May, 2009

May 09

Sunnyvale in 2010

As some of you know, I’m on the Board of Library Trustees for the City of Sunnyvale, where I live. Or at least I am for a few more weeks — my 4 year term ends next month. I’ve really enjoyed my time on the Board — I’ve contributed a little, learned a lot and generally was just more involved in civic government than I had been before. (I heartily recommend getting involved in the running of the city/county/state/country/place/community/neighborhood in which you live. It’s important.)

Anyway, I come to the end of my involvement as convinced as ever that public libraries are critically important to our lives as citizens, but also just as convinced that we’ll see a massive reinvention in many of the functions that libraries perform.

But that isn’t really what I want to write about today — what I want to talk about instead is the budget work that’s going on for the City of Sunnyvale in 2010 — the topic of our Library Board meeting tonight.

At the end of last year, Sunnyvale hired a new city manager, Gary Luebbers, who inherited, like so many other city managers around the country, a government facing massive shortfalls in revenue among other problems. The preamble to his budgetary response for the coming year is fantastic work, and let’s start with some of the context:

  • Sunnyvale’s overall budget for 09/10 is something like $150M (plus the costs for the water treatment facility and the golf course)
  • We’re expecting a decline in revenue of $13M, primarily due to a shortfall in sales tax — people & companies aren’t buying things like routers and cars as much as they used to — so we’re seeing dramatic drops
  • Beyond that, the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) has seen equity declines of around 25% this year, which is leading to increased employer contributions — about $8.5M more in Sunnyvale personnel costs starting in 2011/12

So we’re seeing a 10% revenue shortfall and another 7-8% increase in costs — not to mention that after the ballot initiatives failed earlier this week, there’s an expectation that the State of California will borrow up to 8% of local property taxes (that they’ll repay eventually, but has an impact of nearly $4M in near term cash flow).

Any way you cut it, that’s a brutal context for any city to deal with — even a larger city of 100K+ residents like Sunnyvale — between revenue shortfall & increased expenditure, you’re looking at $15-20M a year.

But here’ the thing: Sunnyvale, while we’ll see cuts, is basically okay because of the extremely conservative and long-range planning that it’s done since reinvention in the 70s. We’ve got a $36M budget stabilization fund, for example — and we can draw down on that for a few years — and because of that, the cash flow interruption from the State doesn’t matter overmuch.

I have some concerns about the conservative nature of Sunnyvale city planning — I think in any normal times it’s over-constraining — but in this particular situation, facing such a brutal and cascading financial meltdown, it’s incredibly, incredibly helpful to have this strength, and is a reassuring bulwark against the effects of the broader economy.

May 09

The Glass House

A few weeks ago I took a trip to the East Coast — it wasn’t really the best week for me to travel — there was an awful lot going on at work and at home that I needed to attend to — but I went to a little town in Connecticut called New Canaan because I got the opportunity to participate in something unique — a Conversation on Transparency at Philip Johnson’s Glass House. (New Canaan itself is a place with unusual history, worth checking out.)

I didn’t really know much about the Glass House or the event or what I was getting into when I signed up — only that Diego Rodriguez, who I think quite highly of as a design thinker & friend (go read his blog!), strongly recommended that I participate — so I did, and I’m really glad I did. It was a bit of a different world for me, but gave me much to think about in my own contexts.

I think it’s going to take me a few posts to write this up — I’ll need one for the place/context/history and what the National Trust is trying to do; will need one for the people & objectives of the Conversation Series; will probably need another for the ideas that came up. But want to capture some of my thoughts before they flit away, so will start writing. [I started writing this right away, anyway, but now am just getting around to finishing it.]

Philip Johnson was a complex guy, for sure. One of the leading architects of the Modernist movement, he’s built some of the most influential buildings of the 20th century, from his own residence, the Glass House, to the Seagram Building in NYC, to the Crystal Cathedral. What I didn’t know before is that he’s known as much for the people he influenced and mentored — many of whom were probably better architects.

Anyway, he built this house for himself called the Glass House, and it’s exactly what it sounds like — a house that he lived in for more than 50 years with walls made only of glass.

Building a house that’s completely transparent is more than just an architectural statement (and it definitely is a significant architectural statement) — it’s also a personal statement — a statement of values, of ideals. It’s made more interesting by Johnson himself — among other things, a gay man who had voiced support for Nazi Germany in the 30s (although he later clearly & obviously regretted it and couldn’t really even understand it). Think of that. To be a gay man (not openly, but more of an open secret) in mid-20th century America and deciding to build a house that anyone could see right into, and even through. There’s a lot to parse in there by people who know a lot more about the human psyche than I do, but right off the bat you can see any number of ideas: idealism, design, openness, exhibitionism, power — it’s a really complicated mix of things.

And it’s made more complicated by the fact that the Glass House isn’t really a glass house — or rather, that particular building is made of glass and transparent, but it’s situated in a much larger context — 47 acres of extremely maintained landscape, and something like 19 total buildings that make up, really, a house turned inside out. And the Glass House itself is the only building made of any significant amount of glass. (with the exception of the ceiling of the sculpture museum)

So there’s the Glass House, with a living room, kitchen (although minimal — they called it more of a martini bar), dining area, bathroom (in the brick column), plus some walnut cabinets in the middle. Made of steel & glass, with a red brick floor.

