett, Internet History
http://www.internode.on.net/images/toaster2.jpg

The toaster was connected to the Internet with TCP/IP networking, and controlled with a Simple Networking Management Protocol Management Information Base (SNMP MIB). It had one control, to turn the power on, and the darkness of the toast was controlled by how long the power was kept on.

However, a human being still had to insert the bread. At the 1991 Interop a small robotic crane was added to the system, also controlled from the Internet, which picked up a slice of bread and dropped it into the toaster, automating the system from end-to-end.

[I'm including a photo of what I believe is the 1991 version that I found a while back, but cannot remember the source - perhaps it's from the broken "toaster2.jpg" link above.]

Internettoaster2

I thought this was fascinating, and so I did some more research, discovering an article in The Register on the Internet Weather Toaster, which was a senior project by industrial design student Robin Southgate, at Brune University:

Internetweathertoaster

According to a British Council Design Lab description:

Internetweathertoast How does it work? The innocuous kitchen staple secretly houses some sleek, smart communications technology. A modem inside the toaster dials to a server using a freephone number, which then accesses the Met Office website, where it retrieves the information it needs and translates it into a simple single number ' 1, 2 or 3. Each number corresponds to the weather symbols for cloud, sun and rain.

The symbol is then branded onto the bread in the toaster using a heat-resistant stencil which is interposed between the bread and the heating element for the final 20-odd seconds of toasting ' so you can still have your toast the way you like it.

Joe Klinger took toasters to the next level, technologically speaking, in his creation of ToAsTOr, the Toaster PC:

Toasterpc0015 I wanted to make a small quiet computer for use as an MP3 server, DVD player, surfing, and occasional gaming. I also wanted it to be small enough to fit in a bag so that I could take it to friend's houses or to work. When I set out to build this bread and butter computer ;-) I found the Mini-ITX form factor motherboards. I wanted to build something unique. I thought I would go to the antique stores and find something cool to rebuild as a computer. I wanted something built out of metal for RFI and EMI shielding.

I thought that a toaster would be cool and have the DVD/CDRW open out of the toast slot. The problem is that all of the toasters were too small to use a full size hard drive, video card, LCD, etc... Then I found a large toaster (1960 General Electric) with a sizeable crumb tray/warmer. This monster toaster used 1200 watts! So, I had to open a business account to buy the EPIA motherboard at the only place in Atlanta that has them. I then took it to the antique store to determine if it would fit. It would fit but only if the mobo was about an inch off the crumb tray. When I went to purchase the toaster the salesman mentioned something about whether or not it worked. I told him that it did not matter I was going to toss the inner workings and make something crazy. I pulled out the motherboard and he said, "You are going to make it into a robot?" I snickered and said, "no, only a computer!" I have skills, but damn - a robot? :-) I never tried it to see if it still worked as a toaster.

These connected toasters are, indeed, interesting curiosities. Maybe WiMax will encourage more development - and perhaps even adoption - of appliances that can talk to each other. I hope, though, that increasing connectivity - provided by WiMax and/or other standards - will offer more substantial capabilities to enrich our lives in more meaningful ways.

We'll certainly be doing our part to contribute to that effort.


KT Tunstall @ The Moore, Seattle (a concert review)

Kttunstallatthemooreseattle

KT Tunstall and her band of mostly unplugged musicians gave an energetic performance at The Moore Theatre in Seattle last night. The music was drastically fantastic, and her rapport and repartee with the audience was light-hearted and engaging.

I first discovered her through spam - one of the weekly emails RealNetworks used to send out to everyone who registered a downloaded RealPlayer application had a link to a live solo performance of Black Horse and The Cherry Tree. I loved the music, the words, the energy, and her ingenious use of recording technology to produce an amazingly full sound with just her voice, hands, and guitar.

Eyetothetelescope Drasticfantastic I bought her first album, Eye to the Telescope, immediately thereafter, and it became an instant favorite. It has several "goosebump songs" - songs that evoke a strong visceral reaction every time I hear them [BTW, on a related note, I see that David Huron is scheduled to present a paper on "Music-evoked Frisson: How Music Produces Gooseflesh and Why Listeners Enjoy It" at the Music and the Brain Conference at Stanford next week]. Last night, hearing several of these songs live also brought out the goosebumps.

