At age 15 I moved to Helsinki to study at a gymnasium specializing in fine art. My family remained in California, and relatives lived outside the city except for grandfather Georg, a recently widowed painter.

He lived in a cobwebbed apartment on the top floor of a Jugend fortress built during the Russian era. The building looked confidently over the officers’ casino on the frozen bay as if it was expecting the imperial schooner to dock shortly at its feet, and Alexander the Blessed to hop ashore and claim back his old Grand Dutchy. He had an excellent library, which could only be accessed using a ladder so as to not disturb the dust (which, if it got in the air, could have been deadly to the asthmatic inhabitant).

Grandpa Georg tutored me in languages and the history and philosophy of art. I studied Swedish conjugations late into the night with the help of strong black Caravan tea in his studio, and accompanied him on morning excursions where he taught me his methods of ”people-snapping” (quick sketches on café napkins with a felt tip pen) and painting aquarelle landscapes in any weather. Although he and I inhabited different centuries (the sight of him in public without a decent black tie would have been scandalous), we were both rather lonely, and I began to genuinely value the company of the gruff old aristocrat.

More than anything he was intellectually preoccupied with the notion of beauty. He held beauty to be a value on its own, saw it originating in nature, and considered its reverence a precondition to ethical human discourse and politics. The task of the artist was to be the intermediary who raised in his audience an awareness of beauty where none was apparent – within unremarkable landscapes and unappreciated members of society – and thus a sensibility for the subjects’ worthiness. Although he disliked Heidegger, he was closely aligned with phenomenology in emphasizing intentionality (consciousness being always about some external object) and, through the craft of painting, the portrayal of the world as it presented itself to the eye, as free of presuppositions and intellectualizing as possible.

Speaking about his teacher, the early 20th-century Russian painter Valery Semenoff-Tianchansky, he says:

”When I think about Valery Semenoff-Tianchansky, and what he, an old man, meant when he exclaimed: ”Look! Just look at that field!” It may have been wheat growing, or perhaps rye – it was the color of bronze, and quite spectacular. He said: ”There is nothing more beautiful in existence.” His friend Picasso — he said Picasso could not have painted that. And indeed Picasso couldn’t. Because no man is capable of painting it. We can only adore it, and try to teach others to revere it too. ”

The full 8 1/2-minute interview is below.

Painter Georg Engeström a.k.a. GEM (1921-2008) reflects on his life’s work and the role of the artist as an intermediary between man and nature. This interview was recorded at his summer home in Finland shortly before the opening of his 85th anniversary exhibition. Although GEM applied a range of methods (he studied the fresco in Italy and spent five decades as a political cartoonist), and painted thousands of portraits during his 70-year career, he is still mainly known as a landscape painter. His work was influenced by Goya, Turner, and – more than any other – the Russian master Ilya Repin (he was born in Repin’s home village). He passed away in 2008.

The Great Gatsby (1925) is ageless because in it F. Scott Fitzgerald captures the dynamic between two kinds of people — those who already have everything, epitomized in a propitious couple, Tom and Daisy Buchanan:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

… And those whose “sole misfortune,” in the words of Tracy Chapman, “was having mountains of nothing at birth” – personified in the novel’s namesake James Gatz a.k.a. Jay Gatsby:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

Despite all the zeal, Gatsby’s impetus to get ahead in life and pursue his dream is a paddle race against the tide of time. It is an effort to relive his one long-gone moment of genuine happiness. Predictably, he never gets to live that dream.

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Whether you’re Tom, Daisy, or Gatsby, salute the past that colors your future.

Saul Griffith has a great talk out on the necessity for us to reduce energy consumption if we are to slow down climate change. I summarized it at an event in Helsinki, my slides are below. Dowload the full Game Plan and measure your own energy consumption on Wattzon.

(Also, this week’s Economist has an informative article on the uncertainty of the science of climate change, which gives additional context to some of the assumptions above.)

In The Shaking of the Foundations Paul Tillich, one of last century’s defining theologicians, quotes the apostle Paul: “For I do not do the good I desire, but rather the evil that I do not desire.”

Paul violently persecuted followers of Jesus prior to his conversion to Christianity. You may not have persecuted anyone, but can you honestly claim your actions have never had unhappy consequences to other people? Tillich’s following lines, written (if I’m not mistaken) in the aftermath of the Second World War, are so riveting that I’ll quote them here at length, with a bit of editing to improve online readability:

“Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound”, says Paul in the same letter in which he describes the unimaginable power of separation and self-destruction within society and the individual soul. He does not say these words because sentimental interests demand a happy ending for everything tragic. He says them because they describe the most overwhelming and determining experience of his life. Read more »

Photo credit: ElDave (Flickr)

My little Google Buzz voting experiment broke 20,000 votes this weekend (story on ReadWriteWeb). As of now 1,390 people have submitted 487 ideas and cast 21,218 votes (some ideas are duplicates, sadly there is no way to merge them). Thanks to everyone who has participated!

