Brain Canvas

Reach inside your brain and pull out something Beautiful.

Walkabout to Repair Your City

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One Sunday morning several years ago my friend Shaun and I walked a couple of miles from our university campus in Atlanta to a certain 24-hour diner for breakfast. Atlanta, like so many cities in North America, is highly automobile-centric. Most people get places – even places just two miles away – by driving in their glass and metal pods, oblivious to the smaller stitches that bind together the community, infrastructure, economy and aesthetics of their city. I was as guilty of this as anyone, which is why I took such notice of just how run-down and shabby so much of the walk was. Some stretches as short as twenty meters were downright danger-havens, obstructing the healthy and secure flow of what otherwise should have been a routine walking path. Broken and stolen bicycles littered a small clearing in the kudzu between an abandoned building, the busiest interstate highway in the South, and a flimsy mesh-wire fence that separated a one-way four-lane road from the small green buffer to the highway. The litter, organic and non, of homeless people, drunks and troublemakers stank under a small bridge. There stood few to no trees whatsoever to provide shelter or windbreaks, and the sidewalks sat low enough to allow an idling car to jump the curb. When cars turned, they turned extremely close to the junction of the crosswalk and the sidewalk, such that we had to walk well away from the edge of the area specifically designated for pedestrians to avoid grievous injury.

That walk opened my eyes to the negative effects of driving everywhere, or perhaps more importantly the expectation of driving everywhere.  In your car you are protected from all manner of the elements, the refuse and the antagonism of the brave new world.  Distances shrink such that you have no reason to focus on anything more than a dangerous intersection or an extended stretch of poorly-paved road.  In this relativity distortion field, an unsightly ten-meter stretch becomes as significant as a discolored brick at the base of a building.  When you see how unpleasant walking can be in many cities, it either turns you off to walking altogether or leads you to take solace in the knowledge that next time, you can drive.  Thus only the committed and specifically interested – mostly those who don’t or can’t afford to drive their own cars – can take stock of the problems and arrange to solve them.  Unfortunately, that usually means going through the bureaucracy of City Hall, and fixing the problem will cost money, which turns everybody off.  Advocates and stakeholders in walkable town development are stuck unless your city is forward-looking, the neighborhood association is educated and influential, or some agents of gentrification like Starbucks and real estate developers decide to make inroads to the area – which usually means that the streets are deserted and dangerous at night when no one is out shopping for $5 ice cream and imported clothing!

What if you had to walk everywhere for one month?  Imagine that you wake up tomorrow morning and your car is gone.  Every bus in the city has stopped working, and all other modes of public transportation like light rail and subways no longer function.  Even your bicycle has turned to cast iron.  The entire city is struck with the incapacitation of every form of mechanical transport.  All you can do in this car-free town is walk.

You still have to pay the bills by working, and you still have to buy and eat food.  If you are lucky your boss will let you telecommute, but no one is going to deliver any food to you when they would have to walk just like you.  Now you actually have to walk to the grocery store.  You have to walk to friends’ houses, or to bars, or to places of worship or the post office.  This month is probably going to be the most hard-learning month you have faced, if you are a fortunate person.  The size of your front yard will become apparent like never before when every time you return home you have to walk its length rather than zip past it on the driveway.  Your street never seemed this long when you were driving!  And how are there only three houses between yours and the curb?  You never noticed how much space was wasted around you.  Alternatively, you could be pleased to note how many front doors of businesses and residences you can pass in five minutes of walking, and you may have never noticed half of the stores you see now that you have to look.