Her live performance of many songs on her second album, Drastic Fantastic, with which I was initially somewhat disappointed - as I nearly always am for every artist's second album (with the exception of Sheryl Crow) - helped me better appreciate her more recent music ... especially her mesmerizing rendition of "If Only". That said, though, none [yet] qualify as "goosebump songs".

Another dimension of enhanced appreciation is for the drummer / percussionist in her band, Luke Bullen. We were sitting about 20 feet from him, and had a closeup view of the variety of instruments he employed - and how he employed them (often in interesting combinations) - to provide the base for that combination of strong bass beat and nuanced rhythms that characterize so many of her songs.

On the way home, Amy asked whether I thought KT Tunstall is a lesbian - not that this would affect our enjoyment of her or her music. I hadn't picked this up in her music, although upon reflection, I do see there is some potential ambiguity as to the gender of the people she sings about. I also noticed a number of lesbian couples in the audience at the show. In googling around, I discovered a Pink News report that although she enjoys and appreciates her following among the lesbian community, she is not gay ... and her boyfriend - drummer Luke Bullen - also enjoys and appreciates that following ... and this information enabled me to better appreciate how and why they seem to form such a great musical groove on-stage (and in recordings).

It was pretty apparent during the show that she also has a strong following from heterosexual males, and is used to bantering with them from the stage. During the break between the first two songs, one man shouted out "I love you" - to which she responded "Thanks ... I love you too". Shortly thereafter, during another break between songs (which frequently included guitar switches), she introduced her new 12-string guitar, which she picked up in Santa Barbara - and so she named it "Barbara" - after which this same man shouted out "I love your guitar", to which she responded "You stay away from my guitars!".

Another interaction started with her leading us in practicing "the first ever Seattle group body pop" - three moves including "teapot",  "pregnant woman" and "back over the hill". Although some intrepid spirits in the audience participated, as a group, we largely failed ... and in so doing, probably sacrificed our chance to hear her cover The Bangles' song "Walk Like an Egyptian", which I've read she's performed at other stops on the tour. Fortunately, we were later treated to a great cover of Chaka Khan's "Ain't Nobody" (during the encore).

In introducing Black Horse and the Cherry Tree, she noted a family holiday in Port Townsend when she was growing up, fondly remembering the well-to-do hippies selling oddities such as elk piss in the town. She also recounted a whale watch, where every time a baby whale would breach, everyone on the boat would say "Wooooh!" ... which she then parlayed into the "woo hoo ... woo hoo ..." intro to the song. She later noted a "random fact" about ear wax being more prominent in people who are afraid; I've read about other random facts she's inserted into other concerts ... and may try that next time I'm chairing a session at a conference ... though I probably won't bring my guitar.

Anyhow, here is her setlist, as best I can recall:

  • Miniature Disasters
  • Little Favours
  • Hold On
  • Other Side of the World
  • Someday Soon
  • Funnyman
  • Throw Me a Rope
  • Black Horse and the Cherry Tree
  • Ashes
  • Hopeless
  • Under the Weather
  • Beauty of Uncertainty
  • If Only
  • Saving My Face
  • Suddenly I See

Encore:

  • Universe & U
  • Ain’t Nobody (cover of a Chaka Khan song)
  • Stoppin' the Love

This was our first visit to The Moore. After enjoying an early dinner with Yogi and Dawn across the street at the Buenos Aires Grill (though the food itself was not very impressive), we arrived at the theater around 7:40, 20 minutes before the show, and were still able to get seats very close to the stage - second row from the stage in the narrow column of seats at the far left of the stage.

The opening act was Paddy Casey, a singer/songwriter from Dublin, who reminded me of a cross between David Grey and Aztec Two-Step. We enjoyed his music, but often couldn't make out the lyrics very well.

Of course, we sometimes couldn't make out KT's lyrics either, but we've heard her songs before (many times, in some cases) ... and feeling the energy first-hand was a real treat.


