Smart Cities Summit: The Way We Work Now

Manhattan Laundry
WeWork coworking office at Manhattan Laundry, near U Street in Washington, DC.

Even by government standards, the office was a dump. A brutalist structure on the treeless expanse of L’Enfant Plaza, the building was awkward and uninviting from the outside – a concrete slab with windows encrusted in filth.

Once through the doors, there was the usual puzzle of obtaining entry, 1960s architecture and security theater combining to create an imponderable maze of hallways decorated with faded American flags and outdated office directories encased in plexiglass.

The interview was in a conference room. I followed my guide to a subterranean level, where he submitted a letter to a functionary behind a desk before he was given a key. We then went back upstairs to unlock the conference room.

After the interview, I was shown where I would work. I had been warned. “Make sure you show it to him,” the interviewer said.

For good reason. I’ve worked as a government contractor for ten years, primarily in environments that look straight out of Office Space. Fluorescent lights, beige furniture, chunky computers – depressing but doable. Windows are reserved for feds. Contractors get the worst space.

But I don’t need much. A little desk in a corner somewhere and I’m fine.

But what I was shown wasn’t even a cubicle – it was a worn formica table in a noisy hallway crammed with people, including consultants working elbow to elbow, the two of them sharing one desk. It was like working in a submarine, but one cluttered with broken office equipment and sagging cardboard boxes. I must’ve visibly recoiled because I did not the get the job.

I recently attended the Inclusive Smart Cities Summit, primarily because I was interested in the transportation session – Gabe Klein, who created the 15th St bike lane and bikesharing in DC was speaking – but before that panel, there was a discussion on workplaces of the future.

At first, it was the usual thing, a panel of buzzword-spewing experts describing the future of work as open and collaborative though everyone I know who works in an open office wants out. Those pushing the open space trend typically do so from executive suites, where they don’t have to listen to coworkers discussing medical conditions with their doctor.

What’s missing from the open office trend? Data. Listening to Randy Fiser, CEO of the American Society of Interior Designers, was a revelation. They selected and designed their office based on employee needs, choosing a downtown building with an abundance of green space, fresh food and walkable transportation. After moving into their new office, they then measured the results, with productivity and employee satisfaction both increased.

WeWork Manhattan Laundry - interior
WeWorkers at work at Manhattan Laundry

WeWork has been billed as the future of work. I certainly hope so. I’ve taken advantage of their DC locations through their Summer Mondays promotion.

While WeWork is open space, I love it because it doesn’t feel crowded or claustrophobic. There’s room to move around, plenty of seating options and lots of natural light. Plus, there are phone rooms for private conversations and a kitchen stocked with coffee, beer and snacks.

It’s about creating a narrative, according to Dave McLaughlin. The WeWork exec has a screenwriting background, a refreshing change from the MBA-educated consultant class. WeWork is for creators. With local artworks, low couches and millennials busily working on laptops, it provides a hip backdrop, as if you’re working in a Hollywood romcom.

WeWork wants you to do more than just create – they want you to accomplish your dreams through collaboration with other WeWorkers. Space is designed to facilitate chance encounters, with hallways that are a little too narrow, so that you have to look up from your iPhone and make eye contract with other people.

According to Randy Fiser, we spend 91% of our time indoors. We spend so much time at work that we should make it as pleasant as possible. Not every office can look like WeWork but design matters. Humans need space, natural light and privacy. Create offices that people want to work in – it’s that simple.

Americans Will Believe Anything

Heather Heyer memorial
Heather Heyer memorial in Charlottesville, VA

Despite blackening the sky, the eclipse was not a transcendent moment for America. Within minutes of totality exiting the United States, we went back to business as usual, with a big chunk of this nation denying any fact they find to be inconvenient as “fake news.”

On the way back from North Carolina, I decided to stop in Charlottesville to see the Heather Heyer memorial. This anti-racist demonstrator was mowed down by a driver on a side street in the downtown of this beautiful Virginia city.

It’s chilling. She died just steps from the city’s pedestrian mall, on a narrow lane offering no escape from a driver with his foot on the gas. It was a deliberate act of murder from an extremist who hunted down protesters.

Heather Heyer died – but for what?

This week, Hillary Clinton emerged, hawking yet another autobiography. And worse – she endorsed a laughable web site, Verrit, which Jack Shafer memorably described as looking like North Korean agitprop. What’s different about this new site? It provided verified factoids, with their own Verrit code, enabling you to live in a Clinton-approved media bubble without any exposure to the messy real world.