If you need to walk to pick up food or some other commodity, you may be highly disappointed to realize how far away a neighborhood commercial center is.  You could pass one hundred houses with no break for parks or businesses before reaching a marginally diverse commercial zone that offers food, mechanical supplies, fuel, and a service or two like a gym or church.  The parking lot will seem like a flat barren wasteland to you  now.  There are probably no trees, or perhaps only small rows of perfectly-cut shrubs, to offer a micro-climate supporting living things like birds and insects.  Take a look around, and unless you live in a pretty upscale neighborhood you will notice broken glass, plastic and trash, the artifacts of car accidents and human neglect.  If it is hot outside, it will be so twice over on your walk.  You can’t look forward to the air conditioner on your way back, and the blacktop will bake like a river from hell.  It could be cold, and then your survivability comes into question – if it’s too cold to walk far enough to get fuel and food, how are you going to survive?  Your neighborhood is built such that without personal vehicles, an innovation less than one hundred years old, you become a veritable Daniel Boone in your own city.  Hope you’ve stocked up for the winter!

Not everything is bad, even though your city is engineered to make walking less efficient than driving.  Places that used to be dangerous to walk around may now be filled with peaceful people whose presence discourages violent crime and theft.  If you are lucky enough to live in a neighborhood which is as walkable as it is drivable, you could discover new amenities and pleasures close to home.  In the process you ought to become closer to your neighbors.  One thing you will likely discuss with them is that you never noticed how bad the sidewalk is on this stretch of Eleventh Street, or how you wish there were more trees to shade the walk.  A neighbor will mention how unsightly this or that building is, which they never noticed until today.  Shame, too, since it would make a great music hall.  Across town a group of neighbors are planning improvements for their area and removing old furniture blocking an alleyway frequented by a gang.  They used to drive right past it, and stopped wondering long ago who put the blockage there.

Thirty days later (let’s assume you don’t know when you will regain use of your vehicles), people are walking paths within a quarter mile of their home that four weeks ago they never knew existed.  Crime in most neighborhoods is at its lowest in decades – except for the affluent ones, where bored rich kids vandalize each others’ homes at night.  Although there is a lot of trash that has not been picked up by the sanitation department in the last month, it has been compacted and arranged to ensure that it does not make walking unpleasant.  Among the trash in those piles is all of the urban refuse that littered the sidewalks and underpasses before the Day the Wheels Stopped Moving.  Flowers, and some small herb and vegetable gardens, are planted in every median.  There is a tree fort on every block.  People have learned to stretch their dollars when buying food.  Every business that can incorporate it now knows the value of telecommuting.  People are less stressed.  You have made several new friends and have joined two new community organizations, as well as a community sport.  The team plays the neighborhood across the bridge in three days.

When you wake up tomorrow morning and find your car in your garage once more, what will you do?


Written by Preston

July 29th, 2010 at 6:30 am

Transportation and Suburban Renewal

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This month’s Brain Canvas theme on transportation is a bit above my head from a technical standpoint, as I don’t have the benefit of an engineering degree from THE Georgia Institute of Technology like my colleague Preston.

So rather than try to write about the future of transportation by speculating about innovative new technologies, I’ll instead talk about some of the exciting outcomes society might realize from alternate transportation regimes and leave how to get from A to B to the engineers.

I recently viewed a TED talk by Ellen Dunham-Jones (also of Georgia Tech) on the topic of Retrofitting Suburbia, laying out the argument for reclaiming abandoned strip malls and big box stores that are the hallmark of the suburban landscape. In addition to the reclamation of abandoned existing structures she also points to the importance of building on top of existing structures as well.

One community that Durham-Jones holds up as an example is the D.C. suburb of Hyattsville, Maryland (10:25 in video linked above). Hyattsville has experienced over a decade of growth and renewal in its downtown. What was in the early 90′s a suburban office building and not much else, connected to the rest of the world only by conventional highway transportation system, is now a vibrant community featuring a downtown arts district, and a mixed use residential and retail site.

Importantly for this month’s topic of transportation, this development coincided with the opening of two DC Metro stations in Hyattsville. In 1993 D.C. Metro extended service connecting Hyattsville with Washington D.C. providing more convenient transportation for commuters living in the city to reach office jobs in the suburbs and for suburban dwellers to enjoy the best parts of the city life.