Religion, Politics, Racism and Invisibility: Obama and Wright vs. McCain and Hagee

Robb's comment on my post about the Capitol Steps show in Seattle got me thinking - and writing - [again] about some of the religious and racial issues in the U.S. presidential race. I started to write a comment in response to Robb's comment, but as it grew longer and longer, I decided to move it into a separate blog post.

Robb is a good friend from college who grew up in the U.S. but has spent many years living in New Zealand, where he has been increasingly appreciating the natural beauty of the land (especially the mountains), the indigenous people - Maori - and their culture ... and writing inspiring prose and poetry about his experiences and growing appreciation in his Musings from Aotearoa blog. In his comment on my post, Robb, raised a number of provocative issues:

I find this issue of 0bama "throwing" Wright "under the bus" to reveal the real dark side of this issue, old fashioned racism. I still fail to see what he, Wright, has actually said that can be construed as being either inflammatory or has anything to do with 0bama directly. What are people so afraid of here, or should I write, perhaps inflammatorily, what is conservative, entrenched, white America so afraid of here? I am trying to track where I read it down, but I recall reading somewhere John McCain's religous mentor saying the New orleans devastation was the "wrath of God on those people". Where is that in the news media? 0r what things are spoken from the pulpit of many white churches on any given Sunday in the land where Emmett Till was murdered? Where is the balance?

Good questions! I want to spend a bit of time reviewing some of Wright's recent remarks before exploring McCain's religious connections.

WrightAtNationalPressClubReverend Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of the current Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, has made a few appearances lately. I enjoyed watching Bill Moyers interview Wright on PBS a week ago, a venue in which Wright came across as a relatively reasonable - and clearly passionate - man. I did not watch Wright's more recent National Press Club speech and Q&A last week, but it was carried on C-SPAN (and there are segments posted on YouTube), and Fox News has posted a transcript; I had seen and heard snippets of commentary during the week, but it was not until Robb's comment that I decided to sit down and listen the entire speech and read the transcript.

As with my earlier experience in reviewing the larger contexts of Wright's sermons from which short snippets have been repeatedly rebroadcast in the mass media, and which have been reportedly perceived as so inflammatory by so many, I found myself agreeing with nearly all of the views expressed by Wright in his National Press Club talk on "The African American Religious Experience; Theology & Practice". And, in an effort to help provide a larger - or at least different - context than has been offered in most accounts of this talk, I wanted to share some of the excerpts that I found most inspiring.

Invisibleman Wright starts off describing the relative invisibility of the black church and black religious tradition, beginning with its roots during slavery, and continuing through the present day, referencing The Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison - implicitly and explicitly - throughout his remarks, and I think this invisibility characterizes - or cloaks - many of the issues that are arising throughout this controversy. As he progresses through the talk, his presentation become more inclusive, promoting liberation for all peoples, urging acceptance of differences without presuming deficiencies, and closing with an invitation to reconciliation, through which greater unity can be achieved ... and I can't help but note that the theme of unity is one of the key messages of Wright's [former?] church member, Barack Obama.

Robb's reference to "throwing Wright under a bus" highlights the unfortunate, but understandable (given the mass media focus on the most controversial aspects of Wright's views), tone of Obama's response to Wright's most recent remarks, in which he condemns the "outrageous" and "destructive" nature of some of those remarks. I find Obama's assertion that Wright is "giving comfort to those who prey on hate" to be particularly interesting. Wright's refusal to recede into the background - to become invisible - may be giving ammunition to those who prey on hate, but I don't see how it offers any comfort to anybody. The explosive charge of that ammunition is more the result of media coverage of Wright's comments than the comments themselves, which, in my interpretation, represent more of a challenge to those who promote and prey on hate rather than a comfort to them.

Anyhow, before offering further interpretations and judgments, here are some extended exerpts of the actual words spoken by Wright during his National Press Club speech: 

The black religious experience is a tradition that, at one point in American history, was actually called the “invisible institution,” as it was forced underground by the Black Codes.

The Black Codes prohibited the gathering of more than two black people without a white person being present to monitor the conversation, the content, and the mood of any discourse between persons of African descent in this country.

Africans did not stop worshipping because of the Black Codes. Africans did not stop gathering for inspiration and information and for encouragement and for hope in the midst of discouraging and seemingly hopeless circumstances.  They just gathered out of the eyesight and the earshot of those who defined them as less than human.

