Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Graduation Speech I Have Not Yet Given

I’m glad to be speaking today at Keats College of the North, where five hundred English, philosophy, and history majors are set to be knighted and sent out into the Great Unknown.

Good luck.  You have probably wasted at least four years of your lives and are in debt, on average, about $40,000 dollars.  And by-the-way, your student loan rate will be doubled to 6% in June unless the Congress finds its courage.  Get used to the 6%.

 Don’t get me wrong.  I have a BS in English education, an MA in Literature, and a PhD in Philosophy with a concentration in literature.  I think everyone should be deeply rooted in literature, philosophy and history.  The current social media discourse indicated how vital this need is.  I have never lost my love of literature, especially poetry.  I’ve published my share of books and critical articles for the journals.  I just completed a course about Rilke’s “Duino Elegies” and his “Sonnets to Orpheus,” given by the Jung Foundation in New York.  I just finished an epic, book-length poem, “The Archetype of the Gun.”  The itch never goes away.

 So what you have learned at this fine college will likely be with you and nourish your soul for the rest of your life.  Well, that’s something.  You might decide to stand off to the side at cocktail parties raging against the inanity of Twitter and the utter insanity of Yahoo!, buying Tumblr because everyone knows the content on this platform is long but vapid and mainly pornographic.  Vent a little.  You will still have Keats and Shelley to keep you warm.

 I received my PhD more than thirty years ago.  I did everything right.  I aced my oral and written exams.  Wrote a blockbuster dissertation that no one read: “Aesthetics and the Religious Mind in Three Catholic Novelists: Francois Mauriac, Graham Greene, and Flannery O’Connor.”  I received a number of two-year job offers in Michigan, Washington, and Indiana.  Even then, full-time university positions in the humanities were beginning to dry up.  Then my son was born, and I didn’t want to drag a family around the country chasing short-term jobs with little prospects for tenure.  So I took a job with a media company and started over.  My first assignment was to research the health benefits of fish.

 That is no fish story.  And my lot was so much easier than yours is likely to be.  Recently New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg suggested, to the anticipated roar of disapproval, that high school students might be better off learning to be a plumber rather than going to college.  That seems good advice.  Having lived in the Bronx, I know that finding a plumber is harder to find than dope.

If you think that’s insulting, not the dope, consider the Op-Ed piece written a few weeks ago in the WSJ by Kirk McDonald, president of PubMatic, an ad tech company in Manhattan.  His piece tells the tale: “Sorry, College Grads, I Probably Won’t Hire You.”  McDonald introduces himself as your next potential dream boss.  “I run a cool, rapidly growing company in the digital field, where the work is interesting and rewarding.  But I’ve got to be honest about some unfortunate news:  I’m probably not going to hire you.”

 The bearer of bad news is certainly not suggesting that you have goofed off during your college years.  This is Keats College of the North, after all.   In a way, the fault, my friends, lies not in you but in the stars.  Or in the educational establishment that has not prepared you for a world where science, engineering, technology and math are king.

 But good news, McDonald has a simple way that you can beef up your resume, stand out from the crowd, and get in his front door:  learn computer code.  He doesn’t mean you need to become a programmer—God forbid.  McDonald is suggesting that “If you want a job in media, technology or a related field, make learning basic computer language your goal this summer.  There are plenty of services—some free and others affordable—that will set you on your way.”

 So instead of going to the beach this summer, “Get acquainted with APIs.  Dabble in a bit of Python.”  When you become acquainted with a couple of programming languages, move that skill to the top of your resume.  The world awaits you.

You might take some comfort in knowing that this prescription also applies to many who have been in the workforce for decades, including yours truly.  For at least fifty years, media executives tended to have a liberal arts education and that was quite sufficient.  After all, a liberal arts education usually ensures someone can write, research, analyze, and draw strategic conclusion.  And these abilities readily find a place in the business setting.

However, the disruption of the media space is unrelenting and anyone wanting to advance in the media field or even keep her job better enjoy a high Digital IQ and understand the technology and analytics that reside underneath that beautiful User Interface.  As McDonald nicely puts it, “Unless you understand the fundamentals of what engineers and programmers do, unless you are familiar enough with the principles of coding to know how the back end of the business works, any answer you give is a guess and therefore probably wrong.”

You’ll recall the first line of Keats’ poem “On First looking into Chapman’s Homer”:  “Much have I travelled in the realms of gold.”  Hold that thought and that line.  It will make you spiritually rich.