This is one of the indirect benefits of transportation technology like the Maglev trains profiled on Brain Canvas last week by Preston. Trains that can easily reach speeds of 500 mph extend the radius of commutable communities by hundreds of miles, opening up the distant suburbs and exurbs to the exiting outcomes described by Dunham-Jones and realized by Hyattsville, Maryland.


Written by Andrew

July 26th, 2010 at 12:23 am

Maglev Empire

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Rail transport has transformed the economies of many countries since its introduction in Britain nearly 200 years ago.  Today people can easily zip between cities hundreds and thousands of kilometers apart, while hundreds of millions of freight containers are shipped by rail every year.  In the United States the development of a national rail network was the fundamental economic, social and political event of the second half of the 19th century.  In China national and international rail development is twinned with manufacturing as the most important driver of industrialization in that country.  From the beginning of rail’s economic viability with Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the Great Western Railway in 1830s Britain, to China’s current intent to redevelop the ancient Silk Road as a cross-continental rail and highway network, rail transport has always been an industry defined by massive investments and driven by grandiose ambitions for economic payoff and social transformation.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

The ambition on display needs no caption.

Where is that ambition today?  What used to be a great project with clear payoff has now become a political albatross of sticker-shock and lukewarm commitments.  There exist proven and viable technologies to greatly increase the efficiency and speed of rail transport.  A few countries are taking them somewhat seriously, such as Spain with its AVE lines and China which boasts two records: the world’s fastest-average-speed rail line and the Shanghai Maglev Train, which hits a top speed of 431 km/h.  Compare to this the United States’ own high speed rail plans, which are currently underfunded and call for a top speed of merely 240 km/h – on a ride which currently averages 109 km / h between DC and Boston.

If the robber barons of the Rail Age merged with a hodgepodge of SimCity geeks, new urbanism advocates and wild-eyed futurists, the resulting organism would sweep aside the meek  and the cash-poor with blueprints for something even more radical than the first wave of rail development: a dense, hyper-efficient global network of standardized maglev trains, two tracks side-by-side each stacked three tracks high, threaded through the widened medians of intercity highways.

Maglev trains exist in several flavors, which have their own quirks and cost-benefit rap sheets.  Many people roll their eyes when they hear talk of maglev, equating it with one or both of “DisneyWorld / monorail” and “cost overruns.”  The most-cited example is the Shanghai Maglev Train, which I have had the pleasure of riding thrice.  Without getting into too many specifics, that train’s technology is built on a “smart track, dumb train” model in which the expensive technology is all in the track – a guaranteed road to financial ruin, as building out the track for any great length is magnificently costly.  There exist both working and in-development alternatives to this technology which use a “smart train, dumb track” model which is much cheaper and easier to implement, like a standard railway.  American Maglev Technology has a working test track in Powder Springs, GA which uses the electrical equivalent of seventeen hair dryers to levitate, and the Inductrack system is under development at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Several advantages exist in using maglev over conventional high-speed rail transportation.  Most important is the lack of moving parts, like wheels and suspension, enabling the train to achieve much higher speeds (up to 500 km/h on the Shanghai line) and reducing maintenance costs as there are no contact or moving parts to repair.  The absence of contact friction also means less power is required to propel the train forward; if you ever visit a working maglev test track you can push the train forward with your hand.  The only significant friction on the train is wind friction.  Finally, if the train’s electricity comes from 100% renewable energy, it is a carbon-free form of transportation once construction is finished.  With these factors combined, the high cost of maglev investment delivers a long-term payoff unsurpassed in other options for infrastructure development, short of fusion energy.

