A cool violet glow greets you beeping pleasantly as it turns on. It's oddly personable, referring to itself in first person via scrolling text. I almost want to give it a name...

Life with a Makerbot Replicator

TL;Dr: There’s a learning curve, but I believe that the increasing availability of content creation tools, the network effects of content creation and sharing communities, and the sheer utility of being able to make anything you can think of, will inspire more to seek out the skills necessary to participate. For a tinkerer like me, the simple joy of turning idea into matter, or something more purposeful, like replacing a broken knob or a missing shower curtain, are all are fun opportunities to make rather than buy what I need.

Today marks three years since I got my first 3d printer, a Makerbot Replicator. Since then, I’ve printed hundreds of hours worth of things, and designed a few of my own for practical or artistic purposes. It’s a hobbyist tool now, but I’m convinced that the creation of items via 3d printer will become a mainstream experience in the near future.

As any hobby, it has it’s challenges, but it’s also highly fulfilling, and unlike many, is highly focused on the act of creating. Lots of times, I’ll find myself preferring to choose a home made solution, over a purchased product. It’s not always economical–at prices around $50/kg, the raw material is not cheap, but that amount can go quite a long way when you’re printing small things in plastic. Whether it’s a fun trinket, or a useful tool, 3d printed object have a wide range of applications in everyday life.

I keep my Replicator at home, so I’ve had it available whenever I feel the creative urge. I’ll admit, there are long periods of time when it’s gathering dust, for those times when I do have it, I’m quite glad that I do. Other times, it’s just a cool conversation piece in the living room. And it’s (mostly) a lot of fun! Other times, I want to set it on fire.

A model of JJ Abrahm's Enterprise from Star Trek (2009).
A model of JJ Abrahm’s Enterprise from Star Trek (2009), about to be printed.

My first experience with 3d printing was in a mechanical engineering course I took while at Illinois. We had access to many tools used during product prototyping and make use of Autodesk Inventor–my favorite parametric modeling tool–to create models for the course, and as candidates for 3d printing. I had long loved to create “things” both useful and fun, and loved the idea of being able to take an idea and turn it into something without going through the hurdles of traditional manufacturing. Still, that 3d printer was $30,000, and always scheduled out so far in advance, that access wasn’t practical for the range of casual applications I was considering.

I imagine this mirrors the early days of computing at universities and corporations, when access to computer time was a valuable commodity. This was in 2005, after all. Then, 3d printing was one of the advanced prototyping tools available to lucky mechanical and structural engineers, not so much the casual creator or artist with grand vision and perhaps a deft hand on 3ds max (another favorite modeling tool of mine). Amazing what a few years can bring.

Fast-forward to 2012, and Makerbot had just announced their second consumer product, the Makerbot Replicator. With the declared their early intent of focusing their product at small business and even consumer price points, their message was clear: 3d printing was quickly becoming accessible to the masses. I decided to make the investment (no small sum, $2,250 at the time for the dual-extrusion model I have), and while I can’t say it’s for everyone, it’s definitely a cool tool to have around. Since then, other players have come on the scene, bringing down the price of 3d printing even further.

Bre and Makerbot’s message that the tools of manufacturing was coming to the masses, was highly appealing, particularly to those like me with hopes of creating and tinkering with things in the physical realm. Makerbot took it a step further by creating Thingiverse, the online platform for sharing and remixing “things”. It’s the 2010s and “content” is social; the act of creating is rarely a solitary affair, and there are a variety of platforms for people that love to create to share their wares. Some of them, like Thingiverse are free and geared toward educational uses, while others like Shapeways are more commercial.

I love being able to find what others have made and shared up on on community sites like Thingiverse. I love even more that we’ve now bridged the gap between idea and physical good. There’s a learning curve, but I believe that the increasing availability of tools, the network effects of communities of content creators, and the sheer utility of being able to make anything you can think of, will inspire more to seek out the skills necessary to participate. For a tinkerer like me, the simple joy of turning idea into matter, or something more purposeful, like replacing a broken knob or a missing shower curtain, are all are fun opportunities to make rather than buy what I need.