And the Brick House, made up of a small guest room, bathroom & library — purposely built to be a little uncomfortable, because he didn’t like his friends like Andy Warhol staying for more than a couple of days, as he said “guests are like fish, they should only last three days at most.” (Same basic dimensions as the Glass House opposite, same elevation & length, but half the width. (There’s definitely an optical illusion going on there — they look roughly similar.) The irony/symmetry/connection/whatever of the Brick House being opposite the Glass House is incredibly compelling.

And the art gallery, buried under a mound, as an homage to an Egyptian tomb for someone who’s name I now can’t remember. The point that Dorothy Dunn, our guide, made is that it’s a great irony for an art collector to build a house where the walls are glass — no place to hang art! So they built this underground bunker sort of thing, and it can hold a LOT of art for the space — the works are on a sort of giant rolodex system, so you can rotate in whatever art you want to look at. Mix & match. It was fun to get to look at all the things on the wheels behind the works that were showing.

The sculpture gallery, which is built sort of like a hothouse with a glass ceiling — and one of the guys who maintains it confirmed that it often feels like a hothouse — that it’s hotter than hell in the summertime. The space of the sculpture gallery is a little difficult to show with 2 dimensional pictures, so I’ll include a few, as well a bronze cast that is  outside the front door called Ozymandias. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions on that particular statement.

One of my favorite buildings is his library — easily 100-200 yards away from the main house — and with a funny sort of shape. But it must have been a cozy place to read and work.

Right near the library, there’s the Ghost House — a primitive archetype of a house, really — I don’t know what it’s really for other than just, you know, looking like a house.

Out on the grounds there are a number of other things — at the front gate, there’s a place for receiving people that we didn’t spend much time near.

And there’s a little man-made lake with a sort of terrace — hard to really make sense of this, since it seems to have been built on a smaller scale, for effect — but you can see from my pictures that if you’re at all taller than me, you had to duck down a bit to be inside.

And a cinder block statue that didn’t make a ton of sense to me — except that it made sense when viewed from the Glass House itself, which I think is part of the point — a lot of the space was designed for experiencing from particular points of view, with the inside of the house being the most important one.

Even the grounds themselves were very manicured and varied, with streams, lots of different textures of foliage, etc.

Make no mistake: this is a beautiful & wondrous place. It’s not remotely like any other place I’ve been or heard of, and it’s amazing. I felt lucky to get a chance to go (tours are booked a year or so in advance, but the access that we got was more than a tour — it was total access, really). I also felt very lucky to get a chance to participate in the discussion on transparency — more on that, plus some more interior (such as it is) photos when I get a few more minutes to write.

May 09

Teaching as a Subversive Activity, by Postman and Weingartner

Teaching as a Subversive Activity Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner

My review (rating: 4 of 5 stars)

This is an amazing book — written in 1968 by always smart Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, it’s ostensibly a book about education reform — and it’s a very good one to read about that. But it also reads like it could have been written in the last year or so, about what we’re all experiencing with the incredible pace of change on the connected Internet. Postman’s ability to see what the future had in store — along with great minds like McLuhan — is totally astounding. The first couple of chapters of this book, in particular, are of huge relevance to everyone working on the Web today. (Thanks to Jared Kopf for the recommendation & book loan!)

A couple of quotes for today from 40 years ago:

Change occurs so rapidly that each of us in the course of our lives has continuously to work out a set of values, beliefs, and patterns of behavior that are viable, or seem viable, to each of us personally. And just when we have identified a workable system, it turns out to be irrelevant because so much has changed while we were doing it.

As the number of messages increases, the amount of information carried decreases. We have more media to communicate fewer significant ideas.

View all my reviews.

May 09

B is for Beer, by Tom Robbins

B Is for Beer B Is for Beer by Tom Robbins

My review

About the best thing that can be said about this book is that it’s a book about beer. The 2nd best thing about the book is that it’s mercifully short, at just over 100 pages. I’ve liked Robbins historically, and especially Skinny Legs and All and Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas (his 2 books in the 1990s), but haven’t thought much of his work this decade. Avoid for sure.

[I’m going to start trying posting my reviews at Goodreads, too — connect if you’re using it, too.]

May 09

Poetry & Pragmatics: Mozilla All Hands 2009

This week we had about 250 employees & contractors from across Mozilla-land out to Mountain View for an all hands meeting. It was a great week, full of interesting conversations with people who are really dedicated to changing the world and making the web a better place. Super generative; sometimes contentious; always earnest & dedicated & thoughtful.

I gave a talk & had a conversation to start the week off — I wanted to talk about some of the context that we find ourselves in now and how we can think about becoming a longer term organization, now that Mozilla’s first 11 years are behind us. I focused on the tension between what I’ve come to call Poetry & Pragmatics. The pragmatics of an organization are how you do things; the poetry of an organization is why you do them.

There’s a big difference; they’re both important, and sometimes they amplify each other, sometimes they conflict. Getting the balance right, from day to day, from year to year — that’s the thing that great organizations do over time, and it’s what we need to always think about how to do better.

I also talked a bit about how we’re going to need to change going forward, adjust to new circumstances, avoid holding onto outdated ways of thinking, try new things.

In that spirit, I’ll attach my slides from that talk here — it’s a bit of an experiment for me to post what’s essentially an internal talk — lots of context missing, lots to misconstrue — but I really believe in the content and so figured I’d try sharing. 🙂 See what you think.