Ep. 11: Christa Barfield

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So Where Do We Go From Here podcast

In this episode, we speak to Christa Barfield, founder of FarmerJawn, about urban agriculture, local sourcing, food deserts, and sustainability.

This conversation was recorded in March 2022, and my apologies to Christa and our listeners that it’s taken so long to edit and post this episode!

Christa Barfield is an entrepreneur and founder of FarmerJawn, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) business, which follows regenerative farming practices that concentrate on soil health and increasing access to organic food to marginalized communities. She’s a lifelong Philadelphian and a graduate a George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science and St. Joseph’s University. After a decade in health-care administration she founded Viva Leaf Tea, dedicated to providing high quality, healthful tea with traceable and local origins. These efforts that have grown into a CSA with two greenhouses in Elkins Park and plots in Roxborough and a storefront, FarmerJawn Greenery in Mount Airy.

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Ep. 10: Ellen Hwang

So Where Do We Go From Here podcast

In this episode, we speak to Ellen Hwang, Philadelphia Director at the Knight Foundation, about how cities, media, the arts, and philanthropy have all evolved over the past few years in response to the pandemic.

Ellen Hwang is the Philadelphia Director at the Knight Foundation. Previously, she was with the City’s Office of Innovation and Technology, overseeing the creation of SmartCityPHL, a roadmap guiding the use of technology in serving the community and improving services. Ellen also directed programs at the Asian Arts Initiative, collaborating with artists, cultural organizations, and schools to develop and implement youth programs to engage them in arts and community development projects. She is a regular speaker on topics such as Smart Cities, community-driven technology planning and design, and engagement strategies for local government. She has presented at prominent events including SXSW, the Smart City New York Conference, and Tech Foundations for Congressional Staffers at the Georgetown University Law Center. Ellen grew up in Greater Philadelphia and has Bachelors and Masters degrees from Temple University.

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Ep. 9: Rob Cottman

So Where Do We Go From Here podcast

In this episode, we speak to Rob Cottman, Executive Chef and Director of Food & Beverage at World Cafe Live, about how restaurants and food service have adapted to the challenges of the pandemic.

Chef Rob Cottman’s road to professional kitchens was driven by an entrepreneurial spirit when a unique opportunity presented itself to operate his own restaurant. After selling his first establishment, he decided to return to the basics and climb the ranks in established kitchens. Absorbing every ounce of knowledge around him, he accepted a position at World Cafe Live’s former location in his hometown of Wilmington, DE and spent years covering all aspects of the business from large scale a la carte service to formal catered dinners to specialty pairing menus. Now as the Executive Chef and Director of Food & Beverage at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, Rob is responsible for the dining experience of over 100,000 guests a year, overseeing service in two spaces daily and over 200 catered events annually while playing an integral role in the next stages of the organization’s development.

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No. 46 • 2021-12-30

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The Arts-Tech Buzzwords of 2021

It’s been another challenging year for humanity (and humanists). While some creative and social activities have returned to being in-person, others still remain distant. Technology has an even greater hold on our daily lives, so “new” advances received a lot of attention throughout the year. Here are my thoughts on some of the most hyped tech terms, particularly as they relate to artists and creatives.

NFTs. Just. The. Worst. I have not been shy about my disdain for NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens). My fundamental complaint is that NFTs attempt to impose analog, real-world scarcity upon a digital domain where there is none. Digital bits are not scarce… they are just 1s and 0s and are by their nature infinitely copyable, a fact that has powered the digital media revolution. Claiming that some exact digital copies of a work are more privileged than others is just nonsensical. Unfortunately, NFTs are a hype bubble inflated by those self-interested in the success of NFTs.

I firmly believe artists should be paid, but NFTs aren’t the solution. It’s yet another attempt to turn uber-wealthy individuals into suckers. Only a few artists will find such benefactors. I’d advise digital artists to pursue other paths to monetization (crowdfunding and selling other forms of access and patronage for their work) over putting any effort into NFTs. Oh, and they are truly terrible for the environment.

Please note my rant is aimed at NFTs specifically and not all “Crypto” (blockchain-based) efforts. I believe there are legitimate and productive uses of the blockchain that are emerging. There may even be blockchain-derived applications that are useful to artists. But not NFTs. Hard pass.