Some things I’ve printed:

  • Shower hooks – I was still using shower curtain hooks I got at IKEA in my post-college years, and over time, some had gone missing some. I put up with it for  while but the girlfriend told me that it looked really sad. So after contemplating going to Bed Bath and Beyond, I found these on Thingiverse. Rather than spending $10 on a dozen or so shower curtain hooks that I didn’t need, I printed a a few, and tada, problem solved! The mentioned post also reminded me of this truth: “You’re a MakerBot owner. You live for these moments.” Indeed.
  • Key and Wallet Holder – I made this to solve a very annoying problem of mine–misplacing my wallet and/or keys at home. I wear a myriad of outer wear, and would often spent a few minutes looking for my stuff before heading out for the day. Cumulatively, I must have spent hours looking for my commonly used items, not to mention the annoyances caused by being delayed in the morning. I designed and made this, and solved my problem. I’m also pleased to know that at least 250 others have found it useful.
  • Cat Toy Sword Handle – This was originally meant by the designer to be an umbrella hilt, but I found a better purpose in fashioning a cat toy sword out of it.
  • And others, including: Smartphone stand, jewelry mockups, Ar.Drone parts, custom shaped clips, custom attachments, obscure knobs and levers, bookends, toy models, robot frame parts, etc…

Here are some examples of prints there I’ve printed. Some are my own, the rest are from Thingiverse. Find me on Thingiverse at http:/www.thingiverse.com/skyrien.

 

So that’s it, consider this my resounding endorsement for 3d printers–that if you have the means to afford one, and the patience to learn a new skill to a hobby-grade or more, you will find 3d printing a high enjoyable pastime, and tool to add to your creation toolset. Especially true if you possess 3d modeling skills, or access to a 3d scanner.

Let the MOOCing continue!

TL;dR: I love MOOCS. To me, their value is clear: The opportunity to learn and participate in a subject of my choosing, being able to expect a worldwide, inquisitive class, with all that it offers. For many, online learning is a solitary affair, but I find the missing community layer one of the most compelling works to yet be built. In this post, I’ll discuss my thoughts on MOOCs, their advantages and shortcomings today, and a few aspects where they need improvement.

MOOCs–Massively Open Online Courses–are relatively new in the ed-tech scene, having come into being a mere three years ago, pumped full of investor capital with much fanfare of disrupting higher learning, and delivering access to education at a fraction of the cost of traditional learning institutions. Following from smaller scale experiments in open course ware, and successful massively online services like the Khan Academy, MOOCs were heralded as a way to reduce the growth in cost of education, to expand access, and bringing new tools to our most troubled students. Many of these promises are far from being delivered, raising concerns from investors, after all, many of the highest profile MOOC providers are for-profit–seeking to cash in on the revolution, one that’s been much quieter than the most eager had hoped. As a veteran of a few MOOCs, I’ve found them compelling offerings of education previously locked away behind admissions doors and geographic bounds, but I feel equally that there is more work to do, to answer many of the questions that add uncertainty to the MOOC movement.

MOOC poster mathplourde
As of 2015, MOOCs have yet to accomplish their goal of revolutionizing learning, at least for the masses, prompting discussions around where they are encountering difficulty, and whether the business model is viable as currently implemented. Comparisons are often made between real-life classrooms on statistics such as enrolment, completion rates, grates, and test results.

It’s under this backdrop of questions around profits business models that for-profit MOOC providers will be judged, and will ultimately live and die. Questions around the true financial value of MOOCs, and whether or not people will actually pay for them, will need to be answered by current players need to do to justify their current valuations. Still, for a substantial core, open course ware is part of the broader social movement of our generation that desires to make information open and accessible, and will likely fight to keep it that way.

Broadening access to education

MOOCs provide massive global reach and scale of audience that traditional universities will likely struggle to match via traditional instruction. It is unlikely that these prominent universities will ever reach all these students in scale in real life, but thanks to online instruction media, it is possible for one to take the same microeconomics course I took as an undergrad as a MOOC (even taught by the same professor). And the same course, that once taught a few hundred, now teaches 6,500 students worldwide, and that’s just for this term. Some of the most popular courses have attracted ten times that–a stadium full of participating students. Incredible!

Of course, not all will complete the course, and the quality of the learned education is much more variable given the absence of rigorous testing/validation, but I highly doubt that a dedicated person intent on learning the material would be worse off from taking this version of the course, versus the sit-in course that I took a decade ago. In fact, I’d even say it’s easier today, for the inquisitive self-motivated learner to find supplemental material to continue their learning; so today’s MOOC learner may be even better equipped with knowledge.

Importantly, by being free, and open without any barrier to all, it’s possible for more than just accepted students of Illinois to take this course, and rather, is open to the entire world. Given this, I can see how 6,500 seems disappointingly small, we must not forget that it’s a HUGE amplification in reach. “Revolutionary” isn’t hyperbole when you’re able to teach 40x as many students as you did previously.

