Archive | Notes RSS for this section


I was shuffling files around recently and came across an archive of my first personal website. It wasn’t Ascent Stage, but a site called hypertext :: renaissance (you see, the lowercase and double-colon were edgy) that I built when I was in graduate school in 1996.

Click for annotations and prepare to mock.

hypertext -- renaissance (20080611).jpg

The search engine stares back

To commemorate the birth of artist Diego Velázquez Google today pulled a funny with their homepage logo.


I wrote about the strange interactive aspects of this painting a month ago. It’s particularly apt for a search engine that’s always looking back at its own viewers. Compare.

I didn’t realize Sergey and Larry read Ascent Stage. Welcome, sirs.

Two things that make me smile, two that make me frown

You decide which makes me what.


Photo by mrlerone

I finally threw away my Stadium Pal. Now over six years old, used once, never washed, I figured it was time to let go. Friends, at a certain point it is time to say goodbye to the beer-drinking catheter.


June 24. That’s the day that my China project — which I do believe I’ve been working on for 17 years or so — launches. The lovelywife will be attending the launch event in Beijing and traveling with me afterwards. First time we’ve gone international together since before The Coming of the Children and we’re ecstatic. (She’s lined up a cavalcade of friends and family too smitten with our kids to understand that watching them for two weeks will be only slightly less unhealthy than juggling spent uranium rods.) So we’ve been talking about the trip a lot.

Recently our almost two-year-old girl overheard us and kept pinching her nose. Couldn’t figure out why. No one had “tooted” (four-year-old parlance, there). So we resumed talking … about Hong Kong. Pinch. Hong Kong. Pinch. Then it hit us. She thinks we’re saying “honk honk” which we used to say when squeezing her nose. Cracked us up. And further terrified us at the memory/pattern matching of the midgets in our house. Kids, lifecasting Tivo units for random playback.


Yesterday, at the Cubs home opener just as the good guys were about to stage an improbable 9th inning comeback (only to blow it), the umpire waved the Brewers’ Eric Gagne off the mound. Why? Because he looked like a fucking slob. His jersey was completely untucked. Hirsute and in deep shit he looked more like a dumpster diver than a reliever. The ump made him tuck the shirt back in. Then play continued. Mind the signage, buddy!


Tomorrow the city has announced it will clean the street where MySweetRide lies comatose. It may be the official death knell for the problem-plagued automobile. The reason is that it means we — and by we I mean my pal Chris whose street it is on — must attempt to move it. If it starts, she’s fighting to live. If not, I’m taking suggestions on what to do with her. Upside: tires so firmly mounted on hubs that that’ll never be stolen, a few extra diapers in the trunk. Downside: sounds like freight train (because of this?), missing stereo. I’ll start bidding at €50.

Platinum, Rhodium, and Palladium

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the most valuable piece of your automobile, at least according to car thieves nowadays.


Photo by dalesd

I have just learned that catalytic converter theft is on the rise in Chicago.

Last week I used a friend’s car while he was out of the country. Parked it on a fairly busy street by my house and then today went to move it back to his house. When I started the car it roared alive so loudly you would think I was at a Monster Truck show. Scared the shit out of me. My pal came back into town, took it to a service station and the attendants just laughed. Apparently they see this all the time.

The thieves just slide under the car with a saw or, in the case of our upscale burglars, an acetylene blowtorch, and remove it. Fast and easy. Why? Because the goop inside the converter contains precious metals that can be recycled for — wait for it — jewelry. Who knew?

I don’t have a good track record with this particular friend. A few years ago I almost burnt his back deck down with a hookah pipe. Now this.

And I’m now thinking that MySweetRide might have been de-catalyzed months ago and I just never noticed. It’s such a clanky bucket of bolts it’s hard to know what’s making which noise.


I’m back from a bunch of great days in Austin at SXSW. As usual I came away excited and ready to quit my day job. But this time it took a lot longer to feel that excitement, whether that was because of the quality of the programming (or my choice of what to attend) or just that I know more than everyone else. To be safe I’ll go with knowing more than everyone else.

Maybe because work pays me to attend that I started by attending panels most relevant to my job and ended up somewhat nonplussed. But as I started to drift into things I was merely interested in — and made an effort to meet people I didn’t know — things got a lot better. I don’t think you ever get over your first SXSW, which for me was a while back. Everything’s new, everyone (mostly) is new and it is just an amazingly heady experience.

