Wednesday, August 07, 2013

An Evening with the New (and also Alex Lindsay)

Prometheus, who stole fire from the heavens to give to man
Last Friday night at six o'clock in the evening, I made an important decision. I made the decision that by seven o'clock, I was going to be in an area of Kansas City I'd infrequently visited, in a bar I had never heard of, meeting a man I don't know.

It turned to be a notable evening.

This is my story.

First, it should be understood that I haven't paid for cable TV in a decade. When I was living in Columbia, MO and working on my Master's Degree, I had it. My TV was only 13 inches and had a power button that didn't work if you pressed it from the left side. But I had cable. I had cable because that was what everyone did in those days - we watched TV.

Not that I watched a lot of TV. But if I had *wanted* to, I totally could have.

Shortly after I moved to Kansas City, I bought an HDTV. I was the first in my family to do so, and I figured out instantly that I could connect an antenna and get all the local channels in crystal clear high definition. I was tempted by cable TV packages, but living on student loan money meant that expenses were considered carefully. Plus, I was already positive that it was much more valuable for me to have 24/7 internet than it was to have TV. Ever since that time (barring a special news event or classy PBS special) I've used the Internet to replace a lot of the content I'd otherwise have watched.

In the last few months, one of my go-to staples is TWiT is an "internet network" of content, founded by a face I knew as familiar from TV at home: +Leo Laporte. He had founded a business of technology shows streamed live and available as downloads. One of the ones I fell into a routine of watching is called "MacBreak Weekly." When I say that the show is ostensibly about Apple computer products and software, the disconnect becomes obvious: I don't own a single piece of Apple technology. I've never owned any iPads, Macintosh computers, or any of the Apple family of iPhone and iPad devices.

The reason why I bother is because the regular analysts for the show are respected figures in the technology field. They all have prominent connections to Apple technology, but they're (refreshingly) not partisans. While a significant portion of the tech world sees Apple vs. Google, Google vs. Microsoft, and Amazon vs. Apple, the commentators take a much larger view. Their modi operandi are to utilize the best technology for their own individual careers: often in the past that has been Apple products, but not to the exclusion of other technology that suits their needs better.

It goes without saying that I appreciate this viewpoint immensely. And having used Windows products for years, to be currently using Windows and Android, and having just worked a job that required use of only Apple desktops and software, I now understand the perspective more than I ever did.

I have sent or am in the process of sending notes of appreciation to the hosts +Rene Ritchie and +Andy Ihnatko. I do this because I've come to realize how important it is for people to give positive feedback: the negative feedback never fails to arrive, but the positive can sometimes go undiscovered.

The third host, +Alex Lindsay, has no publicly available email address that I could find, so my appreciation went undelivered. Then last Friday he posted a notice that - after completing work that found him in Kansas City for a day - he was going to be spending some time at a bar in the River Market area. I read that at six o'clock and by ten minutes to seven, I was already seated at the bar and drinking.

It sounds all decisive and compact when I tell it that way. It's much closer to say that at 6pm, I had just finished exercising outside in the heat and humidity. I hadn't yet had dinner, but the first thing I was looking at was a nice cold shower. While I was cooling down in the path of a fan on HIGH, I saw the message from Mr. Lindsay. I dithered. After all, I don't really know much about what he does.

A portion of his current work is for one of his companies, called Pixel Corps. It's based in California and does most (if not all) of the high profile Hangouts that are springing up all over. Google Hangouts are used by the President, Netflix used them for their last earnings call, and lots of people just use it to talk shop. It's videoconferencing for multiple people and all you need is a Google account. A hangout with Hallmark (a Kansas City company) brought him to this city.

But what do I know about videoconferencing? Not much. I've taught lessons through Skype and Hangouts, but that's no longer unusual for students nowadays. I don't really know anything about video editing or data conferences or any of the other areas Mr. Lindsay has made his mark upon. I can't even talk about Mac things!