Connecting MOOCs to the Real World

Of course, the most important test of MOOCs will be how well their benefits translate into real use, both in the outcomes, but also in the education process itself. One area where MOOC providers have failed to reproduce real-world benefits is the building of lasting real-world communities that are developed in and outside the university classroom. I find this very surprising, given that for most university life, even the academic side, is an extremely socially enriching experience. In the real world, we chat, debate, compete, cooperate, with our peer students, and while this isn’t totally absent from the MOOC experience, there is a distinct lack of persistent value in the social interactions

It is said that the primary value of MBA programs are the lasting real-world connections you form through class and extracurriculars. For reasons obvious, there are some challenges to this in a purely online media. However, as the rise of internet culture has shown, it is completely possible to create lasting connections from common interests, and what better common interest than shared intellectual pursuits? This is highly lacking in today’s MOOC landscape, where various fora typically make up the extent of discussion in the community.

Despite being highly leveraging social media connect platforms to sign you up and share, none of the MOOC providers have bothered to take advantage of network effects by investing into a social layer on their site, particularly one that lasts beyond the scope of the classroom forum. It would be great if there was a better way to formalize such connections. I’ve seen this used very effectively on sites such as QuoraRedditStackExchange, and other sites which effectively build out and incentivize an engaged community.

Off-site interaction is encouraged at times, but are relatively rare, and are often class specific and do not offer continuity beyond the scope of the teaching. While this may be deliberate to keep things focused on education, it seems a huge oversight to get a bunch of intellectually curious people in a virtual classroom, but not provide easy means to connect beyond it. There isn’t even a means to message other users, or tell them apart from class to class.

It’s a shame, because users are already coming up with their own ways to cultivate community that is absent, including offline blogs, various discussion and review sites, ad hoc social network groups, showing a clear desire and need in the market. If it is the intent of these for-profit MOOC providers to capture this attention and added value, they haven’t really done so too well. I’d love to see the creation of a meta-layer learning community, bringing to life a lasting social layer to the learning environment.

UPDATE: (2/26) Looks like Coursera is giving social a try–we’ll see where this goes:

Legitimacy and recognition

MOOCs provide incredible opportunities for learning, but so far, it doesn’t come with the weight of a university’s recognition. I don’t believe this needs to be a barrier for MOOCs–as educational tools develop, I believe the quality gap in instruction can be eliminated or even reversed, and that recognition can be had in other demonstrations of learning than a course certificate. That said, I feel the internet provides a great many other ways to help differentiate you and demonstrate your learning far more than a piece of paper with a generic signature can. The true value to show is the to display one’s autonomy in self-directed learning, and ability to synthesize it in applications, and for someone like me, who uses MOOCs to accelerate an area of interest for which I’m already researching, that works perfectly.

For other motivations, like Laurie from the No-Pay-MBA blog, who is trying to replicate the academic side of a business school degree, there are more clear requirements that may reveal gaps in what courses are offered at any one time. That said with a vibrant community, I believe that an effective curricula can provide a great guide for an education, and we should recognize that very little cannot be learned from other sources. For a self-starter with sufficiently strong motivation and an understanding of how to apply what’s being learned to the real world, I’m sure that they can easily achieve the same and surpass the average MBA grad. (Now if only there was a means to verify that this person indeed has learned the material, and is qualified for the subject matter…)

Personally, I find the idea of paid certificates rather dubious. There is no substantive difference if you're a motivated learner.

A Rational Rethink

To my earlier question, will the model of MOOCs survive? As for-profit enterprises, the causes for disillusionment from investors of platforms are obvious. That said, from a perspective of values, MOOC platforms are incredible educational tools that simply were not available before 2012, and are clearly yielding value to the community that takes them. I would like to see the rise of a non-profit MOOC platform as the dominant model for delivering content, but I’ll leave it to whoever can deliver the best experience.

Some turmoil can be expected in the market as investors re-think product-market-fit, but I see the movement of MOOCs continuing broadly. They provide excellent marketing for the universities, are highly engaged on as platforms, and provide clear value to students invested in it to learn. The multiples are so incredibly high that it’s a surprise that it’s taken so long for education to get to this point. More realistically, I see MOOCs fitting in with sites like SkillShare, embraced by those seeking to learn and engage a community. Perhaps a level of certification of learning could be next–I could imagine Coursera offering “verified” testing centers.

While the definitions are debated, I see MOOCs as being part of a broader movement of open information. This means their core material has to be accessible to all, regardless of geographic boundaries, and at no cost, and without barrier. Note that platforms can provide added value and charge for them, but in principle, like the open source movement, “the stuff that matters” should be free, and without barriers of access such as admission, completed prerequisites, GPA, etc.

Platforms tend to work very well as enablers of community, and current platforms need to do more to foster it to bring engagement. Most course providers thus far have chosen to do so via course specific forums and occasional use of external communities. I’ve seen a heavy use of Google+ for both classroom continuity and mass-Google Hangouts (allowing previous semesters to continue to engage with future students and the ever-growing community) for office hours. Perhaps MOOC providers could find a place where they can add further value via an internal social layer.