They became, in other words, invisible in and invisible to the eyes of the dominant culture.  They gathered to worship in brush arbors, sometimes called hush arbors, where the slaveholders, slave patrols, and Uncle Toms couldn’t hear nobody pray.

...

The prophetic tradition of the black church has its roots in Isaiah, the 61st chapter, where God says the prophet is to preach the gospel to the poor and to set at liberty those who are held captive. Liberating the captives also liberates who are holding them captive.

It frees the captives and it frees the captors.  It frees the oppressed and it frees the oppressors.

The prophetic theology of the black church, during the days of chattel slavery, was a theology of liberation.  It was preached to set free those who were held in bondage spiritually, psychologically, and sometimes physically.  And it was practiced to set the slaveholders free from the notion that they could define other human beings or confine a soul set free by the power of the gospel.

The prophetic theology of the black church during the days of segregation, Jim Crow, lynching, and the separate-but-equal fantasy was a theology of liberation.

It was preached to set African-Americans free from the notion of second-class citizenship, which was the law of the land.  And it was practiced to set free misguided and miseducated Americans from the notion that they were actually superior to other Americans based on the color of their skin.

The prophetic theology of the black church in our day is preached to set African-Americans and all other Americans free from the misconceived notion that different means deficient.

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This principle of “different does not mean deficient” is at the heart of the prophetic theology of the black church.  It is a theology of liberation.

The prophetic theology of the black church is not only a theology of liberation; it is also a theology of transformation, which is also rooted in Isaiah 61, the text from which Jesus preached in his inaugural message, as recorded by Luke.

When you read the entire passage from either Isaiah 61 or Luke 4 and do not try to understand the passage or the content of the passage in the context of a sound bite, what you see is God’s desire for a radical change in a social order that has gone sour.

God’s desire is for positive, meaningful and permanent change. God does not want one people seeing themselves as superior to other people.  God does not want the powerless masses, the poor, the widows, the marginalized, and those underserved by the powerful few to stay locked into sick systems which treat some in the society as being more equal than others in that same society.

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God does not desire for us, as children of God, to be at war with each other, to see each other as superior or inferior, to hate each other, abuse each other, misuse each other, define each other, or put each other down.

God wants us reconciled, one to another.  And that third principle in the prophetic theology of the black church is also and has always been at the heart of the black church experience in North America.

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To say “I am a Christian” is not enough.  Why?  Because the Christianity of the slaveholder is not the Christianity of the slave. The God to whom the slaveholders pray as they ride on the decks of the slave ship is not the God to whom the enslaved are praying as they ride beneath the decks on that slave ship.

How we are seeing God, our theology, is not the same.  And what we both mean when we say “I am a Christian” is not the same thing. The prophetic theology of the black church has always seen and still sees all of God’s children as sisters and brothers, equals who need reconciliation, who need to be reconciled as equals in order for us to walk together into the future which God has prepared for us.

Reconciliation does not mean that blacks become whites or whites become blacks and Hispanics become Asian or that Asians become Europeans.

Reconciliation means we embrace our individual rich histories, all of them.  We retain who we are as persons of different cultures, while acknowledging that those of other cultures are not superior or inferior to us.  They are just different from us.

We root out any teaching of superiority, inferiority, hatred, or prejudice.

And we recognize for the first time in modern history in the West that the other who stands before us with a different color of skin, a different texture of hair, different music, different preaching styles, and different dance moves, that other is one of God’s children just as we are, no better, no worse, prone to error and in need of forgiveness, just as we are.

Only then will liberation, transformation, and reconciliation become realities and cease being ever elusive ideals.

During the Q&A following his speech, Wright was asked about about his recent remarks about the political nature of Obama's recent remarks renouncing some of Wright's earlier remarks.

Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls, Huffington, whoever’s doing the polls.  Preachers say what they say because they’re pastors.  They have a different person to whom they’re accountable.
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He didn’t distance himself.  He had to distance himself, because he’s a politician, from what the media was saying I had said, which was anti-American.  He said I didn’t offer any words of hope. How would he know?  He never heard the rest of the sermon.  You never heard it.

