Fascinating thoughts on how the web and HTML5 reflect our culture

The New Yorker has a great piece by Paul Ford on the emergence of HTML5 and standard-setting bodies for the web. You don’t have to understand the technical details, but these discussions will affect our experience of the internet in the decades to come:

A standard is a skewed mirror of culture, and HTML5 is no different. Here is what it tells us we care about: words, headlines, video, and audio. We like to organize things into lists, and we like to look at pictures. And we want everything to be capable of animation and interaction—every letter, every tag, every structural element. Every bit of HTML5 is open to interpretation by code, available to be twisted, rotated, and manipulated by its users.


Nigerians in Space nominated for National Book Critics Circle Award

I was thrilled to learn (by Twitter!) that Nigerians in Space has been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award:

I also picked Olukotun’s novel as one of my favorite works of speculative fiction in 2014. In mid-90’s Houston, Dr. Wale Olufunmi is tasked with stealing a piece of the moon from the United States and returning it to Nigeria.

You can get the book here.

Celebration of Black Scientists: my visit to Austin’s George Washington Carver museum

About the Museum and Cultural Center

I travel to Austin at least once per year to visit with family. This time, besides scarfing down world-class barbecue and Tex-Mex food, I wanted to learn more about the African-American community. I had a radio interview with Kazi.fm to discuss by book Nigerians in Space and the gracious host of the show, Hopeton Hay, recommended that I visit the George Washington Carver museum.

Carver Display

This display of George Washington Carver was located in the main atrium. A text panel explained his achievements: scientist, professor, and inventor. Carver was born into slavery in 1864 in Missouri. After slavery was abolished, his perseverance in the face of racism and poverty enabled him to become a professor at Iowa State before leaving his post to work under Booker T. Washington (no relation) at the renowned Tuskegee Institute, a university devoted to uplifting blacks. The display case held some instruments from his lab—many of them custom made because he had little funding—as well a "pet corn snake" preserved in formaldehyde, which apparently slithered around his lab.
Even though there is scant information about Carver throughout the museum, you can sense his immense intellect and devotion to mentoring others. Among other achievements, he completely revamped the cotton industry by recommending that farmers replenish the soil with other plants, such as peanuts. And when they expressed doubts about the value of peanuts, he developed several hundred innovative uses for the plant, many of which are in use today.

Mae Jemison

The most interesting part of the museum was actually a gallery meant for children. But since there were no children in the museum, I wandered in. (More on this later.) This graphic explained the achievements of Mae Jemison, a medical doctor who became the first African-American woman in space. She entered Stanford at the young age of 16 and graduated with dual degrees in chemical engineering and African-American history.
A NASA photo of Jemison while she was in space on a joint research mission with Japan.

Garrett Morgan

Garrett Morgan was an extraordinary inventor who invented traffic signals—later developed into the stoplight—and the modern day gas mask. Interestingly, Morgan demonstrated the effectiveness of his gas mask by rescuing workers trapped underground after a tunnel explosion under Lake Erie.

Why the Museum Matters

I learned a lot from my visit to the George Washington Carver museum. In reality, it seems to be used more as a cultural center than as a museum—there is an auditorium and several modular spaces. But I can't stress the importance of learning about these African-American scientists enough. Some people are pioneers, but many are not and like to see what others have achieved before striking out. I think I'm probably in the latter category—I like to learn from the other choices that people have made. This means that I rarely experience the elation of true discovery like a pioneer, but I do get to try out some really cool things while avoiding pitfalls.

I won't sugar coat this—the museum definitely could use your support. The displays were not all working properly and it was not even possible to buy anything from the gift shop. The best thing to do is probably just visit the museum itself. But if you can give more, then you should. It could create the next George Washington Carver or Mae Jemison, or just instill a young mind with extraordinary belief.

Article in GigaOm on DRM, Copyright, and Star Wars

credit: Nasa
credit: Nasa

I just had a piece published in the tech journal GigaOm, a popular site in Silicon Valley. In the article, I take a close look at Cory Doctorow’s book Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free and I dive into Star Wars and copyright issues. Copyright and creativity is an issue I’ve been interested in for some time–while I was at Stanford I researched how rights regimes affected writers for the organization Creative Commons, which was then just a start-up in the basement of the law school.

Please give it a read.

Play-by-Play of my Artist Residency at the Ace Hotel

About the Residency

The Ace Hotel in New York has an amazing residency where it houses creative artists for one night. I was nominated by Word, a great indie bookstore with branches in Greenpoint and Jersey City.