Patronizing, clumsy and conflicted – it’s everything you hate about Hillary in a single site. This kind of top-down lecturing from our political betters (you will read what we want you to read) is why Hillary and her sycophants lost an election that should’ve been easily won.

This kind of appeal to authority no longer works in America. Kurt Andersen documents America’s slide into unreason in How America Lost Its Mind, a voluminous Atlantic article that comprehensively name-checks nearly political and cultural movement from the past fifty years, everything from chemtrails to Uri Geller.

Why are Americans so crazy?

The short answer is because we’re Americans—because being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned.

Andersen puts the American tendency to create our own beliefs in a historical context. It’s been with us from the start, with invented Thanksgiving myths and tall tales about George Washington.

We also have a rich tradition of con-men, Donald Trump just being the latest in a line which extends back to L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith and P.T. Barnum.

What Andersen misses is that Americans have good reason not to believe in American institutions. They’ve failed. American business has become parasitic, little more than Uber and AirBnB bros skimming value while employing only contractors. The American political class, as embodied by Hillary Clinton, has no core beliefs, other than getting elected (it’s her turn!). And our vast security state has given us endless war while failing to protect us from actual Nazis.

No room for racists

Posters reminiscent of World War II propaganda have emerged on the streets of DC. They are a call for resistance against Trumpism. The creator of this evocative art, Robert Russell, said:

In the the 1940s, America unified against an explicit and obvious enemy. In this case, the enemy is firmly entrenched in the White House. We’re inverting that message and saying the threat is right here, so look out.

But the posters do more than just target an incipient fascist. They remind us what Americans believe and what we’ve fought and died for – that we’re all created equal.

While Americans may hold their own idiosyncratic beliefs on the efficacy of vaccines or the possibility of alien life forms, this belief in democracy is a shared one and one that we must defend, whether we are Republican, Democrat or Independent.

Coming Soon – THE SWAMP

When an errant drone crashes into the White House, it triggers a chain of events that leads to the end of the country as we know it.

Welcome to THE SWAMP, my new novel mocks the city that America has come to hate.

THE SWAMP begins on Christmas Eve, when a drone crash causes a security scare at the White House. Fox News screams, “How can we keep the President safe?” A crackpot idea from a cynical TV correspondent – let’s move the nation’s capital to an underground bunker – becomes an uncontrollable political movement. Can the President and the rest of official Washington contain this red state rebellion or will it swamp them all?

From mommy bloggers to scheming bureaucrats, THE SWAMP is a love letter to this city – and a wish for its destruction – packaged together in a black comedy reminiscent of Christopher Buckley and Evelyn Waugh.

Read the first chapter to get a taste of THE SWAMP.

Road Dog: The Life of an Indie Filmmaker

Road Dog by Kelley Baker

What I like about Kelley Baker is that he demystifies the art of filmmaking. You don’t need a million dollars or an expensive degree to make a movie. Instead, you need some basic technical knowledge – which I saw him impart during workshops for the DC Shorts Film Festival – and, more importantly, a story.

A better drinking partner could not be found. During the DC Shorts Film Festival, there always came a moment when the festival director, overwhelmed by the chaos of running a week-long event, would disappear with Kelley for a few hours of bourbon drinking. He would then return relaxed. This made everyone happy.

Seeing Kelley every year at DC Shorts was one of the highlights of the festival for me. We were old-timers, who had been a part of the festival almost since the very beginning. His was a familiar face who made movies, liked parties and was endlessly encouraging for creatives like me.

Also, he wasn’t one of those Hollywood bullshit artists who bragged about their connections or, even worse, promised that riches were just a screenplay away. Instead, having made films for decades, he was realistic about the industry. Yes, you can make a movie but, since dreams of fame are illusory (and Hollywood will probably screw you), make the movie that you want to see. Make your story.

Kelley shares his story, the ups and downs of an indie filmmaker, in his new book Road Dog. Get his book and look for him on tour this fall.

America, Eclipsed

eclipse at totality

It was the Great American Eclipse, a continent-spanning solar event that would bring squabbling America together, if only briefly. And, who knows, the sight of forces much bigger than ourselves – the sun blocked out by the moon – might even cause people to put aside their prejudices and unite as one.

Novels are full of epiphanies, life-changing moments when characters realize the folly of their ways.

But real life rarely has those moments for most people never give up their guiding principles, no matter how misguided.

With friends near the path of the eclipse, I was determined to experience this unique event. Totality would occur just a few miles from their home in Waynesville, NC.