My Experiences

In my next posts on MOOCs, I will write about the courses that I felt were highly informative, and even entertaining. Far better than most television one might be watching.

The trailer for the first MOOC I ever took–Dan Ariely’s Beginnger’s Guide to Irrational Behavior:

Mars Proficiency: 10 Techs to Master

Public Domain; Credit: Nasa/JPL

One of the greatest themes of Interstellar (2014) is the notion that to avoid the tragedy of the commons and make the big picture best decisions, is that we need to “think less as a human, and more as a species”.

Since a child, I’ve long thought about what the future of humanity, and wondered how I could best do my part to contribute to that next step, whatever it may be.

One of the great things about having a free and diverse economic society is that we actually have many next steps, simultaneously in motion–but one that I keep coming back to is the existential considerations of humanity, and of expanding life beyond Earth.

I’ve long held this as not just a aspiration, but a necessity. For reasons supported by many, and well expressed in the film Interstellar (2014), the extinction of the human race is an inevitability if we stay on Earth. Many of these concerns are beyond timescales of our own lives, but as a civilization and a branch of life, certainly. That said, I don’t think this should be our main drive for colonization of planets, but rather, for it’s long-term economic viability and component of an interplanetary society.

These types of discussion used to be purely the realm of science fiction, but there’s definitely something to be said for planning, and the framework for these missions may only be years to decades away at most. As the only technological species on the planet, should something occur, it would either be of our own doing, or it would leave us as the only species with the means to do something about it, for the sake of much of Earth’s ecosystems.

Why Mars?

Many discussions have been made about some sort of base at a Lagrangian point, either between the Earth-Moon as a local or Earth-Sun as deep space station. I suspect it may be of use at some point if asteroid mining really takes off (2020s?), in which case, local processing, mining on site and processing at a Lagrangian point would be far cheaper energetically (not to mention safer) than hauling a massive rock to a near-Earth processing facility. It’s an interesting thought, but I believe most of this system would be automated. Space drones, mini orbiters and robots would likely do most of the dangerous zero-G mining work, though I suppose a few individuals might love the remoteness and isolation that a remote asteroid mining town could foster.

For a larger human settlement though (dozens, or hundreds, or more), a planetary body is a much more practical destination, and while the outer solar system is host to some other interesting destinations, many are close to a decade away at near-term technologies, rendering them on practical terms, “too far”. Thus, for the near future (by which I mean 2030s), human settlement will likely be confined to the inner solar system, of which only Mars is a solid candidate. But indeed it is a fine candidate, at least compared to current alternatives, and is a great stepping stone for more advanced skills we would need beyond Mars. It’s proximity to the asteroid belt may also make it more advantageous for asteroid mining, possibly a key future industry to Mars settlements.

While there has been substantial focus by public agencies on the “exploration” of Mars, the flag-planting that NASA has planned for the 2030s fall far short of establishing a permanent, self-sustaining population on the Red Planet. There are many reasons for the lack of ambition in our public agencies–being overly influenced by politics, lack of technical imagination and of course, being stymied by political gridlock, concerns of cost, and the need to justify returns on investment–but this leaves humanity without a plan for expanding beyond Earth in the 21st century.

The accelerating privatization of near-Earth orbit over this decade has shown that the economic model for space is poised for change, allowing the efficiency of private “New Space” entities to produce industry-shaking innovations to replace the old public-financed “Old Space” world. By deriving technical and economic models based on first principles, and despite not having the benefit of cost-plus contracting, these new upstarts now provide access to space as a service. These lessons suggest to me that a privately-led venture, or a multitude of ventures, would be more viable for establishing a permanent, self-sustaining colony on Mars than any existing public initiative.

Our long-term goal is to establish Mars as a colony where the general human population can participate, and this project aims to bring together thought leaders and potential stakeholders to develop a clear roadmap, technical integration, and requisite partnerships to make this vision a reality. By opening up Mars as a place that humans can call home, we can help ensure that humanity is on a roadmap to becoming an interplanetary species.

The organizational needs for establishing such a colony would be substantial, but within the realm of reason. Other interesting sociological questions arise that we can discuss today, including the governance structure of such a colony, the expected capacity, the length of individual stays, what skills would be necessary, what problems could be faced, etc… Indeed, these are the kinds of questions that I’d like to see raised as it’s been demonstrated repeatedly that the public is interested, and that this is the right time; but we need the compelling contributions of all people to push forward our civilizations next great work.