AI. It’s already here, but not in the way most would have you believe. AI is not impacting us as “sentient machines” as depicted in sci-fi movies. It is far more subtle, but AI (really machine learning, which is lots of data and computation to recognize patterns) is powering the next wave of creativity. Behind the scenes, AI is the engine (“the algorithm”) that recommends and pushes content to you (Netflix shows, TikTok and YouTube videos, music, etc.). This is the kind of AI that will perform single specific tasks well, but it’s still quite limited.

AI, however, is also empowering creators with new tools that haven’t existed before. Photo and video editing apps let you easily adjust scenes to alter or remove elementsAudio tools automatically align music to go complement a video, adjusting length and matching key moments. These are time savers, to be sure, but I’m certain digital creators will find ways to use such capabilities to transform content in ways we haven’t foreseen. These features also lower the barrier to entry for making videos, music, etc., enabling more people to create. We’ll see more more and more AI-enabled art next year, it just won’t be obvious.

VR and the Metaverse. This is tricky, because these are really two different things (although Facebook, I mean Meta, would have you believe otherwise). If we’re talking about an alternate reality that is indistinguishable from our physical reality, we still have a long way to go. But if the Metaverse is an alternate space where people go to express themselves, interact, and transact, we’re already there. In gaming environments, such as Roblox, Minecraft, and other massive online worlds, gamers have created alternate representations of themselves and spend much of their time interacting through their “avatars”. Arguably, even some messaging and social media platforms are primitive “Metaverses”.

But if we’re talking about goggles you put on your face to transport you to another reality, I don’t believe this will become mainstream for some time, if ever. Hard-core gamers may disagree (and there are some truly compelling and immersive games created for VR headsets). For most people, neither the technology (it’s still heavy and uncomfortable) nor the motivation (content) are there yet. And for most artists and performers, I don’t see a compelling use… yet. One may eventually emerge, but I’d hold for a few years, at least.

My apologies to subscribers. Due to other deadlines and a frenetic end of year, I’ve missed several publishing cycles (and once you miss one, it’s too easy to miss another one). The world also changed quite a bit this Fall… We have mostly returned to live performances, which is wonderful, but it means that many have shifted away from a focus on virtual/digital content. As a result, there’s been less for me to comment on the theme of “creating at a distance”. Of course, the recent pandemic surge has made things a bit more perilous at the end of the year, so we’ll see how things go in new year.

I’m not going to stop, but my upcoming schedule probably won’t allow for me to publish bi-weekly, as I have for most of 2021. I still intend to post when I can and when I have something of interest to share, but my publishing schedule will likely be irregular in 2022. Best wishes to all of you for a very Happy New Year!

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Ave Maria [Kings Return] Another fantastic stairwell performance by this talented a cappella quartet. I’ve shared some of their earlier videos, and I’m happy to see they’ve recently blown up a bit. A great example of how some artists have used video to grow their audiences during the pandemic.
  • All I Want For Christmas… [John C. Worsley] A unique take on the ubiquitous Christmas anthem, with a high degree of 90s nostalgia for us fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Be sure to also check out his latest, You’re a Mean One, Mr. Spock.
  • Deck the Hall [The King’s Singers] From this holiday season’s Live From London streaming festival, this time performed before an actual live audience! This is an example of how some performances only work with an audience. Started during the pandemic, Live From London continues to be the premiere outlet for new vocal ensemble performances.
  • Deck the Hall [Chanticleer] I couldn’t resist putting these two videos back-to-back. Another beautiful performance of the holiday classic, but it’s striking to see the two different takes: one performed for a live audience and this one, a video-only production.
  • There’s Something About That Name [Jordan Baize, via NY Times] The morning after a tornado destroyed his house, a Kentucky homeowner took to his piano, still intact under an open sky. An incredibly haunting video that still manages to convey a sense of hope.

What I’m creating…

While it still hasn’t snowed in Philadelphia this season, there’s plenty of it in the Drexel Build, our virtual campus in Minecraft. Special thanks to my students in the Music & Entertainment Technology Lab for the soundtrack.

Happy New Year!

Ep. 8: Donald Nally

So Where Do We Go From Here podcast

In this episode, we speak to Donald Nally, music director of The Crossing, Philadelphia’s Grammy-award winning chamber choir, about creating choral performances through the pandemic and the process of “musical journalism”, to capture and reflect our times.