But even as I hedged and grumbled, I was already heading for the shower. I don't get out enough as it is. The least I could do was head into a brand new situation and see what happened. Maybe he'd be looking for people to work for him (I can pick up coffee with the best of them). Maybe he'd be buried in a mob of people who were more involved, and I'd just listen. Maybe his plans would change and he wouldn't be there at all.

By quarter to seven, I was parking three spots down from Harry's Country Club. I entered and went straight to the bar, not even looking to see if there were any other humans in the room, let alone people I knew by sight from the internet. I ordered a beer and started a tab. I had several tense moments of trying to pick out clothes to wear. Shorts? No. Sandals, ok. Polo, no. Long sleeve, OK, but roll up the sleeves. I've had dates with less thought applied to sartorial concerns.

Scanning the room, I saw nobody I recognized. There was a man behind a pillar some distance away, surrounded by several other young men listening attentively. Was that him? I couldn't see from any vantage point save actually walking over, which is a level of social confidence I'm not sure I posses. Fortunately for me, sometime after I began scanning the room, Mr. Lindsay appeared, already seated at the end of the bar and in conversation with a guy.

I finished my current drink and ordered another before I had conquered enough of the negative voices in my head and moved over to stand, not wishing to interrupt. He stopped and shook my head, as I did with the other guy. Then I sat and discovered we were talking about music and instruments.

I'm glad I went. The conversation was wide-ranging and fascinating. He talked about his project to open a cutting edge technology and production school in Rwanda. It's his pride, and it was fascinating to hear him tell stories about African politics, government red tape, educational planning, technological aptitude, and a host of other topics. I even got to see him "go to work" by unfolding a laptop and a WIFI hotspot and connecting with a television network who was having trouble getting prepared for their hangout the next day.

A mobile office, indeed!

*** *** ***

He didn't offer me a job. It's just as well: it would have been mortifying to have to turn it down due to lack of experience and basic knowledge about everything he does. I can see why technology degrees are so important now. Learning to program, learning to do web design, learning to do network operations: all valuable skills that are in demand in some of the coolest job sectors around.

But it did confirm that I have a passion for technology. Everything he talked about was something I wanted to understand, I wanted to be a part of. It was persuasive, listening to him argue for a connected future and practical skills and creative technologies. It made me want to offer myself as an unpaid intern, just to be able to be involved in what happens. To be able to bring my knowledge and experience to bear on issues that can't be cracked in better ways.

Of course, I've always had these feelings. The grass is greener, the dirt is browner, the streets are asphalt-ier: I'm always thinking about other things. I've nurtured passions for robotics, acoustics, zoology, astronomy, psychology, programming, acting, photography, journalism, writing, finance, cooking, bartending, and (of course) music of all kinds and shapes. These are all things I've investigated over the years that I've been alive and able to understand that things CAN be investigated. That time can be spent to learn as little or as much as desired about a never-ending supply of topics that can change the world.

So which one did I focus on? You'd probably say music, which I've certainly spent a fair amount of my time doing. But in reality I've focused on them all, to some extent. I've used every single one when I play my trombone or have conversations in restaurants. I've used them all when I write blog entries or read news accounts. I love that my brain is devoted to the worship of ideas and concepts - more so than anyone else I know. My altar is the open book, the lab table, and the search page of Wikipedia. I worship there, offering a great part of myself in exchange for a fraction of understanding.

And like the most irrational of zealots, every glimpse drives me into greater fits of activity. So many more things to learn, more people to meet, more thoughts to share, more personalities to puzzle over, more information to collect.

I stand at a crossroads in my life, without even a pet or houseplant to tie me to a particular place. I long to cast free and head in a ridiculous direction, one that propels me into an entirely new set of understandings that may take forever or only until Tuesday. It's the ropes that I strain against that worry me most: what have I done, what have I accomplished, what have I earned? Almost nothing, yet even that answer is a lie as much as it is the truth.

Every conversation is a chance to teach and to learn. Every job or interview is an opportunity to march on to success, even as failure closes off paths. My greatest hope and desire is that I find a way to take all that is great about myself and channel it into something that allows me to keep on living and -- should I live long enough -- to change the world for the better.

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