The morning of the eclipse, my friends demurred, seeing traffic backed up on the highway, afraid that they would be caught in a historic traffic jam rather than history. But me, familiar with gridlocked DC, was unfazed, reasoning it couldn’t any worse than the Beltway on any day at any time.

It wasn’t. I reached the campus of Western Carolina University with hours to spare. WCU was in the zone of totality and I had my friend’s parking pass so I could park on the closed campus.

The biggest problem I encountered was getting something to eat. It was the first day of classes at WCU and students were lined up everywhere for lunch.

Slowly, the sun diminished. By the time I finished my sandwich, it was as if the solar orb had been turned down by a dimmer switch, the light fading to the point that I no longer needed sunglasses.

Students watch the eclipse at WCU

Crowds in purple (WCU’s color) filled the center of campus, near the clock tower. Scientists from WCU provided color commentary while students lined up for eclipse glasses and moonpies. I settled into the grass and waited for the show.

Minutes before the eclipse I saw people heading indoors, bags of food in hand, choosing to miss this magical moment. It’s curious but there were some in the path of the eclipse who wouldn’t even look outside, annoyed at the impertinence of the sun. A friend’s mother couldn’t be bothered with it, thinking it all to be overrated. Fake News!

But on the packed campus at WCU, the crowd sighed as clouds washed over the golden orb. Apps were checked, as students counted down the moment to totality and willed the clouds to part.

the crescent of the sun during the eclipse

The moon ate the sun, until just a shining crescent remained, screened by the wispy cumulus. It was beautiful but there was more to come.

Seconds before totality, the offending cloud drifted off and the campus broke into relieved applause.

Then the sun was extinguished, disappearing, all but the sharp platinum ring of the corona. Students cheered, as if rooting for their favorite team. Eclipse glasses were removed. People stood and embraced, a rising tumult echoing off the mountains.

Seated on the grass, lens pointed upwards, I snapped photo after photo in happy disbelief.

It was night on campus, the clock tower lit up against the dark sky, stars visible in the blackness but light lingering in the west, like sunset on a strange world.

the sun returneth

After a minute of star-speckled darkness, the sun broke free from the moon’s grip. Another round of applause then everyone got up to leave, the sky still strangely dim.

Traffic going back was bad but moved steadily over Balsam Gap. My friends in Waynesville had seen a lot – like shadow bands and the mountain across the valley go dark – but had not experienced totality. An eclipse is like being pregnant. It’s either 100% or nothing.

The next night, Trump gave a speech so unhinged that commentators began seriously wondering about his sanity. The Mad King.

The eclipse did not fix America. It was not a transcendent moment that brought people together. No one questioned their beliefs following the cosmic occurrence. Despite science predicting the eclipse’s exact path across the United States, there are those who still cry “Fake news!” at any fact that they find disagreeable.

The Great American Eclipse will not usher in the Age of Aquarius. Instead, it’s an ominous portent that the ancients would recognize, heralding a time of troubles for the nation. May it just last a moment, exiting quickly and returning light and reason to the country.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

It’s Stoicism.

While The Subtle of Art of Not Giving a Fuck contains revealing and profane stories of personal dissipation and blogging-fueled awakening, at its core is the timeless message of the Stoics: life is short. Make better choices with your time.

Despite its roots among the ancient Greeks, Stoicism is a philosophy that’s still relevant today. First practiced by men such as Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, its core tenet is that while we can’t control circumstance, we can control our response to circumstance. Born from troubled times, the Stoics admired people who played the cards they were dealt, no matter how bad, searching for a way out of difficulty.

The Obstacle is the Way in other words, a (much better) book that popularizes this ancient belief system with examples from throughout history.

What makes The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck unique is its rejection of happy talk. Mark Manson shreds the relentless positivity of the self-help industry which is not helpful at all. Divorce, illness, joblessness – sometimes life is just going to suck and trying to talk yourself into happiness won’t get you there.

In fact, concentrating on being happy will just make you less so, for it is an emotion that flies from you as you seek it.

Manson prescribes the doctrine of the ancient Greeks: don’t worry about happiness, for you will be dead soon.

Instead, focus on being useful. Put aside your illusory dreams of riches and fame. Be a better person today, to the people around you, for that is the ultimate measure of a life.

Uncle Nearest: The Best Whiskey Maker the World Never Knew

Uncle Nearest whiskey

Finally, my drinking is being sponsored.

A friend who does PR for a distillery sent me a new premium Tennessee whiskey to try out – Uncle Nearest.