Donald Nally collaborates with creative artists, leading orchestras, and art museums to make new works for choir that address social and environmental issues. He has commissioned over 125 works and, with his ensemble The Crossing, has produced over 25 recordings, with two Grammy Awards and six nominations. His 60-chapter series Rising w/ The Crossing, a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, gained national attention and was featured in The Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR’s Performance Today; it has been archived by The Library of Congress as a cultural artifact as an “important part of this collection and the historical record.” Donald has served as chorus master at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Welsh National Opera, Opera Philadelphia, and the Spoleto Festival in Italy. Recent projects have taken him to London, Osaka, Cleveland, Boston, Edmonton, Houston, Helsinki, Haarlem, Riga, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. Donald is professor of conducting at Northwestern University.

There are some minor glitches and dropouts in this episode. Our apologies to Donald and our audience for the audio issues, but it’s still well worth a listen!

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Ep. 7: Sarah Williams

So Where Do We Go From Here podcast

In this episode, we speak to Sarah Williams of Opera Philadelphia about creating and commissioning new work amidst the pandemic and developing what is essentially a new genre of short operatic films.

Sarah Williams is the Director of New Works & Creative Producer at Opera Philadelphia.  Since 2014, she has cultivated 15 award-winning world premieres, numerous co-commissions and creative works, making the company an industry leader in producing new work for the physical and digital space. In continuing to expand artistic practice and celebrate the intersection of the arts, Sarah champions digital experiences including creating the digital commission series in which the New York Times said, “One of the great treasures of the pandemic has been Opera Philadelphia’s digital shorts.” She’s been widely recognized as a multidisciplinary leader and producer who in 2020 was named one of Philadelphia Business Journal’s Women of Distinction. In 2019 Sarah was named among the top 30 Professionals of the Year by Musical America. Sarah serves on the board of American Composers Forum and the executive board of Young Women Composers Camp, is a member of New Opera Dialogues, and a mentor for Utopia Arts.

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Ep. 6: Lisa Nelson-Haynes

So Where Do We Go From Here podcast

In this episode, we speak to Lisa Nelson-Haynes about adapting Philadelphia Young Playwright’s creative education program to online learning and the ways young people have found to express themselves in response to the pandemic.

Lisa Nelson-Haynes is the Executive Director of Philadelphia Young Playwrights (PYP), where she helps young people discover their potential through the art of the play. PYP is currently in 43 schools, throughout Philadelphia, Delaware and Montgomery counties, and in 92 classrooms with students in grades 2 – 12. Lisa is an award-winning storyteller and teacher and has facilitated digital storytelling workshops for Storycenter for more than ten years. She is the executive producer of Mouthful, a Philly-based podcast that digs into the experiences and perspectives of young people to start conversations about big ideas and important issues.

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No. 45 • 2021-10-28

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Above: Oct. 27, 2021 at the ExCITe Center: Reba Cherry (client of Better Tomorrows), Randy Debrauwere (Business Relationship Director, Unisys), and Mark Wheeler (City of Philadelphia, Chief Information Officer)

The Digital Divide Should Scare All of Us

It’s the time of year for scary movies and spooky stories, but here’s a frightening trend in the real world: the impact of technology is driving inequity (actually increasing the digital divide). The long-term implications of this on our society (on prosperity, democracy, social justice, privacy, and more) scare the heck out of me. I had the great privilege of writing an opinion piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer on this topic, which was published earlier this week. It’s the first of the “Rebuilding Philly” series, led by Drexel’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation, featuring essays by Drexel faculty addressing a range of regional challenges. The thesis of my piece will come as no surprise to regular readers: The digital divide is largely misunderstood; rather than devices and connectivity, our focus should be on training and skills development to achieve digital equity. Below, I’m including a few items that were cut from the piece for length:

The 5 largest tech companies (Alphabet-Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft) posted more than $160 billionin profits last year. Their combined market cap is now over $9 trillion (the gross domestic product of Japan, the world’s 3rd largest economy, is just over $5 trillion). While they are the most profitable companies in the world, they are some of the least diverse: the employees of these (and most) tech companies are overwhelmingly white and Asian men.