But still learn code.  That’s where the earthly riches lie.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

News Apps, Rap Genius, and Crowd-Sourced Annotation

For the last year or so, I've been playing in the news app sandbox, delighted that Project X will soon see the light of day.  That is, if the algorithm gods are willing.   From time to time, I pull my head out of the sand and notice that other parties are moving in with buckets and spades in considerable numbers.   The competitive set is becoming very competitive indeed.   We are all in search of that nectar, that secret sauce.  We want a news app that is personal, reliable, beautiful, predictive, and getting better by the day thanks to machine learning.   And we want to hang on long enough without seed money or venture rounds until Google or a large media company agrees to buy us for at least $30 million.  This story is more than a thrice-told tale and not such a fantasy after all.  It is the sound of Orpheus with flute.

Ken Doctor at The Nieman Journalism Lab just published a mobile aggregator roundup, reminding us of how hot and full of intrigue this space has become.  Most of the basic facts are well-known, but Doctor’s perspective is nonetheless quite interesting.  So tablet aggreggator Pulse was sold to LinkedIn for $90 million.  I’m still trying to get my head around why Yahoo paid $30 million to an English teenager for Summly, a smartphone aggregator.   CNN had earlier picked up Zite and Google had purchased Wavii for $30 million and closed it down.  One assumes the software will find a home somewhere.  Doctor notes that this leaves Flipboard , which is probably valued at $400-500 million, with Facebook and Google lurking in the wings.

Clearly the above start-ups have gotten the jump on traditional media companies that are learning to deal with them.   And the more established start-ups, such as Flipboard, Pulse and Zite, are in their second or third generations, where design and business model are taking center stage.  In some ways, there is a great deal of commonality among the news aggreggators—and I mean as a compliment.   As Flannery O’Connor reminded us, everything that rises must converge. 

Just this morning, I learned about another start-up or at least an idea of a start-up:  News Genius, which is a first cousin to Rap Genius.  The latter richly and deeply annotates, through crowd-sourced commentary, textual analysis, and clarifications, specific lines of rap lyrics such as ZPac’s “Hail Mary Lyrics.”  Those who contribute useful annotations earn Rap IQ points and can become contributors.   I’ve heard that Rap IQ points are being traded like Bitcoins, and could be as valuable.   

This is a curious site that publishes tons of respectable coarse rap lyrics with a layer of commentary floating over the profane body as if delivered by an army of professors who are dedicated to annotating the world.  To get the flavor of this site, have a look at a YouTube investment video (DLD13 Conference: Annotating the World) in which the investment  lead and the Rap Genius start-up team, apparently from Yale and eager to cite Plato, talk about their venture as if it’s akin to a kind of biblical exegesis.  Yes, the Torah does appear in an annotation.   This is not like analyzing poetry and finding the hidden meaning. Rather, with the help of the wise and filtered crowd, this is about building layers of knowledge about knowledge.   If you are up to it, you can enter that DMZ between Gucci Mane’s thug lyrics and that quiet zone of linguistic and textual subtlety.

I was fully ready to call this a scam, an Internet joke that marries, shotgun-style, discordant layers of meaning, such as rap hyperbole and semantic squatting, until I learned that the business had received $15 million in funding from the increasing rap venture capitalist Marc Andreessen.  What to do, what to do!

Rap lyrics have a density, discordance, and a metaphorical vulgarity that would be an English teacher’s wet dream.  Have a look at Rap Genius; meaning is breaking out all over.  It’s an open question whether the extended metaphor can reach all the way into the crucible of news.  That is, unless news becomes rap, a kind of melodramatic, vital poetry that focuses on the shadow side of news, our desperate underbelly, our alligator shoes that neither talk the talk nor walk the walk.

Lately I’ve been broadcasting Bit-poems on Twitter and Facebook.   It’s a desperate attempt at legitimacy.  Rap Genius seems to have a better idea.  Annotate rap lyrics until they smother you.  These Yale guys seem to know that the media business, the land of suits and summer yachts, is a two-valued nightmare.  It’s either this or that, Newton or the NRA; in other words, a semantic and profitable pissing contest.   Perhaps a service that adds layers of crowd-sourced meaning, vulgarity, flights of fancy, error and disdain might have a fighting chance in  this field of the also said.

Marc, call me.  Maybe.