Wright was also asked about his earlier assertion that "the government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color" - still, for me, the most disturbing of his statements during the increasingly infamous sermon snippets. He referenced the books Emerging Viruses: AIDS And Ebola : Nature, Accident or Intentional?, by Dr. Leonard G. Horowitz, and Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, by Harriet A. Washington, and went on to say:

I read different things. As I said to my members, if you haven’t read things, then you can’t — based on this Tuskegee experiment and based on what has happened to Africans in this country, I believe our government is capable of doing anything.

I share Wright's distrust of our government, though I still do not believe his earlier assertion. However, given the larger scope of all he has said (at the National Press Club, during Bill Moyer's interview, and in his sermons I have watched on YouTube), I am not willing to dismiss all of Wright's views based solely on this one questionable dimension ... and I can think of many, far more destructive, examples of questionable assertions by political and religious leaders.

Speaking of which, getting back to Robb's comments, and his reference to a hateful "wrath of God" condemnation of the victims of Hurricane Katrina by a religious figure associated with U.S. Senator and Republican presidential candidate John McCain, I tracked down an article on "McCain’s faith: Pastor describes senator as devout, but low-key" in the Associated Baptist Press. McCain's pastor, Dan Yeary, notes some controversial religious connections for McCain:

The candidate endured some criticism in February after San Antonio pastor and Christian Zionist leader John Hagee endorsed him. Catholic and Jewish leaders denounced Hagee for statements he has made in the past that could be interpreted as anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic.

Hagee claimed the critics had misunderstood and de-contextualized his comments. Nonetheless, McCain’s campaign issued a statement in which he distanced himself from the preacher’s more controversial remarks without rejecting or repudiating the endorsement.

The senator has received less media scrutiny for a separate endorsement of his candidacy by Ohio pastor Rod Parsley. Parsley, who leads a charismatic multi-media empire, has been criticized for statements insisting Islam must be “destroyed” and for denigrating gays, the separation of church and state and secularists.

This led me to another article, "McCain, Hagee and the Politics of God's Wrath", in The Nation blog, which provides references to John Hagee - not McCain's pastor, but an endorser (and we know Obama has been criticized for people who have endorsed him) - and his "wrath of God" condemnation(s):

Hagee, whose views about a host of social issues give new meaning to the term "hateful," is not McCain's pastor. They have no personal or spiritual relationship. Rather, Hagee is a close political ally of McCain and an ardent supporter of the Arizona senator's presidential bid.

McCain sought Hagee's endorsement and continued to defend and embrace the pastor – saying he was "glad to have the minister's endorsement – even after Hagee said that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans because of the city's "sinful" acceptance of homosexuality.

"What happened in New Orleans looked like the curse of God…" Hagee explained after the city experienced a national disaster that cost at least 1,836 lives – making it the deadliest hurricane in American history – and permanently dislocated tens of thousands of Americans from not just their homes but the communities of their birth and upbringing.

I hadn't heard about this rather hateful comment that Robb mentioned - it was, one might say, invisible ... leading me to wonder about the relative visibility and invisibility of religious and political connections as they apply to white presidential candidates and black presidential candidates - but it reminded me of the many hateful pronouncements by Christian Coalition of America founder, former minister and erstwhile Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson (who has endorsed many other Republican candidates over the years). [BTW, I was surprised to discover there is a Christian Coalition in New Zealand.] One example of hateful speech by this self-described "Christian" was uttered in response to Gay Days at Disney World:

"I would warn Orlando that you're right in the way of some serious hurricanes and I don't think I'd be waving those flags in God's face if I were you, This is not a message of hate; this is a message of redemption. But a condition like this will bring about the destruction of your nation. It'll bring about terrorist bombs; it'll bring earthquakes, tornadoes and possibly a meteor."  

I'm further reminded of some of the hateful speech associated with other conservative commentators, such as Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly, Michael Savage and Sean Hannity, but do not want to digress further. I'll simply note that while Hagee is not McCain's current or former pastor, his unsolicited endorsement of McCain seems to be far less visible in the mass media than some of the unsolicited endorsements by controversial figures that Obama has received.