(On a side note, I’ve been following Jumpstartfund.com, a startup dedicated to building commercial enterprises from ideas. At least, it is as of now. There, I’ve posted on my thoughts on Mars, and hope to engage some interested folks to enable this great endeavor!)

Walls to climb

If it hasn’t been clear, I’m a bit of a fan of strategy games, and no it’s not just the Korean side of me. I also like to make game references. So, if this Mars Colony was a “Great Work” of humanity, what would be its prerequisite technologies? How much would it cost? I’m no uber-scientist, but I love to brainstorm–here are a few that come to mind:

1. Solar power and grid-level battery backup (DONE)

To survive effectively on Mars, any colony needs a reliable source of electricity to support it’s needs. Mars receives less sunlight than Earth affecting PV effectiveness somewhat, and occasional dust storms will likely affect solar availability as well, but assuming flux typical of what you’d expect on the surface of Mars, being optimistic and using current tech as a model ~5 square meters of feasibly could generate 1,000 W (ballpark figures–Mars receives about a third of Earth’s sunlight where we get a theoretical 1,300 W / sqm at equator, max solar efficiency that I’ve seen is ~44%). This must be stored in order to allow use through dark periods, through some type of battery.

2. Power Efficiency (DONE)

Assuming that early colonies don’t rely on nuclear power (unlikely, given the necessary weight of a reactor), solar with battery backup will likely be the main source of power. And unlike Earth, where you can at least still survive without electricity for a while, on Mars, losing power would mean pending death unless recovered. As a result, expect the first Martian colonies to ration power like blood. Thankfully, we don’t heat up our homes light incandescent bulbs anymore, and from LED lighting, to low-power mobile devices, we made huge strides in reducing our power usage, at least in America and Western Europe. In the US, power peaked around 2006 before the recession, and despite the recovery, and a meaningful increase in population since then, we’ve actually decreased power consumption since then. Remarkable what we can do when you have the will and the means.

3. Electric everything (READILY FEASIBLE)

Due to the obvious fact that the Martian atmosphere is not going to let you burn anything, internal combustion just won’t work. Thankfully, a few companies have been devoting a great deal of resources into developing electric vehicles and charging infrastructure, so we can check this one off.

Nasa did the research! Blame them! :)
http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/msl/multimedia/pia16460.html

4. Radiation shielding (CHALLENGE)

Mars does not have an effective magnetic field or ozone layer to shield it from damaging charged particles and solar radiation. As a result, any long term habitat for humans will need to consider how to shield itself from radiation, and mitigate it’s effects on the surface. There are clever ways to do this, but the best shielding is to build underground. A colony build underground could be shielded from the solar effects–not to mention any concerns over the increased risk of micro-meteorites due to the thin atmosphere and proximity to the asteroid belt.

To build underground though… this may have to be the task of robots. Good thing we’re good at that already.

5. Advanced computer vision-enabled robotic systems allowing for autonomous excavation, mining, construction (ADVANCING)

We’re about partway through the academic cycle on this one. Regarding computer vision, its pretty obvious that it’s going to matter a lot for drones, and with drones becoming more autonomous, for non-lethal activities, it makes sense to have them manage themselves. In the mining industry, earth-moving scale mining operations commonly use robotic mining equipment, though still often managed remotely. To move this further to allow robotic operation on Mars beyond mining could yield many benefits, including construction of radiation safe habitats, maintenance to atmosphere facing sides of the habitat, resource gathering in the field, field repair of vehicles, regular ferry between Mars surface and orbit, and from Mars orbit to Earth orbit, etc…

6. 3d-printing, micro-manufacturing, digital goods (ADVANCING)

Given the difficulties in moving physical goods to and from Mars, the ability to manufacture new equipment on-site will be a crucial strategic asset on Mars. Nasa has recently equipped the ISS with a 3d printer and tested the ability to digitally send parts for printing in space. This, and further developments will help provide necessary proficiency in on-site manufacturing that will be essential on supply-limited Mars.

7. Extreme-Agriculture and food (ADVANCING)

Humans like to eat food. If it weren’t for this unfortunate problem, we’d be able to get by without this gigantic requirement. But, let’s take this in stride; any thriving Mars colony will likely have the freshest locally-grown organic goods imaginable. Such will be the norm when all the water you drink and the air you breathe is tightly managed and pollution-sensitive. I’ve mulled around whether creating a true biosphere makes sense on Mars, given the past failures, but realistically, that’s overkill. Hydroponics and recent innovations in vertical farming show that massive improvements have yet to be made in the art of growing food. Our innovations in water management for smart cities will in turn provide a foundation for efficiencies in space.