But it is fun to see how people change over time. One example. Three years ago standing in a beer line I struck up a conversation with the person behind me, Leslie Chicoine. Just out of design school at Savannah and looking for a job. I had none to offer, but we had a good conversation. Three years later, Leslie’s in the thick of things in the Bay Area working at Get Satisfaction, an incredible company working on an even better idea. She was a panelist this year for the first time talking about OAuth and QR codes. Not much more to it than that, except that I’ve really enjoyed following the career of someone wide-eyed and new to the tech world straight into success. Kinda the whole point of SXSW writ large.

My colleague in IBM Roo Reynolds did (and is still doing) a great job cataloging the highlights of the conference and many of our experiences overlapped, so for the liveblog junkies among you I point you to his site. Good stuff.

Perhaps the entertainment highlight of SXSW was the Jane McGonigal talk on Alternate Reality Games. She’s incredibly articulate and enthusiastic about the role of play in life and work. Made me want to go out and design an ARG right then and there. (I just might, buddy.)

As an aside during her talk Jane mentioned learning the Soulja Boy dance why playing an ARG. Immediately someone from the crowd yelled “do it!” Smartly, she said she would at the end of the presentation — which pretty much kept the entire crowd there whether they were enjoying the talk or not. Sure enough, she did it. Here’s Roo’s video annotated with my obnoxious laughter.

In an effort to offer a flavor of my experience without being verbose I’ll note a few of the panels I attended with the best line (I think) I heard at each. Beware paraphrasing.

The Future of Virtual Worlds and Game Development: Rise of the Indies: “Hi, welcome to my panel. I’m sorry, but I forgot to bring liquor.” — Corey Bridges. Sidenote: Corey made fun of an IBM executive during this panel. I’m pretty sure I was the only one in the room who knew who he was talking about and the only one who laughed out loud.

Opening Remarks with Henry Jenkins and Steven Johnson: “The two best shows on TV may represent a real turning point in the form. The Wire may be the last gasp of self-contained, inside-the-box television while Lost may be the first glimmer of new TV, one that exists in a web of ‘trans-media extensions’.” — Henry Jenkins.

A General Theory of Creative Relativity: “There is a variable and a constant and finding the association between those two things is the act, the actual thing [of creativity].” — Jim Coudal.

Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Great Design Hurts: “Does anyone know what IBM does?” — John Gruber

Tools for Enchantment: 20 Ways to Woo Users: “attention offsets” – like a carbon offset, sponsoring something that supports full attention in exchange for building something that takes someone’s partial attention — Kathy Sierra

Keynote: Jane McGonigal: “To imagine the future, always look back at least twice as far as you are looking forward.”

But you know what made it great? Not the panels or keynotes or even the parties. It was a format called Core Conversations where basically a bunch of tables arranged by topic were set up in a room, BarCamp-style. My expectations were low as I had heard a bunch of criticism of them, but it was the end of the last day so what the hell.

I plopped down at Managing Media: Is Your Music Collection About to Become Extinct? and was immediately in music geek heaven talking about file formats, metadata, and genre classification woes. I was so happy to hear an Apple engineer admit that there are “religious wars” in Cupertino over things like whether to separate reggae and dub. It was just perfect, informal, smart discussion and all about what I care about personally. The Songbird team was there as well as a chap from

Well after I had told myself it was time to go drinking I found myself just sliding into the next confab on the Open Media Web. Why can’t open standards be applied to digital media? If the web can do it, why not media? Down with Flash, down with record labels, yay!

Well, that’s it. No great summing statement. There was no darling like Twitter at its coming-out party last year, as far as I can tell (though it was easily the most used form of communication).

I wonder about the future of SXSW Interactive. It is so damn huge now that the lines for parties and toilets are a real drag. A friend put it best when he said that the parties are suffering load balancing and scalability problems this year. And I have to think that if the parties really do begin to suck that much of the appeal of SXSW will fade. After all, meeting new people is really where the learning happens.

See you next year?


Today we humans confront the arbitrariness of our method of telling time. It is Leap Day.

It is also my little brother’s birthday. He celebrates his seventh real birthday today, roughly twenty-eight revolutions around the sun.

Here he is in a similarly celebratory mood from a while back. Happy Birthday, Joey.