Similar to Knob Creek, it makes an excellent Manhattan and, at 100 proof, will warm you up on a cold day.

Made from Tennessee grain, filtered through charcoal and aged in oak barrels, it tastes like bourbon but is technically not a bourbon for legal reasons.

But what’s most interesting is the story behind the spirit – Uncle Nearest honors Nathan “Nearest” Green, the first African-American master distiller on record in the United States.

Born a slave, Green worked for Dan Call, a farmer, preacher and whiskey maker. When young Jack Daniel wanted to learn the tricks of the trade, Call instructed Green (now a free man) to teach him.

Jack Daniel called Green, “the best whiskey maker the world never knew.”

Author Fawn Weaver, who has been researching the Green family, and recently launched the Nearest Green Foundation, met with his descendants.

“I asked them what they thought was the best way to honor Nearest,” Weaver said. “Their response was, ‘No one owes us anything. We know that. But putting his name on a bottle, letting people know what he did, would be great.’”

When you drink whiskey, you’re drinking history, American water and grain aged in barrels until it becomes magic. The forgotten story behind Nearest Green just adds to the experience of enjoying this new spirit.

 

Letter from Washington: Stranger than Fiction

crowd at Queen + Adam Levine

How do you write a novel in a time that’s stranger than fiction?

Queen + Adam Lambert came to Washington, DC. A friend had an extra ticket and graciously invited me. We sat in the upper reaches of the Verizon Center as Lambert and the group went through a fast-moving set, filled with the kind of lasers and stagecraft that’s expected from a band in 2017. It’s not enough just to be a musician, any more.

They played all the hits – Bohemian Rhapsody, Killer Queen and Another One Bits the Dust.

It was not the same. Lambert is not Freddie Mercury, something he would be the first to admit – and did admit – during a tribute to the late singer early in the show. Queen + Adam Lambert made me appreciate the genius of Freddie Mercury, a man with an unreproducible vocal range but also an awkward shyness that’s missing in the age of the polished pop star.

The Queen show took place during the short-lived Age of Mooch. The reign of Anthony Scaramucci as White House Communications Director was far too short, a rich comedic opportunity that was thrown away before the Mooch even received his Saturday Night Live parody.

“Scaramouche. Scaramouche. Will you do the fandango?” Imagine the possibilities – Scaramucci singing the Queen classic live from New York.

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” You can learn more about a nation from its artists than from politicians. Shakespeare does a better job explaining the English than some dry book of history.

But what happens if events progress faster than comedians, satirists and novelists can comprehend?  We barely had time to mock the Mooch before he disappeared.

I’ve written another novel: The Swamp. I started writing it a couple years ago, inspired by the tail end of the Obama administration. I wrote something I thought was outrageous – an errant drone lands on the White House, leading to the end of Washington as we know it.

After November 8, 2016, my idea didn’t seem so outlandish, as reality raced past the conception of the possible, devolving into a scenario that even the bleakest dystopianist would find implausible.

The problem with writing timely fiction is that times change. Does my novel The Swamp still make sense? After the election, I had to put aside the book and think about it.

I went on to write Victory Party, a short story that won the City Paper fiction contest. It’s another very timely work, for it concerns election night in DC and one person who’s happy about the result.

It’s a story that I wrote quickly and then ruthlessly cut, slowly paring away everything that was non-essential. I deleted exposition, explanations and any word that wasn’t necessary. It worked. “Joe Flood masterfully doles out information,” according to Mary Kay Zverloff (author of Man Alive!), who judged the competition.

So, I went back to my novel and I cut, reorganized and rewrote, aiming for clarity. Sections that I deleted went into a document called Remnants. Hurt less that way.

I also changed the title. My book was originally called Drone City, a title that I thought was clever. Drone City. DC.

I changed it to The Swamp, for the book is about the city that America has come to hate. My dark comedy follows swamp denizens – politicians, journalists, millennials – blindly chasing spoils, unaware that the world around them is about to turn upside down.

Trump, American Carnage, Spicey, Boy Scouts, Build the Wall, Russia, Deep State, Mooch – little of this makes any sense now and it will make even less so to future generations. It will be up to the artists, the legislators of our age, to explain the dark and confusing year of 2017.

 

XYZT: Abstract Landscapes – A Chance to Play

XYZT: Abstract Landscapes is a world-travelled installation by internationally acclaimed French contemporary digital artists and multimedia choreographers Adrien M & Claire B.