Now that our infrastructure investment demigod has chosen maglev as its weapon of choice, why multiple-stacked tracks between highway lanes?  Part of this was actually my old man’s idea.  He described it to me thusly: when we want to go from our Gadsden, Alabama hometown to Tuscaloosa to watch the University of Alabama play football, we have to drive over two hours on highways jam-packed with people traveling to the biggest temple in the state, Bryant-Denny Stadium.  What if the government, when planning the construction of the interstate highway system, had made the median wider and placed rail tracks between the lanes?  We could take a train to football games, and not have to contend with traffic or drunk drivers or parking.  Then imagine any other road trip you would take involving the interstate highway system – for the right price it could be replaced by a rail journey, all while not having to cut any new path across the countryside for the railway.  Stacking them three high, thus producing six maglev tracks in one corridor, was my idea – the freight and passenger capacity would be unprecedented.  Goodbye congestion, hello reduced transport costs!

Tomorrow, though, I don’t want to go from my hometown to Tuscaloosa.  I want to go from Beijing to Moscow.  Great!  With our global maglev rail network, I could probably complete the trip in under 20 hours.  Flying would be faster, but remember – I could travel 9000 km by train in under 20 hours on a trip that would take six days on current rail infrastructure.  Perhaps the greatest advantage to personal travel would come from less ambitious, halfway-across-the-continent journeys.  London to Istanbul could be done in just over six hours, and instead of flying above the clouds, all of Europe’s countryside and cityscape glory would zip past visible from ground level.  And let’s not stop with overland routes!  Spain and Morocco have been in talks for some time to build a rail tunnel underneath the Strait of Gibraltar to connect Africa and Europe.  The Bering Strait has been awfully lonely for the last ten thousand years or so since people stopped walking across its land bridge – Buenos Aires to Singapore by rail would be just a ticket purchase away.

A new golden era of rail travel would open once significant portions of the global network were operational.  With so many destinations more easily accessible to the average human being, whether for business or pleasure, global connection would be a much greater part of day-to-day life.  If its energy sources are clean and renewable, transportation would fall off the list of most polluting industries.  Opportunities of all sorts would radically redefine the outlook of billions of people.  Workers who now travel into New York City on an hour-long train ride could move to DC and make the trip in the same amount of time.  To get really ambitious you could put the trains in vacuum tubes to remove air friction and enable speeds of up to 8000 km/h.  This would put you on the other side of the planet in less than three hours.

It is no time to be cautious!  Since a global, super-high-speed rail network is likely within the next 500 years, let us start now and be magnetically levitated into the future!


Written by Preston

July 15th, 2010 at 6:22 am

BrainCanvas Theme for July: Transportation

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Apologies for the late July theme post, we were too busy celebrating BrainCanvas’ one-year anniversary! It was a year ago on July 4 when BrainCanvas posited its first “What If?” and the world has never been the same since.

This month we will focus on the topic of transportation. Although independently conceived of Slate’s call for imagination on the subject of “Nimble Cities,” the spirit of our quest is similar: to ask and receive knowledge of great possible ways to get around.

If you have any ideas for a post topic, email us and we will see that it gets its proper shake at BrainCanvas glory.


Written by Preston

July 12th, 2010 at 3:37 am

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Citizen Scientists

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The United States Constitutions provides for Citizen Soldiers in its second amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The concept of Citizen Soldiery is not merely a right for individual citizens to bear arms, but rather a duty that citizens have to arm themselves in defending the country from foreign invasion or domestic misrule. It is a direct result of the revolutionary war experiences of the founders, when foreign soldiers were forcibly quartered with local civilians and incidents like the Boston Massacre created a need to balance the rights of the people against the military. This concept has become somewhat antiquated in the modern era, not least of all because of the practical challenge posed by the modern equipment and armaments that any potential foreign or domestic threat would likely possess. However, today’s National Guard does traces its roots to this idea.

The idea of citizens having not only a right but a responsibility to protect the interests of their communities and make them better places to live is a noble concept. NASA already routinely uses the principles of crowdsourcing to help them analyze the mountains of data collected by satellites and observatories that cannot be reliably processed by computers. Their “Be a Martian” project is definitely one of the more innovative and interactive approaches to this sort of work.