It’s not just them. I work in higher education, the feeder to the tech industry. In 2002, a small fraction of degrees in computing were awarded to Black students (3.6% of bachelors, 1.3% of Masters, and 1.3% of PhDs). As of 2020, it’s essentially unchanged: 4.1% of bachelors, 1.8% of Masters, and 1.8% of PhDs). Getting into college requires a solid K-12 education, and many college-going students greatly benefit from out-of-school resources that some communities take for granted (after school programs, summer camps, internships, etc.). The lack of diversity in tech is a directly related to the absence of similar opportunities for poorer families (disproportionately students of color) and marginalization at every level of training.

Coincidentally, we hosted a digital divide-awareness event at the ExCITe Center yesterday, our first in-person event with external partners since the pandemic. We hosted partners from Digitunity, the city’s Office of Innovation & Technology, the Electronic Access Foundation, and Better Tomorrows to celebrate the generous donation from Unisys of 700 laptops to those in need. It is through broad partnerships like this that Philadelphia can become a model city for Digital Equity, and our efforts at ExCITe are fully aligned with this goal. This year, we continue the Digital Navigator help desk and will expand our efforts with new K-12 programs and connectivity and technical support for the elderly. We are seeking additional resources to further expand our programs. Stay tuned to our ExCITe Center newsletter for the latest on these initiatives.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Thriller [Jared Halley] Halloween special… Another virtuoso solo a cappella video performance, this time covering the Michael Jackson classic (the original music video scared the heck out of
  • Digital Inclusion Policy Priorities [National Digital Inclusion Alliance] A great list of specific policy recommendations to ensure a more equitable digital future for our nation.
  • Inventing the iPod: How ‘really big risks’ paid off for Apple [CNet interview with Tony Fadell] Following-up on the theme from my last newsletter, this interview with the creator of the original iPod captures much of the backstory behind the iconic device.
  • No Time To Die [All That Gaz] Honestly, I found the movie disappointing, but this is an interesting version of the theme song (originally by Billie Eilish). It’s a neat vocal arrangement, and extra props for the video, which uses only Animoji!
  • The Marriage of Figaro [Opera Philadelphia] Watching this wonderful staging of Mozart’s comic opera, filmed in 2017, I’m starting to actually think about attending live performances again. Now streaming on the Opera Philadelphia Channel.

What I’m creating…

We’ve started recording the Fall 2021 series of So Where Do We Go From Here?, my podcast with co-host Melinda Our Especially Spooky (Minecraft) Survival Server is now active. It’s the Drexel campus, overrun by zombies, giant spiders, skeletons, and all sorts of creepy crawlers. Use your knowledge of the Drexel buildings to gather the items you need to fight off the mobs and survive… if you can!  Join the Drexel Build Discord to get instructions to join.

Ep. 5: Sean Kelley

So Where Do We Go From Here podcast

In this episode, we speak to museum leader Sean Kelley about the challenges for cultural sites wrought by the pandemic, but also the opportunities for expanding audiences through mission-driven innovation.

Sean Kelley is Senior Vice President and Director of Interpretation at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site in Philadelphia.  He produced the site’s award-winning audio tour, now heard by more than a million visitors, and has curated more than 100 site-specific artist installations in the building.  He conceived and developed The Big Graph, a 16-foot infographic sculpture that illustrates the skyrocketing US Rate of Incarceration, and curated the companion exhibit Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarcerationwhich won the 2017 Overall Award for Excellence from the American Alliance of Museums.  From 2017 to 2019 he oversaw “Hidden Lives Illuminated,” a project which resulted in 20 original films made by currently incarcerated individuals and projected them for a month onto Eastern State Penitentiary’s façade.  

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No. 44 • 2021-10-13

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Above: My collection of portable music players. From left: Panasonic CD player (1998), original iPod (2001), iPod mini (2003), iPod nano (2005), iPod with Video (2005), iPod touch (2007).

How innovation works

Last week was the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the iPod (Oct. 5, 2001), the iconic portable digital music player. The iPod transformed Apple from a computer company to a consumer tech giant, but I’ll argue that its impact reverberated far beyond one company or industry. The story of the iPod reveals insights into how innovation works (and how it’s misunderstood).

20 years ago, we mostly listened to music on Compact Disc (CD). Many had portable CD players, but Walkman-style cassette tape players were still common. Each was limited to about an hour of music (1 album), and you could only listen to the albums you carried with you. (I used to carry a small “book” of about 10 CDs in my bag, along with my “Discman” player.) A few of us were starting to collect music on our computers, “ripping” the tracks from CDs and storing them as digital files, but this could quickly consume most of your computer’s precious hard drive space.