8. Latency-tolerant interplanetary internet, and mass planetside caching (PLANNING)

The propagation delays, even at lightspeed are in the realm of minutes between Earth and Mars; naturally, we would like to expand the notion of the internet from being geo-centric to a solar system wide entity, with minimal latency. Perhaps caching content across Earth and Mars internet nodes. Some leading minds are involving resources to this; given what we can do today already, I suspect this is almost a no brainer :).

9. Colony governance

Yet unclear is what the level of government we would establish in the initial colony. Due to the amount of shared spaces and resources, individual space would be severely compromised, as compared to the typical Western lifestyle. The small populations of the initial colonies suggest that it would rely extensively from outside economic support.

Still, as long as basic human needs are being met, I think many people will be able to adjust. Still, such long term habitation in a confined space will likely induce some stresses on the population. I would hope that folks are able to recognize the shared struggle that this venture is. Given the long term habitation

10. Survival sufficiency

Any need for supplies and personnel would take at least 7 months (when orbital alignment is most favorable) a life altering commitment by the person choosing to go. Despite reusable rockets, the current direction still looks like a 500 day round trip period when using the ideal window. Any other orbital transfer would take longer, or use more fuel. So this necessitates having a baseline level of expertise in the colony populace, and coverage of key colony health subjects.

In a way, the Mars colony, can be seen as the most remote human village ever created.

I’m sure other key barriers will be recognized that require addressing in the days ahead. Please suggest any to me, if there’s something missing that you feel should be on here.

Truth, Satire, and ‘The Interview’

I’ve been meaning to talk about The Interview since I first watched it on Christmas Day, but oh well, Happy New Year world!

Tl;dr: I thought the movie was awesome delivering laughs, memorable one-liners, and a unique satirical take on American hopes and fears of the reclusive state and it’s leader, in a genuinely hilarious fashion. For satire, there are some great nuggets of truths in The Interview, and it’s expressed in the right doses of seriousness in the film. If you’ve displeased yourself while watching this movie (yes, it’s your fault) you’re probably taking it too seriously; for those that weren’t tightwads in college, the humor will probably deliver. Added tip: try watching it in Washington or Colorado.


One thing that impressed me about the movie–the well placed, hilarious Korean text tidbits in the movie. Korean-American audiences may understand it best, less so those in Korea without American background.

The controversy around Sony’s release of The Interview was much talked about for good reason. That an international conglomerate as powerful as Sony, with annual revenue equal to about a quarter of North Korea’s GDP, could wither under the pressure of anonymous hackers on the internet, initially canceling the film’s release, surprising many. It is absolutely worth noting and remembering that this started with the cowardly decision on part of movie theater chains to pull out of showing the film. Equally cowardly was Sony’s decision to make a statement in-effect cancelling any sort of release. The backlash by the American social media populace was rightfully swift, with round condemnation from the internet to the President saying that “Sony made the wrong call” by basically caving in to anonymous threats.

Economic moves aside, that Sony was influenced by pressure from hackers (regardless of their disputed origin) amounted to a clear defeat of the freedom of speech and sets a completely wrong precedent for speech as a whole. Sony eventually backtracked (what a bunch of flip-floppers), allowing more forward-thinking VOD distributors to embrace the film’s release as a cause. Google instantly became a worldwide movie theater, and scored the vast majority of the views via Google Play and Youtube at time of release.

The official rhetoric of the DPRK should surprise no one, and for those that have learned not to take too seriously, it’s quite hilarious. In the real world, I felt that their previous UN protest of the film is actually a positive indication that they are taking international mechanisms for conflict resolution seriously.

“Obama always goes reckless in words and deeds like a monkey in a tropical forest,” North Korea’s National Defense Commission (NDC) continued, adding that President Obama “is the chief culprit who forced the Sony Pictures Entertainment to indiscriminately distribute” The Interview, a film that is “hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of the DPRK and agitating terrorism,” the BBC reports.
- From an article in the Rolling Stone

For those thinking this is just a bizarre isolated case of backlash against perceived deprecation of deified figures should recall not-long-ago Danish cartoonish controversy. There too, fears of death began to have a chilling effect on what people would/could say with possibilities of provoking an angered reaction. For a country that reportedly worships Kim’s cult of personality like the living messiah, it’s reasonable to think how the idea of a low brow comedy (though not the first) about their equivalent of Jesus or the Prophet Mohammed could offend, and even I’ve seen conflicts of western values of free speech when it comes to satire of religious figures.