NASA is on the right track, but why not take things one step further in terms of comprehensiveness and accessibility. How about, for instance, an application that allows different agencies or community organizations to release geotagged science projects for individuals to take on that would improve their communities.

Imagine opening the app on your phone and seeing a project from the US Wildlife Fund to photograph endangered birds in the woods near your house, or a project from the EPA to measure groundwater purity in the park down the street.


Written by Andrew

July 2nd, 2010 at 3:42 pm

GSA ChallengePost: Update the Tax Code

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Update the Internal Revenue Code

The United States Internal Revenue Code, generally called the tax code, is the collection of laws that govern domestic taxation.  This includes income tax, gift taxes, payroll taxes, estate taxes and excise taxes passed by the United States Congress.  The current tax code is structurally descended from the Internal Revenue Code of 1954, which was updated in 1986 but retained the same basic structure.

The United States government has been running a budget deficit for most of the last decade, which has robustly expanded the national debt after a brief period of decline.  Money comes in to fuel government expenses – money going out – and both sides of the ledger are incredibly complicated economically as well as politically.  Lobbyists, interest groups, institutional actors and ideological communities fight so viciously over what should stay, what should be brought in, and what should be cut that it seems practically impossible to solve the public debt issue on spending terms alone.

The aim of this challenge is to establish a new and complete tax code that can meet the current spending needs of the US government and simultaneously provide for a clear and sustained deficit reduction within five years, with the aim of a surplus within ten years and finally the eventual major reduction of the public debt.  It must also reasonably ensure that people will still be able to provide for themselves and that investment and spending will be encouraged enough to prevent economic contraction.

Solution Requirements

  • A fully fleshed-out comprehensive tax code which
    • Can provide the revenue necessary for the US government to operate
    • Will initiate a sustainable trajectory of deficit reduction within 5 years, reach surplus within ten years, and eventually significantly reduce the public debt
    • Will not render anyone incapable of providing themselves with life’s necessities and will not force economic contraction
    • Can be taken directly, without need for semantic or structural edits, to the floor of  the U.S. House of Representatives for presentation as a bill to become law


The government has pledged to reward successful entries.  Who knows – maybe you’ll never have to pay taxes again!

Intellectual Property

The final document for this challenge will, when implemented, be placed into the United States Code.  Your name will go on the bill.  Welcome to the history e-books.



Written by Preston

June 30th, 2010 at 5:11 am

GSA ChallengePost: End-to-End Open Government

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Open Government

Open Government is understood by its advocacy base as a logical union of participatory government and transparent government.  The basic concept is that if the government’s approach to operations, decision-making and data were changed to enable citizens to effectively scrutinize their public officials in an unfiltered light, provide a more direct say in legislation and action, and build services and applications from the raw data the government generates in its studies and operations, that democracy could evolve and our government would be much more effective.

There are a number of organizations which advocate for these concepts in different ways and with some specific goals as a part of the overall movement, such as the Sunlight Foundation, the Open Society Institute and O’Reilly’s Gov2.0 conference.  On their own they are great things worth fighting for.  However, there are many issues that are systemically preventing a true open government transformation from fully taking place.

The aim of this challenge is to bring together all of the systemic reform conditions necessary to remove the creaky hinges and unnecessary locks on our governmental system, from the beginnings of elections through the way Congress can respond to crises.  This may not be everything (and if it is not, please put addenda in the comments) but I believe that these are the basic, operational fixes that our political system needs to leave the real work – study, innovation and input from citizens – ready to be done.  The challenge will be successfully completed when comprehensive legislative, technical and operational solutions are established for these issues and converted into law and custom.