From the outset, I knew that I didn't really want to write anything. Writing takes me a long time and the editing process is often longer than the writing itself. So I decided I would like to try a hands-on art project. This was a great challenge, since I don't identify myself as a visual artist.
My brother is in fact a super talented visual artist and designer so I've tended to shy away from visual art—although he has taught me a number of great skills. Originally, I had planned to make art about income inequality, but the recent grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri and in Staten Island with Eric Garner made me want to create a piece related to racial justice as well, something I explore often in my fiction but not in my daily job. Once my wife CJ decided to come along to help, I decided to do both projects at the same time.

Space to Create

The room was great. Although the guitar was out of tune (I tuned it using relative tuning), there was plenty of space to spread out and create things. There was a record player but its auxiliary output wasn't very good, so we switched to the radio. There was not a lot of time and we went to work immediately.

Toy Bin of Art Supplies

The hotel provided a bunch of art supplies, including rulers, ink, scissors, mounting adhesive, and plenty of fancy pencils and paper. I imagined a real visual artist would have been in paradise, but I didn't know what to do with most of them.
The desk was fairly large, which was great because I had to do a lot of measuring, cutting, and pasting.

CJ at Work

This is CJ busy at work. She clipped out text for the piece on income inequality. This involved reading a bunch of newspapers and pulling out clippings. The hotel had collected a few papers for me already and I bought a few more on my way to check in. I also stopped to buy my own art supplies at Blick, because I figured the hotel wouldn't have everything I needed. This turned out to be a good move.

Laying out the piece on income inequality

This is the income inequality piece before we added the newspaper clippings. I wanted to use the form of a typical capitalist to hammer home the point, which I grabbed off a Creative Commons license, and I silhouetted it against gold paper to catch the viewer's eye.

The Finished Piece on Income Inequality

This is the finished piece, which I entitled Billionaires and the Papers Who Love Them. The clippings are meant to swirl like a cloud around the capitalist's head, suggesting obfuscation as well as ignorance about the realities beneath. The clippings also follow a narrative flow. As you read the clippings on the left, you learn about billionaires and extreme wealth, often in a laudatory manner. On the right side of the figure's head are clippings about poverty. Emerging from the mouth is a quote questioning the sustainability of these trends, which are in tension.

The piece came out of my frustration with the news media, which I often feel celebrates extreme wealth and excess and allows the cycle of greed to continue. Meanwhile, real lives are trampled upon in pursuit of these goals, when they do not, in the end, provide more happiness to the greedy.

The finished piece on racial justice

This piece is entitled Never Co-Opt Someone Else's Pain, after a quote from Amy Wilentz, a fantastic author who has written about Haiti since the 1980s. The picture is a silhouette of Trayvon Martin. Originally, I had intended for the piece to be more of an infographic. The target on Trayvon Martin's chest has a fairly obvious meaning: the darker the skin, the more likely you become a target.
But I wanted to convey other messages too. The arrow that projects into the heart was supposed to indicate to the viewer that the farther away you are from an experience of being the victim of racism, the more you have to listen. The implication is that the darker your skin (the more melanin you have in your epidermal layer) the more likely you will be a victim of racism; conversely, the more you are lighter skinned or white, the less likely you have been a victim of racism. The arrow indicates that you should listen more about the incident if you are not dark skinned. I recognize that this is a problematic simplification of racism because many marginalized minorities are victims of racism, but I do think it's a decent rule-of-thumb.

The bar on the right side of the image represents distance. Here, my suggestion is that the further the physical distance from a conflict involving racism, the more you have to listen. So if you are from Maryland, and you did not experience the racism in Missouri, you have an obligation to listen to people closer to the experience before you open your mouth. Or, if you're two blocks away from an area where an act of racial injustice occurred, you should probably listen to the neighbor who actually experienced what happened before you start spouting opinions. Again, this is a rule-of-thumb.

I'll admit I have been extremely bothered by the extent to which people who are neither African-American, nor remotely involved with these communities, tell me how I should feel about racial justice, even going so far as to tell me where I should go or what I should watch. To me, this feels like a double injustice. The first is the injustice that occurred to the victim of the violence and the second injustice is depriving me of my agency. I feel a lot of people are motivated for entirely selfish reasons when they protest. They would rather shout and yell about the police than actually ask people of color, or people who may have lived a similar experience, what they think. Unlike my Billionaires art piece, this piece is not about the media portrayal of racial justice in America. It is about behavior that I have personally observed. Of course, I often feel torn because I am mixed race—and Nigerian-American—but I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about these issues.

I'll admit that the Trayvon Martin piece didn't quite come out as I had hoped. The infographic was hard to implement in practice. I hope to revisit the piece again with some graphic design on Scribus, an open source layout editor, and I'll release it soon on this blog.

I'd like to thank Word and the Ace Hotel for providing me with this amazing opportunity. The staff were extremely kind and generous, except for one particularly aloof bartender, but I think that is probably in his job description because he works at a hotel that caters to hipsters, or to hipsters as visitors to New York imagine them to be.