It’s too bad, because it impedes the enjoyment of an otherwise hilarious comedy that indeed, will not appeal to all. Some say that the movie does injustice to those genuinely suffering under the regime, but the truth is, satire is a great way to encourage discussion about valid topics. That America public cares about North Korea at all should be the surprise, and if anything, a complement to the regime’s notoriety. Poking fun at the leader Kim is already an internet pastime, and this movie just pushes that forward AAA-style. Those of us that are from the internet are a great reflection of how seriously hitherto, America has taken the current Kim:

The distinction that Sony Pictures does not represent any official policy statement of the US government, may be lost on the North Korean leadership, who probably take this way too personally, and likely add to their fears about exposing their house of cards to their information-controlled population. North Koreans, allegedly, are taught from early childhood that their cult of personality leadership are demigods upon this earth and are raised in a institutionalized state where this is constantly reinforced. It’s hard to say when this started, but assuming it’s been since the state’s founding in 1948, it has now gone on for three generations, possibly producing a nation of zombie-like followers with no sense of humor, or understanding of comedy, particularly when it comes to their deified leadership, all to easily angered at any perceived slight against their divinity.

Regardless of whether or not American comedy writers are obligated to take these things into consideration, this specific case highlights a unique interaction between private media and state (or possibly stateless/rogue) agents and is a clear indicator of the influence of soft power in international relations. It’s interesting that the controversy comes from both sides, with another subset of folks calling out that the movie “humanizes the brutality of the leader Kim”. This too, I believe is silly. Looking back at the lens of history, countless times, scholars have found it useful to understand the perspective of leadership as individuals, and I will admit, there is a certain sense of American hopefulness in the movie.

In one of my set of favorite scenes, where Franco’s character is out bro-bonding with Kim, it’s revealed that Kim secretly is a Katy Perry fan, playing, of all songs–Firework — listening as a 30-year-old kid with affluenza, so detached from the plight of his people, yet so trapped by the cult that his father and grandfather he created that he too, feels forced to continue the role. In the movie, Kim plays the role of the misunderstood villain, who might just as well be a cog in the huge wheel of history that move nations to fight each other.

This song has been stuck in my head for days now! Thanks @sethrogan…

I like that the movie seems to ask if it has to be that way, playing into our confused depictions of what’s going on over there. The depiction of course, takes much creative license, but given how little we do know from oddball ventures like Dennis Rodman’s affairs in North Korea, we’re forced to imagine the true nature of the leadership. One line of thinking could take us to where this film does, and of all possible ways of depicting the DPRK’s Kim, I found the movie’s version quite novel, but with a level of authentic believably that even North Korea watchers say reflects some truths. It’s not hard to not feel bad for the guy, trapped in the shell of what must be a very insecure role, living constant in fear of enemies, both foreign and domestic. One could almost even imagine this 30-year-old Kim trolling the underworld of the internet with monikers such as the “Guardians of Peace”, while overcompensating for his fear with all to familiar bombastic outbursts fit for a child throwing a tantrum. The writer’s choice of Firework plays particularly into the zeitgeist of the Millennial generation, which, we mustn’t forget, that Kim Jong-un is also a part of. So can’t we figure out a better way?

As a Korean-American, I’ve been particularly sensitive to mischaracterizations in popular media, but I didn’t find the storywriters depiction too far out of left field; this is a Seth Rogan comedy after all, and it appeals quite well to the crowd it targets. As a satire reflecting the American mood, I felt the movie depicts how we wish it could be; a huge misunderstanding between people that in another world, would probably get along. Maybe Rodman was onto something. Lol.

2015: Things that Matter

Hello World! It’s been quite a while since I’ve written here. This is, indeed, a great tragedy that it’s been over a year since my last post, especially since I have quite a lot I want to say, and have been doing so for over 10 years on this blog.

For the coming year of 2015, I’ve committed (though not for the first time) to use this blog to more meaningfully share my life, my causes, and thoughts on relevant current and upcoming matters. Our age of social media has spoiled us with information tidbits of 140 characters and aggregated social buzz, at the expense of the true introspective voices that the early internet held so highly. I lament the decline of personal blogging as a pastime for all but social media moguls, and intend to bring it back!

What to expect here

I have little aspiration to replicate any of the awesome blogs already out there that employ great writers and social media managers to engage their audience. Nope, this blog is about me and my interests, and for the time being, will be written exclusively by yours truly. =)

credit@xsylns (2014)

I have several causes that are truly dear to me, and I expect these to recur as major themes:

Civilization-scale challenges and what we can all do to help solve them

We have many civilization scale challenges before us–decreasing biodiversity, climate change, resource scarcity, human conflict, etc… and the better we are aware of these challenges, the more we can work to mitigate their effects. Our little planet’s taken a battering since the Industrial Revolution, and despite the exponential gains we’ve secured for society, human civilization is a ways off from sustainable development.