Solution Requirements


  • National election standards requiring fully free and open source voting machinery and software which is publicly auditable and leaves a paper trail, and the necessary hardware and software to meet this standard
  • Change the election system from municipalities to Presidential elections to range voting and hold no primaries, maintain the secret ballot and eliminate party registration requirements
  • Allow and facilitate Internet voting and release the anonymous voting data to the public via an open API
  • Require all elections to be 100% publicly funded and disallow private donations to candidates, with a special focus to nurture newly-enabled (thanks to range voting) smaller parties and candidates

Congressional Governance

  • End filibusters by requiring simple up-or-down votes in both Houses of Congress for all legislation that is not a treaty or a Constitutional amendment
  • Enable Congress to react much faster to issues and crises, such as the BP oil spill, the stagnant economy and lack of sustainable technology development and empowerment

Open Data

  • Legally require all non-classified data, including raw metadata, to be open to the public as soon as it is affirmed as valid and usable by the government.  This includes creating a public, extensible and standard way of handling and analyzing such data.
  • Reduce the terms of classification on most kinds of government data
  • Recognize Constitutional privacy rights as pertaining to online communications


The government has pledged to reward successful entries.

Intellectual Property

All of the basic documents and software requirements for this challenge will, when implemented, be placed into the public domain.  Further innovations on this solution have no license requirement.



Written by Preston

June 14th, 2010 at 8:00 am

Building the GSA/ChallengePost Community

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In case you missed it, our theme for June is to give our own little Brain Canvas preview to an initiative being launched by the General Services Administration in July to crowdsource solutions to the problems faced by different government agencies. Throughout the month of June we’ll be posting different challenges in government, along with our proposed solution.

Ironically, the first challenge that the GSA posts might be to ask for solutions on how to promote and market its new project effectively. While the GSA crowdsourcing initiative is a fantastic concept, it can really only work effectively if there is a critical mass of individuals using the platform. Its worth pointing out that this is by no means a given, as Challenge Post currently has just 60 posted challenges, only one of which has been tagged “government”. Most of those only have a handful of people who have actually submitted solutions (with a few notable exceptions for the ones with large cash rewards – an important point which we’ll consider momentarily). Not exactly the kind of numbers that put the “crowd” in crowdsource.

So figuring out how to get an appropriate number of people using this thing is certainly a challenge that the GSA at least better consider. But its not just about the volume of people, its also making sure that these people fit a particular kind of profile. They’ll need to make sure that innovative, entrepreneurial and creative people are applying their mental prowess to these challenges. At the same time this is a great chance to get more people participating in government with fresh new ideas, so it also needs to appeal to people who aren’t already lobbying, consulting or otherwise influencing or commenting on policy.

So in summary you need bright, entrepreneurial, laypeople. People who are equipped with the right education, experience or genuine creativity who are outside of government. Something of a tall order, but what you ultimately need is a world class marketer to really promote the heck out of this.

I am certainly not that marketer, but here are a few ideas I have on how this sort of campaign would have to look.

1. Build a sense of community

Peer pressure and a sense of belonging are two pretty powerful motivators. Whatever the final platform looks like, it needs to incorporate specific elements of social networking platforms in order to give users a community to connect with and a personal identity that can exist within that community. I would see this as something akin to Facebook, where you could form groups, send messages, post contact and get updates on different challenges by say, which department they are coming from or which issues they might be trying to tackle.

In fact, they might just want to make it a Facebook app, or at least a standalone app that interfaces with Facebook. Its quite possible that this would be enough to do it on its own, provided that the challenge content being posted is good enough to be driven by users over existing channels and platforms.

2. Go Global

Nowhere could I find whether the ability to propose solutions to challenges would be restricted by national origin. At first it seems almost stupid to ask whether this would become an issue, but the nativist counter-argument is almost too easy to predict. “Americans are the most innovative people in the world. Why do we need non-residents, or even resident non-citizens, to tell us how to solve our own problems?”

Of course, that question would be stupid to ask. The challenges that America faces (e.g. reducing our reliance or hydro-carbons while promoting economic growth) are often ones that ultimately end up impacting other people outside this country as well. The other, simpler, answer is that a good idea can come from anywhere. To reject it out of hand just because “you” didn’t come up with it is the worst kind of self defeating arrogance. Simply put my response to that would be, “grow up”.