The first iPod (“1000 songs in your pocket”) was poo-pooed by the nerd class of the time. Here’s an infamous review from an early blogger on tech site Slashdot: “No wireless. Less space than a Nomad. Lame.” (The Nomad was another digital music player at the time that has long since fallen into the dustbin of history). For the tech crowd there was nothing particularly innovative about the iPod… The core technologies (small-ish hard drives, tiny screens, and mp3 files) already existed. Others had introduced similar (even better spec’d) products.

What these early reviews missed was real people’s relationship with music. We love our music, but few were willing to put effort into loading their music onto devices and also deal with a bunch of tiny, fiddly buttons to locate the song we want to hear right now. The iPod focused on usability, the human-side of the problem rather than technical specs. It solved both issues, quickly syncing music files from a computer via a high-speed connector and offering an elegant click-wheel interface that could easily navigate to any of the 1000 songs on your device. 20 years later (yes, mine still works!), although the technology is antiquated, its still a highly intuitive and usable interface.

That’s just the beginning of the story… The success of the iPod fomented the desire for easier access to digital music and other media.

In 2001 you had to buy an entire album ($12-20) just to get 1 track from an artist (and then rip it yourself to an mp3), an untenable situation that caused many to turn to piracy (Napster and its descendants) to get the latest songs. The iTunes Music Store (launched in 2003) offered songs for $0.99, a convenient, inexpensive, and legal way for consumers to purchase just the tracks they wanted for their iPods. Again, this wasn’t radically new technology. It was a digital storefront like many others, but it compelled the record labels to license their content at a reasonable rate, embracing a new model and reshaping the music industry (and creating the template for modern content services).

A few years later, the iPod and iTunes Store were a runaway success, changing our relationship to music (and soon thereafter, video). Moreover, it changed consumer expectations of our devices… More and more people started to wonder why our iPods worked so well when our cell phones felt so clunky? The disconnect grew, until… the iPhone kicked off the smartphone era that still shapes our lives today. The iPhone built upon the strengths of the iPod, content and usability, added wireless communications, and the rest is history. (Think about all of the industries enabled by smartphones: social media, streaming services, ride sharing, etc). All of this was enabled by a music player, an example of how advances in one area reverberate into other disciplines and industries.

After the introduction of the iPhone, the influence of the iPod rapidly faded, but 20 years since its introduction, it offers an important insights into innovation. In general, too much emphasis is placed on capability rather than usability. Yes, the capability (storage, computation, wireless communications, etc.) must exist, but it is useless without a way to wield that capability. Usability is far more than graphics or the design of menus and buttons. It requires a deeper understanding of the needs of real people (not just tech nerds). Steve Jobs famously pronounced that Apple represented the intersection of Technology and the Liberal Arts, and the iPod was truly an embodiment of that. I call it STEAM (integrating STEM and the Arts), but this bridging of capability and usability is still not well-covered in traditional academic training. Given the acceleration of technological capabilities, the demand for making them usable and more accessible will be enormous. I believe the true innovators will continue to be those who find the best ways of bridging that gap.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • America [The Swingles] A lovely rendition (and beautifully creative video) of Paul Simon’s classic song by this world-renowned a cappella ensemble.
  • Philadelphia Public Orchestra [Curtis Institute & Drexel Westphal College of Media Arts & Design] A unique project to rethink and broaden participation in music making, to form a 50-person ensemble (the ability to read music is not required). Applications open through October 28.
  • Captain Kirk goes to space [Blue Origin] It’s not a joke… 90-year-old William Shatner was on board today’s successful rocket launch from Jeff Bezos’ side hustle hobby. You can watch the archived live stream of the launch and return. Also, who can forget his rendition of Rocket Man?
  • James Bond Theme [Jared Halley] The new James Bond film has finally been released! Here’s a great a cappella rendition of the classic Bond theme.

What I’m creating…

We’ve started recording the Fall 2021 series of So Where Do We Go From Here?, my podcast with co-host Melinda Steffy and guests from Philly’s creative community. Here’s a selfie from our recent session with Sean Kelley, Senior Vice President and Director of Interpretation at Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site. New episodes will drop later this month!