Below is a short summary of the feedback. It’s not meant to be objective and you should feel free to create your own breakdown (anybody out there specializing in survey analysis?) I tried to take into account the most actively voted topics while also including less popular fixes that I consider important.

I. Clean the stream

  1. Hide comments by default (use notifications & hints—see Jaiku/Friendfeed)
  2. Don’t re-order the stream when new comments are added to posts
  3. Allow clicking posts to expand/collapse threads inline
  4. Remove dupes
  5. Allow unsubscribing from specific sources

II. Stop ruining my Inbox

  1. Don’t put notifications about new comments in my Inbox unless the comment is directly addressed to me or in a thread that I explicitly subscribed to
  2. Make Mute a clearly visible button
  3. Better filtering: e.g. allow sorting search results by # of likes & comments
  4. Don’t show the same faces more than once in New Followers
  5. Stop showing unread count in sidebar (this is not email)

III. Better public conversation

  1. Block trolls straight from comments
  2. Add autosuggest popup to @-replies in non-Gmail UIs (mobile & Profile)
  3. Include previous commenters in the @-reply suggestions
  4. Enable Re-buzzing
  5. Make it possible to like & link to comments

IV. Leverage Gmail & Mobile features that rock

  1. Add starring of posts and comments
  2. Add Nearby tab to desktop (currently mobile only)
  3. Allow location tagging of desktop posts (currently mobile only)
I’ve excluded the API-related feedback (including third party feeds) from this summary since I wanted to focus on improvements to the current feature set and the API hasn’t been launched yet. The API will have a huge impact on the Buzz ecosystem because it’ll allow content to flow in and out of Buzz and third parties to build alternative UIs. Developers should join the Buzz API discussion group.

Let’s face it: less than a week into the game, the shortcomings of Google Buzz are crippling its use. Even proponents are critical of the platform. As Robert Scoble put it, “They made some horrid mistakes.”

Nonetheless people (even Robert!) want it to succeed. Massively. The web is overflowing with calls to fix Buzz.

Google must react at lightning speed. But what can busy engineers do to draw signal from the jumble of rants and raves scattered across the web?

The Gmail help center is a dead end. The Suggest a Feature page contains nothing Buzz-related. The list of Known Issues has two entries.

As a quick solution, I set up an unofficial How to Fix Google Buzz series on Google Moderator. Anyone can participate by adding ideas and voting them up or down. I seeded it with Scoble’s “12 worst features Buzz copied from Friendfeed.”

It has now been live 24 hours, so let’s see if the experiment worked.

  • How many ideas have been submitted? 209.
  • How many votes have been cast? 7,016.

Not bad considering it took about 5 minutes to set up.

Here are the top 10 requests:

  1. “Provide a way to hide all comments until I want to see comments” (205 votes)
  2. “Filter by content type. (i.e. don’t show me twitter from anyone, or for a specific user)” (174 votes)
  3. “If I read comments in Buzz mark them as read in Google reader and vice-versa” (162 votes)
  4. “Provide a way to group friends into lists. Lack of this makes using Buzz with more than small groups very frustrating” (143 votes)
  5. “Let me see all the likes by a single person. Over on FriendFeed I can see what Mike Arrington has liked, or commented on. I can’t do that in Google Buzz” (128 votes)
  6. “Add comment moderation. It should be possible to block people right from comments (like on FriendFeed)” (111 votes)
  7. “I’d love to see Gmail filters applied to Buzz. Keep most of the keyword based filters that are available on Gmail filters but add new ones like Number of Comments, Number of Likes, etc. Actions should include Mute for hiding noisy threads” (99 votes)
  8. “A collapsed list view like what’s available in Google Reader” (97 votes)
  9. “Duplicate posts filter / grouping. So I don’t have to scroll past / see all those duplicate Reader shares. e.g. Of Mashable stuff” (92 votes)
  10. “Introduce lists (like in Twitter) to Buzz” (92 votes)

Note that #10 duplicates #4. Too bad Google Moderator doesn’t have a way to merge entries (feature request!)

Feel free to add in your votes and ideas.

Texas-based maverick of an author Hugh McLeod is on the ball when it comes to social objects. He has a witty post up today (update: actually, it dates from 2007 – see comments) on gapingvoid.com called “Social objects for beginners.” Through seven short examples, he shows how social objects bring people together by giving them a reason to talk to each other.

It’s an entertaining read. Around anecdote F I was already chuckling so loudly my one year old clomped in looking worried, apparently to check if dad had lost it for good.

I won’t spoil it by quoting snippets here, so go read the full post on gapingvoid.

Hugh also draws cartoons. The one on the right is for Stormhoek, the South African wine he markets in the U.S.