At any rate, lets hope the GSA isn’t pressured in any way to make this concession. It would kill the entire concept before it even started, in my opinion.


3. Exploit the incentives

There are three major incentives that this concept provides for would be participants. Whomever is writing the guidelines for what challenges should look like, along with whomever is responsible for marketing this, should give ample credence to all three, in no particular order:

  • Helping your community, country and world
  • Recognition. This is why the community is so key. Who cares if you win something that nobody you respect cares about?
  • Money. People should be compensated justly for their solution if its selected. It obviously also attracts more individuals or start-ups to participate. The best part is it would probably still be a fraction of the amount it would cost to get a ‘professional’ consultant

So there you have it. Build a global community motivated by a few monetary and social incentives and you should have a good starting base of users. If we actually see this up on the GSA platform next month, my next step will be to actually propose how to do those things.


Written by Andrew

June 14th, 2010 at 12:14 am

Our theme for June

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I like to think that our theme this month is, in some ways, getting back to our Brain Canvas roots: the delivery of high quality unadulterated “what if” scenarios.

This month’s twist comes in response to a recent announcement made by the U.S. General Services Administration, a federal agency responsible for providing support for the basic functioning of other government agencies like the Department of Agriculture, Department of Education and others. Its mission is, “to use expertise to provide innovative solutions for our customers [i.e. government agencies] in support of their missions and by so doing foster an effective, sustainable, and transparent government for the American people.”

The GSA, as its known, will launch an app in July hosted by ChallengePost, an online crowd-sourcing platform, that will ask the public submit their ideas for different challenges that will be posted by different government agencies.

In June, Brain Canvas will offer a preview of what this innovative approach from the GSA could look like. Since the app won’t launch until July, we’ll be playing the role of both federal agency and innovative citizen, posting the challenges that we would most like to see address along with our proposed solution.

We invite you to leave your own solution in the comments section of each post. The best comment from the month will win a T-shirt with the Brain Canvas logo.

Look for the first challenge to be posted next week!


Written by Andrew

June 5th, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Entertainment Evolves to Offer Challenge, Not Escape