The interactive show offers an exploratory physical experience through ten digital landscapes. Tickets are $15 -$25 and it’s open until September 1 at Artechouse, located near the Mandarin Hotel, just a short walk from the National Mall in Washington, DC.

XYZT: Abstract Landscapes is a show designed for the Selfie Age. No longer enough to just passively enjoy art, contemporary audiences want to interact with installations and memorialize the experience. This photo-friendly exhibit provides what the public wants – places to take good selfies that they can post to Instagram, sharing with their friends the joy that they’ve experienced. The neon installation at the end of the exhibit is ideal for this.

More importantly, XYZT: Abstract Landscapes provides the opportunity to play. See yourself distorted in a video funhouse mirror. Organize swirling motes and hurricanes on a flat table. Blow into a glass to send letters into a bottle. Hold back a cascading alphabet with your hands.

An hour in this underground installation passed in an instant. The experience of playing a game provides a compelling, engaging, rewarding experience that the real-world often fails to match.

In the words of Jane McGonigal, author of Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World:

Games make us happy because they are hard work that we choose for ourselves, and it turns out that almost nothing makes us happier than good, hard work.

Usability is Simplicity

“I’m not a usability expert.”

That’s what I said, prior to the recent NoVA UX Meetup, User Experience for the Experienced.

While I’ve worked on web sites my entire career, I’ve primarily been on the content side, as someone who writes, edits and manages web content. I’m a writer, not a designer, and have never convened focus groups to evaluate web site design or any of the other typical tasks of a UX expert.

Web sites are a mix of content, design and tech, perceived as a whole by users. While I have not identified my work as focused on usability, it’s inevitable that it does. Good, simple, usable web sites require good, simple, usable content.

Roughly four-in-ten seniors are smartphone owners
Pew survey on 65+ smartphone use

At the meetup, the AARP team spoke about the challenges of designing digital experiences for the 50+ audience. The stereotype is that “seniors” don’t use technology. But the fact is that older Americans are passionate users of iPhones and Facebook, just like the rest of us.

I worked on the AARP web site myself, in the late 90s. It was surprising how much older Americans took to the online world – particularly games, member discounts and romance.

While we wanted them to read articles about Social Security, the most popular section of the site was Member Benefits, for it contained the most relevant information for them, i.e., how to get discounts on travel and insurance.

Another surprise was what avid gamers they were, even when playing crossword puzzles on AOL via dial-up modem. We also created message boards to discuss serious topics, which were ignored, while members looked for love in the open chat forums.

The lesson is that the audience wants what it wants and there’s not much you can do about that. While users are determined when looking for something they want, like romance, they don’t have much patience for complicated design.

hamburger menu example
Hamburger menu. It’s clear what you do here, right? No?

Ann Li, a usability expert for AARP, discussed a test she did on hamburger buttons. Popularized by the iPhone, these are the three little lines that you find on web site menus. Click on it, and an additional menu drops down beneath it.

They don’t work, as Li discovered, confirming research from the Nielson group. People do not understand three cryptic lines and don’t get that they can click on them.

I’ve looked at enough Google Analytics for the sites I’ve managed to know that hardly anyone uses menus. Visitors to your home page scan for relevant content and, if they can’t find it, they immediately go to Search.

Usability is simplicity. It’s using the terms that the public uses, not what you want to say. Li discussed another example – an online course on driver safety. Users flocked to the course, thinking that they could learn how to get discounts on car insurance.

The user is always right, as WordPress creator Matt Mullenwegg would say, even when they’re wrong. The course was renamed to make it clearer that it was about driver safety not driver discounts.

In government, where I worked for almost ten years, we never had money for usability testing. However, we had to comply with laws like Sec. 508, which mandates that web sites be accessible to all users, including the blind and disabled. That means that text alternatives have to be available for multimedia information. It forced you to make simpler sites, ones without annoying video intros and Flash.

Making sites accessible is about making them simple. It’s about using the terms that your audience uses. In Washington, we love specialized terminology, for it marks a person as “in the loop.”

Don’t do this. Instead, use simple words that the public knows.

And it’s a good practice, no matter the audience, according to Li. Making a site easy enough for seniors to use will benefit all readers. After all, not everyone is a native English speaker. Not everyone has a sleek laptop with a wifi connection. And there are a surprising number of people who still use AOL to access the web. Your audience is more than just tech-savvy millennials.

You don’t need to be a usability expert to design a usable web site. Focus on simplicity.

After all, you can’t fight Father Time. You’re going to get old. Design simple sites now, ones that all Americans can use.