Lastly, it is Friday and that means cocktails. I’m tending bar for Friday Drink Links over at Coudal’s Fresh Signals. Cheers.


Yesterday morning I killed a man ninja-style for leaving poop on my property.

6:30AM. It is freezing outside with a windchill 20 degrees below zero. Rain had pooled everywhere and then froze on Tuesday afternoon into deadly flat, black ice. Then Tuesday night it snowed very lightly, just a sprinkling, enough to veil any distinction between ice and safe ground.

I was bundling up tighter than I ever have to go for a run. I was clad entirely in black, head to toe, only my eyes showing. I was a ninja. I had real ultimate power.

Preparing in my foyer I peered out to see a fellow walking his dog on the sidewalk. He was in shorts and slippers, clearly just out of bed. OK, fine. His hypothermia, not mine. Then his dog shat on my lawn. I waited for the guy to pick up his doggy doo-doo (as the city ordinance requires) but he did not. Perhaps he was too cold to think, wearing shorts when it was 3° out, this genius among men. Whatever the reason, he trotted off.


Photo by Dunechaser

So I emerged from the house, silently, as ninjas do. I caught his attention, pointed wordlessly to the crap on the snow in my lawn — and clearly scared the hell out of the guy simply by staring at him, as ninjas do.

This is where the exact sequence of events gets blurry for, as you probably know, ninjas move with such speed and dexterity that they can hardly be caught on film or remembered. I believe I performed a double backflip off my porch and smote the shorts-wearing poop-leaver dead in his tracks. (See image above.) Or, equally possible, he may have just slipped on the black ice at that moment and hurt himself quite badly.*

Either way he was taught a valuable lesson: ninjas dislike fecal vandalism.

* My son later noted, “Dad, you’re not a ninja. Of course he slipped. He was wearing slippers.”

End of the Ride?

We have a second car, a 1994 Honda Accord affectionately referred to as MySweetRide, which I’ve not taken great care of. It’s never seen the inside of a garage, braving the elements in the Deep South and the Fucking Cold North. I don’t drive it very much, but it comes in just handy enough to keep around. At least until we have to make any kind of serious outlay of cash for it. Which may be soon.

You can hear the car idling on the street from my basement. There’s a gaping maw in the dashboard where the stolen stereo once lived. A short in the driver-side door keeps the dome light on. Every hinge creaks like a drawbridge and there’s enough decomposing flora in the shelf where the trunk shuts to compost a medium-sized garden.

And yet, she is loved.

2AM Sunday morning. Awakened by a phone call from friend who had the car*. A screw had punctured a tire and put the trusty steed out of commission a few miles away. (Ironically, the car was being used to transport home a bike that had just gotten a flat tire.) We jacked her up, unlugged the nuts, and then … could not get the damn tire off. Like me, it just didn’t want to let go of the Ride.

We left her for the night.


In the cold light of day we lubed her up and still could not get the tire off. We were about to give up. Just then — and I swear it was quite honestly right then — the dirtiest tow truck I’d ever seen drove up and out leaned a similarly hygienic individual asking if we needed help.

Aw, hell, he’d seen this thing before. He got out of the truck, walked up to the tire and kicked it as hard as he could. Nothin’.

No problem. He reached back into the cab of the truck and pulled out a baseball bat that clearly had a few stories to tell. He scooted under the car and swung for the fences behind the tire. Voila! Off it came. And away he drove, our guardian angel Cooter of Hazzard County.

Of course, the spare was flat. Probably should have seen that coming.

It’s all good now, but it does have me wondering if 2008 is the year I need to put MySweetRide out of its misery.

* You may remember that MySweetRide is at the center of an informal car-sharing service and, as such, has its very own Twitter site.

Update: Due to an overwhelming number of requests to help out in some way (one comment so far) I’ve added a Donate button. The money is pouring in ($1 so far).

Resolved 2008

Last year was the first in a while where I set no specific goals for myself in the new year. Maybe it is because I was tired of batting slightly better than .500. Or maybe I wanted to see what a goal-less year would be like. (Answer: not great.)

In past years I laid them out (2005, 2006), reviewed them midway (2005), and then gave a final assessment (2005, 2006).

This year I’m getting back to it. Shall we place bets?