I’m not one to be pessimistic about the potential of individuals and groups to do substantial good to improve the human, and global condition, and there’s great reason to be optimistic about our future. If we do well enough, we may be rewarded:

Screen Shot 2014-12-31 at 4.57.51 PM

If we mess up, like another World War, I suspect the humanity will be set back a thousand years. Let’s make sure we don’t do that, ok?

Space, Earth, and Life Sciences

Our Earth is a beautiful place, but there’s more out there! While we secure earth at home, we should also work to extend humanity’s reach beyond. Wherever humans go, we will take and extend life’s reach, which I believe is our obligation to safeguard. If we don’t (as humans) mess up in the 21st century, we will live to see proactive commercialization of our solar system, and as we move to becoming a full Type 1 civilization on the Kardashev scale by 2100.

So let’s get on it, for these are among the highest causes that demand our attention this century. Succeed, and we will achieve much, securing our future by breaking free of the planetary boundaries of Earth. How awesome would it be, if by 2100, this could be a reality? Does not require warp drive!

Wanderers – a short film by Erik Wernquist from Erik Wernquist on Vimeo.

Tech and Digital Intelligence: Robotics, Drones, AI, BCI

I love this stuff, there’s so much going on in all these and related fields, it’s hard not to keep being excited about discoveries, applications, and lives that will be changed because of what’s going on in current academic research. I’ll also write about tech in general, and start telling my Microsoft story. My five years there gave me a broad perspective on the company, though my interaction with MSFT has been lifelong. More to come on that.

Millennial-thinking, and my American story

Much noise has been made recently on the generation of Millennial in America, which includes those born in the twenty year span (the Wiki says) between  the early 1980s and early 2000s (currently aged 14-34). It’s clear that we’ve already made our impact known on this world; having heavily disrupted the old ways of doing things across a number of industries, and I expect this to accelerate as we start to move into leadership positions in business, society, and culture. As a millennial myself, and one who loves generational studies, I’ll share my thoughts on what’s important for us to consider as we take stewardship of society and the planet.

On America, I recently became a citizen of the United States, though after having lived 22 years of my life here. Indeed this experience left me with some opinions on immigration, and the meaning of citizenship.

The Pacific Northwest, Western Washington, Seattle

This is by far, the most beautiful region I have ever lived in. The convergence of mountains, water, and sky are like no other, and yes, we get wet at times here, but I wouldn’t trade the Pacific Northwest for SoCal’s drought’s any day, and apparently so do some folks down there!

Vistas like THIS are Seattle’s backyard:

PSX_20140802_224920

Oh, in our waters, there are SALMON, a favored food of our local orca whale population, and sushi lovers like myself!

Watching coho salmon chug up the Cedar river.

A photo posted by Alexander (@skyrien) on

And Seattle! What a city–on the corner of continental US! Hipster land only rivaled by Portland and San Francisco. I love it!

20141011_172953_Richtone(HDR)

Among other things I also intend to talk about are the experiences in Washington with the 2012 Initiative 502, aka, the legalization of recreational marijuana. I have a perspective on that as well, which, in time, I’ll be sharing. So, stay tuned!

Asia-Pacific and Korea – Over there

I didn’t live too much of my life in Korea, but my experience and comparisons of life here in America has provided me with a unique perspective that I’d like to share.

Some of these span nations, among which is a task I see for our generation: the unification of the Korean peninsula. The current Korean president has reiterated this as a major policy push for her administration, and there is a better chance of this being achievable if there is US support for which there are already efforts underway. Private citizens should also participate in this process, by educating themselves, and engaging in discussions of feasibility and roadmap. I believe it is feasible to do achieve this goal with proactive effort within 10 years, by 2025.

Unification_flag_of_Korea.svg

Asian-America – Over here

The actual experience of Korean culture is not something limited to Korea. In fact, from what I’ve been observing in Seattle, Korean culture is slowly emerging into the mainstream American consciousness, in the form of cuisine, cinema, games, art, capital, pop culture, and more. For a middle-power country, Korea, at least in the early 21st century, is packing some pretty hefty cultural muscle, and there’s a long runway ahead yet!

And it’s not just the cultural machine over there, back in America, Korean-American, reflecting the changing society,  Asian-American culture has become a presence in mainstream media, and I think this is good for all of America. No longer does the sole, isolated, Asian kid out in white America need to wonder if this country can be his own. Indeed, it already is.

Karen Gillian, John Cho (Selfie TV Series – 2014)

And etcetera.

I’m sure there will be other topics as they become relevant to me. For 2015, I’ve also updated this blog with a new commenting system–inspired by Medium, and enabled by the Inline Comments plugin for WP. It’ll be awesome!

With that said, safe new year’s eve to all! Happy 2015!