Speaking of media, further on in his comment, Robb notes:

I am not at all acquainted with American television these days, hardly with New Zealand television for that matter, but I must say when I do watch television here I find the best, and most informative, and most balanced programs on Maori Televison. And even as "enlightened" as white New Zealand claims to be, I readily recall the battle in the late 90's it was to get that up and running. Privileged people are always afraid of change it would seem.

The reference to Maori Television was prompted, in part, by my reference to 1995 testimony in which Senator McCain claimed that cable networks are less biased than PBS and "superior in some cases". Robb's observation that "privileged people are always afraid of change" really strikes a chord, and reminds me of an unfinished post I started months ago - after finishing Yochai Benkler's book, The Wealth of Networks, and after hearing an interview on NPR with Tony Blair, in which he shared his father's perspective that "if you became successful then you became Conservative" - and may just prompt me to finish (and post) my rumination on the issue of incumbency, and the encumbrances that incumbents sometimes erect to maintain their unfair advantage(s) ... which, in my mind, relates to issues of religion, politics, racism and invisibility.


Move-in Day for Strands Labs, Seattle

Today we moved into our new office at 4143 University Way NE - right on "the Ave", the heart of Seattle's University District, and literally a stone's throw from the University of Washington.


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We occupy the top floor of a three-story building, with 3400 square feet to grow into, and two (!) decks, one of which overlooks the Ave.

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Yogi and I - and others who will be joining us soon - will work in of one of the back offices while construction continues on the front office area (several interior walls have been removed to open up the space facing the Ave).

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We'll be using a motley collection of furniture until we get some new "system" furniture, which we hope to order by the end of this week ... and which probably won't be delivered and installed until mid-June. In any case, we have plenty of room to grow, and growing the team will be increasing in relative priority as space-related issues are settled.

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We've been finding it rather challenging to determine how to configure a system of furniture that achieves an appropriate balance among occasionally conflicting goals - providing similarly-sized and well-delineated individual workspaces, promoting collaboration and teamwork between workspaces (and the people who occupy them), maximizing the "access" to natural light and offering sufficient storage. We also want to find the right balance between wanting to configure the space that best suits the people and the work in Seattle and not wanting to deviate too far from configurations used in the other Strands offices. A learning and growth opportunity, along several dimensions.

Of course, leasing office space was also a learning opportunity for me. Early on, we decided that being close to the UW campus would offer long-term strategic benefits, enabling us to more easily attend talks and other events on and around campus, and making it easy for UW students and faculty to visit - and perhaps work with - us. Even within the narrowed search space of the University District, there were a number of options available, in various shapes, sizes, locations and prices. This was a pleasant surprise, given recent reports that Seattle is the hottest office market in the country.

Typically, real estate brokers - commercial or residential - operate on a commission basis. Although a prospective tenant may utilize the services of a broker, they are paid by the landlord, based on the lease terms that are negotiated with the tenant. While this may be the usual arrangement, I wanted to have a commercial real estate broker who would be paid by us, to ensure that he would be working solely on our behalf without any conflict of interest. We were very happy with the tenant representation services provided by Tom Baker, of Office Lease, who helped us identify features and evaluate options along dimensions that might not have occurred to us, and ultimately helped us arrive at a decision on a space that we believe will best serve our long-term needs. Dennis Counts, of Yates & Wood, who represented the landlords, was also very helpful throughout the process.

The landlords, Sunny and Sarah Lee, have also been very helpful and accommodating throughout the process. We were grateful for their willingness to reconfigure the front space, and for their ongoing responsiveness as issues have arisen during demolition, reconstruction and refinishing work proceeds in the space. We look forward to a long, happy relationship with them, as well as with our new neighbors downstairs - Jimmy John's Gourmet Sandwiches on the second floor and the Ave Copy Center at street level.

Listening to NPR on my way home this evening, I was reminded that today is May Day, on which some people celebrate International Worker's Day. We did not take a holiday or participate in a demonstration today - in fact, we didn't even have a celebration (we'll have to address that oversight tomorrow)! We are still not quite in a position to work a "regular day" at the office yet - we still have a few connectivity [Yogi has figured out how to alligator clip us into an Internet connection (!)] and logistics issues to work out. But today did mark an important milestone for us, as we set the stage for innovation at Strands Labs, Seattle.