Author Archives: James McRay Johnson III

Children’s TV

A complicated subject: should children even watch TV? If so, how often?

And what to watch?

My children are the center of my universe, and I think carefully about everything that goes into their tummies, brains, and gigantic little souls. That sounds really clichéd, and kinda overwrought, but wait until you have children. Wow.

So I can make a few recommendations, with the caveat that all of these shows are available (or not) on multiple platforms (even free on YouTube, sometimes), so seek and find at your discretion:

  • Peppa Pig: lovely, sweet, and hilarious. Just the best. Most of the characters voicings are superb. I am a particular fan of Captain Dog.
  • Sesame Street: hard to find in its multi-decade entirety, but one of the best entertainment-type things that ever happened to America. Some folks think of Elmo as the devil, but Elmo brought us one of the very best Sesame Street characters: Mr. Noodle! Slapstick will never die…
  • Octonauts: a family favorite. It was like Star Trek TOS crossed with Jacques Cousteau, with Sesame Street as a best friend. It ended too soon, but it was a wonderful, educational romp through the undersea world, with extra attention paid to teamwork and, for some reason, to the many types of squid.
  • Franklin: the little turtle who learned something important about growing up just about every week. The series got better as the seasons progressed.
  • Tumble Leaf: Amazon Prime has been good to us, not least because of this odd, quirky, charming little show.

Good People & Bad Things

It is popular to assume that nefarious forces are at work when our government does things that we strongly disagree with. This conviction holds true across the spectrum of political ideologies. But I’m convinced that most people in government have good intentions. Which brings to mind an old saying, something about how the road to hell was paved…

Anyway, things like government are almost always more complicated than most people seem to realize. So perhaps those who critique the size of our government have a point. Maybe we live in a world where things have gotten too complex for us to grasp the big picture, or even a smaller component part of it.

But I never believed that one must be evil in order to do evil things.


Data Visualization: For the People

Data visualization is a fascinating thing. It can enhance our understanding of reality by modeling incredibly complicated things in a manner that makes them “touchable” or “graspable”.poltical_breakdown-825x1024
There are different types of data visualization, a fact that corresponds precisely to one of my favorite themes:

1) reality is an incredibly complicated thing, and faceted like a gemstone;

2) we are only able to apprehend/comprehend one facet at any given moment of awareness;

3) if we make the effort to understand all of the various facets, one by one, that we can begin to have an intuitve grasp of the larger and more complex structures of meaning and connection that lay underneath the surface of our day-to-day realities.

I’ve proferred a simplistic model, to be sure, but this article does a very nice job of showing how data visualization is being used to understand 3-dimensional levels of complexity that are almost too much for our brains to handle. I like it when we use our IT tools to understand the facts better, rather than distort and lie and sell crap to people who aren’t paying proper attention.

New World, Not So Brave

Alexia Tsotsis is co-editor at TechCrunch, a silicon-centric web-zine. And she’s a damn fine writer. I  re-post an excerpt from a recent article on the New Gilded Era:

“Silicon Valley is suffering from an acute fallacy of composition: Just because it does some good doesn’t mean the whole is good. Tech isn’t above harming society. Just because change (i.e. Disruption) is inevitable doesn’t mean it’s always welcome.

Machine guns were innovation. They Disrupted muskets. They also Disrupted a lot of human bodies in World War II. Pharmaceuticals save lives. But they also let people numb emotional pain rather than face it, quiet their children rather than teach them. Social games can be seen as entertainment and relaxation. They can also be seen as dehumanizing thieves of our time and attention.

The tech sector is particularly ill-suited to address its own footprint, staving off its rich guilt with the misguided belief that it lives in a meritocracy. Hell, even the people who blog about it are rich.

Like the problem of technology replacing jobs, there is no solution to technology’s feigned innocence. As nerds and underdogs, we will always believe we have the best intentions. That doesn’t negate the problem: Even though we’re not Washington D.C., we are still an industry with absurd amounts of power, attention and money. And plenty of intentional and unintentional opportunities to abuse it.”

A few points:

Technology empowers us. Sometimes, technology frees us. Questions remain: what do we do with that power, and with that freedom? How do we spend our time, those of us lucky enough to live in a society where much of the nasty stuff was abstracted away before we were born? How are we empowered, and how much? Who is more empowered, and who less? And perhaps most importantly: how free are we, really?

George Orwell wrote of a possible future that seemed plausible at the time, and there are certainly pockets of the human world where the overt surveillance and routine brutality of totalitarian control are the norm. However, though Orwell was the perhaps the better writer,  Aldous Huxley was the more prescient imaginer. “Brave New World” was a distant early warning for anyone who has ever watched more than a few hours of TV per week, or taken prescription mood-altering medications, or slowly drowned in a bottomless glass of booze. I’ll let a better writer say it. From Neil Postman:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture…. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Postman added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. InBrave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.

Can I Graduate?

I am set to receive my Associate Degree in Computer Programming from Gwinnett Technical College in a few weeks. It’s been quite a ride. I would like to say that I don’t recommend it, but that would not be true, and it would never be that simple anyway.

Though technical/community colleges do not get the respect that 4-year universities do, the fact is that some programs, at some tech schools, require a much higher level of intellectual engagement and sheer grinding work than perhaps half of all major university programs in the country. There are some very smart, very driven people coming out of tech school right now. I know some of them. I’d hire them in a heartbeat.

I’ve been over-scheduled and over-worked for a couple of years now. The sleep deprivation, and the attendant emotional and physical exhaustion, have been intense, sometimes to the point of badly affecting my health and safety.

So, I’m tired.

And I just got a job, one that pays real money. It’s nothing glorious, and it might not last much more than six months. And it doesn’t involve moving out to California and to join the tech elite, thank god. It’s really just a really well-paying internship, honestly, but one where I’ll be doing something I like to do, and something that promises to offer a lot of opportunity in the near future. I’ll be studying JavaScript/JQuery, .NET and a few other things over the next month or so in preparation for my first day on May 5. It’s another startup, so it might not last (for any of us), but it’s a win-win for me, because the first coding job is usually the hardest one to find, and my graduating classmates and I are realizing that we are not quite prepared for a full-on job in this field: we need mentorship, we need internships, and we need real-world experience. So getting the opportunity to work for, and learn from, successful professionals is a dream come true, really, and if it only lasts six months, then I’ll be ready for the next step by then. Guaranteed.

So I’m putting in my notice at Big City Bread Cafe, where I’ve managed (and learned) for four years, and at Vitamin C Software, where I’ve interned (and learned) for three months. And I’ll spend the next 3-4 weeks finishing school and studying for my new job. And I’ll sit back and think for a minute, now and then, about all that I’ve been through, all that I’ve seen and learned and done these last few very intense years. And then Jonah and his mommy will get home and I’ll go outside and run around in the yard with my son and I’ll be shocked, again, that I could ever feel so much joy.