  1. Simplify.
    Instead of doing ten things at once, do four. For all aspects of my life.
  2. Moderate.
    Related to above, but in quantity not complexity.
  3. Start to write a book.
    Been researching it for six months now (or is it all my life?). Time to get back to the word.
  4. Make more music.
    This one looks promising. There’ll be an announcement soon …
  5. Get back into distance running.
    Why? Because it is the simplest, cheapest way to exercise.
  6. Not travel as much.
    See point one. See also my family. See also my sanity.
  7. Visit Tibet.
    Wha?! I thought you said … Well, I know I’m going to China at least once this year, possibly for the last time in a while. Might as well make it worth it. (And by worth it, I mean riding the Permafrost Express to Lhasa!)
  8. Figure out what I want to be when I grow up.
    I’m open to suggestions.
  9. Learn to be ok with doing nothing/being still.
    OK, enough of that. Let’s move to the next thing,
  10. Visit more of the neighborhoods of Chicago.
    This requires more than just idly ambling around the city which would be inefficient and possibly dangerous. It requires a plan. I have a plan.
  11. Read more books.
    You know, books. Spine-bound, pulp-paged tomes.
  12. Eat more slowly.
    What occurred to me is that if you can’t recall what something tasted like five minutes after you’ve eaten it, it is time to eat slower. (Or find tastier food, I suppose.)


Did I choose to write this post? Or was it chosen for me?

We almost have the house back in order after the cataclysm two weeks ago. One upside to reconstructing the basement is that lots of books have to be put back in place and this has given me the pleasure of rediscovering a bunch of titles I’d forgotten about.

This past week I grabbed two volumes, completely at random, on two separate trips to the toilet: Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in Nutshell and The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Admittedly, not exactly bathroom fare, but such was what laid about en route.

And this is where it gets odd. Not too far into my first, um, session I randomly opened the philosophy encyclopedia to the entry on Molina, Luis de (1535 – 1600). Molina was a Spanish theologian best known for his doctrine of “middle knowledge,” a way of reconciling human free will with the predetermination implicit in the idea of divine grace:

Middle knowledge, God’s knowledge of what persons would do under any set of circumstances, enables God to arrange for certain human acts to occur by pre-arranging the circumstances surrounding a choice without determining the human will.

Basically Molina has it both ways. God has foreknowledge of what humans will do but only because he knows all the possible choices that humans can freely make in the omnipotently-arranged circumstances. He doesn’t direct people’s actions, just sets the stage. And because He set it, He gets to know the possible acts that can be played out on it. The elegance of this proposition, it seems to me, is that it comports with a purely rational view of the world. Remove the deity from Molina’s equation and it is still entirely valid as a description of how people act.

During my next visit to the W.C, I had the Hawking book, a really beautiful follow-up to his Brief History of Time. Just flipping it open I landed in chapter three where he discusses histories of the universe:

Even if the boundary condition of the universe is that it has no boundary, it won’t have just a single history. It will have multiple histories …. There will be a history in imaginary time corresponding to every closed surface, and each history in imaginary time will determine a history in real time. Thus we have a superabundance of possibilities for the universe. What picks out the particular universe that we live in from the set of all possible universes?

Hawking’s answer invokes the “anthropic principle” which basically states that “the universe has to be more or less as we see it, because if it were different, there wouldn’t be anyone here to observe it.” Might seem like circular reasoning, but it makes complete sense, especially if you flip it around: humans would not exist to think about alternate universes in the first place if we did not inhabit one that could sustain intelligent life. So that’s why we’re in this one.

We can conceptualize alternate histories (e.g., one in which I posted about how much I love taco pizza instead of this rambling) and posit parallel universes that behave differently than ours, but we can only ever know the one we’re carving a path through. Not because the choices have been made for us, but because we are choosing from the finite number of paths that are permissible given the universe we live in.

Now, I’m no philosopher and, though I really did want to be an astrophysicist when I was little, I am regrettably not a member of that profession either. But it seems to me that Molina and Hawking are describing the same thing, essentially. Or something very similar, anyway. Haven’t fully parsed it all out yet.

In a way, both acknowledge that the sum of one’s choices — one’s personal “history” — is constrained in some external way (Molina by God; Hawking by the physical properties of the universe). What I find interesting is that they both also suggest a kind of human obliviousness to this constraint that allows us to live as though we were fully in control. Whatever I’m reading into these two passages, it is strangely comforting to me.

And the fact that I just randomly opened to two passages both related to free will? Well that’s just spooky.

See also: “Gone out of experience”