Monthly Archives: May 2011

Why to Move to a New Place: It Slows Down Time

Steven Johnson, author extraordinaire, is moving from New York to the Bay Area (at least for a little while). Here's one of his reasons:

And then there's the passage of time. Another old friend — my oldest, in fact — wrote an email to me after I told him the news of our move. We've both been in New York for two decades, and we are both watching our kids growing up at lightning speed. "Change like this slows down time," he wrote. When you're in your routine, frequenting the same old haunts, time seems to accelerate — was it just four years ago that our youngest son was born? But all the complexities of moving — figuring out where to live, getting there, and then navigating all the new realities of the changed environment — means that the minutes and hours that once passed as a kind of background process, the rote memory of knowing your place, suddenly are thrust into your conscious awareness. You have to figure it out, and figuring things out makes you aware of the passing days and months more acutely. You get disoriented, or at least you have to think for a while before you can be properly oriented again.

So that is why we are moving: for the natural beauty, yes, and the climate, and the Bay Area tech scene, and the many friends out there we haven't seen enough of over the past twenty years. But more than anything, we're moving to slow down time.

Knowing Your Audience in the YouTube Era

A few months ago, when Senator John Kerry was in Pakistan to push for the release of CIA agent Raymond Davis, he held a Q&A with local media in Lahore. You can hear by the questions that the local journalists are not at all fluent in English. So when I watch the back and forth, I’m struck by the complexity of Kerry’s sentences and vocabulary.

Kerry doesn’t seem to be making an attempt to speak in clear, short sentences that the folks in the room would understand. Instead, he offers circular answers with words like “consternation” and “signatory”:

“Sometimes, to the consternation of many of us…”
“Your government is a signatory to that”
“We don’t want this relationship to come into a difficult situation because we’re unable to find reasonableness.”

What’s going on? Is John Kerry trying to communicate with the people asking him questions? If so, he’s not doing a very good job. He has forgotten to simplify his language to fit the audience. He doesn’t “know his audience.”

But perhaps he does know his audience — it’s just that the audience is not the local media assembled in the room. The audience consists of all the people who will be reviewing video footage of the exchange, including English-fluent decision makers in Pakistan and policy makers in U.S.

Jay Leno — and all TV stars who perform in front of a live audience and the cameras — know this concept well. The physical audience in Leno’s studio in Los Angeles is not the audience that counts. His real audience is middle America watching at home on TV, and he tailors his jokes appropriately. I know corporate executives who do as Leno does. They go give a talk in front of 50 people, videotape it, and then email it out to 1,000 clients. Their audience isn’t the 50 people who hear the speech live — it’s the 1,000 clients who watch it on YouTube.

Bottom Line: “Know your audience” is an axiom of public speaking and communication. But most advice on this front assumes your audience is whoever is in the room listening live. In an era of cameras and YouTube, your audience rarely consists only of the people listening to you live. Usually there will be (or can be) a YouTube audience as well. Communication strategy ought to account for this now-obvious but sometimes still overlooked reality.

I Loved You, I Loved You, I Loved You

Derek Miller, a writer and technology thinker, passed away a couple days ago. He wrote a touching final post that was scheduled to publish upon his death:

Airdrie, you were my best friend and my closest connection. I don't know what we'd have been like without each other, but I think the world would be a poorer place. I loved you deeply, I loved you, I loved you, I loved you.

If you scroll through the most recent few entries (of his 10 year old blog), he writes about his decline with great eloquence, honesty, and clearheadedness.

It's a privilege (is that the word?) of the modern age to be able to read these types of blog posts — dying people documenting their decline in a public forum. There's something comforting in it, for me.

It's chilling when someone dies unexpectedly and their last blog post or tweet is especially banal or random.

Derek, long fighting cancer, prepared a thought-out goodbye post. Yet, a couple weeks ago he was tweeting about the the future of the iTunes store. He knew he was days or weeks away from dying…but in the meantime, why not link to a good commentary on whether iTunes will move to the cloud?

Perhaps it's not so chilling, after all, these sorts of seemingly trivial postings. Live each day of your life doing the things you like to do, tweeting about the things you always tweet about. Until there are no more days left to live.

RIP, Derek.

The Situation Room Photo

I've looked at it several times. It's the Situation Room during the Osama bin Laden assault. Gripping. A good example of the power of a photo to convey emotion.

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David Brooks and Gail Collins analyze:

David Brooks: The other photo I’ve been fascinated by is the one of the president’s security team gathered in the White House Situation Room. The first thing the photo illustrates is that whenever we disagree with an office holder, we should all nonetheless pay them a large dose of respect. Presidents and others make these horrific decisions that could lead to death and suffering for people thousands of miles away, and then they sit passively far removed from the action, hoping that things turn out right.

On a human level I’m struck by the varied emotions etched on people’s faces. I can read nothing on Bob Gates’s face or even Joe Biden’s, whereas Obama, Denis McDonough and John Brennan look tense. Hilary Clinton’s face is the most riveting, a mixture of anxiety, dread and concern. I suspect most people will relate to her expression.

Gail Collins: Did they have to pick the one where Hillary had her hand over her mouth? The secretary of state doesn’t need to prove her toughness, but it would be nice if the definitive photo didn’t show the only woman in the room looking stricken.

David Brooks: The second thing the photo shows is how small the room is. In the movies, executive decisions are made in big, Roman Empire type rooms. But the White House is an early 19th century kind of place. It does all it can to humble the people who work there with its smallness, at least in the work areas.

The posture of the president is fascinating. Instead of occupying the power chair in the center of the table, he is perched on a low chair off the side, hunched over looking tense. If you just looked at this picture, you might think that Joe Biden was president or Bill Daley, who is standing behind looking imposing and grave. You’d think Obama was a midlevel aide. 

Gail Collins: The president really did put all his chips on the line. These are the kind of moments we elected him for — we knew from the financial crisis that when all hell breaks loose, he doesn’t lose his cool.

But he’s also lucky. People partly make their own fortunes, but I wonder if he’d have had the confidence to take such a huge gamble if he didn’t believe innately that he’s the kind of guy fortune favors.

Meanwhile, our report says Biden was fingering his rosary beads. Luck is good, but the Blessed Virgin Mary is better.

David Brooks: In the case of Obama’s perch in the Situation Room, I think what happened is this: some sort of communication or technical relay had to be done, so the president got out of his chair and relinquished it to Brig. Gen. Brad Webb, who is the assistant commanding general of the Joint Special Operations Command. The president just slid over to the low chair off to the side, which one of the standers must have relinquished.

Still, I wonder how many White Houses would have been confident enough to release a photo with the president looking so diminutive. I think it speaks well of Obama and the administration that they released this as the iconic image of the decision-making process behind the event.