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Mass media entertainment has frequently come under attack as mindless or dangerous to culture. What used to be generated on a local level was dwarfed by an advertisement-entertainment-broadcast complex which grew so powerfully insipid that it inspired FCC Chairman Newton Minow to declare the television broadcast landscape a “vast wasteland” in 1961.  Many people, whether they admit it or not, watch films and television largely for the escape value and not for a more enriching entertainment experience on the level of learning to play a song or interacting with others in a game or sport. If you notice, though, TV shows today are on new levels of quality when compared with the uninspiring, non-challenging programs of yesteryear.  Leave it to Beaver never had to compete with The Wire, nor did I Love Lucy‘s completely acceptable “quirkiness” have to face the sublime dysfunctional satire of The Simpsons and South Park.  Likewise, truly great music could only be found in live music clubs.  Hit factories were focused on churning out single after copycat single before deeper, album-oriented and experimental music production became viable. Those developments are the direct result of an increase in competition in broadcast television and musical production.  The nature of the complex, of course, means that it isn’t just a question of increases in technology, although that played a role in the form of multi-track recording for music.  Regulatory reform by necessity opened the door for technological and social changes to sweep entertainment media.  Minow’s FCC focused on opening up broadcast television to create more opportunities for public interest programming, and as adoption grew, so did the number of channels and offerings.  Competition meant content had to become better and more relevant.  Today, the best television content is generally, though not always, created on channels like Showtime and HBO where the consumer pays directly for the content, instead of watching content funded by proxy (i.e. advertising). The Internet is clearly making a difference in both music and television content, along with whole other forms of entertainment like massively multiplayer online games and even Chatroulette.  Consumers no longer have to wait for content to come to them, streaming from an idiot box.  They can find it in any way they want to, legal or not, and with browser plugins like AdBlock Plus, they can entertain themselves without the scream of advertising that has dominated the 20th Century. This liberation from undesired advertising – not all advertising, to be clear – when joined with a hopeful victory for net neutrality and the ability of individuals to cheaply produce and broadcast their own content – is the latest breakthrough in ensuring a higher quality offering from entertainment media.  This does not mean that entertainment media will necessarily get better on average, but I firmly believe that the amount and diversity of high-quality entertainment accessible to the average consumer will increase many times over in the coming decades. But what does “high quality entertainment” mean?  After all, so many people do like to escape from the drudgery of their everyday lives by experiencing more drudgery on the tube.  What do they care about the quality when what they seek is the media equivalent of crack cocaine: cheap, quick and powerful? I think that the improving quality of entertainment media and changes in general social trends, fueled by the explosion of social media, point to a desire for more challenge, insight and relevance from our entertainment media options.  Shows are released on DVD and streamed online so we can consume them like we would books.  They are no longer just things to pass the time; we see many shows like The Wire and Mad Men as highly relevant to our modern economic and social struggles.  Breaking Bad is not hip, self-referential drug culture escapism, it is an engaging character-driven look at the role of addiction and the war on drugs in a world where health care premiums are immorally high, among many other things.  I for one am a huge fan of Ronald D. Moore’s reimagining of the Battlestar Galactica franchise.  Next to The Wire it is about as broadly and poignantly relevant a television show as has aired in the last decade when it comes to exploring our social and cultural issues.  However, without being a bit of a science fiction geek and being willing to commit to the series from the very beginning, it is hard to access.  Viewership hovered perilously around the one million mark, and its prequel follow-up Caprica suffers the same problem.  Yet with the new options the Internet offers for content distribution, such shows ought to become more commonplace whether or not people watch them at the time of original broadcast.  It will simply be funded and delivered in a different way from advertising-funded broadcast media.  You will pay a set fee or what you like for the show directly, or it will solicit funding drives, or it will be funded by interest groups who make profit from other ventures; it will be there because you want it to be there. Another reason to have confidence in the increasing relevance and quality of entertainment content comes from a statement in this Economist special report on television:
Technology also competes for attention. Although families still gather around the TV set as they have done for decades, they now bring electronic distractions with them. Nielsen reckons that 13% of people who watched the Academy Awards ceremony this year went online during the programme, up from 9% last year. The multitaskers did not appear to gravitate to entertainment websites. Google and Facebook topped the list of websites visited during the Oscars, just as they did during the Super Bowl and the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics.
Emphasis is mine.  Although the article frames this information in terms of television’s hold over its audience, I take this to mean that we only seek to entertain ourselves with one thing at a time.  Somehow we consider entertainment to be different than information – I would be shocked if a similar study found high volumes of people engrossed by information or interest reports on television, the radio, or the Internet to the point of not clicking or switching around to different information sites.  It seems that our brains do not treat entertainment the same way: we want to focus, not get lost.  We want to share our thoughts and interests about that entertainment with others (I am guilty of this with both information and entertainment, as a peek at my lifestream will exhibit). Going forward in the entropic timeline, I expect people will focus on deeper consumption of challenging and enriching entertainment instead of flocking to shows like The Bachelor or Jersey Shore.  Young people are looking for some way to contribute a voice to the massive cultural stream, and consuming empty entertainment calories is just a waste of time.  As for the bodies of fandom for shows like Jersey Shore, I doubt that their chatter will matter as much in the future as it does today.  The increasing role of relevance in the content ecosystem means the worst people have to fear is overhearing trash gossip at a restaurant or in the hallway, not in the news they consume.  The same is true for the unwashed masses who hate on Battlestar Galactica – our indulgent geek talk will not pepper the news on TMZ. Increasing competition in entertainment media will strengthen our culture as we leave the wasteland for an environment of untold diversity.

Written by Preston

May 19th, 2010 at 6:02 am