“Game over… Facebook is the new MySpace” (Jason Calacanis)

“This is already WAY BETTER than FriendFeed” (Scoble)

“Buzz exists because Google feels threatened by Twitter and Facebook and wants to kill them.” (Newsweek tech blog)

Most of the conversation over the last 24h has been centered around predicting if “Buzz will kill” this or that service. The unspoken assumption that lies behind this debate is that Buzz and the rest of the social web are mutually exclusive.

It’s arguably fair to assume that the leading companies are locked in a zero-sum, winner-takes-all game where the prize is total domination of the social web, considering all the social networks we’ve got so far are silos. To no longer assume everyone has to be using the same branded system to talk to each other is disruptive to the tech biz discourse, which is obsessed with turning everything into a war over which company is “the one”. So much so that the alternative is almost unthinkable.

If the new standards succeed, in 2015 we’ll look back on these debates and shake our heads like we shake our heads today at the early days of warring proprietary phone networks and email systems. The thought that you couldn’t call, text or email people (or companies, or public services) just because you happened to sign up with the wrong phone company or email provider is so blatantly a bad idea it’s absurd. Doubly so for the social Web where everything is already built on the same underlying protocol.

The reason many of the current commentators miss this point is that they are, in the immortal words of Walt Whitman, “demented with the mania of owning things.” (borrowing that quote from Doc Searls).

Let’s see through this entertaining controversy and not lose sight of the real enemy. This enemy is autocracy – the unlimited power of one leader over masses of people – and it feeds on fragmentation. There is a vision worth pursuing that’s bigger than Twitter, Facebook, Google, or any company. It’s the vision of a true global conversation. One of a world where I can tune in to a squabble between tribesmen in Congo and you can @-reply to a joke by a Chinese taikonaut. It doesn’t matter that they’re registered on services we’ve never heard of, speaking in languages neither of us can understand. We can still discover them, follow them, and have a conversation. Because they, like we, are on the same social web.

This morning Google switched on real time conversations on Gmail, mobile, and Google Profiles. The product got the name Google Buzz.

As the former product manager and someone who made the decision to sell a startup and move his family halfway around the world to build said product, it’s an emotional moment to see it out in the wild.

Of course, I left a good while ago and credit is due in its entirety to the team at Google.

What everyone wants to know now is, will Buzz disrupt Facebook and Twitter? Or did it flame up thanks to Google hype, only to smolder away unloved and unused like Wave?

Here’s what I suspect. Although Google’s getting into the game late, the timing may be just right. The game is no longer just about “what are you doing”. As microblogging has become more popular, the stream has become more busy, and people are getting tired of sifting through the noise. So, now that pretty much everyone has shown up for the party, the value is moving to discovery, context, and relevance. The question we increasingly feel our social inbox should answer better is: “given what you know about me, look at everything I subscribe to, and show me only the updates I care about most right here, right now.” In one word: Search. And who has the advantage there? We know who.

Second, look at what’s happening to usage. You don’t need a crystal ball to know that mobile is becoming the primary (in some cases the only) interface to daily social media. Facebook’s and Twitter’s mobile clients? Let’s be straight, they’re lame feed scrollers compared to what they could be. Nobody has come even close to harnessing the full power of mobile. Which of the three companies has its own mobile platform: Facebook, Twitter, or Google? Again, we know who.

Third, note that Buzz is built to be compatible with open standards that enable the distributed production and processing of real time updates. In fact, where standards didn’t exist, ones were set in place, with the philosophy to enable developers working with existing web technologies to apply them with minimal effort. This could be the most significant contribution of the entire project in the long run.

Google’s weakness historically has been in that it hasn’t “gotten sharing right”. If there’s one thing I’m interested to watch get used in real life it’s the sharing model, which allows sharing of both public and private content in the same stream. Having different privacy settings coexist intuitively in an interface is one of the trickiest design challenges there is. A lot of time was spent tuning this, and I’m pretty optimistic about the result.

When the Jaiku team joined Google, we were tasked with doing “something cool with mobile and social”. Teemu mashed up Jaiku and Google Maps on the mobile in a couple of weeks, but we couldn’t use it because it was built on Jaiku’s, not Google’s social graph.

The problem at the time was that there was no Google-wide social graph. There was no sharing model or friend groups. There was no working activity stream back-end. There were not even URLs for people. All this had to be built, and parts of the whole (such as Google Profiles and Latitude) were shipped incrementally along the way. The archstone that connects everything together is Buzz in Gmail.

The task has been truly herculean, and I have deep respect for the engineers and designers who pulled it through over literally years of iteration and countless changes. I left before Buzz shipped, but learned a lot of valuable lessons about building something that big.

Did we get it right? It would be great to hear your thoughts.

PS. If you read just one thing on Buzz, make it Tim O’Reilly’s post from earlier today. Tim sees what Google is doing (and should be doing) with Buzz better than any other commentator I’ve seen so far.